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Dharma Talk: The Joy of Meditation: Enlightened Living

The talk below was given on 24 October 1994 at the regular Monday night Dzogchen sitting group in Cambridge, MA.

Dharma Talk: The Joy of Meditation: Enlightened Living

May all beings everywhere with whom we are inseparably interconnected be fulfilled, awakened, and free. May there be peace in this world and throughout the entire universe, and may we all together complete the spiritual journey. Homage to the Buddha within. May we all realize that.

I see a lot of new faces here tonight. Welcome everybody. Welcome to all of you, new and old. Old and aging ones! Tonight I'd like to introduce the renowned subject of meditation. Such a simple but profound and all-inclusive event, a truly transformative spiritual practice. In case you are not familiar with meditation or Buddhism, it is the heart of the path of awakening. It is called Dharma, or Buddhism. The way of awakening to one's fullest potential, in Western terms.

Awakening from what? you might ask. Awakening from the sleep of semiconsciousness, the dream of delusion. Awakening to enlightenment, illumination, freedom, nirvanic peace, inner peace as well as outer peace. This is a path that we travel. It is not a dogma or belief system that we need to accept. In fact, as a very wonderful wise guy, a friend of mine, an American lama, once said, "It doesn't really matter what we believe. It only matters what we do and are." I found that interesting. In Buddhism we usually say it doesn't matter what we do, it matters how aware we are. It shows that the outer and inner are totally inseparable. It is what we are that counts, but that is what we do, actually. Our inner state shows up in our behavior, doesn't it?

Excuse me if I am being too abstract. I'll start again, because we have already leaped over the whole subject of meditation! It only matters what we do on this path. So there is nothing to believe; there is everything to discover. It is a path to travel. As the Buddha said, "I only point the way. I am not a God. I am not special. I am awakened. I point the way of awakening. You yourself must walk it, as I have, if you choose to." In that sense, it only matters what we do. If we practice this path, we experience the fruits, the results. Each of us innately has that Buddha potential or Buddha-nature, enlightened perfect nature. Not just in us, like a needle in a haystack, so hard to find; rather, it is us, just waiting to be realized fully, or actualized. So this path of meditative practice, of self-inquiry, of cultivation of awareness is a practice path that we travel ourselves. Not a dogma we need to believe. Many even say Buddhism isn't a religion, but a psychological, ethical philosophy of awakening, because it doesn't believe in anything, including the Buddha, which is just another concept. That is where emptiness comes in as a very useful balance to our tendency to reify things and ideas. The notion of sunyata, or voidness, undermines that tendency and opens space for other possibilities. So when we meditate we really are becoming more sensitized to how things are actually in the present moment.

We always think that It is somewhere else, certainly not here. As they say, the grass of enlightenment is always greener on the other side. Actually, it is here or nowhere. This meditative practice is like a mirror to help us see ourselves, to better know ourselves, thoroughly -- our true selves, not just our superficial personalities and conditioned social selves, our persona, but our true nature, our true selves. To unfold and realize that is possible. That's what we call awakening the Buddha within. Not having something like that jump out, like a fish jumped out of our mouth looking like Buddha. Who else would it be? Where would we find it? But I am just a plagiarist. An ancient rabbi, Hillel I think, said, "If not you, then who? And if not now, when?" If you are not the Bodhisattva, a selfless spiritual activist or hero serving the welfare of beings, who will be? And if not now, when? This is a call to action--not just worldly, compulsive busy-body-like activity, but a call to Buddha-activity, enlightened activity, enlightened living.

This is a path of enactment, of embodiment. Not just living wisdom from the eyebrows up, totally cerebral and intellectual. Rather, embodying truth and living it

We are all seeking truth in one way or another, one form or another, I should take this step by step. We are seeking truth even while we are also living truth: living truly, speaking truth, being honest, being genuine and straightforward. Being ourselves, not just pretending. But how to genuinely be ourselves without knowing who and what we are? I do not think that we have to find truth as if it's a golden key somewhere that will unlock the universe. Of course it does, but things are more exquisitely subtle and delicious than that. Living truly does unlock the universe. But it is not like a golden key that we can get for Christmas or order from some mail order catalog. Living truth is what counts. Embodying it. And this is a way of life. It is not just something that we do one hour on Sundays or on Monday nights. Sabbath must come every day, for each day is the main event. We cultivate awareness in every moment throughout each day, as much as we can, and slowly the realization dawns that this is it, right now, this very moment -- nowhere else! What it comes down to is a way of life that is sane and wholesome and loving, intuitively honoring the connectedness of us all; and not just as we humans, but all creatures everywhere. For everything is sacred, everything is equally part of the mandala of suchness, of isness.

So when we are practicing meditation, we are actually becoming increasingly aware of all these verities. It is not just a selfish activity, meditating for ourselves. We may be alone for the moment -- so-called alone -- meditating by ourselves, but it not just for ourselves. Raising consciousness is for one and all, since we are all inseparably connected, even if we don't always realize that or even if we don't always want to know that. Even the hermit is part of society. Even the hermit crab. The hermit is just another card in the tarot deck. In fact, Teilhard De Chardin said -- I think he said this during World War I, a very difficult time in Europe -- "I feel it is only the prayers of the hermits in the caves that are keeping the world afloat, sustaining the world." I think that is a very radical statement of the power, the depth of possibilities within the so-called individual heart and mind. Whether you call it prayer or meditation or service or love or truth. They are all more or less the same. Facets of the same jewel. Prayer is like talking to God; meditation is like listening. The prayers and meditations of the hermits keep the world afloat in these difficult times.

That statement is a prayer, in a way, and a recognition of the power of the heart. Not just the power of the mind, not just of the body, not just of armies, of economic power, not just of information; but the power of the heart, the power of spirit. Spirituality is a path of heart. It is not always possible to see it all with our visible eyes. I am not just talking about rainbows or auras or angels here, but there is a lot going on here; much more than meets the eye. I don't just mean here in this room, but with all of us. There are so many dimensions, so many levels of reality; universes within universes within universes! So let's not be too overly rational, too materialistic. When we practice in this contemplative way, a way that includes all others, it is very profound and enlivening; enlivening to ourselves and to all. That's why this is called the path of enlivenment. May all beings be enlivened together.

Enlightenment needs a minyan, a communal awakening and transformative healing; it is not something for anyone alone. That is why we take refuge in Sangha as well as in Buddha and Dharma, and why we Mahayanists vow to free all beings.

Meditation is the opposite of killing time, which would just be deadening ourselves. That's the joy of meditation. Who even needs formal, silent meditation? How about just joy? Nobody can object to that, right? Let's cultivate joy in our lives, the inconceivable joy of being. You don't have to meditate, but it is hard to not be. The joy of being is enlivening. Let's celebrate and delight in that. Buddha-dharma is more than a path or a religion. That's why we say Buddhism isn't really a religion. It is a way, a great highway, a high way, a low-to-the-ground way, and every way. No direction and every direction at once, with no doors and no windows and no walls and no ceilings. The Great Way, all-inclusive. There are said to be many gateways to Dharma, but in truth, the open gate is everywhere.

Now, meditating here, we are just sitting here doing nothing, just breathing. Like in that cartoon, you might turn to your friend and say, "Is this all? What happens?" Nothing. This is it. If you knew it fully, you would not be disappointed. When we know it fully it is not disappointing, quite the opposite. Nothing really happens. It is something! However, the truth of the matter is, the most important things in life often require patience and perseverance.

We come here to get down, to let our hair down and turn inward; to get real, for once. To see how simple we can get. Can we just be? Do we always have to be doing something, learning something? Are we human beings, or human doings? We can say we are meditating, we are learning about ourselves; and of course, this is part of it. Contemplating, analyzing, and self inquiry are often included in meditative practice. But more profoundly, we are learning just to be. To be with ourselves, to be comfortable, to be relaxed, to be open, to be natural, to be present. That's a lot! They don't usually have classes like that in school, do they? At least not in the schools I went to. This process can be extraordinarily growthful, in some unusual directions.

The conundrum is, how to learn to be -- when we already are? We will discuss that subtlety another night.

Even if we are just sitting and watching our breath, following our breathing -- just sitting, just breathing, aware -- that's already a lot. It's called zazen, Zen meditation. It is a whole religion. In fact, the great Zen Master Dogen said, "Zazen is enlightenment." We don't meditate to get enlightened. Zazen is enlightenment. True meditation is wisdom, it is the Buddha's way of life. In this manner, we come to be living the enlightened life. Not just trying to catch the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but appreciating every step along the way. The whole rainbow, not just those colors in the distance, but everything as a form of light. And not just the rainbow, but also the shadow, the cloudy rainstorm. Maybe not always smiling. Also appreciate the tears, the concerns, and so on. Everything is part of it. Let's not just be love-and-lighters, but learn to appreciate the entire spectrum of dream-like, magical experiences, just as they are.

When we come here to meditate together, I feel that it is a very significant gathering of spirit. A practice of awakening and enlivenment, enlivening us all. Let's not overlook that. Don't be deceived by the simplicity of what we are doing. There is a lot of ancient, timeless Buddhist wisdom behind this, in case you are not familiar with the contents of all those groaning bookshelves lining the walls over there. That is a very small part of the whole there. For as Milarepa, the Tibetan yogi and songmaster, said, "Nature is the only book I need to read." So contemplate your own true nature. Contemplate the nature of one's own heart and mind. That is called the womb of all the Buddhas, the womb or source of enlightenment -- the nature of your own heart and mind. Tathagatagarbha, if you want a Sanskrit word. The womb of the Buddhas. The womb of enlightenment. Sunyata: A fertile void, not a sterile, empty void. Creative openness. Delightful and joyous. Totally engaged, one with everything. Not withdrawn, not hiding. The sacred feminine-like energy giving birth to all things is the womb of emptiness, sunyata; personified as Prajna Paramita, as a female deity.

When we meditate, we are not closing off anything. We are not merely trying to go inwards. In the beginning we can say we are going inwards, since usually we are so distracted and scattered outwards and we do need to slow down and focus and concentrate-- but really we are just relaxing and being present, wakeful, alert, and centered. In this way we are rebalancing, reharmonizing the energies of the body and mind, by resting consciously and mindfully in the center of this infinite sphere of awareness.

This infinite expanse of awareness is not just here, it is both everywhere and nowhere in particular. Settling into it is very profound, very healing. Fitz Perls said awareness is curative. It is! Let's apply that to what hurts and divides us. Let's see the interconnection and wholeness, that coherent pattern in apparent chaos and confusion. As we sit, centered in the eye of whatever storm seems to be swirling, we can clarify confusion and see things as they are, not just as they appear to be. When we start to meditate we might find it is very peaceful and quiet here in this meditation hall, but there is an inner hurricane. So sit in the eye in the center of the storm, the still eye, the still axis at the center of the turning wheel, as T.S. Eliot calls it. That inner center is always accessible, if we know how to enter it or connect with it. Just to be can be so very rewarding, so uplifting, so transformative.

I find it very gratifying that we can do this here tonight. Isn't it wonderful, surprisingly peaceful, almost every time you sit?. In case you are a beginner, you might think it is hard to meditate for half an hour, or it is hard to sit still. We have all gone through this. It is just the first step, the initial stage. After some years -- decades, even -- it becomes much more natural, and even comfortable and restful. Take heart; we have all been sitting for about 40-45 minutes. That's not nothing; that's a major league meditation, 45 minutes. In Transcendental Meditation, which you get to pay hundreds of dollars for, you only get 20 minutes. (No offense to any of you TM masters and mistresses.) It is not nothing, this half hour to 45 minute meditation. It is doable. It is something we are actually doing here. And moreover, in case you are not familiar with what we are doing here, this is not an insignificant form of meditation. It's not a diluted, watered-down, Westerners-can-do-it form. This is one of the most timeless and ancient, advanced forms of meditation, called Dzogchen. This is a formless openness and awareness practice. It is not nothing. So let's gradually, patiently explore together this vast and profound reality that Dzogchen, the Innate Great Perfection, introduces and unveils.

The good news is that it is actually doable. We already did it! We don't have to do any more. We already did it. The bad news is that you have to continue yourself if you want to go deeper. It is up to each person to continue themselves, to be a lamp unto themselves. That is the good news and the bad news in one: It all depends on oneself. The Buddha died lying down under a tree in Kushinagara, India, aged eighty, with his most enlightened disciples around him. His last words were:, "Everything is impermanent. Work out your own enlightenment." It is up to each of you, each of us, to work out our own spiritual practice. It is not something that somebody drops on your head. That's the bad news, but it also the good news. It is called the Buddha in the palm of our hand. The miracle of total awareness, the potential of Buddha-nature, is in ourselves, in our hands. How we use it is up to each of us. It is not even a matter of if we use it. We are all using it all the time. It depends upon how we use it. And by "we," I don't mean just Buddhists. All beings are using it all the time. It is what we are. It is up to us to use it however we like. We can be as enlightened or as miserable as we choose. So choose. Will the dog wag the tail, or vice versa? Are we masters of awareness, or servants and slaves of thought?

Now I would like to open the floor to questions. Please feel free. Don't be shy. I would like to hear what you are looking for, why you came here, and what are your innermost questions.

How is the Dzogchen form of meditation related to Zen? Both seem like formless awareness practice.

Are you familiar with Zen Buddhism? It is quite similar in some ways. Sitting zazen is said to be enlightenment. Just sitting is the practice. Not chanting, not praying, not koans or analytical questions. Just sitting is one of the main forms of Zen meditation. What we practice here basically is the Tibetan form of meditation called Dzogchen or Mahamudra. It is in the context of the tantric teachings. As Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche said last week in Conway, Massachusetts, "Tantra is action." It is embodiment. It means impeccable living, not just sitting. That also includes inquiring into things, seeing everything we do as like a ritual, as spiritual in nature; and letting go of holding back. This implies total engagement, total openness, with nothing left in us to protect or to control. It's pretty advanced, actually.

The difference between Dzogchen and Zen is sort of a rarefied topic. I don't really want to say any more about it. Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche wrote a short book on this subject, but it is not very deeply developed. Why don't you reflect on what you experienced tonight compared to Zen. It is very much the same, right? Except that I guide a bit during the meditation while you are sitting there, kind of like a baseball coach! In Zen someone usually goes around with a stick; the cattle prod, we used to call it! You know what I mean? I try to prod you on too, but gently. Our outlook is very similar to Zen's: that we are all Buddha, our only task is to awaken. We don't even have to awaken. We are already Buddhas by nature. But that is a very steep cliff. There are no steps. In Dzogchen, some of those steps are unpacked, are clearly delineated. In Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism there is also emphasis on supportive practices, such as devotion, prayer, yoga, ways of moving your energy, and so on, so we are provided with some steps and handrails to climb the spiritual cliff. Not just jump to the top of the sheer cliff.

It is simplistic to say: "Just be!" Or, "Everything is Dharma, we are all Buddhas." Who knows and lives that way, through and through?

What about guided meditation and the role of the teacher in insight meditation and in tantric meditation?

In Dzogchen, in tantric meditation, we do more than just sit. As you yourself know, in insight meditation training they also do walking meditation. There are also other ways of working with the energy according to our traditions. Psychological work, visualization, walking, bowing, devotional practice, breathing, or chanting. By balancing and enhancing your sitting practice you heal some of those differences between schools and sects. Just sitting hour after hour can become like a pressure cooker, especially if you are having some mental problems with disturbances. That's why it is very important to have a teacher, or some structured, traditional teachings to follow. Of course, we are all experimenting and improvising all the time, but it can be helpful in certain times to get feedback from those who have been there before. For example, once you know the rules of grammar you can play more freely with language. So teachers and teachings can be very helpful in clarifying and facilitating our way.

What about the notion of one's self? I thought Buddhists don't talk about a self.

Of course, we must recognize that each of us, in the conventional sense, is somewhat different. This is the conventional, healthy-adult self. But deep Dharma reveals something more, that in the ultimate nature of things, there is no permanent, independently existing self-entity. I think I said something tonight, during the guided part of the meditation, like "perceive the perceiver." If you really go into Buddhist terminology, you have to make everything sort of inside out, open-ended rather than concretized. You have to say groundless ground and the perceiverless perceiver. But you can't talk English like that all the time: "Settle in the groundless ground of being and non-being..." It's too much! We try to talk English here. But it is definitely grounded in the groundlessness, the openness. All of these words and concepts are just pointing to deeper reality, beyond thought and concept. Anatta, or no-self, means that each of us is a process. Dzogchen is a Buddhist lineage, a Buddhist teaching. Therefore, it is based in the fundamental teachings of impermanence, dissatisfactoriness, non-attachment, and no-self. What do you experience when you trace back? Who or what is experiencing? Try to see and understand more precisely. What is yourself? Who or what is experiencing the experience? What is it? Are there thoughts? Is there a thinker somewhere behind, or in, the thoughts? Who or what is thinking? Who is wondering, "Who am I? What shall I do?"

I don't know.

Good! Perfect. Stop. You get a gong for that. Don't know is enough for now; it is true! But we are not satisfied with that, are we? We have to make more stories about it. So notice that. We don't know actually, but we go through life as if we do. Based on that illusory knowledge, then we think we know what we can do and can't do and should do and shouldn't do, and what we think we are. But we are not who we think we are! Just notice that more deeply. Recognize your mind-forged manacles, as Blake called them. See the whole world that evolves out of that, like a spider's web entangling the spider itself. "I can't do that. I'm a woman." Wait a minute, I thought you didn't know who you were. Now you pretend to know something, and problems begin. So this kind of turning the mind back on itself is very liberating. It cuts through and sees through all such concepts; all these separations, these illusions, our assumed and mostly unexamined identity.

I have a lot of faith in this way. I think it is very illumining. Why even call it Buddhist? It is truth. Socrates was into it; study his entire dialectic, summed up as "Know thyself." This is truth. A lot of beings are evolving in this way. This is not just somebody's dogma, some brainwashing cult. All the religious trappings around it are just secondary practices, compared to that direct path of self knowledge, self awareness. Direct inquiry and experiencing the experiencer leads to infinite certainty. Finding the groundless ground is just a process, an ongoing journey of exploration; there is no wizard here behind the screen. Yet that is something you have to experience. So I would exhort you in that direction. See if you can stand in that "I don't know."

To learn more, read Mark Epstein's new book, Thoughts Without a Thinker. Look into Ramana Maharshi's teaching, Who Am I? There's no time to go into it right now, but there is a very illuminating teaching in the Dzogchen preliminaries concerning the nature of mind, exploring where it is, how it works, does it have shape, color, form, and so on. Check out Sogyal Rinpoche's book, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, especially Chapter Ten, "The Innermost Essence," and Chapter Four, "The Nature of Mind."

Do you have any advice on how you can peel back more layers when experiencing who is experiencing these experiences?

That's the process. Can you get it down to everything that comes? Am I that? Am I that? What is that? Who is experiencing this? Apply that laser-like questioning to each momentary perception, sensation, thought, and feeling, moment after moment, and observe whatever comes up.

I personalized it. I think it is me who is thinking. Is there someone or something beyond me, myself, and I?

Who is personalizing it? That's why I always say "Who or what?" It's really transpersonal. It is in us, but is not ours. That doesn't mean to keep intellectually analyzing. Just keep sensing it directly. Turn towards the perceiver, the experiencer, again and again, and see what is occurring. That is the peeling itself. It makes it more difficult to identify so much with each passing emotion like anger. It makes it more difficult to say, "I am an angry person. I shouldn't be angry." It's more, "Oh. I am not that either. It's just another bubble." And things get more free. We start to have more space to choose our actions and self-expression, rather than just reacting blindly.

Is there a reason for this state of flux, for all the frustrations and so on?

There is a reason karmically speaking, but do we have to know it? There is a reason for everything in life; that's the law of karma. Everything has a cause. But do we have to know that in order to find the inner peace and fulfillment we seek? Can we just recognize the passing flux, rather than identifying with it and thinking of it as me and mine? There might be anger, but am I an angry person? Is it really mine or is it just an energy arising? Am I really angry? Not really. It is just anger, an energy. We don't have to act it out, uncontrollably. That's quite different from our usual way of dealing with experiences, which is just like nuclear fission, infinite action and reaction, karma. This self-inquiry kind of question -- who or what is experiencing, in this very moment? -- is very liberating. It allows everything to pass through much more transparently and freely. Then we pass through much more transparently, instead of being stuck. For even being stuck is also just another concept. Where do you think you are supposed to get to? Keep your eyes peeled! Awareness is curative.

Do you find more active forms of meditations, like walking, to be helpful?

Definitely, very much so. I don't know what you think of when you think of walking meditation, but I don't limit it to slow walking. In Japan the Soto groups walk around like zombies, slowly, and the Rinzai groups run around the zendos like maniacs. It's great! There are so many different ways to train in awareness practice; different styles. It takes tremendous awareness in a beautiful Zen temple with 500-year-old paper painted screens to run around like a maniac and not push an elbow through the wall or knock over an ancient museum-piece-like national treasure! It is the same principle: Pay attention! You have no time to think about anything else, like why am I doing this? My Korean master had me jog backwards a half hour every day as a meditation. It takes a lot of attention to do that -- which is precisely the point. Attention!

In the Vajrayana schools we do a lot of bows and breathing exercises, ritual music, yoga, prescribed hand mudras, and various other practices. All of that is meditation in motion, not unlike T'ai Chi or other martial arts and ceremonies. These contemplative practices help balance and harmonize our energy, so we don't just get tense or rigid or dull or explosive. We also do chanting. Chanting is a great way to let off steam. It vibrates the chakras, and includes holy words. That's a form of meditation I love dearly. We also use visualizations. If you look at modern scientific research, you'll see that visualization and breathing exercises lengthen and smooth out the brain waves, bring up the alpha rhythms, and reduce all the stress factors that they can presently measure. Using certain shapes and colors, not to mention breathing exercises, also have a similar effect. There are many tools, many skillful means, in our Dharma toolchest.

Must I align myself with a lineage, as opposed to being open to experiencing whatever technique works?

I think it is exactly like relationships. You must find your own way. One committed relationship is good for many people, but it is not the only way. There are different phases in your life where you go through different parts. There is no way to avoid experimenting. We are all experimental scientists, playing with like, not unlike kids. How can you not look around and see what's there? Even if you seem to go into one thing, each room of Dharma has many mansions.

Where the rubber really meets the road, spiritually speaking, is in one's daily life, one's daily practice. If your spiritual practice works, it shows up day to day. We each have to find our way, do our own practice. There is no substitute for that. Going to religious events is not enough; we must each train regularly. Establishing yourself in one particular practice or lineage can ultimately be extremely useful, very beneficial. Let's not just be dilettantish and endlessly eclectic. It is marvelous to be seekers, but let's also be willing to become finders.

My root guru, the late Sixteenth Karmapa, said, "If you have one hundred percent dedication and confidence in the teachings, then every living situation can be part of spiritual practice. You can be living the practice instead of just doing it."

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