2. A Clean Slate
Q: For many of us, facing the truth can be frightening. The seeming loss of one’s sense of the boundaries of my personal self, my conditioned self, feels like the ultimate sacrifice. This can be scary, but if we want to be open to truth, we must face this. Conditioned thinking would be out of business if one found truth, because to awaken is to reject conditioned thinking and conditioned ways. In essence, man is theoretically open to unlimited truth. At this stage it becomes too painful to hang on to the cherished conditioning, and this is where help from a friend like Robert is invaluable. At this point in the acceptance of that sacrifice, I no longer speak of it to anyone anymore, and I am sure that they are all very happy that I have shut up!
Thank you, Robert.
A: You are most welcome. It’s lovely to stop being a wiseacre, isn’t it? The gratitude you feel reminds me of the esteem I feel for my late mentor, Walter Chappell. To meet such a person in this life really is a gift, although, like a beautiful rose, it may seem a thorny kind of gift.
Q2: Shen Hui said, “There is a difference between awakening and deliverance. The former is sudden, but thereafter deliverance is gradual.” Would you please comment?
A: Shen Hui said it well. Before awakening from the trance of becoming, one practices meditation or whatever with hopes of attaining something desirable. In that attitude of acquisition, “practice” is an activity, a doing of some ritual that people without a practice don’t do. One might say, “My practice is to meditate for at least thirty minutes in the morning, and thirty more before bed.” In the workaday world of survival and making a living such efforts may be needed and rewarded, but in the area about which Shen Hui speaks, nothing is gained through effort nor lost for the lack of it. In each moment, things simply are as they are, whether “I” like it or not.
That understanding is not something to be “realized” at some imagined future time after sufficient “practice,” but is a simple recognition of the mysterious, ineffable suchness of this moment. In that recognition, there is no thought of meditation, no practice of meditation, and no meditator or doer of anything else. The entire experience of being this particular point of view one has learned to call “myself,” feels unchosen, unfathomable, and mysterious to the nth degree. In the face of that, what exactly will you practice?
A friend of mine is an ex-Zen monk who after college graduation sat facing a wall for ten hours a day during most of his 20s. Almost ten years of ten hours a day, sitting in a room with other monks, but silent, facing away from one another gazing at the walls. I asked him what he had gotten from that extreme practice. My friend has a sense of humor, and so was joking, but wryly, when he replied, “Oh, I got really good at staring at walls.”
Years ago, I was introduced to a world-famous Buddhist teacher—a woman whose books are bestsellers, and who fills lecture halls and retreat centers. Within a few moments of saying hello and with no preamble at all, she asked me, “So what is your practice?” As we were just meeting, the question felt pressured and presumptuous. Her approach, involving identification with method, is what Chögyam Trungpa called “spiritual materialism,” which rests upon the idea that there is something to gain, and that one will gain it through effort.
“Me?” I replied. “I have no practice.” She had been told in advance that I “knew something,” but when I said I had no practice, her interest waned.
As Shen Hui said, awakening is not gradual, but sudden, instantaneous. It is not about practice. All at once you see that you are not doing anything. Not deciding anything. Not choosing anything. There is no such choosing/deciding “myself” except in fantasy. That fantasy fades, leaving no exit from the inevitable, ceaseless stream of consciousness. The old stories don’t apply any more. In each moment things are as they are and can be no different, whether you like it or not.
Whatever you feel, think, and see is you. There is no choice in the matter—no escaping you. That is what I mean by the word “awakening”—a sudden awareness, quite undeniable, that everything you see, feel, and think is you.
The boundary between self and other dissolves. The apparent “other” is not located “out there” somewhere, but constructed of your perceptions, your feelings, your thoughts. You see what you see. That is all you see. And that seeing is you.
You may believe in a cosmic plan, but if you do, that belief is you, and indicates nothing about whether there really is such a plan. How could any human being possibly know whether a plan like that exists or not? On what evidence? On what authority? Yet countless people are certain that there is such a plan, and many even claim to know what the plan requires of them.
You may believe in a god or gods, but that says nothing about any actual deity. If you trust that “God” is watching over you, hearing your prayers, and judging your actions, it is your belief that such a god exists. There may be no such divinity or any other kind of conscious supreme being. (I’m not saying there isn’t—I am not speaking here of atheism.)
The deity belief was injected into your mind by random cultural osmosis at the very least, or very likely by osmosis plus intentional inculcation by caregivers beginning before the age of reason. So, that belief was put in your mind—in all of our minds—which is not your fault. Nothing is your fault. You never chose that belief or anything else. No choice, no blame.
Once the cosmic plan/supreme being belief system has been injected into the mind and takes root there, it will resist any reasonable, gradual uprooting. The internal structures of spiritual beliefs provide staunch resistance against deliberate, thoughtful eradication, including:
- Fear of divine punishment or not being saved.
- “Evidence” such as the claims of witnesses to purported miracles or the testimony of supposedly holy people or scripture.
- Ostensibly logical arguments—for example, “If there is no God, how did all of this get here?”
- Fear of social condemnation if seen as standing apart from tribal ceremonies.
This resistance to uprooting of belief is what Shen Hui was getting at. Certitudes, particularly those installed early in life, may feel like indispensible parts of the emotional “support system.” As a correspondent told me recently, “Without my faith in Jesus I would be totally alone trying to cope with my pain.”
Ideas like that take root through intentional grooming, gradual conditioning, and forceful indoctrination, the very essence of which teaches uncritical acceptance—that one swallow such beliefs on “faith”—so reason alone, applied subsequently, is unlikely to dislodge them. As the Jesuits say, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man.” Once so deeply embedded, only a sudden flash of understanding can unmask such beliefs for the fabrications they are. Like turning on a light in a darkened room, suddenly you see, and that seeing takes place instantly. In the matter of what Shen Hui is calling “awakening,” there is no half awake. You get what you get when you get it—one hundred percent or not at all.
All you really know is that “myself,” the apparent focus of awareness you call “me,” seems always to be here. Beyond that, ideas about what “myself” is or isn’t are pure conjecture, not fact. Pronouncements about ultimate matters can never be proven, but only accepted credulously—taken as “truth” through faith in some supposed authority, childhood conditioning, respect for tradition, supposedly “inerrant” scripture, or the pronouncements of a “realized being.”
Faith is needed only when facts are lacking. Facts are facts, and require no faith. When beliefs are treated as if they were facts, that gives rise to a kind of self-hypnosis that I call magical thinking. If you are thinking magically about the Absolute, or non-duality, or self-realization, or karma and causality, you are not awake, I say, but hypnotized. You don’t know anything about those things. You heard about them at some point, and accepted what you heard. Embracing and constantly repeating such dogma induces a trance state of credulity. Your beliefs are your beliefs merely because you believe them, which indicates nothing about their facticity. Absolutely nothing. Zero.
Awakening is not about a gradual winnowing of cherished beliefs so as to hold on to the “true” ones while discarding the “false” ones. In regard to ultimate matters, you do not know what is true and no one else does either. The traditions of “spirituality” rest upon a bundle of bald assertions that, being neither falsifiable nor in any way demonstrable, abide always in the twilight zone of pronouncements that will never be facts. Awakening mind finds no interest in that—no interest in searching for what others say they have realized spiritually.
In awakening, the whole kit and caboodle just flies out the window, and there’s nothing gradual about it. Suddenly, conjecture has no purpose, and proclamations about ultimate matters lack credibility no matter what their source. For a mind free of beliefs, what is, is, regardless of interpretations others may try to impose upon this aliveness. Each instant is a once-upon-a-once, never-to-be-repeated sui generis—a moment unto itself—a clean slate.
This does not mean avoiding hearing what the Buddha had to say, or Trungpa, whom I just mentioned, or others. But it is their questions that are worth knowing about, not their answers. If you lay hold to their answers, you will not be doing what they did, which was to let go entirely of other people’s explanations. Without that letting go, one is forever an adherent or imitator— merely a disciple, hypnotized by belief in words heard, and how they were heard.
The story of the Buddha (who was not a Buddhist of course) is not about believing anything, but about total severance from dogma or support of any kind in favor of a radical, unencumbered search within one’s own mind— a clean slate.
Q2: Robert, could you please say a little more about what you mean by “I continue to practice incessantly?”
A: Well, I used the word “practice” in reply to a question. In fact, beyond openness to each moment, I have no practice. I meant to indicate that I cannot forget— even if I tried— not only that I see the world inevitably from a point of view, but that what is called “I” is nothing but a point of view, the one unique to “me” in this moment. That is what “I” is: a point of view. Without a point of view, there is no “Robert.” And your “I” comprises a different point of view without which there is no “you.” Neither of us sees the world as it actually is.
Furthermore, not only does neither of us see the world as it actually is, but neither of us has the slightest idea of what “seeing the world as it actually is” would even mean. The experience of what it would be like or feel like to “see the world as it actually is” is literally unimaginable. As the biologist J.B.S. Haldane put this, “My own suspicion is that the universe is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose.” I meant to evoke that same strangeness in quoting Barnaby Barratt’s saying that, “the ‘I’ of enunciation never thinks just what it thinks it thinks, and never simply is what it thinks itself to be.”
Using the word “I” seems unavoidable. Nevertheless, notice that the word “I” does not refer to anything fixed at all, but to a flow that defies description and can never be pinned down or made to behave in one way or another.
In the midst of that flow, each moment contains something to be seen, felt, or thought, but that “something” is never just what we think it is, and certainly not what we imagined it would be or ought to be. If one has awakened to that fact, one will live without actually knowing what anything “really” is, without expecting to know, and without needing to fill in any apparent meaninglessness or emptiness with spiritual beliefs. If you like the word “practice,” that is what it means to me.
Q3: But, Robert, many stories exist of people who came to an actual knowing, not by logic, or not by logic alone anyway, but by inner experience. The Hindus call them jnanis, which means knowers. What do you make of them?
A: The verb “to know” can mean so many things. That is part of our conversation here. Clearly, the meaning of that word depends upon where one draws the limits and validity of “knowing.” I have conversed with people who called themselves jnanis, and heard all about what they say they know, of which they seem convinced beyond all doubt. I have read some accounts of Nisargadatta, the acclaimed twentieth-century jnani. From my point of view, that kind of knowing is akin to what the Bible calls knowing a woman, meaning to have sex with her.
OK, you spent the night with her, and you call it “knowing her.” You know what you experienced, but you do not know that woman, and you never will. You have no way of knowing her. You know you, and that’s the limit. You know your impressions of that woman— your images of her— not the “truth” of her.
In the very same way, despite any claims to jnana, you do not know the “Supreme Being” or even if the words “supreme being” refer to anything more than a cultural shibboleth with which you were indoctrinated before the age of reason, and which you now project onto what you call “the world.” Naturally, that is my point of view. I understand that you have yours.
You say that awareness or consciousness creates the human body and everything else. You say it, but you do not know it. You may be convinced of it. But being convinced is not the same as knowing— not by my lights. As I define knowing, for all you know, consciousness may not exist outside of body and brain at all, but could just as well be an epiphenomenon, a side-effect so to speak, of an evolved nervous system. This is not materialism or reductionism. I am not claiming that brains cause or produce consciousness. Far from it. I simply do not know. But if it were that way, if consciousness were not the creator of nervous systems and everything else, but an epiphenomenon— a concomitant characteristic— of sufficiently evolved nervous systems (or even non-biological information systems of requisite complexity), the world might appear just as it does now, and you jnanis would have no way of knowing the difference.
That is why I say that regarding some guy or gal as a “realized being” is pure malarkey— a total non-starter. Tell me first what the great “saint” doesn’t know.
I am asked frequently why I say that spiritual teaching is most often an ego-trip, a cash cow of some kind, or both. In saying that, I do not intend to demean ordinary wisdom of the kind that can be conveyed to one who is open to hearing it. That can be a gift. When I say ego trip or cash cow, I am referring to the kind of teaching that claims to have capital “T” Truth to teach—“ Truth” about ultimate matters, about “God,” about what “I” am, about what consciousness is, or about what happens after death. There’s no wisdom in any of that talk, I say, which is baseless conjecture fueled by psychological needs, habits, and tribal customs, not evidence.
From my perspective, that kind of “teaching” appears terribly limited, installing the culturally conditioned human mind directly at the center of everything, so that, to take one example, love, which is a human feeling/ experience (we don’t say, after all, that one housefly loves another), becomes defined as “Truth.”
That anthropocentricity reminds me very much of the point of view of the ancients such as Ptolemy who, imagining that Earth was the center of the Universe, constructed an entire complex story about the movements of heavenly bodies that had no basis whatsoever in fact. That story, false though it was, lasted 1500 years or more. Even today, certain Christians and other Bible believers are upset by a cosmology that does not put Earth and human beings at the center of the Universe.
A human being, I say, is the center of nothing but her or his own viewpoint. People can spend their lives congratulating themselves on having perceived some ultimate, overarching “Truth.” A fool’s paradise that is. One can speak reasonably about altruism, self-sacrifice, love, compassion, and the like as human experiences, but if there is actually any one overarching “Truth,” surely it cannot consist only of what appears to exist from a human perspective, nor can we expect it to be accessible to human understanding.
We humans see only the tiniest part of the Universe, most of which is invisible to us. How egotistical, smug, complacent, and self-satisfied it seems to speak of “Truth” with a capital “T.” If I found myself talking that way, I’d want my mouth washed out with soap.
In my view, prattling on about “Truth” serves primarily as a means of reducing anxiety in the face of the existential uncertainties of the human situation, often finessed or papered over, but never completely out of the picture. In the human psychic economy, I mean, certainty about one so-called “Truth” or another functions, above all, as an anodyne for self-calming. If you doubt this, simply observe the turbulent reactions of true believers when ordinary reasonable doubt is cast upon their idols.
What is, is. When the Buddha, instead of speaking, remained silent, simply displaying to his audience one perfect flower, the assembled monks waited expectantly for the sermon to commence. Only Mahakas’yapa understood, and seeing that comprehension, the Buddha smiled.
The sense of self is here now, always present in one form or another, so there is nothing to be attained, nor anything to which one must aspire. One enters naturally into the actual flow of ideas, events, and feelings without ever imagining that one is achieving anything— without ever imagining that one comprehends that flow or its source, or even that one stands in any way apart from the flow. Each moment just is what it is when it is. That is what I mean when I say that awakening never ends. I imagine that Shen Hui’s referring to “gradual deliverance” was his way of saying that awakening never ends.
Q3: Thank you for your very clear reply, Robert. I don’t think I have heard you use the word “practice” before, but I like what you mean by it.
A: It’s not a word I would use much except in the context of negation to point out that no fixed procedure or belief will avail in awakening.
Q4: Robert, if you have no belief in a supreme being, where would you say your consciousness originates?
A: I have no idea, and neither, I’d wager, do you, unless it is a second-hand one based on having been told certain things by someone who claimed access to “Truth,” and then having swallowed that hearsay as if it really were true.
Questions about ultimate sources have no factual answers, so asking such questions is a fool’s pastime that can only call forth the shopworn doctrinal assertions commonly deployed against the anxieties of ordinary living. When I say “ordinary living,” I mean living in the here and now without faith in a benign overlord, promises of a better future, or assurances of an eventual Nirvana. I mean a life where a beloved friend and companion may be lost forever in an instant, and not re-encountered in some putative “Heaven.” I mean a life that may have no purpose at all beyond the moment to moment living of it.
All the prophets, jnanis, and teachers in history were human beings just like you and me. They had their experiences and ideas, you have yours, and I have mine. You have every right to believe whatever you believe. That’s fine with me. I am not telling you what to believe or disbelieve. Everything I say here is purely self-expression with no greater agenda. I never think about supreme beings, awakening, or any of that unless someone asks me about it.
After the initial shock, it took several years, including the tribulations of serious illness, before I could accept what now appears completely obvious and undeniable: there is no “self” separate from what is seen, felt, and thought. During that period of adjustment, I thought about these matters a lot and read what others had to say, but nowadays I’m in the realm of spontaneous participation, not analysis. Perhaps this is what Shen Hui was calling deliverance.
Freedom from the known, as Jiddu Krishnamurti called it, is not an intellectual game, but a world-changing experience. To live without questions, much less answers, may seem disheartening or even dire. Many here are accustomed to self-soothing conversations in which supposition about what constitutes “reality” serves to forestall unwelcome thoughts about the apparent emptiness and possible meaninglessness of being human. One may fear that awakening to a life without goals and ideologies will lead to depression or despair and so one hesitates to take each moment afresh, free of any spiritual program. But that very reluctance— that avoidance— is an impediment to ordinary awakened living, which requires chewing up and swallowing one’s experience moment-by-moment, without explanations, without promises of future glories, and sometimes with barely enough saliva to get it down.
Q2: When you say “avoidance,” what do you mean is being avoided, Robert?
A: I mean noticing that from the point of view of “myself,” distinguishing between reality and illusion may not be entirely feasible. Of course, that’s just what I say.