The True Self

When your meditation becomes mature, the path grounded, you’ve created space internally for the true self to emerge. For the practice to become alive in you, this is essential. Eventually it takes over, or becomes you. Everything becomes the teaching, the path.

Zen master Seung Sahn said to one of the elders, “If you want to find your true self you have to give your whole life.” I didn’t hear this until a few years ago and I thought it was a perfect expression of something I’d found in my own life. I’ve practiced meditation since my late teens. My life revolved around it. 20 years in my life fundamentally changed—the thing I sought was suddenly there. I would not have found it without an incredible amount of preparation.

I have a metaphor that describes this very well. You want a guest to come to your home, but the guest will not come until the house is completely prepared. This is our practice, to prepare the house. And trust me, you want this guest to arrive.

Practice is the process of building a framework that can see beyond itself, that can realize itself. To build requires daily effort. It’s like learning the piano, for instance. If you want to play the piano well, you must practice for hours every day, for many years until you have muscle memory—you don’t have to look at the keys anymore. Then it flows through you and you begin to create your own music.

Meditation is something we do over long periods of time, that invisibly creates the same kind of mental framework as deep association creates for your persona. You’re growing the network of synapses that the true self will utilize.

Jaynes’s The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind has an interesting angle on this. In his view, before we had consciousness we followed inner voices. With the advent of civilization, these voices largely disappeared. Perhaps the schizophrenic is a modern holdover. As a writer I work with inner voices every day. Einstein said everything that he discovered wasn’t from him. Meditators work directly with this, making a foundation, a place for it to exist freely, not to confine it to a particular expression. That’s important. That’s why we work with don’t know. The Surangama sutra, which revolves around falling in love and how to surmount it, warns:

“If you set your lustful mind on seeking the profound fruit of Buddhahood, whatever you may realize will be carnal in nature.” – The Surangama – Charles Luk

If you set your lustful mind on seeking the profound fruit… whatever you may realize will be carnal in nature.

If you develop a skill in a particular thing, as in the piano, then your expression, your voice will be of the piano, rather than objectless. The dharma is objectless. You want it to appear in every facet of every thing you encounter, not to be limited by anything. That’s meditation. A lot of it is wrote. The guitarist Nita Strauss, a lightning fast player, very delicate and articulate, often practices while watching TV shows, just continuously working on it. There’s something there, that it doesn’t have to be perfectly executed but the work has to be done, the time has to be put in. That’s our practice. Sometimes it’s bland, sometimes it doesn’t seem like you’re making any progress, particularly because there’s no measure. But once the framework is established in you it will activate when the time is right.

One of my favorite teachers was Maha Gosananda, a highly enlightened Theravada monk from Cambodia. I’ve never seen anyone before or after of that caliber, always beaming with compassion and love. I asked him once, “How did you get like that?” He replied, without a moment’s thought, “All of my family was murdered by the Khmer Rouge. I could not stop crying. The only thing I could do was go into samadhi. That was the only way I could survive. Great suffering is great compassion.” This is activating the Dharma. Zen Master Seung Sahn survived difficult social upheaval with the end of the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. He was strongly affected by the sight of his own countrymen killing each other and so left the world and soon attained enlightenment. Maybe in your life there’s nothing so dramatic, but life has a way of turning, of coming apart in a multitude of ways. If you have a framework established, when your ego-self, your comfort zone, your comfortable nest is upended, then something else has the possibility to take hold.

I hope I’m drawing this accurately enough (impossible), that it is hard.

“My advice to you is not to undertake the spiritual path. It is too difficult, too long, and is too demanding. I suggest you ask for your money back, and go home. This is not a picnic. It is really going to ask everything of you. So, it is best not to begin. However, if you do begin, it is best to finish.” – Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

I suggest you ask for your money back, and go home. This is not a picnic.

Most people that I’ve known practiced their whole lives making the foundation, working on their path, and have not had that moment of transference. They remain building their whole lives. Good luck to you. If you stick with it and realize your true self, it becomes part of your life, to what clarity organic life can muster. Then your world changes. Your viewpoint changes from that of the individual against the world to one participating in the creative aspect. You take the side of God, not of the individual. That’s the condition, and a litmus test for practitioners. How they speak and act with others faultlessly reveals where they are on the path, if they’ve made this convergence or not. A great teacher that has realized his or her true nature speaks from this place. Zen Master Seung Sahn always talked about this, in his way. He would say, “Is it for me, or for all beings?” That’s the test.

If you have this mind the theory of reincarnation obviously comes from an egocentric view. You have a self that you are protecting, that you want or don’t want, that lives continuously, rather than embracing the source of all things, where a particular instance functions as to its properties and conditions.

I recently met with the guiding teacher at Baekdamsa. He asked why I went to the forest so often, and what was the difference between the wilderness and staying in the monastery. I told him that the wilderness is a perfect expression, exactly the way the forces align. It has no imprint at all. Inside a building it is crowded and noisy—but that’s only thinking. He said, “That last part is enlightenment.” His point was that everything we experience is on the same plane, as in a dream. To wake up from the dream is enlightenment. That is our path. He continued, “Even if you do wake up you still have to live in the dream. Even the Buddha got sick and died after his enlightenment.” This is our life.

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