The Path To The Pathless Land
Dharma talk from 'Tovana' non-dual course – 2013
The name of the talk relates of course to the well-known line of the renowned Indian teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti “The truth is a pathless land.”
Yet if truth is a pathless land, then is the meditation practice an attempt to create a path to that which has no path?
And if there are no paths that lead towards truth – what are we doing here? And why did the Buddha teach a way, a path?
These are the questions I will be addressing in this talk.
Many years ago I participated in a retreat led by the Dharma teacher Shaila Catherine, where from the very first day until the very last session, the meditation instructions remained the same. In fact, there was only one instruction, and it was as follows: Just relax.
We were mostly long-time practitioners in that retreat, with much experience in vipassana meditation, and to our surprise we discovered it was not that easy to “just relax.”
What that retreat did, or attempted to do, was to break the so very solid construct we have in our minds of what meditation is, and who or what I am as a meditation practitioner.
One of the roles of spiritual practice, and is perhaps how it differs from the psychological approach, is the intention to not strengthen the construct of the personality/self but rather to deconstruct it, dissolve it, enable us to see through it, to see it as it really is: not solid, not constant, a mental construct of our own creation.
During our lives as practitioners, we may have already relinquished many attachments and identifications with labels, identities and roles, but we may sometimes suddenly discover that – oops, without noticing, we have created yet another construct: the identity of a spiritual practitioner. A place that feel nice to inhabit. I dare say: a slightly arrogant place. An identity as a 'mediation practitioner' and even worse – an identity as a 'meditation teacher'!
Thus, the encounter with that seemingly simple instruction to simply let go had a deep impact on the participants in the retreat, and naturally evoked the question that arises here as well: What then does meditation entail? What does it mean to meditate?
Before I encountered the Buddhist non-dual approach, I was quite familiar with it in the Advaita Vedanta tradition (the non-dual approach posits no separation between the experiencing subject and the object being experienced, between self and not-self), in the years I lived in an ashram and had a guru and practiced yoga and Indian meditation. To this day one can find living masters in India in the Advaita tradition, or the current Neo-Advaita tradition, who will tell you you are already enlightened, that you need not do anything for there is nothing to do and nowhere to go: everything is already here, and your effort will not bring you one iota closer to what is already present, you simply need to realize it. Many have followed and continue to follow such messages.
It is an enticing message indeed. It particularly answers our obsessive habit to constantly exert great effort, and here we are finally being told we can rest, we need not exert ourselves; we are finally being given permission to do nothing.
Many were sent home by these Indian masters with the declaration that they are already enlightened. Yet after some time back in the West, many returned to their teachers in India, heartbroken, saying, Something is not working. We came home and our suffering is too intense. We did not receive any tools or practice in order to maintain the insights and experiences we had in the East.
Here in this course we are intent on demonstrating that not only that non-dual teachings exist in Buddhism, but in Theravada Buddhism: non-dual is completely Theravadic, and I have a few suttas to prove it…
The book The Island (By Ajahn Pasanno & Ajahn Amaro), is unique in the Theravadic landscape. It attempts to put in words that which is hard to articulate. In the introduction, Ajahn Sumedho writes:
A difficulty with the word 'Nibbana' is that its meaning is beyond the power of words to describe. It is, essentially, undefinable. Another difficulty is that many Buddhists see Nibbana as something unobtainable – as so high and so remote that we’re not worthy enough to try for it. Or we see Nibbana as a goal, as an unknown, undefined something that we should somehow try to attain. So Nibbana is looked at as something that, if you work hard, keep the sila, meditate diligently, become a monastic, devote your life to practice, then your reward might be that eventually you attain Nibbana – even though we’re not sure what it is.
Christopher Titmuss, a non-dual dharma teacher, said that he went through the entire Theravadic text (called The Pali Canon) and counted 108 words for awakening, enlightenment, Nibbana/Nirvana (some of you may know this is a sacred number in the Indian tradition): liberation, emptiness, truth, the eternal, the absolute, the ultimate, the deathless, the unconditioned… don’t worry, I will not read out all 108 names… apparently, many names have been given to that which has been considered unnamable…that which cannot be called an “experience” for it is beyond the realm of duality, and an experience is always dual in nature.
I want to pause for a moment and consider the concept of “the unconditioned,” that which is not dependent on conditions, causes and causality. It seems we are continuously practicing and practicing, striving with great effort to remove inner obstacles, the poisons, kilesas and hindrances, anger, desires confusion, restlessness, lethargy, doubt, all this to reach the unconditioned, that which is independent of conditions! That which apparently is worthy of attaining – the condition that is not dependent on conditions – requires many conditions! How strange that the unconditioned seems to rely on many conditions, and we seem to need to create many conditions – to relinquish certain things, develop others – to get to it! How can so many conditions bring us to what is beyond conditions? How come so many conditions are needed to get to that which is beyond them? How can so many conditions create something that is not dependent on conditions? This makes no sense. And if it cannot be created, put together, fabricated – because it does not rely on any conditions – then why practice? Maybe it’s better not to practice at all? Perhaps all of the Advaita teachers are right when they send us home saying there is nothing to practice…
On the one hand, perhaps it makes no sense to practice, yet on the other hand, millions of people across the globe don't practice and they don’t seem to be in a state much better than ours… There is also much confusion and pain.
Hence we are faced with a paradox: The Dharma points towards something that is inherently not dependent on conditions. What we know about the conditioned, about that which is dependent on conditions, is that it appears according to certain circumstances, causes and conditions, and changes and passes away according to certain causes and conditions. It doesn’t matter how much we try to shape and manipulate and manage the conditions and circumstances – they can never lead beyond themselves!
What then do we do?
I once asked my Indian teacher Ajay Singh, how can we use our practice – which is form – to go beyond form? This seems to be a contradiction. How can form lead beyond itself, to the formless? Ajay answered that the practice helps us “reduce the load” we carry, so we can jump beyond form.
"Through path we are reaching the pathless. Through form we are reaching the formless. It is a jump. Before jumping we have to reduce our baggage – the path is for reducing our baggage so jumping is possible."
So perhaps we can view this matter a bit differently, and solve this paradox.
Our fundamental assumption is that there is something in us and in the world that requires fixing, that needs to be relinquished, let go of. Perhaps this is a false assumption?
If the Eternal, the Permanent, the Deathless and Unconditioned already exists (because it does not depend on conditions to exist), then there is no contradiction between our current state and our aspiration to attain a different state.
This is what the Dharma teacher Charles Genoud meant when he said of the practice: This is practice OF freedom, not practice FOR freedom. The “for” pushes it into the future, something to long for, not something that exists right now.
Here's a possibility I'd like to invite you to consider, that maybe in this moment, this very moment, with everything in it, there are all of the necessary elements for liberation.
We are accustomed to relate to things through the First Noble Truth, the truth of dukkha. And understandably so. Especially in response to the culture we live in which engages in a thousand and one creative ways to avoid pain, to prevent us from developing intimacy with suffering and difficulty. Entire industries in the Western world spend billions of dollars – Hollywood, television, the internet, Facebook, you name it – anything to avoid the feelings we call dukkha, such as loneliness, emptiness, boredom, anxiety or depression.
In the Buddha’s time, incidentally, the situation was not so different, and the prevalent Indian outlook at the time (and to this day) said that everything is Maya, illusion. The body and pain are an illusion and inferior, and must be overcome and transcend so as to unite with the absolute, the transcendent. The Buddha opposed this perception, this separation, this split, if you like – this duality.
Here in this course we are not so much coming from the perspective of the First Noble Truth, but rather from the Third Noble Truth, the truth of no-dukkha. Freedom from dukkha.
The Four Noble Truths are often translated and taught in the following way: The first truth is that there is dukkha/suffering, the Second Truth is that there is a cause for suffering; and the Third Truth is of the possibility to end suffering. Yet if this was only a possibility – it would not be a noble truth. In addition, it would come after the Fourth Noble Truth – the path.
Have you ever thought about the fact that the third truth appears before the fourth truth? The fourth truth describes the path. If the third truth – the truth of no-dukkha – depended on conditions, it should appear after the fourth truth. The third truth would have been the truth of the path: Here is what to do, this is how to practice, this is how to live – here is sila, samadhi, panna – ethics, practice and wisdom. And only afterwards – like the quote from The Island – only after you “work hard, keep the sila, meditate diligently ….” – only then will the possible reward be the fourth noble truth – no dukkha. Only then, after the long path, you may reap the fruits of the path and there will be an end to suffering.
Yet the first noble truth of dukkha and the third noble truth of no-dukkha coexist, at the same time, in the present. They do not depict a linear process. They are two complementary points of reference that do not contradict each other but rather complete each other.
In other words, in the very same situation, without changing anything, we can perhaps shift our perspective a bit, and from this new vantage point – experience no dukkha in the situation.
It’s not that dukkha is not the truth, it’s not that the dual does not exist, and it’s not that the non-dual perspective is the truth. Life is neither dualistic nor non-dualistic – life is life. Life is not dukkha, and it is not not-dukkha – life is life.
The three characteristics of conditioned existence – anicca, dukkha and anatta – are characteristics, they are not reality. And they are characteristics of conditioned existence, not of unconditioned existence.
What the Buddha offered is a perspective. Non-dual is a perspective, it’s a model, an inner attitude, a point of reference, a shift or altering of one’s viewpoint.
In the words of the beloved Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche:
In some religious traditions, sense perceptions are regarded as problematic because they arouse worldly desires . [Which is why the text says: "guard your sense-doors"].
However, in the Shambala tradition sense perceptions are regarded as sacred. They are regarded as basically good. They are a natural gift, a natural ability that human beings have. They are a source of wisdom. Whatever exists in our world is worth experiencing.
Thus, duality itself is not a problem or problematic.
The Buddha noted three reasons to use the word 'I': from confusion, from pride and from convention, a helpful tool, a conventional means of communication.
What does it mean that in the very same situation one may experience dukkha or not-dukkha?
For example, when sitting in meditation and pain arises in the leg, and a thought occurs: Should I change position? And perhaps after a few such thoughts, one straightens the leg. From one perspective there was an experience of dukkha. Yet from a different perspective, there was an event. An event of sitting, an event of pain in the leg, a mental event of thinking and an event of changing position.
If we remove from the picture the person experiencing and there is only the experience or the event – where is the dukkha?
The Buddha said of himself (in the Kalaka sutta) that when he sees something, he does not create a seen object, and he does not create a seer. When listening he does not create an object being heard nor does he create a hearer, and so forth. He said that, since he does not change with all the various phenomena that can be seen, heard, sensed, perceived, etc. – he is Such. He is dukkha-less Suchness. "And I tell you: There's no other 'Such' higher or more sublime."
Today I sat with one of the groups on the lawn in the shade, beneath a tree. The sun kept moving. So we kept moving with our chairs. There was the event of the sun, the shade, sensations and movement. Where is the dukkha here?
There is the movement of life, life flows through us, expressing itself in so many ways. These various ways we call “events.”
You may say: Alright, but what about sadness, and anger, and depression? And sexual desires?
What of them indeed? Are they outside the movement of life? Are they not also an expression of life? And if we move aside a bit inside, will they not pass by even a tiny bit faster?
From the book "I Am That" (the teachings of Nisargadatta Maharaj):
The tumult of the waves and the quiet of the deep co-exist in the ocean.
The movement of life I am referring to is what brought us here, to this retreat. So perhaps we can trust it a bit more, and relax into this movement of life, for if it had enough sense to bring us here, then just maybe it also knows what to do now that we’re here.
The movement of life perhaps has also places in our hearts the desire to awaken. Did we place it there? Do we even know how? Do we know how to rid ourselves of it?
In one of my favorite discourses, the Buddha tells a monk that came to him with difficulty and pain: “Bear with it, bhikkhu”. He did not tell him: Forget about it, it’s all maya, illusion…nor did he say: anicca, it will soon pass… he did not even say: just breathe and observe it…
Bear with it, monk. There is pain in life. The approach we are offering here, the non-dual approach, does not suggest denying or rejecting pain and difficulty, physical or emotional. But perhaps, like the tumultuous waves and the deep silent ocean, things can coexist.
The best non-dual instructions I ever heard (for it is also important to have instructions for practice) were from Christopher Titmuss, my teacher and mentor, and the instruction was simple: Take the problem out of life. Life, says Christopher, is by its very nature non-problematic; inherently unproblematic.
This is a particularly good instruction in light of how much we pathologize ourselves and our experiences. The judgment and self-criticism of what arises: tiredness, restlessness, desires, anger and so forth, we all know this. What would it be like to live life as if nothing was a problem? As if life does not have any problematic aspects? Neither does any experience, anything that arises, even depression, fear, pain, doubt….
The Buddha used a very effective image: If we put a teaspoon of salt in a cup of water – the water will be very salty. But if we but a teaspoon of salt in the Ganges River – we won’t feel the saltiness at all because it will dissolve in the vastness of the water.
The practice invites us to expand, so when our inner spaciousness increases, then the teaspoon of fear, depression, anger, sadness, gets absorbed and is contained within the inner vastness.
The non-dual perspective suggests that Nibbana is here and now. Liberation is not a future event. "‘The Island that you cannot go beyond’ is the metaphor for this state of being awake and aware, as opposed to the concept of becoming awake and aware", in the words of Ajahn Sumedho.
In the tradition there is an image of a finger pointing at the moon, the light, the longed-for goal. We are warned not to confuse between the finger – which is merely a pointer – and the essence to which it is pointing.
This is a dualistic perspective. From a non-dual perspective the finger pointing and what it is pointing at – are one and the same. Nirvana and samsara are one and the same. And perhaps we will discover through this perspective that everything points, and everything is pointed at. All things are pointing at themselves. Every thing: sensations, feelings, sights, sounds, thoughts, every phenomenon is the stuff of which awakening is made of. Here and now.
In the words of the Indian Advaita teacher HWL Poonjaji:
“Do not desire to have Freedom in the future,
and do not make effort to have in Now.
Between these two – what do you see?”