The Gate of the Eternal Present
“Actually there is no real teaching at all for you to chew on or squat over. But not believing in yourself, you pick up your baggage and go around to other people’s houses looking for Zen, looking for Tao, looking for mysteries, looking for awakenings, looking for Buddhas, looking for masters, looking for teachers. You think this is searching for the ultimate and you make this into your religion. But this is like running blindly. The more you run, the farther away you are. You just tire yourself, to what benefit in the end?”
—Zen Master Foyan
“A young monk asked the Master: ‘How can I ever get emancipated?’
The Master replied: ‘Who has ever put you in bondage?'”
To meditate and pray and listen is like throwing the doors and windows open. You can’t plan for the breeze. As Suzuki Roshi puts it, “You can’t make a date with enlightenment.” And a similar saying goes, “Gaining enlightenment is an accident. Spiritual practice simply makes us accident-prone.”
When we grasp, we miss the moment that is just now. There is a story of an eager Zen student who arrives at a temple and says, “I want to join the community and work to attain enlightenment. How long will it take me?” “Ten years,” replies the master. “Well, how about if I really work and double my efforts?” “Twenty years.” “Hey, just a moment. That’s not fair! Why did you double it?” “In your case,” says the master, “I’m afraid it will be thirty years.”
For one Sufi master, the experience of opening has taken the form of an ongoing process rather than appearing as a single, great event of transformation.
While I of course remember various insights and revelations, on the whole my spiritual life has been a process of years and years of consciousness opening. This process simply has to be respected and encouraged. If I pay attention to what is happening inside, what wants to open next, it will always intensify. And as I sense each new capacity, I also discover what is in the way, preventing my opening. So, if I sense my compassion is growing, I also encounter the doubts, and resistance’s that stop me from really living in compassion. Acknowledging this becomes the next step in the process of opening.
Even though we know the truth, we have to work through the holding and beliefs that keep us limited. For a long time, you have to keep this opening process going by paying attention. But you reach a point where it goes on by itself. There’s no turning back because you know what it is to rest in True Being, to trust, even though you fall back into resistance sometimes. Because you know this is who you are, your understanding can’t disappear.
Rather than seeking enlightenment as a state far away, we learn to recognize that it is, as Zen teaches us, “nearer than near.” The gateless gate honors this natural awakening as our birthright.
Ajahn Chah, living amid a Buddhist culture that overemphasized the long arduous journey to enlightenment, took great care to remind his monks and nuns that their own awakening was natural and just at hand. He used to say that if you hadn’t tasted the stream of enlightenment in the first six months at the monastery, you had been wasting your time. He pointed out that enlightenment is our inherent state, and that we can learn to rest in our naturally silent and free heart, independent of all the changing conditions around us.
Within itself the mind is timeless, naturally peaceful, unmoving. Rest in this natural state. If the changing sense impressions cause the mind to forget itself, to be deceived and entangled, your practice is to see this whole process and simply return to the original mind.
Ajahn Chah reminds us that our careful reflection and earnest meditation can show us this reality whenever we become still. All experiences are without self, without independent existence. They arise like the wind, and pass away, all according to certain conditions. In any quiet moment of seeing this truth, he taught, we can step out of all the conditions we call “self,” to rest in the timeless knowing, the unconditioned. Thus, the difficult practice we undertake is to know the changing world and not get lost in it.
In this teaching, the figure and ground of our experience are reversed. Illumination is our true state, and spiritual practice is a way to release our entanglements and live in the reality of the present. We are the goal.
A Buddhist meditation master tells how her life has been transformed. For her, too, there is no event, no powerful satori that she can point to. Instead, it is the endless stream of awakening itself.
Here I am a teacher for hundreds and hundreds of students, some who have experienced powerful meditative openings. But that has not been my way. For a long time, this was the hardest thing for me to accept, that “nothing happened.” I’m not a person with big dramatic experiences. For thirty years now it’s simply been a process of practicing without being caught by my own ideas of discouragement or success. I would go for months of intensive training and no spectacular experience would happen. This was especially hard for the first ten years, but at least I never got trapped into believing I was a special spiritual person.
Yet, somehow something did change. What most transformed me were the endless hours of mindfulness, giving a caring attention to what I was doing. I learned that the inner dropping of burdens was not going to happen for me all in one piece, but again and again. I simply dropped the burden of my judgments, of my fear, of distrust of myself, of tightness of body and mind. At some point, I discovered how automatically tightness and grasping would come, and with that realization I started letting go, opening to an appreciation of life, finding an ease. The traditional teachings slowly dawned on me–that in reality there is neither coming nor going, that from the ground of being, nothing ever really happens or will ever happen. Seeing this was like a confirmation of what I already knew. I became less serious, less concerned about myself. My kindness started to deepen. Oddly enough, some of my friends tell me I have become more and more like myself. They say there has been a very big change in me, but it wasn’t produced by any special event. I guess it is just the fruit of being present over and over. It’s that simple.
It is easy to get caught in the notion that there is a goal, a state, a special place to reach in spiritual life. Accounts of extraordinary experiences can create ideas of how our own lives should be, and lead us to compare ourselves with others. In Tibet, one famous yogi had lived for years practicing ardently in a mountain but supported by the villagers below. Then, one festival day, he heard that all his supporters were going to visit him. The yogi carefully swept his hut, polished the offering bowls on the altar, made a special offering, and cleaned his robes. Then he sat back and waited, but an unease came over him. Who was he trying to be? Finally he got up, scooped up several handfuls of dirt, and threw them back onto the altar. Those handfuls of dirt were said to be his highest spiritual offering.
When we enter the gateless gate, we come to the end of seeking. Before this in our life, we may have tried many ways to find enlightenment or become something special. Finally, we enter the gate of the eternal present and discover that we are not going anywhere. Where we are is the place, the only place for the perfection of patience, peace, freedom, and compassion. Zen poet Ryokan offers this truth as the culmination of a life of seeking wisdom:
“My life may appear melancholy
But traveling through this world
I have entrusted myself to Heaven.
In my sack, three quarts of rice;
By the hearth, a bundle of firewood.
If someone asks what is the mark of enlightenment or illusion
I cannot say–wealth and honor are nothing but dust.
As the evening rain falls I sit in my hermitage.
And stretch out both feet in answer.”
(tr. John Stevens)
Ryokan rests in the understanding heart. No longer seeking anything from the world, he trusts the Tao. Enlightenment is his own presence, and his response to the world is compassionate and natural.
From After the Ecstasy, the Laundry. Copyright 2000 by Jack Kornfield. All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement with Bantam Books (a division of Random House, Inc.), New York.