Monthly Archives: June 2009

Staying in the Game, for Better or for Worse.

The common myths about enlightenment/awaking lead us to believe that it happens all at once, in one grand event. We imagine that one day we’ll be sitting full lotus and enlightenment will come upon us like strike of lightning. We may think that after such an experience we will no longer have any problems in our relationships, that our emotions will be perfectly balanced, that we’ll get a brand new “enlightened personality”, and that our existential angst will be completely lifted.

Unfortunately, if this is what you’re expecting you’ll be sorely disappointed. There are moments of deep insight, profound calm, spacious awareness, and a complete lack of suffering… but only moments. You may be wondering how it is I claim to “know” this. For, I’m not a fully enlightened Buddha. I’ve never been on a meditation retreat, and I’m not an authorized dharma teacher. What I do know, however, is that such a mythological enlightenment doesn’t fit within the fundamental View of Buddhism, which is summed up in The Four Seals of the View:

All compounded things are impermanent.
All phenomena are empty, without inherent existence.
All dualistic experience is intrinsically painful.
Nirvana alone is peace, and is beyond concept.

The third seal states that all dualistic experience is intrinsically painful, which may also be read as “all dualistic experience is characteristic of suffering.” What, then, constitutes a dualistic experience? The answer: anything that is not a non-dual experience (more on this a bit later). Basically, every experience or state of consciousness is fleeting (see the first seal). Moments of profound insight and clarity may soon be followed by moments of confusion and disease. In fact, they usually are. All compounded things being impermanent, if it is arising (as in, it’s a change from another kind of experience), it will soon pass away. So, while superlative experiences do occur on the spiritual path, they are only small part of it for most of us. For the majority of people, average every day perception will be the norm, and it would be to our benefit to learn how best to work with it.

So what of this “non-dual” experience? Well, on the one hand, the experience of non-duality is tricky to describe. People tend to think it means an experience of unity, as if one were to merge with or become fully identified with an external object like a tree or sculpture. This is off the mark. Rather, there may come the time where one wake up to the inherent empty wakefulness that is timeless, impersonal (empty in essence), cognizant by nature, and all-pervasive in its capacity. This primordial awareness is our deepest and truest nature, and waking up to this brings a profound certainty of our interconnection with all of life and the universe, as well as the momentary alleviation of the suffering conditioned by duality. There is no subject-object split when this is realized, just pure awareness. This is what Dzogchen teachers call rigpa (meaning “awareness”), what Kagyu teachers refer to as Original Mind, and what is referred to as Buddha Mind by many other Buddhist schools/teachers.

One may ask, “then why not simply wake up to primordial, non-dual awareness and just stay there?” That is easier said than done. Even those who do embark on the path of continuous non-dual awareness teach that no one ever finishes the practice [2]. That’s not to say that the practice cannot be mastered, as it has been by some. I admire the diligence of those practitioners who are able to pull off such a feat. In all honesty, I do not believe that many of us are willing to embark on a journey that takes such unwavering commitment. Even more honestly, I’d be willing to bet that not many of us have actually had true non-dual awakenings.

For those who have directly realized their true nature, however fleeting the experience, there’s an important application waiting to be discovered. Whether one is able to remain in continuous non-dual awareness or not, retreating from life has never been the goal. As my friend Hokai Sobol recently posted at the Dharma Overground:

“Awakening to primordial awareness seems like a good starting point, and finding out that this awareness was never about staying out of the game is the realization.” [3]

In other words, regardless of one’s level of insight, Buddhist practice is first and foremost about staying in the game – for better or for worse.

[1] from Fundamental View by Hokai Sobol, at the Dharma Overground

[2] from Quintessential Dzogchen by Urgyen, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, Erik Pema Kunsang, Marcia Binder Schmidt. See the chapters titled Dzogchen Key Points by Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, and Maintenance by Tsoknyi Rinpoche.

[3] from the thread Dances With No-Wolves: Questions & Comments at Dharma Overground.


Filed under Buddhism, Meditation, Reflections