Friday, March 5, 2010

Of the Two Witnesses, Hold the Principal One

This article is part of a series of short commentaries on proverbs or slogans from the Lojong ("mind-training") teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. Several other such commentaries will be offered soon, in addition to the ones that have already appeared here in previous months. To see the whole series of commentaries on Lojong slogans, click here.

Of the Two Witnesses, Hold the Principal One

When we look for spiritual guidance, there are basically two places we can look: outside and inside. On the outside, we can benefit from the advice and opinions of other people, particularly those who are further along the path and can guide us skillfully. Other people can often tell us when we have somehow gotten off-track, or validate that we are doing something correctly and making good progress. But other people’s evaluations and advice can only go so far. Other people can’t read our minds (at least, we hope not!). They can observe a certain amount from our outward actions, but they can’t see what’s really going on inside us. They can only guess at our true motives for doing the things we do. And sometimes we pull the wool over other people’s eyes by putting on a good show for them.

At the end of the day, we are the only ones who really know our own minds. Another person can be a helpful sounding board or a mirror, but she can't make our choices for us — and she doesn't have to live with the consequences in quite the same way as we do. We are the only ones who experience our lives first-hand. We are the only ones who know when we’re acting selflessly and when we’re acting selfishly. We are the only ones who have to suffer the pangs of regret when we’ve done something that wasn’t up to our own ethical standards. We can, with great effort, hide our regret from others — but we cannot hide it from ourselves.

Our own minds are imbued with innate wisdom and self-awareness. That inborn wisdom is the principal witness, the one we should hold and trust above all others. Learning to trust ourselves and our own wisdom is a process that unfolds across the entire span of our lives. It is our own wisdom that guides us to seek out and follow the spiritual path in the first place, and it is that same wisdom that guides us when we cross the threshold into full awakening. When the Buddha touched the earth at the time of his enlightenment, it was a gesture symbolizing that he no longer needed any external witness to validate his awakening. He was, himself, the principal witness.

A few months ago I wrote here about the power of intuition, which is one of the ways our inborn wisdom can shine through the chinks in our armor of rational thinking. Intuition and conscience, in some sense, are not really different things; they are different facets or manifestations of that inborn wisdom or awareness that knows itself. When we are out of touch with our conscience, we are also out of touch with our intuition: we do not know ourselves, we do not see clearly that which is right in front of us. We don’t know how to distinguish real, non-conceptual insight from ego’s arbitrary labeling of things it likes and dislikes. We don’t distinguish skillfully between what is helpful and what is harmful. We resort to all kinds of rationalizations to justify and explain our own thoughts, feelings and actions to ourselves, proceeding from dumb to dumber. But when we learn to listen to our intuition and follow our conscience, we develop confidence in our own innate wisdom. Then we can really begin to hold and trust ourselves as the principal witness.

When I was a child, there was a ubiquitous public service ad campaign featuring a cartoon mascot named Smokey the Bear, who held out a pointing finger at the observer and said: “ONLY YOU can prevent forest fires.” Smokey was a very wise bear.

Only you can hear the voices of your intuition and your conscience. Only you see the world from your perspective, and experience the things you do. Only you really know when you’re kidding yourself, or when you’re trying to get away with something. Only you can prevent the fires of negative habitual patterns from burning down your own forest.

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