A. H. Almass on Sinking Your Boats and becoming the Universal Heretic


As readers of this blog know, from time to time I like to share insights from spiritual paths other than Buddhism—inspiring poetry of Rumi, Kabir, and Mary Oliver:

Rumi Poem-“Quietness” and “No Longer Mourn for Me” (music)

Kabir-“I Said to the Wanting-creature Inside Me” (music)

“The Journey”-A Poem for the New Year by Mary Oliver

and even the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi:

A Buddhist Mantra based on the Prayer of St. Francis

For me, traditional Buddhist dharma teachings are part of a larger, holistic, and integral path—that of becoming a whole and complete human being.

One of my very favorite non-Buddhist teachers is A. H. Almaas. His “Diamond Approach” of self-inquiry is tremendously skillful, and I find his approach is especially effective at getting at deep psychological problems that are hard to uncover and heal.  Almaas also explains that even depth psychology can only take us so far; finally, the issues of being and essence are the deepest existential and spiritual problems we face.

I own all of his major works and find his books a constant help and inspiration.  If  you would like to investigate the “Diamond Approach” for yourself, you can find his major works here, at Shambhala Publications.

In this essay from his website, of which I’ve only excerpted about a third, Almaas articulates to my heart (and, I hope, he will to yours, too) many things that are deep and true about all spiritual paths and teachings.

May this wonderful essay speak to your heart as it has mine and help you in your journey to a full humanhood!

Sinking Your Boats

(from Diamond Heart Book V)

by A.H. Almaas (excerpt)

Since today is Easter, I have decided to give you a gift. It is a small gift: the view I have developed from my personal experience about the true human being. It is a straightforward, simple talk about you, about being a human being.

This work and all other schools of spiritual work, all religions, all methods and philosophies about enlightenment, liberation, God, spirit, true nature, and so on should not be necessary. I do not mean they are not necessary; I mean they should not be necessary. They are attempts to describe what a human being is actually supposed to be, and how to go about being that. They all ask the same questions: What is a human being? What is a real and complete human being? What is the real human life? What is the human life that has actualized the full human potential? What is it that we are all about and how do we go about being that?

In actuality, the human being is much bigger than the vision of any of these teachings; no teaching can encompass the totality of what is possible for a human being. We ultimately do not need any of these teachings, which are nothing but ideas and concepts created by the mind. Although genuine teachings reflect and express reality, they are nevertheless in part cultural creations that have been developed throughout history. Many of them faithfully reflect real facets of reality and, as such, are good and helpful, but they remain excess baggage to reality.

Reality is beyond any teachings that can be formulated and promulgated. Reality simply is. Everything we say about it is extra, a creation of the human mind. We cannot adhere to teachings as if they are reality. We use teachings, benefit from them, but then we discard them, we drop them. To carry teachings with us after we learn to live in reality is to carry an extra load. We need only reality, and the teachings are simply vehicles through which to reach and live in reality. Reality is beyond tools, methods, and helpful perspectives. Reality is innocent of it all.

The point is not to be enlightened or to be God realized. Rather, we are to live the way we are supposed to live. That is all, and simply so. We are to live reality the way reality actually is. Teachings approximate, and at best express, what that means and suggest how to go about it. Ultimately, teachings have no objective validity but are conceptual tools created by well meaning individuals to help us live our life in the most natural and complete way possible. Once they have served their function, teachings are to be dropped. Otherwise, they will remain addendums to reality, a weight for us to carry.

I am not saying that teachings are inaccurate, or are empty fabrications. The real ones are accurate and express reality faithfully, but they are still extra to simply living reality.

Understanding this dynamic allows us to recognize that reality is beyond any formulation and more vast than any teaching. We learn to be natural, simple, and truly autonomous. We live our lives without concepts and ideas. Otherwise, we end up becoming primarily Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jewish, and so on, which is extraneous to being simply true human beings. Concepts and beliefs bind us whereas reality itself is beyond any framework and experience. Reality is natural and totally true when we live without any ideas about it, when we spontaneously live without any self-reflection.

Teachings are boats with which to cross a river. You are not supposed to carry the boat with you on the other shore. If you carry the boat with you, you will end up with a greater load than when you started. Teachings help us see how our experience is limited and bound, and offer us ways to liberate ourselves from such unnecessary boundaries. Once we are free, to keep on looking at reality through the same lens will again bind and limit us. Once we are free, teachings become artificial, extra, and unnecessary. To be free is to be free from all concepts, all formulations, all views.

Furthermore, a teaching points toward reality, but it is not reality and will not give you reality. No teaching, on its own, gives you certainty about what reality is. The final and ultimate judge is you. Who decides ultimately what is real and what is not real? Is any teacher, philosophy, or religion going to decide for you? All of these teachers, religions, and work systems will be happy for you to find out for yourself what life is all about and how to live according to the truth. You cannot be certain of reality in any other way. A teaching points toward the truth, but you need to experience it and find out for yourself that it is reality. You have to find your own certainty; you cannot borrow it, not even from the highest teachings.

If we are to mature into real human beings, we need to recognize and to come to grips with the extent to which we ordinarily do not want to be fully responsible for our perceptions, our truths, or our life. We are largely ignorant: we do not know much about ourselves, reality, or life, and what we do know is often not true. We lack true certainty. The combination of not knowing and knowing falsely makes us feel scared and uncertain. As a result, we constantly seek some kind of view, some kind of school, some kind of teaching, some kind of belief to follow. We search for something to support ourselves. This is not bad; it is simply our normal condition.

In the beginning of the work, we don’t know what is real, we don’t know what is not real, and we have no idea how to find out the difference. We are scared, we are small, we feel as if we don’t know. And if we did know how to go about it, we still wouldn’t actually be able to do it. So the teachings are necessary. But these teachings are boats to cross the river of ignorance; they are not the other shore. Their descriptions of some of the features of the other shore are not the same as the shore itself. In order to get to the other shore, we need to abandon our boats.

If we stay in them we will never get to the shore. We need, at some point, to sink our boats. This point is as subtle as it is important, as tricky as it is necessary. We need to sink our boats exactly at the right time: if we do it too soon, we will drown in the deep waters of the river, but if we do not do it at all, we will never arrive.

It took thirty years for the first of Buddha’s disciples to be enlightened. When the disciple finally saw and realized the truth, saw and understood true nature, he felt a little disconcerted. The disciple avoided Buddha because he was feeling ashamed and guilty. Finally, Buddha asked him what was going on with him. The disciple said it was hard to talk about but finally told the Buddha: “Now that I see the truth and I realize it, I see that all that you have been saying is bullshit. It is not necessary.” Buddha asked him not to tell anyone. He said: “I’m glad you know the truth, but people need to think that what I say is true so that they can find out what you found out.” In effect, Buddha was saying, “Don’t tell anybody, they’ll kill you and me and then they will have no chance of finding out what you found out.” The point is more frequently referred to in the Zen koan, “When you meet the Buddha on the road kill him.”

But it is not easy to abandon our beliefs. It is not easy to be completely responsible and to stand absolutely on our own, to forget all that anybody has ever said and to find out directly what we are and what reality is. We will at some point need to find out for ourselves whether there is enlightenment or not. And if there is, what is it? Is there God?

And if there is, what kind of truth is it? Is there such a thing as self-realization, ego death, rebirth, and so on? We hear about them. We read many books written about them. But what do we actually know about them? And do we really need all these ideas? If so, when do we need them and for how long?

I am not saying that these ideas are not true. The formulations of spiritual teachings are ways to say what we are all about. My own experience has shown me the reality of the concepts of enlightenment, self-realization, freedom, rebirth, God, love, and so on. All of this exists. However, I also know that we come to see that they are not important. Truth does not end there.

The jig is up when you realize that even though your notions about reality may be true, you haven’t discovered them for yourself. Maybe you deeply believe all or some of these things. But what does it matter that Buddha said something or Christ said something? That in itself does not give you the certainty, let alone the real knowing, that it is true. You believe because you need to believe, not because the beliefs are true. You are scared and helpless and need to believe in something. You don’t know yourself well enough to live without beliefs. When I say that we don’t know ourselves well enough, I don’t mean only in terms of our realization; I also mean in terms of beliefs about who we are, what we are supposed to do or to be, whether we are good or bad.

In actuality, all beliefs are in the same bag: whether they are about God and enlightenment, or about whether you are good or bad; whether about timelessness and eternity or about your being a person who was born at a certain date, the son or daughter of such and such parents. Beliefs are all in the same category. In your mind they are the same thing; they probably come physiologically from the same part of your brain. There is no difference, ultimately, between one belief and another.

Of course, it is terrifying to think, let alone accept, that these beliefs exist only in our minds. They may not be true or completely true, or true the way we believe they are true. What if after all these years we find out that Buddha is wrong about emptiness? Or that Moses never spoke to God in the burning bush? We read the stories and we believe them. Maybe the stories are not true, or maybe they were true but things changed. Maybe reality does not stay static and changes even its nature and structure. How do we know that this is not the case? Who says that things don’t change? Who says that what Buddha said then should be true now? Do we have any proof that it should be so? We don’t; nobody does.

The stories we have been told may be true or not. We cannot be certain until we find out the truth for ourselves and, ultimately, until the truth is relevant for us. We have to be bold in order to ask these questions and to confront ourselves in this way. If we are to reach certainty and true autonomy of realization, we need to be willing to be heretics. What’s more, we need to become universal heretics, not believing anything that we do not know from direct experience, beyond stories, beyond hearsay, and even beyond the mind.

To have a free mind is to be a universal heretic. You don’t believe in the ultimate reality of any concept. You can assume any belief you find useful and attractive, but you don’t need to hold on to any of it. Without being captured by your beliefs, you are strong enough and confident enough to throw away any and all beliefs and perspectives, each and every philosophy and story. You can stand totally alone, completely independent of all that comes through the mind, through time and space. This station of realization is difficult and rare. Most of us don’t have the nerve to lose our minds. Although terrifying, it is necessary for true freedom.

We have to risk that we may be wrong. We have to risk the aloneness and the terror of being totally on our own. We have to risk cutting all of our supports, burning all of our bridges, destroying all of our boats. They are all ultimately and fundamentally concepts that come from hearsay or, at best, from our own past experiences. Even the concepts and knowledge that have come from our own immediate experiences cannot be relied on. That knowledge is like Buddha’s words—old, unless corroborated in this moment.

Maybe a week ago you had an experience of realization, but how do you know that will be the same today? Who said that God won’t change or that self-realization should continue being the same today? In other words, we cannot hold on to any concept past our direct experience of it; otherwise, what we’re doing is believing a story. Whether someone else’s or our own, a story is a story, not true reality here and now.

To be truly independent and autonomous, we need to be free from the concepts acquired from others as well as our own past experiences. Our minds hold on to concepts, memories, and stories. When we truly are ourselves and live in reality, we do not need concepts for support, we do not need memories to know who we are, and we do not need stories to be naturally at ease. We are who we are not because of what we believe, not because of what we remember, but because of what we are now and, ultimately, because of what we are truly.

Being real is a risk and an adventure. What will be left when all of the concepts are gone? Who will we be? How will we see the world? What kind of feelings will we have? How will we see other people? We do not really know and there is no way to find out until we do. We can see it as a movement towards ontological independence or autonomy. However, even these are approximations, familiar concepts from the past that we are now applying to something that we still do not know.

It is difficult to talk without creating another boat. We destroy one boat, and the moment that we say another word, we create a new boat. It is difficult to be and not think of being, to really forget our entire mind, to take our mind and put it into one of our pockets and zip it up for a while. But this is precisely what we need to do if we are going to find out the truth for ourselves. Such freedom and such boldness are not easy.

NOTE: This is about a third of the essay “Sinking Your Boats” by A. H. Almaas. To read the rest, click on this link:



About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

3 Responses to “A. H. Almass on Sinking Your Boats and becoming the Universal Heretic”

  1. Fabulous stuff, Steve. There are about 4 billion True Believers I’d love to share this incendiary essay with, but I’d probably wind up drawn and quartered.

    • Bill! So great to hear from you, a most beloved fellow “universal heretic.” I know what you mean. The first phase of becoming this wise, loving “heretic” is stepping away from what is (finally) seen to be harmful and non-supportable. As you know, the much more difficult step is taking the steps that Almaas talks about in terms of that path which is actually helping you and that has wisdom and compassion. All teachings are “rafts,” to be sure, but I think when we find a good raft, after a while, we may want to make it into a house boat! On the other hand, abandoning “rafts” — skillful means and teachings — when we are still mid-stream isn’t so smart either, if the raft is still helping us cross. So, I see it all as a process, a spiritual evolution, in which we have to always be examining our “rafts” and our progress, and know when to let them go, and thus, not get caught up in “views” as the Buddha always warns against.

      I am finding Almaas’s teachings to be more and more helpful and relevant in my life, and am so grateful for what he has shared with the world. Btw, I am got back into “The Unfolding Now” which you gave me as a gift on your visit, and over half-way through — going slow and try to “digest” and then *practice* what he’s explaining. Thanks again for that, and much love to you and Grace and Sylvia and Lucinda. ❤♡❤

      With warm, warm metta,


  1. A. H. Almaas on Emptiness and The Void | Metta Refuge - 2011/11/10

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