[Originally published on Huffington Post]
On the full moon of May we landed in Thailand and were met by our friend Hajar. “Oh, you have timed your arrival perfectly, this is the Vesak, the celebration of the enlightenment of the Buddha. This is a three-day holiday and the whole country is very happy!” Can you imagine living in a country that has a three-day national holiday dedicated to affirming and celebrating the potential for yourself — and all beings — to awaken fully to our true nature and highest potentials? Depending on your frame of reference, or reverence, you might translate this for yourself to mean awakening to your wholeness, true self, divine nature, or to Christ, or Buddha within you.
“If a living being is suffering from ill health, the remedy is to connect it with more of itself,” said Francisco Varela, a pioneer in mind-science research. So, if the Buddha’s teachings are about ending suffering and realizing our true nature, then it would seem that the path toward ultimate wellness must lie in the direction that Einstein referred to when he said that to realize our wholeness we must learn to “widen the circle of our compassion to embrace all living beings and the whole of nature in all of its beauty.”
Making our way through the coconut groves and windy lanes to our hotel, there were signs of excitement and celebration about to happen. People were finishing their work for the day, and incense and flowers were being offered on altars outside homes and temples, with people gathering and chanting. We had just arrived in Thailand to lead a meditation retreat for a group of students and colleagues from Taiwan, China, and Hong Kong. Our old friend who was living in Ko Samui took us around the island. After a wonderful day touring various villages and a lovely forest hike to a remote waterfall, we found ourselves on a deserted beach with a huge, conical, golden stupa temple complex prominently situated on a sandy point between two bays in the shallow sea. The stupa is a symbol for the mind of enlightenment, and this one was built in honor of a local saint who had devoted his life to meditation and to service in teaching for the community there. He was said to have awakened fully in a small cave surrounded by our retreat center just down the beach, and since he loved the sea and sailing, this commemorative stupa was built on the beach he saw from his cave.
As we strolled along the beach, talking and meditating, the sun began to set, and the sky burst ablaze in shimmering crimson colors. As we turned around to head back to our car, meandered towards the stupa, we were delighted to find a colorful festival of lights with nearly a thousand local villagers gathered to celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment. Circumambulating the stupa clockwise, with candles, chants, and hearts full of joy and celebration, the many smiling people in the throng motioned for us to join them, offering us candles and flowers to make offerings with. We were drawn into the vortex of chanting and joined in this moving celebration of our innate potential for awakening. Little did we know that in the week to come as we lead a meditation retreat just down the beach from the stupa, that many of the locals who were at this ceremony were on staff at the resort and would show their kindness to us, expressing their appreciation that we as Westerners had an appreciation for their culture and were brothers and sisters on this universal journey of awakening.
Over the past 30 years we have been fortunate to study closely with respected teachers from many of the world’s great wisdom and wellness traditions — including the Dalai Lama, Nobel Laureate and spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. On numerous occasions we have heard him say that “Each person is a Buddha.” Properly understood, the word Buddha is composed of two syllables. The first syllable bud means fully purified or free from all the confusions, delusions misconceptions, and poisons of the mind. The second syllable dha refers to having fully realized, matured, or awakened all the wholesome true and most essential qualities of being, such as the wisdom of the interrelatedness of all things being inseparable from the compassion that embraces all beings. The term “Buddha” refers to anyone — regardless of tradition — who has purified and awakened their heart-mind in these ways. Be they Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Democrat, Republican, or even atheist — if a person has engaged in the inner transformational disciplines necessary to free themselves from their delusions and realize their true nature and highest potentials, then by definition, they are a Buddha — even if they have never heard the term.
The Dalai Lama explains that we are all like Buddhas of different sizes. If you are ignorant of your true nature and the full dimensions of your being, and you are totally identified with the whirlwind of instinctual drives, chaotic thoughts, neurotic tendencies, toxic emotions, and locked in a self-made prison of reified beliefs that are incongruent with reality, then you are like a tiny nano-Buddha. Though you have the potential for awakening, you haven’t a clue of that potential. If through meditation, prayer, or grace, you have glimpsed your true nature and highest potentials and are on the path of dedicated practice to refine and mature this realization, then you are a larger Buddha. And when you have fully realized, integrated, and stabilized your innermost identity within the wisdom of this selfless, awakened, compassionate, universal identity, then you are a fully realized Buddha of vast proportions.
The teachings of all the world’s great wisdom traditions remind us that we have both an ordinary and a extraordinary identity, a personal and a universal nature, a self that is anchored in both the relative world of conditioned appearances, and also within the absolute dimension that is the mysterious, imperceptible source or ground of being that gives rise to all things and all beings. Interestingly, an analogue of this view is alluded to by our colleagues in modern cosmology and physics, who often remind us that only 4 percent of the universe is measurable, and that the remaining 96 percent exists as “dark energy” and “dark matter” which are both nearly mythical in their undefinability.
At the recent International Symposium on Contemplative Research in Denver, we heard our old friend and teacher Brother David Steindl Rast, an elder monk in the Benedictine tradition who has been active in dialogue with mind-science researchers for many years, explain that it’s like we have two legs that we stand on. One leg is the “I,” or personal self. The other is the “self,” our universal, non-dual, divine nature. Spiritual practice helps us to discover and shift more of the “weight of our identity” to the true universal self, which is a selfless non-dual state of being. This shift of identity gives us more freedom to play with the “I” leg as a vehicle for our universal nature to creatively express itself through the uniqueness of our unique personality and embodied being. While there are many individual “I”s, he explained, there is just one “self.”
A similar view is expressed in the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, where it is said that while there may be countless beings who have awakened to their true nature as Buddhas, the innermost nature or identity of each of those individuals would be the same fully awakened mind-essence — a quality of boundless wakefulness that is present within all beings. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, this innermost dimension of all beings is referred to as the Dharmakaya, or the “wisdom truth body.” Whether we regard this innermost, universal dimension of ourselves as the Buddha mind, Dharmakaya, Christ self, or true self, really does not matter. As we refine our capacity to shifts the locus of our identity toward this selfless, streaming, compassionate quality of radiant clear presence, we awaken to a quality of being described as “divine dignity.”
Such a universal perspective runs deep in most mystical traditions. Thomas Merton famously offered a glimpse of this potential in his famous “Fourth and Walnut epiphany.” As he wrote in his private journal on March 19, 1958, the day after his fateful visit to Louisville and the 17th anniversary of his taking the vows of the Trappist order:
Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed … I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.
Can you imagine how different our lives and world would be if we were to individually and collectively dedicated ourselves to opening our “wisdom eyes” in order to regard ourselves and each other more deeply and clearly as we are in this light? It is interesting that in this same season that many Buddhists celebrate our potential for awakening, Christians celebrate the holiday of Pentecost as described in the book of Acts, a time when countless individuals within a whole community were brought to their knees in awe and celebration, filled with the holy living spirit. Perhaps this unrealized potential is closer than we think — individually and collectively! When Sister Bernadette Roberts, a contemporary Christian mystic taught that, “Emptiness is two things at once: the absence of self and the presence of the Divine. Thus as self decreases, the Divine increases.” She reminded us that as we expand our identity to its more universal proportions, we also become more selfless and transparent to our more essential and universal nature. In the non-dual tradition, Nisargadatta Maharaj echoed a similar insight when he taught:
“Wisdom tells me I am nothing. Love tells me I am everything. And between the two my life flows.”
Similarly, the late Kalu Rinpoche once said,
“We live in illusion and the appearance of things. There is a Reality. You are that Reality. Seeing this, you know that you are everything. And being everything, you are nothing. That is all.
When we talked about such matters with Joel’s grandfather Abe, who had a deep grounding in the Jewish tradition, he would smile with wisdom and patience and often say, “Yes, this is really deep stuff.” In closing, we’ll leave you to ponder two more wise reflections that seem appropriate in concluding this post. The Gospel of Thomas says, “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” The Taoist sage Tung Shan, reminds us, “If you look for the truth outside yourself, it gets farther and farther away. Today, walking alone, I meet him everywhere I step. He is the same as me, yet I am not him. Only if you understand it in this way will you merge with the way things are.”