The very last writings of Thomas Merton were recorded in The Asian Journal. In this book Merton describes his visit in Sri Lanka to the great monastery at Polonnaruwa, which is nearly 2,000 years old. When you go to this place you’ll walk beneath huge ancient trees. Leaving your shoes on the stone path, you walk a long way under the trees, across a beautiful green grass carpet, and eventually come to a one hundred foot-high stone cliff. In the rocks of this cliff are carved three to four figures of the Buddha. Thomas Merton found these Buddhas to be the most compelling pieces of art he had encountered in his travels.
Merton describes their presence: “The silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika (the Middle Way), of Sunyata (emptiness), that has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything—without refutation—without establishing some other argument. The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, and really no ‘mystery.’ All problems are resolved and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rocks, all matter, all life is charged with Dharmakaya (the nature of things) . . . everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination.”
What does it mean to be at peace? Perhaps we would like a peaceful world without war, killing, violence, and hatred. Perhaps we’d also like to find peace with our families, relations, friends, in our communities, or at work. What would it mean to find peace, and do we really want it? If we do, there’s only one place it can be found: within ourselves. To find peace we have to become it ourselves. In the gospel story—when the apostles got trapped in a sudden wild storm on the Sea of Galilee—we find a lesson for peacemakers today. When the waves began to rise and the boat began to rock, the apostles worked hard and hoped to survive the storm raging around them. But they eventually lost heart and allowed the storm outside to come inside. It’s easy to imagine the apostles as frantic, disconnected, and out of control. In their desperation they awaken a peaceful Jesus who questions their faith and calms the storm by projecting his inner stillness, harmony, and peace. Sometimes, those who seek peace are more like the apostles, allowing the suffering around them to engulf them. We worsen the situation by projecting our feelings of guilt, fear, or despair. Can we instead become like Jesus and find that still center that nothing can disturb? In this way we become true peacemakers, wherever we go.
My teacher Achaan Chah said, “To find peace you must let go. If you let go a little, you will have a little peace; if you let go completely, you will have true peace.” This “letting go” involves a discovery of faith, of profound trust. It is the heart resting in a knowing which is much deeper than our changing experience. A large part of spiritual work is finding this deep place of trust and letting go. Needless to say, no one can let go for us. Yet in the presence of a teacher of peace, we are reminded of the possibility of letting go, of peace. When people practice meditation and describe their beautiful experiences, a wise teacher says let go of them. When they encounter difficult experiences a wise teacher will recommend that they let go of these as well. But it is important to understand that this “letting go” must not be confused with “getting rid of.” It is more like “letting be.” To let go is to let go into the moment. As we pay attention to our heart, we encounter storms, thoughts, peaceful periods, pains in the body, expectation, desires, and fear—different conditions in which we find it difficult to be open. In all these situations our practice is to be with this too, to be here now with what is. While letting go of our ideas and being peaceful is a good idea, it’s not so easily done, is it? What makes it so hard to be at rest and open to what is here?
Often our spiritual ideals of being somewhere else or some other way interfere. Many of us experience a fear of opening, of entering, touching, and actually feeling fully what this life is. Zen Master Dogen says: “Enlightenment is to be intimate with all things.” To be at peace requires us to be intimate with our sorrows, anger, loss, struggle, desires, pleasure, joys, and happiness. A big part of what we do when we meditate is to learn to be intimate with our body and breath. As we continue to sit, we gradually become more connected with our body. Through this process we become genuinely connected with our feelings, and our heart connects with the experience of the moment. As we become intimate and open, we naturally begin to become quiet. Already this is a miracle in many of our lives. When we expand our capacity to feel the beauty, the pain, the fullness of the moment, we are already beginning to discover a great and new inner sense of freedom. But this making peace with the activity of the body and mind is still not enough. At this point we need to become open and intimate to something more difficult, and inevitably a new level of fear arises. This is not just the fear of opening to our sadness, anger, pain, joy, or rapture but the fear of Nothing. This fear is of stillness and letting go, of dissolving, which is what happens when we are truly quiet. Most of what we take ourselves to be is created by the stream of reactions and thoughts about ourselves. So when we become quiet, our usual sense of self disappears. Our fear asks, “Can I really let go this deeply? If I do, is it safe?” This is a very difficult and wonderful level in practice, to let the whole sense of our self open up and dissolve. For many people, the most profound “let go” and trust requires practice and guidance and a sense of safety. But finally, in retreat, in the company of a master, or in the knowing solitude of the heart, we can come to truly let go and find a place of true peace.
The peace of letting go does not require that one removes oneself from life. Many Buddhist Sutras and Hindu chants end with the phrase, “Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.” Shanti is the word for peace. Is peace to be found by leaving the world? Is it going to a place that is really tranquil and meditating, living a quiet monastic life? It turns out that peace is not found by such running away. Anyone who has lived in a monastic community knows that it can have as much fire and conflict as anywhere in the world. Even more so because it is the end of the line, where there is no other place to run. Peace and escape are incompatible, because in escape we are running from whatever we still have conflict with. When we learn to let go, it means, as Thomas Merton wrote, “rejecting nothing.” There is a famous Buddhist Bodhisattva named Vimala Kirti. He is a teacher who demonstrates that peace and liberation are synonymous with being where you are. Vimala Kirti became a lay person rather than a monk to show that one can be peaceful as a lay person. He had a big family with dozens of children to show that one can do it with dozens of children—that’s impressive, isn’t it? Vimala became a bartender to teach the Dharma to people who frequent bars. He even made himself sick so that people who came to take care of him would hear the teachings. He entered every realm of life, and in all circumstances he brought his joy, his wakefulness, and freedom to that place.
I wish I could only communicate the essence of the Dharma, the joy of finding liberation or freedom in any realm. It’s not about some particular experience one hopes to discover and hold on to. It is a way of being that allows you to live, love, work, and relate in this human body with its mind, heart, and feelings, on this earth, while being happy, peaceful, and free.
How can we enter any realm and find freedom? To do this we cannot be idealistic. You might say it is a life-long project. Or another, better way to say it is that it is not in time at all. Time isn’t even relevant. It’s not insight or understanding that matters. Insights are cheap—you’ve probably had quite a few in your life, isn’t it true? It’s living in the unknown. The mystery of life is not a problem to solve but a reality to experience. Living in the moment and learning to let go and realize we don’t own it, we don’t possess it, we don’t control it—that is peace.
To enter into the Unknown is to enter into the moment. This is the gift of true meditation. It is an opening again and again to the moment. At first we mostly feel our resistance. What we discover in trying to let go and open to this mystery is that we quickly become afraid, confused, entangled, or knotted. Remember, to work at openness or letting go doesn’t require much of your mind, it’s not really mental work at all. The mind is simply a thought machine which keeps cranking out new thoughts. The mind can’t solve anything, because peace is not the work of the mind. It’s the work of the body and the heart, the guts, your actual life experience. As you sit and try to feel into the moment, you will sense the barriers that keep you from being here. There are various kinds of armor in the body, from the energetic contractions that bind us all the way down to holding at the cellular level. You will encounter the contractions of the heart, the grief, the pains from which you tried to escape, the strategies of the personality, compulsion, business, obsession about health, money, or work. You will discover waterfalls of planning and remembering and be swept along by a thousand different moods and states. What you actually experience will contradict your views and attachment to all kinds of opinions about how things should be. What you must have is a sacred attention that encompasses all this in the heart and body. This is peace, to sit and feel it and touch it and be open to what is. Experience its dance and make enough space to allow what is actually here rather than what we would like to be here.
To come to peace means that we awaken to the Buddha’s first Noble Truth, that of suffering. Suffering is inevitable, for there is pain just as there is pleasure, and none of it can be possessed. Instead of struggling and trying to make life something other than what it is, what if we accepted things the way they are rather than the way we’d like them to be? Sri Nisargadatta would say to us, “I don’t understand you. You always want what you don’t have and don’t have what you want. And so you suffer! Why not want what you have and not want what you don’t? Happiness is this simple.”
Imagine if you saw life not through your judgments, but as the lessons it holds; what we can be opened to, what greatness you can find in your being and heart. Every single moment can bring a spiritual lesson in the perfection of patience, or the perfection of love or truth, a lesson of infinite forgiveness or steadfastness. Of course, at first it’s hard. Gandhi said, “A coward is incapable of exhibiting love. Love is the prerogative of the brave.” Just to sit and be really open is a brave thing to do. Stop and listen to the heart, the wind outside, to one another, to the changing patterns of this mysterious life. It comes moment after moment, out of nothing, and disappears into nothing. Live with less grasping and more appreciation and caring. Find freedom and peace in the midst of every changing circumstance.
Sit, eat, walk, and pay attention carefully. Make it continuous like a dance. Over and over you’ll see the contraction, “This is too hard or too painful, this is not what is supposed to be happening, not what I planned.” When you see the moments of contraction, simply note them: “Oh, another one, another lesson.” Fear, disappointment, whatever it happens to be, simply notes that. Be with that as it arises and passes like a wave, then be in the next moment, until you can be open one moment after another and really be here. Then you will know peace.
Jack Kornfield is a meditation teacher, author, and founder of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, in Woodacre, CA.