The Realm of Awakenings
Articles By Jack Kornfield
From A Path with Heart
A guide Through the Perils and Promises of Spiritual Life
Whenever we come to rest in this perfect balance, whether through meditation or another deep spiritual process, we can encounter yet further extraordinary states of consciousness, spontaneous awakening and profound realizations that come unbidden to the open heart and balanced mind, like grace from the divine or even like lightening. These realizations can come in many forms. Sometimes from high equanimity we enter the void, the silent emptiness out of which all things arise. The entire universe disappears and later reappears by itself. This release from all sense of self and form brings enormous peace and shows us a freedom beyond all form and all limited existence. Sometimes such realizations of the void are deeply restful and quiet; other times they shock like thunderbolts. Some students will go around dazed for weeks after a profound opening to the emptiness of the void, not yet sure how to put life back together. Sometimes experience of cessation and the void will have the flavour of absolute emptiness; other times there will be a mystical sense of pregnant fullness. There are many dimensions possible in experiencing the void.
At this level of perfect equanimity, students understand the suffering and the pain inherent in all forms of identity, in all existence. At earlier levels, we experience and see the suffering but we don't understand it. In equanimity, our understanding and acceptance brings a direct apprehension of freedom, of the deathlessness that lies beyond all existence, beyond all form and limitation. Wherever this arises, there comes an unquenchable joy and the knowledge that for eons we have wandered, entangled in life, and now our grasping has unravelled and we have tasted freedom at last.
Other equally illuminating realizations can appear, showing us the complete freedom and liberation found in the very midst of life itself. A complete freedom and liberation found in the very midst of life itself. A luminous vision arises when our heart realizes the inherent completeness and perfection of all things. Like T.S. Eliot's "still point of the turning world," we can come to a wondrous sense of wholeness and completeness, transcendence and love, beyond self and other, beyond all endeavours. We wake up just here, as the mystics say, in the Body of Buddha, the Body of Christ, and even the limited things of the world are filled with an inexhaustible sweetness and purity.
At these deep levels of practice, profound satoris and mystical awakenings continue to unfold. The ever changing essence of life shows how consciousness itself can be experienced as the creator and container of all that is. We discover that we are the Reality we are seeking. Consciousness can be experienced like galaxies of stars sending out their light. Our clarity of mind can illuminate the artificiality of time and space. We can see directly how all things exist right now, see that the whole sense of time and creation is but a trick of consciousness, where individual identity is done with mirrors and "Time is simply God's way of keeping everything from happening all at once." We can know the arising of the illusion of separateness in each moment and live in the great peace that underlies it all.
In all of this there comes a dying to the old way we have held ourselves and an amazing new vision of life. This process of death and rebirth can happen in any period of time. Weeks, months, or years of meditation and prayer may precede it or it may happen quickly, on the operating table, or through some powerful shamanic ritual or other exceptional circumstance. For some people it happens in the midst of daily life, the discovery of that perfect balance and greatness that is possible for the human heart. Whenever it is discovered, in whatever circumstances, it begins to transform us. Even though we do not always in such a state, as if we had climbed to the top of a mountain, we've had a taste of inner freedom that can inform and affect our whole life thereafter. We cannot ever again believe that we are separate. To the extent that we have died already, we are not afraid of dying in the old way. This is called dying before death. It brings to our life a wonderful kind of wholeness and equanimity.
In the end, the gift of this process is to realize the most fundamental teachings of the dharma, the law, the Tao. We see what the Buddha taught, that all suffering in life is caused by grasping, fear, and limited identification. In the midst of this we discover a freedom, a release from individual entanglement that empties us and yet leaves us connected with everything. We discover that liberation is possible for every human heart, that it has happened in ancient times and it happens to this day.
And finally we come to see that spiritual practice is really very simple. The whole process is a path of opening and letting go, of being aware and not attaching to a single thing. This teaching leads us past all the temptations and demons, through the whole process of death and rebirth. As my teacher Achaan Chah taught:
If you let go a little, you will have a little peace. If you let go a lot you will have even more peace. So wherever you are attached, let go of that and come back to the centre. Learn to see all movement of life with balance and openness.
As we end this chapter on expanding and dissolving the self, let me remind you that this map of the Elders describes only one path among many for spiritual opening. Even those who have a natural ability to enter these realms discover that these experiences have their benefits and their limits. No matter how tremendous the openings and how strong the enlightening journey, one inevitable comes down. Very often in coming back down, layer by layer, one again encounters all of the difficulties of the journey.
Then, when we have returned to ordinary consciousness, we find that sometimes we are deeply transformed by such states and sometimes not! At best they leave us with a greater sense of balance and fearlessness, with an ease and tenderness of heart and mind. But finally there is nothing to do but to let go of them as well. This is what we will have learned if the lessons are true.
This is illustrated by a story of an old Chinese Zen monk, after many years of peaceful meditation, realized he was not really enlightened. He went to the master and said, "Please, may I find a hut at the top of the mountain and stay there until I finish this practice?" The master, knowing he was ripe, gave his permission. On the way up the mountain the monk met an old man walking down, carrying a big bundle. The old man asked, "Where are you going, monk?" The monk answered, "I'm going to the top of the mountain to sit and either get enlightened or die." Since the old man looked very wise, the monk was moved to asked him, say, old man, do you know anything of this enlightenment?" The old man, who was really the Bodhisattva Manjusri said to appear to people when they are ready for enlightenment let go of this bundle, and it dropped to the ground. As in all good Zen stories, in that moment the monk was enlightened. "You mean it is that simple; just let go and not grasp anything!" Then the newly enlightened monk looked back at the old man and asked, "So now what?" In answer, the old man reached down and picked up the bundle again and walked off towards town.
This story shows both sides of spiritual practice. It teaches us to let go, to relinquish our grasping and identification with all things, and reminds us that we just rent this house for a while. Once we have realized that, it teaches us, we must re-enter the world with a caring heart. We must pick up our bundle and carry it back into the realm of human life.
But now we can travel as a bodhisattva, as one who has traversed the terrain of life and death and is free in a new way. From this freedom we can bring a heart of understanding and compassion to a world that needs it so much.