It was a very honest admission of the shortcomings of monastic life, and also about the need to get to know worldly life at first hand.
Buddhism considers that we exist on two levels – Samsara and Nirvana. Samsara is the worldly level, and is characterised by volatility. Worldly life is a rollercoaster, full of ups and downs, joys and sorrows. One of its main characteristics is impermanence. Things and people come and go. Even those things we’ve taken for granted, such as the environment, are subject to change.
We try to create some sort of security for ourselves through marriages and mortgages, but ultimately these efforts prove to be futile.
Somewhere inside we know this, so we are often anxious and insecure. We long for stability and support, but look for it in all the wrong places.
In Tibetan Buddhism there is a saying that “Samsara is over-estimated.”
We expect to find fulfillment here, but we’re like a teenager on a first date – full of hopes and dreams, and viewing our dorky partner through rose coloured glasses.
Adding to our woes is the fact that Samsara is all we know. We are a secular culture, and our focus is outward, to external things. So when the rose coloured glasses come off, and we start to see Samsara for what it is, we feel disillusioned and let down. This is when chronic depression and anxiety can set in.
Without knowing it, we have lost contact with the one thing that would relieve our anxiety – the Nirvanic aspect of our nature.
Nirvana is the non-material, all-encompassing Ultimate Ground of Being in which the physical universe floats. It exists beyond time and space, the most intimate and most expansive aspect of ourselves. When we lose contact with this, we’re like a kid at a fairground who’s been separated from his mum. Suddenly, we feel lost and alone and anxious. We can’t enjoy the fair anymore. Everything becomes a nightmare. All we want to do is find that one person we can hold on to and feel safe with.
Although we now occupy an adult body, in our hearts, on a spiritual level, we are still like children. We feel vulnerable and lost and alone in the world. At the fairground, there is a police booth where lost kids can be reunited with their mothers. In our secular world, for spiritual lost souls, there is no such thing.
To find our way back to the Nirvanic realm – our spiritual mother – is not so easy.
We need to find some sort of spiritual police booth, a stepping stone to Nirvana. In Buddhism this stepping stone is called the Three Jewels. When someone is initiated onto the spiritual path – the journey back to Nirvana – they take refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha (or teacher), the Dharma (or teaching) and the Sangha (community). A place of refuge is somewhere where you can feel safe while a search party is sent out to look for your mother. It’s a safe place to meditate and wait and do spiritual practice.
A child sits in a police booth while a policeman gives him a glass of lemonade and tells him that everything will be okay. They are going to find his mum. To the child, this is tremendously reassuring. Even though he hasn’t seen his mother yet, he feels so much better. When we find a teacher who can show us a way back to our spiritual home, we feel the same way. Suddenly, we are not lost souls anymore.
Then when we do finally reconnect with our real mother, we feel tremendous joy and happiness. We become carefree, and can start to enjoy the fair again.
Nothing changes in Samsara. It is still up and down and sideways, as impermanent and dualistic as ever. But now we are okay with it. In fact, we prefer it that way.Anything permanent would be very boring. We appreciate change, and surprises! We know that the essential part of ourselves remains unaffected by the ups and downs of worldly life.
Even though the Nirvanic realm is an intrinsic part of ourselves, at first it proves to be quite elusive to find.
You can’t see it, or hear it or touch it. Like the wifi in your house it is invisible, and yet your devices are totally reliant on it. Without it everything goes on the blink.
But once you start to connect with Nirvana through meditation you realise it is far more than wifi. It contains the source of your intelligence, intuition and heart energy. It provides an all-encompassing support for your life. As soon as you get a glimmer of this, the quest to reconnect with the Nirvanic realm becomes a passion, and the most important purpose of your life.
Whilst we are using Buddhist terminology here, when we view our situation from an existential point of view, we see that the same dependence on the two realms is true for everyone. Without a connection with that-which-lies-beyond, earthly life is generally experienced as something changeable, and hence insecure. We long to be supported by something stable.
Tuning in to the Nirvanic realm happens slowly over time. We start to recognise that there is a part of us that is simply an observer. And we start to relate more to the observer than the observed. That which is observed is seen as external – including the outside world, our body, and even our thoughts and emotions.
As the ability to observe strengthens, we start to dis-identify with all that we are observing – that is, with the things and events of Samsara. And we recognise the central role of the observer in our lives.
For example, if we have a thought, and we observe the thought – then we see that the observer is not the thought. The thought happens, and something in us notices it. The same thing happens with the body. Our body walks and sleeps and functions in its usual way. As we become aware of it, we notice that this ‘aware’ part of us is not the body.
The observer is something else, separate from the mind and the body. It is a mirror-like energy that exists beyond thought.
As we get to experience this mirror-like energy more closely, we are making a connection with the Nirvanic realm.
It may sound a little disappointing to the beginner, that Nirvana is simply the part of us that observes. It doesn’t sound like much. Why does Buddhism make such a fuss about it?
The main reason for this is that we have not had much direct experience of the essential awesomeness of this mirror-like energy. We think that observing is something that anyone can do at any time. It’s no big deal. Yet when we start to practice we soon see that this is not the case. Most of the normal observing that we do is tainted with an ongoing inner commentary. We can’t help judging, comparing, getting attached to an outcome, liking, disliking, getting emotional etc. We rarely practice observing it a pure form.
In Buddhism, this pure form of observing is called seeing with a ‘pristine mind’ also known as Rigpa. There are no thoughts clouding or obscuring or judging that which is being seen. Rigpa has three characteristics – it is non-material, beyond space and time, and has an innate mirror-like ability to reflect.
Letting go of our mental activity, and entering into this purely Aware zone, is what the practice of meditation is all about.
Frank Vilaasa is a counsellor, healer and meditation teacher living in Fremantle WA. He is the author of What is Love? – the spiritual purpose of relationships and can be contacted at www.awaken-love.com