Author Archive | Roger Hawkins

The Power of Sangha

Sangha is a word Buddhists use to refer to the greater community of practicing members. Thay talks about the power of the sangha to absorb all of our suffering, if we are willing to deeply offer it to our partners in the spirit of our inter being. Of course this also refers to the offering of our joy, for our joy and suffering are truly different sides of the same coin. A couple of months ago, I spent a day in Asheville with several good friends whom I feel a deep sense of connection with in our collective spirit of inquiry. As I went to sleep that night, I felt a strong sense of our oneness. It is wonderful that we have this opportunity to practice together, and support each other in following Thay’s practice. I felt a deep appreciation for life always showing us what we need to take the next step on our path to awakening.

That night I had a dream that I was in a very large meeting hall with many women. It was quite dark and I didn’t clearly see their faces, I wasn’t aware of any real communication going on in the room. In Jungian terms, this appeared like a pretty standard dream for a male like myself; a former serious athlete who still has a lot of work to do on more fully integrating his feminine side. Applied to the spiritual path, the conditioning of the spiritual athlete drives me to try and soar to the ultimate realms of love and bliss, and to push through any barriers encountered on the way up. A subtle trick I still try to play on myself at times, is to imagine that after 40 some years of practice, I’m now free from being driven by that motivation.

My attention in the dream was drawn to a stage in the hall where a woman resembling Anandamayi Ma, whom I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, was standing. She made a gentle sweeping motion with her arm, as if she was tossing a frisbee towards us. A visible wave of energy flew out from her hand that felt like an incredibly powerful force totally obliterating the whole scene. There was a tiny sliver of ego remaining in the darkness. At first I was completely shocked and terrified, trying to brace against the overwhelming intensity of what seemed like the wind of a powerful tornado just blowing everything away. I then bowed in surrender realizing the comical futility of trying to do anything. There was simply no other choice than to stop making an effort to resist a more powerful force than any ego could possibly comprehend, must less affect or in any way control. The spiritual athlete in me realized total defeat, and I was grateful for a powerful reminder that there are no enlightened egos.

Every single one of us is on equal footing in relation to the divine power that is our actual substance. Our sense of being separate from our true nature is the gift of our uniqueness, that uniqueness however is not an entity. It is spirit living through us as our gift to the world in the form of a human being. We’re here to express and reveal the spirit of our inter being, and to aid others in realizing the group project of self realization. By ourselves we are nothing, or as we say in Zen, no-thing. The Vedanta sage Nisargadatta said, “When I look within, I see that I’m nothing, and that’s wisdom. When I look outward, I realize I’m everything, and that’s love. My life turns between the two.”

Our intellectual understanding of this is always partial and paradoxical. One way I attempt to put it into words is to say that this turning is our life. Our life is always an invitation to use this turning to allow the imagined barriers between our fellow sangha members to dissolve, so the currents of the our inner being, our inter being, can more freely flow together and support each other.

Sometimes we need a powerful reminder that to deeply open to our wisdom of nothingness, is not an experience of nothing, but a deep feeling of being SO no-thing. Then when we turn to the love of being everything, we are SO everything. Being no-thing is not a lack of, or exclusion of what we describe as experience, it’s not the lack or exclusion of feeling, thinking, hearing, or seeing. It is simply freedom from the confines of the labels we attempt to define our experience with. It’s freedom from the concept of separation. And it is the freedom of the current of our life force to flow unimpeded saturating us as well as the world. As such it is also the freedom to fully embody and share our human experience in its fullness. We realize this is a free gift, when we’re willing to receive the grace of feeling and seeing the falsity of our attachments to our imagined bodily existence.

In Zen we say form is emptiness, and emptiness is form. Empty in this context is not like an empty glass, but the fullness of all life, empty of, and free of conceptual thought. Form is full of emptiness, and emptiness is full of form. Form, energy, i.e. our life force, is free of the thinking mind, and all its attempts to label pure awareness. Free of the confines of our thinking, our life is full of the depth of human experience that we learn to share and support each other with as one sangha body.

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The Most Important Thing

The great Zen master Suzuki once said: “The most important thing is to find out the most important thing. We all have a unique of what that is, and will express it in our own unique way. There is an old saying that helps me express what is most important to me: ‘If we want to realize the true source of our life, don’t dig one hundred one foot holes, but dig one hole, one hundred feet deep.’ Teachers usually refer to this saying to caution students against impulsively jumping from one path and/or teaching to another as a way of avoiding penetrating the spirit of any one particular teaching. This happens when our desires and fears seem too threatening for us to become fully aware of and work through. When they arise, we try to avoid them by withdrawing from the spiritual environment in which they arose. We fool ourselves into thinking that another path or teaching will enable us to advance farther, and we will thereby be able to avoid the pain and effort involved in working through our desires and fears.

So when difficulties arise on the path, we are encouraged to stay present to what is happening, and welcome and embrace it all, whether positive or negative. We are taught not to cling to the ever changing flow of our experience, and allow it all to pass away. When we stray, and become excessively attached to our experience, this can be described as our attention wandering from the one deep hole of our presence here and now, and attempting to dig somewhere else. As we pass through life on the way to our true source, what’s important is not what we experience, but how we identify with or cling to our experience. In our contemplative practice, we may experience an expansion of our consciousness, a blissful feeling in the heart rising up with some subtle pressure to the top of our head. We may feel this is a very positive step, that we are reaching a very advanced stage in our practice. A Vipassana, or insight meditation teacher would probably say this is merely blocked energy and not of use to us. We may be instructed to breath with it, and allow it to dissolve back into the ground. In a shakti, or energy oriented system, we would focus on it, allow it to push higher, and work with the energy.

Neither of these methods is right or wrong, and it certainly can be productive to embrace both methods at various points in our individual path of practice. It is important to remember that all mystical experiences are meant just for the moment they arise, and then they dissolve, as all experience does. Highly evolved masters tell us self realization itself isn’t an experience, but is realization of the timeless source that makes all experience possible. We may hear that enlightenment is not an experience a countless number of times, but all the mind can do with that is imagine some experience that doesn’t come and go. Both Vipassana and Shakti systems aim at us meditating thoroughly on the absence of what we think is happening, and teach us to not to cling to whatever experience arises. This is digging one deep hole, and merging with the present moment. Whatever system and practices we use in our contemplation, we are always here and now. What is most important is our earnestness, our longing for the truth, the depth of our spiritual inquiry. We need no other guide, but we all need to realize that for ourselves; we won’t believe it just because some famous teacher tells us it’s true. So we dig one deep hole in the present moment, which is one timeless moment. If our spirit of inquiry attempts to take us out of the present, the inquiry is no longer really authentic. We are then stuck in ideas about the past or future. Discovering which practices, or combination of practices work best will naturally evolve the more we allow ourselves to surrender to the here and now.

Crucial to this development of what practices we employ, is the continual questioning of who is really digging? Who is really practicing? Suzuki Roshi said that though there is nothing to attain, beginning students need to try very hard to attain something. They need to stretch their arms out very wide and reach for enlightenment. This is also true for more experienced students. We learn the futility of attaching to our self conscious efforts at meditation by trial and error at every stage of our practice. So if we’re struggling with the question of when and how to dig, we can simply ask ourselves, who is really digging? On deeper and deeper levels, we begin to realize that the spirit of inter being does all the digging. We gradually learn to surrender, go along for the ride, and learn to trust that when effort is necessary, it will be there. When effortlessness is truly needed, it will arise.


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The Life Force Within

The relative and the absolute, inside and outside, self and other, are reflecting each other and flowing together, if we are willing to observe how things really are. We can’t grasp this intellectually because in trying to grasp, we are just labeling the process we believe to be happening. While we can’t know with the mind that nothing is happening, we can open to the possibility that ‘happening’ is just a label we impute onto the way things actually are.  We can realize that what we think is happening doesn’t actually describe or limit the way things are. The paper is not the writing, yet it carries the writing. The ink is not the message, nor is the reader’s mind the message – but they all make the message possible. It is the same with our experience. For example, our experience of seeing things is made up of the seeing, the seer, and the seen. Seeing contains the seer and the seen, none of the three can be found on their own without the other two. They all arise together, and make seeing possible. We can’t find any entity called the seer, because we already are ‘seeing’ itself. When we look for the seer, we only find ideas of what it might be, or what we think we are. But whether we cling to these ideas of seeing, seer, or the seen or not, if we just witness our experience of seeing, there is just seeing. It includes all of our ideas about seeing, seer, and the seen, but can’t be identified by any labels. Seeing itself is free of any labels we impute onto it. The same is true of our hearing, our feeling, and our thinking. Thinking itself is free of the idea of thinking, the experience of thinking is a deep mystery.

Not finding any actual entities when we witness our experience is a finding in itself. It is the finding of an aliveness that is not confined, not defined, and not limited in any way. It is pure feeling, sometimes labeled as a current, shakti, divine energy, or bliss. It has no conceptual agenda, it just moves, it just welcomes, it just innocently loves. Thich Nhat Hanh has a saying: “The spirit of inter being is realized when the garbage and the rose both shine with the same light.” This light is within and beyond all appearances. Trusting and surrendering to this light, to the current of this boundless energy, is our willingness to flow with the river of life to the sea of our source. The source is reached in the flowing, the flowing of human experience is the waves on the surface of the sea. By some mysterious transformative process, as we allow ourselves to flow with the current of the waves of our experience, we eventually realize we are the water of the sea itself. As we turn between the no-thingness of being the sea, and the bliss of feeling the movement of the waves, we feel the stability and support of the ocean of consciousness itself. The ocean of awareness is what is always here in its vast boundless support. It is what produces and makes the waves of consciousness possible, as reflections of itself.

Many analogies have been made to try and describe the relationship between human beings and our source. One that occurred to me recently is that we can say the life force of the universe is the electricity, and human beings are the light bulbs. The bulbs may be infinitely varied in shape, color, and brightness. The actual power by which they shine, however is the same in all. We tend to get tricked by appearances, and say “What a beautiful person! What lovely hair. See the brightness of her smile! But when the electricity is turned off, where is the color and the brightness of the light bulb? It’s important to not forget the true source of our power that is the same in others, and all that we see around us. This current creates, enlightens, and enlivens everything simultaneously.

The power of deep prayer when we are actually feeling this oneness with our life force, can transform our relationship to our source. As Ramana Maharshi said, “Surrender itself is a mighty prayer.” We can ask for what we really need to awaken from the dream of separate existence, and then be willing to open to whatever comes next. What we need may be painful, and very well may not be what we want. When we learn to allow the peaceful loving current of the life force flow freely through us, we realize that it thoroughly saturates, enlightens, and enlivens the world as the expression of our innermost desire. This is the desire to know the truth of our life force as our innermost being. Thomas Merton expressed our innermost desire in one of his deep devotional prayers: “Lord, you have heard the cry of my heart, for it is you that cries out within my heart.”

Anandamayi Ma was a Hindu saint, who was considered to be a true incarnation of the Divine Mother. She fully embodied many different characteristics of the divine feminine, different aspects of showering unconditional love on all of creation. Her devotees offered all of their experience to her, realizing that she is everyone’s mother. When she was asked how mankind will progress towards a more perfect and enlightened future, her reply was “But everything is already perfect.” In her world, there simply is only perfection, all the waves on the sea of her awareness shine with the same peaceful loving light. Regardless of however the agonies of human suffering manifest before her vision, she is aware of her divine spirit continually absorbing and transforming it all as a reflection of her motherly love. Her presence simply is love. Her most amazing characteristic was how her mere presence served as a very powerful inspiration to develop or deepen the desire to follow the spiritual path.maa_photo

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Our Spirit of Wanting to Know

Our spirit of wanting to know, inquiry into the actual substance of reality, of consciousness, expresses our deepest devotion to the mysterious presence of life. It’s a vast mystery, because who or what wants to know can’t be separated from reality, can’t be separated from consciousness itself. In all of the many contemplative paths, we’ll never find an actual entity that defines who we actually are. We discover this in our contemplative practice of asking, ‘where or what is actually asking the question’? One way to articulate this is to say our wanting to know our true self, is revealed as the aliveness of wanting to know. Whatever we are that thinks we are a separate being, we are alive. And we simply can’t trace this aliveness, this current of energy, to anything other than the presence that is always right here, right now. It is the aliveness of the present moment, now, and now, and now. As human beings on the spiritual path, we learn to open up to a fascination with what is this presence? How can there be relief of suffering? Can we cease making demands on this presence? Can awareness itself provide love, and compassion? The willingness to surrender, and let spirit consume all or our ideas about who or what we think we are, is a deep inquiry into these questions.

Thich Nhat Hanh says everything we need to be happy is already right here in the present moment. This means all the wisdom, all the bliss, all the most intense pleasures and pains are all ours here in the present moment. And it means that if we allow the flow of all these experiences to arise and dissolve as they always do, they can’t interfere with our happiness. Letting go of our restless thoughts and feelings, allowing them to be absorbed by the present moment itself, is trusting this aliveness of spirit to purify and transform our experience. It is learning to trust that in reality, the reality of the present moment itself is enough to relieve all suffering. The Buddha’s great teaching is that clinging to experiences of being separate, is our resistance to things as they actually are as expressions of the present moment. We don’t realize right here, right now, is always enough. This is because of our deep conditioning to struggle with and shape the present moment to how we think the present moment should be better than how we experience it right now.

True freedom is always right here and now. The present moment is free. It is the flow of our experience, and this experience is always flowing freely. Any ideas we have to the contrary are simply ideas, ripples on the surface of our being, on the surface of the present moment. Thinking things are bound and confined, is only thinking things are bound and confined. Ripples of thinking on the surface of being are expressions of the present moment as the expression of freedom. This is so because they freely arise unaffected and unconditioned by any imaginary entity or experience. The ultimate cause of everything will always remain a deep mystery. Freedom and the present moment arise together. Thay has a saying: the world of suffering and discrimination is filled with the light of the rising sun. And the rising sun is the expression of freedom. We, as we actually are, are the expression of freedom. We arise as our experience arises, and it is all arising freely as the present flow of awareness, as the present flow of spirit. Surrendering to this flow, we begin to feel lighter, spontaneity begins to replace labored deliberation. Freedom in expressing our emotions emanates from a spacious place in harmony with and compassionately embracing our environment. We learn to embrace others as we embrace the moment. We learn to embrace others as expressions of the moment, which is always embracing us.

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OPENNESS

In Emptiness Dancing, Adyashanti tells us that “Openness has no location. It seems to be everywhere. It has room for anything. There can be thought or no thought. There can be feeling or no feeling. There can be sounds. There can be silence. Nothing disturbs openness.” Openness here is the boundless spaciousness of our true nature—our awareness, our identity.
As we continue to deeply question who we really are, we discover it is impossible to confine the awareness of ‘I am’. We deepen our ability to relax into the vast spaciousness of our true nature, and no longer identify as strongly with the ceaseless activity of our mind. If we are willing to look straight into the eyes of our thinking, we experience thought as just another movement of energy, like feeling confused or hearing a sonata or seeing a bright light.
Gradually we discover thinking mind is not only an endless succession of energy impulses, but awareness. We cannot locate it in space or time; it does not belong to anything, any person, self or entity. Our thinking mind is a ceaseless flow of waves on the ocean of consciousness.  All manifestation arises as the birth of this vast openness. We are divine, expressing our nature in an endless succession of different forms.
None of these forms is inherently opposed to another. They rise and give birth to each other. Everything is causing everything. Or, as rapper Lauren Hill once sang: “everything is everything.” Openness cannot be identified or pinned down. It is the causeless cause of it all.  As our identity opens up apart from this imaginary entity called self, we begin to manifest divine openness. Openness lives through us. Openness becomes our identity. Openness is available to everyone right now. We need only stop for a moment and observe what arises. There are no limits to openness, it has no gaps whatsoever.
Even if we are in pain, the pain is a free expression of openness. We notice that openness accepts our pain. The sound of a flowing stream continues to express its nature whether our pain is there or not. The sun shines in its tranquility on all of our activities, whether we deem them good, bad or indifferent. If we identify with nature as our body, we can see our true identity as that of openness–the true dharma body of the buddhas. We can actually feel the essence of this human body and the essence of the world to be one hundred percent identical.
And even more amazing, we do not have to open at all to identify ourselves as this openness. As an expression of it, we are already as open as we are ever going to get. The awareness of this may be clouded by our clinging to the structure of mind, with its attendant fears and desires. Sitting still in meditation, we learn to cultivate a peaceful acceptance of the spirit of this openness. Ask for it continually.  It is there in your longing, it is there in your joy and in your pain. You may need to speak out your request at first. But gradually the awareness of your being, just as it is, becomes your asking. And your asking becomes God’s answer, the answer of divine openness.

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Awareness of Suffering

Awareness of Suffering

Some of you may be aware that Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh suffered a serious stroke last November. He is now recovering at his home  in the south of France.  He has dedicated his life to spreading the Buddha’s teaching of compassion and love to relieve human suffering. His sangha is named the Order of Inter Being. He teaches that if we are willing to experience things as they actually are, we will realize that we ‘inter are’ with all beings and all phenomena. Our living presence is alive, and our aliveness is the spirit of inter being. Thich Nhat Hanh is referred to as Thay by our sangha. Thay means teacher in Vietnamese Buddhism. Thay offered us a song that we sometimes sing together as the sangha body:

No coming, no going, no after, no before

I hold you close to me, and I release you to be so free

Because I am in you, and you are in me,

Because I am in you, and you are in me

Buddha’s first noble truth is that life is suffering. The way we inter are with all beings involves suffering. He didn’t mean that life is always the experience of suffering for everyone. He meant that life is suffering under certain conditions. And those conditions according to Buddha are caused by our clinging. Suffering is caused by clinging to thoughts, clinging to sensations, clinging to sights and sounds. And it naturally follows that the experience of clinging is based on the strong sense of a someone who is clinging to something separate from what they imagine that they are.

The bedrock of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching is the practice of mindfulness. Mindfulness practice is the practice of being aware of present experience, with the attitude of acceptance. This includes awareness of the experience of being something separate, and clinging to something else that seems separate from what we are. The experience of being separate is really just that simple, it’s not conceptual, it’s not some theory about the experience of separation. It’s just the experience of saying ‘there is that chair over there, and here I am, separate from that chair.’

The spirit of inter being is also just that simple. It’s not some theory of being. The reality of inter being is realizing that what appears separate isn’t really separate from the awareness that is observing it. The awareness looking out from our eyes right now reading this page isn’t separate from the words and the page itself. The same holds true for all of our experience. Awareness isn’t separate from the experience of seeing, hearing, feeling, or thinking. Whatever we see, hear, feel, and think is one with the awareness that we actually are.

Thay says that we free ourselves from suffering by learning to cultivate insight into the deep roots of our suffering. As Buddha said the deep roots of our self clinging is what keeps us bound to the seemingly endless wheel of samsara, the seemingly endless round of suffering of the world of birth and death. If we want to remove the weeds from our yard, we need to pull them out by the roots. Otherwise they just quickly grow back. When we are lazy, and don’t want to make the effort to get down to the roots of our mind weeds, we just push them away or indulge them without awareness of their roots. They not only grow back quickly, but we actually reinforce their hold on us; if we feed the energy of clinging to them, that clinging energy grows stronger. As Buddha said, the clinging to our experience is made possible by our clinging to this sense of being a separate self. The two arise together, and reinforce each other.

What is different about mind weeds and weeds in our yard, is that our yard weeds are removed by pulling them out by the roots. With mind weeds, we shine the light of awareness on them, and let spirit dissolve and transform them, rather than just trying to DO something with them. The spirit of inter being is always dissolving the roots of our self clinging, we only need to be willing to be aware of this, and stop our self conscious efforts to resist the process.

The fixed belief in the separate entity we call ‘me’ is the necessary mind weed by which we experience and cling to all of sensory experience as ours. So mindfulness practice is shining the light of awareness or spirit onto that sense of being a separate self. And it is the awareness of sensing a separate self with the attitude of acceptance. What is actually witnessing our experience is always just allowing it full expression. There is no attempt to manipulate any object of experience. Allowing the full expression of our experience is one with spirit’s continual dissolving and transforming it. Whatever we think, feel, see, or hear are not fixed entities. They are continually changing and transforming. We project the solidity of our fixation on being a separate self onto the world we imagine to be separate, and thereby fool ourselves into believing that it is solid. This is not something to try to believe. We will actually experience it through surrendering to the spirit of inter being showing us how things really are. The experience of ‘me’ witnessing, or ‘me’ attempting to manipulate the process is completely irrelevant to the process itself.

If we learn to be willing to join this witnessing, we will also learn to allow all experience its full expression. Witnessing consciousness can just allow every experience to just be as it is because there is no sense of a separate self to cling to the experience and try to hold onto it, or push it away. When we join this witnessing of our sense of a separate self with the attitude of acceptance, we begin to experience that sense of being separate as an expression of the witnessing awareness itself. That sense of being separate is beginning to be seen as it really is, free of separation from the witnessing awareness of all experience. This witnessing is always seeing through the separate nature of all experience. It is always dissolving the root of separation appearing as real to the clinging consciousness of a separate self. So clinging to a sense of separation to relieve suffering is like pulling off the top of the weeds in our yard, and hoping they won’t grow back. Self conscious effort, MY effort is the deepest root of our suffering. Just allow the light of awareness to shine on the sense of separation, where is the actual thingness of it?

For suffering to be real, there needs to be an actual painful sensation with the accompanying fixation on this sensation as being something bad. If we join spirit’s witnessing of our painful experience, we will begin to see that our fixation on something bad itself isn’t fixed. It changes and transforms along with the subtle variations of the flavor of the painful sensations themselves. This seeing, this sensing, is the seeing and sensing of the spirit of inter being’s continual dissolving and transforming of all of our experience. Just being aware of this with the attitude of acceptance is offering all of our experience to spirit itself. And it is the realization that all of our experience is a wonderful gift from the universal heart of inter being.

What if it is really really true that awareness itself is always already seeing through the separate nature of sensations? What if it is really true that the spirit of inter being is always deeply sensing, transforming, and loving all of our experience as a free gift to us? Can we be willing to trust this gift? Can we be willing to trust this gift on its own terms, not on our terms? Can we be willing to give up our bargaining with and for truth? Are we willing to receive this free gift unconditionally, just as it is being offered to us, free of any and all conditions? What else besides our living presence is actually truth worthy? What else is trust worthy?

Stay with the path for long enough, and finally we’ll begin to realize we’ve spent aeons trying to flee from this truth. We’ve spent aeons clinging to trusting what we think is real and true. And the whole time we have been enslaved by the suffering of clinging to our desires and fears, vainly attempting to make them the truth, vainly attempting to make them real. Clinging to vanity is always in vain, because the self that is separate and proud isn’t the truth, it isn’t real. Stay with the path long enough, maybe we can finally realize that this free gift really is free.

Seeing through the separate nature of sensation, seeing through the separate nature of all experience of being a separate self, is seeing from the viewpoint of unity, seeing from the viewpoint of the spirit of inter being. Spirit transforms the sense of separation from our experience, but this doesn’t mean we cease to feel the pain of sensations. The pain can actually hurt more, but bother us less. It bothers us less because we are learning to embody our inter being with the joy and hurt of all beings.

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