Q. Is awakening 'an act of grace' (or words to that effect) or is it a reward for effort on the part of the spiritual seeker? Isn't the very notion of a spiritual path self-defeating because it does the one thing that has to be undone? Namely, by focusing attention on something to be achieved in the future, a goal to be attained, etc., it traps the seeker of nirvana into a time-line? All this doing and striving-after that spiritual practitioners get up to, isn't it all just more stuff for the 'self' to be getting caught up in, more fuel for its unending need to create itself?
A. I'm not sure what you mean by 'grace'. If you mean that someone or something gives you a prize for your efforts, well, I don't think so. Our part on the spiritual path is to learn, through making use of the tools of practice, how to give ourselves up, surrendering the notion of self that attaches and creates life's problems. The 'reward', as you put it, is the natural fruit of practice that falls when the conditions are right, returning 'us' to our own eternal True-nature -- that is warm and loves all that is. There is a timeless paradox within spiritual practice. Commitment to a spiritual path invariably means making use of supports and systems, including religions. In Buddhism we refer to these as 'the raft'. The raft ferries us to the 'other shore', and once there we let go of the raft. For most of us, to get to the other shore on our own, without support and guidance, would be impossible. The Buddha (like all great spiritual teachers) recognised this reality and created supports to help us in our commitment. We call it the 'Buddha-Dharma' or 'Buddhism'. There are those that say that such things create attachment and a sense of doing something, of trying to go somewhere, and trying to become something, and therefore can never work. This is true if you don't know that what you are making use of is merely a 'skilful means', something to let go of when it has fulfilled its purpose. This includes the whole network of supports and teachings that collectively is known as 'Buddhism'. You may well imagine that when the moment arrives to return to your Original-nature, after many years of cultivating Buddhist insight, you will be full of wisdom. This notion couldn't be further from the truth. When the moment arrives for you to return to your True-nature you are no longer a 'Buddhist' or any sort of conditioned being. Even the wisdom that has brought you to this moment deserts you. Rather, you are like a newborn baby that knows nothing and is incapable of any attachment. If you decide that you don't need a raft of any kind, then be aware that this way of practice can be fraught with dangers. What we are engaging ourselves in is indescribably subtle. If you feel that you are someone special, not needing to make use of the checks and balances that all the great sages have made use of throughout the ages, then be careful. You run the grave risk of straying up a blind alley, all the while convinced you've got everything right.
Q. At the end of your second book you describe your practice of bowing. You say: 'On the first bow I quietly ask the Buddha to forgive me.' I find it easier to cultivate a 'confession of faults' attitude than one of asking for forgiveness. It seems a bit Christian to me. Who or what is doing the forgiving? Is it that ultimately only something deep within myself that can forgive all my own faults and mistakes?
A. Who or what would you confess your faults to? Yes, it is ultimately only something deep within ourselves that can do the forgiving: Our own true inner nature. The nature that is eternal is the great mystery that embraces all of life. It is that which we live out of every second of our lives, yet it is forever beyond the entangled world that we are familiar with. It is this that I personally open up to when I bow. What I describe in my book is how it works for me. If you wish to substitute my words of reflection and communion with your own, then of course that is fine.
Q. Much of my dharma practice has involved a 'cultivation' approach, trying to increase skillful mental states and eradicate unskillful ones. In trying to do this I have sometimes experienced a kind of alienation or dukkha, which seems to arise from striving to change myself. In this respect I have found the more receptive approach of the pure awareness practice a kind of antidote to this; it's felt very healing and opened me up to some of the fear and restlessness behind my striving. I find both these approaches helpful at times, but have difficulty integrating them. They seem to be doing quite different things with the mind; one approach attempting to manipulate and change our state of consciousness and the other just knowing our experience without altering or manipulating it in any way. These practices seem to work in quite contrary ways. By cultivating, are we not reducing our capacity to accept our experience as it is? Would you recommend sticking to one approach, or do you have any advice on integrating them?
A. Certainly stick to one way. I personally would feel concern if I discovered I was pushing away a part of myself in favour of another. I would be cutting myself in two and that would lead to inevitable alienation. How could it not be any other way? Wanting to become this and no longer wanting to be that is a common theme with practitioners. If this were genuine Dharma practice, I think I would be off doing something else. It sounds a dangerous path to follow and could never be integrated into the effort to embrace the totality of ourselves without discrimination, which is what characterises pure awareness. The Hinayana path develops skillful ways of 'suspending' the more 'unwholesome' side of ourselves by learning to turn away from it whilst developing the more 'wholesome'. This path is not a path of open all-embracing non- discrimination like the Mahayana, but this narrower way isn't really a path of rejection either. And by the way, give up 'striving to change' yourself. You'll tire yourself out.
Q. It is often recommended that a good degree of psychological integration and emotional positivity is achieved before taking up an insight meditation practice; that one should preferably be in a state of access concentration or dhyana and then introduce an insight 'tool'. Would you say that the same is true of the pure awareness practice? How might we know from our experience whether it is appropriate to take up the pure awareness practice?
A. No, it is not the same. Entering pure awareness can be taken on from the first day of practice because it is not about doing or achieving anything; rather, it is about just being the way you are right now. The spirit of pure awareness is primarily about taking that willingness to open up without discrimination to all of life's experiences, not seeing any difference in the four postures. This can be a bit difficult for absolute beginners when they come to meditate, because they haven't yet been able to access their undisturbed natural awareness through returning the mind to that natural stillness. A skilful way to address this can be by working first with a standard concentration practice, such as mindfulness of breathing. This is a particularly skilful practice to pursue because of its non-conceptual nature. If mindfulness of breathing is developed through concentration on the rise and fall of the abdomen, it will help to familiarise the practitioner with coming back into the body. This is a crucial feature of pure awareness practice and reintegration.