Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Heart of the Matter

Buddhism, like most forms of spiritual practice, is not rocket science. It doesn't take a genius to grasp its basic truths and to see how they apply to everyday life. But we are liable to miss the point entirely if rocket science is what we're looking for. We might expect spirituality to be sophisticated, because we see ourselves as sophisticated creatures. In our search for sophisticated answers to our sophisticated questions, we overlook the simple truth that's already present. One Tibetan teacher, in speaking of his realization of the true nature of mind, said: "Because it is so close, no one sees it. Because it is so simple, no one trusts it."

The intellect and the logical, reasoning mind is one of our greatest strengths as human beings -- but, paradoxically, it can also be a weakness for us on the spiritual path if we rely upon it too heavily. At its best, an intellectual understanding of the truth shows which direction to go in and helps us see through our delusions -- but, at its worst, it masquerades as authentic experience, which is something it can never really be. If we read about a spiritual truth in a book or have a stimulating conversation about it, it might produce some good ideas and intellectual insights. These ideas and insights are fine as long as we do not mistake them for authentic realization, which can only come from direct experience -- beyond intellect and conceptual mind.

When we study seemingly esoteric topics such as the Buddhist teachings on emptiness and selflessness, we engage the intellect to a very high degree, and this exercise can sometimes be misleading. The point is always to leave intellectual speculation and theories behind and go directly into our own mind and experience, where we can discover the truth for ourselves, in a non-theoretical way.

Beyond intellect and reasoning, there is another important dimension to our human experience, a side that too often lies in the shadows, begging for further investigation and understanding: the emotional mind. Emotions are the mind's raw, energetic expression, and their powerful currents often contort our experience into painful shapes and colors. To the degree that Buddhists are concerned with alleviating and transcending suffering (and from the very first teaching the Buddha ever gave, this has always been the stated intention of the Buddhist spiritual path), we need to direct our attention to where the bulk of our suffering comes from. And if we're honest with ourselves, we'll see that most of it comes from our emotions.

There are painful experiences in life that cannot be avoided: sickness and injury, heartbreak, loss, and, sooner or later, death. Most of our suffering, however, comes not from those mere, choiceless experiences, but from our emotional reactions -- the added layers of pain and suffering we glom onto our experience. It comes from our anger, our impatience and aggression, our greed and attachment and obsession and addiction, our jealousy and envy, our pride and arrogance, our willful blindness and ignorance -- in other words, the bulk of our suffering is what we bring upon ourselves, through all our nefarious and destructive emotions.

When Buddhists speak about a philosophical idea like emptiness, we often speak abstractly, using examples that are emotionally neutral: a table, a chair, a rock. Although the table appears in front of us, we say, it has no inherent existence, no fundamental essence that can be located, and we list all the intellectual reasons why this is so. But tables and chairs and rocks don't generally cause us much suffering in life -- and whether they have any true existence or not doesn't really seem to make a whit of difference to me, when I get right down to it. But to see, in the midst of an emotional upheaval, the emptiness of the emotion that has me in its grip -- now that, it seems to me, is getting to the point, the real heart of the matter.

Seeing the emptiness of emotions means seeing their illusory, dreamlike quality and their transient, fluid nature -- which is the opposite of how we typically experience them. It means seeing that the qualities we project onto the objects of our emotions -- the enchanting desirability of the person for whom we lust, the extremely irritating nature of the person towards whom we feel anger, and so on -- emanate, above all, from our own minds; these qualities do not truly exist "out there" in the objects themselves. And it means seeing that our emotions, beneath all the storylines and projections and distortions we try to attach to them, are nothing other than the vivid and natural expression of mind's basic aliveness. Seeing this, we begin to let go of our clinging towards pleasant feelings and our fear and aversion towards unpleasant feelings, and we develop the equanimity of relating to the full range of our experience with a more open, curious mind. We begin to discover the wisdom and richness that is present right within our most glorious moments and our most wretched ones -- and all the moments in-between.

The jewel, after all, is in the lotus, as a famous Buddhist chant somewhat cryptically says. And the lotus grows -- where else? -- in the mud.

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