Chapter One Many Paths, One Way
"There is one dharma, not many.
Distinctions arise from the needs of the ignorant"
-- Seng-Ts'an, Third Zen Ancestor
Dai Bosatsu Monastery nestles in the Catskill Mountains of upstate New York. About forty of us were sitting in the meditation room of the guest house overlooking Beecher Lake. It was early May, and winter was finally giving way to spring. Nyoshul Khen Rinpoche, a renowned Tibetan Dzogchen meditation master, had initiated us into the practice with empowerments, teachings, and his own amazing presence. As with many Tibetan teachers, he combined a great earthy humor with the realization of extraordinary wisdom and compassion.
The setting was tranquil and the teachings profound, yet a raging battle was taking place within my mind. There are a few times in one's life when philosophy, the love of wisdom, transforms from a gentle muse to a life-challenging god. This was one of those times. I was impaled on the sharp horns of a spiritual dilemma, and my mind could not find a way through. I felt as though I had, in good Zen fashion, swallowed a red-hot iron ball that I could neither digest nor expel.
What precipitated this crisis was the coming together of two ancient Buddhist traditions, each with its own methods, language, and philosophy, each with its own point of view. For more than twenty-five years I had been immersed in the teachings of the Theravada tradition, particularly as it was taught by the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw of Burma. His profound wisdom and knowledge were largely responsible for the renaissance of interest in the practice of Satipatthana, also known as the "Four Foundations of Mindfulness," the practice theBuddha called the direct way to awakening. From this Burmese perspective, the practice of meditation leads to a freedom that transcends even awareness itself. Anything less than that is to still be caught on the wheel of life and death.
But in that spring of 1992 I was hearing Dzogchen teachings about the nature of mind that didn't quite fit the Burmese model. Dzogchen, also known as the "Natural Great Perfection," is the highest teaching of the Nyingma school in Tibetan Buddhism. In language both poetic and inspiring, Rinpoche was teaching the Dzogchen view that the union of awareness and emptiness is the very nature of the liberated mind. So for more than a month two questions plagued me mercilessly: "Which path is right -- freedom transcends awareness or freedom is awareness?" and "How could I know?"
After several weeks of valiant but vain efforts at reconciliation, it became clear that I would never resolve these questions through my thinking, reasoning mind. What to do? I was benefiting tremendously from both practices and teachings, and I had deep respect for all my different teachers. Out of this intense grappling with a conflict that seemed to hold the direction of my entire spiritual life in the balance, there spontaneously arose one of those transforming moments that bring with them an unpredictable resolution. I realized that with regard to the ultimate nature and description of the fully enlightened mind, I just didn't know. A new mantra began to emerge in my practice, and it was a very truthful response to the conflicts that had been plaguing me: "Who knows?"
But instead of ignorance or confusion in this "not knowing," I felt released from the self-built prison ofspiritual concepts and models I had accumulated over many years. An amazingly fresh breeze of interest and openness blew away some long-held opinions about the ultimate nature of reality. Is awareness the end of the spiritual path or is it a means to the end? Or both? What is the nature of awareness? Instead of holding to conclusions, it became more interesting and spiritually vital to hold the questions.
"Don't-know mind," a phrase often used by Zen master Seung Sahn, enabled me to embrace a variety of perspectives, seeing the different views and methods as skillful means for liberation, rather than as the statements of absolute truth I was taking them to be. It is this understanding that provides a context for exploring the One Dharma of freedom.
"Skillful means" is a phrase often found in Buddhist literature referring to the particular methods and practices used to help people free themselves from the bonds of ignorance. As skillful means we can employ whatever is useful, whatever is truly helpful. For each of us at different times, different traditions, philosophical constructs, and methods may serve us, either because of temperament, background, or capacities. For some, the language of emptiness may be as dry as the desert, while for others it may reveal the heart-essence of liberation. Some may quickly recognize the nature of awareness itself, while others emphasize the letting go of those mind states that obscure it. Some may find that the path of devotion truly empties the self, but for others this way may simply act as a cloud of self-delusion. We each need great honesty of introspection and wise guidance from teachers to find our own skillful path.
The Dalai Lama offeredwords very much to this point at a Buddhist-Christian conference held in 1996 at Gethsemane Abbey, the monastery where Thomas Merton lived and wrote for many years. Buddhist monks and practitioners from many different traditions -- Tibetan, Burmese, Cambodian, Sri Lankan, Chinese, Thai, and American -- as well as Christian monks, nuns, and laypeople from a variety of orders expressed a wide range of viewpoints about self and soul, meditation and prayer. When the Dalai Lama spoke of his understanding at this conference, he often said, "This is right for me. Your way of understanding may be right for you."
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