Mere belief and mental agreement with some metaphysical view—nirvana, emptiness, non-duality, the “way of no way,” the Tao, the “pathless path,” and all the other terms and concepts of spirituality — don’t do, pardon the language, a damned thing to change anything in us or in the world!
The emptiness of Buddhism, for example, is not just a metaphysical view that we hold and believe about the nature of things! Emptiness is real. It is something to see and know for yourself in the “laboratory” and “training room” of meditation. The reality of emptiness doesn’t arise without the causes and conditions in our own minds that enable us to see what is there—and not there!
That means emptiness co-exists and is interdependent with gaining actual skill in concentration, attention, presence, and unbinding. Emptiness is interdependent with our practiced ability to see the subtle ways our minds grasp things as “I” and “me” and “mine” and become stuck. Insight, vipassana, is a verb, not a thing or something we “think about” or hold as a belief.
There is no “emptiness” apart from the mental/emotional unbinding that makes the “empty” nature of things apparent to us. We have to see emptiness for ourselves, not “think about it” or just believe in it. And it is the exceedingly rare person who can really unbind and disband mental obstructions without lots and lots and lots of practice. Mostly, you just have to “die” on the cushion, so to speak. You have to burn up “false self” in the self-immolation of staying present with everything that shows up in your mind, until realization arises with the disbanding of these mental and emotional hindrances as being “I” or “me” or “mine.”
The guru who tells you there’s no need to practice, no need to self-immolate, no genuine path or way to walk, no need to learn skillful means and actually practice unbinding of the mind—because the guru says that right effort would be clinging to some path or method or way—frankly, again, doesn’t know diddly-squat about liberation.
Liberation isn’t an intellectual view we hold, some stance about life, or even some way of looking at things that is “enlightened.” Liberation is real! It’s not just something in your head! It’s something you actually can do. It’s not so much “liberation” as liberating, a verb. Enlightenment is a doing every bit as much as a being. Liberation arises out of the causes and conditions that give rise to enlightenment! Right views are only fingers pointing to the moon, and you don’t get to the moon by staring at the finger, or theoretically claiming you are already on the moon! You get to the “moon” by self-immolation, in the furnace fires of learning first hand what concentration and insight actually are. What could be called true self appears in the “death of self”—in the letting go of grasping at all that we mistakenly see as “I’ and “me” and “mine” and just letting things, and ourselves, be.
If someone tells you liberation happens with no skillful effort, with no learned skill in meditation, with no skillful means to help you, then that’s clearly someone who has never been to the “moon,” or who even knows what the “moon” really is. Avoid such “teachers” like the plague. It’s no different than someone claiming to be a piano teacher, telling you don’t need to practice at all, because you already “know” Beethoven’s piano sonatas, “you just need to play them.” What a load of crap! And yet I see people buying this disempowering crap all the time, and missing the great joy, peace, and happiness that a path of genuine right effort and conscientious unbinding can bring.
The Buddha did offer a way, a path, a raft, and he did so standing on the “far shore,” having crossed over the flood of suffering himself in his Great Awakening. But he didn’t stand on the “far shore”—which yes, if you have truly awakened, you know is also right here—and tell people they were “really” already on the other side and didn’t need to do anything but “be there!” Instead, compassionately, and with great wisdom, the One Who Has Crossed Over talked about skillful means. He said, do this, and don’t do that. Walk this way, not that way. He said these actions leads to happiness and those actions lead to suffering. Sounds like a “path” to me, even if the individual way that path may unfold is diverse and limitless, even as every individual is.
Happily, rather than standing on the “far shore” and telling us we are fools to try go get there, or telling us there is no way over, “because there is no way,” or there are no rafts across the flood of suffering, “because you are already on the other side,” the Buddha taught and explained a multi-dimensional, interdependent, skillful Eightfold Path. This path, this way, these skillful means, he said, would help anyone understand, not theoretically, but for themselves, the truth of dependent origination, which is at the heart of emptiness, not-self, and the solution to the problem of dukkha, annica, and anatta.
But don’t take my word for it, or anyone’s word for it. Go and see for yourself! If you have been floundering around in “You-are-already-there land,” and your suffering and mental hindrances are just the same, but you have been trying to convince yourself you are “really” already liberated, then drop that view! But not by adopting yet another view, but by planting your fanny down on a cushion and seeing what happens when you try to get quiet and see what’s really going on in your mind. See what happens when you try to stay with the breath for just one minute, with full attention, concentration, and, yes, ease! It’s an adventure! And it ain’t easy, my friends, or we’d all be walking Buddhas after one setting, right?
But easy or not, it’s also very, very doable! It’s not a matter of talent, or how smart you are, or what your past or background has been, or how much you think you know or don’t know about such things. It only a matter of being willing to sit down, get quiet, and do it. It’s actually enjoyable, in the deepest sense of the word, joy.
As teacher Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes in “The Joy of Effort:”
“Of course, saying that meditation should be enjoyable doesn’t mean that it will always be easy or pleasant. Every meditator knows that it requires serious discipline to sit with long, unpleasant stretches and untangle all the mind’s difficult issues. But if you can approach difficulties with the enthusiasm with which an artist approaches challenges in her work, the discipline becomes enjoyable. Problems are solved through your own ingenuity, and the mind is energized for even greater challenges…”
When you do meditate, you will experience what one Buddhist teacher called “the great insult” of seeing your “monkey mind” in all its very human glory! No worries! Even the Buddha has “been there, done that!” When you run into trouble, mental blocks, ugly, painful stuff, discouragement, as we all do, the teachings of the Buddhadharma are here to help us. Because, you see, there is help, there is a path, there is a way. People far better and far worse, humanly, than you or me have found this liberating path and taken it all the way home. We can do the same.
The Noble Path is here, now, and we “journey” by finally seeing how to be really still, quiet, and present — no place to go, nothing to do, just this. That genuine presence of mind does magically appear because we believe in non-duality or emptiness or whatever. Genuine, compassionate, attentive presence of mind is both a great achievement and, finally, the most natural thing in the world, indeed, it is our natural mind! At some point, if we will continue to make the effort, we can say with the Buddha, not as metaphysical theorists, but as truly liberated ones:
O house-builder! Thou art seen. Thou shalt build no house again.
All thy rafters are broken.
Thy ridge-pole is shattered.
My mind has attained the unconditioned.
Achieved is the end of craving.