Aromas of gardenias and roses float and dance in the sunshine around the big happy stone.
Aromas of gardenias and roses float and dance in the sunshine around the big happy stone.
Song of the Slow Dive
By Tom Yeshe
Once upon a time I lived in a seaside fortress as a member of the guard. While on watch one evening I felt courageous enough to fulfill an old dream. I dove headfirst from the rampart, and to my stunned amazement descended so slowly that you could say I floated through the mist — drifting through feathered, honeyed, silken, pillowed air in a morphing moment of years, then an era of rainbow spray, iridescent foam and mirroring bubbles glistening with the sun, moon, starlight and seasons of sea life. Months after the tides touched the ecstatic reach of my fingertips, the lapping waters first came over my nose and ears, and I found I had developed gills. Thus equipped I survived the lazy, total plunge into the sea.
I gained new senses in my new world: I could hear through my nose and tongue, and I talked, tasted and breathed with my former ears, which I now recognized as gills. My tongue thrust into the nasal pharynx, preventing any inward flow of water or outward flow of air through my nose. I kept my mouth shut. My diaphragm pulsed with its regular rhythm, creating pressure changes in the air trapped in my lungs, throat and Eustachian tubes. This confined volume of air squeezed and released continually while I was underwater and moved the membranes that were formerly my eardrums in and out, forcing the water on their outsides to pass over the gills that were inside my ears, or what had been ears. I don’t know how far inside the gills were or how big they were, because my fingers wouldn’t go past where they usually do when I stick them in my ears, and the internal sensation of gills revealed no more than healthy lungs reveal about themselves.
I don’t know how long the gills had taken to grow but they were ready when I needed them. Complete submersion took several months more. Waves shifted the sparkling sands and fish swam by, in schools and singly, perceptible even on moonless nights as a sort of glimmering sensation, whether in my skin or visual system or both or more, I can’t say, but with the usual daylight or sufficient moonlight the view beneath the waves over time became increasingly vivid and kaleidoscopic, and I could tell with less and less certainty whether I was the observer looking in the kaleidoscope tube while holding and turning it or whether I was the seemingly boundless tube and contents as well as the observer. Thoughts of who or what was observing, holding and turning eventually gave way to the sheer beauty of the vision, enhanced by increasing enjoyment of the underwater soundscape.
As my sensitivity to the music of the waters grew, I learned how to modulate the squishing, squealing, singing sound of my gills according to the expanding listening palette and taste palate of my hearing-tongue. With this new capacity and a growing awareness of the sonic and photic waves coming from the sea life, I began to sing along. After that I never felt alone. At times there would be thousands of fish, dozens of dolphins and porpoises — and several whales out in the depths — and I, all harmonizing.
Life is a performing art. So is Buddhism.
Zen practitioners, intent on taking care of the Buddha all around them, honor everything as worthy of keen attention. They express this through precise and formal ways of bowing, eating, washing, entering the meditation hall, sitting on cushions, rising, and moving through the day. Much of this is accompanied by rhythmic sounds and wafting incense. Iconic music or percussion, patterned movement, and chanted speech are among the ritual elements commonly found in traditional Buddhist communities.
While modern Westerners in the last 50 years have grown increasingly curious about Buddhist practice, for many curiosity and practice often halt at the shores of ritual performance. For such people, ritual performance seems in tension with modern modes of self-expression and identity. As a modern person who is quite immersed in Buddhist tradition, I wonder how we might draw on our modernity while also coming to appreciate ritual engagement.
Rituals are not unique to antiquity, of course. They govern modern secular behaviors, too—from Super Bowl halftime events to TGIF exuberances to pride parades to how we eat meals with friends and family. When we feel in tune with ritual expression, its social cohesion and choreographed activity affirm our sense of belonging and being. In Buddhist and other spiritual communities, ritual expression provides support for very personal inner work.
Yet for contemporary people, traditional rituals might not feel so nourishing. We moderns are more likely than traditional peoples to experience orchestrated behaviors as compromising our right as individuals to act and believe as it seems right to us. What’s more, we tend to believe that our own unique perspective should override inherited ones. Through this lens, ritual can seem superstitious and in tension with our cultural deference toward reasoned logic. Ritual seems to ask us to believe things that we just don’t believe and to do things we don’t ordinarily do. Why bow if you don’t believe in what you’re bowing to? Or if you just don’t feel like bowing?
Even for modern Buddhists who are quite devoted to ritual practices, such objections have a way of showing up. They do for me. For more than four decades I’ve practiced Tibetan Buddhism, yet I still find that questions about the bona fides of its ritual forms will on occasion—and especially while I’m on retreat—roar out of me. Part of me isn’t down with the program. Part of me protests, observing wryly that I am, after all, an educated person, aware that it’s foolish to feel you can just appropriate other cultural forms. I’m keenly aware of how absurd this activity would appear to many people I know, like, and respect. But I also recognize that these protests don’t begin to reckon with the new vistas this practice is actually offering me. This is because, even as these protestations continue to resurge, the enrichments of ritual practice keep coming.
I have begun to think that in some profoundly contemporary way my protests and enrichments are actually in fruitful dialogue with each other. The result? So far I’ve always emerged profoundly grateful to have stayed the course and to have, despite bouts of inner backlash, followed a calling that includes ritual practices; for they open doors nothing else in my experience has opened. This doesn’t mean I encounter such practices as a traditional Tibetan would. The simple fact of my resistance, grounded in cultural assumptions that traditional Tibetans never encountered, puts me, along with fellow practitioners with similar background and experience, in another ballpark entirely. We can’t not be modern.
Since the time of the Buddha, practice and teaching have involved dialogue. The outer dialogue between students and teachers mirrors and provokes practitioners’ inner dialogue. For contemporary practitioners like me, this dialogue is especially beneficial when it provokes resistance while also recognizing rewards. Not getting stuck in either is a modern middle way. It is as profound and subtle in its way as ritual practice itself. So I’m interested in reflecting on the sources and styles of modern resistance. I’m especially interested in the counterintuitive possibility that such inquiry is a path to fruitions that are at once born of tradition and unique to our modern situation.
Ritual practice engages the whole person. This idea of wholeness is already in tension with the mind-body divide that is a marker of modern cultural inheritances. The encompassing richness of ritual involves all our senses. Its riverlike eddying gently reshapes and throws into relief the boulders, so to speak, that mark the territory of our current cultural landscape. Going the other way, the practice-river itself is reshaped by such boulders, even as it stays true to its nature as water. Meeting this resistance seems to yield its own rewards. It makes our contact with the water of our being more precise and palpable. Our individuality and modern sensibilities remain, while at the same time the disconnection we feel between modernity and tradition palpably softens.
From our modern vantage point, ritual gives us a chance to hone skills of wonder-filled inquiry. In wondering, we come alive, released from judgment, keen to know just what happens in our body, mind, and imagination as we bow, chant, or imagine sending out sound and light. Tibetan ritual practices are meant to challenge our ordinary perspective, whatever it is, and to challenge it profoundly. For modern Buddhists, however, they are also challenging in a different way. They are challenging not simply because they are profound or foreign but also because they require or presume skills that our modern education does not develop.
Ritual’s operative premise is that physical and imaginative gesture, including the movement of energy in and beyond the body, will reshape our lived experience. This happens because body and consciousness are both impacted by such performance. They are both impacted because they are waves in the same ocean of experience. The body is not just the material container for mind, and mind is not just a witness to the body. Such wholeness is not altogether foreign to our experience, however modern we may be. Whoever we are, we discover moments when the divide between self and world, mind and body, as well as between ancient and modern voices within us, can soften.
What’s worth noting is that living too much in our heads, as most moderns do, is impoverishing. Addressing this tendency is as necessary for ritual practice as it is for healing certain lacunae in modern life. In both cases it means going against the objectifying grain of modern culture to acknowledge waves of enrichment that start to flow as we deepen our capacity to be more present to lived experience, to recognize our own subjectivity and our multiple styles of knowing—sensory, intuitive, and so forth—as resources for exploring inner and outer worlds. After all, consciousness is the one phenomenon that embraces the whole of our experience. Any all-embracing ritual is poised to make us aware of this lived wholeness, but only if we can sense what our experience is.
Our mind wanders incessantly, but our body and senses are always in the present. To investigate our embodied experience is to investigate the living present. Practitioners orient toward precise observation of how a specific ritual in a specific session challenges, changes, or otherwise impacts us. This, in my view, is one of the most important—and modern—learning curves for bringing meaning to ritual practice. If we are lucky, this process surfaces patterns that until now were invisible. Patterns brought to awareness run the full range of common habits of procrastination, lack of self-worth, anger, and rigidity. Seeing these is essential for getting to the next layer of ritual efficacy, where our cognitive and somatic inquiry is specifically informed by Buddhist perspectives.
Those Buddhist perspectives see all patterns, as well as the nuanced sensations associated with them, as expressing our extremely subtle holding-on to the kind of reified “me-ness” that is, for Buddhists, at the crux of the great illusion that practice is meant to dissolve. Those feelings of me-ness vary widely from culture to culture. Yet Buddhist ritual practices aren’t aimed just at challenging the particular expressions of I, me, and mine; they challenge as well the core constellations of me-ness that animate those expressions in whatever guise they arise. Even to understand what me-ness feels like takes patience, time, and attention. So ritual practice is challenging because of the subtlety of its reach even more than because of how it disrupts cultural norms. Everyone needs to thread their own, very personal way through this intimate labyrinth. The form is the same, but the journey is not.
It takes time for ritual practice to become intimate. It requires sustained attention and patience, both of which go against the grain of contemporary life’s breakneck pace and culture of wholesale distraction. What’s more, the repetition ritual entails may feel anathema to modern ideas of individual expression and creativity. But repetition is key to ritual’s transformative power.
Repetition is what allows something brand new to occur.Repetition, like the lapping of ripples against a rock, gently shifts the ground on which we tread, and so alters our relationship to the things we experience. It changes our relationship to experience itself. As Kierkegaard observes in Either/Or, “One may have known a thing many times and acknowledge it . . . yet it is only by the deep inward movements . . . that for the first time you are convinced that what you have known belongs to you.”
“Repetition is what allows something brand new to occur. It gently shifts the ground on which we tread, and so alters our relationship to the things we experience. It changes our relationship to experience itself.”
In this way, formal ritual elements become great sources of support. Ritual repetition is roughly analogous to scientific controls. We sense shifts in our experience more clearly against the backdrop of sameness that is formal repetition. We notice, for example, how very differently we experience practice at different times, even as the form of what we do remains the same. In this way we touch, as if for the first time, the emergent power of something already inside us.
Like life, ritual is both repetitive and unique. The spiritual challenge in life, as in ritual, is to stay current and awaken to our own rote habits of perception and reactivity in thought and action. Ritual helps to dissolve these habits—not overnight, but over time—and also helps us to evolve such positive qualities as serenity and genuine responsiveness. Both the dissolving and the evolving leave us with more space in our lives, in our hearts, and in our minds.
Tibetan ritual practices are fundamentally processes of dissolving and evolving. In this they correspond to the basic meaning of “enlightenment,” which is rendered by two syllables in Tibetan. The first is byang, meaning to cleanse, eliminate, remove; hence, dissolve. The second is chub, meaning to grow, blossom, further, develop; hence, evolve. Practice aims to do away with what impedes and bring forth what furthers. There are ritual gestures for dissolving impediments such as distraction and there are those for evolving qualities such as relaxed attention. Often the same gesture is used for both. “Enlightenment” is a name given to the simultaneous culmination of both arcs of practice.
The flow of ritual carries us toward a horizon that is both vast and intimate. This combination is crucial to the transformative power of practice. At this horizon we find a perfect complementarity of dissolving and evolving. Wrongheaded senses of me-ness finally begin to ebb, and as they loosen their grip on our lives, other qualities—of trust, joy, real connection, and love—emerge.
Ritual practice is more about what we do than what we think. We don’t have to intellectually determine that Tara is an actual being who, as the story goes, practiced for aeons in order to display female Buddhahood. We don’t have to reject her either. We don’t have to decide anything. In the liminal space of the human imagination we can simply hear the story and let it resonate for us, open a door to some capacity for spacious tenderness that we didn’t know we had. And I believe this is close to the way traditional peoples regard such tales. That is, while perfectly aware of the difference between real-world functioning and fantasy, traditional practitioners are not perpetually on the lookout for a place to draw the line between facts and other felt realities, or between an objective, external world and a subjective, internal one. To consciously abide in that spacious undecided realm is to allow ourselves to be touched by our own practice in very deep ways. We can enjoy Tara’s presence, for example, and grow to more fully inhabit her/our qualities in a way that is palpable in mind and body. At the same time, in bowing to Tara we are bowing to the enlightened tenderness already within us. We are not surrendering to a fiction; we are present at the dawning of something new in our own experience.
Ritual thrives on the rapt attention that some call faith, and inspires it as well, yet faith can seem a bridge too far for many moderns. We are heirs to a mind-set that radically distinguishes between rational and emotional experience. We have established firewalls meant to preserve a kind of personal space and freedom. But while some of this is for the good, it also supports unduly rigid ideas of what “faith” means. The Tibetan word that gets translated as “faith” (dad pa) does not mainly mean belief; more significantly it suggests receptivity, openheartedness, and the capacity for taking delight in what inspires you. This kind of faith makes possible a rich relationship with the nuanced layers of ritual practice. It opens you to the outer and inner dialogues of renewal. There’s something like a call-and-response momentum: you gesture, or chant a sound, or bring forth an image, and doing this calls forth a response in you that you then bring into the ritual, and you grow more inspired as a result. This iterative process teaches you something about the wheel of your own reaction patterns and the sense of me-ness around which they revolve.
Within Buddhist traditions as I’ve known them through living and studying with Tibetans in India, Nepal, and the United States, and to a lesser degree in Theravada contexts, there is no absolute requirement to argue things out and come to an institutionally approved conclusion. Meaningful commitments of all kinds, including intellectual reckoning, must come at an organic pace. Moreover, ritual is done with a different kind of intelligence, not strictly rational, yet still holding a coherent logos. We don’t have to sort out the extent to which we “believe” in Tara and her narrative in order to feel that when we bow to her we are honoring something profoundly inspiring. The naturalness of the qualities evoked contrasts with and can soften the attitude, shared by many moderns, that such ritual gestures are foreign or imposed rigidly.
Our relationship to art opens in similar ways. We respond to what we see, not what we decide. For example, Michelangelo’s Pietà in the Vatican is Christian religious art, yet it also expresses something of universal human appeal. Whether or not we believe in Mary’s virginal motherhood as a literal fact, we can be touched by the tenderly human love in her face. And in that moment, we recognize what love feels like. We have touched something that is both human and spiritual, and that lies at the heart of the main strands of our world’s religious traditions.
The cohesiveness that embraces the full spectrum of ritual—as seen through traditional Tibetan eyes, at least—is not a small thing. It is not a small thing particularly in view of the contemporary rhetoric that divides “the spiritual” from “the religious,” another demonstration of the distinctly modern suspicion of ritual. Institutional power versus personal freedom is pivotal to this dichotomy, in which religion is associated with institutions while spirituality is something belonging to the individual. The issue of personal freedom takes center stage. Ritual certainly, in some contexts more than others, expresses institutional power and authority. But to call it “religious” rather than “spiritual” just extends the purely modern assumptions and attitudes on which this divide rests. Buddhist institutional power in the modern era, especially in the West, is nothing like the power that Christianity, for example, had and still has in many parts of the world. In the West, such power is marginal at most, and it is individualism that, more than any Buddhist institution, dominates nearly everyone’s experience. Contemporary Western Buddhists usually practice and teach in situations with comparatively loose ties to institutional tradition, even when personal connections with teachers and lineage transmissions are very strong.
The split between religion and spirituality seems of little help in navigating our current landscape as it relates to traditional or contemporary Buddhist practice. Indeed, it skews our perceptions in a way that is directly related to our feelings about ritual. This distraction itself is a bulwark against the kind of oceanic wholeness that gives ritual its logos and fruition. Distraction is often simply the wave’s protest against submersion into that ocean. And it’s not a bad strategy. Distraction definitely protects us from experiencing the extent to which our own individual and culturally derived self-structures are challenged or furthered by Buddhist practices. This challenge, and the dissolving associated with it, is at the very heart of our concern as evolving practitioners.
But as moderns we also have a different set of concerns, especially concerns about personal freedom. Will Buddhism help me creatively figure out my unique individual way of living? Or will it bind me, as religion can and often does bind us, to stale ways of thinking and acting that thwart and diminish me? These are real concerns, but answering them by dividing spirituality and religion does not do justice to the situation. The Latin root of religion has been interpreted as meaning “to re-read”—and ritual is indeed a profound rereading of self and world. It has also been interpreted as meaning “to choose again,”—that is, to seek more deeply into spiritual matters. And the same root has also been translated as “to bind,” as in being bound to the sacred or to the Church or to God. So the binary of spiritual-religious is actually contained in the different interpretations of the word religion itself. Traditional cultures (Buddhist and otherwise) that don’t really have a word equivalent to the term religion make no distinction between being spiritual and being religious. Everyone is both. Spirituality is an aspect of religious life, and religion is an integral part of who one is.
Across Asian Buddhist traditions, perhaps most notably in Zen and Tibetan communities, bowing is a vital practice. To moderns unfamiliar with this practice, it can seem an unduly extravagant gesture bordering on the embarrassing, and reeking with quaint notions of hierarchy, formality, and obedience. In context, however, it is not an expression of either submission or flattery. To bow is to make oneself at home in a relatedness that is, for Buddhists, the most generous experience of what it means to be human. Bows express an openhearted orientation to the ever-expanding horizon of our own possibility. Bows express deep love. Experiencing or interpreting them this way, however, engages belief patterns that are neither scientifically nor logically verifiable. The logic of bowing is more poetic than rational, but it is a logic nonetheless. Beyond this, the surrender expressed in bowing seems antithetical to the character of a real individual. Yet at a deeper level, our very individuality calls forth a longing for it.
Indeed, beyond anything else that ritual accomplishes, it provides a sense of belonging. A group bonds via a sense of shared identity that itself is experienced as a profound support for the work of living, the work of the path. The most fundamental rituals of Buddhist practice, refuge and compassion, also invite the sense of a great participatory milieu of beings seen and unseen. This cohort, once meaningfully incorporated into one’s identity as a practitioner, can seem at once nourishing and threatening. Our individuality may sometimes feel supported and at other times feel thwarted through such engagement. This itself is not a trivial issue of the Buddhist path. When a wave blends back into the ocean or when the misconstrued small self dissolves into reality, are these diminished or expanded? In other words, what is the nature of surrender in Buddhist practice and ritual?
The Canadian psychoanalyst Emmanuel Ghent described human yearning for surrender as a “longing for the birth, or perhaps rebirth, of true self.” His description is uncannily apt for practicing Buddhists. We bow to the Buddha, dharma, and sangha, each of which models and teaches utter surrender of false styles of me-ness. We bow past our narrowness and obstructions and to the vast sky of our being.
Rituals are framed by a beginning, middle, and end. This frame provides the very sense of completeness and coherence that life so often lacks. In every ritual phase, we are meant to embrace elements that are part of this larger whole through repeating moves of dissolving, like the melting of hatred, and moves of evolving, like the emergence of love. Through repeating these gestures, we gain greater facility until we finally get them right. Or righter. As we keep getting second, third, and umpteen chances, we begin to sense that even when we get it wrong, there is a fundamental and naturally stainless arena in which everything—the right and the wrong—takes place. Even our worst mistakes do not obstruct its presence, or our returning to awareness of it.
As the great Tibetan teacher Longchen Rabjam (1308–64) says in his discussion of Madhyamaka in Precious Treasury of Philosophical Tenets, primordial wisdom is the nature of all things. This wisdom is no different than the enlightened state itself. It suffuses everything. Most especially, he notes later in the same text, this wisdom is present in every aspect of the rituals of Secret Mantra. Wisdom is oceanic, meaning that dissolving into something well beyond the personal individual is a central goal of ritual practice. Thus, many rituals in his lineage are explicitly oriented toward bringing practitioners into a lived experience of this embracing quality of wisdom. In entering such a ritual, we do not ask ourselves whether we believe in Buddha or Tara. We ask whether the rituals that express our connection to beings who embody exactly the qualities we seek are in fact helping such qualities to awaken. We ask whether, over time, our obstructive responses dissolve and make space for desired qualities to evolve. In Buddhism, love is the ultimate solvent of what obstructs and also the culminating fruition of what evolves. In a real sense, every gesture of ritual has the potential to express and give rise to it.
The power of ritual does not lie with facticity. It thrives on keen phenomenological awareness, on a relaxation of the structures of ordinary sensibility. A vital key to ritual power is to remain present to our embodied experience. Neither mind nor body can navigate this journey alone. The wholeness in which they mutually participate is assumed, not discussed, in Buddhist practice. Moderns, however, must discuss it in order to taste it. Tasting is essential. Dialogue across all our personal and cultural divides is as important and potentially healing as addressing the divide most emphasized traditionally in Buddhist thought and practice: the apparent abyss that separates you and me, seer and seen.
Finally, after many repetitions, ritual becomes a performance of our deepest knowing of self and world. Like rehearsing artists, we hone our expressive skills until our practice of compassion, wisdom, and wholeness becomes the real thing. We revisit the gestures of ritual again and again until we gain the force of habit to carry our seeing and being with full-hearted and loving generosity into the hurly-burly of everyday life. Modern life. For our release, like our rituals, happens nowhere other than right in this time and in this precise place.
Anne C. Klein is a professor of religious studies at Rice University and a founding director and resident teacher of Dawn Mountain Tibetan Buddhist Temple Center and Dawn Mountain Research Institute.
From Tricycle http://tricycle.org/magazine/revisiting-ritual/
Love and beauty exist within you. Try to express these qualities through your actions and you will enjoy the source of bliss. — Amma, “The Hugging Saint”
Artists when imagining, creating and appreciating their works of beauty feel, however subtly or intermittently, love and bliss. Such beautiful works — or “plays” we might call them — similarly elicit loving, blissful feelings in receptive audiences. Creative artists and appreciative souls alike participate in the Divine Play of love, beauty, and bliss.
By Judith Blackstone
A Specific Phase of Maturity
Life has meaning because it has direction. It has a goal. Most of us create meaning in our lives by creating goals for ourselves such as family, wealth, artistic achievement. But life has a goal that we don’t have to create, that is inherent in its nature, in our nature. Our own personal life evolves towards a specific destination that is sometimes called self‑realization, or enlightenment. Just as our created goals are based on our desire for something, we also have a fundamental desire for life’s inherent goal. It is this underlying desire for enlightenment that often causes us to feel unfulfilled even after we have achieved our created goals.
The word “enlightenment” is often used in a general way to describe a variety of experiences. In my definition, which is similar to that of most Eastern religious teachings, enlightenment refers to a specific phase of human maturity, a specific and unmistakable shift in the way one experiences life.
Although enlightenment is the most concrete, actual experience of being alive, describing it always sounds abstract, until you have experienced it yourself.
To understand the relationship of enlightenment and self we need to clearly understand the specific experiences that are meant by the words “enlightenment” and “self” The following definitions are based on my own experience, the experience of friends and students, and the definitions found in the spiritual texts of Buddhism and Hinduism. The point I wish to emphasize is that the definitions offered here are not solely from my subjective experience (for then they could certainly be fantasy) and are also not solely the paraphrasing of long‑dead sages from old books (for they might be naive or metaphorical). Rather, they are descriptions that many people agree on, based on their own experience, that support the validity of the ancient texts.
Realization of Fundamental Consciousness
Enlightenment is the realization, the lived experience, that we are made of pure consciousness; that pure consciousness is our fundamental nature and our ultimate reality; and that everything else in the universe is also made of pure consciousness, so that our own being is fundamentally unified with all of nature. As one fourth-century Chinese sage put it, “Everything in the universe is one and the same root as my own self.” In enlightenment, we experience life from the vantage point of that root.
We experience our own self as unbroken consciousness, pervading our body and our environment. This means that there is a continuity between our inner and outer perception. We have a sense of vast space, as if all our perceptions were one single tapestry of reflections in a single mirror. We feel that we are made of clear, empty space, finer than air, unbounded and motionless. Within this vast space moves the changing progression of our thoughts, feelings, sensations, and perceptions.
I call this unbroken, pervasive dimension “fundamental consciousness.” Before realizing fundamental consciousness, we identify ourselves as our sensations, feelings, perceptions, ideas, memories. But upon realizing fundamental consciousness, we recognize that these discrete, transitory experiences come and go within the fundamental ground that is our true identity.
Consciousness is our ultimate reality. In Hindu metaphysics, ultimate reality is called in Sanskrit Brahman and described: “I am the supreme Brahman which is pure consciousness, always clearly manifest, unborn, one only, imperishable, unattached and all‑pervading and non‑dual.” Although this description, from the ninth‑century Indian philosopher Shankara, may sound exotic or abstract, every word is soberly meant as a description of the fundamental reality of every human being. Reality is the opposite of abstract. It is real [concrete].
In enlightenment, we experience that we are becoming real; not something new, but something we have always been yet only barely know. This is what Shankara means by unborn: the unified, pervasive, pure consciousness has always been there, pervading our every cell. It is the true, whole “I” that is our inherent, fundamental nature, hidden behind the partial, fragmented, abstract “I”’s that we tolerate before we know of our wholeness. We do not have to create reality; it has always been there. But the ability to recognize reality is also inherent in us. All our lives we have been guided by our ability to tell truth from deception, harmony from disharmony. As we realize fundamental consciousness, we recognize that our underlying reality has been the goal of our lifelong navigation and desire.
Enlightenment is an experience unlike any other we have had because there is no duality in it. We do not have an experience of fundamental consciousness. Although the limits of language make it necessary to use the preposition “of,” fundamental consciousness is actually realizing itself. It is self‑reflecting. The knower and the known are the same. Fundamental consciousness is our own ordinary consciousness, but directly, purely experienced, without the usual veils of habit, confusions, and defense. Enlightenment is the phase of human maturity in which the mind comes to know itself.
Enlightenment is much easier to experience than most people think. I’ve watched people stomp angrily out of workshops because I was asking them to experience what revered masters have experienced, as if the attempt were futile and even sacrilegious.
There is also a tendency for us to impose the sense of sanctity that some of us were taught in Judeo-Christian tradition onto these principles of enlightenment. Much of Western religion teaches an attitude of reverence and humility towards a distant god, an image of patriarchal authority that we can petition but never truly know. Religious students are treated as children who can sit in the protective, vigilant presence of God, but who have only the responsibility of obedience. In the more ritualistic forms of Eastern religion, as well, there is a hushed, hallowed quality when discussing the ultimate, and certainly there is great respect shown for the spiritual masters.
But the more advanced the teaching and the students become, the more the ultimate is presented as something belonging to us, as a wonderful but entirely usual part of our own nature that can be neither taken away nor given to us by any external presence. I have found that many people who are ready for enlightenment are not achieving it because they assume it is some far‑distant, exalted state. The work that so many of us have been doing to become more real, more open to life, has been leading towards the realization of our fundamental dimension of consciousness. It is crucial to our personal growth that we recognize our essential reality and demystify our understanding of enlightenment.
Another related misconception about enlightenment is that it is an “altered” state of consciousness. Enlightenment often is confused with the peak experiences that many people have, for example, while looking up at the stars or witnessing the birth of a baby. But a peak experience is by definition a momentary event, often accompanied by intense emotions such as awe or ecstasy. Enlightenment is not a momentary alteration of consciousness that one goes to and returns from. For this same reason, it also differs from the state of being hypnotized and the trance state. Enlightenment is a clear, alert perception of the present moment that represents a lasting refinement of consciousness.
Some people do have their first entry into enlightenment as a peak experience, a satori, during which they are dazzled by the sudden shift into the unity of fundamental consciousness. And some have had sudden deepenings of enlightenment as well, in which they abruptly experience much more of the space of fundamental consciousness than before. But enlightenment itself is not a temporary nor a particularly charged emotional state. It is a lasting transformation of our being, involving our ongoing relation to ourselves and our environment.
Sometimes enlightenment is said to be instantaneous because there is a sharp difference between being in the dimension of fundamental consciousness and being out of it. Some people notice this difference suddenly, while others, once they do notice it, feel they have been there for a while without registering or naming it. One may lose the realization of fundamental consciousness and get it back several times before it stabilizes. But once we do become stable in our realization, we continue to live there, while our realization very gradually matures and expands.
This means that our experience of fundamental consciousness gradually pervades more of our body, increasing our sense of inner depth and wholeness and opening new realms of sensitivity and insight. Also, it gradually increases our sense of oneness with other people, with nature, and with the cosmos. The most advanced spiritual masters, those rare few who are completely enlightened, are said to be omniscient and omnipresent. They have realized the entire ground of fundamental consciousness pervading the whole universe.
One thing is clear. We are not born enlightened. Children, although undefended, are not experiencing the whole of the dimension of fundamental consciousness. There is a vast difference between the openness and unguarded love of an infant and the far-reaching clarity and intense but detached love of a spiritual master. As adults, we must grow towards enlightenment as well as release the psychological defenses that impede this growth. Although there is much literature on what separates us from fundamental consciousness, the question of why we must work to realize what has been there all along remains unanswered.
Enlightenment is Unity
To become enlightened is to move from a fragmented experience of life to a unified experience. Before we become enlightened, our focus shifts from self to object, or from one modality of experience to another. We may experience another person quite fully but be only barely aware of ourselves. In another moment, we know our own feelings but our perception of the outside world is diminished. Or we may know our thoughts but not be conscious of our feelings or sensations.
When we become enlightened, we realize the continuity, the unity, of inner and outer consciousness without any shift of focus. This means there is no longer any schism between subject and object or between thought, feeling, and sensation. For example, at this moment, sitting at my typewriter, I am aware of the objects around me (their form and texture), including the window in front of my desk and the bit of earth and tree trunk I can see while looking down at my work. I am aware of the sensation of being in my body, of the emotional content of the moment (even though there is no particular emotional charge at the moment, there is still an emotional tone that is always present), and of the intensity of my mental activity. All these perceptions are unmistakably a whole; they exist in a single unbounded space, and the space itself has a luminous, vibrant quality. I and other become one whole in the one pervasive field of fundamental consciousness.
This wholeness of “I” and other does not negate the integrity of the individual wholeness of each person or object. In fact, our individual boundaries are more defined in the dimension of fundamental consciousness. Once we experience our own inner life at the same time as we experience the outer world, it becomes very clear where we leave off and the world begins.
The dimension of fundamental consciousness never changes. When we realize this most subtle dimension of ourselves, we experience a vast, unchanging stillness pervading our body and our environment. We feel that we ourselves are fundamentally timeless and changeless. Zen Buddhism expresses this with the phrase, “I have never moved from the beginning.”
Once we are secure in our realization of fundamental consciousness, we can open without fear to our own energy and the energy around us. We are like an empty vessel. Whatever is in the vessel is temporary and does not alter our fundamental nature. No matter how powerful the movement of life becomes, it does not change the absolute stillness of fundamental consciousness.
This is the paradox of enlightenment. We receive the stimulation of our environment even more fully than before we were enlightened. Because we have more access to the depths of ourselves, we feel every joy and pain more deeply than before. But at the same time, we experience ourselves as whole and steady, as the unchanging ground of fundamental consciousness. One of my teachers once likened this state to the biblical burning bush. “We burn,” he said, “but we are not consumed.”
Our emotional pain is secondary to our fundamental nature. No matter what we lose or suffer in our life, this core of our being, our true reality, cannot be damaged. It has not moved from the beginning, and it will never move. Thus, as we become enlightened, it is easier to be at peace with even the worst of circumstances. We can allow ourselves to mourn or rage, to risk new relationships and situations, because we know that our fundamental nature will not be affected.
In summary, enlightenment is the realization of one’s own nature as ultimate reality. It is a radical shift from the fragmentation of subject‑object duality to the unity of our fundamental dimension of pure consciousness. This fundamental dimension is experienced as vast, clear, unbreakable, unbounded space, pervading both our body and our environment. Once we realize fundamental consciousness, our realization continues to deepen and expand throughout our lifetime. When we become enlightened, our own mind is continuous with the consciousness that is the basis of all existence, which has been its true nature all along. Our dimension of fundamental consciousness is always with us, at the root of our self and the universe, and all are capable of realizing it.
Judith Blackstone is co-director of the Realization Center in Woodstock, New York.
From Finding A Way: Essays on Spiritual Practice © 1996 by Lorette Zirker.
Reprinted in The Inner Directions Journal Winter 1997.
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