Many 'spiritual seekers' in the US, Europe and other Western countries are not involved in a traditional spiritual discipline that is focused on awakening to our true nature, such as Zen Buddhism or Advaita Vedanta. In many ways this represents a new development. There are now vast numbers of people worldwide pursuing awakening on their own, outside of any structure. I regularly hear from such people because of my (minimal) presence on the internet, as do others I know including Margot Ridler and Bart Marshall. The fact that so many are deeply immersed in this radical deconstruction process on their own with little structure or support has both pluses and minuses. Five big minuses are: 1) the absence of an awakened teacher; 2) the lack of a potentially supportive community (sangha) of like-minded seekers; 3) the absence of a disciplined practice, which can make the required deconstruction less traumatic and destabilizing; 4) the lack of quality control and informed critical evaluation regarding claims of awakening (see Halfway up the mountain: The error of premature claims of enlightenment by Mariana Caplan, 1999); 5) and the absence of correct understanding of the nature of reality. The absence of each of these presents potentially serious problems, and yet is rarely realized by those operating outside of established traditions. These aspects have immense value when needed, and their absence should not be taken lightly.
It is simultaneously true that each of these aspects can create the opportunity for needless detours from the direct path. For example, how much of the practice of Buddhism as it exists in this country is actually useful to direct realization? How much is merely the needless carryover of Japanese, Korean, or Tibetan cultural or linguistic traditions? Does realization really require the learning of the Tibetan language, or the chanting of the Heart Sutra in Japanese? How do we develop a skillful, effective practice for our era that is helpful to Westerners not living in a monastic setting? How do we do this without eliminating what is essential?
We could discuss the pros and cons of each of the issues mentioned above at length. Let’s look at #1, namely the presence or absence of an awakened teacher who manifests direct realization in their everyday behavior. Having ready access to such a person can be extremely valuable. In the past such individuals were rare and often secluded in monastic settings or otherwise invisible or inaccessible by ordinary people interested in liberation. Today it is possible to go to You Tube and, using some skillful discernment, find a variety of teachers freely manifesting it in their own unique manner. What a wonderful opportunity! Yet familiarity can create a false sense of understanding. It is one thing to intellectually grasp the theory and philosophy of realization. It is entirely different to directly see for yourself. By relentlessly reading contemporary authors, listening to audio recordings of awakened teachers giving spiritual talks, and watching enough videos, it is possible to appear to grasp the message in an intellectual/conceptual manner. While not completely irrelevant, accurate intellectual understanding can only take us so far. A teacher will recognize the depth of realization, if there is any, and point in the direction of further deconstruction of the ego identification.
An awakened teacher can provide invaluable help in avoiding pitfalls and detours on the spiritual path. By continuously bringing our attention to what is truly essential, a teacher reminds us of our true nature. By simply being, the teacher demonstrates the way home for us. It’s as if the teacher is repeatedly saying and manifesting “This is it; this is how it is. Just this; right here, right now”. The energetic presence of a teacher provides a direct portal to realization for those with eyes to see and ears to hear. A living teacher who is physically present is normally far more powerful than one who is not physically present or is deceased. There are also some teachers whose realization is so profound that time, space, or physical presence are not obstacles. However, most of us benefit immeasurably from direct contact with an embodied expression of emptiness in action.
There are an infinite number of other ways that a teacher can be beneficial, such as providing pointers on current blind spots in practice or the unevenness of realization. It’s almost like being with a Master Chef. The stew needs a little more salt, a pinch more parsley or a bit less liquid. Pointing out glimpses of direct awareness, which may not always be recognized by the student practitioner, can be enormously encouraging. Providing accurate intellectual understanding after some measure of realization has occurred can facilitate a further deepening of presence awareness. In addition to being a cook, there are elements of the midwife involved in the skillful teacher. We are facilitating a literal birth process, where something is dying and something is being born. What is it? The seemingly alchemical transformation of consciousness required by the spontaneous emergence of direct seeing, acting and knowing benefits from relentless fine tuning, feedback and direct pointing -“not this, not this”. An effective student-teacher relationship requires direct engagement, transparency, and openness.
In a larger sense, everyone we meet can be our ‘teacher’. Teaching about spiritual realization is not fundamentally different than any other experience in life. We can learn from everyone and every experience is equally valid and ‘spiritual’. A great Zen Master was asked “What did you learn from your great awakening?” He answered “My eyes are horizontal; my nose vertical”. Our true nature is obvious, always present. It can’t go anywhere. Where would it go? Nor can it be lost. It is always ‘as close as the nose on your face’. It is closer than your breath. How could it be otherwise? Ultimately, there is nothing to teach, and no one to teach it. Yet teaching occurs, and I am grateful to my teachers, not only in the Zen Buddhist tradition, but each and every one of them. In this context I especially think of my sons, parents, psychotherapy clients, and those who seek the truth of their being and ask me to accompany them.
There are also some significant advantages to the separation of direct awareness from formal structure or teachings of any kind, including religions, lineages of teachers, approved scripture, etc. Barry Long, Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie and many others have done a wonderful service in helping to liberate direct awareness from traditional disciplines which were often elitist, secretive, incomprehensible and obscure. Awareness cannot be contained by nor defined in accordance with anything whatsoever. The absolute freedom of this awareness as it emerges uniquely through different human beings is a large part of 'its' appeal. It can and does appear in anyone, at any time without seeming regard to practices, righteous living, self discipline, accurate prior understanding or anything else that can be named, described or defined. In truth, everything that is learned will need to be unlearned. All that is known must become unknown. Or, as the Gospel of Luke (13:30) describes it, "the first will be last and the last will be first". On some radical and difficult to describe level, 'it' is equally and always available to all who seek and even those who do not seek. What are we to make of this?
In this Sunday's teaching we will discuss at length each of these issues and I will describe why I consider each to be important. In addition, we will consider ways of addressing and compensating for any perceived deficiencies as the desire for personal realization becomes more pervasive and increasingly democratized. It is no longer possible or desirable to isolate and restrict the pursuit of realization to monastic communities or ashrams. How then do we proceed?