The world of suffering and discrimination is filled with the light of the rising sun

–The Refuge Chant

In Zen, gratitude is an important devotional practice. We can find a context for gratitude–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.  When we learn to receive the depth of this fullness, we simultaneously realize we can’t find our separate ego.  The ego can be thought of as a cipher, huge as an ocean within us that sucks up almost all of  our energy.  What a relief to release some of that pent-up energy and offer it to the universal heart we all share.  As profound as our offering, so inexhaustible is the gratitude of our true self for our willingness offer our lives to it. With enormous fullness,  spirit receives 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.

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 spirit is just as thankful for our best efforts. From the viewpoint of the Buddhas or spirit itself, their fullness includes our limitations. We only need to cultivate the ability to see our catastrophes as opportunities.

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. Everything is filled with the light of the rising sun.

As we offer our own deluded fears and desires to the Buddhas, to the Great Spirit, we express our willingness to let them go.  By letting go, we are saying we no longer reside in them. How easy it is to assume we have accomplished this as a result of many long hours and years of contemplative meditation and prayer.  While our devotions do aid us greatly in deepening the ability to let go– absorbing ourselves in the mystery–we often delude ourselves into thinking we have arrived. Or that we have come further than we have.

When I look at the way I grab onto my ideas of how things should be, how I indulge my complaining mind, I frequently remind myself of an old Confucian saying: “When you see admirable behavior, emulate it. When you see despicable behavior, look at yourself.”  When a person repels us, that person only symbolizes a part of ourselves we do not like. Then we can be grateful for the opportunity to discover this, even though we are learning something we do not necessarily want to learn.

To the Buddhas, our indulgence in selfish behavior is an expression of the universal activity, nothing more, nothing less. They love it no more nor less than our feverish early morning devotional observances.

To the extent we are able to leave the Way to the Way, our patterns of denial are pushed out into the open air, awaiting our discovery.  Then we can more deeply look at our patterns of stinginess– how we do not want to see that we withhold ourselves from what is. Yet here is an opportunity to look at how we still build protective walls around ourselves, engaging and maintaining them, separating ourselves from others.

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, Spirit, for providing others with a chance to give us these opportunities.  Thank you very much, Spirit, for giving us a way to overcome our fears of exposure to the great unknown. Thank you, Spirit, for giving others the opportunity to receive the gift of our response.  May they learn also to heed Confucius’ advice, and in their anger or denial, look to themselves.






Feel the Current of Our True Nature

If one engages in meditation with a serious purpose of earnestness and devotion to the task of self realization, one will gradually begin to feel the pull of a tremendous force greater than our idea of being a separate body/mind.  There are many different variations of meditative practices to help us cultivate the necessary spirit of inquiry, but it is the intensity of earnestness and longing that really does all the work. What is important for us is the moment at which we will enter this tremendous force or current that is the movement of our true being, the going forth, in other words, the great pilgrimage.

When we’ve found certain practices that support our continued meditation, it’s important to spend regular hours every day if possible building the momentum of the practice.  In this way, try to bind yourself to the quest for God, for the source of all of our experience.  Wherever you may be, take refuge in your very being , let the Being we all share be your goal.  When by virtue of this endeavor you become deeply immersed in that current and devote ever more time to it, you will be transformed and your appetite for sense enjoyment will grow feeble; this is how to reap the fruit of accumulated efforts. In this context, current refers to the flow of the life force, the flow of our sensory experience throughout our body/mind.

The flow of the current includes thought, thought energy is just one manifestation of the current. It can be likened to bubbles floating on top of and popping on the surface of the current of a river.  But the current of the flow of our river of experience isn’t dependent on, or controlled by the thought bubbles, anymore than the bubbles on the surface direct or control  a river.

It is usually only after many long years of dedicated, earnest meditation, that there may also come a time  when you feel that the body is liable to depart at any time, that death may arrive at any moment. Many  students have fleeting experiences of this through extreme traumas, near death experiences, or psychedelic drugs. These are an intensification of the current, and they can be helpful for inspiration. For earnest aspirants on the path, there comes a time when they are no longer sought after.

Seeking extraordinary experiences is then realized to be an ego based obstacle to continual abidance in the current which is free from the self centered desire for transcendent experience. We gradually learn to leave the intensification and relaxation of the current to the flow itself, and more and more the impulse to control and possess the current of the life force within and without, falls away.

At this stage, one begins to feel an ever increasing pull from the current of the life force away from the confines of our personal body/mind, while still maintaining our connection with it, and maintaining the freedom to function as a human being. We then continue to surrender our self conscious efforts steadily without flagging, and yield to the infinite power drawing us more intimately into the actual feel of our true nature.  Gradually we are more and more deeply absorbed in feel of the flow – infinite consciousness alone will preoccupy our thoughts and feelings.  For the mind ever seeks that which gives it proper sustenance, and this cannot be provided by anything save the Supreme Being.  Then we will be carried away by the current that leads to our Self.


Realize What Can’t Be Doubted

When we allow ourselves to deeply ask the question “What or who am I?” 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.

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. 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 you doubt this idea deeply, you will awaken deeply.

Saint Augustine said start with general doubt, and doubt absolutely everything you can. You will find that you can doubt the reliability of logic (it might be wrong), you can even doubt the reliability of sense impressions (they might be a hallucination).  But even in the most intense doubt we are aware of the doubt itself; in our immediate awareness there is certainty, even if it is only a certainty that we are doubting – and we can never shake that certainty. Immediate awareness is always what is manifesting the concept of doubt.  Any truth in the exterior world can be doubted, but always there is the certainty of interior immediateness or basic Wakefulness; and God, said Augustine, lies in and through that basic Wakefulness, whose certainty is never, and can never be, actually doubted.

If you doubt these ideas of Augustine’s deeply, the certainty of the presence of immediate awareness, the certainty of the presence of God, can be deeply awakened to.




Devotion to the Source

Many great teachers tell us that to plumb the depths of self realization, or enlightened awareness, we need to cultivate both wisdom and devotion in our contemplative practice. To me wisdom is the willingness to see all of our life as it actually is. Wisdom complements devotion by providing the insight to unconditionally accept and surrender to things as they actually are; to surrender to the power of the great mystery,  surrender to the life force that only alone always simply is.

I was watching a movie the other day, called the Others, that was about a mother and her children living in a haunted house.  In the end it turns out that they were the ghosts who were already dead, and didn’t realize it till the very end of the movie.

Quite a few times I’ve read about teachers being asked about their fear of death, and replying ‘I’m already dead.’ I’ve had the intellectual understanding that they mean they are dead to the sense of being confined to a separate self. To them the separate self is but a shadow; they can act from it to help beings, but they aren’t caught by the idea that this shadow self is anything more than a pale reflection of the overwhelming actuality of the light of infinite consciousness.

When observing the initial panic of the mother and her children realizing that they were no longer in physical bodies, that they were dead in the conventional sense, I was quite surprised to find myself identifying with their fear.  I realized I’ve never known who or what I am, I am already dead, there’s no life in these ideas of me!

As I allowed breathing with the sense of fear, I felt the utter falseness of my identification with a physical body.  The small i was clearly seen as a ghost like stream of thoughts, with ethereal sensations and perceptions that the ghost of thought imagined to be real. Then I realized the sense of being a ghost was just another illusory thought stream.  The true ‘I’, our actual identity, was revealed to be the presence of the light of awareness itself free from all qualities. It is always abiding everywhere, and at the same time is nowhere perceivable.  The small i isn’t just ghost like, it’s smaller than the smallest imaginable nano particle. The deep flowing compassion and love for suffering beings isn’t mine. All beings share the light of pure awareness together.

The thought flashed: ‘How could we continually fool ourselves into believing we actually have any control over the power of ultimate reality?’ Realizing that we’re nothing perceivable, felt like embodying wisdom on a deeper level than I had previously allowed myself. I also intuitively felt that embodying wisdom naturally turns into embodying devotion to the source of all manifestation, to our true mother and father.  The light of infinite consciousness is our true body, allowing it to expand melts the sense of being separate like snow melting by a fire.

In the context of contemplative practice, devoted means to be one with. Here devotion isn’t about self consciously trying to be devoted.  Witnessing and unconditionally accepting our self conscious trying without the effort to manipulate it in any way, is to be unattached to thinking. Our self conscious effort is a mere shadow of the blissful light of infinite consciousness. Receiving and offering the life force of infinite consciousness, with the willingness to be free of attachment to thoughts, is the greatest devotion. For me this statement is an ever growing intuition, a koan and at the same time a question to live out and offer for others to find their own inspiration in finding their way on the path of self realization.





Negative Emotions

The goal is not to do away with negative emotions. The goal is to learn how to experience them in a way that bothers us less, like the old saying, “It hurts more but bothers you less.”


Eckhart Tolle was on Oprah Winfrey’s online show some years ago, reaching over a million people per broadcast.  At one point during one of the shows, Winfrey started a dialogue with Tolle about negative emotions. Tolle stated that he hardly ever experiences negative emotions anymore. He claimed it happened only one time in the last few years, when he witnessed an animal being tortured. The anger was there for a minute or two, he said.

In 2008 I went to visit the American spiritual teacher, Gangaji (in the Indian lineage of Sri Ramana Maharshi) in Asheville, and I asked her about this Tolle incident.  Her reply was, “Well, that may be what some people experience; it’s not what I experience.” The tone of her response was neutral–it’s fine for that to be Tolle’s experience, and it’s fine for it not to be her experience.  Immediately, I realized she had less judgment about what Tolle said than I did. I found myself asking whether some part of Tolle–conscious or not–is trying to fend off negative emotions.  There is no way for me to know. What I do know is that it is quite human to want to transcend our humanity. However as long as we are still here in this body, there is always more to surrender, no matter how one-with-everything we may appear to be.

My concern is that those among the million viewers of Tolle and Winfrey who are new to the path may assume Tolle’s idea of hardly-any-negative-emotions is the pinnacle of the path. Trying to achieve a state without negative emotions would only intensify our suffering. To push negativity away ups the ante of our inner conflicts, leading to more mental pain. When I voiced this concern to Gangagi, she said yes in a way that indicated she strongly agreed Tolle’s statement could be problematic.

When we’re really able to open up to whatever experience arises, then what is arising is not only happening to what I perceive of as me.  It is happening to all beings simultaneously. There’s no sticking point. No judgment. Thoughts about the negative emotions are accepted and allowed to dissolve as they always do, whether accompanying emotions are positive or negative. When thought dissolves, my sense of a static me dissolves with it. In that way, the emotions are still deeply experienced, but the idea of a self to experience them is no longer of special importance.

The question arises for me, if you are human and you no longer experience negative emotions, is the capacity to experience these emotions diminished?  And if this is the case, is not the capacity to experience joyful emotions also diminished?   To no longer experience negative emotions perhaps blocks the potential for the full expression of human life, and constitutes an incomplete realization of what we are. There exists a heart of realization where the need to transcend anything, including the pain of being human, is itself transcended.

“Why does negativity arise?” a student asked at a recent retreat.  “I don’t know,” was my reply. The real question, the deeper question, is not why. The deeper question is what? Is negativity real? What is it really?  As we allow ourselves to sink into these questions, we’re no longer sure of who is experiencing our experience.  So the goal is not to do away with negative emotions. The goal is to learn how to experience them in a way that can open us to the divine love which is the true source of all emotion.

When hurt is allowed to intensify, the intensity becomes less confined to the one experiencing it, simply because the emotion is freed from the limits of self to expand and dissipate. We may hurt more, but in the midst of the intensity, the idea of self-experiencing-hurt vanishes. So hurt is no longer happening only to me. We realize all beings are in league to help absorb our pain. And as the Buddhist loving kindness prayer goes, “May I accept my pain, knowing that my heart is not limited by it.”


No Vacancy

The spirit of Soen Roshi’s laughter is the spirit of liberation. It’s like a Zen master banging his staff on the ground – THIS IS IT!


During a retreat a some years ago, Zen teacher Lou Nordstrom told a story about the famous Zen Roshi, Soen, an eccentric and deeply realized Zen master who spent some time in America during his later years when Lou was a young student. Lou claims there are not many real Zen teachers, but that Soen Roshi was undeniably one of them.  Lou told us Soen often appeared to be in another world.  One day the two of them were driving by a motel on the side of the road, and Soen Roshi noticed a sign that read No Vacancy.  He began to laugh and said in his heavily Japanese flavored English, “No Vacancy, No Vacancy!” That was all he said.

What did this crazy old man mean? This story is a koan. In fact, if Western or American modern koans are ever collected, I would surely vote this one in. We think of the word Vacancy as an open space inside of something else.  When there is No Vacancy, there is no such space, and therefore, no place to put anything. In the world of duality, there is inside and outside, and there is one object separate from the other objects, and countless others separated from all the rest. If we do not limit ourselves to a specific place, there is an infinite space in which to locate objects and create endless vacancies.

It seems to me that when Soen said “no vacancy,” he was referring to awareness or consciousness itself. We are so conditioned to think dualistically that when we hear the words awareness or consciousness, we create a concept of something outside of us.  Our creation is just a fantasy. Where can you find its reality?  In our dualistic minds, awareness becomes an object of thought.  This object is only a thought, but awareness cannot be grasped by thought. Thought arises. Awareness makes it possible. Awareness expresses itself while thought arises and morphs into many new forms.

Soen Roshi spent so much of his life inquiring about the source of awareness that eventually his identity shifted from the perspective of an individual mind and body to that of the open space of awareness from which all manifestations of a separate mind and body flow. The spirit of Soen Roshi’s laughter is the spirit of liberation. It’s like a Zen master banging his staff on the ground – THIS IS IT!

For Soen, taking a drive in a car on a highway was not any different from hanging out in outer space. He embodied the unity of the world of form and infinite space. The world of form is a manifestation of infinite space, not at all separate from it. No Vacancy, then, means the infinite possible expressions of form are one with the substance of space, of universal mind. There are no gaps in boundless space. The Dharma body, our true body, pervades everything. No Vacancy also means nothing can come in from the outside because there is no outside.

When we realize that whatever manifests is one with space, we are no longer confined to a human body. The body of infinite space is what we are.  There is nothing separate from this infinite body of awareness, which has no beginning nor end, and no locale, nothing separate. No space separates phenomena. What was humorous to Soen Roshi was that whoever posted the motel sign referring to an empty room was unwittingly declaring the condition of the cosmos.

It is impossible to create any true separation. The universe expresses itself as a unified whole, with diversity as one color of its rainbow. The universe is a component of the whole. Ungraspable, totally vacant, this wholeness contains no vacancy. It is always full and complete, as is, and there is always room for everything.


The Current of Our True Nature

The Hindu saint, Anandamayi Ma says “Everything becomes smooth once the blessing of HIS touch has been felt.” She uses the word HIS, to demonstrate her complete surrender to the omnipotent Spirit; which of course is beyond male and female. “It is just as when bathing in a river, one at first swims by one’s own strength; but once caught in the current, whether a good swimmer or not, one is simply carried away.” The current is the life force circulating throughout our bodies, we experience it as seeing objects, feeling sensations, hearing sounds, and thinking thoughts. It’s also flowing like a river throughout all of creation. The current is vast boundlessness itself; the center where we experience it as located in our body, actually has no center at all. The appearance of a body is only a fleeting expression of the boundless current. 

The blessing of HIS touch is the grace of the Supreme Reality of this moment, of all moments. HIS touch is THIS touch, the aliveness we are always bringing to THIS moment. This touch is the constant flowing current of our experience, the continual arising and dissolving of our seeing, hearing, feeling and thinking. When we are willing to receive THIS touch, all moments are seen as this moment, and all moments are seen as our moment. As Thich Nhat Hanh says, ‘then we know this moment is a wonderful moment, full of wonder.’

He has a song:

The River is Flowing, Flowing and Growing,                                          

 The River is Flowing, Down to the Sea  

Oh Mother, Carry Me, Your Child I Shall Always Be

Oh Mother, Carry Me, Down to the Sea

Our Mother is the mother of all creation, delighting in the recognition of herself in our lives. For she so loved the world that she gave us life to delight in the recognition of her light of love. This light of love is the light that God gave Christ in giving his only son. We are his only sons and daughters, for he so loved us that he gave us to the world, as he gave the world to us that we might realize our oneness with him. If we have not yet felt THIS touch, we need to dedicate to God whatever inclinations or disinclinations we have, and devote ourselves to service, meditation or contemplation. We need to deeply commit to asking for this touch by opening to our true nature, and going beyond the confines of discursive mind in our deep asking.

When the movement of our true nature is surrendered to, when we’ve allowed ourselves to be swept into and carried away by the current of THIS touch, the knots of resistance will begin to be loosened and our impurities simply fall away on their own. Meditation on our breath can be a powerful way to allow ourselves to become intimate with this process.  Our breath is powered and expressed by the current of THIS touch. Our breath carries healing currents of energy, sweeping away our attachments to discursive thinking. Zen master Kwong Roshi coined the phrase ‘Breath sweeps mind.’

Then the world of sense delights, of excessive attachment to our desires and fears, lose their allure. We begin to be able to see them as they really are, without own being, other dependent, and free of what we think about them. The further we travel on the path, we will continue to be tested, sometimes tested with seemingly more powerful tests. But more and more, we sense HIS touch there as ineffable support, right in the middle of the pain of desire or fear.

There is then a more willing attitude of offering our pain to the current. We learn to rejoice in allowing the pain to be swept into and carried away by the current of our true nature. We will at some stage realize this is always already happening. But we’ve been too busy ignoring the flow of the current with our self centered preoccupations. We’re preoccupied with our little container of self, held together by attachment to desires and fears, so we don’t notice this.

Being willing to continually take the first step, the first step into the flow of the current of the river of our true nature, will open the way for us to receive THIS touch. We will realize that we are unconditionally welcomed into this river. The dissolving of experience of our very concept of separate existence is a free gift offered unconditionally to us. When we realize our whole life is always welcomed unconditionally, we will learn to welcome all of life unconditionally.


Receive Your Life

Many wise teachers tell us to learn to receive all of our life as a gift. To me the key to understanding the spirit of this teaching seems to be focusing on the wisdom teaching of receiving. When we’re willing to deeply engage the question of the existence of a separate self, we inevitably run up the against the question of whether we by ourselves can actually do anything at all. This is especially true when we are living this question as we live our life in the world that by and large assumes that the idea of a separate self is real.

If there is no separate self, what or who is the actual doer of our deeds? Who or what is the thinker of our thoughts, who or what feels, hears, and sees? Buddha taught that in fact our sensory experience has no own being in terms of being able to produce itself. Our thinking, seeing, hearing and feeling are not made up of a separate self, we are simply the universal activity in action. The self that we think we are is made up of non self elements. Our bodies are actually recycled star dust, our sensory experience is produced by the whole of consciousness, not our imagined self consciousness.  All of the great contemplative traditions are pointing to this statement as a question that we need to deeply meditate on if we’re really sincere about traveling the path of self realization for ourselves and for all beings.

That our life is actually produced by the whole of consciousness, Buddha called the other dependent character of phenomena. Phenomena have no actual ‘own being’, their manifestation is dependent on many mysterious factors. Buddha taught that ultimately all phenomena depend on everything else in the whole universe. The imagined entity we think we are has no own being, the felt sense we have of being separate is actually the expression of the inter-being of all phenomena. Only in our thinking minds are we separate from the divine spirit of God.

The spirit of inter being is actually producing this life as a gift to us. One way to meditate on the other dependent character of phenomena is to receive what is given. When something happens, receive it. Understand that what happens is given to you. Then meditate on that, and look to see if you’re receiving what is given, or whether you think you are actually making what happens happen. This is giving up the notion of a separate ‘you’ taking action. Action is just happening, you taking action is just your idea of what causes action. If an action is happening, see it as being given to you, because in fact, it is being given to you.

Normally we think I am making my activity. There is a new way we can learn, which is ‘now I am receiving my activity.’ Believing in self power, the power to make things happen, we get things by taking them, rather than by having them given to us. As we meditate on the other dependent character of our moment to moment life, we move from a feeling of pride or shame to a feeling of gratitude. We move from ‘I did this and I’m proud of it, or I’m ashamed of it’, to ‘I received this.’

Brother David Stendl Rast called gratefulness ‘Great Fullness’. The spirit of inter being isn’t bound by any phenomena, it’s totally vacant of any perceivable substance, but it is at the same time completely full of the alive mystery of being. We normally spend so much of our energy trying to control, contract or expand our idea of self, that it is a great relief to give up our little idea of self power, and receive the immensity of boundless spirit power that we actually are. Receiving this great fullness now, and now, and now, is a pearl beyond all price. It is receiving the peace that passes all understanding, and for this we offer our deep gratitude for the welfare of all beings.



How sad that most of us do not realize the little daily acts such as drinking coffee or picking up a piece of paper constitute the core of life

A crisis is a tender time. And we all endure trials of varying degrees–loss, pain, sickness, separation, birth, death, the ravages of war.  A crisis can wake us out of our doldrums. Thrown into the depths of extreme pain or anxiety, our minds place our bodies on crisis alert: it’s time to defend and protect our territory. Hyper arousal here and now is normal and expected. We are programmed to make sure the present danger does not lead to more pain and anxiety, the amount and duration of which we believe is out of our control.

At the same time, hidden deep within the battlements of an acute crisis lies a gift if we choose to accept it, the opportunity to release the iron grip we have on our feelings, our need to control them. The gift of a crisis is insight. We can see how attached we are to controlling the outcome of any conflict. Exhausted by our ineffectual efforts to deny or control the pain, we may be temporarily unavailable to the gift. However, any given crisis may serve to reinforce its own special, inherent message. The message of the crisis of death, for example, is that life is precious. If we face the crisis head-on without indulging our opinions about it, we may feel more deeply alive even in our pain.

If we are willing to stop, breathe, and simply attend to our experience, something deep within us opens up. We discover our capacity to face these feelings just as they are. And that capacity has been with us all along.  By attending to our feelings, we do not cling to ideas about them. Our fears begin to slip away into a new spaciousness. We find creative and practical solutions to these crises by dropping some of the age-old armor against fear.

How sad that most of us do not realize the little daily acts such as drinking coffee or picking up a piece of paper constitute the core of life.  Each moment offers an opportunity for the complete expression of true nature, pervading past and future. Why can we not grasp this truth?  Obviously we don’t get it because we are stuck in the past or trapped in the future. These are the two ways we avoid truly living.  Instead, we do what we humans do best: we concoct schemes and strategies to bolster us against crises and numerous insecurities.  We put so much energy into trying to protect our personal images as popular, agreeable, assertive, successful and secure, that in the end we are half dead.

As an integral part of our makeup, we are conditioned to develop these strategies early in life. The poet Wordsworth said that all too soon the prison house closes in on the child.  Think of the little boy who postures like a man with a gun, or the little girl applying her mother’s lipstick. We grow up afraid to cope without artifice and imitation. Spiritual practice teaches us to step up and face avoidance patterns. Through mindfulness practice we learn to cultivate the willingness to peacefully abide right in the middle of them, which means in part directly looking at the ways we avoid life. This means facing our fears. The fear of a crisis can be said to be the fear of death–the death of control, of any idea of self or of the body. Beneath ideas of being a body/mind, fear is really fear of the great mystery.

We say people connect to a feeling of aliveness in the throes of a crisis. In emergency, our defenses against life in the present moment break down. Our sense of self is temporarily suspended, and there is absolutely nothing left to do except live fully this very second.  This second is not about me: it’s just, Oh!  Right here. Right now. The pain and anxiety do not necessarily abate, but without the burden of me, it matters not if negative feelings stay or go. This is waking up. And as soon as we flip back into our normal defensive state–which we invariably will–we can realize how much we really want to wake up.

Waking up infers that we see our situation as hopeless, hopeless in the sense of wanting the situation to be other than what it is.  When we fully live this second, unfiltered by our opinions about it, we receive the raw sensations of the moment, no matter the circumstance.

Hope is something I would never want to take away from anyone. Yet at some point on the spiritual path we realize our hope to control outcomes prevents us from living in the present moment. Through this realization, often precipitated by a crisis, our perspective shifts. This shift is rarely permanent, but as we diligently attend to the moment, we let go of habitual avoidance strategies.

We cannot, nor do we want to, avoid the reality that we’re all moving toward death, toward the ultimate mystery. We can learn to appreciate the wonder of death to the extent that we let go of our notions and ideas about it. In one sense we’re always on the brink of crisis. Everything is always changing. But in another sense, when we see that death and crisis are basic ingredients for life, attachment to our desires and fears around them become no big deal. When we are willing to simply trust just this moment, we shift into reality, into living our life free of attachment to our defenses. This shift affects everyone we meet, and is perhaps the most profound way we can help change the world.





Personal God

God is the Supreme I

–Ramana Maharshi


Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book Going Home, Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, touches on the issue of whether God is a personal or a non-personal god. How then do we define a person, as in the word personal? Is it possible to have a meaningful discussion of this issue if we do not agree on what a person is? We all think that, yes, we are a person, but what does this mean?

There are thoughts we have about ourselves that we deem independent from the minds and bodies of others. There are sensations, sights and sounds that we experience as our own or belonging to others or belonging to the world itself. I see my own image in the mirror. This, I think, belongs to me. I hear the bird in the yard and experience the bird as other. I bump my arm and it hurts. I believe this pain belongs to me.  However, is there any actual person in these manifestations? In fact, these manifestations are only manifestations. There is no actual person, save the idea of a person created by our minds. Can it be the same with God? Thich Nhat Hanh states, “God is not a person, and God is not a non person. God is not a person, but God is not less than a person. The person contains the non person, and the non person contains the person.” 

One of the attributes of the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path is Right View.  In this view there is no line separating person from non person: they are one and the same.  In Right View, there is no person other than the one we create with our thoughts.  When we are stuck in the thought of a separate self, we have only a limited view. We assume we can separate self from reality. And we conclude we are contained in some idea of self, thus barring our insight and perception from freely operating outside of our imagined container.

Right View in this sense is not an object for studious investigation. Right View is a realization, the realization that the container of self has never existed, that there is no separation between person and non person. If a wave was conscious, it could realize it is one with the ocean and that like other ocean waves, it is made of water.  So as human beings our actual substance is the substance of enlightened mind. This substance is obscured when we cloud its clear nature by clinging to our idea of self as an individual.

The Indian sage Sri Ramana Maharshi was once asked, “Is God personal?”  His reply was, “Yes, God is the supreme I.” Yet this I is not an entity. If he was asked “Is there a supreme being?” Perhaps he would answer, “Being itself is supreme.” He is saying Being and God are the same reality, the same supreme identity free of all conceptual attributes. This includes what we think of as a person but the mere idea of a person is not what we actually are.

There is a personal aspect to the infinite enlightened mind, and we are it. This does not change the fact that the personality is wholly created by our thoughts, and that a person’s actual substance is totally permeated with infinite mind, infinite spirit.  There is no person in the sense that our substance embraces all ideas, yet is beyond all ideas of a person. Our actual substance, enlightened mind, is not limited by, nor can it be grasped by, any ideas of a person. Is this so because there is no separation between our self and our mirror image, our self and the bird song, our self and the pain of the world? So reality is both personal and impersonal. We have a personal relationship with God because we think we are a person. If we thought we were rock we would have a “rocky” relationship with God. 

But we are much more than the idea of a person. Because our real substance is the substance of universal consciousness, we embody all manifestations of this consciousness, of the whole world.  When we see this deeply, we know without a doubt that we stand on holy ground, and not just the ground under our feet. The holy ground is what we actually are, the ground of being, the source of all manifestation. The true gift of humanness is our ability to convey this message to others through our mutual understanding of Big Self as the manifestation of the ground of being. In Zen we say form is emptiness and emptiness is form.  In the ocean wave analogy, we say the wave is the ocean and the ocean is the wave.  The ocean is emptiness, but like infinite mind, it is also unlimited fullness, beyond all conception. The ocean contains all things. The wave is form, but is manifested by, and at the same time one with, the infinite fullness of the ocean. 

The other side of the saying form is emptiness and emptiness is form, is that form is form and emptiness is emptiness. They are one in their mysterious essence.  Emptiness is full of form and form is full of emptiness.  But in the relative world we do differentiate between them. After all, in the supreme adventure of our lives, we must work, play, rest and pray and shop at the mall as our selves. In the relative world we are always a person. By deeply penetrating the depths of our being, we cultivate the vision that our personhood is far more than our limited idea of a person. 

We are the ocean that contains all things.  Our existence is an opportunity to fully express the spirit of the ocean of all being in the form of a person.  In this sense we are truly children of God.