“If we hold some special experience as our goal, we may spend years seeking that goal outside of ourselves, grasping after something that is here within us all along.”
– Jack Kornfield
In his book, After the Ecstasy, the Laundry, Jack Kornfield explores what enlightenment really means in the context of spiritual practice. He reports that many teachers caution against too much emphasis on ‘special’ experiences that might take us away from the practice of opening up to what is in front of us and understanding that where we are is already the path and the goal. He refers to four kinds of awakening taught by the Buddha, which run fast and slow, and through pleasure and pain, before adding a fifth option: entry through the Gateless Gate. This represents the practice of effortlessness where struggle falls away and one abides easily in the present moment.
Sometimes we meet very wise people who have never gone anywhere special, never undertaken a systematic spiritual practice, never had a mystical experience. They can appear as the generous-hearted and loving child care worker, the sage who works in the local bookstore, or the compassionate grandmother beloved by an entire community. Such people emanate wisdom, immediacy, a gracious and free heart; they exemplify those who are unafraid to live, to love, and to let go.
When we speak about undertaking a spiritual path, such people raise a question for us. What about those who practice for many years, growing into an ever-deeper wisdom, but never have any particularly remarkable experiences of grace, satori, or awakening? This too is quite common. How does it happen?
Examining these examples helps us undo a possible confusion. Just as there is danger for a culture that ignores the process of initiation and the experiences of satori, grace, and illumination, there is also a danger in describing them in too much detail. That danger is that they will become too important in our minds, or that we will glamorize these stories and come to believe they are necessary in order to live a spiritual life. But if we hold some special experience as our goal, we may spend years seeking that goal outside of ourselves, grasping after something that is here within us all along. Or we may begin to doubt ourselves and our own experiences, and judge our heart and spiritual life as inadequate and insufficient.
“Any practice is simply a means to open our heart to what is in front of us. Where we already are is the path and the goal.”
When I returned to my teacher Ajahn Chah after completing a long period of intensive training in other monasteries, I told him about the insights and special experiences I had encountered. He listened kindly and then responded, “It’s just something else to let go of, isn’t it?”
We need to remember that where we are going is here, that any practice is simply a means to open our heart to what is in front of us. Where we already are is the path and the goal.
When I spoke to one lama about his own realization, he said he could not emphasize enough the wisdom of its ordinariness. He had done long retreats and traditional training, but that “was his job,” just as a baker bakes bread. When I pressed him to recount any particular moment of illumination, he laughed and replied:
We’re always trying to make something special, bigger, better than what is actually here. Any realization that has come was simply a confirmation of what is here already. The rumors and teachings are true: We are luminous beings and awakening is our nature. If you want a story, it wasn’t anything, and yet I could say I was resting easily, and a monk came in. He just looked at me and said, “Aha, I see something has happened.” I had been relaxing and present, and there came an eternal moment, or hours—who knows?—of perfect fulfillment and peace, but I had hardly even noticed. The monk saw it immediately, though, and it was reflected back to me in his eyes. I started to see it reflected everywhere. In that reflection I was utterly relaxed. There was nothing to do or be. Everything was totally ordinary, and at the same time it was totally clear—awakening to this moment now is all there is.
“We cannot measure our progress. It is like being in a small row-boat on the ocean. We row, but there is also a larger current; we may continually head east, but cannot know how far we have gone.”
When asked about the path of practice, Buddha explained that there are four ways for spiritual life to unfold. The first way is quickly and with pleasure. In this, opening and letting go come naturally, like an easy birth, accompanied by joy and rapture. The second way is quickly but painfully. On this path we might face a powerful near-death experience, an accident, or the unbearable loss of someone we hold beloved. This path passes through a flaming gate to teach us about letting go. The third form of spiritual progress is gradual and accompanied with pleasure. In this way opening and letting go happen over a period of years, predominantly with ease and delight. The fourth and most common path is also slow and gradual, but takes place predominantly through suffering. Difficulty and struggle are a recurrent theme, and through them we gradually learn to awaken.
In this matter we do not get to choose. Our unfolding is a reflection of the patterns of our lives, which are sometimes described as “our fate” or “our karma.” No matter the apparent speed, we are simply asked to give ourselves to the process. In fact, we cannot measure our progress. It is like being in a small row-boat on the ocean. We row, but there is also a larger current; we may continually head east, but cannot know how far we have gone. The question of distance and time, however, is one that arises only at the beginning. It does not matter how far we think we have gone. It is our willingness to open radically and repeatedly just now that characterizes this journey.
Perhaps to be accurate, we could add a fifth way to the four paths of spiritual unfolding described by the Buddha. That is the way that involves no effort, no speed, and no journey. Instead of passing through the gate of oneness or the gate of sorrow, we pass through the gateless gate, the realization that the whole idea of journey and striving is an illusion. Where we’re going is here.
“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.””
To understand this better, we need to acknowledge two complementary ways in which awakening and illumination are discovered. One is through the path of striving and effort, the other through the path of noneffort. In the path of effort you purify yourself, you struggle to release all the obstacles to being present, you focus yourself on awakening or illumination so fully that everything else falls away. Finally you are forced to release the one last grasping, the desire for enlightenment, and in this letting go, everything becomes clear. In the path of noneffort, there is no struggle. You open yourself to the reality of the present. To rest in the sense of naturalness is all that is asked. Out of this, all understanding and compassion follow.
In fact, both ways are at times part of everyone’s journey. Both ways lead to letting go. As one of my teachers, Dipama, would say, “Both ways are best.” Wise effort is important. Yet no matter how arduous the path, and how much effort is expended, in the end the awakening of the heart comes as an act of grace, like a spring wind that wafts away all our concerns and fears, that refreshes the heart.
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.”
From: After the Ecstasy, the Laundry