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Awakening to the Sacred: Creating a Personal Spiritual Lifeby Lama Surya Das
Introduction--Awakening to the Bigger Picture
Let none turn over books, or roam the stars in quest of God, who sees him not in man.
--JOHANN KASPAR LAVATER, Swiss poet (1741-1801)
If you have picked up this book, then in all probability you are a seeker. My dictionary has a simple definition of a seeker as "one who seeks: a seeker of truth." In practical terms, a seeker is a spiritual traveller or wayfarer, a pilgrim who has embarked on a quest to find and experience the sacred. Seekers are ubiquitous: They can be found in every nation; they can be part of any religious group or denomination. The search for truth and love--something beyond and bigger than ourselves--is the common element.
Seekers want to understand and explore themselves as well as the universe with all its mysteries, both known and unknowable. In their hearts, seekers believe that the universe makes sense and their lives have meaning. They believe not only that truth exists, but that it can indeed be found, and experienced.
When I was young, and even more foolish than I am today, I believed that one had to travel far and wide in order to seek truth, divine reality, or whatever you call it. I believed that truth would most likely be found in the world's so-called sacred places. Yet the fact is that truth is everywhere; it knows no religious, cultural, temporal, or ethnic bounds. Truth is the perfect circle. Its center is everywhere; its circumference stretches into infinite space. The land on which we stand is sacred, no matter where we stand.
The Tao Te Ching says:
Without going out of my door
I can know all things on earth.
Without looking out of my window
I can know the ways of heaven.
Each of us--you and me--stands at the center of his or her own truth. Throughout the ages, saints, sages, and holy men and women have all discovered the same thing--that truth is found by living truly. Awareness is the essential ingredient in a spiritual life. Seekers walk the spiritual path to enlightenment because they believe it will bring a true understanding of reality--an understanding of "what is" and how things work. The spiritual path is best walked step by step, very mindfully, with as much consciousness and commitment as one can summon.
I firmly believe that we've all been touched by the sacred, no matter how fleetingly. We've known breakthroughs, epiphanies, and blessed times of grace, no matter how ephemeral. Often these vivid moments happen when we are children. People tell me that they remember times, albeit brief, when the smoky veils of illusion and delusion lifted, and they were literally able to "see the light." Others have related childhood memories that include relationships with angels. Still others say they have had no such otherworldly encounters, yet they remember experiencing a sense of cosmic divine love, a magical universe of goodness, interconnectedness, and belonging so profound that it inspired them for a lifetime.
As adults, we also have brief glimpses of a more sacred reality. Sometimes we find it in nature--on a solitary walk in the woods or along a sandy beach. Sometimes it happens when we come into contact with a person whose spiritual energy is inspirational. Sometimes it happens when we attend a worship service, a meditation session, a spiritual retreat, or even something as secular as a fine concert. We come away transported, momentarily transformed by what we've seen and heard. We feel different--more grounded, genuinely real, and "alive," as well as more connected to the divine. We feel as though we have finally come home. We want the feeling to continue, and we think to ourselves, I must do this more often. This is something that should be part of my life--all the time.
Like all things, these glorious seconds of illumination eventually vanish. And when they do, the lives and worlds we have constructed for ourselves come rushing back in like the relentless tide. Our habitual patterns return, and the sublime feelings evaporate. But we retain the memories of those moments that contained the essence of spirituality--true peace, love, freedom, and a sense of belonging. It makes sense that we want to revisit and re-create these spiritual memories. It makes sense that we want to move in and stay closer to the light.
I've spent most of my adult life in various Buddhist monasteries, as well as ashrams and retreat centers, so I feel as though I have a fairly good idea of what it means to want to lead a more centered and sacred life. And I know how challenging it can be to take the first committed steps on such a path. When I give lectures or readings, almost inevitably one or more members of the audience comes up afterward to tell me how much he or she wants to become more committed to spiritual values in his or her life. They usually tell me how difficult it is to find specific day-by-day ways to do so. Often they go so far as to ask me whether I think they have to leave their lives, their jobs, and their mates so that they can do more than merely pay lip service to their spiritual inclinations. Some even ask me to recommend specific sites in the Himalayas.
These people all want personal transformation and direct religious experience. Isn't that what we all want? Don't we all want enlightenment? As a new century begins, the question is not whether we here in the West want enlightenment, but rather how. How can we find spiritual transformation? How can we find a renewed sense of life, purpose, and meaning--here and now?
One of the greatest challenges that Western seekers face is finding ways to integrate spiritual values and pragmatic and practical practices into whatever they do. As seekers, we intuitively believe that the visible world we live in is part of a greater spiritual universe. We aspire to somehow experience a more palpable connection with that sacred universe. We sincerely believe that it is possible to become part of that universe by actualizing the divine light or spirit that is found within each of us.
Like me, most of the people who attend my lectures come from a religious tradition other than Buddhism--usually Christianity or Judaism, traditions that often stress service both to God and humanity. Typically, these people are drawn by various Buddhist practices, such as meditation, because they want to bring more mindfulness and serenity into their lives. They are hoping that mindfulness, in turn, will help them become more compassionate, loving, and caring; they are hoping that mindfulness will help them find ways to serve and contribute; they are hoping that mindfulness will help them get rid of old patterns and habits that have proven to be unwise. These people want to be and act in more highly evolved conscious and wise ways. They want their lives to reflect more noble and inclusive aspirations and concerns. They want to live up to who and what they are. They want to fulfill their spiritual potential. They want their lives to have spiritual purpose.
In the early 1970s, I was fortunate enough to be present when the Dalai Lama was teaching at Bodh Gaya, the town in northern India where the Buddha became enlightened. Tens of thousands of people came to hear the Dalai Lama speak. The majority of them were Tibetan and Himalayan, but there were also small clusters of Westerners, most of them like myself, hippies on the Overland Route from Turkey to the end of the road in Kathmandu, Nepal. When the Dalai Lama was finished, he asked if there were any questions, and one long-haired American guy stood to ask the Dalai Lama the following question: "What is the meaning of life?"
The Dalai Lama answered, "To be happy and to make others happy."
At the time I thought this was sort of a superficial answer. It seemed so simplistic. I was twenty-one and very much "into" reading philosophers and novelists like Schopenhauer, Dostoevski, Camus, and Vonnegut. It was that era. I probably still wanted to hear that the meaning of life was complex and understandable only to twenty-one-year-old intellectual elitists such as myself. I just didn't get the Dalai Lama's answer, "To be happy and to make others happy." What did that mean? And wasn't it hedonistic as well, I wondered? In my confusion, happiness seemed like such an ordinary self-centered concern.
I pondered the Dalai Lama's words for a long time; I even wrote them down in the small notebook I always carried with me in those days. Years later I was reading over some ancient Tibetan texts, one of which summed up the purpose of the spiritual path in its entirety with two simple phrases: for the benefit of self and for the benefit of others. It was then that I realized that self-interest isn't always selfish. What the Dalai Lama had said was at one and the same time perfectly clear as well as totally profound.
It's been almost three decades since I stood in the all-day sun in the tiny village of Bodh Gaya in the middle of the desert to get my first glimpse of the compassionate Tibetan leader. Today I appreciate the wisdom of what the Dalai Lama said. I also more fully appreciate how difficult it is to act and think consistently in ways that make ourselves and others happy. Think of what it would mean if we were always able to be happy and to make others happy--truly happy and fulfilled, not just paying lip service to happiness and wearing a facile smile. If we were able to do that, we would be living without thoughts, words, or actions that make ourselves or anyone else unhappy. We would be able to stop being either hurtful or self-destructive. We would be living without internal contradictions or conflict. What an amazing goal! What amazing lives we would have! What amazing people we'd be! What amazing spirits we are.
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