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sometimes report that fear of liberation holds them back in their practice; as
they proceed into uncharted territory, fear of the unknown becomes an obstacle
to surrender. But this is not really fear of enlightenment. It is rather fear
of ideas about enlightenment. We all have notions about freedom: dissolving in
a great burst of light, or in a great cosmic flash. The mind might invent many
different images of the experience of liberation. Sometimes our ego creates
images of its own death that frighten us.
means letting go of suffering. Do you fear the prospect of being free from
greed? Do you fear being free from anger or delusion? Probably not. Liberation
means freeing ourselves from those qualities in the mind that torment and limit
us. So freedom is not something magical or mysterious. It does not make us
weird. Enlightenment means purifying our mind and letting go of those things
that cause so much suffering in our lives. It is very down-to-earth.
holding on to a hot burning coal. You would not fear letting go of it.
fact, once you noticed that you were holding on, you would probably drop it
But we often do not recognize how we hold on to suffering. It seems to hold on
to us. This is our practice: becoming aware of how suffering arises in our mind
and of how we become identified with it,
learning to let it
We learn through simple and direct observation, seeing the process over and
over again until we understand.
the Buddha described his teaching in the most concise way, he said that he
taught one thing and one thing only: suffering and the end of suffering.
Understanding this reality for our self frees our mind and opens more fully the
possibilities for compassionate action in the world.
enlightenment gradual or is it sudden? Whole schools of Buddhism have grown up
around this issue. But it has always seemed to me that liberation is both
sudden and gradual, that there is no polarity between the two.
is always sudden. It is grace; when the conditions are right, it happens. But
the path leading up to that moment is gradual. We practice, we create the
field, we prepare the ground, and the mind eventually opens suddenly and
spontaneously. Then again, after sudden awakening can come a gradual
cultivation and ripening of the enlightened mind.
Buddha declared straightforwardly that our mind in its natural state is pure
but that it is obscured by visiting defilements. In one of his discourses he
said, "The mind is radiant, shining, glowing forth; but it is stained by
the defilements that visit it. The mind is radiant, shining, glowing forth, and
from the uprooting of defilements that visit it, it is freed."
may vary, but the essential teachings of the Buddha—on the nature of suffering
and the realization of freedom—are found in all the Buddhist traditions.
Countless forms have evolved in all the places where the Dharma has flourished:
India, Burma, Thailand, Tibet, China, Japan, Korea, Sri Lanka, Cambodia,
Vietnam, and elsewhere. Munindra-ji told me long ago that he was familiar with
over fifty techniques of insight meditation in Burma alone.
not become attached to the idea that there is only one right way or technique
of practicing the Dharma. Freedom and compassion are the reference points for
all practice. Everything else is skillful means. There are many experiences
along the way. As soon as we take a stand any place at all, thinking "this
is it," we have already overshot the great jewel of emptiness, creating
yet another sectarian view.
of my teachers voiced what I think is true for all traditions, practices,
techniques, and views. He said, "Unless a practice cools the fires of
greed, aversion, and ignorance it is worthless." This is the measure of
everything we do.
is truly wonderful about the Dharma in the West is the opportunity for
practitioners of all traditions to meet and learn from one another. Each of the
great traditions—Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana (Tibetan Buddhism)—has so
much to offer. As the Buddha said, "The Dharma has one taste, the taste of
for all of us practice is the key. There is a wonderful story of Milarepa, the
great Tibetan yogi. It seems that at the end of his life Milarepa took his
foremost disciple to a remote mountainside in order to transmit the most secret
teachings. With great reverence and devotion the disciple requested the
transmission. Milarepa then bent over, exposed his backside, and pointed to the
leatherlike calluses that had developed from his years of sitting.
individuals we will have different cycles as our practice unfolds. There are
times when you might have a lot of energy for intensive, silent meditation
retreats that can help stabilize strong awareness and open new levels of
insight. At a certain point, however, you might find yourself losing energy for
such intensity in practice. This waning in the cycle might come after a few
years, a few months, or even, at first, after a few days of intensive practice.
When it comes depends on each person's level of development and particular life
knew one retreatant who had been practicing in Asia for several months. His
practice had reached a certain level of maturity, but for some reason he could
not make any further progress. When our teacher asked him about conditions at
home, he spoke about a compelling desire to see his family again. Our teacher
advised him to return home for a visit. After seeing his family, his mind was
cleared of that obstacle, and when he came again to practice, he finished that
particular course of training.
wary of holding a fixed model of how your practice should proceed. At times you
may be drawn to investigate your mind in a secluded retreat situation. At other
times, you may not feel this need for solitude. Just follow the rhythm of the
cycle in a simple, natural way. If liberation is the central aspiration of your
life, periods of intensive meditation practice can be of inestimable value.
They generate tremendous energy, power, and insight. But there are also cycles
of living actively in the world, developing generosity morality, truthfulness,
and compassion, qualities more easily expressed in daily life than in retreat.
Then in turn these great strengths of mind will further empower your intensive