In Eastern philosophy, the definition of a Bodhisattva is one who has realized (the source of) his or her true nature and who deliberately came back to the marketplace for the sake of helping others have the same realization. The Bodhisattva returns from the inward quest with a vital boon that enables him or her to do so: the skill to point to the gateless gate to the transcendent realm of our true nature, which is blissfully aware ‘being-ness’ (‘sat-chit-ananda’).
All pointers to the gateless gate come in the form of self-sufficient and self-referencing symbols (‘things-in-themselves’), since they must suggest THAT which cannot be grasped by the intellect, because IT transcends all conceptual pairs of opposites. A Bodhisattva, therefore, is somebody who intuitively knows how to understand and to use transcending symbols to render an intuitive realization of the numinous. These symbols are transmitted in the form of words (e.g. poetry or prose), objects (e.g. sculptures, pictures, etc.), sounds (e.g. music, spoken or sung words, etc.), performance acts (e.g. rituals, dance, etc.) or through a certain way of interacting with the world. The Bodhisattva, thus, is either an artist or a mystic who is able to create ‘new’ and/or to use ‘established’ symbols to the transcendent (or, more rarely, someone who has become a living symbol to the transcendent him- or herself).
The Boddhisattva Way of the Artist
This type of Bodhisattva has a special, artistic talent. Any true artistic activity is self-sufficient and self-referencing, that is, it is engaged in not for the pursuit to harvest any possible fruits of it, but completely for its own sake. Artistic activity, thus, is a transcending symbol in itself. By following the ‘bliss’ that the engagement in true artistic activity renders, the ‘artistic’ Bodhisattva is gradually able to refine it so that its (unintended) artistic ‘product’ becomes itself a symbol carrying the transcendent message of the Absolute into the Relative. Whenever we stand in ‘aesthetic arrest’ (James Joyce) beholding a piece or a performance of art, we are participating in the divine that the transcendent symbolism of the artistic arrangement has evoked in us (if you don’t know what I am talking about you may be more of the naturalistic kind, that is, more prone to aesthetic seizures evoked by nature, for example, when watching a beautiful sunset, flowers, or the stars at night, etc.).
The ‘artistic’ Bodhisattva has been given the gift of being able to uncover his or her true nature from very early on in his or her life. However, because ‘access’ is dependent on an activity, it is dis-continuous, turning him or her into an everlasting ‘bliss-follower’ with all the (sometimes painful) challenges and confusions that such a lifestyle may provide.
The Bodhisattva Way of the Mystic
This type of Bodhisattva does not have a special artistic talent to ‘access’ his or her true nature, and, probably because of that, has always had a strong yearning to discover the ‘Truth’ since something seemed to be ‘missing’. The ‘mystic’ Bodhisattva, thus, needed to painfully and gradually uncover his or her ‘source’ through the study, enactment and practice of established spiritual symbols (e.g. reading ‘holy’ scriptures, engaging in rituals, practicing prayer or meditation, etc.). Once having truly realized the reference of these symbols, though, (s)he is finally ‘free’ to use them (or even create ‘new’ ones) to ‘teach’ the next generation of ‘seekers’.
Although, the ‘mystic’ Bodhisattva usually goes through quiet an ordeal to realize his or her true nature, the realization is sustained since it is not dependent on a certain activity but known to be the causeless manifestation of the divine within.
The Reference of the Way
‘Sat-chit-ananda’ (a.k.a. Buddha-nature), our true nature, is what prevails when the mind is in non-disalignment with what ‘is’, neither seeking anything different from the ‘Now’, nor trying to escape from it.
Such an ‘unwavering’ mind is the product of an engagement in a (truly) artistic activity or the beholding, enactment or practice of a transcendent symbol. To keep the mind ‘unwavering’, though, there has to be an intuitive understanding of the reference of these symbols, which is just THIS, that is ‘Now’.
“Live life as life lives itself.”
The last post was concerned with a gradual approach to dealing with the seeking mind. It was explained that the seeking mind can be exhausted to such an extent that a permanent resting place in ‘what is’ (right here now) can be found. In this post, however, I would like to introduce the possibility of blowing the seeking mind by engaging it in paradox. (In no way I want to suggest that this latter, more sudden approach is better than the other, more gradual one. In fact they complement each other rather nicely)
The way we are hardwired to experience reality through our minds is in terms of pairs of opposites. Left or right, good or bad, black or white, etc. The founding fathers of quantum physics were the first Westerners to scientifically discover that our normal ‘either/ or’ approach to reality was somehow not how it really seemed to be. In a series of famous experiments they proved, for example, that two opposite outcomes could be simultaneously true or untrue. It was found that the occurrence of one or the other outcome was based on a probability distribution that only collapses into a definite event at the time of measurement.
While creating a lot of uproar in the scientific community of the West, this new paradoxical ‘both/ and’ / ‘neither/ nor’ view of the foundations of reality was nothing new to philosophers of the East. The scientific findings reflected what these philosophers had been saying for millennia: the mother of reality is paradox, a field of potentiality. There are no opposites, dualities, there is only paradox, non-duality.
It is rather straightforward to see why non-duality/ paradox is a more ‘realistic’ representation of reality than what our minds make us believe. All pairs of opposites are co-dependent and, thus, inseparable. We can’t talk or think about one without implicitly referring to the other. ‘Left’ only makes sense in conjunction with ‘right’. Hence, all opposites are actually two sides of the same coin, superimpositions on the ‘One’ reality. From this ‘One’ reality the ‘Many’ are created in our discriminating minds by means of establishing pairs of opposites. The mind is like a prism that breaks up the ‘One’ light into the ‘Many’ colors of the visible spectrum.
Let’s have a look now at some pairs of opposites that Eastern philosophers found to be exquisite mind-blowers when understood in terms of paradoxes (‘both/ and’ or ‘neither/ nor’) as opposed to opposites (‘either/ or’):
Form and Emptiness
From an Eastern philosophical standpoint this is probably the most important pair of opposites that needs to be transcended in order to understand reality how ‘it really is’. It is the ultimate mind-blower. No wonder it is most prominently featured in the most revered Mahayana Buddhist Sutra, the ‘Heart Sutra’ where it says that ‘Form’ is ‘Emptiness’ and ‘Emptiness’ is ‘Form’.
What it points to is that ‘Emptiness’ is the substratum of all ‘Form’ (which is a placeholder for the world perceivable by the senses). ‘Emptiness’ is the field of potentiality that manifests/ is actualized as ‘Form’. ‘Form’ is actualized ‘Emptiness’ and ‘Emptiness’ is potential ‘Form’. Just like the ocean is the substratum or the potential to manifest/ actualize as the waves, ‘Form’ and ‘Emptiness’ are inseparable and, thus, ‘One’ (and the same).
This ‘One’ is both, ‘Form’ and ‘Emptiness’ simultaneously. Or stated differently, since ‘Form’ and ‘Emptiness’ are inseparable, this ‘One’ is neither ‘Form’ nor ‘Emptiness’. Again, read slowly: since it is both, it is neither. This ‘One’ is all that ‘is’ and, hence, there is no ‘other’ in reference to which it could be defined. It (whatever it is) can never be grasped by the mind. If we seriously try, though, we need to prepare to have your minds blown.
Subject and Object
Any notion of a subject depends on a sensory object: if there was no sound, smell, touch, vision, taste nor mind-objects (thought, memory, imagination etc.) there would be no notion of a subject, just bare existence/ being. The notion of an object on the other hand is dependent on a sensing subject.
Object and subject arise in co-dependence: without objects, there is no subject and without subject there are no objects. Fundamentally, thus, object and subject must be ‘One’ (and the same) like wave and ocean, completely inseparable. There are neither subjects nor objects but only this ‘One’ perceiving itself by itself.
Cause and Effect
It is pretty straightforward to understand that every effect has a cause: something is pushed, it moves. Cause, however, also depends on effect. Every effect causes new effects just like every cause causes new causes. To assume that causes do not depend on effects would imply that causes can be uncaused, which is illogical. Eastern philosophers, thus, no not believe in the ‘Big Bang’-Theory because it assumes an uncaused cause to initiate the ‘Bang’. Rather, they have been saying that all that happens is (and has always been) the cause of all that happens. Effects cause themselves. Cause and effect are completely intimate, inseparable, ‘One’ (and the same) and, thus, there is neither cause nor effect. The only constant in the universe is perpetual change, impermanence. The universe is ‘One’ cosmic dance, always in flux.
Life and Death
Due to the perpetual changing nature of the ‘One’ universe, the minute a ‘Form’ manifests it irrevocably starts its process towards ultimate de-manifestation. Death depends on life. On the other hand, Scientists have discovered that the amount of energy (the potential for change) in the universe is constant. Hence, new ‘Forms’ can only manifest when other ‘Forms’ de-manifest. Life also depends on death. Life is the prerequisite for death and death is the prerequisite for life. Life lives on itself.
The cycle of life and death is but the perpetual change of actualization in the ‘One’ field of potentiality. Just like the wave does not go anywhere different to where it has always been when it sinks back into the ocean, life and death are fundamentally inseparable, two seemingly distinct aspects of this ‘One’ reality and, thus, there fundamentally is neither life nor death. There is but this ‘One’ constantly changing its appearance, destructing in the name of creation, creating in the name of destruction.
Here and There
Space is that which is in between two (or more) local reference points, a ‘here’ and a ‘there’. If all is but this ‘One’, though, there is no ‘other’, which means that this ‘One’ has no definable range or border. It is infinite. In infinity there is no center since from any local point of reference the ‘One’ stretches out infinitely in all directions. If everywhere is its center, locality does not exist in this ‘One’. All local points are effectively in the same (no-)place. Everywhere is always ‘here’. And because of that, this ‘One’ is spaceless.
Now and Then
Time is the succession of changes between two reference events, a ‘now’ and a ‘then’. If all always has been and forever will be but this ‘One’, there has never been and there never will be any succession of events in this ‘One’, because there has never been and there will never be something ‘other’ than this ‘One’. Although its appearance may change, fundamentally all there eternally is, is this ‘One’. It is always ‘now’. And because of that, this ‘One’ is timeless.
Samsara and Nirvana
Whatever we perceive, we experience ‘Emptiness’ manifest as ‘Form’. Every emotion, sensual perception, thought or memory: we are constantly experiencing the ocean in the form of the waves. Just like the waves are no impediment to sense the ocean, our experiences are never in the way to sense this ‘One’.
If samsara is the confrontation with ‘what is’ from a perspective of separateness, nirvana is the unconditional acceptance of (all!) the waves because they are known to be the ocean. It is the realization that all there ‘is’ is no-thing but this ‘One’ (without an ‘other’) which extincts all dualistic notions. Nirvana, therefore, is the extinction of itself. Nirvana is ‘this’.
The ‘divine’ union, as reported by the mystics of all spiritual traditions, is reconciling the opposites in the paradox that no-thing exists (in and of itself) because all is ‘One’. All is always and everywhere fundamentally inseparable from this ‘One’. There is neither ‘Form’ nor ‘Emptiness’, subject nor object, cause nor effect, life nor death, time nor space, samsara nor nirvana. Any notion of duality is an act of ignorance towards the fundamental reality of this truthless ‘truth’.
To conclude, let me reiterate that opposites (and their expression in the form of words) are conceptual abstractions and superimpositions on this ‘One’ which have the power to create an apprehensible ‘reality’ where fundamentally there is none. Since what has no distinctive features can not be understood, though, the only way to realize this ‘One’ is through the pairs of opposites. The ‘gateless gate’ to the noumenous is reached through the transcendence of the world of phenomena.
Nobody will ever be able to grasp what this ‘One’ is because it is so completely self-sufficient, self-entrenched, self-contained and self-instituted that it does not allow for an outside perspective to uncover its mystery. The mystic, thus, having once and for all blown his seeking mind remains silent, and awed in not knowing.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
The wind, a dancer nothing can resist.
A play of light and shadow.
Sound bites mingle and persist.
An endless meadow.
Touching the earth it touches you back.
Mother of all in the heavens.
The scent of a million years in one speck.
United in the realms of all seven’s.
Within no beginning and no end there is a space.
What else would you ever need than this?
I urge you to escape your mind’s craze.
And come home to your natural bliss.
What many of us seem to experience somewhere through mid-life is the sobering recognition that what we had strived for in life, e.g. decent wealth or status, a loving relationship or family, a beautiful home, an ‘improved’ self etc, is still not ‘enough’ somehow to fulfill us completely. We have checked all boxes on our mental ‘happiness list’, and are puzzled and confused as to why lasting happiness and fulfillment still eludes us. Typically, there are three different reactions to this crisis: denial, resignation and/ or concession.
Let’s look at them separately:
The most common reaction is denial. We are in denial when we convince ourselves that our ‘happiness list’ has been either too short or that it had been set up based on mistaken assumptions about what would make us truly happy. Hence, we either try harder (e.g. more wealth and status) or try differently (e.g. to find and ‘follow our bliss’, to get enlightened etc). In denial we haven’t changed our mindset; we still think that happiness is something that can be sought and subsequently found around the next corner.
We are in resignation when we feel we have a right to be happy after all the struggle we’ve been through checking all those boxes. Hence, we feel betrayed by society and by life in general. We may start to behave a bit immature, become irresponsible and even dream of dropping out of society. Some may get depressed by the seeming meaninglessness and emptiness of life. Some may turn to the counterculture or to religion to find meaning. In resignation our mindset changes to reflect our rejection of the established ways to pursue happiness. On an unconscious level, though, we are still convinced that happiness is somewhere ‘out there’ to be found.
We are conceding our failure to reach happiness and fulfillment, when we aknowledge the fact, that it may not be found through our trying and seeking. This is probably the rarest reaction to a ‘checkbox crisis’ because it leaves us in a discomforting and confusing ‘limbo state’ of not knowing what to do and where to turn to. Our whole lives have been driven so much by the next ‘thing’ that it feels insecure and even terrifying not to have a clear goal anymore. Many will thus oscillate back and forth between phases of concession and denial/ resignation. This can feel like being ‘stuck’ between neither having the ambition nor a clear direction on how to proceed on the one hand and the drive to seek happiness through grasping or rejecting the world on the other hand.
A precondition for conceding is a strong intuitive notion of unconditional happiness, that is, of the possibility of uncaused moments of just peacefully resting in ‘being’. This notion usually originates from vivid childhood memories or any other (e.g. spiritual awakening) experience revealing the rich abundance of the present moment, of ‘what is’. Without this notion conceding would not only be unthinkable, but unbearable.
Dancing the limbo
What actually happens in the ‘limbo state’ of sequential seeking and retracting is a bouncing back and forth between resting in our ‘being’ and following the stories of our seeking mind. For millenia the seeking mind has been programed by the impulse of evolution to watch out for predators, look for flaws and weaknesses in our lifestyle and to find ways to change, control, manipulate and improve ourselves and our environment. To protect our organism it is constantly playing the same alluring and juicy record of ‘not quiet there yet’. Once we observe and understand the seeking mind we will come to the conclusion that whatever we will do, it will never, ever be ‘enough’. There will always be a next ‘thing’, no matter what other people or billboards try to make us believe. The essential teaching of Eastern philosophy is that falling for the stories of the seeking mind is like chasing the horizon: we never, ever get any closer to what we actually want. And this is the very root of Samsara, the cycle of insatisfactory existence: getting suckered in by the seeking mind over and over and over again…
This may seem like very bad news. If the seeking mind is hard-wired into our DNA, how can we ever find lasting fulfillment? Since any attempt to conquer the seeking mind is just another way of seeking, it is impossible to do anything about it. If so, how do we ever get out of the confusing ‘limbo state’?
Once we really know that we can’t do anything to find lasting fulfillment, we are finally ready to call the seeking minds bluff, give in, allow and surrender to ‘what is’ as opposed to chase after ‘what ought’ (which is exactly the core message of all spirituality). By seeing through the unfulfilling nature of seeking and the promise it will never be able to keep, a slow wearing out of the seeking mind gets initiated. When we curb the feeding of the impulse of seeking, moments of unconditional ‘being’ become more pronounced. As this happens our innermost nature which is always naturally at rest with all that ‘is’ is uncovered. The ‘Now’ starts to reveal itself as what it had always been: the ‘IT’ which we have been searching for all along.
“Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.”
Short Disclaimer: There are situations where the seeking mind is a very vital tool. Whenever we or somebody else is in danger, in an unbearable or unsustainable situation it would be utterly stupid to not resort to the power of the seeking mind. What I am saying is that once our basic needs are covered the seeking mind becomes an impediment to our happiness. Its function is survival, not happiness and fulfillment.
In this post I want to share with you a method to access the ‘Now’. But first let me explain what I exactly mean by that. The ‘Now’ is the sphere of intimacy with the mystery of life that is unfolding through our senses. It is being in a state of non-argumentative receptivity to what ‘is’. The ability to access the ‘Now’ is an important ‘skill’ as it puts our sometimes burdensome ‘stories’ in a broader context and endows us with a refreshing sense of awe, gratitude and lightness of being.
Being separated from the ‘Now’ often feels a bit like being trapped in a strange wasteland. Being one with the ‘Now’ feels like coming home to a sense of wholeness. While the ‘Now’ is crucial for mental well-being, it certainly is not a ‘secret weapon’ to eradicate pain and difficulty. It is an island of refuge within the changing weather of life: when the ‘going gets tough’ the ‘Now’ provides perspective, when the ‘going is smooth’ it provides inspiration and bliss.
What usually keeps us from accessing the ‘Now’ is a nagging sense of lack. Our minds are conditioned to tell us that the very moment as it presents itself, is somehow not ‘enough’ as it is. When there is fear or anxiety, for example, our mind wants us to fight or flight, when there is boredom it tells us to do something, when there is happiness it wants us to grasp. This seeking is what keeps us from truly appreciating what is happening ‘Now’. It is what encases us in a sticky bubble of insatisfactory separateness.
Whenever there is this sense of division or separateness between inner and outer, the ‘being-mind’ (the mind which can accept and rest in the ‘Now’) is clouded by the ‘becoming-mind’ (the mind which subtly rejects and seeks to improve the ‘Now’) and vice versa. Having said that, it becomes clear that there are two ways to break this cycle of dependent origination: we can realize either that separateness or that the story of lack is illusory. While I have written and will write more about the illusory nature of separateness some other time, I am going to present here a way of refuting the story of lack.
Inquiry into ‘what’s lacking’
There are three questions I ask myself whenever I feel separated and disconnected from life, that is, when I am caught in a story of lack that makes me feel lonely, anxious, frightened, stressed or simply bored.
1. What is my story telling me that is lacking for this very moment to be more fulfilling?
In my case the way my story makes itself know to me is through the “if I only had…then”-thought. This thought is the very root of seeking and dis-ease with the present moment as it posits an incompleteness, a gap that needs to be filled or a threshold to be passed for fulfillment to be reached. Obviously, once fulfillment is reached the mind will find another reason for lack and incompleteness. Trying to find lasting fulfillment is like trying to fill a bottomless pit; it’s just never going to happen no matter how much we try. In this context Bernard Shaw once said that “there are two great disappointments in life: not getting what one wants and getting it”. When people say they feel ’empty’ or ‘burnt-out’, what they actually mean is that they are completely exhausted because they are constantly haunted by their story-telling minds, thus, never reaching moments of peace.
Inquire: What is your mind telling you to go out seeking? What does it want to be improved or get over with first before the moment can be enjoyed? The stories may or may not contain legitimate demands. Even if the demands are legitimate, we can always take care of them at the appropriate time and not need to get bogged down by them any other time. The stories can be very subtle, so listen carefully.
2. Has there ever been a fulfilling moment in the absence of what seems to be lacking now?
Once you have identified what seems to be lacking, try to remember an instant of fulfillment when the seemingly lacking ‘mind-object’ was absent. For example, if you are single and you watch a romantic comedy your story may make you believe that to be alone is to be lonely and that you can only be truly fulfilled and in harmony with the world in a romantic relationship. In this case, remember an instant when you were single, on your own and fulfilled at the same time.
3. Does my fulfillment really depend on what seems to be lacking?
Once you have identified an instant when you were fulfilled even in the absence of the seemingly lacking ‘mind-object’, ask yourself: is it really true that fulfillment depends on this ‘mind-object’? The answer, obviously, is no. Which means you must have been fooled by the story-telling mind which, if we look at it with compassion, simply tries to protect and secure your existence by means of reaching out and manipulating your environment. While this function of the mind is very important for our survival, its purpose is not finding fulfillment. Fulfillment lies in the absence of the search for fulfillment.
When you see through the story of the mind, you have a chance to dis-identify from it and to not let your wellbeing be kept hostage by it. By ‘stepping out’ of the story, we ‘step into’ the ‘Now’, for the ‘Now’ is within and through which the illusion of the story appears. To truly live we have to show up, which can only happen ‘Now’.
“Truly, is anything missing right now? Nirvana is right here, before your eyes.”
~Zen Master Hakuin