The Mystique of Freedom

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“In fact if everything arises from pure and total consciousness, then pure and total consciousness has no need of a path to tread to reach itself”

 ~Chogyal Namkhai Norbu

In the vast library cataloguing exceptional human experiences, daunting adventures, and intriguing explorations, the tales of humanity’s search for spiritual liberation are some of the more compelling, and have even formed the basis for most of the world’s religions and philosophies. We all love a good story!

However, as fascinating as the reports may be — these bold testimonies of spiritual heroes and heroines persevering through all manner of adversity to finally attain the pinnacle of human potential, pull the sword from the rock, and ascend blissfully beyond the dreary fate of ordinary mortals — the actual truth is that they are all based on a fundamental case of mistaken identity.

It’s not so much that they have often been seriously “airbrushed” (although that is a regrettable though all too common fate of many of these hagiographies), but rather that they were embarked upon under false pretenses from the beginning. That many of these characters burst out laughing in recognition of that fact at the culmination of their quest does provide a saving grace element to the reports. Let’s examine why.

In reality, nobody goes from being bound to being free, from being lost to being found. There is no mountain to climb, river to cross, or surrender to be done in order to acquire or attain that which we already are and have always been. Free. Nobody has ever been bound, nobody has ever required salvation. Indeed, whatever we try to do to grasp or achieve it actually obstructs its recognition as our natural primordial state.

In Zen, there is a saying that “the obstacle is the path”, but here it might also be recognized that the “path” itself can be (and often is) the obstacle, especially if we are approaching it as some kind of self-improvement strategy.

Despite all hope or idealism to have things be other than they are – better, more agreeable, brighter — there is never going to be any more to who and what we are, than who and what we really are right now. There is nothing about who we really are that has ever needed improvement. Freedom is our native, or default, condition, and it has never changed, nor will it ever. It is not modified by time or experience, is not born, and never dies.

We are always already free, even to the extent that “freedom” itself is just a conceptual designation signifying that which has always been the case from the very no-beginning. What is, simply is. “Is” does not need to become more “is”. Nor is there anything about our primordial nature that needs to be liberated, redeemed, saved, or enlightened, but simply recognized.

The real freedom that is true of us is not a new accomplishment or state to be gained in opposition to bondage. This pristine awake awareness that we are has never been conditioned, nor can it become more aware. It is empty and transparent, yet knowing. Knowing what? Knowing this immediate experience, whatever it may be.

Within that ineffable spaciousness which has no limit and no circumference, thoughts, emotions, memories, sensations, and perceptions appear and vanish as the display of awareness itself, our display, in the same way clouds appear and vanish in the sky. This also includes the sense of self, a projection of mind which mind may in turn mistake as our true identity, even though our true nature is this prior awake awareness.

Whatever appears in the sky does not affect the sky, any more than what is reflected in a mirror affects the mirror. The most profound beauty or the most terrible ugliness are exactly the same to the mirror – mere reflections without substance or endurance. They all comprise what comes and goes, but awareness itself is motionless.

Within the space or embrace of awareness, whatever arises is instantly known, just as what passes before the mirror is instantly reflected in it. The knower of whatever arises is this fundamental awareness. When the sense of a concrete and independent self-entity arises within this space, it is simply the space of awareness manifesting as a momentary, empty formation. Awareness itself is never implicated by its content.

However, emptiness is also form, and so this transient complex of thought energy may begin weaving a narrative – a story composed of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions that seem to amount to a substantial “me”. Mind projects this dreamy character and then sets about trying to confirm its existence in the virtual reality realms of infinite experience.

Nevertheless, this “me-complex” can never be truly satisfied, its longing for validation truly quenched, despite all efforts to make it so. After all, it is merely a temporary play of consciousness, like a movie character that seems real, but is actually just the projected light reflecting on a screen.

In Buddhism, this stressful sense of dissatisfaction or un-fulfillment is called “Dukkha”. The Buddha taught that it inevitably arises as a result of a fundamental ignorance regarding who and what we truly are – this sky-like awake awareness. It represents a contraction of the free flow of beingness, a kind of knot-complex entangling life energy in the illusion of insufficiency.

In any case, it is that one, the dissatisfied one, who is forever exploiting the possibilities of experience in the hope of acquiring happiness. However, because such quests inevitably turn out to be in vain (in the sense that all effort at happiness only reinforces the sense of unhappiness), it is also “that one” who may eventually assume the identity of a spiritual seeker, armed with all sorts of schemes and strategies to get enlightened, saved, redeemed, and thoroughly satisfied at last.

As it so happens (and to make a long story short), that seeker is also the very one who disappears in the blaze of true realization. In that unaccountable grace of recognition, awareness suddenly awakens to itself. Of course, this is just a manner of speaking, pointing to the moment in which the subconscious ceases projecting an independent self, along with the dreamy story of “me & mine” which accompanies it.

It is not as if the ego-mind finally triumphs in the attainment of its goal. It is simply that it is seen through and recognized as the illusion it has always been. Upon awakening, the fate of our dream characters is moot. They were only dreams, after all. The seeker does not suddenly awaken. They never will, since they were a fiction all along. Who applauds when the mirage is seen to be a mirage?

In a flash of Realization, the sense of identity has now been reversed, from being the desperate searcher-subject we took ourselves to be, to the recognition of our true nature as the pure and timeless awareness in which that dancing thought-form momentarily arose and then melted away.

It is not as if a definitive key to life has been discovered. The one who would find such a formula has been a fictional creation all along. In reality, there is only life, what is, “this”. It can’t be divided into subject and object, except in the imagination. There is no separate “awareness” that is witnessing experiences.

Even calling it “our nature” is a kind of language trick, since how can “what is” belong to anybody? In that sense, “impersonal” does mean some sort of cold and aloof state of withdrawal from relations, but simply indicates the absence of a personal subject, separated out from experience. There is simply  experience, life, happening to no one.

In reality, nothing has happened, nobody has arrived anywhere. Nor is this a clue for the mind still committed to dilemma, any more than the sound of tides washing onto the shore is a way or a means to something more. The waves wash in, the waves wash out, but the sea remains the sea.

“Pleasure and pain alternate. Happiness is unshakable. What you can seek and find is not the real thing. Find what you have never lost, find the inalienable.”

~Sri Nisargadatta


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About Bob OHearn

My name is Bob O'Hearn, and I live with my Beloved Mate, Mazie, in the foothills of the Northern California Sierra Nevada Mountains. I have a number of blog sites you may enjoy: Photo Gallery: Essays on the Conscious Process: Compiled Poetry and Prosetry: Verses and ramblings on life as it is: Verses and Variations on the Investigation of Mind Nature: Verses on the Play of Consciousness: Poetic Fiction, Fable, Fantabulation: Poems of the Mountain Hermit: Love Poems from The Book of Yes: Autobiographical Fragments, Memories, Stories, and Tall Tales: Ancient and modern spiritual texts, creatively refreshed: Writings from selected Western Mystics, Classic and Modern: Wisdom of a Spirit Guide: Thank You!
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12 Responses to The Mystique of Freedom

  1. Bob OHearn says:

    Unborn and imperishable is the original mind.
    Search back to the time when you were born:
    you can’t remember a thing at all!
    Keep your mind as it was when you came into the world,
    and instantly this very self is a living Buddha.
    Clinging, craving and the like—
    I don’t have them on my mind.
    That’s why nowadays I can say
    the whole world is truly mine!

    Thinking back over the past, you find it was an evening’s dream.
    Realize that, and you’ll see everything is just a lie.
    Since, after all, this floating world is unreal,
    instead of holding onto things in your mind, go and sing!

    When you don’t attach to things,
    the floating world will cease to be
    [as a separate, merely objective appearance].
    Nothing is left, nothing at all.
    That’s what “living tathâgata means.”

    When you do wrong, your mind’s the demon,
    there’s no hell to be found outside.
    Abominating hell, longing for heaven,
    you make yourself suffer in a joyful world.

    Mysteries and miracles—there are no such things!
    But when you fail to understand,
    the world’s full of weird happenings.

    This is the phantom [ego-mind] who deceives,
    who makes us take the false world to be real.
    When your study of Buddhism is through,
    you find you haven’t anything new.

    Enlightenment and delusion too never existed at the start.
    They’re ideas that you picked up, things your parents never taught.
    If you think the mind that attains enlightenment is “mine”
    your thoughts will wrestle, one with the other.

    These days I’m not bothering about getting enlightenment all the time,
    and the result is that I wake up in the morning feeling fine!
    Nowadays, I just move along at my ease, letting the breath come and go.
    Die— then live day and night within the world.

    Once you’ve done this, then you can hold the world right in your hand!
    It’s the buddhas I feel sorry for; with all those ornaments they wear,
    they must be dazzled by the glare!

    The mind that’s not conditioned is originally unborn;
    what is conditioned doesn’t exist— that is why there’s no delusion.
    Though the years may creep ahead, mind itself can never age.
    This mind that’s always just the same.
    Wonderful! Marvelous!

    When you’ve searched and found at last
    the one who never will grow old—‘I alone!’
    The Pure Land where one communes at peace is here and now,
    it’s not remote, millions and millions of leagues away. 

    Bankei Yōtaku, Zen Master of the “Unborn”

  2. Bob OHearn says:

    “Too lazy to be ambitious,
    I let the world take care of itself.
    Ten days’ worth of rice in my bag;
    a bundle of twigs by the fireplace.
    Why chatter about delusion and enlightenment?
    Listening to the night rain on my roof,
    I sit comfortably, with both legs stretched out.”


  3. Bob OHearn says:

    Tilopa taught Naropa:

    “Beyond all mental images the mind is naturally clear:
    Follow no path to follow the path of the Buddhas;
    Employ no technique to gain supreme enlightenment.”

  4. Bob OHearn says:

    “The worst thing you can ever do is to search for enlightenment, for liberation. This keeps you back. It keeps you back because there is a self that is searching. There is an I that is searching. There is a me that is trying to become something, and the whole idea is to remove something from your consciousness. Therefore, the process of realization is removal, not adding. Removing this and removing that. Removing all concepts and all preconceived ideas. Removing all of your thoughts, no matter what kind of thoughts they are. Good thoughts, bad thoughts, they all must go. And what is left will be nothing, no-thing. You are that. You are that no-thing.”

    ~Robert Adams

    “If you are trying to attain enlightenment, you are creating and being driven by karma, and you are wasting your time on your black cushion.”

    ~Shunryu Suzuki Roshi

  5. Bob OHearn says:

    “All experience is born of imagination. There is no such thing as the experience of the real. The real is beyond experience. All experience is in the mind. You know the real by being the real. All experience is illusory, limited and temporal. Expect nothing from experience. Realization by itself is not an experience, though it may lead to a new dimension of experiences.”

    ~Nisargadatta Maharaj

  6. Bob OHearn says:

    The ultimate truth is so simple; it is nothing more than being in one’s natural, original state. It is a great wonder that to teach such a simple truth a number of religions should be necessary, and so many disputes should go on between them as to which is the God-ordained teaching. What a pity. Just be the Self, that is all.

    ~Ramana Maharshi

  7. Bob OHearn says:

    “Thus samsara is emptiness, nirvana is emptiness – and so consequently, one is not “bad” nor the other “good.” The person who has realised the nature of mind is freed from the impulsion to reject samsara and obtain nirvana. He is like a young child, who contemplates the world with an innocent simplicity, without concepts of beauty or ugliness, good or evil. He is no longer the prey of conflicting tendencies, the source of desires or aversions.”

    – Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche

  8. Bob OHearn says:

    “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 hangups. 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, worshiping, 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.”

    ~Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

  9. Pingback: The waves wash in, the waves wash out, but the sea remains the sea | Zen Flash

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