Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Our overturned world.

Artwork by Jim Sturgess
Along the way of becoming educated about spiritual matters, I was graced with the writings of Patañjali who wrote sometime in India during the range spanning 500 BCE to 3rd century CE. He is credited with being the compiler of the Yoga Sūtras, an important collection of aphorisms on Yoga practice. Patañjali wrote about what he called kleshas (afflictions: causes of suffering) and maintained that there are only five of these. According to him, the five are:

Ignorance of the true nature of reality (avidya): The primal ignorance, which pervades all of creation. This ignorance is experiential, not conceptual, in nature. This is what Nagarjuna later referred to as the flip side of sublime truth that could only be experienced, not rationally understood, but essential to awakening and being set free.
Misidentification (asmita): As individuals, we also have what is called an ahamkara or “I-maker” (ego). It is a single thought form, the delusional image of individualized existence.
Attachment (raga): Because the identification with the ego was false, to begin with, and because what is me is relatively small compared to the large surrounding universe (mostly composed of not me) a sort of existential terror and insecurity results.
Anger following loss (dvesha): In experiencing an object that gives us pleasure, we become attached and desire to continue the experience. When the experience becomes lost to us, we feel anguish and emotional distress. We blame the not-me for our predicament and lash out with a spirit of retribution.
Misunderstanding life and death (abhinivesha): Because of ego and attachment, a tremendous, continual, and habitual outflowing of our energy and attention occurs through our senses to the objects of the external world has been created. We imagine these objects as having a time existence governed by a beginning and an ending.

And then Patañjali said a remarkable thing—There is really only a single cause: the first klesha, ignorance of the true nature of reality and from this ignorance flows the other four. Thus by resolving this single klesha we open our true eyes, realize that all before had been like a bad dream and awaken to an unbelievable realm of freedom.

I first began my spiritual journey many years ago when I reached a serious outgrowth of a lifetime of suffering. At first, I started with Hatha Yoga and later combined Hatha with Raja Yoga, also known as Aṣṭānga. Raja, or Aṣṭānga Yoga, is principally concerned with the cultivation of the practitioner’s mind using a succession of steps, such as meditation (dhyāna) and contemplation (samādhi). I was living in New York City at the time and began my practice at the Himalayan Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy, established by Śrī Swāmī Rāma, with headquarters in Honesdale, Pennsylvania, and a branch in New York.

For three years I continued at the Institute and eventually learned that dhyāna was the Sanskrit name for Zen. I then switched over and joined a local Zen group. At that critical juncture, I was disgusted with my life and threw away what had taken 40 years to construct. Later I left New York City to live at a Zen monastery located in the Catskill Mountains, upstate New York. Frankly, I was exceedingly naïve and spiritually uneducated, but I was in emotional trouble and consequently put myself in the hands of the abbot of the monastery. After nine months of near-continuous dhyāna, I experienced a radical transformation, which turned my world on its head. What I had thought to be true of the world and myself was suddenly blown away and I was left in a state of mind completely unknown before. It was very much like becoming a child at the age of 40, which was both amazing yet terrifying at the same time. What I knew well by then was how to live within what was essentially unreal (but I didn’t suspect that it was) and I had no idea how to live in this new world that suddenly came upon me. It is very difficult to describe this new vision but perhaps the best way is to say that I was the entirety of the universe: there was no essential difference between me and everything else, including all people. Everything was unified!

The few years following that turned out to be magical as one (dare I say) miracle after another took over my life and ever so slowly I began to know how to live in this new world. It took me many years to adequately grasp what had happened but I became obsessed with understanding, in order to pass on what had occurred. It was during this extended period that I read about Patañjali and started to know what had happened. I discovered that his vision was true for me.

Having experienced the turnover of my own primal ignorance, all four remaining kleshas fell into place and what had previously been so known to be changed forever. Then I realized something most extraordinary: had it not been for that lifetime of adversity there would have been nothing to motivate me to move to this better place. To make the choice of throwing away my previous life I had to know in my own bones how vacuous it was. And there was another thing: while in a state of ignorance, nobody has any idea they are ignorant or that there is an alternative. Instead, while in a state of ignorance, we all think it is just the way things are. We suffer but have no idea that we don’t need to. All of us are that way.

In his Two Truth Doctrine, Nagarjuna, said we live with two truths: the conventional and the ultimate, which we must be able to distinguish between, and unless we experience the ultimate we will never be free. What we all know as the conventional truth is our ordinary, conditional lives of right vs. wrong. That way leads through suffering to an awareness of the other truth. Until we know there is another way, it is impossible to experience it, unless we first completely give up the conventional. In that case, all we are left with is the ultimate.

In his commentary on the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment, Chan Master Sheng Yen said that nobody having good dreams wants to wake up. Only when they have nightmares are we eager to do so. None of us wants to suffer yet none of us can avoid it, and this desire to not suffer is what brings us all to the place where we say to ourselves, I’m not going to take this anymore. The wisdom of this link between suffering and freedom is essential, yet counter-intuitive. The man credited with starting the current practice of Zen (Bodhidharma) pointed out the connection. He said: “Every suffering is a buddha-seed, because suffering impels mortals to seek wisdom. But you can only say that suffering gives rise to buddhahood. You can’t say that suffering is buddhahood. Your body and mind are the field. Suffering is the seed, wisdom the sprout, and buddhahood the grain.”

“People will only change when they have suffered enough.”—Winston Churchill
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