Friday, May 22, 2009

Hiking the Spiritual Path

Saturday was open day here at the monastery and the weather was beautiful, so I went for a long hike to a mountaintop spot someone had told me about, which has spectacular panoramic views of the ocean and the smaller mountains all along the coast.





Getting to a spot like this is not easy -- most of the trek is uphill, and steep in some places, so I was huffing and puffing most of the way. There were several times when I had to stop and rest, and I asked myself each time if getting to the destination was really worth the effort it takes to get there. There were places, too, where the terrain and the trees conspired to keep me from really seeing where I was, and I began to doubt that I was on the right trail -- I couldn't see the place ahead that my friend had told me about. I wondered if I had missed a turn somewhere and was trudging up the wrong mountainface. I began to think of perhaps turning back. But for some reason, I kept going. The forest kept getting thicker and the trail kept getting less distinct and harder to follow, and I was no longer sure where the path I was on would take me -- but I wanted to find out. So I kept slogging up the mountain, sniffing out the old trail that had become overgrown, climbing over fallen trees blocking the path. The mountain flattened out a bit at some point and I passed through an enchanted-looking forest, the shaded trail softening with the cushion of fallen pine needles that coated the ground. It was lovely, but I had lost the certainty that it was leading me where I wanted to go. Then I turned a corner and rounded the top of the mountain -- and suddenly the forest cleared and there it was in front of me: the wide, open view my friend had told me about.

The spiritual path, and especially meditation, is like that. Our spiritual friend tells us about the great view of mind that we can attain through meditation practice, and it sounds so amazing that we actually set out on this great journey -- only fully realizing after we're halfway there that it's mostly uphill. Meditation practice can feel like such hard work sometimes (though, oddly enough, meditation is supposed to be fundamentally about relaxing). And our view of ourselves, of the path, and of where we are on the path is not always clear. Sometimes we question whether we are getting what we thought we were supposed to get from the practice, whether it's worth it, whether this path or this practice is really leading us to our goals, whether we are on the right trail after all. Maybe we took a wrong turn somewhere, we tell ourselves -- maybe we should backtrack and start over, go in a different direction. When the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree and attained enlightenment, it is said that the demons of Mara -- representing the last vestiges of his own self-doubt and lack of confidence -- appeared in various guises to try to dissuade him from continuing.

But if we dispel the demons of self-doubt, if we keep going, keep working on ourselves, keep climbing, keep practicing, keep traversing obstacles that seem to block our path, keep trusting that our spiritual friend did not mislead us and that we applied his instructions correctly and that we are, in fact, on the right path -- no matter how thick the forest or how obscured our view may be at the moment -- then at some point we can reach that place where the forest finally opens up and in an instant we step into a whole new perspective that blasts open our awareness. At that point the question of whether the journey was worth it is moot, because the view is right there in front of us and we can judge for ourselves. There may be numerous moments like this along the path, moments of clarity when we reach a clearing in the trees and we see at least a sliver of the view that has been described to us. These moments can seem to happen quite suddenly and when we least expect them. In my experience, progress along the spiritual path takes place in quantum leaps: for a long time things may appear to be static and unchanging, or even to be backsliding, but at a subtle level beyond awareness the conditions are being created for a sudden leap forward to occur. And when that leap finally does occur, all our former doubts and hesitations are blown away like dust.

One thing seems certain: if we lose heart or succumb to laziness, if we don't keep climbing and practicing, if we backtrack and always second-guess ourselves on the spiritual path, it will prevent us from enjoying the open, spacious view of mind that our spiritual friend has told us about.

From the ultimate perspective, it is said the practices and the spiritual path as a whole are unnecessary, because the view from the mountaintop is actually available to us in every moment, no matter where we are. We simply can't see it because we're so stuck in dualism, convinced that we're down here on the ground and that the lofty view is up there somewhere in the distance, far away and unattainable. Because we believe we're on the ground, we need meditation practice and the spiritual path to help us believe we're working our way uphill.


"Listen to me carefully. The awakened state cannot possibly change. Do you hear me? Once you notice this empty, awakened state, in which there is no thing that can change, then there is no need to create it by meditating nor is it something that can truly slip away. Do you understand? Once you have recognized that which cannot change, that's the awakened state. Now keep it in mind, always. Trust me, this is very important!"

-- Shakya Shri's last words to Tersey Tulku, quoted in "Blazing Splendor: The Memoirs of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche"

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