I -Thou Relationship


You are loved, all beings are loved


Martin Buber mused at length about the I–Thou relationship in his existential writings. His thesis is that we define our existence by the way we engage in dialogue with each other, with the world, and with God. The I–Thou relationship is an inherent part of any spiritual path—though perhaps not by the same name, as it is an inherent part of being human and living our lives with other beings. In the context of spiritual practice, ‘I’ refers to the idea of a separate self, and ‘Thou’ refers to the infinite mystery of our source. Including both the personal and impersonal, Thou is a personal term.

In the Eastern traditions, the existence of an objectified God or Gods is ever in question, just as is our existence as separate entities. The question is inevitable in Eastern traditions: Is there really any I-Thou relationship between the creator and the created? If we can’t find an actual entity that is either one, if both are merely ideas and neither point to any substantial reality, do they exist?

I was recently reading a New York Times story about the current chaos in the White House. Also on the front page was a story about a Super Nova that astronomers were keeping track of. They estimated that at the peak of this explosion, it was radiating energy 100 million times more powerful than that continuously emitted by our sun. We can’t even begin to fathom the power of our own sun, burning 24/7 for billions of years. We all have some sense of how infinitesimal the transient events of our lives seem compared to the vastness of the cosmos. Our actual being is boundless and includes everything; what are we as separate from our inter being with all beings?

Any of our attempts to answer questions like this about the Mysterium Tremendum with our thinking minds only give rise to more questions. Each of us has the capacity to frame this type of question in a unique way so that we can actually live the spirit of the question in our unique lives. One way I relate to the mystery is to contemplate that the only thing we can know for sure is that we are. We are creatures programmed to make efforts, we make efforts to relate to other people, and are programmed to believe that we do have an I-Thou relationship with them. If we continuously and rigidly try to repress that programming to relate to others, we end up severely depressed. Depression means our energy is ‘pressed down’.

When we contemplate the boundless mystery of a higher power creating and dissolving us and all manifestations in the universe, we can easily realize that we are programmed just as deeply to relate to this power as an I-Thou relationship. If we try to repress this programming in our contemplative practice, trying to bravely face a purely impersonal higher power, we end up unconsciously depressing ourselves. We are then pressing down our energy of wanting to relate to our source with our full being, which includes our very powerful inherent drive to relate to a higher power.

Many people on the contemplative path have told me they feel a strong urge for having a devotional component to their practice, but are held back by the idea of relating to something outside of themselves. When we cling to this idea, we are solidifying and fixating on the idea of an I-Thou relationship; we get stuck in the confines of thinking God, or The Mystery can be located as an object of our thoughts. We repress the urge for devotional I-Thou practice to avoid getting stuck in our ideas about it. This is like throwing out the baby with the bath water.

To make use of devotional contemplative practice with an I-Thou component doesn’t mean to cling to or fixate on the conceptual form of I-Thou. In contemplative practice the I-Thou relationship is the relational aspect of spirit; it is how our actual life force, our energy, relates to our idea of ourselves. This relational aspect includes the energy of thought, like it includes the energy of our heart beat and the energy of our lungs breathing. But in contemplative practice, this relational I-Thou relationship can be an awareness of and witnessing of the energy of thought, without clinging to it, without making any meaning out of it, any more than we do with our breath and heart beat.  If we pray with and offer all of our love as our contemplation, the actual felt energy of the mystery will love us back while dissolving our clinging to anything at all.

After using contemplative prayer over the years, I realized I am not really attached to the form, the I and the Thou are not felt as solid or substantial entities. They are only more ephemeral thoughts arising and passing away. This is a way of using the I-Thou relationship, and allowing it to dissolve our attachment to it.

Key for spiritual aspirants in the West is to use devotional practice in a way that is unconditioned by the more fundamentalist and solidified I-Thou relationships of our upbringing, such as “If you forsake God and worship other gods, God will turn upon you and destroy you.” The true I-Thou relationship in the contemplative traditions is a melting of the solid sense of I into intimacy with an unconditionally loving being who knows our hearts from the inside. More and more, we are able to touch that place inside that is love. Ram Dass says: “It is being in love, really being in it, being bathed by love until it saturates your being.”





The Two Truths Doctrine

Two Truths Doctrine

Our evolution as spiritual beings includes successfully living in both the relative and absolute worlds without losing touch with either

When we address the problem of good and evil in the world and relate it to spirituality, what levels of truth may apply, and to what situations? In Buddhism, we speak of the realm of the absolute or the ultimate, the realm where all phenomenal manifestations are intrinsically one. And we speak of the relative, the world of differentiation. Truth is one in the realm of the absolute; truth is relative in the realm of the relative. In the realm of the absolute, everything is completely one with the truth of awareness. Therefore everything manifests this one truth in all its fullness, utterly complete.

In the realm of the relative, the terms good and evil, truth and untruth, are used to help us decide right from wrong, vis a vis coping with the difficulties of life. If we are stuck in the relative world with no access to the ultimate, we are easily bound and confused by our own ideas about right and wrong. We can suffer at the mercy of the desire and fear of our ego. If the ego is left to choose right or wrong, it will always decide on the basis of desire and fear, acting on what it perceives to enhance its own welfare. Even limited access to the absolute allows us to see others as we see ourselves, to walk in another’s shoes. We can see some common ground, perhaps a glimpse of our oneness, and with any problem we can come up with a solution that works best for both parties.

In the realm of the absolute, attachments of the ego are no more important than rain falling from the sky. Both are expressions of the one absolute truth. If the rain stops falling and the stream dries up, that too is merely another manifestation of absolute truth. The same holds true when our brains stop working, our hearts stop and our bodies die. In the realm where all is one, none of these means any more or less than another. We try in secular society, a relative realm, to work for the good of the many, the common good. Those who are predominantly selfish in their actions and who harm others for their own benefit are considered evil.

To mistake the relative for the absolute may be deceptively simple, but it can have huge repercussions. For example, Charles Manson had a saying, “If everything is one, then nothing is wrong.” A more accurate way to say this would be, “Yes, everything is one–absolute realm–and some things are wrong–relative realm.” Both levels exist simultaneously. They arise together. We can hold both in our awareness, and avoid getting stuck in either. Manson was stuck in his fantasies about the absolute, and apparently unaware of his own pathology. This cut him off from any chance to harmonize with the relative world. Unaware of his own dark shadow, he had a maniacal and savage way of acting out his central delusion, that he had a right to destroy anything he disapproved of. One could say he was profoundly confused rather than blindly evil. In the absolute realm, Manson’s confusion in a way was divine confusion. Still it was confusion.

In the absolute realm there is no evil, and Charley is no exception. But in the relative world, he was the epitome of evil and needed to be in prison. Our evolution as spiritual beings includes learning to live on both of these levels at the same time without losing one or the other. As Ken Wilber says, we transcend the relative and include it, we don’t transcend and exclude it. Meditation practice develops our stability as the ground of being, the realm of the absolute. This grounding helps us act from our own perspective while remaining stable in the unlimited perspective of absolute truth. The rigid distinction between the two realms gradually evaporates, while our ability to distinguish between them increases. Our own perspectives are more and more in harmony with the experience of the oneness of all beings. From this higher ground we can clearly perceive the depth of the agonizing pain caused by the Hitlers and Mansons of our race. Thus we learn to use the loving energy of a higher level of universal compassion. We hold the higher and lower levels together, and in this way we act in harmony with both.

Deeper than Pleasure or Pain

The desire for truth is in a way a most peculiar desire, for nothing can satisfy it. For those of us who have earnestly embarked on the contemplative path for some time, we begin to realize that whatever we have imagined we have attained isn’t really our deepest desire. We are always hungering for more, and we see again and again, that what we really want isn’t tied to what we think about it. We’ve spent countless hours committing to watching our thoughts arise and pass away, committing to not harboring our thoughts. Eventually we realize that more and more, the energy of our thinking is like typing on a piece of paper without an ink ribbon; there’s no actual substance there to leave any impressions.  Our longings continue, but thought energy is simply part of the energy flow; it can’t define or confine our longing in any way.

An important insight that occurred for me is that desire is the memory of pleasure, and fear is the memory of pain. Feelings of desire and fear are also simply part of the energy flow; they can’t define or confine our longing in any way. Buddha poses a very important question for us to deeply penetrate when he stated: “Sensations by themselves don’t cause suffering no matter how intense they are, it’s our clinging to ideas about them that results in our suffering.” Deeper than feelings of pleasure or pain, is wanting to know what is true, wanting to know what actually is.

We simply don’t know what our deep longing for truth actually is, but we know that it is. This is a paradox for us because we have this deep conditioning inside us that makes us convinced that longing is longing for some thing. Nisargadatta says “The happiness you can think of or long for is not the true happiness.” True happiness as he means it doesn’t come and go, and isn’t moved, isn’t pushed around by whatever experiences are going on within or outside of us. It welcomes and absorbs the pure aliveness that is in every experience. It’s what is always here, and has always been here in every experience of our lives.

Because this true happiness is always here, we don’t need to try and grasp it. We actually can’t grasp it, it is always already totally saturating us. It isn’t going anywhere, it has never gone anywhere. The paradox of longing for that which we can’t grasp, that which is always here and now, is a double bind for our egos.

A double bind is a psychological predicament in which a person receives from a single source conflicting messages that allow no appropriate response to be made. In this context of spiritual longing and surrender, whatever we try to do, whatever we long for, or try to move away from, is an inappropriate response. Our egos simply don’t have an appropriate response. But if we’re open to our emotional life, we know we are deeply moved to act while being guided by our thoughts and feelings.

So our longing that includes the deep surrender of attachment to our desires and fears, is a participatory surrender. We become willing to surrender to the life force moving us, our ego by itself has no appropriate response. When we deeply realize this, we see there is no need for us to give expression to our longing. Consciously not doing anything, is also an expression of our longing, but we no longer need to know it is our longing. This pure longing, undiluted by conscious thought or action will speedily take us to our goal of self realization, as we learn to open to the love and compassion finding us from within. Then we are more and more free to join the spirit of our true self expressing itself in the world of our daily life.


Yogananda was once asked how can we become more humble? He replied “humility comes from seeing God, not yourself as the Doer. When you see him acting through you, how can you be proud of anything you do? I could sit here all day singing my own praises: It would mean nothing to me.  I would know that I was giving praises only to God. Humility lies in the heart; it is not a ‘put-up job.  You must actually feel that everything you do is accomplished by Him alone, through you.”

Yogananda is saying that spirit alone, our actual life force, is the real doer of all of our actions. And it is also what actually gives and experiences all that we think we experience by ourselves as separate beings. He is stating Buddha’s teaching that there is no separate self in different words. If there is no separate self, no separate entity that we can find as our actual identity, then our idea of being the doer is just as illusory as our idea of being a separate self.

When we’re willing to engage our life with awareness of these deep questions of being a separate self, of being the doer, we begin to actually live these questions in our daily activity and experience. It is our living these questions that reveals the truth of Yogananda’s and Buddha’s teachings. There are no conceptual answers to life’s deepest questions.

For me, this inquiry revolves around trying to find the actual separate self that I think I am, trying to find this doer of my virtuous and harmful activity. There is no finding here. What is actually here and now is not what we think about it. It is actually free of what we think about it. Adyashanti said about these questions, “The not finding is the true finding!”

There is also no finding of any qualities that we can possess, good or bad, including humility. The wisdom of selfless behavior is not attached in any way to being humble, or self sacrificing. It is simply spontaneous straightforward action with the clear and blissful feeling and realization that the alive mystery of our being is the true doer, and is our true identity.

So how do we live this way? What I try to practice is to just offer all desires and fears to God, to the mystery of our being, to our inter-being with all beings.  This doesn’t mean to offer all of our experience to the Divine in a dualistic way. This offering means allowing all of our desires and fears to just be as they actually are, thus we learn to no longer abide in them or be attached to them. We’re learning to live in the essence of selfless humble behavior without clinging to our ideas about what this is.

Love for a New Year

From Rumi:



I want to dance here in this music,

not in spirit where there is no time.

I circle the sun like shadow.  My

head becomes my feet.  Covered with

existence, Pharaoh, annihilated, I

am Moses.  A pen between God-fingers.

a walkingstick dragon, my blind mind,

taps along its cane of thought.  Love

clings to no thought.  It waits with soul,

with me, weeping in this corner.  We’re

strangers here where we never hear

yes.  We must be from some other town.

Not being ready yet to welcome our lives unconditionally, let’s cultivate gratitude for the fiery love within that is already saying YES to it all.



Creation Delights in the Recognition of Itself


There is in the body a current of energy, affection and intelligence, which guides, maintains, and energizes the body. Discover that current, and flow with it unswervingly. Be aware of the spark of life that weaves the tissues of your body and stay with it. It is the only reality that the body has. It is like looking at a burning incense stick; you see the stick and the smoke first; when you notice the fiery point, you realize it has the power to consume mountains of sticks and fill the universe with smoke. Timelessly the Self actualizes itself, without exhausting its infinite possibilities. In the incense stick simile, the stick is the body, and the smoke is the mind. As long as the mind is busy with its contortions, it does not perceive its source.  When you welcome the supreme teacher, again and again, she comes and turns your attention to the spark within.

Everything is a Gift

In Zen, generosity is an important devotional practice. We can find a context for generosity–which can make our practice come alive–by contemplating one of our Zen ancestors, Dogen Zenji’s sayings from The Shobogenzo: “When one attains the Way, the Way is always left to the Way.” When the Way is left to the Way, there is no need to add anything, seek anything or move away from anything that is happening. We are totally immersed in the Way, with the vitality of awareness. The Way is also called the great emptiness or the great fullness. The great fullness is so full that we cannot find anything separate from it. We cannot find any thing at all.

Brother David Steindl-Rast describes gratefulness as great fullness. We are grateful that the Great Spirit shares its great fullness of life with us. What a relief not to have any place to put our ego, it has no seaparate existence of its own. The ego can be thought of as a cipher, huge as an ocean within us that sucks up all our energy. What a relief to release some of that pent-up energy and offer it to the buddhas. As profound as our offering, so inexhaustible is the gratitude of the buddhas for our willingness to share our lives with them. With enormous fullness, they receive our offerings.

When we realize this, in the depth of our being we feel that all of our experience is welcomed as expressions of the wholeness of life. Realizing we are always unconditionally welcomed, we learn to welcome life unconditionally. This realization of unconditional welcoming naturally goes deeper, becomes clearer, as we welcome the welcoming as gifts from spirit itself, from the wholeness of life. Our receiving the welcoming tenderizes us, makes us more pliant and flexible, and naturally more generous. As we begin to understand how everything is unconditionally and lovingly given to us, we begin to understand how to unconditionally give everything to everyone.

Of course there are some events we cannot summon up gratitude for; but these are truly opportunities to open up as much as we can to the great fullness. Regardless of our limitations, the buddhas are just as thankful for our best efforts. From the viewpoint of the buddhas, their fullness includes our limitations. We only need to cultivate the ability to see our catastrophes as opportunities. They are opportunities to remember the most important thing. My way of expressing the most important thing is to remember to receive the gifts of life as they are, and this includes the willingness to make efforts to help all beings. This is how we receive the power of our inconceivable life force, and simultaneously it is how we are re energized, refueled in our life. Spiritual energy comes from our spiritual aspirations, the true spirit of these aspirations comes from receiving our life as it is given to us in the present moment.

So we leave the Way to the Way. And we can be grateful that the Way leaves us to us. The sun is an equal opportunity provider, rising each morning, shining on everything with its peaceful warmth, revealing everything just as it is. Likewise the light of the Way shines equally on all its creations, leaving us to us. As we learn to expose ourselves more and more to the gifts of this life, we gradually realize our oneness. We realize that in leaving us to us, the Way offers us everything.

Let our gratitude extend to the opportunities presented by others. Let us see how upset and frustrated we still become when someone offends us in a way that pushes our buttons of pain and fear. Let us see how taking offense is the same as giving offense. So we can cultivate a spirit of thank-you-very-much for providing this opportunity, painful as it may be. And thank you very much, buddhas, for providing others with a chance to give us these opportunities.

Thank you very much, buddhas, for giving us a way to overcome our fears of exposure to the great unknown. Thank you, buddhas, for giving others the opportunity to receive the gift of our response. Confucius said “When you see virtuous behavior, emulate it. When you see harmful behavior, look at yourself.” May all beings learn to heed Confucius’s advice, and in their anger or denial, look to themselves.

Thich Nhat Hanh has a saying: The world of suffering and discrimination is filled with the light of the rising sun. Meditating with the light of the rising sun can be a wonderful opportunity to embody the depths of this saying. We can be grateful for our spirit of inquiry. We can be grateful for our willingness to embody the big questions of life, including our death. We are gifted with the ability to embody them in a lighthearted way, with our heart full of light.


Our Deepest Fear


I’ve been reading a bit about Krishna Das, the musician whose devotional songs have inspired so many people. His guru is Neem Karoli Baba, Maharajji, Ram Dass’ guru. He was gifted with a few days of precious time with him several months before his death. He related an encounter with Maharajji which speaks very powerfully to me of the presence of courage in the face of fear:

We were together with our eyes closed for a long time. All of a sudden Maharajji sits up, looks at me, and says, ‘Courage is a really big thing’. All I could think was, ‘What’s gonna happen? I don’t think I can deal with it!’

The other devotee present said, ‘Oh but Baba, God takes care of his devotees.’

Maharajji shot him a look, then looked back at me, and said, ‘Courage is a really big thing.’ And he closed his eyes again.

I had no idea what it meant. Not a clue. But there have been a few times in my life when all I had to hold onto was the memory of his saying that. There was no possibility of courage, no possibility of action, I was completely lost, completely drowning, but I had the barest memory of his saying that . . .

and it was enough.

When we can intimately relate with the experience of completely drowning with no possibility of doing anything, we’re touching our deepest fear, the fear of death, the death of who and what we think we are. We all have an intellectual realization that we’re going to die, but very few of us know it’s really going to happen, until some tragedy makes it painfully obvious that it actually is happening. The willingness to stay present with this fear, is the gift of courage. The power of courage is the power to transform fear into loving compassion. Sogyal Rinpoche, the author of the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying said:

When we finally know we are dying, and all other beings are dying along with us, we start to have a burning, almost heart breaking sense of the fragility, and preciousness of each moment and each being, and from this can grow a deep, clear, boundless compassion for all beings.

I had never fully appreciated the depth of my father’s Christian faith until he was on his deathbed in 1986. He gathered his four children around him, we held hands, and he offered a deeply heart felt prayer to our heavenly father thanking him for his love in life and in death. He said ‘I’m not afraid to die, it’s ok I’ve had a good life.’ I still cry sometimes when I realize that the power of his prayer isn’t in the past or future, it’s now. And through this realization I’ve learned a deeper appreciation of our living presence in this moment. The birth of our physical bodies happens now; the dissolving of our bodies in death happens now.

I was talking with senior Zen teacher Reb Anderson some years ago about death. He told me that his intuition is that whether there is rebirth or not after we die, the momentum of the practice continues. For me this means the momentum of our spirit of inquiry continues regardless of whatever we think happens after death. Reb said he realizes that because of sleep deprivation, rising around 4 am for the last 50 years, his life will probably be 10 to 15 years shorter than it otherwise would have been. He then told me, ‘That’s ok, I’ve had a good life.’

This gave me a still deeper appreciation for my father’s spirit of inquiry, I realized he also had a deep intuition of Sogyal Rinpoche’s saying about death’s teaching us about compassion. For him, me and my siblings dying along with him meant dying to the sense of separation from God’s love. His prayer was for us to surrender and receive God’s love as he had learned to do in his willingness to receive death. I’m grateful to have such a wonderful father, and to have such a wonderful Zen teacher, both of whom intimately know the compassionate heart of death. Yogananda said: ‘It’s ok to pray for things, and to be thankful for them. It’s far better to pray for God’s love, to pray for the courage to receive and give her compassionate love, and instead of thanking her for things, thank her for her love.’