A most essential question
What convergence is there between the journey of the ascetic Tibetan yogi Milarepa and that of the little-known great French mystic of the Seventeenth Century, Madame Guyon ? between Ramana Maharshi and the famous sufi Al-Hallaj ? What is the common denominator between these extraordinary beings who, in such apparently dissimilar ways, climbed the rungs leading to the ultimate realization ? Is it not a question of the greatest importance, to conjecture about what is essential and what is of incidental value, about what is truly the core of a practice and what relates to a cultural context and epoch ?
As in a game of chess, the dying person sees at that fateful moment how every one of his actions unleashed a chain of events that made his life what it was as well as the turn it took, whether fruitful or sterile; he also sees in what manner and to what extent he was responsible for it all.
The hidden motives that had been behind everything he said and did, the effect that his actions had on his surroundings, the damage done to others in satisfying his desires, and the lost opportunity to do something worthwhile with the gift of his life will all become clear to him at that momentous second. If his life and energies were not spent in the quest for enlightenment and spiritual unfolding, he will be seized with a profound feeling of remorse. He may well wish he had lived and acted differently—but it will then be, of course, too late.
Just as sleep can be a welcome friend and the necessary means to a sometimes much-needed rest and recuperation from all the turmoil, worries, and cares of the previous day, so it is with the last stages of death. The deceased person’s past life becomes little by little very distant and hazy—in the same way as the memory of the very early years of one’s existence on Earth becomes indistinct as one grows into an adult—until at last it is buried in the catacombs of his unconscious, with all the manifold experiences and different tendencies he has accumulated through the repetition of certain actions and what his main interest in life was, all of which await to sprout again in the future, in one manner or another, for good or for bad.
Cyclic recurrence is indispensable in the Universe for the human being to gather the necessary experience he needs to his understanding of things and especially of life itself. If there were only one day and one night in the whole Universe, after which this day and this night would disappear forever into total nothingness, one would suffer a sort of strange psychological death, making it impossible for one to comprehend what day and night are. It would—in a very particular way—not even be possible to realize that they had had any existence, let alone to try to conceive the least notion of their significance.
It is the perpetual renewal of the four seasons, or the continual return of the day and night, that gives them their sense, thus enabling the human being—albeit at the limit of his present understanding—to perceive the Cosmos and Creation in a certain light that would otherwise be impossible for him. Through these incessant repetitions, an opportunity is afforded him to discover important facts concerning the laws that govern the Cosmos—discoveries through which he may one day understand the hidden mysteries behind the Universe and his life on an altogether higher level.
Had there not been in the human being, concealed somewhere in the innermost depths of his consciousness, a secret memory of the repetitions of his life, with a vast wealth of varied experiences already stored in the recesses of his being, he would not have been able to turn his thoughts to the more lofty questions of the Universe, its enigmatic laws and hidden meaning. Equally, it would not have been possible for him to discover and accomplish the remarkable things that he did in so many different fields as, for example, in the arts, where the sublime and sometimes astonishingly complex yet wonderfully logical music that some unusual beings have been capable of creating in a seemingly miraculous way leaves the listener utterly speechless and plunged into profound wonderment, as much at the extraordinary mathematical truth it seems to impart as the exalted sentiment it so mysteriously arouses in him.
If there were only one life for the human being—without the hidden knowledge already in him of its possible recurrence, or at least continuity in some other form—and his existence really stopped forever after his physical death, he would spend his unique life in a state, so to speak, of curious mental obscurity as to the purpose and meaning of his sojourn on Earth, with little or no incentive in him for wanting to live and for wanting to learn anything. Moreover, when he died everything—including whatever knowledge he might have acquired during his single existence—would mysteriously die with him, vanishing forever in an invisible land of total oblivion. All the experiences he so painfully gathered in his one solitary life would have been for nothing. For there would no longer be the possibility of putting into practice the harsh lessons learned from them, both in the service of the Divine and for his own inner growth and spiritual unfolding.
Eighth Letter: Concerning Wandering Thoughts in Praye
You tell me nothing new; you are not the only one that is troubled with wandering thoughts. Our mind is extremely roving; but, as the will is mistress of all our faculties, she must recall them, and carry them to God as their last end.
When the mind, for want of being sufficiently reduced by recollection at our first engaging in devotion, has contracted certain bad habits of wandering and dissipation, they are difficult to overcome, and commonly draw us, even against our wills, to the things of the earth.
I believe one remedy for this is to confess our faults and to humble ourselves before God. I do not advise you to use multiplicity of words in prayer; many words and long discourses being often the occasions of wandering. Hold yourself in prayer before God like a dumb or paralytic beggar at a rich man’s gate. Let it be your business to keep your mind in the presence of the Lord. If it sometimes wander and withdraw itself from Him, do not much disquiet yourself for that: trouble and disquiet serve rather to distract the mind than to recollect it; the will must bring it back in tranquillity. If you persevere in this manner, God will have pity on you.
One way to recollect the mind easily in the time of prayer, and preserve it more in tranquillity, is not to let it wander too far at other times. You should keep it strictly in the presence of God; and being accustomed to think of Him often, you will find it easy to keep your mind calm in the time of prayer, or at least to recall it from its wanderings.
I have told you already at large, in my former letters, of the advantages we may draw from this practice of the presence of God. Let us set about it seriously, and pray for one another.
from The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
To whatever person or object an aspirant, either consciously or unconsciously, allows his thoughts to drift and dwell upon, he is unknowingly connecting himself to that person or object. By so doing, he will subtly begin to receive certain impressions and feelings from these thoughts that will affect and color his being to a greater or lesser extent, depending on how strong these thoughts are. These will, in turn, influence and affect his spiritual practice or inner growth for good or bad, according to whether these impressions and feelings are of a positive and elevating quality or a negative and perturbing nature.
If he is sensitive enough and sufficiently observant, he will not fail to perceive that the impressions he receives from other people—whether it be through direct contact with them or by merely thinking of them—will undoubtedly produce in him sentiments conforming to the manner in which he was secretly acted upon and influenced by the prominent characteristics, temperament, level of being, and particular vibrations emanating from these people at the time when he first came into contact with them, or when he later invisibly linked himself to them with his thoughts (not forgetting also the particular inner state in which he was himself when he initially received these impressions and which contributed to the manner in which they acted upon him).
If someone behaved very unkindly to a friend, the latter’s feelings will have sustained a deep hurt, leaving a trace that may not depart from him for some time—or may not heal at all but remain there, gnawing at him throughout his entire life. Unless he has the strength to cut short the memory of this emotional wound, he will keep turning around this unpleasant experience and reliving it over and over again in his mind, with his feelings becoming ever more colored by the distressing sensation this event provoked in him. It may eventually give rise in him to an indelible feeling of resentment and ill will, with perhaps even a hidden desire for vengeance.
All this will also—even from a great distance—inevitably touch and mysteriously affect the being of the man or woman who inflicted this grievance upon him. Furthermore, each time the thoughts of the person who caused this hurt upon his friend casually turn back to his old acquaintance, he will, without knowing it, connect himself even more strongly to him and will secretly receive, and be influenced by, all the thoughts and pained emotions that have so far emanated or may still be emanating from his embittered friend. These will subtly perturb and evoke in the former troubled feelings, the true cause of which will in all probability escape his understanding.
Unless he has already spent some time doing meditation, various other spiritual practices, and self-study to realize the need for him to go to his hurt friend and offer him his humble apologies for the suffering he has caused him, thus releasing his friend as well as himself from the invisible and unfavorable bond he created between them, he will almost certainly attribute his troubled state solely to climatic, health, or other reasons. What people are generally not able to conceive is that, by knowingly or unknowingly thinking of someone or something, they are connecting themselves to that person or thing in an ordinarily incomprehensible manner. This will, in turn, start them off being impregnated with imperceptible suggestions and sentiments that they receive from that person or thing, stealthily coloring the different planes of their being either favorably or unfavorably.
When an aspirant’s thoughts go out to and dwell upon a particular religious figure—a Buddha or a great saint—it will indisputably start evoking in him subtle suggestions and feelings of a sacred nature corresponding to the particular religious figure (the Buddha or the great saint) to whom his thoughts reached out. He will not be able to help receiving any promptings and sentiments other than those that are connected to a holy state.
Sitting in zazen, I become nothing and everything become nothing, that is to say I and everything melt into One. So when I see a flower, the flower is I, when I see the moon, the moon is I. All things become I. There is no greater love than this.
Unfortunately, most people who have decided to start working on themselves are usually too impatient.
They want to see ‘successes’ as soon as possible, otherwise they feel that Heaven hasn’t taken note of their efforts.
It is a strange paradox: nobody objects to the long years of training and study which are necessary for most professions (in the case of academic professions this period of study never really ends), nobody finds it strange that famous actors, writers and artists have to sacrifice their lives to their vocations, but everyone seems to expect instant success on the spiritual path, which is the most difficult and arduous undertaking in the world. It is extremely important to nip such wildly unrealistic expectations in the bud, for they present a very serious obstacle to progress.
A frequent objection raised at this point, even by very well-educated people, is that ‘one often reads that it (enlightenment) happens terribly suddenly, just like that, even in the case of children…’
It is important to point out that what is often described as ‘sudden enlightenment’ in Zen literature is not something which is ever attained suddenly, or even quickly, not even in the case of children who become enlightened. It is always the result of hard, untiring spiritual work, in many many incarnations.
Not even the Buddha of our age, Gautama, was an exception to this rule. Even in his last incarnation he had to devote many lonely years of struggle and unbelievable sacrifice to ascetic exercises and meditation before he could attain the perfect, cosmic enlightenment which finally made him a World Teacher.
Bodhidharma, who brought Buddhism to China from India in the year a.d. 520, and who lived a life of almost inconceivably strict asceticism himself, made no bones whatsoever about the discipline necessary on the path. When Eka, a very wise and scholarly monk who was later to become his successor came to him for instruction, under exceedingly difficult circumstances, Bodhidharma is reported to have said the following words to him:
The incomparable doctrine of Buddha can only be understood after a long and hard training, through bearing that which is hardest to bear and through the practice of that which is the hardest to practice. People of limited virtue and wisdom whose hearts are shallow and full of self-conceit are not capable of realising the truth of Buddha. All the efforts of such people are certain to be wasted and worthless.
There is no end to the examples one could cite of the extreme hardships which the great Chinese Masters, and the Japanese Masters who were to follow them, voluntarily bore for the sake of their great goal. But even such examples, legion though they may be, are not enough to convince those who stubbornly cling to the occasional reports of ‘sudden enlightenment’, and who are not capable of understanding that such breakthroughs can only be the culmination of endless years of rigorous spiritual discipline. This discipline is an absolute precondition, there is no way around it.
If this were not the case there would be nothing to prevent the fortuitously enlightened individual from leading a dissolute and worldly life, for he would not have the maturity which one needs in order to be able to cope with the ultimate experience.
Even after their enlightenment all the great Masters have lived very simple, strictly ascetic lives. Nor is it enough to dive into the sea of enlightenment once only, and then never again. After the first experience of enlightenment the connection with Eternal Wisdom must be refreshed every day thereafter, in order to ensure that it is never ever broken, not even for a single day. This does not mean that the actual moment of ‘contact’ with the Original Source, something which only takes place after a long period of incredibly strenuous and sincere spiritual exercises, is repeated again and again; it simply means that the seeker’s connection with this eternal and absolute plane of Being must be deepened and made more complete and perfect by daily meditation.
It is only through this ceaseless process of deepening one’s connection with the Absolute that one is able to become, and remain, a vehicle for ‘That’, or ‘It’. The objective is not one’s own happiness and bliss but to create a stage on which ‘That’ can manifest Itself in this world, no matter how small that stage may seem to be in relative terms. Becoming a vehicle for the Absolute means that although one still thinks, one is no longer the thinker, and although one still acts one is no longer the doer. The confidence and detachment from worldly matters which are associated with this state of consciousness are something which can only be fully understood by those who are themselves in the same state.
Gerta Ital – On the way to Satori
So sannyas, or any other method of approach to God, employed by various seekers of Truth, is only a means by adopting which the soul seeks liberation from the thralldom of lust, greed, and wrath, and experiences the fullness and glory of its integral spiritual life and being. It is not by mere external renunciation that one attains God. There are so many who have externally renounced and gone to the forests, but have not realized Him. It is not necessary that one should externally renounce anything. It is not the outer condition that matters so much as one’s inner state of mind.
If we dedicate our life to God and live in His light, it does not matter where we live. We can live in the family and still realize Him, because God is everywhere and not only in the forests and caves. He is in us, with us, and all about us. To seek Him, we need not go anywhere. The examples of Buddha, Chaitanya, and Vivekananda are not for all to follow. They are rare cases in which God made them renounce the external ties also, so that they might freely serve all mankind. When God wants us to undertake such a glorious mission, by all means, let us not resist the current when it comes to sweep away our narrow limitations. Sri Krishna and Janaka, in their lives, have shown that even for the work of loka sangraha, the normal duties of life that fall to our lot need not be abandoned. To attain moksha for oneself, willful breaking off from external ties is not at all necessary.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is a cliché, perhaps, but so true. It can spring up around any street corner and find its way into ordinary objects in our everyday lives, provided we are receptive. A simple flower, a tree that only yesterday was completely unremarkable because we were preoccupied with other issues, suddenly evokes an overwhelming aesthetic sense
As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) put it so eloquently, at such times we consider “neither the place, nor the time, nor the why, nor the purpose of things, but quite simply and purely their essence”; we do so because we then allow “neither abstract thought nor any principle of reasoning to clutter our conscience; instead, we turn all the power of our mind toward intuition.” Schopenhauer went on to argue: “When we are completely engrossed by it and our conscience is filled by a natural object, be it a landscape, a tree, a rock, a building, or anything else; … the moment we forget our own individuality, our own will, and we remain as pure subject, as a clear mirror of the object, in such a way that everything happens as though the object existed in and of itself without anyone being able to perceive it, when it is impossible to distinguish between the object and intuition itself, when they both merge into a single entity, a single conscience completely filled and dominated by a unique and intuitive vision; in short, when we sever all ties with will: that is when what we grasp is no longer any particular thing in its individuality but, rather, the idea, the eternal form.”
from Chaos and Harmony: Perspectives on Scientific Revolutions of the Twentieth Century by Trinh Xuan Thuan
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It is a cliché, perhaps, but so true. It can spring up around any street corner and find its way into ordinary objects in our everyday lives, provided we are receptive.
A simple flower, a tree that only yesterday was completely unremarkable because we were preoccupied with other issues, suddenly evokes an overwhelming aesthetic sense.
As the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) put it so eloquently, at such times we consider “neither the place, nor the time, nor the why, nor the purpose of things, but quite simply and purely their essence”; we do so because we then allow “neither abstract thought nor any principle of reasoning to clutter our conscience; instead, we turn all the power of our mind toward intuition.”
Schopenhauer went on to argue: “When we are completely engrossed by it and our conscience is filled by a natural object, be it a landscape, a tree, a rock, a building, or anything else; … the moment we forget our own individuality, our own will, and we remain as pure subject, as a clear mirror of the object, in such a way that everything happens as though the object existed in and of itself without anyone being able to perceive it, when it is impossible to distinguish between the object and intuition itself, when they both merge into a single entity, a single conscience completely filled and dominated by a unique and intuitive vision; in short, when we sever all ties with will: that is when what we grasp is no longer any particular thing in its individuality but, rather, the idea, the eternal form.”
from Chaos and Harmony: Perspectives on Scientific Revolutions of the Twentieth Century by Trinh Xuan Thuan