Student: I am having a really rich workshop around the recent blogs on “what is spiritual.” It truly challenges some core beliefs.
Teacher: Excellent! We want to encounter everything we need to transcend, yes?
Student: I feel some resistance to that statement because of where I’m stuck. I have never distrusted the process of practice before. I have absolutely trusted the Guide and guidance, but now the seeds of doubt are being sown and it feels like they are taking hold.
Teacher: So what are the voices saying that “you” are believing?
Student: Well – it goes something like this. If everything is spiritual, then nothing is “immoral” or “wrong” and everything goes. I am having a hard time with a spirituality that condones everything.
Teacher: You mean ego is having a hard time?
Student: Well, I suppose. I am watching the frustration that arises at a response like that. Everything is the “fault of the voices.” We say things like the “wisdom of no explanations,” “don’t believe anything,” or “there is nothing wrong.” But all it seems to mean is that practice does not have to answer to a standard of morality! I can do the “right” practice thing and keep looking at it and saying I don’t know and questioning beliefs and assumptions and recording about there is nothing wrong! But I can’t escape the evidence of my eyes that there is “wrong” and it’s everywhere!
Teacher: Well, I suppose the question then is, do you want to be right or do you want to be free?
Not what but how...
We are what we think.
All that we are arises with our thoughts.
With our thoughts we make the world.
- The Dhammapada
Most of us experience the world through the lens of karmic conditioning. It is our default orientation. All information is received, processed and interpreted through this lens. It creates “me,” “my” world, “my” point of view, “my” identity, “my” orientation to life. Most of us are not aware that we wear this lens until we start an awareness practice.
Practice constantly encourages us to pay attention, to watch “our” process, to see how suffering works, to notice how the illusory world of ego-identity is created and maintained. In training to pay attention this way, we start to get a sense of this “lens” and what it feels like to see through it. We start to build a vocabulary to describe the experience of “attention on conditioned mind”: something wrong, not enough, loss, lack, deprivation, closed, negative, self-hating, feeling bad, isolated, resistant, discouraged, dissatisfied, identified.
This practice of paying attention, of noticing “ego,” trains us to make an important movement – out of conditioned mind into awareness. Just as the eyes cannot see themselves, conditioned mind cannot “see” itself. To “see” conditioned mind, attention has to be on awareness.
As we keep practicing this movement of dis-identification, redirecting the attention from the voices to thisherenow, a mysterious process occurs. In a flash of insight, we become aware that we are the awareness that notices, rather than that which suffers. This experience is sometimes described as the “joy of Intelligence knowing itself.”
We have to practice this movement over and over again to have the experience being described. This is why practice declines to provide explanations, does not answer questions, ignores accusations and serenely refuses to rationalize, defend or justify itself or its methods. What would be the point? Conditioned mind would simply receive the information, argue, analyze, debate, judge, resist, condemn, and use whatever is offered to perpetuate itself!
So practice endlessly and compassionately directs us to see “our” process, to redirect the attention, to make the movement into awareness. It holds that line for us until we can “see” the identification with the process of suffering for ourselves and make the movement out of it.
In the exchange above, the teacher does not defuse the student’s frustration, explain the moral stance of practice, or address the content of the question of morality. To do so would simply train attention to stay on conditioning. Instead, the teacher gently directs the student to the process of suffering as the place to look, with the question, “You mean ego is having a hard time?”
It takes a lot of practice to see this direction as a training signal to make the movement into awareness and to recognize the compassion behind the suggestion!
A word about morality...
So then, the relationship of self to other is the complete realization that loving yourself is impossible without loving everything defined as other than yourself.
- Alan Watts
The Four Noble Truths capture the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. He simply states that suffering exists, there is a cause and there is a way to stop suffering. He does not say suffering is “bad” or ending suffering is “good.” The Precepts are the closest we get to a moral compass in Zen. Even here, the Buddha offers morality as a process and not as an absolute standard. We are asked to train to harmonize with heart-wisdom, to use the structure of the Precepts to calibrate the attention to that which leads us away from suffering and towards liberation, moment by moment.
When we practice in this way, we train to be with life as it is. As far as we can tell, in the absence of the process that divides, labels, judges, condemns, avoids and excludes, everything goes, everything is Life. And from that place of non-separation, we get to choose love, kindness, compassion, joy, happiness, respect, care and attention. In fact, awareness is inclusive in its orientation and expansive in its compassion.
Only ego’s world seems to need “morality” because right and wrong, good and bad only exist in its world. Once we recognize that we are training to go “beyond right-doing and wrong-doing,” we can see the “debate” about morality as an ego process to grab the attention, to distract us from thisherenow, the only place from which the sacred choice for conscious compassionate awareness is possible.
Practice: Joshu’s Zen
Joshu began the study of Zen when he was sixty years old and continued until he was eighty, when he realized Zen. He taught from the age of eighty until he was one hundred and twenty.
A student once asked him: "If I haven't anything in my mind, what shall I do?"
Joshu replied: "Throw it out."
"But if I haven't anything, how can I throw it out?" continued the questioner.
"Well," said Joshu, "then carry it out."
Pay attention to how egocentric karmic conditioning/self-hate focuses the attention on content. How are you talked out of “seeing” process? Practice the movement into awareness and see if you can experience the joy of Intelligence knowing itself, as you “throw out” or “carry out” conditioned mind by redirecting the attention.