I am going to begin this consideration with an extended quote from the book “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism” by the late Chogyam Trungpa, an influential Buddhist teacher who was instrumental in introducing Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism to the West:
“As long as we follow a spiritual approach promising salvation, miracles, liberation, then we are bound by the “golden chain of spirituality.” Such a chain might be beautiful to wear, with its inlaid jewels and intricate carvings, but nevertheless, it imprisons us. People think they can wear the golden chain for decoration without being imprisoned by it, but they are deceiving themselves. As long as one’s approach to spirituality is based upon enriching ego, then it is spiritual materialism, a suicidal process rather than a creative one.
All the promises we have heard are pure seduction. We expect the teachings to solve all our problems; we expect to be provided with magical means to deal with our depressions, our aggressions, our sexual hang-ups. But to our surprise we begin to realize that this is not going to happen. It is very disappointing to realize that we must work on ourselves and our suffering rather than depend upon a savior or the magical power of yogic techniques. It is disappointing to realize that we have to give up our expectations rather than build on the basis of our preconceptions.
We must allow ourselves to be disappointed, which means the surrendering of me-ness, my achievement. We would like to watch ourselves attain enlightenment, watch our disciples celebrating, worshipping, throwing flowers at us, with miracles and earthquakes occurring and gods and angels singing and so forth. This never happens. The attainment of enlightenment from ego’s point of view is extreme death, the death of self, the death of me and mine, the death of the watcher. It is the ultimate and final disappointment. Treading the spiritual path is painful. It is a constant unmasking, peeling off of layer after layer of masks. It involves insult after insult.
Such a series of disappointments inspires us to give up ambition. We fall down and down and down, until we touch the ground, until we relate with the basic sanity of earth. We become the lowest of the low, the smallest of the small, a grain of sand, perfectly simple, no expectations. When we are grounded, there is no room for dreaming or frivolous impulse, so our practice at last becomes workable. We begin to learn how to make a proper cup of tea, how to walk straight without tripping. Our whole approach to life becomes more simple and direct, and any teachings we might hear or books we might read become workable. They become confirmations, encouragements to work as a grain of sand, as we are, without expectations, without dreams.
We have heard so many promises, have listened to so many alluring descriptions of exotic places of all kinds, have seen so many dreams, but from the point of view of a grain of sand, we could not care less. We are just a speck of dust in the midst of the universe. At the same time our situation is very spacious, very beautiful and workable. In fact, it is very inviting, inspiring. If you are a grain of sand, the rest of the universe, all the space, all the room is yours, because you obstruct nothing, overcrowd nothing, possess nothing. There is tremendous openness. You are the emperor of the universe because you are a grain of sand. The world is very simple and at the same time very dignified and open, because your inspiration is based upon disappointment, which is without the ambition of the ego.”
Upon reflection, many of us who shopped around and patronized the various spiritual supermarkets that sprang up during the historical “Baby Boom” coming-of-age years in the West can relate to the hard wisdom expressed in the above excerpt. On the other hand, perhaps many of us are still living under the spell of the promise — the promise of enlightenment, redemption, salvation, or even just a better, richer, more desirable lifestyle – woven and cast by this or that guru, text, or teaching that convinced us we could change ourselves into something better, more powerful, happier, more peaceful, wise, and lovable.
After spending 7 years studying for the priesthood in a Roman Catholic Seminary, I finally became utterly disillusioned with that religion and its apparent fraudulence and so went off to live as a hermit in the Sierra Nevada mountains. A friend had given me a small pamphlet on Zen Buddhism before I left for the hills, and while living in a small tent by a river, I read and re-read that pamphlet and contemplated its implications. This extended consideration provoked a number of epiphanies that gave me a taste of a whole new way of looking at the world, as well as my place in it. I felt as if I had truly found my spiritual calling, after years of floundering in somebody elses’ limited idea of what spirit is really all about.
When I finally returned to San Francisco in 1970, I delved into two seminal books on Zen Buddhism that would serve to exemplify a particular paradox, and one that would take me years to resolve : “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi (a transplanted Japanese master), and “The Three Pillars of Zen”, by Phillip Kapleau (an American teacher trained in an austere Japanese Zen monastery).
In a nutshell, Suzuki’s manual spoke of practicing Zen with “no gaining idea”, no artificial motivation to have things be other than they are. For Suzuki and his lineage of Soto Zen, the very act of assuming the formal posture in seated meditation (Zazen) was itself “enlightenment”, and so attempting to “achieve” enlightenment through fabricated strategies and methods would be comparable to adding another head to the one we already have. The meditator simply sits still, relaxed and alert, but without fixation, interference, or identification, as the stream of thoughts arises and passes away. This of course is by necessity an over-simplification, but that is the gist of it.
On the other hand, Kapleau’s book spoke in glowing terms of the absolute necessity to attain “kensho”, a first step to enlightenment, consisting of a mystical, transformational glimpse of one’s “original nature”. In order to acquire this glimpse, or “awakening”, Kapleau suggested that one needed to submit to an almost militaristic regimen of marathon meditative endeavors, focusing all of one’s life and attention on answering “koans”, which are enigmatic cases drawn from dialogues between historic Zen characters that resist any intellectual resolution. This focus on koan work and kensho is characteristic of the “Rinzai” school of Zen, as opposed to the Soto school mentioned previously.
The sense of personal dilemma that ensued resulted from alternating back and forth, attempting to be free of self-centered notions of attainment, but desperate to achieve some breakthrough in consciousness that Kapleau and his ilk assured me was necessary to gain entrance into the real and authentic Zen club and reach the critical state of liberation. A seed had been planted in my head – if I wanted to be free from the suffering entailed in being born into this human condition, I needed to become someone different than I ordinarily am. I had to become a “Knower”. In other words, I had to get “Enlightened”.
The inherent wisdom of Suzuki’s school sounded reasonable, but the lure of some magical experience of “Satori” touted in the Rinzai school was much stronger. It would be years before I was able to recognize that I was embarking on a quest to become what I already am and have always been. Apparently, I needed to chase my tail for several decades before finally realizing that was exactly what I was up to when I left my previous life behind and entered into a Zen monastery, and from there continued on for years with gurus and purported wise guys, pursuing the big “E”.
As great non-dual sage Nisargadatta Maharaj noted: “Unless you make tremendous efforts, you will not be convinced that effort will take you nowhere. The self is so self-confident that unless it is totally discouraged it will not give up. Mere verbal conviction is not enough. Hard facts alone can show the absolute nothingness of the self-image. “
As long as I perceived myself to be a separate and enduring person, there was no way that I was going to be deterred from the search. Lingering in the background, there would always be the comparative mind insinuating that, if I only studied the right teaching, sincerely practiced the right strategic method, and discovered the right Spiritual Guide, I could become free, happy, wise, special, sanctified, and gracefully relieved of the chains that accompanied this human life.
Such was the “kool aid” I had swallowed, along with countless fellow boomers who were equally seduced by the promise of divine transformation being sold in the spiritual marketplace that had emerged in the West during the latter half of the last century. The almighty “Me” project was born and given legitimacy by a seemingly endless parade of swamis, roshis, lamas, and various home-grown variations of smiling and mostly well-meaning path promoters who each offered their own particular snake oil remedy for whatever spiritually ailed us, and we were happy to lap it all up in ashram temples, satsangs, monasteries, churches, and diverse holy gatherings (where financial donations and even sexual favors were gratefully accepted to further the general betterment of the lifestyle conditions of said teachers, masters, and gurus).
Certainly, I am not the first to point this all out, and in fact numerous books, articles, and journals have been published detailing the whole adventure we collectively undertook, from the streets of the Haight Ashbury to the Himalayan caves, and so this essay is really presenting nothing new about the phenomenon that has not already been discussed and analyzed and critiqued over the years. However, for those who are following along here, perhaps there might be some sense of resonance that will help shed light on their own process in this regard, particularly in relation to inspecting their own ambition, and recognizing that trap for what it is.
If we stay true to our spiritual path, regardless of sect or denomination, we may eventually come to a place where nothing works anymore, and we face a veritable stone wall which we can’t go over, under, or around by employing our intellect or force of will. That wall is actually a mirror. Our ambition will have led us here, and our various practices may have supported us on the search, but eventually we will find ourselves in a kind of “check-mate”, as one commentator put it.
At such a critical juncture, all of our pretense must drop away, all of our willfulness, so that we are left naked and exposed to the “hard facts” that we have heretofore been layering over with good intentions and hopeful projections of spiritual grandeur awaiting us upon “enlightenment”. Interestingly enough, it is only with that disenchantment that we can become truly available to real transformation.
For most seekers, our fondest wish has been to be gloriously present at our own Awakening, and thus we may discover to our shock and dismay that such an awakening from the dream of a substantial and independent self involves the literal death of our most cherished concepts and self-images — the death of our spiritual ambition. As it so happens, very few are willing to face that daunting prospect. The tremendous humility required for such a confrontation with one’s own fundamental emptiness is a gateless gate that challenges and undermines the raison d’etre of personal ambition.
Despite our insistence on wanting to be free, when push comes to shove, what many of us really wanted was some exciting and marvelous experience that we could claim for ourselves, accompanied by the enviable status of having gotten IT, perhaps even sporting cool powers and arcane talents – an Enlightened Ego, in other words. We were expecting some special revelation that in turn would grant our prideful self-sense an enduring and elevated validity and confirm our position as an advanced being.
The last thing we ever wanted, despite protests to the contrary, was to see the whole house burn down to the ground. Nevertheless, that is exactly what the fictional narrative of our “spiritual me-story” consists of – a flimsy house of cards – and its only relevant destiny, if we are to truly snap out of the trance of identification with being a needy seeker and assume our natural freedom, is submission to the consuming bonfire of our every vanity.
From that “place” of our original innocence, prior to the stressful adventure of seeking, we can relax more and more into the transparent spaciousness of awake awareness — that which is most true of us. By returning attention again and again to such open natural knowingness that is ever-present beyond any need for acquisition or attainment, what’s discovered is the self-liberated primordial sky of one’s own being in which all thoughts, desires, and self-images arise and dissolve like passing clouds on a warm summer day.
Resting in the simple innocence of awake awareness, we notice that our ambitions have been nothing but thoughts. Our desire for things to be different than they are, is just a thought. Our belief in some special state of enlightenment is just a thought. Every idea or image we might have of ourselves is just a passing thought. Our regrets about the past and projections about the future are mere thoughts. Indeed, whatever arises is nothing but a mental fabrication, a projection of mind that has all the solidity of smoke. Investing attention in any of it is only indulging in day dreaming. When such investments cease, there is no longer any energy fueling the machine of distraction, and thus, as the poet Ryokan so eloquently wrote, “Like the little stream making its way through the mossy crevices, I, too, quietly turn clear and transparent.”
“No ambition is spiritual. All ambitions are for the sake of the ‘I am’. If you want to make real progress you must give up all idea of personal attainment. The ambitions of the so-called Yogis are preposterous. A man’s desire for a woman is innocence itself compared to the lusting for an everlasting personal bliss. The mind is a cheat. The more pious it seems, the worse the betrayal.”