“Lead me from the Unreal to the Real.” This is the great Vedantic prayer that represents the height of spirituality. In the realm of illusion, we inevitably find misery; we are bound and unable to exist in freedom. Sometimes the chains by which we are bound are golden — we are wealthy, we have healthy and pleasurable circumstances, and we feel smug in our existential situation — but this is all temporary. There is no contract with divinity that such pleasant conditions will continue. And if we are at all sensitive, we are only too aware that there is untold suffering all around us. A sudden death or tragedy may take away the ones we love most, a change of fortune may impoverish us, or unjust accusations may destroy our reputation. A shift in the wind can take us from the heights to the depths without warning. It is for this reason that the Chinese sage says: “Go to your triumph like a funeral.” Few are this wise.
What is the answer? What defense do we have? Spiritually, the answer is to identify with the lasting Real, and be indifferent though not callous to what is temporary and passing, knowing how often pleasure is followed by pain.
What do we mean by the “Real”? That which is permanent, that which is not phenomenal and subject to change. In Indian philosophy, the Real is identified negatively as neti neti — “not this, not that.” What can be experienced by the senses is changeable and in a constant state of flux (though it is a symbol of the Reality underlying all phenomena). What is multiple is always in a state of transition: to tie our hopes to it is to end in disillusion. The act of ascribing Reality to what is essentially flux is the cause by which we create our own misery.
In truth, our bodies change constantly from fingernails and hair to beards and waste products; physically we are never the same person we were yesterday.
Do we know we will still be alive tomorrow? Each lives as though they are immortal while knowing full well they will inevitably die. To be smug and satisfied in this condition hardly seems wise. We can attempt to pass our time pleasurably in entertainment, trying the impossible task of cultivating pleasure while doing away with pain. Or we can clearly see the whole picture and determine to identify with a permanence that is not subject to circumstances — this chance we have. When we determine, usually after severe suffering, to take the eternal road and to dedicate ourselves to realizing the lasting (whether we call it God, Tao, Buddha, or Allah), we have in Buddhist terminology “entered the stream.” We have turned 180 degrees from sense enjoyment and begun to tread the Way that will take us to the complete fulfillment of spiritual realization. This is the true spiritual path, and the starting point of spirituality is usually the terrible sense of impermanence.
Many equate spirituality with the vague and ephemeral, with a wishy-washy do-good attitude. Nothing could be farther from the truth. True sages — and most saints — have been vigorous and purposeful, possessed of an inner certainty that gave a strong center to their lives and attracted others less firmly grounded. The spiritual task of finding Reality — really manifesting Reality — can be long and hard, but it is, in the end, the only rewarding one. There is no true contentment without it, no matter how smug we may temporarily feel in our own little niche.
This spiritual path starts with repentance and determination to renounce inwardly what is not Real. It does not mean a change in the outer circumstances of our life. If it comes about through some overwhelming and unexplainable spiritual happening, as it sometimes does, well and good. A Paul the Apostle on the road overcome by a sudden vision of Jesus will never forget it, and his future life will always head in the direction of Reality. This type of incident is comparatively rare, however. Most of us came to the spiritual path through grief. Something led us to a feeling of futility. Like a rat on a treadmill, we have followed the way of others, striving for a little security and a little pleasure, and suddenly it strikes us. In dismay, we begin to search for something lasting, something on which we can depend.
This search is always outer. We read books, look to teachers, and travel, always with the idea that something will be added to us that will make the difference — despite the fact that we have been told, “The kingdom of heaven is within,” that we lack nothing and are all Buddhas. I overheard an Indian teacher, when he was being profusely thanked by a disciple, disclaim the credit and say, “I can only give you what is already yours.”
The task resolves into a struggle to realize ourselves, to truly be what we already basically are, and to develop our own inner treasure. The great teacher will always throw us back on ourselves, for the answer we find for ourselves is the only one that counts. This answer will never be verbal or intellectual. God, or Reality, is not an object that can be defined. There is no mathematical formula involved, no sudden discovery of a hidden word or idea. The Zen teacher cautions that “the last thing a Zen student should prize is understanding.” Understanding is not the way; the explanation is not the aid. Somewhere deep inside we know. It is not that we must uncover light; we are the light, and it is not objectified. As we progress along the spiritual way, the path to the manifestation of Reality, there will be a growth of something within that is impossible to describe. I call it “the growth of certainty.”
There is a religious consciousness within each of us, and it slowly matures in spite of everything unless we dull it with drugs, alcohol, hedonistic practices, or endless meaningless diversion. No matter how superficially we live — and Lord knows, we wallow in superficiality and the provincial, afraid to take the chance of new discovery — this spiritual consciousness ripens. One day, there will be fruits. We can help it ripen, as we can water and fertilize a tree, but it can only grow because it is already present. It is present in the sinner, the drunk, and the murderer. Later it will come to fruition; we can follow a path that will stimulate its growth.
The Buddha said that all suffering is the result of greed, anger, and delusion. To be separated from our true identity is to suffer. To not recognize all things or relationships as impermanent is to be overwhelmed with suffering. To want and not to get is to suffer. To obtain what we want and then worry that it will be taken away is to suffer. To feel that there is a permanent entity called “I” which is separate from all other “I’s” is to ensure the greatest suffering.
Let us examine the “permanent I.”
When a man dies, his body is usually buried and eaten by worms. The worms are then consumed by hungry birds. The dead birds decompose and become the earth, and from this earth grows the tree. Eventually, the tree produces fruit eaten by man. When the man dies and is eaten by worms, the cycle has started again. At what point did the man cease to be a man and become a worm? How did the “I” of the worm cease and meld into the “I” of the bird? Leaving aside the insatiable ego, which claims to be unique and undying, what can we say about this cycle except to say, “There is a life force continually manifesting.”
This force, this energy, never diminishes but the form it takes constantly changes. Should we identify with the form, or with the life force? Should we come and go with the rapidly-changing clouds, or should we place ourselves in the position of the sky — deep, blue, endless, and fundamentally void, meaning without aspect? Where there is an aspect, there is change. A God who is “good,” “just,” and “loving” would not be a permanent God because such qualities are relative. Good is only good in relation to bad.” From the absolute standpoint, there can be no good or bad. We come to neti neti — “not this, not that.” Only through negation can we indicate Reality. It is for this reason that, though ordinary thinking may be designated as either-or, Buddhism is the way of neither-nor. One form of Buddhism, Kegon in Japanese, attempts to reach Reality through a series of more than a hundred negations. The last of these is the negation of the negation. That which can be named is not the true that. “I am that I am” is a perfect description of the aspectless Reality, as long as we remember “am” is not the opposite of “am not,” or “being” as opposed to “non-being.”
It is difficult to push the mind to such overwhelming conclusions, and only through proper meditation do we find that such Realization comes naturally. Then the true teacher asks, “What is there to Realize?” to cut off any attachment in that direction. A great teacher is like one who stands over us as we hang desperately from the cliff, treading on our fingers until, in pain and desperation, we have to let go. What is this letting go? It is giving up the small identity with which we have saddled ourselves, the personality through which the life force is temporarily manifesting. Those who practice the spiritual way often have experiences where the personality is completely out of the picture. There is a Knowing, but no one who is doing the Knowing. Then we snap back to the habitual, regain our habit energies, and reassume our comfortable identity. And seemingly all contact with Truth is then lost again.
Early on the spiritual path, stimulated by meditation and spiritual practices, we have many psychic experiences. These encourage us. Occasionally we have a dream that is too vivid to be a dream, and we realize that it was an actual experience that does not leave us when we awaken. As time goes on the mind purifies; we have fewer of these psychic happenings. Instead, there is something firm that manifests from the center of our being, the growth of certainty. It can never be called an experience in the phenomenal sense. There is nothing on which the intellect can lay hold. It is this very certainty which begins to guide us. We are surprised to hear the words that come spontaneously from our mouths. If we teach, we know without conjecture what others need. There is no pondering, no indecision — there is a Knowing that derives from the growth of certainty. This is the beginning of the impersonal life, and it can never be understood by those who do not experience it.
Only the one who is called to it will find this growth of certainty, and all others will enjoy the world in their own way, laughing and crying, with the sum total signifying nothing. We propagate and die; this is the life cycle we know. Every sage has said that this is suffering. We suffer from pain and from pleasure. Every day we see unbelievable suffering in the world though we may not admit it.
Perhaps we turn to spiritual practice in a half-hearted way. If we make meditation and spiritual practice one more activity sandwiched between the movies, television, and lectures, then our efforts are doomed to failure. Meditation is not a diversion; amusement is not the goal. If one is too trivial to aim at ultimates, then why bother with spiritual practice? Acclaim is no measure of spiritual depth. Ease and munificence are not the true results of practice. If there is not something crying out for a growth of certainty, something puzzled by incomprehensible life and death, then why not stay on the superficial level, and forego spiritual practice? Of course, there is always the possibility that such practice, even if sporadic, will cause a spark and gradually deepen the original aim. And if the sporadic practice is continued, such results seem inevitable. We will all experience this growth of certainty one day.