A monk asked Ryuge,
“What did old Masters attain when they entered the ultimate stage?”
“They were like burglars, sneaking into a vacant house.”
When most aspirants embark upon one of the so-called “spiritual” paths, it is usually with some expectation that they will ultimately be rewarded with a higher, expanded state of consciousness, a more profound view, a greater sense of peace and joy, perhaps some special powers derived from various yogic exercises, a more attractive personal magnetism, a more open loving heart and sharper intellect, certainly a cessation of doubt, boredom, and suffering, and even the “Answer” – some knowledge and solution to all of one’s questions about life, such as why we are here, what are we supposed to be doing, and so forth.
In other words, when we take on some prescribed method (usually based on someone else’s recommendation, such as a Guru), it is part of a scheme or strategy to attain whatever it is we believe we are lacking in order to feel happy and complete. We enter the spiritual marketplace and attempt to purchase the right ticket to the destination we imagine will grant us what we think we want.
Indeed, that is how most of us were programmed or conditioned to approach life in general — as if it is a problem to be solved, if only we are capable of assembling the right combination of ingredients and persist in our efforts to accomplish the task. Naturally, in transferring that attitude to spiritual practice, it is assumed that there will be some sort of causal relationship between personal efforts and the eventual obtainment of wisdom, or realization.
Personal fortitude and courage, clear attention, focused determination, perseverance, positive attitude, willingness to endure pain and tribulation for the sake of the goal, and many other virtues have been listed as prerequisites for gaining the prize at the end of the race. We’ve been told (and so believe) that the proper application of mind, will, and energy will result in our ultimate personal victory, granting us the cherished fruits we projected would await us at the finish line, or at top of the mountain, or on the other shore.
What a shocking revelation then, when it is directly recognized that the belief in the reality of this person who is supposedly on some grand journey towards enlightenment has actually been one of the chief factors which have been obscuring true liberation. All along, there has been nothing to grasp and nobody to grasp anything! The person, the method, and the goal have been nothing but concepts, and when concepts are seen for what they are – empty mental constructs – then all of the imaginary stories generated by the mind (including those revolving around an inherent self and self-existing objects) lose their sense of substantiality.
As Vivekananda, the foremost disciple of the great nineteenth century sage Ramakrishna, wrote: “Space, time, causation are all delusions. It is your disease that you think you are bound and will be free. You are the Unchangeable. Talk not. Sit down and let all things melt away — they are but dreams. There is no differentiation, no distinction; it is all superstition.”
In that recognition, all such fictions of self-achievement are naturally liberated, like dream images that vanish upon awakening. Indeed, any sense of bondage can only exist as an investment in a thought object. Accordingly, real liberation is realized to be naturally present in the absence of any such conceptual designations. When we see that we have been pinching ourselves, we just stop doing that. It is not really any more complicated than that, although for most of us, we tend to complicate the matter, and so there are all sorts of teachings directed at getting us to stop tearing at our own flesh, so to speak.
The problem arises when we project our preconceptions onto these teachings, imagining that they reify an independent and enduring self in need of being instructed. By doing so, we fail to recognize that the teachings themselves are also our own projections. We projected a state of bondage, then projected a “Way” to free ourselves from that imaginary sense of imprisonment, and finally we projected a pleasing result or triumphant outcome for following such schemes.
It is all rather comical, except that we take our projections seriously, and so suffer the ensuing dramas, accompanied by all sorts of hopes and fears which further complicate the matter. We bought the train ticket to Nirvana, and are reluctant to discard it, even though we suspect that we might be traveling around in circles. As Nisargadatta Maharaj noted: “The man in the train travels from place to place, but the man off the train goes nowhere, for he is not bound for a destination. He has nowhere to go, nothing to do, nothing to become. Those who make plans will be born to carry them out. Those who make no plans need not be born. All you have to do is to abandon all memories and expectations. Just keep yourself ready in utter nakedness and nothingness.”
The entangling confusion that seems to beset most aspirants can be traced back to the belief that we are the doer – the busy pilgrim on the way to glory — when in fact that self-sense will begin to collapse upon thorough investigation. Upon inspection, it is revealed to be nothing more than a bundle of thoughts and memories mistaken to represent our actual identity.
Even then, such a collapse is not really the result of our doing, although the investigation itself will serve to some extent to remove impediments to clear seeing. However, that belief and conviction in a personal self goes deeper than the conscious mind’s constructs. In that regard, the contemporary Dzogchen teacher Jackson Peterson makes a salient point regarding the futility of self-improvement strategies when he notes:
“The subconscious mind is what is projecting your identity and sense of who you are. “You” have no control over that because “you” are just a puppet projection of past memories, conditioning, and self-images. . . Practice or effort has no influence on whether the subconscious ceases projecting the self-identity. The one who is “practicing” is this puppet. The subconscious is just having the little dream puppet busy practicing with effort or without effort. The key is getting the subconscious to cease creating the “me self”. And “you” can’t do that because that “you” is what the subconscious is projecting: a “you” trying to get rid of a “me”. It’s all puppet activity directed 100% by the subconscious. For many different reasons, the subconscious suddenly stops projecting a personal self. In that moment there is only emptiness knowing itself. Once the puppet disappears, there is no one left. There is just vast conscious aware space with no history, issues, or identity. That is what a Buddha is.”
He later adds:
“The problem is the subconscious is projecting a “you” that has no control of the projector. However the projector is also a receiver of all kinds of information, like perceptions, words, concepts and wisdom. If the receiver aspect processes particular information about the projection of the self being a mistake, it can sometimes immediately shut down. Exposing the mind/receiver to the “Emptiness Teachings” regarding the emptiness of the me-self, a sudden cessation can happen.”
Consequently, rather than desperately trying to calm the mind and achieve some idealistic transformation of the imaginary character we have previously assumed ourselves to be, we can instead stop investing energy and attention in that conceptual construct. To this end, expedient practices such as non-dwelling, silence, and true inquiry can be employed like a thorn to remove another thorn. Once that initial thorn of the self-contraction is removed, then the practices too can be discarded.
When interest in and attention to arising thoughts is subsequently refused, the mind can relax and settle naturally. In this way, the seen becomes just the seen, the heard is just the heard, the sensation of being-ness is just that, without the gratuitous superimposition of fantasies of interpretation on perception. What is realized is that there was never anything in need of salvation, redemption, or enhancement. As the great Tibetan Adept Longchenpa taught:
“Since all phenomena are timelessly free, nothing need be done to free them anew through realization. Even the thought that freedom comes about through direct introduction is deluded. One strives to free this essence from whatever binds it, but nothing need be done to free it, for unobstructed Awareness, which has never existed as anything whatsoever, does not entail any duality of something to be realized and someone to realize it. There is equalness because nothing is improved by realization or worsened by it’s absence, so there is no need for any adventitious realization. And because there never has existed anything to realize — for the ultimate nature of phenomena is beyond ordinary consciousness — to speak of realization on even the relative level is nothing but deluded. What can be shown at this point is the transcendence of view and meditation, in which nothing need be done regarding realization, nothing need be directly introduced, and no state of meditation need be cultivated. So there is the expression ‘it is irrelevant whether or not one has realization’.”
That being so, is this the end of the whole matter — the realization that a phantom has been chasing an illusion in a dream? In some respects, the matter itself has been a simple case of mistaken identity, and yet, there is still this appearance, this apparent self, and the apparent world, filled with living and breathing sentience of life, a limitless energy wildly and sublimely manifesting as everybody and everything. Ramana Maharshi noted that this need not be a contradiction – that the “I” sees through the illusion of “I” and yet still remains as “I”. In fact, it is only at this stage of recognition that the Play of True Love can fully be appreciated in all of its bewildering and heart-breaking wonder, for the Awakened Mind is a Mind of Love.
True love is simple, primordial, and naturally selfless. It is only complicated by the superimposition of the “me and mine” story. Indeed, unless the emptiness of self and world is directly seen, love will always be burdened with conditions, precluding the possibility selfless compassion. However, unless such awakened compassion is subsequently embodied in the way we now behave and relate, then the recognition of two-fold emptiness has not fulfilled its potential.
The danger at this stage is that we may remain fixated and aloof in a dreamy emptiness and yet imagine that we have accomplished our purpose in being born, when in fact we have barely begun to really manifest the living light. We may have just exchanged one prison for a more subtle one, and one perhaps even harder to transcend.
Those who have managed to see though the trap of clinging to emptiness and so proceed ever deeper into the revelation may come to realize that even the direct experience and recognition of the two-fold emptiness of self and phenomena does not necessarily resolve an emotional contraction at the heart. This is also why we hear, for example, of prominent teachers who display obvious signs of profound insight into the fundamental nature of things, and yet still find themselves involved in plentiful and disturbing scandals stemming from an inability to resolve emotional/sexual knots at their core.
The law of Love will not permit partial surrender. There is a natural progression, an evolutionary blossoming possible, if one stays true to the call of Love. To do so, everything, including all prior visions and gifts of spirit, must be let go, released – this, in spite of the fact that surrender is not something that can be done. One can’t surrender, but only remove that which stands in the way of selflessness. And that impediment is most often characterized by a reluctance to immerse oneself, nakedly and vulnerably, in the mystery of Love, for the sake of Love alone. Again, quoting Ramana: “Only if one attains the height of Love will liberation be attained.”
True Love is always present as the open and transparent spaciousness of selfless awake awareness in the midst of all life. It cannot even be defined in opposition to bondage. It is as free in bondage as it is in liberation. It is liberation even from liberation. Though all positions are position in mind, Love has no position. It has no opposite. It will always exceed any effort to contain it, because it is prior to the mind that would try to grasp it.
Without Love there is no Truth. Without Truth there is no Love. Love transcends any sense of its own absence — that core story of separation and contraction from Itself, which is infinitely modified as the forms of our chronic suffering and dissatisfaction, and the ensuing cycle of craving and aversion. Strangely, fear of such love is the only fear greater than fear of death, because it demands that we die into life with arms wide open.
This Love, this intimate connection with all beings and life itself, transcends and yet lives within the opposites, the paradoxes, of experience and perception. In order to maintain the image of being a separate self, and perpetuate the “me and mine story”, we must disconnect from Love, even though that which would do so is eventually consumed by Love. The totality of the universal manifestation is being lived by Love, is in fact nothing but an expression of Love, beyond the boundaries of any human comprehension.
Indeed, the old masters who realized the so-called “ultimate stage” may have been like burglars sneaking into the vacant house of self and world, but that house itself is located in the embrace of Love, surrounded and ever permeated by perfume of Love. To stop at the mere vacancy of the house alone is to miss the view from the open windows. That view is the view of Love, looking out of every pair of eyes, and recognizing only Itself, the bliss and the terror, the beauty and the ugliness, the light and dark of Itself, the conditional as well as the unconditional, for truly, there is only Love, and that which has yet to recognize Itself as Love in the magnificent starry Play of Love.
Q: Is not all suffering self-created?
Nisargadatta Maharaj: Yes, as long as there is a separate self to create it. In the end you know that there is no sin, no guilt, no retribution, only life in its endless transformations. With the dissolution of the personal ‘I’ personal suffering disappears. What remains is the great sadness of compassion, the horror of the unnecessary pain.
Q: Is there anything unnecessary in the scheme of things?
M: Nothing is necessary, nothing is inevitable. Habit and passion blind and mislead. Compassionate awareness heals and redeems. There is nothing we can do, we can only let things happen according to their nature.
Q: Do you advocate complete passivity?
M: Clarity and charity is action. Love is not lazy and clarity directs. You need not worry about action, look after your mind and heart. Stupidity and selfishness are the only evil.
Q: In love there must be duality, the lover and the beloved.
M: In love there is not the one even, how can there be two? Love is the refusal to separate, to make distinctions. Before you can think of unity, you must first create duality. When you truly love, you do not say, ‘I love you'; where there is mentation, there is duality. Without love, and will inspired by love, nothing can be done. Affectionate awareness is the crucial factor that brings Reality into focus.