|October 1994||2537||Number 30|
Emptiness and Pure Awareness
This returning to the Source, or realising the Deathless, is the sense of coming to know the source and origin of our life. Because it is the very basis of our existence it has been exerting a power of attraction on us all throughout our life - this is the attraction of Truth, of the Real, the completely satisfying, the completely safe.
When we are children we function on the instinctual level, so that spiritual attraction becomes focussed on, or sublimated by food and warmth, comfort and toys. Although that whole pull has fundamentally been a spiritual motivation, it subsequently gets sidetracked by the search for material security, or for permanent happy relationships.
However, these things don't complete the picture; they are not really sustainable as our support, since they are impermanent. Also, the heart knows it has not gone the whole way; it is as if you are trying to make a journey to a distant place, but you take a detour and get caught up in interesting things along the way. It is only when you finally get to your destination that there is feeling of, "Ah, now we are home, now we are safe, now everything is okay." When you are side-tracked, there is a feeling lingering in your heart, "Well, there is a bit further to go." Or, "This is all very interesting, but, hmm, there is something missing here. There is something not quite right, not quite true, not quite final here."
When we talk about the Deathless, or the Absolute, or the Goal, the mind goes blank trying to get hold of it.
The attraction towards Truth is fundamental. It is the living law that rules the universe: the attraction towards reality, the basic fabric of all being. Once we are attuned to this pull and have realised its spiritual nature, once we have picked up the idea that life is fundamentally and completely a spiritual activity, the task is much easier and the realisation of the Goal becomes inevitable. The tendency to get side-tracked is diminished and the knowing of the true nature of the Goal calls us on - encouraging and inspiring us to keep going.
When we talk about the Deathless, or the Absolute, or the Goal, or the Other Shore, the mind goes blank trying to get hold of it. Even in the way we speak about Nibbana: "cooling down" - "coolness" - we don't use any dramatic or emotive term. We talk about "emptiness" - the realisation of Absolute Truth - we describe the realisation of the non-conceptual pure mind as "the ultimate emptiness".
The reason for that kind of terminology is not because there is nothing there, but because when the conceptual mind tries to grasp ultimate reality - which can't be formed into a pattern - it finds that there is no thing there. It is like picking up a book in Chinese if you can't read Chinese. Here is a book, perhaps full of profound and wonderful teachings and pure truths, but you can't read the script so it's meaningless. This is like the conceptual mind trying to grasp Ultimate Truth, the nature of the Godhead. The thinking mind says, "Well what is it?", "How do you describe it?", "Where is it?", "Am I it?", "Am I not it?" - it gropes for some kind of handle. The thinking mind falls flat, just like trying to read a book in Chinese when one only knows English.
The experience of Ultimate Truth can be described as "emptiness" because, to the conceptual mind, it has no form; but, to the non-conceptual wisdom mind, the realisation of Truth is like the Truth seeing itself. When there is no identification, no sense of self whatsoever, the mind rests pure and still, simply aware of its own nature - the Dhamma aware of its own nature. There is a realisation that everything is Dhamma; but that realisation is non- verbal, non-conceptual, so the conceptual mind calls it empty. But to itself, its real nature is apparent, it is understood. This is the source of our life, the basis of our reality.
Our world of people and things, of doing this and of doing that, is called the world of manifestation, the conditioned or sensory world. The Buddha taught in terms of the relationship between these two: the unconditioned and the conditioned; the ultimate and the relative; samutti sacca and paramatha sacca; conventional truth and ultimate truth. A lot of Buddhist practice is about learning to understand the relationship between these two aspects of what is.
When we see clearly, when we have a realisation of the Unconditioned, what flows forth in terms of conditions is harmonious and beautiful. What is beautiful and harmonious helps to lead the mind back to the Uncreated. Religious acts, teachings, works of art, are designed to be pure and harmonious forms which draw the mind back to the silence, the stillness - that purity which lies behind all things. As in the chanting that we do: even though the sound itself is quite beautiful, its real importance is that it leads the mind to an apprehension of the silence of Ultimate Truth which lies behind and permeates the sound. This is why certain pieces of music or works of art stop the mind, or fill the heart with warmth and light, a feeling of blessedness and beauty. It's a religious experience.The experience of all true art is essentially religious . That is what it is for.
One witnesses the same thing with relationships. If we try to find a completely satisfying relationship just on the external level of personality, then all we get is an outpouring of selfhood. We get our projections of how the other person should behave, or what they should be like to make 'me' happy.
One sees this not just in a romantic relationship, but also in monastic life - particularly within the relationship between a disciple and their teacher. You find that if you have got very fixed ideas about the teacher - what they should be like, what they should say, what they should do and shouldn't do - it is very much divided up into "me and them". Then you end up feeling terribly pleased and enthusiastic about being connected with this person, when they say all the things that you like and they compliment you. You also get filled with terrible irritation and disappointment, hurt feelings and anger, when they don't do the things that you like or they upset your image of them. Intense devotion and affection very easily goes into intense violence and destruction.
In the Greek myths, Aphrodite and Aries were lovers, even though they were the goddess of love and the god of war. This is very indicative of the human condition in that passion easily goes into either attraction or aversion; when one doesn't see clearly, it can easily go either way. They say that 90% of all murders have some kind of sexual aspect, which is a pretty astonishing statistic. But you can see why - when we have very definite expectations or feelings about each other and it remains stuck on a personal level, then we have to end up in dissatisfaction of some sort. This is because true satisfaction can only come by seeing that which is beyond personality, beyond the sense of 'me' and 'you'.
In a sense, devotion to a teacher or a guru, or being in love, are all religious experiences. The devotional practices we follow generate a sense of love, and in that sense of love we lose identity, we lose the sense of 'me'. In romantic love, too, we forget ourselves because we are completely absorbed in the 'Other'. The 'Other' becomes supremely important and the sense of 'I' vanishes. The blissful feeling of being in love is almost religious, there is no sense of self, there is apparently perfect happiness.
That happiness is conditioned, it depends on the presence of the other, or their abiding interest, or whatever. But at the moment of pure romantic contact, then the sense of self vanishes, and there is bliss. In 'Gone With the Wind', the moment that Scarlett O'Hara and Rhet Butler kiss is very interesting; it is described something like this: "All she knew was that everything vanished. The world vanished, he and she vanished, all there was was total bliss and a great sound roaring in her ears" - which is a very common description of mystical experiences! So one sees, on the level of personal relationship, that when there is a complete abandonment of the sense of 'I', it takes us - at least momentarily - to that place of unification and contentment, to perfection.
The religious path is a way of taking the possibility of realising perfect happiness or fullness of being, and making it an ever-present and independent actuality - which isn't dependent on the presence of the teacher or the presence of the beloved, or a kind word or good health or anything. It is founded completely on mindfulness, wisdom and purity of heart. It is not just an ecstatic experience, dependent on drugs or romance or even an experience of a wonderful piece of music or work of art. When that experience is founded on spiritual qualities and is independent of the sensory world, then we experience unshakeability. Otherwise, even though that experience is there and for a moment there is complete transportation, there is also the inevitabe shadow of, "This isn't going to last. This is wonderful now, but I have to go home after the concert, ... I have to leave, ... have to go to work, ... have to eat, ... have to do something".
That is why this is a difficult path. To establish the unshakeable happiness means we have to be ready to leave all of the 'secondary' happiness on one side. We have to grow out of our old skins, like a reptile or an insect grows out of its old skins and leaves them behind. In our life, we have to keep sustaining this sense of being ready to leave behind the old - not hanging on to our old skins, our old identities, our old achievements and attachments.
When an insect or a reptile leaves its skin behind, for that moment it is very fragile, vulnerable; its new skin is soft, very delicate. It takes time for it to harden and become strong. It's the same for us in our spiritual development; when we leave something behind, when we let something go, there is a feeling of relief: "Oh, glad I'm out of that one." But then, with laying down the protection of our 'self', there is a sense of vulnerability, of being open to the way life actually is.
We are making ourselves open and sensitive to the entire vast nature of life, the universe, to whatever can be experienced by us. So we can feel fear or hesitation: "Oh, I think I'll just climb back into my old skin. It doesn't fit and it's falling to bits but at least I can climb back in there, so I'll be covered up and protected." But we realise in our heart that we can't do this. We can't get back into the clothes that we wore when we were five years old - no way. There might be one or two things, like a scarf or a little bracelet or something that we had, but we realise that it's impossible to keep dragging along all our old identities, our loves and our attachments, our problems, our trials and our pains.
We find that it can be hard for us to leave behind the things that we like, but sometimes being parted from the things that make us suffer is even more difficult. A wise teacher once said, "You can take away anything from people, except for their suffering - they will cling onto that until death".
But we realise that in actuality we have to let everything go. No matter how reasonable it is to long for something, to bemoan something or to feel pain over something - we have to leave it all behind, we can't go back to it. As we grow up we learn that the best thing - the only real way to go - is to face that sense of vulnerability, of being open to the unknown. The unknown is frightening. When we don't know, when the thinking mind can't get itself around an experience, when it can't describe, or name, or pigeonhole what's happening, then we experience fear - because of the sense of self.
The unknown is frightening as long as there is the sense of self. When we face the unknown and abandon selfhood, then it changes from being frightening to being mysterious and full of wonder. The mind is left in a state of wonder rather than terror. This is the transmutation that liberates and it is our path.