Friday, November 30, 2018

Wielding the Sword

When you take a second look at Jesus, there are always a few surprises. Just when you think he’s the guru of peace and love along comes a passage like this: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” (Matthew 10:34) “I have not come to bring peace.” Seriously? Just who is this sword-wielding Jesus? Now that would make a cool stained-glass window.
            Throughout the world’s wisdom traditions, spiritual teachers often resort to the image of the sword. In Vedanta philosophy, the “sword of discrimination” refers to our ability to discern reality from illusion, permanence from impermanence, and truth from lies. Wielding the sword of discrimination is an essential skill for anyone seeking liberation from the delusions of conditioned consciousness. If you have no capacity for discernment or discrimination, you remain forever trapped in an illusory realm far from the sanity, refuge, and beauty of the truth.
            The great Buddhist bodhisattva Manjurshri is depicted wielding a flaming sword, his eyes alight with the intensity of a warrior in battle. In his other hand he holds a lotus flower, the symbol of prajna, the fully-realized awareness of the enlightened state. Because you can’t have one without the other. If you want to awaken, you must cut away all that is not real.
Manjurshri, flaming sword and all, is not your soft, cuddly bodhisattva. He is not your mom. He did not come to comfort you with soft words, cookies, and cocoa. He is here to violently cut you free from the things that are holding your back – your egoic delusions of grandeur, your debilitating self-loathing, your cravings and attachments, and the lie that you have more time to waste. Sharp swords have a way of conveying urgency when gentle coddling and doe-eyed ministrations fail.
            It will hurt. You’re going to lose some things – things that you thought were important. But it turns out they weren’t. And since you were unwilling to let go of them, Manjursri came to slash them away with his sword. You made him do this. You could have let go. But you didn’t. You chose attachment. So he had to go to work.
Change is hard because we always focus on what we are losing, never on what is being born from the wreckage. As much as we say we want to be free the truth is this: we like our cages. We feel contained by them, protected even. Safe.
Safety is overrated. Looking back on our lives we realize that it was only when we took enormous risk or weathered great loss that we were rewarded with the sweetness and beauty we had been longing for.
In Daniel Ladinsky’s translation, the Sufi poet Hafiz explains it this way in his poem Looking for Trouble:

           I once had a student
Who would sit alone in his house at night
Shivering with worries and fears.

And come morning
He would often look as though
He had been raped by a ghost.

Then one day my pity
Crafted for him a knife
From my own divine sword

Since then
I have become very proud of this student.

For now, come night
Not only has he lost all his fear,
Now he goes out
Just looking for trouble.

We have all seen that “raped by a ghost” look in each other’s eyes, and even in our own. Haunted by a past we cannot change, afraid to step across the threshold of our own front doors to claim what is ours, convinced that who we really are is not what the world requires, we stay frozen in a thought-cage of limited and limiting ideas that hold us back from living our own best lives.
This is why spiritual teachers from Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and everywhere else talk so much about wielding swords. That’s how tenacious negative thinking is. That’s how powerful lies are. They don’t undo themselves – they must be undone with sharp, bold, decisive action.
What happens when you run and hide from the sword of discernment? In other words, what happens when you refuse to find the courage to relinquish all of your attachments? What happens when you fail to see past the surface of things and into their depths? What happens when you deny the soft and mysteriously paradoxical nature of reality and force the fluid world into hard categories and rigid dogma? In a word, suffering. Suffering, Buddha taught, is the inevitable product of self-centered expectations. In fact, expectations are just future resentments under construction. When you foolishly think that you are in charge, the universe always has a big surprise waiting for you – the flat tire, the sudden divorce, the devastating diagnosis. In those moments the sword of Manjurshri comes crashing down with heartrending finality and in an instant we realize our utter powerlessness. But on the other side of that powerlessness is the freedom of realization, the wordless knowing that as all the forms of the embodied world rise and fall without our consent or permission we, in the eye of the hurricane, are stillness and peace. That there is wisdom in letting go, in saying Thank you for even allowing me to experience any of this. Grief and despair give way to gratitude and reverence. Even rapture.
But why wait? As we learn to wield the sword of discrimination ourselves, before it is done for and to us, we claim our rightful responsibility as stewards of our own best lives. Never stop trying to awaken. It is not new ideas we need, but freedom from all ideas. Somewhere out past all ideologies and doctrines is the wordless wisdom of inter-being, to be touched in our meditation practice, in our sacred service, in our prayers, in our humble appreciation, in our careful study, and in our sweet and innocent loving. Wisdom is not something we know, it is something we do. In this sense, it is possible to be right without having all of the answers, without, in fact, having any answers at all. We relinquish even the need to understand. We face what is, and have on our lips only the holy word yes. This is what it means to wield the sword of discernment.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

The Sound of a Flower

One day the Buddha gathered his students for a talk. Instead of delivering a discourse on the dharma, he simply held up a flower and didn’t say a word. His students were puzzled, but Kashyapa’s face softened as his eyes met the Buddha’s. Something silent and profound moved between them. From that moment on, Kashyapa became Buddha’s principle disciple.
            For many, this is the origin story of Zen Buddhism’s central idea – that wordless transmission and direct experiential awareness are superior to conceptual, language-based understanding. The Katha Upanishad calls it “spiritual osmosis” – when embodied wisdom flows directly between teachers and students, unhindered by the fog of words and concepts.
            As a guest speaker in various New Thought communities I’ve often wondered what would happen if I showed up on a Sunday morning and instead of delivering a well-wrought sermon I simply held up a flower for twenty minutes. People would squirm. But for the Kashyapa’s in the congregation something profound might happen.           
The 5th century Indian patriarch Bodhidharma defined Zen as a wordless transmission outside the scriptures, a direct seeing into the mind, and the realization of Buddha-consciousness within. In contrast with more elaborate forms of Buddhism already present in China at the time, Bodhidharma spearheaded a stripped-down approach that would evolve into what we call Zen Buddhism today.
At the root of Zen practice is meditation because meditation is the art of breaking free from the grip of the conceptual mind and slipping into the infinite awareness beneath the waves of the thought stream. Prajna, or transcendent wisdom, is only possible when we make this shift, returning to our original nature and becoming that which we already are – illumined beings. We cannot think our way into enlightenment. In fact, it is our thinking that has kept us out.
            This deep state of stillness and concept-free awareness is known throughout Buddhism as nirvana. The contemporary Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh defines nirvana as awareness without concepts. Nirvana is not an afterlife reward for good Buddhists, nor is it a pleasure palace for the senses. Nirvana is a state of awareness free from all concepts – no fixed self, no separate and distinct objects, no cravings, no fears. Reality is finally experienced as it is – a fluid, ordinary, miraculous, sacred, and deeply interconnected phenomenal field without beginning or end. In the wordless depth awareness of prajna, all is one.
When Jesus counsels us to not judge, and seek first the Father’s kingdom, this is what he means – abandon your concepts and come into awareness. When Jesus says “Become again as a child,” this is what he means – to see the world without the paralyzing grid of our prejudices and categories. When Jesus says, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light,” this is what he means – to slip free from the conceptual chains we and the world have constructed. When we shift from the complexity of our ideological frameworks and into the simplicity of present-moment awareness, all is right with the world. Nothing but love, gratitude, service, and bliss. Nothing to cling to. Nothing to resist. Complete and utter freedom. From this stance we can now get to work, moving into the actions that will heal the world, ourselves, and each other, but without anxiety, without egotism, and without shame.  
            Who knew there could be all of this in the silent sound of a flower?