100,000 Prostrations, Limitless Freedom, Endless Clarity, Infinite Compassion, and No-self
Buddhism addresses the human condition in a most remarkable way, and it simply begins with the problems we experience as human beings. Buddha saw the disquieting miseries of human existence and found liberation within that very existence. He discovered a fundamental ignorance on our part that leads to a habitual misapprehension of the nature of reality. This ignorance underlies all our emotional and cognitive states, and this leads to what Buddhism calls “suffering.” The way out begins with a simple question. For Buddhism, as for all the great religious traditions, the human person is fundamentally a “question mark.” And the core question is: “Who am I?” The central experience of Buddhism, which comes from realizing that question in one’s depths, leads to a freedom that nothing can touch, leads to a clarity that nothing can obstruct, leads to a compassion that knows no bounds.
It would be a mistake, however, to idealize the Buddhism found in concrete cultural situations (that would hold true also for all the other great traditions). Conventional Buddhism has plenty of flaws and shortcomings so that superficial Western critics can have a field day if they wish. Every religious tradition finds a need to hide some stuff in a dark closet as it were; every tradition has its own murky history; and every tradition has plenty of false representations (the problem of “false prophets” is an acute one in the Bible!) Furthermore, conventional Buddhist piety has as many limitations as conventional Christian piety. Here is a quote from Thomas Merton about a kind of Christian religiosity whose counterpart can be found in a different language in Buddhism: Christian experience becomes “a sense of security in one’s own correctness: a feeling of confidence that one has been saved, a confidence which is based on the reflex awareness that one holds the correct view of the creation and purpose of the world and that one’s behavior is of a kind to be rewarded in the next life. Or, perhaps, since few can attain this level of self-assurance, then the Christian experience becomes one of anxious hope—a struggle with occasional doubt of the ‘right answers,’ a painful and constant effort to meet the severe demands of morality and law, and a somewhat desperate recourse to the sacraments, which are there to help the weak who must constantly fall and rise again.” (In a sense this is what the Pharisees stood for….)
Given all this negative stuff, it is easy to get discouraged or even to lose one’s way on the religious journey or leave it completely. However, we must always focus on that core experience, previously alluded to, within Buddhism and within Christianity and within Islam and within Hinduism—not to imply that each is the same– and it is this which makes each tradition, and each in its own way, a vehicle of something unspeakably profound, of something absolutely real in comparison to which all else seems unreal, of something that is worth pursuing with all one’s life, with all one’s heart and mind and body. We may get an inkling of the nature of this experience from the various texts of each tradition; we may even have some preliminary glimpse into our own heart and center and find an “invitation” to go “further and deeper”—to the Further Shore as the Upanishads put it—toward a total transformation of person and vision.
However what usually helps us most, both in understanding what the texts call us to and in making “visible” the significance of that core experience, are the living embodiments of each particular tradition’s deepest insights. The deeper the realization the better, but no matter how far that person has gotten on that journey, their life will reveal something of what lies at the core. That’s why spiritual friends are important, for no matter how seldom we see them they become as beacons for our own journey. When Merton met Chatral Rinpoche and the Dalai Lama, he really fell in love with Tibetan Buddhism and began to see clearly what that tradition was about—even though both men confessed readily that they had not reached the ultimate realization and were very much “on the way.” When Merton had only the texts, he was of course intrigued but also didn’t know what to make of all kinds of “weird stuff.”
Let us now turn to Tibetan Buddhism. The first striking thing about it is how elaborate and complex it seems to be. It is a “veritable technology” of consciousness and the mind. You undertake this enormous journey of analysis and there is this unpeeling of layer upon layer of wrong views of oneself and the world. And this is done in a very systematic and thorough way. Consider this: we have this sense of “I-ness,” a sense of identity rooted in our ego consciousness. So we have our sense of self: I am this; I am that, etc. So there is this I to which all reality “outside” is an “other.” Everyone and everything is then enclosed in that subject-object duality—and if you are a Christian you begin to include that Ultimate Reality which you call “God” within that same field of duality. That sense of “i-ness” is like a knot with many strands. We take that knot to be really truly who we are, our very self, and so the knot gets tighter and tighter. But what happens if that knot gets undone? Do we vanish? Who are we then?
Tibetan Buddhism, and all of Buddhism basically, says that at this point we discover the No-self. Sometimes different words are used—Lin Chi (Rinzai), the Chinese Zen Master, calls this No-self: the True Man of No Rank. The experience of No-self is an awakening into a whole new awareness of self. It is actually an aspect of that more comprehensive awakening into sunyata, Emptiness, or pure awareness, not an awareness of, but pure awareness. The “I” which you really are is so much greater, so much more awesome, so much more wonderful than that little constricted ego “I” whom you always thought you were and of which you are aware of moment by moment, day by day, sometimes painfully and anxiously for it always seems so fragile and vulnerable. But this No-self will not be an object of that kind of awareness and so it is called a No-self. This sense of self is not something that will be an object for your examination; it cannot be seen in some mirror when you look there; it will not be an object of any kind for your pursuit or manipulation; it is something totally different and transcending everything you ever thought. Thus it is as if your self is “not there” in the field of objects that your ordinary mind beholds—yet an awareness develops that is pure awareness and not an awareness of objects and this brings a radically new sense of self which is called No-self. Old Western critics of Buddhism looked at this terminology of No-self and sunyata, Emptiness, and proclaimed Buddhism pessimistic, negative and obliterating personal identity. Actually it is the very opposite of all this. It is a richness of identity beyond all compare, beyond all imagining. What is important to realize is that you do not lose your usual ego consciousness and your feeling of selfhood. It is just that your awareness of self now transcends in an unspeakable way all limitations of all dualisms and it is truly indestructible—so there is no need to be constantly “on guard” to defend it. Your “I-ness” is now one with the “I-ness” of the other person, with all other selfhood. And we need to emphasize that this No-self is awakened to in the very ground of your usual everyday mind and self. It is that “pearl of great price” and the treasure buried in the field of your own existential day to day life—not something exotic or totally different. What characterizes this No-self, then, is an unspeakable clarity, an unshakeable peace, and most importantly a boundless compassion.
Not too long ago I saw a series of taped lectures by the Dalai Lama. He based his teaching on two of the greatest of Indian Buddhists: Nagarjuna and Santideva. The Dalai Lama is of the Gelugpa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, and these folk are really into an extensive metaphysical analysis undergirding their various meditation practices. But it all leads to this incredible awakening into the No-self, and Nagarjuna is the thinker and articulator of the meaning and significance of this. And what this Emptiness unconceals as it were is the Great Compassion, karuna—so you have sunyata and karuna as the two pillars of this awakening, and Santideva was the greatest articulator of this Compassion. And by the way this has very little to do with “feelings” as we in the West tend to view compassion. Rather this is about an insight into the true nature of reality and responding in a true way. This then is wisdom, “prajna,” when we have that true awakening into the nature of reality, and this evokes from us a response of compassion, which as Santideva often pointed out, turns our most vaunted enemies, our most hated opponents, into someone very dear to us. We seek only their good because that is the nature of reality and our true identity. You would have to go to the very heart and peak of the New Testament to find anything even close to this!
Now one particular path that the Tibetan Buddhists have is something called Dzogchen or the “Great Perfection.” It is a very direct, deep and utterly simple penetration into that awakening, and at first glance it seems like a “shortcut,” but that is only a deceptive appearance. Actually it is quite an arduous and demanding path requiring enormous commitment. When Merton heard about this Dzogchen he became very interested in it. Here is an extensive quote from an essay by Judith Simmer-Brown about Merton’s interest in all this:
“Very quickly Merton became especially interested in the formless, advanced meditation traditions of Tibet, especially Dzogchen. Dzogchen…is sometimes associated with the culmination of the intricate nine-leveled path of the Nyingma ‘ancient ones’ school. But more accurately, it is based on the single simple point—the direct realization of the naturally abiding enlightenment within one’s own experience. This fundamental experience of limitless freedom, clarity, and openness is at the heart of who we are, and Dzogchen practice merely uncovers this experience. The practitioner ‘descends from above’ with the view—fruitional, lofty and very simple, summed up in one phrase—‘All things are emptiness.’ If we realize this, truly, in our moment-to-moment experience, that is all. It is said not to depend upon study, reflection, or virtuous conduct. Yet the conduct of Dzogchen ‘ascends from below’ with humility, building a foundation for uncovering and realizing this lofty view. The conduct includes foundational practices, meditation retreats, and the practice of discipline. The Dzogchen tradition has characteristic features. First, it relies on a personal, doubtless an intimate relationship with a qualified teacher, a master who has deep experience in this kind of meditation….Second, Dzogchen practice requires extended and profound resting of the mind in its empty nature, without concepts, words , or movement. It is important not to fabricate anything, and to rest in naturalness, letting awareness be completely naked. Then it is possible to experience the true nature of the mind. For this reason, Dzogchen places strong emphasis upon solitary retreat. “
When Merton talked to the Dalai Lama about Dzogchen, the latter advised him that this path is not easy and to get a good grounding in the thought of Nagarjuna, the Madhamayika, or the Middle Way, which expounds the meaning of Emptiness—and this has nothing to do with the usual negative connotations that this word has in the West. And now this from Harold Talbott, who guided Merton on a lot of his trip in India: “I like it that Merton said that his meditative practice was ‘walking in the woods.’ I am just convinced that the ‘naked,’ natural, utmost simple practice of Dzogchen on the true nature of the mind was his dish. And I think he was thrilled to discover the vast and complex treasury of forms and practices that confront the observer of the Tantric Tradition of Tibet was all an expression of an awakening that is in itself so utterly simple.”
And then there is this from Harold Talbott: “Dzogchen practice starts with an introduction to the nature of the mind from an enlightened Lama. Then you practice meditation to maintain, strengthen and extend that awareness. The introduction to the View of the absolute nature produces an abrupt empty openness, which afterwards registers as amazement, then a subtle vast luminous experienceless dwelling of the mind in emptiness. The Dzogchen introduction and the subsequent meditation practice are utmost simplicity, the freedom of the mind from concepts, habituations, thoughts, and emotions. But it cannot be entered into without a grounding into extensive devotional practice. Devotional practice is all. Even enlightened Lamas are perpetually leading others in devotional practice and thus conveying their blessing. “
Among the many initiatory and preliminary practices required before Dzogchen practice can properly begin is a series of 100,000 prostrations. I have seen on film Tibetans doing this, and it is a very moving image that forever stays in my mind. The beginning of that unraveling of that knot of the ego self begins by throwing the whole body into it. Do those prostrations a 100,000 times and your whole body begins to participate in the undoing of that knot. Now one may ask, to whom or to what are you prostrating? Afterall it is a gesture meant to show complete surrender to someone or something, one’s whole being. I remember even the Dalai Lama prostrating before the “throne” he sat on to give his formal teaching. In a sense you are bowing to that Reality which is that Total Awareness and in which you participate with your whole being. In a sense you are bowing to the Reality which you are.
Now imagine this situation: you are driving on a highway, perhaps a bit too slowly for the likes of some speedy drivers, and a road rage incident develops. A driver whizzes by you, swearing at you, giving you the finger, and perhaps he might cut you off in trying to cause you to have an accident. What you then do is mentally visualize yourself prostrating before him, seeking with your whole heart his well-being, seeking in the depths of your being his liberation from his own anger, thanking him for unconcealing even the slightest traces of anger in your own heart. This is what Santideva was all about, and this is what the Bodhisattva tradition is like. But, and this is important, this does not mean that the feeling of anger has no validity. Anger is a human emotion that has its place in certain situations, but from the viewpoint of The Awakening one then sees right through this anger the true situation and responds appropriately for the good of the person you are supposedly angry at. What superficial Western critics of Buddhism often misrepresented in Buddhism is this point—it is as if The Awakening made one numb to feelings, that feelings vanished, that one had this expressionless face, etc. And, alas, a number of American Buddhists seemed to fall for this kind of appearance and tried to emulate this incredible caricature that has absolutely nothing to do with the reality.
A 100,000 prostrations….let us begin…. We bow in gratefulness for the Reality we are, you and I and all else.
Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi, svaha!
Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone completely beyond, awake, wow!