Archive | August, 2015

Desire for Truth, Great Doubt

Shankara was an 8th century Indian saint and philosopher who is regarded as the founder of the Advaita Vedanta branch of Hinduism. He wrote the following about the Witness.

Now I shall tell you the nature of this absolute Witness. If you recognize it, you will be freed from the bonds of ignorance, and attain liberation.

There is a self-existent Reality, which is the basis of your consciousness of ego. That Reality is the witness of states of ego consciousness and of the body. That Reality is the constant Witness in all three states of consciousness – waking, dreaming, and dreamless sleep. It is your real Self. That Reality pervades the universe. It alone shines. The universe shines with Its reflected light.

Its essence is timeless awareness. It knows all things, Witnesses all things, from the ego to the body. It is the Witness of pleasure and pain and the sense-objects. This is your real Self, the Supreme Being, the Ancient. It never ceases to experience infinite release. It is unwavering. It is Spirit itself.

If we are aware of this screen, we are already completely 100 % saturated with this infinite consciousness. However as the great masters tell us, what good does this do us if we’re not aware of the infinite release of this realization? When we deeply ask the question ‘What or who am I, what is this infinite consciousness?’, we are allowing ourselves to become what Zen master Hakuin called The Great Doubt: “At the bottom of great doubt lies great awakening. If you doubt fully, you will awaken fully.” The Zen masters teach us that the fully awakened mind is always already fully present in its entirety, with nothing lacking.

When I first started practicing Zen, this statement became the object of my own great doubt. My questioning brought me face to face again and again with the reality that my thinking mind did not, could not, fully believe this statement. Gradually it became clear that there was no way to do away with the doubt. Great doubt is one expression of what we are. It became clear to me that to deeply ask the question of “Who am I?” was to allow myself to become the doubt itself. If there is self realization, it can’t be separate from the doubt itself.

Eventually I realized I had thought all along that I was doubting Buddha nature, doubting enlightenment itself. But when I finally left my awareness to itself, including all my ideas about it, I realized what is actually here and now cannot be doubted. For the awareness we are is doing the doubting! All this time, I had been doubting the truth of my ideas of reality. There is no truth to be found in the concept of enlightenment or Buddha Nature. So it is imperative to doubt the truth of our concepts about enlightenment, and at the same time to be aware what we are doubting.

Reality is not an it that can be doubted or affirmed. Reality cannot be grasped by making it into an object of thought. But we have to try. Indeed, our spirit of inquiry is deepened by our trying. It is deepened by our wanting to know. This is our role: not to know what reality is. Here and now is the source. Here and now is one hundred percent identical with every possible manifestation in the universe. If we doubt this idea deeply, we will awaken deeply.

There is a saying in Zen: with little doubt, there is little realization. With no doubt, there is no realization. With great doubt, there is great realization. What is great about great doubt is its all inclusiveness. It is the driving force of our spirit of inquiry leaving no rock unturned, no blade of grass not looked behind. We really have to look at whatever knowledge we’ve accumulated, whatever great realizations we imagine to have attained, and doubt them all deeply, being willing to totally throw them away. The greatest realization is just a shadow of dust reflected by spirit itself; it’s all conceptual, thought energy dissolving in the wind.

There is and an old Zen story about Bodhidharma, the great Zen master who brought Chan (now Zen) Buddhism from India to China. His spirit of inquiry is legendary in the history of Zen, and he is said to have sat in front of a wall for nine years arduously and deeply immersing his whole being in the heart of the Buddha’s teaching about the true nature of self, and liberation from human suffering. 

One of his closest disciples, named Jinko, intimately shared Bodhidharma’s deep yearning for truth. Life was very difficult in those days, even for monks who renounced the world. One day in a state of extreme desperation, Jinko came before his master and said “My mind is deeply agitated, please pacify it for me!” The story says he was so desperate that he had (or perhaps was ready to?) cut off his arm to show to Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma replied, “Show me this mind of yours, and I will pacify it for you.”

So Jinko returned to his room, and searched for his mind with all his heart. He really stretched his limits of will power, deeply contemplating the question of how much can I or anybody want to find the actual essence of what we are, what life actually is? He even spent all of several nights standing outside Bodhidharma’s room in the falling snow. Finally when he was completely exhausted, he returned to Bodhidharma and confessed, “Master, I have searched with all my heart and soul, but I cannot find my mind.” Bodhidharma said, “Then I have already put it to rest for you.”

We can’t manufacture great doubt like Jinko’s. But it is there in all of us waiting to be uncovered and surrendered to. Then it’s transformed from negating everything to affirming everything as the light of divine spirit. Our spirit of inquiry, our doubt, and our faith and devotion come together to show us what we really are.


Desire for Truth part 1

One day as a small child, I was suddenly struck by wonder. How amazing it is that we just show up in a particular body with a head we can’t see, looking out into the world. I kept asking what is this all about? I wondered if adults knew anything about how this all happened. To me it seemed they were unconcerned. Their replies were cursory: “God’s plan can’t be known. Don’t worry yourself over these things.” But I had to keep asking. All of us have the asking part of ourselves, even though it is masked by our daily difficulties and personal ambitions. When we allow ourselves to open deeply to our spirit of inquiry, we find the motivating force in our lives is the infinite spirit we all are, beyond the limits of what we can imagine.

Through years of contemplative practice, our spirit of inquiry takes twists and turns, but it always seems to come back to what the late great Zen master Suzuki Roshi once said: “The most important thing is to find out the most important thing.” For me the most important thing is asking the question who or what am I, really? Is there an entity we can call me? What is this awareness that manifests the world, that manifests the idea of me?

The ultimate question is to ask deeply: What is it, really? We step back from our intellect and our emotional attachments, and allow ourselves to come face to face with what in Zen is called our original face. Our original face is simply the totality of our being right here and right now. It includes what we conceive of as outside of us as well as inside. It includes all of our sensory experience, including the thinking mind. Our original face is what is here. It is the living spirit we are, eluding all labels, including this one.

At the end of Huston Smith’s autobiography, Tales of Wonder, he describes an experience his friend Ann Jauregui had as a young girl in Michigan, a beautiful merging of the spirit of inquiry with spirit itself.

In summer she would lie on a wooden raft anchored in the bay, listening to the waters lapping, drowsy in the warm sunshine. The warm day, the clear northern light, and the water’s gentle motion together worked a semi-hypnotic effect. Then suddenly Ann would snap alert and feel intensely alive, or rather that everything was alive and that she was part of it. The rocks, the rowboats on the shore, the water itself — everything seemed pulsating with a kind of energy. She found she could put questions to the experience. ‘What is my role in all this?’ she asked. ‘I want to know,’ she whispered. ‘Show me.’ The rocks, the trees, the water — all in silent chorus ‘answered’ – not in words, of course — that her wanting to know, just that, was her part of the pulsating landscape. ‘Creation delights in the recognition of itself’ is how she would later put it.”

Even though almost all of us have had such transcendent or mystical experiences, most of us tend to forget them or not attach much importance to them. When I’ve discussed mine and other people’s similar experiences, I’ve found one common denominator. Our wanting to know is revealed as the intense aliveness of the experience. As our wanting to know intensifies, we become aware that the aliveness we bring to each moment is the true knowing!

This spirit of wanting to know is our deepest devotion to the mysterious presence of life. As our wanting to know is revealed as the aliveness of spirit, devotion to our inquiry is revealed as devotion to spirit itself. So inquiry and devotion arise together. Great doubt and great faith. Each furthers the other’s development. We cultivate devotion to spirit through inquiry. We cultivate inquiry into spirit through devotion.

In the beginning stages of practice, we naturally embark on self-inquiry with our thinking mind. Questions can help us let go of thought, when we are open to the wondrous mystery that surrounds them. First we ask the question, and through our witnessing practice, we learn to deeply enter the mysterious field of the question through witnessing our experience. Deeply entering our experience is simply allowing it to be as it is without trying to control it by grasping onto thoughts about it. This is how the power of our questioning transforms from being centered in our thinking, into being informed by our intuitive spirit of inquiry. We’re learning to ask by merging with pure presence, we’re now asking from the very source of thought. And our desire for truth is revealed to be this pure presence.


Breath of Universal Life

Awareness of our breath is an invaluable tool in aiding our contemplative practice. The major component of mindfulness of our breath is allowing the energy of our breath to freely circulate throughout our physical body as well as our surrounding subtle energy body. We’re learning to witness and accept all of our sensory experience flowing together, letting thought energy dissipate without fixating on any ideas about what is happening. Gradually we notice a softening of mind created rigid boundaries between our imagined separate identity and our environment.

This is where our conditioned mind meets the unconditioned boundless awareness of our real being. We’re cultivating our willingness to receive the collective energy of being itself without self conscious interfering. This allows the beginning of our identity shift to the body of infinite consciousness, which is our true body. Practicing mindfulness of our breath with diligence and perseverance, gradually dissolves the sense of separation born of the limited confinement of the personal body and mind.

When we sit together in a meditation hall, the air circulating through our bodies freely mingles with air breathed by everyone. The air we’re breathing is infused with the energy of our life force. We are literally breathing each others energy, and absorbing each others joy and pain. Then we are offering our compassion, joy, and tranquility back to each other. This is one way we can transform each others and our own suffering, while offering all of our experience to the sangha.

Our breath is the continual stream of our life force, and when we commit to stop making efforts to control the flow, we begin to intuitively realize that it is always freely flowing on its own. We begin to actually sense in our physical body that even our self conscious attempts to control the stream of experience, aren’t really controlling anything. Our attempts at control are just an expression of the free flow. We begin to actually experience this more and more as we just allow the thought energy of our effort to arise and dissolve while streaming by.

One practice I’ve used in dealing with resistance is to imagine my breath sweeping the mind. When we are fixated on a particular idea, combined with a painful emotion, at first this process seems like there is something substantial in the feeling and thought energy being swept away into the flow our breath. As we continue to mindfully witness this experience, the conceptual content of the experience, which is traces of words, ideas, and sensations, begin to lose its solidity, the content actually begins to melt into the stream of experience. Our spirit of inquiry is infused with a deep joy, as the conceptual haze we’re so deeply conditioned to be bound to bursts like so many bubbles on the sea of awareness.

Zen master Suzuki Roshi talked about the practice of imaging ourselves as a swinging door when we breathe during zazen meditation. He said, “What we call I is just a swinging door that moves when we inhale and then exhale.” When we say I breathe, the I is extra. As we allow the door to swing freely, we are uniting the inner and outer worlds, both of which are limitless and inconceivable. We are just a swinging door, expressing this unity. The thought energy solidifying as the idea of ‘I’ dissolves into the swinging of the door that we are.

The swinging door is the gateway to the breath of universal life. Each of us is a unique expression of the breath of life. When we sit peacefully with our breath, we will soon discover that its vitality- its nourishing, nurturing quality-is expressed as true love of life on life’s terms. We can always join the party, drop our fear, and live fully in the spirit of universal joy and love. Joy will dance and expand within us and without. We will know this to the extent that we drop our ideas and opinions about it. When the many forms of aversion to this vitality are sufficiently loosened up in our bodies, there will be much less fear sharing it with others, and much more joy in its continually changing manifestations. The more willing we are to share with others, the more we allow ourselves to consciously breathe.

Leonard Cohen wrote a beautiful song, part of the lyrics express the joy of setting free all ideas of love.

A light came through the window

Straight from the sun above

And so inside my little room

There plunged the rays of love

In streams of light I clearly saw

The dust you seldom see

Out of which the nameless makes

A name for one like me

I’ll try to say a little more

Love went on and on

Until it reached an open door

Then love itself was gone


Opening to the Light

When we contemplate the energy of our thoughts streaming by, we can sense it expressing our awareness of being alive. Thought is always expressing our aliveness regardless of what content it contains, regardless of what we’re thinking about. I’ve found an important question for me in my spiritual inquiry is wondering if the energy of thought is separate from the energy of hearing, feeling, or seeing? The energy of our life force does express itself in these four different ways. But our life force, the energy of our awareness of being here and now, doesn’t separate itself into different parts. It only appears to when we cling to the idea of separation. Free of the idea of separation, separation simply can’t be found.

We can also use the analogy of the ocean and its waves to describe the interpenetration of our sensory experience. Thinking, seeing, hearing, and feeling are different waves on the sea of our awareness. But they are all equally wet. They are all expressions of the same spirit, and free gifts from spirit to our human lives. They can be used to discover the boundless silent power of freedom and love in the depths of our being. Usually our human life is full of restless wanderings wanting to secure self centered pleasures and avoid suffering by being a big important wave. We jump from wave to wave hoping to find lasting happiness and meaning in our lives. But the biggest tidal wave is no more wet than the smallest ripple on the ocean.

We will finally tire of the ceaseless crashes on the shore, and the endless search for the salvation of our personal identity, we will eventually lose interest in wave hopping. We’ll be ready to ask who or what is it that actually fuels our constant yearning? We begin to seriously lose interest in our imaginary story of how life should or shouldn’t be for us to be happy.

Contemplative practice is essential for almost everyone in helping us to realize we can’t find meaning in our life through the thinking mind alone. Contemplative witnessing reveals the open nature of our consciousness that expresses the life of spirit through all of our experience. We can begin to intuitively sense the interpenetration of our sensory experience, like feeling the sound of a nearby train flowing by , or feeling a blissful sensation vibrating inside us with the serene call of a bird. Normally we need a forceful intensification of sound before we notice this. For example when your teenager plays their music so loud that it actually hurts your ears! And if we’re open to looking deeply, even people whose primary way of processing information isn’t visualization, will see visual traces of sounds and feelings, as well as thoughts.

When we’re witnessing our experience of being a separate self, that sense of separateness becomes our object of observation. Allowing thought energy to merge and mingle with our energy of hearing, seeing, and feeling, develops our intuition of sensing our true source. This is letting go of what we think we are. This is allowing our conceptual identity to dissolve into the light that actually animates our life, and is always shining through our experience. We realize this more and more as our personal identity surrenders its demands on the ongoing stream of our experience.

If we earnestly and continually witness of our efforts at control, our separate identity begins to be felt and seen as transparent to the invisible light that makes all of our experience possible. That spark that drives us to question, to deeply inquire about the actual nature of our human aliveness is all we need to realize what we truly are. The spark of truth can’t be grasped, it looks bright and feels warm, sometimes very hot. It is the light of divine presence warmly welcoming us. The spark is guiding us, and at some point we’re finally ready to allow ourselves to be guided from within.

It can be compared to a burning stick of incense. The fire is our spirit of inquiry. The stick is our attachments to our personal mind and body, that are being burned away by the fire of truth. The smoke is like the mind trying to make sense of what’s happening. There is simply no way to conceptually understand how and why we are being guided. Our intuitive sense of the divine presence develops as we allow it to reveal itself animating us right here and now. Realizing our true nature, realizing the way things actually are, we simply are what we realize.

Ask for the light to reveal itself, and allow spirit to choose how to manifest to you. Infinite love can choose what’s best for you much better than you can. We all need to be become aware of how we are still resisting divine presence.  Allowing our resistance into our full awareness, we can then offer it to the light, where it is always being absorbed and transformed. Liberation is realizing our wetness, our timeless and spaceless drenching with the undefinable substance of spirit, the life force of all existence.

We can describe this as a shift of awareness, but on a deeper level it’s also a shift of identity. We’re shifting from identifying with the confines of an imagined separate being, to the infinitely vast awareness that is our true body, our true identity. The invitation is always here to allow the shift, we’re always loved and welcomed. Realizing we’re always unconditionally loved and welcomed, we can actually learn to love and welcome life unconditionally.


Freedom of Thought

Thich Nhat Hanh’s 3rd mindfulness training is Freedom of Thought. To realize the inherent freedom of thought itself, we first need to cultivate mindful awareness of our thinking. We learn to welcome the experience of thinking with an attitude of acceptance. This frees us to witness thought as it actually is.
Then our inquiry naturally leads us to question, what is thought? We know our conscious experience is a continual stream of thoughts, our mind is always producing thoughts, just as our heart is always beating, and our body is always breathing. Thoughts think themselves, they don’t belong to an imagined entity we call ‘me’. I like to describe thought as a particular stream of energy flowing within our stream of experience that constitutes our aliveness. Our flow of experience is an intermingling of fleeting sights, sounds, sensations, traces and fragments of words, and ideas. They are all arising and constantly dissolving back to the source that is our awareness of being present.

One way to define thought energy is to say it’s the movement of our experience trying to label things. This enables us to talk about things as if they have a separate existence, an own-being with some essence or substance separate from other things. This is a very necessary aspect of our communication, and of our harmonizing with each other. However if we look deeply into the actual experience of thinking, we begin to realize thought energy doesn’t really establish any own being of anything we think about, or separate anything from the awareness we are. Thought is only an idea, only a movement of our aliveness. When we try to use thought to try and pin down what this movement of energy actually is, what thinking actually is, there is really only this movement of energy, this movement of the presence we are. Eckhart Tolle called it, “Seeing everything, seeing all thought as ripples on the surface of being.”

There is no real meaning in thoughts other than the continual flow of the ripples. There is no meaning in our attaching to the imagined conceptual content of the ripples. When this realization becomes deeply embedded in the muscle memory of our emotional life, thinking will no longer be any problem. And while our emotions may still be quite painful sometimes, free of the confines of thinking, they will also no longer be a problem.

We don’t really know what thought is, it’s a vast deep mystery. Being a deep mystery itself, how can thought define anything we see, hear, or feel so that they are less of a mystery? Everything in this universe is manifested by this infinite mysterious life force which is free of all labels. Things aren’t what we think they are. Not only are they not what we think they are, they are free of what we think they are. The absence of what we think about things, is the way they actually are. The absence of what we think we are, is the way we actually are.

Teachers sometimes say, ‘pay attention to the gap between your thoughts, how can this gap, this suspension of thought, not be your actual being?’ I try to label this gap by saying it is simply the awareness of being present, without the confines of any labels. It is what is always here and always now in every moment of our little lives, and it never changes. If we look a little closer, if we watch the stream of thoughts flowing by, where is the gap? The stream of thought energy is just an expression of the awareness that doesn’t change, and awareness isn’t affected in any way by the appearance and disappearance of thoughts; thoughts have never created any gap whatsoever. The absence of what we think about the awareness we are, is the way awareness actually is. There is no enlightenment other than this. A Zen master bangs his stick on the floor, shouting It’s just this!

When we are willing to deeply contemplate our actual existence in this way, our awareness is beginning to realize freedom of thought. It is not the cessation of the thought stream, but freedom from the confines of thought streaming by. We just let the thought stream flow as it wants to flow; that is all it is ever doing anyway. We are learning to be to free to use our thinking in service of our Self that we share with all beings. And we’re learning to be free from the compulsion to use our thinking to struggle with our desires and fears.

When we persevere in our practice of witnessing all of our experience, we will naturally begin to taste the freedom of thought itself, and the freedom of our real being, which is pure being. Suzuki Roshi said, ‘Purity is things as they actually are.’ Thinking as it actually is, is always arising and dissolving into and as the flow of our awareness. If we’re willing to continually observe this, to go with the flow, our awareness becomes informed by the whole of awareness, informed by the ground of all of our experience. We move right through the thought stream, into the vast quiet stillness and freedom of our true nature.