'Without any true knowledge of the nature of our mind....the thought that we might ever become ego-less terrifies us,' says Sogyal Rinpoche. This 'secret, unnerving knowledge' is unwelcome and unwanted. It makes us chronically restless and insecure. So we talk ourselves out of it; 'I can’t do it;' 'I don’t deserve it;' 'I’m tempting fate;' 'Others won’t understand;' 'I’ll end up alone.'
Anticipate the mind’s ambivalence and resistance to awakening, and then we will not be dismayed or deterred. Left to itself, the mind will always hedge its bets. 'Your mind has a mind of its own,' my first vipassanà [insight meditation] teacher, Sujata, once wrote—'Where do you fit in?' That part of us would prefer not-to-know and will settle for relief instead—any relief if we feel badly enough—anything that will ease the pain and discomfort without requiring deeper inquiry into its source. Rather off-hand one day, Sujata said, 'Let’s face it—we’re all pigeons for a little bit of sukha (pleasurable feeling).' I resented his crudeness at the time, but in part because he pointed to something I did not want to recognize.
A poet-professor of mine wrote many years ago in a meditation on the sacred in art, 'It’s not the skeleton in our closet that we fear. It’s the god.' It is not ghosts which evoke our deepest anxieties. It is glimpses of freedom. Like the prisoner in Plato’s allegory of the cave, the shackles are off but the light outside is too bright; better the comfort and familiarity of the shadows on the wall of the cave. Sometimes even though the cell door is flung open, the prisoner chooses not to escape.
This may be true, but here it is used as a rationalization. By minimizing its importance, we make our own self-doubts and insecurities easier to live with. Idealizing awakening and minimizing its importance are both defensive, and repeat what has already happened in the history of Buddhism. Awakening was a common occurrence in the beginning if we believe the suttas; over the centuries it came to be viewed as a rarer and rarer event as it took on more of a mystical aura, and most Buddhists eventually abandoned the aspiration for awakening in this lifetime. Is this coincidence?
Abhidhamma calls 'chanda.' Without this will or desire or intention to awaken, awakening will not happen.
'I wanted to know the meaning of my life,' a student once said to Kapleau Roshi. 'How did you ask your question?' Roshi replied. 'Only when you are driven to cry from your guts, ‘I must, I will, find out!‘ will your question be answered.' Aspiration can be confused with longing; longing is only a wish for what we believe we will never have. Aspiration is setting our face to the wind with conviction, purpose and intention. What we don’t intend we will never accomplish."
"Practicing for Awakening" by Jack Engler
This excerpt is from "Practicing for Awakening," part of a day-long workshop given by Jack Engler at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies on November l, l997. Jack is on the study center board of directors, teaches at Harvard Medical School and practices psychotherapy in Cambridge.