When teachers are not fully enlightened, their words are inevitably ignorant because their perceptions are uncertain. They can occasionally talk about the right things when they feel connected to their minds’ true nature, but they cannot explain things correctly all the time. Even if they manage to do this through their acquired wisdom, their students’ minds may misinterpret their words because the students are not enlightened enough either.
As soon as we understand some basic things correctly, getting things right or wrong doesn’t matter. We should understand something first and foremost: There is pain in life. This is the most important thing we need to understand. We usually assume that we understand it, but we don’t really. Our heartbreaks, suffering, and problems stem from our failure to understand this. Once we accept that nothing in life can give us permanent satisfaction and that everything will cause stress and pain within the cause and effect relationship, then not only will our meditations and other efforts change but also our whole lives. The most touching aspect of our lives and personal stories, which we call “me,” is that we don’t realize we are suffering. This is the basic difference between a senior student who has begun the first stage of enlightenment and one who hasn’t.
People know there is no satisfaction in life during all stages of their awakenings. They know there is stress and pain, and they know that their definitions of themselves, which they call “me,” cannot be free from this pain. Because they are fully aware of this fact, they naturally find the right path to follow. Imagine if I told you that your clothes were on fire, so you suddenly realized it. What would you do? Would you wait for someone to teach you what to do in this situation, or would you try to put the fire out yourself?
One day, a king became interested in Buddha’s doctrine, so he visited Buddha. Buddha asked the king what he had come from. The king replied, “From routine governance duties, my honorable master.”
Buddha then asked, “What if one of your most respected officials was to inform you of a big storm coming from the east, demolishing everything in its path. What would you do?”
The king replied without hesitation, “I would quickly gather all my people and flee the storm.”
Buddha questioned him again, “Okay, so what if your other officials from the west, north, and south also came along and informed you of huge storms coming from all directions. What would you do in this situation, your highness?”
“I’m afraid I would have no choice other than to devote myself to Dharma [The road towards the truth or Tao], my honorable Master”,” the king replied.
Buddha then said, “Now, I tell you that death is approaching you as we speak, terminating everything in its path, and you have no place to hide from it.”
On hearing Buddha’s words, the king tidied up his affairs and delegated his responsibilities to his trusted staff before shaving his head and becoming a monk.
This way of thinking can make everything possible, so we should always observe. We should keep observing whenever we are faced with a promise of self-satisfaction.
In my early days, I worked hard to find a job and build a meaningful relationship, going through pain to achieve these goals. My desires told me I could be happy if I managed to acquire these two things. I got a job, but then I felt upset because I worked too hard or didn’t get paid enough. Similarly, I would experience problems in my relationship and feel upset. I started thinking I could be happier with another person. My desires told me I would be happier if I left the relationship and hooked up with someone else.
My desires step in again later and tell me I will be happy if I have a baby, so I have a baby. My desires then tell me I will be happy when my baby grows up and becomes self-sufficient. This happens in due course, and then my desires start telling me I’ll be happy once I retire, yet I am still unhappy in retirement. My desires tell me I’ll be happy if I devote myself to spirituality, so I do it. I devote myself to a spiritual discipline, a mosque, or a church, but I again realize that I am quite unhappy. My desires tell me the world is temporary, so I will be happy in heaven. I die, but again I feel unhappy. This time, my desires tell me I will be happy if I form a new body and satisfy my senses through this body, but the circle of dissatisfaction, pain, and stress just begins once again.
We should therefore carefully examine every single promise of happiness, satisfaction, and peace. We should be able to see how even though desire promises us relief from pain and dissatisfaction, it can also cause pain and dissatisfaction. Just be aware! Without reaching this point of comprehension, all our actions turn out to be flawed, and they result in agony. A flawed comprehension, whether in meditation or daily life, can only give faulty results.
The biggest mistake we make before starting meditation is to look for satisfaction. Trying to evaluate sessions as “good or poor” shows a shallow and poor way of comprehending the whole thing.
After I finished my session in my hotel room this morning, my wife asked me, “How did it go?”
“If I were to answer your question with my ordinary and shallow mind, I would say it was terrible,” I replied. “I couldn’t stop thinking. My back hurt, my legs were numb, and a mosquito kept biting me.”
My wife, surprised to hear this, said, “Seriously? You looked so peaceful while meditating.”
I then replied, “Yes, because my mind’s true nature was watching all this without interfering. Although we can’t really say the mind is dualistic, it was a brilliant session from this end. I didn’t identify with my shallow, one-sided mind during the session, and I knew the interpreting mind was not the real me, so it was actually a good session.”
I’m not an arhat, nor do I have a fully awakened, enlightened existence, so I’m incapable of explaining the situation in a better way. My power is limited, and this limited power keeps me from explaining the situation more clearly.
When we come to terms with this situation, things become much easier. Let’s take gold as an example. Gold prices constantly fluctuate—one day it goes up, and the next day it goes down. One day an ounce can cost $1300, but a week later it can cost $1200. Although gold prices change all the time, this change does not affect what it really is. The essence of gold is independent of its price, and its real value is not determined by its price. The essence is always the same regardless of the current price. Price is only a concept, a notion that arises from supply and demand, so it varies. When we believe gold to be particularly precious, the price goes up. If we consider something else to be more precious, gold prices go down. However, the reality of gold, its essence, is the gold itself.
Thinking does nothing but interpret the truth and estimate a price for it. It looks at something and decides if it really wants to buy it. It then estimates a price for it accordingly. We describe truth as the truth we want to buy, want to sell, want to possess, or want to get rid of. We decide this truth is good and that truth is bad. When we call something good, that “good” element determines its price rather than its real value. The same thing applies for the “bad” as well. Unfortunately, we always confuse the price with value, paying inappropriate prices because we think price means value. The mind replaces reality with its own interpretations and opinions, even going beyond reality. It comprehends and interprets an experience according to its price rather than its real value and so pays this imaginary price.
The mind’s real nature, however, is like that of gold. It doesn’t change. A person’s real mind, or the real nature of the mind, is neutral and free from choices. It is absolute, so it can only see the facts as they are, not the way it wants them to be, while thoughts are biased. This is why judgments caused by our thoughts, whether during meditation or daily life, are wrong and restrictive.
Buddha said that in cases of distress, only one arrow pierces people who can understand the truth, but for people who fail to understand the truth, two arrows pierce them. The first arrow is shot by the occurring incident, and the second arrow is shot by people themselves with their thoughts and interpretations. The first arrow rarely does much harm, but the second arrow always damages a vital organ, causing real damage. This second arrow is our inner voice. It is how we estimate a price for the truth and pay incorrectly, all because we can’t realize its true value. Ignorant people are always hit by two arrows, whereas educated people are only hit by one.
The human mind works in a flawed manner. For instance, when we feel physical pain, such as back pain or abdominal pain, we immediately create an emotional and mental pain in parallel to the physical pain. In addition to the second arrow, we sometimes also shoot ourselves with a third one. We try to interpret the pain by thinking, “This pain is caused by this and that, resulting in this. An incident, person, or destiny has caused the pain. Poor me! Damn those bad people and those unfortunate incidents! This will happen again once this pain passes, because it’s my destiny. I should get rid of this pain now, but I can’t. Every second it hurts more.” When we approach the pain this way, it grows and the problem becomes unsolvable.
An educated mind sees the pain as it is and doesn’t add additional pain to it. It doesn’t say, “I want this, but I don’t want that.” It knows there is pain, but it’s just a physical pain. There is no room for thoughts or emotions here.
Energy is the most typical characteristic of enlightenment. That’s why I have been tutoring you with Miao Tong and Wu Dao, which are Taoist methods of enlightenment, as well as the Theravada method. It is impossible to walk the way of enlightenment without energy. We cannot approach enlightenment without energy. Even a person on the verge of death, provided he is trained, can keep his mind and consciousness sharp and awake by using his energy. While Buddha was explaining his doctrine, he repeatedly said the very same thing to people who were terminally ill or about to die: “I know your body is weak and in pain, but please gather your consciousness and energy now. Keep your mind awake, sharpen up, and listen to me.”
As you may well know, Dipa Ma is one of the best examples of how to use energy correctly. When on the verge of death, despite his body being a complete wreck because of blood pressure, he managed to climb the stairs almost by crawling. He couldn’t even sit on the meditation cushion properly, so he stood bent double instead, yet his consciousness was sharp and awake. Thanks to the sharpness of his mind and his correct use of energy, he awakened to his real nature and reached the third stage of enlightenment. Dipa Ma didn’t add any emotional or intellectual pain to his physical and karmic pain. He didn’t shoot himself with that second arrow.
If you can manage to observe a physical or emotional pain objectively, there will be no problem, and pain will not obstruct or hurt you. However, if you attach a thought to the pain and say, “This is my pain. This pain was created by either this or that. Something created this pain!” then the pain will start to bother you.
The correct way of approaching any kind of pain or pleasure should be as follows:
- Pain is not abnormal or unexpected. Pain, stress, and dissatisfaction are the core elements of life. The reason behind them is our search for sensual satisfaction, happiness, and pleasure. Beneath the source of pain lies the desire to satisfy our senses, so the desire to be free of pain causes pain as well. Hanging on to pain for whatever reason results in creating more pain. If I want to rid myself of pain, it continues to exist. Likewise, if I don’t want to get rid of it, it will again continue to exist. Instead of having any kind of desire about pain, I should simply observe it, and this means approaching the source of the pain rather than running away from it. In Taoism, it is described as walking toward fear with a smile.
- When we start observing pain, we realize change is the essence of facts. Pain is temporary and diverse as well. It may increase or decrease like everything else, and it doesn’t stay the same. Therefore, if pain seems constant, it is because of the mind’s interpretation. If it changes, it is a natural process. The fact that things move on or change is inevitable…
- This pain doesn’t have a core, a source, or a creator. It doesn’t have a cause either. It began as circumstances came together, and it will disappear as circumstances change. If it had an essence of its own, if it had only one cause, or if it was free from all circumstances, then it would need to feed on something to continue its survival. Even if it had its own essence, it wouldn’t survive alone because it needs nourishment. Nothing can survive alone, and everything needs some form of nutrition and suitable environment to exist. Nothing is self-sustaining, so pain cannot sustain itself either. It is formed after certain circumstances come together, and as all things must change, the circumstances that created this pain will change as well. Therefore, changing circumstances will affect the pain too. The essence of this pain is neither stable nor constant, like every other thing, so if pain doesn’t change, then the reason must be desire.
Thus, when I observe any kind of pain while knowing it is natural, caused by desire, and eventually will change and disappear because it can’t survive on its own without certain circumstances, then only one arrow will pierce my body. This doesn’t harm any vital organs and heals pretty quickly, so it doesn’t cause major problems. When I think this way, the second arrow never hits me. This way of thinking ensures that everything will be fine.
Many things may happen while meditating—such as thoughts, physical rashes, pains, and so on—and my real mind watches them all objectively and calmly. Meditation gradually becomes deeper without any problems. However, when the mind—which separates, divides, takes sides, and comments—gets involved in the meditation, it makes judgments. It could be things like, “My nose was itching, and it was too noisy outside. It was too hot, and my friend next to me kept fidgeting. My back hurt, so my thoughts didn’t stop. It was a useless meditation.”
The mind then continues to comment: “This meditation is not right. This doctrine is flawed, or my master is not good enough. This place just isn’t suitable.” When there is a problem, we always tend to believe it to be an external problem because the mind, which takes sides and comments, always thinks the problem is caused by others rather than itself. In all cases, however, the problem lies in itself. In other words, the mind is the problem.
An objective mind using its real nature cannot comment about things going on. A subjective mind constantly estimates prices and pays a price according to its own estimates, whereas an objective mind follows and uses the real value.
We need to understand that everything is temporary. If we come to terms with this fact, we can stop estimating prices. When we wake up to a new day each morning, we should realize that life moves on very fast. A life is not easy to find, so we mustn’t waste the opportunity. On the other hand, it’s even harder to understand that enlightenment and awakening is both possible and necessary. To reach the point of awakening, we should possess a noble desire with a strong determination, like warriors do, and we should use the energy that is particular to a Taoist immortal. In this case, the desire is actually noble. It doesn’t cause any pain because it aims to eliminate desire. It comes from a full comprehension, or in other words, it comes from understanding how the search for sensual satisfaction and desires aimed at satisfaction are the causes of pain. A full and complete determination leads this desire, and the energy helps you to proceed on your way.
The noble desire or motivation that will take us to enlightenment is not a desire aimed at gaining something. On the contrary, it wants to give up things. In his sutras, Buddha explains the matter as follows:
Before I became a Buddha, when I was a bodhisattva in search of awakening and enlightenment, I came up with a way of thinking: my life and I myself were temporary. I needed to attach to something permanent in order to get rid of this temporariness. But when I tried to do this, I realized how everything I was hanging on to was temporary as well. When I realized this wasn’t the way to be permanent, I decided to search for something permanent. My mother [his aunt who treated him like a mother] and my father cried when they tried to stop me from leaving, but I cut my hair, knowing it was temporary as well, and left my wealthy life behind to live without shelter.
Because I knew pleasure wasn’t permanent, I devoted my life to asceticism. After I realized that asceticism was merely exterminating my flesh, but not helping me understand the permanent things, I discovered moderation. I began walking on this moderate road without giving myself up to pain or pleasure. Eventually I stopped by a tree, and it reminded me of a meditation experience from my childhood. I realized this meditation could be the way to the awakening I was looking for. I cleared my mind from all my desires and expectations and sat under the tree. When my mind was free from desire, it experienced pleasure, but I realized this pleasure was temporary, so I stopped hanging on to it. I reached the second phase of my meditation through the happiness that occurred after the pleasure disappeared. Again, when I realized this happiness was temporary and unreliable, I gave up hanging on to it, and this resulted in the state of being content.
I then reached the third phase of my meditation, and after a while, I realized that being content was temporary too, so I let it go and found myself in full concentration. I reached the fourth phase of my meditation, but I found this to be temporary as well. Then my body expanded and broke free from its limits, and I reached the fifth phase. The same thing happened once more. I realized it was temporary, so I let it go again. Then my mind started to expand and reach the border of existence, where I reached the sixth phase. After I let this go, I found myself in the area of “absence” beyond existence, and this was the seventh phase of my meditation. When I realized this “absence” was temporary, I let it go and naturally passed to the dimension of “neither absence nor existence,” reaching the eighth phase. At this point, I realized I couldn’t even hang on to the “me” who had passed through all these phases, because it was temporary as well. When I stopped hanging on to myself, I reached Nirvana.
As you can see, the road and all the means that lead to the road, whether meditation or virtuous practices, serve a single purpose: letting it go and not holding on to it. Therefore, whether during meditation or in life, we should never hold on to pain or pleasure, success or failure, praise or criticism, or fame or obscurity. To achieve this, we should understand that nothing exists on its own, everything changes, and nothing can give permanent satisfaction.
We have an obsession, a kind of mistake really, as old as history: preferring good things to bad things. We evaluate everything according to whether we want it or not. This applies to physical pain, but also to emotional and mental pain. We strive to reach a perfect and permanent point, continuing to cause pain ourselves. We should realize that trying to make an ideal situation and then protect that situation is the pain itself, so we should stop complaining about imperfect situations. Striving to protect a situation of our own creation and trying to get rid of an undesirable situation are both painful.
It is temporary, even when you experience good or bad things during meditation. What you should do is observe without being a part of it, so we must understand that there is nothing to hold on to, really nothing. If you are holding on to something during meditation, you are likely holding on to gain and loss in real life. Or you are holding on to praise and criticism, being accepted or not accepted. Or you are holding on to pain and pleasure.
When someone praises you, you must understand it is temporary. There is nothing to hold on to, and it will not put you in a permanent state. Also, when you are criticized, you should know it will not define you. It won’t make you who you are, and it won’t put you in a permanent state.
Ignoring praise is much easier than ignoring criticism, because people tend to accept good things and reject bad things. However, we should understand that both good and bad things change eventually. They are temporary, and we cannot rely on either of them.
If we realize this simple fact in real life, all of our actions become shibumi. We can then step into a modest, spontaneous lifestyle without expectations and not rely on other things too much. There is nothing worth running after. Trying to obtain something brings pain, so don’t become a spiritual chaser that runs after different doctrines or experiences. Always remember that no experience or state of mind is permanent. They don’t possess an independent characteristic, and they can’t provide permanent satisfaction. Every experience has to end, whether it be amazing or terrible.
What we should therefore know during meditating is that there is nothing to hold on to, even if we have things in our minds, inside our bodies, or around us. We should know they are all temporary. There is no such thing as good meditation or bad meditation—there is only meditation. The concepts of good and bad lead to us paying the wrong price, and we need to focus on value during meditating rather than holding on to prices.
This is what spiritual chasers do all the time: They estimate a price for pain and try to make it out of nothing. The way they interpret things is always wrong. They live with an arrow in their bodies and continue asking questions like “What’s this arrow made from?” “Which tree was the arrow made from?” “Where did that tree grow?” “Who cut down that tree?” “Who made the arrow from the tree?” “Which technique did he use?” “Where does the metallic part of the arrow come from?” “Who mined it from the ground?” “Who forged the arrow head?” “Which style was used for the bow?” “Where was it made?” “Who made it?” “When was it made?” and so on. However, there is only one thing needed: to remove the arrow.
I got up early this morning and began meditating straight away. I didn’t want to wake my wife, so I went into my son’s hotel room because he is less of a light sleeper. When he woke up, he found me meditating on his bed. While eating his breakfast later, he asked me, “Dad, why do you even meditate on holiday?” Many of us think this way. Because we don’t get what meditation really is, we think it’s something boring and exhaustive that demands a lot of effort.
When we understand this, we also realize that being without energy is a state of mind, a thought. Being without energy is a choice. It is to prefer a hypothetical good to a hypothetical bad. Sitting or laying without any energy, without doing anything, is a mental choice. It is a hypothetical thought that says, “I’ll be happier if I lie down rather than meditate.” However, when you realize it’s a thought, an assumption, and start meditating, you also recognize your observational ability and the real nature of your mind. The mind’s real nature is always awake; it never sleeps. It is immortal because it was never born and will never die. Reaching the real nature of the mind is to reach immortality. Identifying yourself with the mind that dissects things and takes sides means being mortal.
In daily life, we cannot say things like, “Let me enjoy the applause right now. I’ll try to wake up tomorrow” or “Let me enjoy this moment of pleasure for now. Tomorrow I can remind myself that it’s only temporary.” When people applaud us, we should know it won’t last long. It is temporary, it does not define us, and it is not our real value but rather our price. Maybe the applause makes us feel like it is our real value, but it definitely isn’t. It’s just the given price because you’re popular at the moment.
People walking the road to enlightenment are desperately scared of becoming enlightened. This is why they fail to wake up and become enlightened. They believe their price is their value, and they know waking up will reduce their price, so they feel scared. They think they will perish or fail to continue their lives as they did in the past, sabotaging themselves by thinking this way. What’s more, complaining about noise, ambient temperature, thoughts, or pain during meditation means you have forgot that life itself is pain. You have forgot that trying to end suffering from pain is actually the source of pain itself. You try to become enlightened while forgetting these. It’s so sad and disappointing to create pain while trying to wake up and stop pain.
There is pain. That’s it. We should accept it. We all suffer from pain, and the only thing we can do is observe the pain objectively and let it pass by not feeding the thought process behind it.
There is only one important thing needed before starting meditation: be fully awake. There is no point in questioning whether you are practicing it correctly or not. The only thing that matters is whether you are aware or not.
If you are unaware, you are mortal because you have created an ego that can only exist when the circumstances are convenient, and this will die when the circumstances change. If you are aware, however, then all the constructive work in your mind concludes. When you are aware and awake, you set the price aside and care about the gold itself. When you leave your preferences behind, you are left with your awareness. The price is aware, whereas awareness is a value. As with the price, the thing that is aware disappears. This is what we refer to when we say, “to not hang on, and not be attached.” It’s waking up to the truth. The aware one is not there. It was actually never there. The only thing that exists is awareness. It wasn’t born, nor will it vanish. It is immortal.