DSC Books: The Awakened Heart
December 11, 1996, Wednesday Night Group, Ann Arbor, Michigan
Aaron: Good evening, and my love to you all. I am Aaron. Tonight I am going to begin a series of talks in a somewhat new direction.
We have come to a time of year when you celebrate the birth of the one who was known as Jesus. I would speak of a place where Buddhist and Christian teachings come together. Buddhism speaks of beings called Bodhisattvas, beings who willingly return again and again until all beings find freedom from suffering. The Bodhisattva is a being usually thought of as an enlightened being who agrees to reincarnate to serve others, but the idea may be expanded to include any being whose deepest motivation is to serve others from a place of love. Clearly the one known as Jesus fits this description, that he came into incarnation solely to serve.
I have offered many teachings through the fall which are very precise mind teachings, observing the various contractions and watching the movements within what we have called “transition body.” We must balance these teachings with the heart, and so this time just before Christmas seems like an opportune time to move deeper into a group of teachings of the open heart.
There is a word I want you to know, “bodhicitta.” This translates to the pure Awakened Heart. It’s not something that you will finally get when you’re enlightened, it is within each of you. It’s that part in each of you that’s most deeply loving, that’s generous, patient, kind and fearless too. Often your fears get in the way of your access to this loving heart. But it’s always there. Within “bodhicitta” is the aspiration for service to all beings. While those of you who do not yet fully enact your enlightened state may not be here for the sole purpose of service, nevertheless service is still a high purpose to you. Service opens the heart to bodhicitta and bodhicitta inspires service.
The chain of teachings I would offer are not original to me. They were offered in formal context first by an eighth century teacher named Shantideva. I do not merely offer you a translation of Shantideva’s teaching, for you could simply go and read it. I offer you my own interpretation, sometimes subtly different, sometimes very different. Nevertheless, what I plan to teach you for the next few months is drawn from Shantideva. I wish to credit this great teacher for clearly elucidating this path.
The teaching is broken into three parts. First, encouraging, nurturing, this loving heart. Second, once you’ve discovered, really made contact with this loving heart, how do you stay connected with it? What prevents that connection from disintegrating? Third, how do you really live from that heart? We’ve talked here of a progression of view, meditation and action. Perhaps in this case we could call the view the awareness of the loving heart and meditation that which supports it; then the action is that which takes it out boldly into the world.
What is this pure Awakened Heart? I’m not talking precisely of rigpa here, although that is part of it, of course. I’m talking more about the deep loving aspiration within each of you which is present and observable when you are not fixated on your fear, aspiration which leads you to take care of, support and nourish others and help them be free of suffering, help them find joy, understanding and peace.
There is not one of you that’s not familiar with how it feels to connect with this clear and loving space within. One small aspect of the feeling is the opening of the heart when you see a kitten or a puppy or some other baby animal. That animal’s helplessness calls out in you that which wants to give and nurture. That’s only one part of it, though.
There is also the part of you that deeply understands how things are, from your experience. When you see somebody who is suffering because they don’t understand how things are, part of you wishes to help impart more clarity to that confusion and pain.
An example here is what one might experience observing a child watching an advertisement on television. The child wants that toy; she’s got to have that toy. Of course you know that doll is not really going to walk and cry “mama.” The child really doesn’t understand the whole marketing strategy and that it’s meant to ensnare. When you’re free of anger, your heart goes out to that child who is suffering so much because of her desire. That’s a very simple example. We can take it to much more profound levels, to understanding what creates suffering and where freedom really lies.
We have talked here a lot about the naturalness of the arising of physical sensation and emotion. When the conditions are present for an itch to arise, an itch is going to arise. When the conditions cease, the itch ceases. When the conditions are present for certain emotions to arise, those emotions will arise. And when the conditions cease, the emotions cease. Through the years I have worked hard to help you understand this truth, because so many of you chastised yourself because those emotions arose. I have said, and I stand by my statement: as long as you are in human form, emotions are going to arise.
This doesn’t mean, though, that you just sit back, shrug and say, “Well, Aaron said anger is going to arise so just let me be angry.” That is no more skillful than hating yourself because the anger arose. There’s got to be a balance where you note the conditioned process of the arising of the emotion, note that amongst the conditions that led to that arising is ignorance and fear, and then work lovingly and skillfully to shatter ignorance and fear, not with hatred, never with hatred, but with kindness. You forge ahead and move into the place where ignorance is shattered, where fear is gone. So, yes, as long as you are in a human body, these emotions will arise, but they will arise less and less and less and have a much feebler grip on you as you gain in understanding and leave behind your old patterns of ignorance and fear.
We have worked with the wisdom path of understanding the conditioned nature of arising, watching the contractions in your body around that arising, and not fixating on what has arisen. We have not talked as much about nurturing this loving heart, through the nurturing of which fear is shattered and the emotions do fall away faster.
Let us use an example here. What are the various paths you may take when anger arises? First is mindfulness, which allows you to understand the conditioned nature of the arising of anger and not be caught up in an identity as the angry one, which identity is both inviting and uncomfortable because the “angry one” is powerful. So mindfulness gives you space.
We’ve worked with the mindfulness practice of clear comprehension, and within that, “clear comprehension of purpose.” Within this practice, if anger arises and is noted as a conditioned arising and the conditions which gave rise to the anger are noted, you then have a choice and may ask, “What am I going to do with this anger?” Here you may ask yourself, “What is my highest purpose here?” Through understanding your highest purpose, which might be perhaps to create greater harmony and understanding, it becomes clear to you that you neither need to condemn yourself for what has arisen, nor do you need to enact what has arisen. If the highest purpose is to harmony, then you will not choose to enact the anger. If the highest purpose is to harmony, neither will you choose to attack the self because anger has arisen. The highest purpose leads you directly to compassion for the self and the entire situation. It leads to the clear seeing which allows the heavy emotion to dissolve.
Nevertheless, there are times when you do make unskillful choices, when your anger or other heavy emotion literally runs away with you because there wasn’t quite enough mindfulness or understanding. Here is where this “bodhicitta” comes in, this great loving heart. First, you’ve got to come in contact with this heart away from tense, emotional situations. You can simply practice bodhicitta. Practice it by observing the natural arising within the self of aspi
erve others, just seeing that this natural desire is there and how loving it is. It is not a desire to serve others for your own benefit, just the natural loving desire to give and the great joy in participating in others’ happiness. We call it mudita, or sympathetic joy.
Finding this Awakened Heart within you, there is a very specific empowerment practice with which you can work when heavy emotion arises. The use of this practice allows you to transmute the heavy emotion into positive energy. The practice has four parts.
Step one is finding something in which you take refuge. This can be the Buddhist triple-gem of Buddha, dharma and sangha. It can be Jesus or Virgin Mary. It can be God itself. It can be goodness or kindness. This we call “finding the support.” In this step, when you look to this support, it’s not something out there, but you find that same lovingkindness and goodness within yourself. It’s a reminder that yes, this bodhicitta is within me and I can access it. It’s good to practice this before the heavy emotion arises so that when the heavy emotion comes up and you feel yourself being swept away by it, you can enter into that loving heart, that heart of the Buddha, heart of Jesus. So, step one is support.
Step two … we could call this a mixture of regret and reflection. Perhaps the situation was that a very strong anger arose. Perhaps you did not need to enact that anger. You may criticize yourself for it, but you do understand how that anger arose out of a delusion of separate self and out of fear. Even though you were skillful with your anger, that angry energy still did reach out from you in certain ways, and your whole body reverberated with it. It certainly created discomfort, at the very least. Or perhaps you did enact your anger and said something unskillful or acted in an unskillful way. In either case, anger was experienced and at some level it caused pain.
Whether the emotion was or was not enacted, we simply reflect upon how it arose and come deeply to understand the ignorance or delusion which led to this strong arising. This is not to be used as a cause to criticize yourself. You’ve not done anything bad. You’re not evil. But there has been something unskillful that happened, and here you have the time to reflect with kindness on the various chains of fear and misunderstanding which led to the strong experience of this emotion. Recognition of the way negativity has arisen leads both to a regret and to reflection on how it happened. Within “regret” is not self-castigation and guilt, but an allowing to rise from the heart the strong aspiration not to allow the self to be so possessed by such energies in the future. There is true sorrow for what has arisen. Within “reflection” is the ability to see how the self’s delusion was condition for the investiture into the emotion. Thus, one cultivates wisdom.
So this second step is regret and reflection on what has arisen. Regret feels from the loving heart that there is sorrow that this emotion arose so strongly as result of conditions. There’s recognition that there was misunderstanding or delusion which was part of the condition. You are taking responsibility for what arose.
I want to be very clear this does not contradict anything I have previously said. We have observed the conditioned arising of emotion. We have learned to make space for our emotions and greet them with our open heart rather than entering into a war with them. My present teaching does not suggest that you enter into a war with what arose but that you now are ready to become more responsible for it and understand how it arose. You’re not trying to fix blame here, you’re only trying to see deeply and understand. The motivator must always be this bodhicitta, this deeply loving, pure Awakened Heart, which aspires to offer itself lovingly to all beings and without harm.
After a reflection and a sense of regret comes step three, a resolve not to repeat these unskillful words or actions, or even the resolve not to be ensnared by your anger in the same way, not to be caught by misunderstanding, even if the misunderstanding was not enacted. Here there is clarity that because you experienced the self as separate, because fear arose, and other conditions were present, certain emotions followed. So there is a deep resolve to work in more depth with penetrating the delusion of separation, to really bring non-dual awareness into your daily life and begin to see everything as made up of non-self elements, so as to be less likely to move into such fear and delusion which give birth to anger. Again I emphasize this is not a statement that what has happened before is to be met with condemnation. It’s simply clear-seeing that what has happened has been painful and there are more skillful ways to do it, and that within this great heart is the ability to do it, the readiness for such responsibility.
So, we have the first three steps: support, reflection and regret, and deepening resolve. The fourth step involves antidotes to what has arisen, used skillfully, and various purification practices. Most religions teach certain purification practices, some of them more effective than others. In the Christian church, one goes to confession and then might say a number of prayers at the request of the priest. This is a kind of purification practice. In Buddhism one might do a number of prostrations. These do eventually create a certain kind of purification when they are done skillfully, but often they are not done skillfully but as punishment or recompense. Performed in this way, they do not really get to the heart of the issue.
There is nothing bad about these practices. Used with skill, they can be useful. But they also can tend to avoid the real issue. So I prefer to apply the antidote rather than to depend solely on purification. This is one place where my teaching differs to some degree from Shantideva’s original.
What are the antidotes? Where there is fear, lovingkindness, just the repetition of metta or lovingkindness meditation could be an antidote. If there is fear that leads to clinging, then a conscious practice of generosity can be an antidote. When I say “conscious practice of generosity” I mean that truly as a formal practice. What we do, for example, is to notice the fear, to greet the fear with a smile and with kindness, not with criticism, and then to consciously ask ourselves to go directly into that fear.
May I offer a very simple example. We’ve seen this happen at retreat. There is the lasagna in the pan and the last yogis come into the room. Everybody else has eaten. There’s one piece of lasagna left. In the kitchen they say, “I’m sorry, we don’t have any more.” You came in first perhaps and you already took it on your plate and then somebody else appeared. You might note that impulse that sees somebody coming and wants to grab at it first, says, “mine!” So the antidote here is very consciously to offer it, just to observe it with great mindfulness, “How does it feel if I give this away?” This does not mean to become a martyr. First, simply, you’re not going to starve; there is other food. More important, there’s got to be nobody that’s giving. If there’s a martyr that’s giving, that’s just another place of misunderstanding. But how does it feel to give it? Here’s where you touch that loving, ever-pure and open heart and let that heart touch your actions.
Somebody said to me recently, “When I’m in a situation where I’m confused, I think to myself, ‘What would the Buddha or Jesus do here?’” Of course, you cannot always do it. For example, there are stories about the Buddha in his earlier lifetimes before his Great Awakening. There’s a story where he came upon a starving mother tiger and her cubs. The animal was starving and so he literally offered himself, let himself be eaten that these animals might feed. He was ready to do that and could do it from a place that was not self, not martyr. You are not thus ready. So you might say to yourself, “Well, this is what the Buddha would do or this is what Jesus would do, but I can’t do that.” That’s okay. You must be honest with yourselves. You’re not trying to inflate self. You are merely finding that already existing generosity and letting that be the antidote to fear.
So you can ask, “What would the Buddha, or Jesus, do here?” and use that as a guideline, following it as far as you are able without more self arising. What you are really capable of is not something the brain can direct, it’s an experience of the heart opening. And when you do it often enough, fear simply ceases to arise so fiercely.
If strong desire arises, the wisdom of impermanence can serve as an antidote to that desire. You want that item so much. You sit back and begin to think about what’s going to happen after you get it. Maybe it’s a beautiful necklace and you think about your dresser drawer in which there are a half a dozen necklaces, including some that you desperately wanted ten years ago and now they’re tarnished and scratched, not really pretty any more at all.
So reflection on impermanence can be an antidote to desire. We move into the heart of desire, into the truth of suffering as it arises from craving, and see that the state of desire is just a movement of the mind and need not be treated as solid. This is hard work. Your support, regret of previous acts, reflection on how such movement happened, and resolve not to repeat it are the foundations of this hard work and make it possible!
I’m not going to speak tonight about the antidotes to each type of arising, only to state that there are antidotes. We have spoken of them all here before. Beyond that, you don’t need anybody to teach them to you. Your own intuition will tell you what they are. The difficulty is not in knowing what the antidote is, it’s in opening the heart and getting in touch with that deeply loving resolve which is willing to apply the antidote rather than to hide in fear and ignorance. Of course there is fear of applying the antidote, fear of purification, because through these processes the self thins and becomes transparent, and self is a firmly established habit! But keep in mind the continual suffering which is the alternative.
This four-step process, then, is very profound and deeply empowering. In fact, the traditional name given to this practice is the practice of the Four Empowerments. It takes you one giant step beyond the simple awareness of what is arising and non-fixation with it. It brings in the ever-open heart and the deep resolve to live your life in love and non-harm. It is equally exemplified in the lives of Buddha and of Jesus. Let them be your models.
On further nights I will talk more about this practice of the loving heart and how you can bring it directly into your life with specific practices like the one I’ve just taught you. The greatest gift you can give to the one known as Jesus at this time of his birth is to find his bodhicitta in yourself, to allow that pure heart increasing power, and to take responsibility, so that when heavy emotions do arise, as of course they will, you are able not to fixate on those emotions but to truly begin a healing and growth process. In this way the emotions themselves become a gift because they become the catalyst which leads you back into the loving heart and helps you to further enact the love of that heart rather than acting in fear. The emotions themselves are wisdom! That is all.
Q: Would Aaron briefly review the second step of the process he described?
Aaron: I am Aaron. The second step is a combination of reflection and regret. When I say regret I don’t mean self-chastisement and guilt. Guilt is not productive. Guilt enhances self. I mean truly getting in touch with that within you which feels sorry for that which has arisen, and the ways it manifested itself, with that which sees clearly. One does not say, “It’s my fault,” and use such blame to criticize the self in ways that solidify self. One sees clearly that this did arise because certain conditions were present, among them one’s own unwillingness to be more present with one’s fear, one’s own unwillingness to move more deeply into the truths of emptiness of self and non-separation.
In other words you might see that because you maintained a certain deluded belief, that condition gave rise to certain further emotions which were painful to yourself and others. So regret here is not chastisement and guilt, it really is a very kind opening of the heart, which allows one to feel sorrow not only for its own misunderstandings but for the whole universe of misunderstanding. Here are reflection upon how things really are and regret for the kinds of confusion that you have nurtured through your own fear and ignorance.