Awakening Into Presence

“With wholeheartedness… we can feel peaceful because our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place.” – Dainin Katagiri

There is a concept in Zen called “The Gateless Gate,” and this paradoxical phrase could be said to be the summation of Zen.  It is the quandary of duality and non-duality, of experiencing self in separateness or in connected oneness.  Zen is among the mystical traditions aiming at “awakening” the experience of non-duality, of oneness, of connection, of seeing into the illusory nature of being a separate self.   As long as we experience and believe there is no other reality than separateness, that “I” am “in here,” and all else is “out there,” we are blocked from the ongoing experience of connectedness that is the source of spiritual peace.  We may have an intellectual understanding of the desirability and even the scientific proof of interconnectedness, but it is as if we are standing outside an impassable gate that blocks the way to actually experiencing this mythic peace and bliss as the living reality of our lives.

In our culture the entire notion of spiritual realization is simply not given any consideration.  We may or may not consider ourselves religious people, but this has very little to do with spiritual realization.  In many ways, this spiritual gate is not a religious issue at all, but rather a cultural one, for it has to do with an absolute belief in the separateness of “things” as the only reality, and in the passage of time as the true story of who we are.  We live in goals that exist in the future and memories of a story of who we are coming out of the past.  Our primary experience, therefore, is of a time/story line of “me, in here” negotiating with other people, the world, and life “out there.”

Western culture (which is now pretty much world culture) believes in the separateness of things as the only reality.  Even Western religion, with the exception of marginalized mystical traditions, is based in the separateness of things and in humanity’s “fall” into separateness from God.  This is not true with nature-based aboriginal cultures, for their spirituality is in an ongoing living experience of connection with all that exists and the underlying unity of all things.  For an aboriginal, the energy of Life or Spirit pervading and giving rise to all things within an interconnected subtle web is a natural experience.  There exists very little in the way of power hierarchy in primitive cultures, neither within their social structure, nor in their relationship to Nature.  All beings, human and animal, even plant and geographical phenomenon like trees, mountains and rivers, have “spirit,” exist in linked kinship, and are worthy of respect and veneration.  Certainly no person, animal or natural life phenomenon is to be objectified, exploited or harmed in the quest for elevation of human power, the abusiveness that marks “civilization,” East and West, but particularly Western.

Traditional Asian culture and religions seem to represent a balance between the aboriginal and Western cultural perspectives, a balance where non-duality and duality co-exist without contradiction.  Eastern culture, having achieved high civilizations, has daily life experienced dualistically in the separateness of things and the hierarchy of power that comes with civilizations, while the religious traditions of the East seem to function as a reminder of the underlying truth of non-duality.  This is very unlike Western religions that have been transformed through historic enmeshment with the political state to reinforce dualistic hierarchy.  Within Eastern cultures there existed two societies; a secular dualistic society and a monastic religious society teaching non-duality as the ultimate insight into Reality and as the antidote to the suffering caused by the cruel dualities of secular life.  While not accessible to most ordinary people, the realm of the religious orders was held in awe and respect, and much of the society was guided and informed by the wisdom that emanated from these traditions.  The gateless gate is symbolic of the duality of secular identity within ultimate non-duality, and is an acknowledgment of the great difficulty of the realization of non-duality from within the dualistic perspective.

In the contemporary world, if we have studied enough mystical spiritual teaching to be asking the questions, “What is the nature of reality?” “What is spirituality and how do I bring it into everyday life?” “Are we one or are we two?” we have become aware of the gate.  If we have taken on a meditation practice, we are, in a sense standing, knocking on the gate, yet, while having glimpses of the “pure land” that Buddhism refers to, we remain mostly frustrated in our attempts to pass through the gate with any consistency.   Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki famously koaned, “If you believe we are two, you are wrong; if you believe we are one, you are equally wrong.  We are two AND one.” So, how do we achieve this realization that while we live in the appearance of two and must function in a world of dualistic civilization, can we  increasingly live in the simultaneous realization that we are one, infinite, and existing in a perfect sacred unfolding of the universe?  How do we release ourselves with any consistency from the samsara of suffering that comes with duality-only consciousness?

Suzuki’s compatriot roshi, Dainin Katagiri, answered with the koanic perspective that everything Buddhism has to teach is achieved in “wholeheartedness of presence.”  As is intended with a koan, hopefully you have been stopped in your tracks and are giving baffled consideration to what is being said here.  Let us examine this statement beginning with the word “presence.”  Since we are at the intersection of duality and non-duality, the word must be examined from both perspectives, and we will start with the perspective we are accustomed to, the dualistic perspective.  Presence is here, that’s simple.  Or is it?  Well, where and what is “here?”  Again, hopefully the koanic befuddlement is arising in you.  You were pretty sure you knew where and what “here” is.  Here is here; it is where we locate this body that is me along with its immediate surroundings.

The Zen Master replies, “How small!”  And then asks, “Where is the boundary to this ‘here?’”  Perhaps our egocentricity begins to be evident to us.  As Katagari instructs, “our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place.”  How can it not be so?  Perhaps a sudden sense of vast expansiveness arises within you.  This can be called “wholeheartedness.”  Wholeheartedness is the ability to see the vastness of our true existence.  If our presence and the presence of the universe are the same, where and what is not included in this presence?  Perhaps a great sense of compassionate identification with all of life begins to arise along with a peaceful sadness for all the unnecessary suffering caused by dualistic egocentricity.  Perhaps a wisdom also arises that allows the sadness to be peaceful rather than angry, a wisdom that sees in the vastness of the universe unfolding, everything being as it can be in the unfolding.  This is Karma.  There is work to be done to bring this sadness before the world peacefully, so the world can see the truth of the error of “egoic delusion.”  This is awakening.  The business of the Bodhisattva is awakening the world – their wholehearted presence a beacon of what a human can be.

This is waking up out of our egocentric dream of duality.  This is awakening into true presence.  Our intellect barely grasps this, for the intellect is for creating separate thought-forms to give order to our experience.  Our physical senses cannot grasp it for our senses are designed to perceive separateness and detail of forms.  This realization requires the opening of the sense of intuition, a sense neglected, even scorned in Western culture.  Yet, it is actually the most important of our mental capacities for it is the sense of individualized consciousness, awareness, connecting with the energy of consciousness that permeates the universe and gives rise to the material form of the universe – all connected.

WHAT?!  Yes, our Western mind balks at this, yet….. like a bell ringing in the distance, do you not know this in the deepest recesses of your consciousness, in the primitive being that arose out of Nature and existed in the mystery and unity of Nature that was your Paleolithic ancestor of fifteen thousand years ago?  These nature-humans knew in the very cells of their body and mind that they were Nature and they lived in the web and womb of Spirit, and this cellular memory is alive in us today.  This is wholeheartedness.  This is whole-mindedness, the bringing and integrating of our total mental faculties, including intuition into unlocking the gate.

“Show me your original face!” commands the Zen Master.  Awaken from the sleep of civilization and all the misery and suffering it causes.  Awaken into wholeheartedness of presence where you and the universe are one – all place, all time, all beings.  You are now standing where once there was a gate, but now, all space and time and possibility open up in front of you “because our presence and the presence of the universe are exactly in the same place.”  No longer in the forest, rather in civilization, in the universe, living a civilized life, but not so broken, ready to evolve an entirely new chapter in human civilization where duality and non-duality are equally honored.  Where “we are two AND one.”

In Praise Of Intelligence

One of the best human qualities is our intelligence, which enables us to judge what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, what is beneficial and what is harmful. Negative thoughts, such as anger and strong attachment, destroy this special human quality; this is indeed very sad. When anger or attachment dominates the mind, a person becomes almost crazed… Under their power we commit all kinds of acts—often having far-reaching and destructive consequences. A person gripped by such states of mind and emotion is like a blind person, who cannot see where he is going. Yet we neglect to challenge these negative thoughts and emotions that lead to near insanity. On the contrary, we often nurture and reinforce them! By doing so we are, in fact, making ourselves prey to their destructive power. When you reflect along these lines, you will realize that our true enemy is not outside ourselves. – Dalai Lama

Increasingly, this nation founded by individuals dedicated to rational enlightenment and as a haven from intolerant religion is drifting toward the legitimization of irrational politics manifesting many of the characteristics of irrational intolerant religion. Within our political discussion there is, among a growing segment of our population, an embrace of bitter anger for anger’s sake and for attachment to opinions that have no basis in fact. In both this type of politics and this type of religion, beliefs are held because they appeal to the dangerous human tendency towards sectarianism where those who are not members of the sect are held in suspicion and fear. What is believed to be true and not true is determined by what the clergy (in this case politicians, media figures and politicized clergy) say is true and not true. It is not surprising that there is a great overlap of those who identify with both this type of religion and this type of politics.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon in American history; it is, in fact, a continual thread where intolerance, resistance to progress, economic inequity and militarism runs strong, whipped into frenzy with emotional sloganeering devoid of factual basis. Should we fail, however, to address our very real problems with intelligence and humility, the consequences will be deep and long lasting . This sectarianism threatens to fracture our society and to steer its national purpose away from addressing commonly shared needs and challenges, diverting energy from rational address of very real problems toward emotional posturing over issues of political dogma. Already, the summoning of common will to deal with our society’s problems has become nearly impossible and the current political climate threatens to make it even more so. On issues of the economy, the environment, international relations, our political process, immigration, and social-and-economic inclusiveness, intolerance of honest debate, even the denial of scientific fact is steering this group’s political agenda. Ideology has become taken as truth because the leadership says it is so, and an echo-chamber of slogans substitutes for intelligent discussion. Why is this happening?

We live in times of unprecedented change. The speed with which technology, economic centralization, globalization and shifting demographics are affecting particularly the white working class’s sense of place and security in the society in which they once felt secure is evoking a disorientation and fear that makes for easy manipulation by those who would use their familiar symbols as rallying cries to stop needed change. Rallying around conservative religion, guns, military strength and adventurism, getting government and its taxes out of their lives, restoring and taking back “our country,” and severely limiting immigration are all seductive and intoxicating arguments when shilled by bombastic preachers of fear and anger whose real motives are power and the entrenchment of those who currently profit from holding the economy and society in their control. Anxiety and fear about the future is well-founded, only it is those who are the real cause of this insecurity who are pointing fingers and diverting the anger upon those who are not.

We are making the catastrophic error of dumbing down our politics and our social agenda, of confusing cleverness at advancing and defending self-interest and sectarian dogmas as intelligence.   Nothing could be further from the truth. True intelligence, as The Dalai Lama said, “enables us to judge what is wholesome and what is unwholesome, what is beneficial and what is harmful.” To build a society based in respectful inclusiveness and fair sharing of the society’s wealth and benefits is wholesome. To allow a small oligarchy of wealth to control our economy and social agenda towards their own benefit at the expense of the common people is unwholesome. To ignore pressing problems that threaten catastrophic consequences such as environmental degradation, climate change, a middle-class being pushed toward poverty while the impoverished are completely marginalized and our infrastructure goes neglected is harmful. To divert political energy from a healthy society’s highest priority which is to provide economic security and opportunity for betterment to as wide and diverse a circle of the population as possible is not only harmful, it is crazy.

These priests of radical conservatism use the same tactics and strategies that every corrupt and power-hungry leadership has used throughout history. We should be able to recognize the themes. They lie about the nature of our problems and who is responsible, and they do so with a shrillness and urgency that intensifies the unease and suspicion that people already feel because their lives are indeed insecure. This insecurity is ginned into fear and anger, and the people and the society becomes almost crazed. “When anger or attachment dominates the mind, a person becomes almost crazed… Under their power we commit all kinds of acts—often having far-reaching and destructive consequences.”

Real debate and discussion of the society’s problems is rejected, substituted with accusations of weakness, lies and even treachery projected on those who hold differing views and those who would dare to question. Complex problems are reduced to simple equations with the political opposition and the scapegoat populations as the culprits to blame. “We neglect to challenge these negative thoughts and emotions that lead to near insanity. On the contrary, we often nurture and reinforce them!” Shrill accusation and blame replaces intelligent political debate without any consideration for what is true and what is not true. “By doing so we are, in fact, making ourselves prey to their destructive power.” This is all very disheartening and frightening to those who want to engage in a positive and inclusive political process towards addressing pressing and real problems that will determine the quality of the future for all.

Buddhism recognizes compassion, equanimity, charity, humility, non-judgmentalism, and above all, discernment into the truth of what is as marks of intelligence. The truth of what is tells us that we need to have faith in our ability to be increasingly enlightened – that is open-minded and inclusive – as individuals and as a society. It is very telling that whereas Americans once looked to the future in utopian terms, now it is almost always a dystopian future portrayed in our literature and scientific projections. The current celebration of anger, hatred and misplaced blame as the mainstay of the political right-wing’s agenda points us only in such a dystopian direction.

Buddhism calls upon right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration (The Eightfold Path) as the guide to wisdom, peace and happiness – as the essence of intelligence. While the political right drapes itself with words like morality and patriotism, Buddhism looks to these principles, regarded as virtues, in which the adjective “right” is not some moralistic judgment, but rather a discerning quality that can see things as they are and knows that only through recognizing and respecting the interdependence and interconnectedness of all people, and in fact, of all life, can we live virtuous and happy lives. Intelligent inquiry into the “what is” of life is its cornerstone.

The Buddhism I present here is not a proselytizing religion, but rather a philosophy, a psychology of proven guides to liberating humans from suffering and ignorance. It welcomes questioning and challenge. It welcomes sincere people of any religious or national orientation to test its principles and adopt what shows its merit rationally. It suggests that we explore for ourselves the validity of its teachings. It recognizes compassion, generosity, kindness, empathy, the application of mindful awareness and discerning intelligence as our highest human qualities, while aggression, anger, greed, selfishness, prejudice and hatred are our greatest threats. This is a teaching proven true in our personal lives and our collective historic experience over and over again. The happiest, most peaceful and stable societies manifest these virtues as do the happiest, most peaceful and stable individuals.   This cannot be denied. It is in the application of open-minded intelligence that this assertion is validated – and it is in holding our political discussion and our government to the standard of these virtues that we have the best chance for a quality, even utopian, future for all.

The Triple Gem

“I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the Dharma, I take refuge in the Sangha.”– The Triple Gem

The Triple Gem is also known as the Triple Refuge and is one of the most important teachings in Buddhism, often taken as a vow by individuals wishing to enter a Buddhist community. The term “gem” is used to emphasize the great value and preciousness of this teaching as it points us to a life that is likewise experienced as precious. In order to understand this teaching, however, we must understand its key words. We must understand what refuge means, and we must understand what Buddha, Dharma, Sangha mean in their deepest context. So too, we must also understand what the pronoun “I” means, for in Zen it is the most profound of koans (a succinct paradoxical statement or question used as a meditation). We must understand who this “I” is and what is this “I” that needs refuge, and having found refuge, what is the transformation of our understanding and experience of “I”?

Let us begin with the word, “Refuge.” A dictionary definition tells us that refuge is “shelter or protection from danger or distress.” It is to where we can return for peace and a sense of well-being and psychological safety.  In our discussion, the danger and distress from which we seek refuge is the instability and confusion of our own minds and human society. It is the distress that comes from our frustration with failing to find stable happiness and security in actions and beliefs we are told will lead to happiness and security. The refuge is the peace and well-being available to us when we recognize that what we seek we already possess. We only have to learn to look sufficiently deeply within rather than continuing our habit of looking outside ourselves in our social roles, our possessions and in other people.

So what does it mean to seek refuge in the Buddha? Let us begin by understanding that “Buddha” means “awakened” in the Pali language of ancient India where Buddhism was born. So we are taking refuge in some kind of awakening – and awakening means to move from a state of unconsciousness into consciousness. This is the essential journey and purpose of Buddhist practice. We are to move gradually from what is really a state of semi-consciousness, physically awake but psychologically unconscious to our full potential, into realizing that beyond what we have been conditioned to believe concerning who we are and what the world is about, beliefs filled with insecurities, we are capable of a relationship with life that is vibrant and secure beyond any surface conditions.

2500 years ago in Northern India, a prince named Siddhartha Gautama dedicated his life to understanding the nature of the unnatural emotional suffering that humans experienced in the face of life’s challenges as well as why humans behaved in ways to create unnecessary suffering. In this way, he was truly more a psychologist than a religious figure, and a truly great psychologist he was. Instead of examining others, whom he could only superficially observe, he looked deep within himself, through meditation, so deep that it was no longer Siddhartha looking at Siddhartha, rather, awareness, pure consciousness, was looking at Siddhartha, and not only at Siddhartha, but the entire human dilemma.

He employed the impersonal observational power of awareness to examine the human condition from within, and in this way, he was very scientific. He “awakened” powers of consciousness that are inherent in all humans but lie dormant under layers of identification with the form and idea of who we are. He awakened into being consciousness itself, impersonal and with vast capacities for understanding and insight. This is Buddha. Siddhartha the personality, like all personalities, was filled with insecurities and conflicts, but Siddhartha found refuge in Buddha, awakened consciousness, and so can any human.

Siddhartha made many discoveries, but foremost, he had discovered his true nature as awareness, an unshakable and silent “I” capable of incredible insight and wisdom. He was able to see how this psychological form known as Siddhartha was the product of conditioning, literally the physical, family, cultural and personal conditions that influence a person’s understanding of themselves and the world. He was able to see how it is that humans mistake themselves for this separate physical and psychological form completely overlooking their most fundamental experience, that of consciousness, which has no personalized quality to it. In this sense, the conditioned personality of “I” that is vulnerable to instability in the face of life’s conditions finds refuge in the “I” of awareness, invulnerable to the vicissitudes of life.

He was able to see how we cling to this physical and psychological form for identity and how unreliable and unstable this identity is, resulting in great anxiety and desire for greater reliability and stability that we search for in the external world of forms, chasing after desires, fleeing from fears and shaken by personal doubt. It was like waking up out of a hypnotic dream to see clearly the full potential of who and what we are as human beings, and for this awakening, Siddhartha became known as “Buddha” – the awakened one.

So the refuge that is the Buddha is the realization of the truth of who we are as awareness, capable of seeing how we create our own danger through mistaken attribution of identity to that which is inherently unstable and unreliable, our own psychological conditioning. It is realizing our usual state of consciousness is this projected state of conditioned images, much like an opaque screen covering over the clear light of true consciousness. To be awake is to turn this around and shine the clear light of pure consciousness upon the images projected and see them for what they are and become free of their hold. This was the lesson of the Buddha’s first teaching called the Four Noble Truths.

Dharma is the Sanskrit word (Dhamma in Pali) that means “truth” or the teachings that lead to understanding the truth of the nature of the way life is. We can have faith that the truth that leads to safe refuge from unnecessary suffering in our personal life is attainable because Siddhartha, the Buddha, showed the way and there are countless individuals through the ages that have attained this enlightenment following the path the Buddha demonstrated. These teachings and practices are practical and attainable and there is both a historic and present day community practicing this path. This community is known as the Sangha.   We are not alone.

Dharma is the Universe as it is – vast and mysterious yet comprehensible in the unfathomable intelligence and insight of the silent mind of consciousness, for consciousness, co-manifesting with form, is the Universe. We are apertures of consciousness in form through which the Universe experiences itself, and likewise, form can intuit and begin to comprehend the infinite Universe, as ancient mystics did, as Siddhartha did, as modern quantum-field scientists are beginning to do. We can let go of fear as we understand ever more deeply the Dharma of infinite unity of which we are expressions. Buddhism’s teachings and practices, specifically meditation and mindfulness open this door.

The Sangha is available to us both immediately, in the many teachers, groups and communities that are engaged in meditation, study and application of the principles of awakening, and in the abstract through books, both Buddhist and otherwise, written by people who have seen the nature of suffering rooted in ignorance and point us encouragingly toward our own search for truth. Non-Buddhist examples would be Socrates, Plato, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Jesus, Meister Ekhart, Galileo, Copernicus, Rumi, Voltaire, Kant, Emerson, Thoreau, Krishnamurti, Teilhard de Chardin, Albert Einstein, Abraham Heschel, Ramana Maharshi, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, Eckhart Tolle. The list can go on and on including any author or personality that has been a source of inspiration leading a person to know they are not alone in their questioning and search for answers into the human condition.

Sangha can be found in Nature-based cultures like Native American or the ancient Druids that lived believing in balance and the wisdom and infinite connectedness of the natural world. It may even be found in writers of fiction or artists and musicians who wrestle with the human condition and from whom inspiration and solace is to be found. The Sangha of awakening is everywhere to be found. It may have been a supportive teacher, a kindly neighbor, a wise friend. The refuge, the safe place for us to return and find encouragement for us to explore the truth of who we are and what it is to be a human being is all around us. Even the birds and squirrels, the trees, the mountains, the waters and clouds can speak to us as family and reveal their secret of unity and peace.

It is true that society, our human interactions, and even our own minds can be places of emotional, even existential danger and distress. Look to Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The Awakening, the Way and the Community of humanity and Nature evolving into wisdom, compassion and insight await us as truly effective refuges from ignorance and the ego-based shallowness, indifference, materialism, even cruelty and exploitation of our contemporary world, as well as the confusion of our own minds.

Embrace these gems and discover the “I” that can see and know peace, wisdom and unity. These refuges can sustain and guide us into finding balance for the personal and insecure egoic “I” that struggles with the world through the realization of the ultimate “I,” the spark of consciousness that is our primary experience, that knows there is no separation from the world. This is the “I” that knows we are the world arising in awareness moment to moment and that ultimately there is no struggle, no obstacle, no suffering, just life, and we are that life. Engage life fully, resist nothing emotionally, take nothing personally, deeply appreciate the wonder that is life, while working to bring our personal and communal experience into deeper compassion, effectiveness and wisdom. This is the Buddhist Way. This is the Triple Gem.

The Path of Return

“In each of us, the seed of Buddha, the capacity to wake up and understand, is called Buddha nature. It is the seed of mindfulness, the awareness of what is happening in the present moment… There is no one who does not have the capacity to be a Buddha. But the treasure we are looking for remains hidden to us… Let go of the idea that you don’t have it. It is available within you.”Thich Nhat Hanh

We come to a meditation practice generally with the idea to make our life-experience better in some way. We may want less stress or anxiety in our lives. We may want to have a calmer mind, not so beset by runaway or unwelcome thoughts and emotions. We may want to feel more centered, less scattered. We may want to gain insight and better control of some behavior or behavior pattern that has become problematic. We may feel there is a spiritual dimension to life that has eluded us and we hope meditation will open this dimension for us. In each case, we want something about “me” to be improved. This idea of “me” improving, of being slightly less tense, anxious, distracted, of being more centered and focused, calm and maybe even spiritual is laudable, and meditation can bring these gifts. Paradoxically, however, this idea of “me” gaining positive benefits presents an obstacle to the realization of the expansive freedom that is the true fruit of a dedicated meditation practice guided by a teacher who has made the journey themselves.

Few bring to a meditation practice awareness of how profound and transformative it actually can be, and fewer still realize that all that stands between them and meditation’s full realization is their holding onto the idea of who they think they are and their bringing this self-image to the practice.   Buddhist literature, such as the Thich Nhat Hanh quote above, can be confusing, often using arcane language that the uninitiated have difficulty grasping.   To say “There is no one who does not have the capacity to be a Buddha” does not make any sense from within conventional Western perspectives. It is like saying there is no one who does not have the capacity to be Jesus, and that would be considered blasphemous. So it may be considered inspiring, but not factual.

Yet, I suspect, Jesus would have understood perfectly what Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddhism are saying when they tell us to realize we all have the capacity to be a Buddha, for I see Jesus as a great mystic, a Zen Master, and we are being called here to realize within us dimensions that transcend our usual perspective and outlook. Buddhism is a very different manifestation of religion from Christianity precisely because the Christian notions of “Messiah” and “Savior” are concepts that create a separation in the nature of the kind of being that are the worshiper and the worshiped, not identification. It is very important to realize that Buddha wanted no worship of him and I see no evidence that Jesus did either. Buddha wanted identification and I have to believe so did Jesus. The worship of a religious figure as differentiated from finding inspiration and a model for how we can live our own lives lead to very different manifestations of the religious life.

Religions reflect the customs of the culture in which they grow and the Middle-Eastern culture that brought forth Jesus was one of God worship with God in Heaven and the connection to Earth was to be an intermediary, a Messiah and Savior, in Jesus, a “son of God.” The Middle-East, and later Europe where Christianity flourished, were cultures where religion was expressed in duality – humanity is here on Earth, God is in Heaven. In these cultures intermediary figures are necessary, beginning with demi-gods represented by Jesus, and then saints, then a clerical hierarchy. There is a gulf between deity and the common person.   Michelangelo’s painting of The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where Adam reaches for but cannot quite touch God exemplifies this.

Ancient Asia, on the other hand, was a world where the Universal Soul, the Ultimate Source known as Brahman (Westerners’ equivalent of God) was not in Heaven, but rather in Creation, all around in the world, and in us, individually expressed through the word Atman. While Buddhism does not concern itself with mythic theology, it was born in this theological cultural context and, in a sense, this notion of Buddha we are addressing here is equivalent to Atman awakened – and living ordinary life. All the religious figures in the Buddhist world are fully human or mythic amalgams representative of virtuous aspects of human nature, such as compassion, insight and wisdom brought to full fruition. The clergy in this world serve as teachers and role models, not intermediaries with divinity. This is what Buddha claimed for himself and what he invited his followers to discover not by worshiping him, but through identification with him and direct experience of the benefits of his way of living and his insights into the true nature life.

There is a story about how when Buddha began to travel and teach after his enlightenment, people were so awestruck by the depth and peacefulness of his presence they would ask, “Are you a god?” To which Buddha said, “No, I am not a god.” Then they asked him “Are you a reincarnation of a god?” No,” he replied. “Are you a wizard, then?” “No.” Well, are you a guru?” “No.” They then asked, being very perplexed, “So what are you?”  Buddha simply replied: “I am awake.”

Buddha taught that he was an ordinary human who had awakened into the full and original potential of what it is to be a human being, free from being covered over and lost beneath social, cultural and psychological conditioning. He knew he was an expression of the Universe, Atman/Brahman-as-a human-being, if you will, and was prepared to live and interact in the world in this unshakeable knowledge, for his meditation had revealed this truth to him, and the name “Buddha” means “Awakened One.”

Humans become lost by attaching and clinging to their very worldly conditioning for their identity.   In the process of becoming this conditioning, our original wondrous potential of intelligent awareness encountering the world, manifesting fresh each moment, becomes lost. It is as if we become a hypnotically induced idea of a human being. This idea is a delusion of separateness and insufficiency that leads to an experience of life that is always ultimately “unsatisfactory,” which is a very useful translation of the Pali language word, “dukkha,” more often translated as “suffering.”

In Buddhist parlance, “The Path of Return” is the realization that this idea of a person, our particular body, mind and life history are not ultimately who we are, and it is what is pointed to when the Zen teacher asks, “show me your original face.” The teacher is asking us to realize we are primordial Atman manifesting Brahman into the ordinary world. The Path of Return is when we let all idea of our conditioned self fall away and allow the moment experienced in awareness, as awareness, to fill us completely. It is in opening to the unbelievably vast dimensions of understanding and presence that already exist within us. Buddhist meditation is specifically designed to facilitate this possibility of realizing awareness-as-who-we-are optimally.

We come to meditation practice with no idea that there is a pure and vast experience of Beingness available to us. We have no idea that the secret to meditation is to get out of one’s own way, so we bring our body, mind and personal identity and history to our meditation. We listen to the dharma teachings about Buddha being within us, but we do not believe and we do not bring unshakeable resolve to awaken, to return to our own inherent purity. We carry too much of the dichotomic teaching of our religious conditioning. Buddha within is taken as a metaphor like Christ within, when, in truth, neither is metaphoric. Buddha and Christ are within each of us, or there would be no Buddha or Christ at all. Because these states of original purity existed in the humans Siddhartha and Jesus, they exist in all humanity. This potential only needs to be awakened as it was in Buddha and Jesus. This very different notion of religion invites us to realize that what we think of as God manifests through us. It is the Universe as intelligent Source and we, of course, are its manifestation as is all of Nature, and I believe this was the intention of Jesus’s teachings, as it was very specifically Buddha’s intent. This is why Buddhism emphasizes to realize true self in being “nobody.” Only total freedom from holding onto our “somebody” as created by our conditioning can open this door.

If you want to change, if you want to become your idea of better, come to meditation ready to shake free of all ideas you have about yourself. Be prepared to let go of the known. The journey of return is not one on which you bring baggage and it is a journey that takes you nowhere except to where you begin. There is needed only the unshakeable resolve to become who you already are. The journey is inward and then, out into the world, awake and increasingly free from the baggage of social, cultural, psychological conditioning. Meet your true self in the vast stillness of the Universe. This is the Path of Return. The Universe is manifesting through you. “The awareness of what is happening in the present moment” is the you that is a lens of consciousness into the world. Polish the lens in stillness until the vision is brightly clear, until you become nobody, nothing but the lens. Then move in the world, an ordinary person, a Buddha using the conditions of body, mind and cultural understanding, awake, returned to your original face, the idea of making yourself somehow better now realized as a case of mistaken identity. All you sought to find through meditation was in you all along. You have returned.