A Wake Up Call to Life
A wise man once said, “Life is a banquet, but many people die of starvation because they are not aware of this banquet.” When we meet our friends, our family, and people we know, we usually ask each other, “How is everything in your life?” Our answer is usually all about our outer life: work, family, achievements, possessions, health, etc. This is what we portray as our life. Deep down we all know we live in an age of the instant makeover. Our lives are fragmented. In this so-called life of ours there are so many things to do, so many needs demanding our attention. Often it seems that just keeping things together requires enormous energy.
We have enrolled in, and must attend, the great school called life. What we learn in life depends upon what we are seeking. We are so busy with our outer life, but what about our inner life? What about our spiritual goals? Do we even have a spiritual goal in our life? Do we even give it some thought? What is it that is really keeping us alive. Is it this outer life which keeps changing moment by moment or is it something else?
Saints often remind us that our inner life is more important than our outer life. But sadly we easily forget this truth when most of our time is devoted to our everyday outer life. This outer life seems so important to us that we are constantly putting in effort to improve our minds, impress others, look good, or try to be happy. We might gain some perspective by considering the story of Krisha Gotami, who lived in the time of the Buddha.
When her first child was about a year old, he fell ill and died. Grief stricken, Krisha Gotami roamed the streets, clutching his little body and begging anyone she met for medicine that could restore her child to life. Some ignored her, some laughed at her, some thought she was mad, but finally she met a wise man who told her that the only person who could help her was Buddha.
So she went to Buddha, laid the body of her child at his feet, and told him her story. The Buddha listened with infinite compassion. Then he gently said, “There is only one way to heal your pain and misery. Go down to the city and bring me back a mustard seed from any house in which there has never been a death.”
Krisha Gotami felt elated and set off at once for the city. She stopped at the first house she saw and said, “I have been told by the Buddha to fetch a mustard seed from a house that has never known death.” She was told, “Many people have died in this house.” She went on to the next house. “There have been countless deaths in our family,” they said. She continued to the third and the fourth house, and she didn’t stop until she had been all around the city. Then she realized that the Buddha’s condition could not be fulfilled.
She took the body of her child to the charnel ground and said goodbye to him for the last time. Then she returned to the Buddha. “Did you bring the mustard seed?” he asked.
“No,” she said. “I am beginning to understand the lesson you are trying to teach me. Grief made me blind, and I thought I was the only one going through suffering.”
“Why have you come back?” asked the Buddha.
“To ask you to teach me the truth,” she replied….”
So the Buddha began to teach her: “If you want to know the truth of life, you must reflect continually on this: There is one law in the universe that never changes— that all things change, and that all things are impermanent. The death of your child has helped you to see that the realm we are in – samsara – is an ocean of unbearable suffering. There is one way, and one way only, out of samsara’s ceaseless round of birth and death, which is the path to liberation. Because pain has now made you ready to learn and your heart is opening to the truth, I will show it to you.”
Krisha Gotami knelt at his feet and followed the Buddha for the rest of her life. Near the end of it, it is said, she attained enlightenment.1
This story illustrates something we can all observe again and again. A shock, a painful event, a close encounter with death can bring a real awakening. It can be a wake up call to life, transforming our whole approach to life. To reflect deeply on impermanence, just as Krisha Gotami did, is to understand the truth expressed in the words of a poem by a Tibetan Saint Nyoshul Khenpo:
The nature of everything is illusory and ephemeral.
Those with dualistic perceptions regard suffering as happiness,
like they who lick the honey from a razor´s edge.
How painful they who cling strongly to concrete reality.
Turn your attention within, my heart friend.2
Yet how hard it can be to turn our attention within! How easily we allow our old habits and set patterns to dominate us even though, as this poem tells us, they bring us suffering. We accept them with almost full submission, for we are so used to giving in to them. We may love the idea of being free, but when it comes to our habits, we are completely enslaved. Masters frequently ask us to be clear about our goals, to set our priorities. Our priority is to travel on the inner journey. Our goal is God realization. We have to participate actively in the inner life, not just talk about it. Our outer life is really just a play, and we have to learn to act our way through it.
It is through reflection that slowly we gain wisdom. We can come to see we are falling again and again into fixed, repetitive patterns and begin to long to get out of them. There is a poem called Autobiography in Five Short Chapters:
I walk down the street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost… I am hopeless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe it. I am in the same place. But it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
I walk down the same street. There is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I see it is there. I still fall in… It’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
I walk down the same street there is a deep hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
I walk down another street.3
This poem teaches us that the purpose of reflecting is to make a real change. We have to learn how to avoid the hole in the sidewalk, and we have to choose to walk down another street. Often this will require deep meditation, because only that can truly open our eyes to what we are doing with our lives presently. Life is nothing but a continuing dance of change. This life of ours may have a lot of moments of pain, suffering and difficulties but all of these are opportunities handed to us to help us move towards acceptance.
It is only when we believe things to be permanent that we shut off the possibility of learning from change. We all are terrified to let go. Letting go is really an invitation to cease clinging to anything, whether it is an idea, a thing, an event, a particular time, a view, or a desire. In other words, to let go means to give up resisting, struggling and expecting. It is allowing things to be as they are without getting caught up in them. Currently we grasp onto things with our desires and expectations. We also grasp with our minds, so we get stuck in narrow views, and in self-serving hopes and wishes.
In order to really let go of all this we have to work on it in the context of our lives. Just as medical studies require both theory and practice, so does life. In life the practical training is here and now, in the laboratory of change. As changes occur, we learn to look at them with new understanding. Although they will still go on arising just as they did before, something in us will be different. Sogyal Rinpoche suggests trying an experiment:
Let us try an experiment. Pick up a coin. Imagine that it represents the object at which you are grasping. Hold it tightly, clutching it in your fist and extend your arm, with the palm of your hand facing the ground. Now if you let go or relax your grip, you will lose what you are clinging onto. That’s why you hold onto it.
But there is another possibility: You can let go and yet keep hold of it. With your arm still outstretched, turn your hand over so that it faces the sky. Release your hand and the coin still rests on your open palm. You let go, and the coin is still yours with all the space around it. So there is a way in which we can accept impermanence and still relish life, at one and the same time, without grasping.4
Baba Ji often tells us that if we live a balanced life and prioritize our meditation daily, we will experience contentment and joy, no matter what hardships our life may bring. Focusing within ourselves, we will enjoy the charm of life. Focusing outside in the world we tap into the negativity, and the charm of life slips away. Hazur Maharaj Ji similarly assures us:
Daily attendance to meditation definitely gives you some peace and bliss and happiness within yourself. You can go through your routine of the whole day without losing your balance much if you are attending to your meditation every day.5
In Spiritual Perspectives, Volume Three, a disciple asked Hazur, “Don’t the masters feel some pain on our behalf?” To which Hazur replied, “Don’t worry about the suffering of the masters; the body may suffer, but the soul never suffers at all. The body belongs to Kal, the prince of this world. Masters don’t bother about that at all. Their soul never suffers. The soul is always at peace and happy.”6
Now we may ask: how can we work to overcome attachments? We want to be happy, but the very way we pursue it is so clumsy and unskillful that it only brings more sorrow and unhappiness. Saints often remind us that it is only by realizing the impermanence of life that we can slowly and gradually release our grip.
In the biographies of the masters, you will often find that had they not faced difficulties and obstacles, they would not have discovered the strength they needed to rise above them. Difficulties and obstacles, properly understood, and properly used, can often turn out to be an unexpected source of strength. When we fall from a great height, there is only one possible place to land, and that is the ground: the ground of truth. And if you have the understanding that comes from a spiritual practice, then falling is not a disaster, but the discovery of an inner refuge. Masters tell us that our struggle in meditation is important. If nature allowed us to go through life without any obstacles, it would cripple us. We would not be as strong as we could be, and we would never be able to cope with life.
This is beautifully illustrated in the story of a young man who found the cocoon of a butterfly. He kept checking on the cocoon every day, and one day a little opening finally appeared. For many hours he watched as the butterfly battled to force its body through the little opening. Then it suddenly seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared to have given up. The young man decided he was going to help the butterfly. So he took a little pair of scissors and trimmed off the remaining piece of the cocoon. Now the butterfly emerged easily, but it had a puffy body and slightly shrunken wings. The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, its wings would enlarge and spread out to be able to support its body. But nothing like that happened. Unfortunately, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a puffy body and shrunken wings. It was never able to fly. What the man in his kindness and haste did not understand was that the struggle required for the butterfly to get through the tiny opening of the cocoon was nature’s way of forcing fluid from the body of the butterfly into the wings, so that it would be ready to fly once it achieved freedom from the cocoon.
Obedience is an important ingredient required by a disciple to follow a spiritual path . In order to obey the master and do the job that he has given us, we must give him our time with love, simplicity and without questions. Devotion to the master consists of creating within one’s mind love and faith in him, as well as committing to the spiritual practice as instructed by him. Saints explain that faith develops and is strengthened only when your initial belief and trust have been reinforced through experience.
To understand how faith arises, we could compare it to following the advice of a friend as to how best to boil potatoes. Based on her own experience, she advises us to use a pressure cooker, since it is more efficient than a regular pot. She has no reason to mislead us and, since she is an experienced cook, we trust her advice. It is not that we have faith in using the pressure cooker – not yet. We just believe and trust her. Besides, she explains how to use the pressure cooker with such simple, clear instructions that we have confidence that we can learn how to do it. So we buy a pressure cooker and take it home. We follow her instructions, filling it with water, salt, and the washed potatoes. Then we close the lid. During the cooking process we do not look inside the pressure cooker. We just hope that everything will be fine. Seven minutes later, when we open the lid, the potatoes are perfectly cooked, as predicted. At this moment our belief in using the pressure cooker to boil potatoes quickly, has become firm through direct experience. The next time we use a pressure cooker, we will have faith in its cooking capability.
Here on the physical plane we function through desire and expectation. We expect to attain our goals, so we do get disappointed when we are unable to do so. Before we asked for initiation we believed in the master and had a certain level of trust in the teachings. This was the basis of our approaching the master and asking for initiation. After initiation we started to meditate, applying the method taught to us, and what happened to most of us? Nothing! Not a thing, no progress at all as far as we could tell. Because our expectations about meditation failed we felt disappointed. For some of us, this disappointment led us to doing less meditation every day and sometimes no meditation some days.
Let’s consider again the pressure cooker analogy: When we use a pressure cooker, we do not stir the food while it is cooking. We do not open the cooker every now and then to see if it is ready. We put the potatoes in and close the lid. Likewise, the ‘lid’ on our meditation will only be opened when the master considers it’s time to do so. This implies that we should have great faith in this method the Master has given us and in ourselves. In Spiritual Gems, the Great Master informs a disciple:
The soul of every true disciple is progressing internally, even when he is not aware of the progress.7
The Jesuit spiritual teacher, Anthony DeMello, gave a talk titled, “Wake Up to Life.” In it he says,
What happened to us when we were young is that we were programmed and taught to be unhappy. Now we may ask how is that? Because they taught you and me and all of us that in order to be happy, you need money, success, a handsome or beautiful partner in life, a good job, a friendship, spirituality, etc., etc. Unless you get these things you are not going to be happy. You need them. Now that is what is called an attachment. An attachment is a belief that without something you’re not going to be happy. Once you get convinced of that in your subconscious, it becomes your reality.”8
In Spiritual Perspectives, Volume One, Hazur clearly explains the human intention for happiness.
When we are happy, it is our mind which is happy. When we are miserable, it is our mind, which is miserable. The mind is seeking happiness… In seeking happiness the mind is persuaded by happiness. That is why the tendency of the mind becomes upward, inward. It wants happiness. It wants peace. It wants bliss. It is very, very miserable, being a slave of the senses.9
We have to learn to give up clinging to our conventional understanding, and to learn to expect nothing. So let’s witness our reactions to things, develop the ability to see ourselves as actors in the game of life and loosen our grip on all things we label as ‘my’ in our life. At the end of the day nothing is mine or yours. We are just here to play our role in this act called life.
We are like birds that have arrived at a high cliff. To travel further, we have to jump off the cliff into the unknown, spreading our wings through meditation. The Master will carry us and take us back to our true home. Until that day, the only thing we have to do is continue practicing daily.
Hazur assures us that meditation will lead to the ultimate happiness: “When the soul merges into its own source, it is the most blissful and best happiness one can get.”10
- Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Pages 28-29.
- Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. page 31.
- Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, page 32.
- Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, pages 34-35.
- Spiritual Perspectives, Volume Two, p. 117, #162.
- Spiritual Perspectives, Volume 3, p. 19.
- Spiritual Gems, p. 274, #168.
- Anthony DeMello, Wake up to Life. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tRREgz-K8Io
- Spiritual Perspectives, Volume 1, p. 229.
- Spiritual Perspectives, Volume 1, p. 232.