Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An encounter with spiritual death

It's been said before. It has been repeated in many traditions and by many voices. Part of the process of spiritual transformation is a kind of surrender or submission. I've discussed it, in a shabby second hand way, in terms of my appreciation of the Gospels and the Christ narrative and how I relate it to Buddhist teachings and principles. I've discussed it in terms of how one can finally be freed from (and coexist in peace with) the ego, as if I really know from first-hand experience. Hah! But like many great ideas, not only was it not original, but it is easier said then done. Simple, maybe. Easy, heck no! No doubt fans of Integral Philosophy will recognize this as related to actualizing the "second person" tense or aspect of the Divine. Yeah, it's been done to...well, done to death.

But how, precisely, does this occur? Can it be by an act of ego? Doubtful. Hence the concept of grace. But then isn't that a bit like playing a cosmic lotto? You've prepared yourself to "hear" or "recieve" this transforming revelation, either from without or within, but you're still waiting. Even when saying there is "nothing to gain, achieve, or receive, and all is as it should be, where is the problem with this moment, etc", we still practice and wait. For it. The it. Some decide there is no it, that "it" is just a motivational tool, or that "it" is everything and nothing so just go with "it", even though what one means by such sentiment is not always clear.

So what is "it" and how does one encounter "it"? Amida-shu founder David Brazier recently gave his account of this occurence in his new book, and this was in turn quoted and posted at Dharmakara's Prayer:
Somebody close to death does not necessarily mean somebody who is actually dying, though it might and in this case did. However, a spiritually advanced person is somebody who is closer to death even in their physical prime. Enlightenment is an encounter with spiritual death. It is not something we achieve, however. It is a gift. It is transmitted to us.

The idea of transmission does not just apply to a mystical validation procedure whereby a Buddhist master passes his authority to an anointed successor. We receive the Dharma by transmission. The knowledge of spiritual death and its consequences is not something that an individual can attain unaided. There has to be contact...

This is one of the difficulties of what is called Buddhist training. On the one hand, it is possible for people to follow a course of education and to participate in ceremonies and a way of life and as this rubs off on them they learn something. They may become more considerate of others, more tender and kind, less compulsive or bad tempered and so on. This is to the good. It inevitably remains fragile, however, until it is grounded in a real awakening experience of some degree. This latter cannot be planned or achieved. It is incidental or even accidental.

The most important spiritual lessons that I have learnt from others have not come so much from what people have taught me, but from how they are. People sometimes say that all true knowledge comes from within ourselves. It is true that when one receives some true transmission it feels as though something inside oneself has been awoken and one might like to say that it was there all along, just waiting, like Sleeping Beauty waiting for the Prince. Sleeping Beauty, however, does not wake without the Prince.

- from Who Loves Dies Well Rev. Dharmavidya David Brazier

This reminded me of an essay/dharma talk by the Venerable Shih Shen Lung (who passed away last October) titled "Are You Crazy?"...
Once we have discovered that we are Buddhists, and that this has nothing to do with the level or length of our ordination or whether we have taken the Precepts in this life or in a previous one, then we also sadly discover that outside of the company of those with similar understanding we are unable to find even a moment's peace. This is why the Sangha was formed--so that those who were developing clear vision could have the company of others who were also like this. Only when you are free of the pressure to return to worldly blindness, from the demand for you to again close your eyes and stumble blindly in the darkness like others, can you be said to be following Right Livelihood. To those who have opened their eyes even for an instant, the world can never be the same again. Even if they spent every moment of every day trying to convince themselves that what they saw was the illusion and their blindness the reality, they would not succeed in this. Ultimately such persons really would go crazy because, having tasted the truth, the taste of lies becomes a poison that drives one to insanity. Monks and Nuns of today are not much different than those of the ancient times, and while the worldly life seems to have changed much, its fundamental nature is still the same. Only individual circumstances seem to have changed, but even this is not certain.

For those of us who have taken the Vows in this or previous lives, there is a necessity to cultivate the Way. Even if we are weak from time to time and attempt to find some sort of worldly life that is meaningful, in our hearts we know that this is folly and that we are really beyond the point of making choices. Having once opened even a small corner of one eye, our Buddha Nature will keep us from forgetting that we have once seen reality and that we must return to it...

Whether we admit it or not, each of us who travels the Way has asked the question, "Am I crazy?" and each of us must decide the answer. Prince Gautama asked this question; Bodhidharma asked this question; Dogen asked this question; Kuei Shan asked this question; Lung Yen asked this question; indeed, the asking of this question cannot be separated from truly entering the Way. If this question were not there to be asked, there would be no Way to enter, no cycle of birth and death to be freed from, no suffering living beings to be saved and awakened. Only monks and nuns of the highest potential ability and the beginnings of the keenest Eye of the Way dare to ask this question. Those who do not ask it are just wooden dummies dressed in the robes of the Order like a window display in a shop. They have no active principle and cannot even begin to understand the Ancient Doctrine, because understanding the Ancient Doctrine begins with asking ourselves or being asked by others (or perhaps both):


When this happens we can then turn our vision inward and see ourselves clearly. And we must not rest with this question but must ask the second one which clarifies the first: Is there anything that I could be doing that would be or is more important than freeing myself and others from the Nets of Karma and the Cycles of Suffering? And further: Is there any way of living that can approach the daily life of one who is in accord with the Ancient Principles? Can the life of a pure-eyed follower of the Way be compared with the ordinary life and its constant confusion? Can any purpose be more noble than the Bodhisattva Vow and Path? All of these are really the same questions asked in different ways, from different viewpoints, but the answer for this question is one thing for those who can see, have seen, and know they will see again, but another for those who have not yet seen and have no idea that there is something to be seen. How then can the clear-eyed monk or nun discuss this with worldly people? He/she can not. . there is nothing that we could say that would make any sense to those who asked, and the more we attempt to explain it to them the more they become confused and angry at us. This is not helpful to them and so should be avoided. How then can the follower of the Way answer such questions? When one says to me, "You there, are you crazy?", my answer is to softly say, "No, not any more..." and quietly leave such a one to his own thoughts.

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