Chapter in my book: What’s Beyond Mindfulness: Waking Up to This Precious Life (Watkins Publishers, 2019)
In order to arrive at what you do not know You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance. In order to possess what you do not possess You must go by the way of dispossession. In order to arrive at what you are not You must go through the way in which you are not. And what you do not know is the only thing you know And what you own is what you do not own And where you are is where you are not.[i]
According to Buddhist tradition, spiritual practice is not only for the sake of spiritual experiences and insights, but leads to the gradual development of refined qualities or perfections (paramis) such as generosity, determination, serenity and patience. Lifelong practice enables these qualities to take root within our personality. We live them, and how we live in each moment becomes more important than what happens to us, or even who we are. The quality of our actions takes the place of our sense of self importance. Seeing the way these paramis, such as generosity or equanimity, grow within us reveals the manner in which practice affects our daily lives.
One of the perfections is sacca, which is usually translated as honesty. However, the original concept in Pali is much broader, and it may be understood as authenticity or truth. How does this perfection manifest in our lives?
Upon close examination we find that living an authentic life is not at all simple matter. Since we are all vulnerable and sensitive creatures that cannot exist in isolation, we tend to believe things that we are told, to hold onto others' beliefs and positions as though they were our own, and to live, think and speak them long after we forgot their origins. We hang onto perceptions and tales that we read in newspapers or pick up from the television, and adopt the social conventions of our childhood homes. These voices and views trickle and seep in and take hold of us unawares, and so our thoughts and inner voices actually originate from external sources. We can find a typical example for this in the unconscious (similarity) between ourselves and our parents in manners of speech, inclinations and habits. Even after having left our parents' home, thinking that we were totally free and on our own, a bystander would easily recognize behaviors and thought patterns that we inherited from them. We give voice to others' views and ideas so often that we have trouble identifying our own true voice. If we were to decide to be totally honest with ourselves, what does that actually mean? What is that self that I would like to be honest with? This question has no simple answer. Authenticity is no simple matter.
Dilemmas about the authenticity of experiences can come up in the context of practicing meditation. To what extent are experiences authentic if they are directed by external guidance and instructions? For example, if I practice meditation on compassion and loving kindness, what feelings arise as a result of my intention to nurture the perfection (parami) of love? When I practice mindfulness as the direct and immediate knowing of what I perceive moment by moment – what is my genuine experience at this moment? These questions are not simple to answer.
Nevertheless, it is much more difficult and painful to exist inauthentically, so, in a way, we are given no choice. It is worth noticing the suffering brought on by the experience created when we are captivated by inauthentic positions. Such a position, for example, is "us versus them", when the other is identified as the enemy, and conflicts turn into irrefutable facts of life. Such is the conflict in the Middle East, which is perceived as a perpetual fact of life. We are born and grow up to a state of conflict, we internalize it and perceive it as an indisputable truth. It becomes an underlying assumption that guides us – circumventing our awareness. An automatic thought process ensues, "us against them", "they against us". A very few of us are willing to visit the West Bank to meet the people living there. The subjugation by false beliefs that separate us from various types of others – on the street, in the road, where we live – relegates us to a lifelong struggle, separation and abstaining. We mindlessly adopt the consensus thinking, feeling great vulnerability, bobbing up and down in a sea of beliefs, assumptions and prejudices – a state of enslavement, ignorance and suffering. This is where Buddhism offers inquiry as a central element of practice. It is a beautiful dimension unique to the Buddhist way. Fundamental to the practice is a search for truth, stemming from the understanding that truth leads to liberation, while the quest for comfort leads to subjugation.
Rāhula, son of the Buddha, received his first lesson when at the age of 7 he joined the community of monks. The lesson was dedicated to the importance of telling the truth. The Buddha demonstrated this unequivocally, in a disconcerting way: he overturned a water dipper, spilling all the water, saying to his son: "if you tell a deliberate lie, your spiritual life will be as empty as this water dipper. When you lie you toss away your spiritual life. In the same way, Rahula, when anyone feels no shame in telling a deliberate lie, there is no evil, I tell you, he will not do"[ii]. This may sound overstated, but the Buddha was adamant that honest truthfulness was the foundation of spiritual life. Following this principle to this day, Buddhist monks are obligated to present truthful and veracious accounts of their experiences in their interviews with their teachers, neither embellishing nor diminishing them, and without pretending to have experienced events that have not occurred. A breach of this principle could even lead to an expulsion from the community. Speaking the truth is considered the first stage in the practice of truth, whereas inauthenticity in speech can lead to inauthentic consciousness. Truth is such a basic necessity for the spiritual way, that one who does not strive for the truth loses his way.
Dedication to the truth is evident also in the way the Buddha approached questions on the existence of God or a Creator. He left those questions unanswered and advised his followers to refrain from such questions or beliefs. Such metaphysics not only offer no benefit, they undermine the spiritual quest that emphasizes inquiry of the actual reality, and cause the mind to wander off to a world of opinions, arguments and discussions of ideas that cannot be proved. The Buddha likened the occupation in such questions that are not part of authentic inquiry to a row of blind men leading each other. Thus, honesty begins with an awareness of our utterances. This is a practice of inquiry that begins with honesty and leads to the depths of authenticity.
The sutta that deals with this[iii] says that when a person expresses an opinion it is of great importance that he state that "this is only an opinion". When he is aware that an expression is an only an opinion, he is actually stating that "this is something I heard that makes sense to me" and avoids the statement "that's the way it is, it's a fact", and he assumes responsibility for adopting a particular opinion. This is a defense of the truth, but not yet an awakening to the truth. Such an awakening happens on a different level, beyond honesty and authenticity. It begins with defending the truth, but it requires a lengthy process of deeper inquiry.
The second part of the sutta approaches the deep level of truth and deals with our illusions and vain thoughts about ourselves. When a person says "I know" – who is the one who knows? What is the source of his knowledge? When the knowing stems from a presence that is awake, pure, has no illusions, comes in clarity and wisdom, and is devoid of self interest, repulsions, desires or attachments – then we are dealing with an awakening to truth. The way of Dharma begins with respect to truth, continues with sustained awareness of truth and leads to an awakening to the truth. Thus states the sutta: "the Dhamma [Dharma] … is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, unattainable by mere reasoning, subtle…we realize with the body the supreme truth and see it by penetrating it with wisdom."
This short and powerful description of the Dharma is repeated time and again throughout this and other suttas. It offers two key teachings that are paths through the wilderness. Firstly, it maintains that truth is realized, or perceived, with the body. This challenges the almost universal assumption that it is the mind that distinguishes true from false and truth is the territory of ideas. Instead of relying on those external voices of questionable validity, the awakening to truth is attained by a direct knowing of bodily life. There is something deeply authentic in the listening to the voices of our cells, tissues, feelings, emotions, and even thoughts as thoughts. It is a direct, immediate knowing, without the need for interpretation, or commentary, and invites us to be present and connected with our life. Secondly, the word penetrating, expresses diving under the surface – uncovering what is hidden. The iceberg only has 10% of its mass above the surface of the ocean, and 90% below. What really matters is invisible, to quote The Little Prince. We will not be limited to the 10% that is obviously visible, particularly the superficial concepts, ideas and thoughts about ourselves, our needs, our issues and activities, and instead dive into the ocean of our being and be astounded by what we can discover there. The dharma, the nature of things, the unconditioned, is profound and not easy to see with just a brief glance. It needs a penetrating gaze.
Under the surface, we are in an existential realm. "What do I really know?" "What is really happening here?" What is my genuine experience?" These are no longer philosophical questions. They are the source of an enthusiastic energy of inquiry to uncover things. There are no correct or specific answers to these questions, but if we persist in asking them they begin to undermine the fixed mental structures that we have accumulated and that imprison us. It shines a light on our beliefs, opinions and concepts about ourselves and the world. We move out of a sense of living on automatic pilot. Though at first it may be discomforting or even scary to see that what we assumed to be our safe house was actually a castle built of sand, soon we relish new found freedoms and possibilities we hadn't dreamt of before.
In general, it is better not to regard these 'what is' questions as mantras to be recited, rather they are in background to help us to develop a continuous quality of inquiry and fresh awareness of the present moment. However there are some Buddhist schools that do recite these questions verbally, and then they penetrate the subconscious and there shake the foundations of the apparent known. Korean Zen, for example, has a practice where as soon a disciple enters the monastery he repeats the question "What is this? What is this?" incessantly, for a lengthy period of time. There is an entertaining story that has been circulating for some time. A Zen teacher and a Tibetan teacher were on stage at a seminar in a University in the United States. The Zen teacher gave a dramatic example of Zen practice. He raised an orange in his hand and asked "What is this? What is this?" There was silence. Again he asked "What is this?" The Tibetan teacher maintained his silence. The Zen teacher kept asking "What is this? What is this?" Finally the Tibetan Rinpoche said a few words to his interpreter, who turned to the Zen teacher, and said with curiosity: The Rinpoche asks: "Have you really never seen an orange before?"
Perhaps the most important field for inquiry is the sense that I am the king and owner of my castle, sit on my throne within its walls and from there rule my kingdom. The firm habitual belief in a solid and enduring Me inevitably causes us pain and suffering. For example, we hold onto a variety of rigid beliefs about ourselves, such as, 'I can't do that'; 'I'm not good at this'; 'I'm depressed'; 'I'm critical and judgmental'; 'I'm great'; 'I'm a failure'; 'I'm young'; 'I'm old'. 'I'm sick'; 'I'm a victim'. We harbor endless masks, labels and descriptions that we attribute to ourselves, with which we construct an identity. We hide behind and protect this identity and keep out others, finding loneliness under the armour. These beliefs are buried in the deepest layers of the way we perceive the world and ourselves in relation to it: "This is me and that's the world out there". In the light of awareness, we begin to see the sense of self as an experience and a belief not a thing. I am not really a solid someone I am merely a belief that I am someone. None of us are what we think we are although we all act as though we are someone specific. I act under the belief that I am Stephen. Clear observation cuts through the solid feeling that I am someone specific, whom I grasp as. This belief cannot stand up in the face of honest inquiry.
We may think it easier to seek comfort – turn on the television or have a beer, as everyone else: leave the quest for truth to the Buddha, I am more interested in the football results. Continuous authentic inquiry of the immediate experience does, indeed, demand courage and energy. It is not a simple thing to pause and ask "what is really happening here?" However, as we persist we will gradually get more comfortable with the mood of inquiry and will discover that it introduces an additional level of interest into our lives. Besides, it doesn't need to stop our interest in the football results. It does not shut us down – just the opposite – it opens us up. When we emerge from restricting beliefs and automatic thought patterns, we begin to feel like a snake shedding its old skin. We become freer and more playful. We develop the capacity to view life as it is, devoid of barriers or illusions and we are no longer saddled with a bundle of beliefs, assumptions, automatic reactions and external voices that weaken us. Thus the inquiry itself empowers us and nourishes the continued process with energy and interest. It kindles a fire within us.
We meet paradox on the way. In loosening our hold on the secure world of assumptions, in holding the known and the unknown more tenderly, we may meet contradiction and uncertainty. A Zen saying asserts "little doubt – little enlightenment; medium doubt – medium enlightenment; total doubt – total enlightenment". This does not mean a paralytic doubt that stop us from continuing, but rather to a fruitful confusion about boundaries, facts and beliefs. A cup used to be just a cup, silly. Now a cup is understood to be known as such by agreement and a perception built on memory. My dog doesn't see it that way. So what is a cup? This doubt allows us to linger in the unknown, even dance with it. Nothing is self evident. We allow differing points of view to coexist, making no effort to adopt one and regard that as the truth and all others as false. One example concerns views of spiritual practice: one view stresses gradual progress via formal training, while another claims that things are perfect as they are and there is ultimately nothing that needs to be changed. On the one hand, if reality is already perfect, why practice? On the other hand, how would we know that if we did not practice? Therefore, we must practice! How is it that I need to sit here with eyes closed and follow my breath? It's boring. Wouldn't it be better to go outside, take it easy and spend time with the birds and the trees, and just enjoy myself? Both are necessary. Both views together paint a picture that is broader than each one separately. We climb the path up the hill, aiming for the summit. Why shouldn't we admire the scenery and enjoy the flowers on the way? We shouldn't tarry and fall asleep for a hundred years but neither should we take the path itself too seriously, and the journey too burdensome. We aim for a dynamic middle way that lies between different paths and that embraces coexisting paradoxes. If we do not take opposing viewpoints too seriously we will find that they create interest rather than trouble.
From within the realm of doubt and uncertainty we reach a new understanding, and a new, freer level of knowing. We need to stay close and intimate with the unknown so that it gradually reveals its secrets. It is impossible to go beyond the known while relying on ideas about the known. Instead, we keep sitting at the doorways to the unknown until they open, and we pass through.
This authentic inquiry can be part of our daily life and also formal practice that offers quiet and comfortable conditions for observation. Meditation creates a space where we may meet ourselves and take a deep gaze in the mirror. There will be pleasant experiences and unpleasant ones; we will identify our anger and limitations, and also our joy and freedom. Whatever arises becomes the raw material for observation. We are constantly awake and aware, steadily and honestly observing what emerges moment by moment. What we see in the mirror may seem like small personal trivialities. We may feel that our personal story is petty or silly, a sort of a soap opera unfolding in front of our eyes. Of course, that's not a problem: that's our life! With trust and courage we identify things as they are, realizing the truths that they represent. If we persevere and look directly at the view unfolding before our inner eyes, we will find that it dissolves and transforms. Things are not what they seemed to be at first. For example, the distinction between myself and the world begin to dissolve. We discover our interrelations. When we look at ourselves we are actually observing the world. When we look at a tree it is joined with us, seeing it thus, in a moment of togetherness. The importance of the inquiry process is in that it teaches us about ourselves and the world and the way the two merge. This is an intimate connection with unity at its center. We realize that there is an ongoing flow between us and the world which co-create each other incessantly. For example the inner voices we attribute to ourselves, that we think we own, actually belong to the world, to what has arrived through the senses, to our parents, our influences, our culture. At the same time who we are: what we think, and say and do, influence the world. Knowing that intimacy and 'inter-being' between us and the world allows a deep relaxation, an end to the struggle. We can let go. The search is no longer a burden that we have to carry on our small shoulders. We realize that there is no need to hunt for the truth; it is truth that seeks us.
[i] T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets, East Coker (Quartet No. 2) Part III [ii] Ambalatthikarahulavada Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 61 [iii] Canki Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya 95