Humiliation and Humility

Hubert Benoit’s books were our first introduction to Zen. A small group of friends used to meet of an evening and read his texts and discuss what he said. This was in Johannesburg; we had just left Scientology, disappointed that it did not live up to its promise. These books had a very different flavour.

Hubert Benoit had been a surgeon and a violinist but was severely injured during an American bombing raid and spent many years recovering. This left him no longer able to play the violin or to practice as a surgeon. When we feel sorry for ourselves at no longer having a teacher available, day after day, we should think of this man. No teacher and a body that no longer functioned with the exquisite ability that brought forth music and healing.   But what determination.

We made a stay in England on our way from South Africa to Canada in order to visit with our families. During this time Albert went across to France to meet with Benoit.

He was very impressed with his writing about humility and recommended it to many of you. And so I am printing that chapter again as a blog for those of you who have not read it. And for those of you who have.


                             On Humility    by Hubert Benoit

We must emphasize a fundamental aspect of the theoretical and practical understanding which alone can free us from our distress. We must understand humility, what it is precisely and to see that in humility is to be found the key to our freedom and to our greatness.

We are at this very moment in satori, fully awakened, but we cannot enjoy it because our normal habits and reactions are constantly at work and these set up a vicious circle within us. Our rumination and inner monologue prevent us from awakening to our Buddha-nature. We, therefore, believe that we lack essential reality, and so we are obliged to imagine in order to compensate for this illusory defect.

I believe that I am separated from my own ‘being’ and I look for it to reunite myself with it. Only knowing myself as a distinct, separate individual, I seek for the Absolute as a distinct individual; I want to affirm myself-absolutely-as-a-distinct-being, as being unique. This effort creates and maintains in me, at the level of phenomena, my divine fiction, my fundamental claim that I am omnipotent as an individual.

This work of bolstering my psychological habits and reactions consists in my imaginative representation of things, in my refusal to give attention to proofs of my impotence, by giving to myself proofs of my power, and by withdrawing my claim whenever I cannot help seeing my impotence. I train myself never to recognize the equality of the outside world and myself; I consider myself to be different from the outside world, on a different level: above it whenever I can sustain the illusion, below it when I cannot. The fiction according to which I am as an individual the Primary Cause of the Universe requires that only I should be able to condition the world. I either see myself as conditioning the outer world, or I see myself as failing to condition it, but never can I recognize myself as conditioned by it on a basis of equality. From all of this arises the illusion of the Not-Self. If I condition the outside world, it is Self; if I do not succeed in doing so, it is Not-Self; never can I bring myself to recognize it as Itself, because I lack knowledge of the underlying reality which unites us.

Because it is impossible for me at the moment to be in possession of my own nature, of Buddha-nature, to be universal man rather than being a distinct individual, I am ceaselessly obliged to represent my situation in the Universe in a way that is radically untrue. Instead of seeing myself as equal to the outside world, I see myself either as above it or below, either on high, or below. In this perspective, in which the ‘on high’ is Being and the ‘below’ is Nothingness, I am obliged to urge myself always towards Being. All my efforts necessarily tend, in a direct or a roundabout manner, to raise me up, whether materially, subtly, or, as one says, ‘spiritually’.

All my natural psychological habits and reactions, before satori, are based on self-love, the claim of me as a person to be able to ‘rise’ in one way or another; and it is this claim to raise myself individually which hides from me my infinite, universal dignity.

The claim which animates all my efforts, all my hopes, is at times difficult to recognize as such. It is easy for me to see my claim when the Not-Self from which I wish to be distinguished is represented by other human-beings; in this case a little inner frankness suffices to give the true name to my endeavor. It is no longer so easy when the Not-Self from which I wish to be distinguished is represented by inanimate objects, even more so when it is represented by that illusory and mysterious entity that I call Destiny. However, basically it is exactly the same thing; my luck exalts me and my bad luck humiliates me. All perception of affirmation in the Universe exalts me, all perception of denial in the Universe humiliates me. When the outside world is positive, constructive, it is as I want it, and it then appears to me as controlled by me. When it is negative, destructive (even if it does not directly concern me), it is not as I want it, and it then seems to me to be refusing to allow itself to be controlled by me. If we see clearly the profound basis of our self-love, we understand that all imaginable joys come from this self-love being satisfied and that all imaginable sufferings come from it being wounded. We then understand that our pretentious personal attitude dominates the whole of our affective habits and reactions, that is the whole of our life. Only the Independent Intelligence escapes this domination.

My egotistical claim for the ‘on high’ has to be maintained by an unending activity of the imagination because it is false, and is in radical contradiction with the reality of things. If I look impartially at my personal life as a whole I will see that it is comparable to the bursting of a fireworks-rocket. The shooting upwards of the rocket corresponds to the intra-uterine life during which everything is prepared, prepared without yet being manifested; the moment at which the rocket bursts is birth; the spreading out of the luminous shower represents that ascending period of my life in which my organism develops all its powers; the falling back of the shower in a rain of sparks which expire represents my old age and death. It appears to me at first that the life of this rocket is an increase, then a decrease. But in thinking about it more carefully I see that it is, throughout its duration, a disintegration of energy; it is a decrease from beginning to end of its manifestation. So is it with me as an individual; from the moment of my conception, my psycho-somatic organism is the manifestation of a disintegration, of a continual descent. From the moment at which I am conceived, I begin to die, exhausting in manifestations more or less spectacular an original energy which only decreases. Cosmic reality radically contradicts my claim towards the ‘on high’; as a separate individual being I have before me only the ‘below’.

The whole problem of human distress is summed up in the problem of humiliation. To cure distress is to be freed from all possibility of humiliation. Where does my humiliation come from? From seeing myself powerless? No, that is not enough. It comes from the fact that I try in vain not to see my real powerlessness. It is not powerlessness itself that causes humiliation, but the shock experienced by my claim to omnipotence when it comes up against the reality of things. I am not humiliated because the outer world denies me, but because I fail to negate this negation. The true cause of my distress is never in the outside world, it is only in the claim that I throw out and which is broken against the wall of reality. I deceive myself when I complain that the wall has hurled itself against me and has wounded me; it is I that have injured myself against it, it is my own action that has caused my suffering. When I no longer claim, nothing will ever injure me again.

It could also be said that my distress-humiliation reveals the laceration of an inner conflict between my tendency to see myself all-powerful and my tendency to recognize concrete reality in which my omnipotence is denied. I am distressed and humiliated when I am torn between my subjective claim and my objective observation, between my lie and my truth, between my partial and impartial representations of my situation in the Universe. I shall only be saved from the permanent threat of distress when my objectivity has triumphed over my subjectivity when the reality has triumphed in me over the dream.

In our desire to escape from distress, at last, we search for doctrines of salvation, we search for ‘gurus’. But the true guru is not far away, he is before our eyes and unceasingly offers us his teaching; he is reality as it is, he is our daily life. The proof of salvation is before our eyes, it is the demonstration of our non-omnipotence, the demonstration that our claim is radically absurd, impossible, and therefore illusory, non-existent. It is also in the demonstration that there is nothing to fear for hopes that have no reality; that I am and have always been on the ground, and therefore no kind of fall is possible, and so vertigo has no reason to exist.

If I am humiliated, it is because my imaginative habits and reactions succeed in overcoming a true perception of reality and so keeps the confirmation in the dark. I do not benefit by the teaching of salvation which is constantly offered to me, because I refuse it and adroitly set myself up to elude the experience of humiliation. If a humiliating circumstance turns up, offering me a wonderful chance of initiation, at once my imagination strives to get rid of what appears to me to be a danger; it struggles against the illusory movement towards ‘beneath’; it does everything to restore me to that habitual state of satisfied arrogance in which I find a temporary relief, but also the certainty of further distress. In short, I constantly defend myself against that which offers to save me; I fight inch by inch to defend the very source of my unhappiness. All my inner actions tend to prevent satori, since they aim at the ‘on high’ whereas satori awaits me ‘below’. And so Zen is right in saying that ‘satori falls upon us unexpectedly when we have exhausted all the resources of our being’.

What we have just been saying seems to suggest that humility is the way’. In a way this is true. Let us see, however, in what respect humility is not a ‘way,’ if we understand by this word a systematic discipline. In my present condition I cannot make any effort which, directly or indirectly, is not an effort towards ‘on high’. Every effort to bring about humility can only result in a false humility in which I again exalt myself egotistically by means of the idol that I have created for myself. It is strictly impossible for me to abase myself, that is for me to reduce the intensity of my claim to ‘be’. All that I can and should do, if I wish to escape finally from distress, is to resist the instruction of concrete reality less and less, and to let myself be abased by the evidence of the cosmic order. Even then, there is nothing that I can do or cease to do directly. I will cease to be opposed to the constructive and harmonizing benefits of humiliation to the degree to which I have understood that my true well-being is to be found, paradoxically, where until now I have situated my pain. As long as I have not understood, I am turned towards ‘on high’; when I have understood I am not now turned towards ‘below—because, once again, it is impossible for me to be turned towards ‘below’ and every effort in that direction would transform the ‘below’ into ‘on high’—but the drive of my aspiration towards ‘on high’ decreases in intensity and, to this degree, I benefit from my humiliations. When I have understood, I resist less and, on account of this, see more and more frequently that I am humiliated; I see that all my negative states are fundamentally humiliations, and that I have taken steps up to now to give them other names. I am now capable of feeling humiliated, vexed, without any other feeling in me than the feeling of this state, and of remaining there motionless, my understanding having wiped out my reflex attempts at flight. From the moment at which I succeed in no longer moving in my humiliated state, I discover with surprise, that there is the ‘asylum of rest’, the unique harbour of safety, the only place in the world in which I can find perfect security. By remaining in this state, which is placed face to face with my natural refusal, brings about the intervention of the Conciliating Principle; the opposites neutralize each other; my suffering fades away and one part of my fundamental claim fades away at the same time. I feel myself nearer to the ground, to the ‘below’, to real humility (humility which is not acceptance of inferiority, but abandonment of the vertical conception in which I saw myself always above or below). These inner phenomena are accompanied by a feeling of sadness, of ‘night’; and this feeling is very different from distress because a great calm reigns therein. During this moment of nightly calm and of relaxation are elaborated the processes of what can be called the inner alchemy. The ‘old’ man breaks up for the benefit of the gestation of the ‘new’ man. The individual dies for the sake of the birth of the universal.

The attainment of humility, impossible directly, supposes then the use of humiliation. All suffering, by humiliating us, modifies us. But this modification is of two kinds that are radically opposed. If I struggle against humiliation, it destroys me and it increases my inner disharmony; if I leave it alone without opposing it, it builds up my inner harmony. To let humiliation alone simply consists in recognizing to oneself that one is humiliated.

Being, in our present perspective, reveals to us the unconciliated duality of zero and the infinite. Our nature urges us at first to identify being with the infinite and to try to reach being in this form, by constantly ascending. But this attempt is hopeless; no ascent in the finite can reach the infinite.

This idea that humility is not a ‘way’ is so important that we would like to come back to it for the last time. If I do not understand this, I shall inevitably withdraw the various ways of making my claim in practical life. I will therefore confine myself in a mediocre social rank and so on. I shall avoid humiliations instead of using them. Imitations of humility are never anything else but imitations. It is not a question of modifying the way I express my fundamental claim, but of using the negative results which come to me in the course of this expression, owing to the humiliating defeats which necessarily occur. If I stop fighting against the not Self in an artificial way I deprive myself of invaluable knowledge which comes to me from my defeats.

Without always saying so in an explicit manner, Zen is centered on the idea of humility. Throughout the whole of Zen literature we see how the masters, in their ingenious goodness, intensely humiliate their pupils at the moment which they judge to be propitious. In any case, whether humiliation comes from a master or from the ultimate defeat experienced in oneself, satori is always released in an instant in which the humility of the man fulfils itself in face of the absurdity, at last evident, of all his pretentious efforts. Let us recall that the ‘nature of things’ is for us the best, the most affectionate, and the most humiliating of masters; it surrounds us with its vigilant assistance. The only task incumbent upon us is to understand reality and to let ourselves be transformed by it.

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The Wonder of Being

teisho 1246 – 2011

We have become fascinated by experience, by the content of experience. Experience is everything. We seek to extend our experience through the medium of books, videos, and films, television, internet.   One could say that we are hypnotized by experience, and our practice is to break the hypnotic trance.

What is it about the content of experience that is so fascinating? By and large, the world population is now an urban population; people have left the countryside and moved to crowded cities because the stimulus from the variety of different experiences is so attractive.

But the content of experience is not all that there is, there is the fact of experiencing.  There is the knowing of experience.  And the variety of experience, particularly in so far as so much of it is discordant, contradictory, brings about a heightened sense of awareness.  In the face of trying to make sense of chaos our awareness is heightened, we feel more alive. We can draw a lesson from this:  it is not the content of experience itself which is valuable, it is the heightened sense of awareness.   So much of what we do is to gain this heightened sense of awareness.

On sesshin we are going directly to the source; instead of looking for stimulus that comes from outside, instead of looking for a variety of experience, we are drawing upon our own resources, we are coming alive by ourselves.  It is this that brings you to sesshin after sesshin. This indicates that what is true, basic, real, is awareness;  it is not any content.

It also indicates that this pure sense of being, of knowing/being, is always present, never absent.  Even in sleep, there is still that ongoing knowing/being. Let me emphasize the ongoingness;  do not think there is a kind of static condition, substratum, a foundation. The knowing/being we are referring to is not enduring at all, it does not last in any shape or form. Knowing is not something, it is what is happening, it is always changing, never steady.  It is vibrant.

We fix experience into what we call the world because this enables experience to have a content.  Without naming, fixing, there would be no content.

The feeling of the lack of fulfillment, of being lost, the feeling of meaninglessness, of being always on the go, always agitated and restless, comes because we have lost contact with what is essential and are trying to rediscover it by stimulation, by trying to heighten awareness with the drug of experience. Awaken to the source.

The I am is still in its purity before it becomes contaminated by I am something. Then we name it, we fix it:  I am not this, I am that.  This separation and dualism enables us to have the illusion of an enduring world.

It is a miracle that you can see a chair, for example.  We take it for granted, and yet it is beyond astonishing, beyond amazing, it is miraculous.  How is it possible that you can see a tree, hear the birds, hear a voice?    How is it possible you can understand what the voice is saying?  We take it all for granted.   The recognition of the wonder of being is only possible when you are grounded in knowing/being itself.  When you are lost in experience, it is the resolution of the struggle, the pain, that is uppermost. While trying to find something stable, there can be no wonder.  A life lived without that wonder is a life that has not really been lived.

One of the dangers of Zen practice is that it can drive us into seeing truth as a solipsistic truth, as one bound up in the self, one enclosed in the prison of self;  as everything being a product of ‘my’ consciousness.  One cannot say that ‘I am’ is the basis of everything while one is still identifying oneself as something – a man, a woman, a soul or spirit.  One has to earn the right to say the basis of all is ‘I am’.  You must first see into the truth that you believe that you are something.

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To break through the impossible barrier

teishos 1101 2007/ 954 2005

The kind of work that we need to be prepared to do is like cutting through nails and breaking steel. There must be utter determination to let nothing stand in the way.  We need to be prepared to work unconditionally, without any ifs and buts, without any kind of expectation.

This does not mean one must take up a heroic stance in relation to the practice. Zen practice is not about bracing oneself, tensing inwardly. To cut through nails and break steel requires patience and dedication, unremitting work.   One does not look for a way out, one stays with whatever is, without trying to do something about it.  One continues in the face of remorse,  regret, and anxiety.  Questions like ‘what is the point?’ ‘is it worth it?’ are thrown up by the personality, by those habits so ingrained of turning away from difficulty, of constantly looking for comfort and security.

When life’s circumstances crush down, what will you do then? Where is that place that nothing can touch?  If you can be in that place where even a needle cannot penetrate, where nothing can touch you in any way, what does it matter what life presents?

The only way that you can get anything worthwhile regarding knowing and understanding is by your own labors, by your own willingness to work. Anything that you take from outside can be taken away; anything from outside is of a speculative nature.

One of the obstacles in practice is the desert, the dryness, an absence of any kind of stimulation, interest, or, it seems, of any value.   We have to face boredom.  Anyone unable to open themselves to boredom will be unable to see into their true nature. Boredom is the feeling we all flee from.

We have many members in the Sangha who are coming up to old age, if they have not already arrived there. With old age, we get a glimpse of ‘the concrete and perfect life of the spirit which manifests itself in the complete absence of all sweetness, in aridity and distaste,’ as St.John put it.    How can this desert be the perfect life of the spirit?  The sense of self has at last met its match, something is possible now which has never been possible before. When practicing, we look for those moments that are peaceful and easing, that have a sweetness to them. But this is still within the realm of experience.  We cannot imagine a life where there is no experience, which is more wonderful than any kind of experience; imagination can only work regarding experience.  But it is being at one with whatever is that is the true life of the spirit. This means above all being at one with the swords and arrows of outrageous fortune, with the dust and dryness of the desert.   It is not that one has to turn away from peace and sweetness, but that one is open to everything, not only peace and sweetness.  One opens oneself also to boredom, to the dryness. The complete absence of excitement, of enthusiasm, dried up emotions – this is the true cleansing of the soul, the real purging of the spirit, the purgatorial fire we must pass through.

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A point of view (teishos 1066/ 2007 – 1224/2010).

Although you say ‘it is’ there is nothing that ‘it is’ can affirm. Although you say ‘it is not’ there is nothing that ‘it is not’ can negate. It is not true to say ‘I am’ and it is not true to say ‘I am not.’ It is not true to say that the world is there and it is not true to say that the world is not there. In other words, all affirmations are provisional and all depend on a point of view; and just in the same way all negations are provisional and depend on a point of view.

We tend to believe that the world is as we see it.  We say, ‘that is it.’  And we are astonished to find that other people see things quite differently and we then assume that they are mistaken or do not understand. The idea that people can see the world radically differently to the way we see it is something we find intolerable.

What I know to be the case is the case – this is basic to the way we see the world. It is fixed.  This background that we have, that we know to be the case, is the problem. When you assert that it is, there is nothing that ‘it is’ can affirm.  This is a  point of view that we have.  Once we can call into question the very basis of our  world, we are freed from the rigid prison in which we have found ourselves.  The  two most fruitful ways of working on this is to see into the belief that “I am something,”  and at the same time see into the illusory notion that the world is independent and real apart from my perspective.

When ‘is’ and ‘is not’ are gone beyond, success and failure, winning and loosing are no more.  This means that winning in an absolute way, or success or failure as  an absolute state, are no more. One can undertake work in a completely new way: the process of doing things, the creativity involved, are the attraction, not the result.  The joy is in the doing. All is open and unobstructed.  Instead of having a world of things that are jostling against one another, one sees the world more in terms of a flow: of  movement, development, change.

We have the question, “what is in front of me?”  The answer depends on what you regard as ‘me’.  If it is the body, then it is a window in front of me.  In that case, what is in front of me will be quite different from what is in front of someone else; what is in front of me may in fact be behind another person.  This brings out clearly that the world is the result of a point of view.

We must be careful not to look on this as the world is only a point of view.  If we do that it suggests there is another superior way of seeing the world.  But there is no superior way of seeing the world.  By seeing that the world is a point of view we  can see that it is a creation, and see at the same time that we are both one and a multitude:  I am myself, but in being myself I am you as well.  To put this in  another way, selfhood includes otherness. Normally we look on otherness as the not self, but the self and the not self are one; although they are not the same.  When people hear it said that the world is one, they think it is an homogenous condition, everything the same.  But a diamond is one, yet gets its beauty from its multi-faceted character.  It is the same way with the world, it is a sparkling diamond.

We must see the question ‘what must we do?’ as different to all the other  questions we can ask.  All the other questions look outside the question for the response, for the resolution. All the other questions are the expression of the separation, the dualism, that is our condition. How do you practice without practicing? Whatever you do is no good.  There are so many hidden agendas.  You must start with the correct orientation, you must listen to what is being said.  The problem is the problem. There are all these thoughts, wave after wave of the mind; there is the upheaval of feeling, there is all the disappointment of life, the anguish that has come from failures, betrayals, humiliation and frustration.  But this doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Take away every thought, every feeling, and now, what is there?  You cannot get behind yourself. You cannot step outside yourself.  You are bigger than any question you can ever ask. You encompass every problem, every failure, every frustration. You do not see this because you always start with where you want to be;  you are already out in the distance, running to find yourself.  Come back to what is.

It will always be uncomfortable when you first open up. Let go of wanting to get into heaven with your boots on, as Gurdjieff would say. See all the debts that have accumulated, but not as something to be overcome or seen through or worked with. Just see it all as it is, for what it is.  You will only be able to do this for a fraction of time, because the mind slips away into a self calming routine because of the way we have trained ourselves.  But come back, and see it is always you, it is always life, living.  It is you as your own way of being. It is not something inflicted on you.  Embracing this in this way, there is no separation, there is no before and after.

From the beginning all beings are Buddha.  Whatever your practice, your practice is that.  If you start with the assumption you do not know the answer to your question but that you will find out one way or another, you have entered into a maze from which there is no exit. It is that need for something that is holding you up. The only breath that you can follow is the breath being breathed right now.  And that is life. There is no truth outside the breath going out, the breath going in.  All truth is contained in that.

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The real sacrifice

I prepare these postings in the hope that they will encourage you to listen to the teishos they are taken from. The voice holds so much more than the written word. All members can now listen to teishos free of charge so that costs do not cause you to hesitate in taking full advantage of these spoken words. Albert is no longer physically with us, but his voice is.

teisho 1190 – 2009

In answer to the question: ‘what is the experience that is nearest to the Supreme?’ Nisargadatta said, “Immense peace and boundless love.”

When people hear this answer, they tend to feel this is the way to awakening, that they must somehow induce this peace and love in themselves, that this is the practice.

Harada roshi started his workshops by showing four pictures: one of a cat sleeping in front of a fire, the second a moon rising over a mountain, the third a mountain stream, and the fourth two drunks fighting. And he would ask, which of these pictures comes nearest to what Zen is about? And the answer was, two drunks fighting. This is the other side of peace and love because this openness includes being open to the eternal conflict, the struggle. To feel there must be a way out of the struggle, out of this cosmic conflict, is to feel that in some way we can withdraw ourselves from all that is. On the contrary, the practice leads to the realization that one is all that there is, wherein all is included, nothing rejected.

Nisargadatta goes on to say, “realize that whatever there is that is true, noble and beautiful in the universe comes from you. You are at the source of it all.” But the all includes conflict and struggle.

When we ask ‘who am I?’ or ‘what is Mu?’ we are not looking for boundless peace and immense love. As long as we do that we turn our back on our true nature. Conflict and struggle are as much you as all that is true, noble and beautiful.

The questioner asks, “how does one reach the supreme state?” He is asking “What is the way?” And this question is what must underlie all of our practice. When you ask ‘What is Mu?’ or ‘Who am I?’ are you doing it because that is practicing Zen or because it is a question that comes up from within yourself? As long as we think there is a way, we are looking outside ourselves. To say there is no way is to miss the point, but to say that there is a way is to suggest that there is something fixed: sitting in zazen, working with koans, following the breath; and this is not the way of Zen.

Nisargadatta answers the question by saying, “by renouncing all lesser desires.” People ask, “Why is it so difficult to come to awakening? Why does it take so long?” And the answer is that something in your life is more important to you than coming to awakening, than seeing into your true nature and realizing fundamentally what it is you are.

Ouspensky writes of the ability Gurdjieff had to hypnotize people in such a way that the personality was put to sleep and the more basic desires of the person allowed to come to the surface. And how he hypnotized one young man who was always talking about how important spiritual work was in his life and asked him what he really wanted, and the young man replied: ‘a spoonful of strawberry jam.’

As long as you are satisfied with the lesser you cannot have the higher. As long as you are pleased with what you find around you, as long as your desire is for comfort, security, certainty, peace, then you might get a certain amount of this from the practice; but is this really what you want? Do you really want to use the sword of Excalibur to sharpen a pencil?

Ummon said, “Even a good thing is not as good as no thing.” Our practice requires a total renunciation. This does not mean we have to become an ascetic, give up eating and all the various desires in life. The asceticism that is required is to see that fundamentally one is not a thing, that from the beginning not a thing is. This is the real sacrifice.

When you are working with the question ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What is Mu?’ this is the direction you must go. As long as you are clinging to something, no matter what it is, that something is an immense barrier. Whatever pleases you keeps you back. It is not a question of giving it up, but of seeing how you are entranced by it, how you are held captive by it. Each of us has our own compensation, the constant self-manipulation that we do to reassure ourselves that everything is OK. Nisargadatta says, “until you realize the unsatisfactoriness of everything and collect your energies into one great longing, even the first step is not taken.”

If you are honest with yourself, everything is unsatisfactory. Achievement becomes unsatisfactory almost as soon as it is achieved. It takes honesty to see this. The very fact of achieving makes us thirsty for more.

Nisargadatta: “The integrity of the desire for the Supreme itself is a call from the Supreme.” The Supreme is always calling. It cannot do anything else but call. You see that what you are doing is a fantasy because you are the Supreme. Everything in the light of the Supreme is a mere shadow.

“Nothing physical or mental can give you freedom.” No experience can give you freedom. Dwell on this. “You are free once you understand that your bondage is of your own making, and you cease forging the chains that bind you.” This is the ultimate realization. First, must come the realization that I suffer because I am human. As long as you feel something outside yourself causes you to suffer, you must always look outside yourself for the resolution, something that will give relief. It is the search outside yourself for the ultimate which is the ultimate agony. “It is enough if you do not imagine yourself to be something. It is the ‘I am something’ idea that is so calamitous.” This is what must be surrendered. The time when you have the greatest opportunity to realize that you are not something is when someone insults you, when you feel humiliated by the situation. Nisargadatta is asked: “How does one find faith in a teacher?” and he replies: “To find a teacher, and to trust him or her, is rare. It does not happen very often.”

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“I am something”

Questioner: It is part of the Indian spiritual tradition that living in the proximity of a sage is conducive to liberation. Why don’t you organise an ashram so that people can live near you?

Nisargadatta: I am available to all.  Common roof and food will not make people more welcome. “Living near” does not mean breathing the same air.  It means trusting and obeying, not letting the good intentions of the teacher go to waste.  Have your teacher always in your heart and remember his instructions – this is real abidance with the true. Physical proximity is least important. Make your entire life an expression of your faith and love for your teacher. That is dwelling with the sage.


teisho 635  – 1998

Nisargadatta asks: If you are still under the influence of the primordial drug, of what use are the superficial cures?

What is this primordial drug?  It is of course “I”,  “I am something.” One could look upon the Zen Centre as a detox Centre. and sesshin as a detox programme.  We have to break this addiction that we have.

During a sesshin the real work is done in the desert. When you have a period when things flow easily it is because of the work you have done earlier.

People feel these times when things flow easily is the real work; but the periods of dryness, when nothing seems to work, when one is so ineffectual,  these are the times when real work is being done.  We use the word desert, but one can also use the word boredom.

A nobel prize winner for literature gave a commencement address at a college and what he said is very pertinent to what we are looking at here:

“A substantial part of what lies ahead of you is going to be claimed by  boredom. The reason I would like to talk to you about it today is that I believe no liberal arts college prepares you for that eventuality. Neither the humanities nor science offers courses in boredom.  You will be bored with you work, your spouses, your friends, your lovers, the view from your window, the furniture in your room, your thoughts, yourself.  Accordingly you will devise ways of escape.  You may  change your job, your residence, company, country; you may take up promiscuity, alcohol, travel, cooking lessons or psychoanalysis.  Boredom is an invasion of time into your set of values. It puts your existence into its proper perspective, the net result of which is humility. The more you learn about your own size, the more humble and compassionate you become. If it takes paralyzing boredom to bring your insignificance home, then welcome the boredom.  What is good about boredom, about anguish and the sense of meaninglessness of your own and everybody else’s existence is that it is not a deception.  Try to embrace, or let yourself be embraced by boredom and anguish.  Try to endure it as long as you can and then some more. Above all, do not think you have goofed, don’t try to retrace your steps to correct the error.  No, believe your pain.  Nothing that disturbs you is ever a mistake.”

Why we say working with boredom is so salutary is because it means all the subterfuges that you have used to date have been brought into question. But  it is not enough to grit your teeth and hope it will not last too long, you must embrace it.  If you are serious with your practice, you must look upon boredom as a kind of medicine you are taking, as an essential and valuable part of the practice.  The fact that your practice is ineffectual is not a failure, on the contrary, it is a success.  It is because of your seriousness that you have got into this desert.  If you were not serious you would not be there.  But on the other hand, don’t prolong the process by rejecting it, or rejecting yourself or punishing yourself and looking upon yourself as an inferior practitioner.

It is the inability we have to tolerate ourselves for two minutes that is the real problem. It is in these times that the creative power is mobilized. It is at these times that the true impetus to freedom has a chance to grow.

During a sesshin we keep the blinds drawn, we cover pictures, we put away books and all the things the restless mind can feed upon.  We make the place as sterile as we can.  You then sit and face the wall. We do our best to keep out sounds and keep any distractions from outside to the absolute minimum. We keep the food as plain as possible.  All of this with a view to helping you to get into a state of austerity.  This is what the heart of the sesshin is about.

When the mind wanders the personality is searching for anything, it doesn’t matter what it is, in order to get distraction.  Each depressing thought that you have, you have given the power to damage you – see it for what it is, a distraction, something taking you away from what you see as barrenness, but which is really the most wonderful opportunity for truth to start emerging.   Recognize what is at issue – the sense “I am something” being eroded;  and in the erosion it is not that nothing is going to be left behind, but that everything is left behind.  It is an illusion that distracted activity gives any kind of pleasure.

One has to examine all the things one takes for granted.  And above all what one must examine again and again is the belief in something.  How do you get beyond something and nothing?

Nisargadatta:  Search, find out, remove and reject every assumption till you reach the living waters and the rock of truth.












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Practice is not magic (from a teisho)

People sometimes tell me, “I’ve tried this and that but nothing has happened!” This no doubt means that that they feel that there is, or should be, some kind of magic that either they or a teacher can call upon to make something happen.  They believe that if they go through the right kind of incantation, do the right things, say the right words, or feel the right things, then, because of the magical power of this teaching or technique, wonderful things should happen to them.  Meditation still has a kind of magical aura that surrounds it.  This is obvious if one picks up a New Age magazine or New Age books that talk about meditation.  It’s all flowers and halos.

There is no magic.  Or rather, the magician is you.  To look outside yourself, to expect someone else or some system to do something for you is really putting yourself in the position of a slave.  If somebody can do something for you that is of vital importance, you are dependent upon that person.   And this dependency is a form of enslavement. The only true value, the only true possibility, comes from your own power, faith and wisdom.  This means that you are already free.  You do not need a teacher or a teaching.  All that a teacher or teaching can do is to allow you to work for yourself.

But you must have a single-minded desire or longing for the truth. Ultimately all our desires are the desire to find ourselves.  Even joining the various isms that we can join in the world is done in the hope that it will lead us home.  People do not use these words “lead us home;” they use instead words like ‘happiness,’ ‘success,’ ‘fulfillment’ or ‘perfection.’  But these are substitute words.  Where is there fulfillment, perfection, happiness, and success outside of yourself?  When are you most happy?  It is when you are most at one with whatever it is that you are doing.  When you can give yourself over to it without reservation.  When you want it and, at that moment, want nothing else.

Our problem is that we cannot seek to know ourselves unconditionally and without reservation, except after much practice and much suffering.  People ask, “Why does it take so long to come to awakening?”  And the answer is, of course, that we want something else.

People feel that it is enough simply to say they want this or that, or even just to think they want it.  Sometimes I ask people, what is it you want from practice?  And they say, “Oh, I’d like to come to awakening.”  And very often they give a little laugh afterwards.  They reply much in the same way they might say, “Oh, I’d like a new hat.” A Hindu story tells of a guru and his student walking along the seashore.  The student told the guru that he would very much like to come to awakening.  The guru seized hold of the student and thrust his head under the water and held it there while the student thrashed around helplessly.  Eventually the guru let go of the student who arose spluttering and coughing, sucking in air as fast as he could. The guru said, “”When you want awakening as much as you want air at this moment, nothing can stop you.” When the pain gets so bad, when you really do feel that you have reached the end of the road and you have exhausted all your strategies to avoid seeing the truth that life is suffering, then it will be possible for you to say truly, “I want nothing else.”

Basically, everyone wants to come home and nothing else. And everyone will eventually come home. If everything comes out of and returns to the One Mind, then such a statement is a truism.

When you are practicing with Mu or Who or when you are following the breath, this practice will enable you, if you are sincere and honest, to come to the point where you will truly want nothing else.  But this means that you must practice without protest.  You must practice without complaint or self-pity.  And also, of course, you must practice without expectation.  Protest and complaint simply undo the work that you have done so far.  Protest and complaint sets up a counter current to the current of the work.  It sets up a conflict and it generates its own kind of pain.  Truly, only by trudging through the desert of the mind will you find the truth.  You do not find the truth in lush meadows.  In the desert, everything is taken away from you.

You have the belief that Zen practice is in addition to the question “Who am I?”  One keeps touching this ‘practice’, stroking it, feeling it for reassurance.  You ‘practice’ just in the same way that some people carry magic pebbles or wear crosses.  In the desert, even this is taken away.  All of your talismans, your magical charms are taken away.  One feels, I have nothing to look forward to.  That’s right!  There is nothing to look forward to.  ‘Looking forward to’ is the lure, the bait that constantly attracts you out of yourself.  You are always looking for the promised land.  But in the desert, the promised land just dries up and shrivels.

You do not even have feelings in the desert; just flat emptiness.  This is again a good thing because so many people feel that to ‘turn inward’ is to turn into their feelings.  In the sixties feelings were themselves a new religion.  In the New Age philosophy, feelings­­–– feeling good about yourself, feeling good about others, feeling good about one’s life, one’s situation­­–– were all that mattered. But in the desert, feelings dry up and all that is left is a naked, bare, austere possibility.

This is the master’s furnace.  It is during these moments, during this time in practice that the real work is done.  The dross is burned off and only what is true remains.  Don’t back off the desert!  It is true that during these times it seems that the practice is so remote, so uninteresting.  You feel so feeble, so futile.  But it is the personality that suffers. You must go on even so, although now it is no longer the personality that goes on.  It is what is true that does so.  Do not force yourself.  Just be there; just stay there, moment by moment. Come back again, and again and again, come back.  Not with force or fury, not with gritted teeth, not with clenched fists.  You just come back and then you come back again.

In this way you are starting to be honest with yourself.  And you are starting to really want nothing else.

The problem is not that we have other desires, but these other desires are so often in conflict one with the other.  How many people are there that have the real need to live a life that gives them the possibility to turn in on themselves fully and completely;  and yet at the same time they have the need to become engaged as fully as possible in the world, to be lost in some profession, undertaking, or project.  It is as though in each of us there are the two: the hermit and the professional.  A monk and a business-man.  The nun and the business-woman.  And they both have their own agendas and these have their own sets of conflicts. Sei and her soul are separated!

These conflicting needs and desires that we have are what Buddhism calls the Wheel of Samsara.  The need to be the business man but then to be the monk, keeps the wheel turning.  The need to lose oneself, to give oneself over to something outside oneself,  yet also to live a meditative life keeps the wheel turning.

Sometimes people phone to ask whether I could recommend a monastery where they could go to live and ‘really practice.’ Unfortunately, there are still Zen Centers that encourage this kind of activity.  I say ‘unfortunately’ because it does give the impression that the real work that one does in the world is not ‘spiritual’ work, and only work that one does in a monastery, center or ashram is real.

These people who phone have the yearning to retire from the world that many of us have.  The nun or the monk part of us longs for this kind of life.  As a consequence, we tend to look slightingly on our day-to-day activities, the work that we have to do, the mundane work that seems to be so boring, tedious and inconsequential. I have heard people who have undergone extensive training in a profession say that they feel their lives and their work are meaningless. It is true that, in terms of the absolute, whatever is relative is inconsequential.  Yet, even so, the only way the absolute can manifest is through the relative, through what we look on as inconsequential and contingent.

A disciple said to his master, “Everything is an illusion.” and the master said, “Don’t insult Brahman.” Layman Pang said, “My magical power and miraculous activity are chopping wood and carrying water.”

When we are told that we must want to see into ourselves and nothing else, this is not an invitation to depreciate what we do on a day-to-day basis.  On the contrary, it means that we must see whatever we do on a day-to-day basis as the fullest manifestation of our true nature.  In that way we will do it with full awareness, full commitment.  Whatever you do, do it!  Don’t judge it.  If it is necessary to change your job, you will change it.  But it is not necessary constantly to spend time wondering whether you ought to do so. Many people keep themselves in a state of suspension in this way.  Their inability to commit themselves, their unwillingness to commit themselves prevents them from finding the fulfillment that they seek. They want to have their cake and eat it. And yet in this suspended state, they lose the cake altogether: they lose the possibility to be at one with what it is they are doing.

So many people spend their time wondering how they can get into more activity, do more things, meet more people.  In the extreme, they are workaholics who are always busy, always on the go.  Never do they have the possibility of just sitting and enjoying just sitting, or of just reading and just enjoying reading, or of just gardening or of just walking.

Christ said, “Seek yea first the kingdom of Heaven and all things will be added unto you.” Find yourself and do as you please, because everything you do then will be fulfilling.  But first you must really find yourself!

Let me repeat: finding yourself is possible in sweeping the floor, in carrying out the garbage, in doing whatever it is that your work calls upon you to do.  It is true that if situations were different you could be employed better.  It is almost certainly true that most people are not fulfilled in their work in a way that might be possible were the society organized in an ideal way.  But it is also true that if pigs had wings they could fly.  It is a waste of effort, time and energy to dwell on what is possible: everything and nothing is possible.  But it is not a waste of time to keep bringing yourself back to the moment, wherever you are, and giving yourself fully to what you are doing.  When you do something, do it simply because it is there to be done, and not because of the rewards that you will get or the results that you will attain.

This does not mean that we are not pleased when others appreciate what we do.  Of course we are.  But this is not why we do it.  We do it because it is there to be done. This, too, is how to practice.  Some people are proud of their practice.  They feel that they are superior to others in some way.  They feel that they are on an inner track.  Others are disappointed and dejected about their practice.  They are not getting anywhere they say. Give yourself over to the practice because that is what is required. When we really give ourselves fully to the practice, we know this is right.  This is it!  This is what I have been looking for.  We have a sense of completeness such as we can get in very few other situations.

Doing something because it is there to be done is particularly important when helping others or ‘doing good.’ There was a master who used to live in a tree.  He would never go into a monastery or a temple.  But he would sometimes sit in a tree outside.  And he did this up to a very advanced age, even when he was about eighty, he still sat up in trees.  And a monk came along on one occasion and said, “What are you doing up there old man, it is dangerous?” The master looked down and said, “It is not as dangerous as what you are doing down there.”  The monk asked, “What do you mean?” “You don’t even know how to live,” replied the master. “All right, how do you live?” responded the monk.  “Avoid evil, do good, save all sentient beings.”  “Oh, a child of eight knows that!” snorted the monk. “Yes, but an old man of eighty can’t do it,” retorted the master.

What is interesting is that the master says first of all “avoid evil.”  So many people want to do good, and yet they do not know how to avoid doing evil.  This need, this wish, this longing to do good is an expression of our true nature.  But once it becomes the desire to be a good person, it becomes a form of sentimentality, and sentimentality is the desire to experience pleasure without having paid the price to do so.

“Avoid evil.”  And how do you avoid evil?  The only way to avoid evil is to know yourself.  It is to see into one’s own conflicts and go beyond them.  Because all evil comes from people acting in dreams.

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