“I tell you, there’s no Buddha, no Dharma, no practice, no enlightenment. Yet you go off like this on side roads, trying to find something. Blind fools! Will you put another head on top of the one you have? What is it you lack?”
~Rinzai (Linji Yixuan)
I had always heard that, if one were to embark upon a spiritual path, it would be most advantageous to seek out and find an enlightened master — one who would know what being enlightened is all about, and in turn would be willing to guide me to the attainment of such a desirable state. Consequently, for varying lengths of time I found myself involved with a number of such purported characters, usually based on their reputation, books they had written, or other secondary sources.
For many years I never stopped to thoroughly examine, much less deeply question, my primary motivation for the search. All the spiritual literature claimed that enlightenment was the way to go, so I was willing to put on the blinders and jump right in. As a result, there was always an idealistic element to my efforts, and in turn a lack of any real inquiry. I could have stepped back at any moment along the way and turned the spotlight around to inspect what it was I was really looking for, but there was a tacit, fearful suspicion that if I were to do so, it might be like pulling a thread on a sweater that would lead inexorably to the unraveling of the garment itself. This in turn would throw my whole life strategy into doubt, and that was too frightening a prospect to contemplate, at least until it became obvious that all my seeking was actually comparable to a dog chasing its tail.
Various melodramas and lessons ensued, as they do regardless, and in the midst of it all, “Help” was always available. It is not the immediate consolation one might expect, however. Indeed, sometimes it might seem like just the opposite. Truly, we need look no further than our own mirror, but if we are not scrupulously honest with ourselves, and instead rely on external authority figures to determine our path, then we will never awaken to who and what we really are. On the contrary, we will be condemning ourselves to wallow in an indefinite state of dependence, like children who are never able to grow up and stand on their own two feet.
I had to discover, sometimes the hard way, that the role of the teacher is to point back to the student’s true nature, which is exactly the same as the teacher’s true nature. If the teacher is pointing in any other direction, especially to themselves in a self-aggrandizing fashion, than that is an immediate reason for suspicion.
Life in all its variety is perpetually offering us a cornucopia of gifts and teachings, but they may not necessarily be what we would have asked for, given our conditioned preferences. In fact, they might often appear to be some sort of painful tribulation. Only the discerning heart can recognize them for what they are — opportunities to grow and deepen in awareness. The fabulous conductivity of this human appearance is the mysterious benevolence of the One who is living us now. We assume such benevolence would be an agreeable thing, but that conditional presumption might be reconsidered when “push comes to shove”. Even calling it “benevolent” or “grace” is adding something extra. It just is what it is — Life as it is. Nor does it need to be other than it is, except in the imagination fueled by desire, hope, and fear.
Comparative mind always wants something it doesn’t seem to have. Whatever the current situation, it wants things to be other than they are — brighter, shinier, fuller, more agreeable — and so suffering, dissatisfaction, and stress are born, granted a reality, and then perpetuated. In reality, there has never been anything truly lacking, but mind likes to imagine, until imagination becomes the habitual response to experience, superimposing layers of interpretive fantasy onto the innocent simplicity of raw life itself.
So, what is it that persists in dilemma, compelled by a sense of lack? What is the accumulating momentum of compulsion that drags one relentlessly from blossom to blossom, thought to thought, life to life, even as each fragrant flower eventually shrivels and withers in the hand that would try and grasp its petals? What drives us out of Eden, what motivates the search, but the compelling sense of lack, of insufficiency?
From birth, it appears that we are dependent on some external food source, without which we cannot survive. As we grow, we find ourselves dependent on people, objects, and events in order to get by and thrive, and so it is natural that we would come to regard ourselves as needy, and by our very nature lacking the necessary self-sufficiency required to prosper in the spiritual arena. After all, there is a deeply hardwired aspect of our genetic make-up, in which reliance on some Alpha-type leader is a necessary component for tribal success. It is part of being a human animal.
Consequently, it is totally understandable how we would then transfer that sense of physical dependence and neediness to the assessment of our spiritual condition, conflating the two, and granting reality to the assumption that we require a good measure of external support in order to realize our destiny in that respect. For example, consider the common meme of the Priest who is elevated to the role of mediator between the human and the Divine. At the extreme end of the spectrum, there is the “perfected” or “enlightened” Master who arrives on earth to guide aspirants to a level of salvation that would be otherwise inaccessible to them if left to their own devices. In some religions, a god-like status is granted to such exceptional individuals, requiring various rituals of reverence and worship.
Of course, it is true that we live in an inter-dependent universe in which everything relies upon everything else for its origination, and indeed very existence. However, the danger arises in subsequently concluding that we ourselves are lacking in some essential quality necessary to realize our true nature, and so must rely on others of a supposedly superior spiritual status to enlighten us. This is how so many sincere but naive aspirants get lured into and then trapped in the “Master Game”.
There is no question that a qualified guide can be extremely helpful along the way. For example, they can save us from wasting time and effort on dead ends that have already been tested and recognized to be merely distracting detours. Nevertheless, if they do not direct us back to ourselves, they are ultimately doing us a disservice. They are binding us to reliance on them, rather than pointing us back to our own prior and true freedom, of which we have never actually been lacking. As the Sage Nisargadatta remarked:
“In reality nothing is lacking and nothing is needed, all work is on the surface only. In the depths there is perfect peace. All your problems arise because you have defined and therefore limited yourself.”
No second-hand method, practice scheme, or remedial strategy can result in liberation, since liberation is not an acquisition, but a recognition of that which has always been the case, even as we chase our tails running after teachers and masters. In that regard, the great Adept Dilgo Khyentse summed it up well when he said:
“The everyday practice . . . is just everyday life itself. Since the undeveloped state does not exist, there is no need to behave in any special way or attempt to attain anything above and beyond what you actually are. There should be no feeling of striving to reach some “amazing goal” or “advanced state”. To strive for such a state is a neurosis which only conditions us and serves to obstruct the free flow of Mind. We should also avoid thinking of ourselves as worthless persons – we are naturally free and unconditioned. We are intrinsically enlightened and lack nothing.”
A true “Spiritual Friend” will always turn us in that direction — to the recognition of our own true nature, condition, identity. Indeed, to find such a one who wants nothing other than to support us in our own awakening to the truth of our being, and who also has the depth of wisdom to quicken that process, is a rare blessing!
And what is that truth which has always been the “case”? We are free, powerful, immortal spiritual beings who enter into the playgrounds of human incarnation as a way to become increasingly self-aware of who and what we truly are, throughout all the dimensions of this magnificent dream of the Great One. We are in fact That One, expressing Itself through the infinite forms of each unique creation that we momentarily represent as apparently individualized beings. The role of the Master is to serve us in coming to the recognition that the real Master is none other than ourselves, and that we have never for one instant been lacking anything. Then their work is done.
“The real work is in the Heart:
Wake up your Heart!
When the heart is completely awake,
it needs no Friend.”