Recently though I read a description by Pema Chodron about man’s spiritual path. She speaks of the process as man adding armor as he goes through life and then when he decides to take refuge in the Buddha he removes the armor and thereby opens himself up to life. I didn’t find this to be an appropriate metaphor because armor is supposed to protect us from outside harm. And although our ego-mind does view our feelings and perceptions as “protection,” we know that in fact they do not protect us and instead cause us suffering. They are only the illusion of armor.
I would therefore suggest a different description of the process of the spirit from birth onward. When we are born, we are born with our true Buddha nature intact, or as Zen Master Bankei said, our unborn Buddha mind.
But that mind is defenseless. Once born, the baby’s Buddha mind is dependent on outside forces, namely his parents, to nourish it and strengthen it, just as the baby is dependent on its mother’s milk to grow and thrive.
Unfortunately, even the best-intentioned parents rarely are able to give a baby the almost constant emotional nourishment it needs. Parents are a function of their own upbringing and learned experience. They have their own emotional issues to deal with as well as their jobs and other responsibilities and thus they just aren’t as available as the baby needs. And so almost from birth, the seed of man’s insecurity is planted. How to change this dynamic is addressed in my book, Raising a Happy Child.
But babies and toddlers are amazingly resilient. They experience things directly as they are, free of labels. Even though they have already been wounded, they are open and ready to receive love. That’s why toddlers are usually bright-eyed and smiling, regardless of their race, gender, or social status. Of course when they experience acute stress they cry, but they usually get over that quickly and resume their open state.
However, once a child begins to translate experiences into thoughts, usually by age 3, his ego-mind starts to form. Now, when the experience is painful, the ego-mind labels it bad and typically builds a wall around itself to “protect” it. Whether it’s anger, fear, distrust, whatever, that is the way the ego-mind thinks it is protecting you. Of course just the opposite is true. When the experience is good, it gets a high and craves for more. Also not spiritually a healthy reaction.
As the years go by, the walls grow taller and thicker and the cravings grow stronger as our experiences accumulate and our reactions build on each other, egged on by the messages we receive from our family, peers, and culture. And so we go through life, suffering because we are completely controlled by our ego-mind. Our true Buddha nature has been totally undernourished and overwhelmed.
At some point, if we are fortunate, we either experience something quite shattering or are exposed to powerful teaching that opens up the door to the light just a crack. And if we are open to that experience, we begin to walk the path and seek out teaching and support. We begin to feed our true Buddha mind through meditation and awareness, and so the Buddha mind’s roots grow. As our practice progresses, the roots grow deeper, Buddha mind stronger. Our Buddha mind becomes our refuge.
When the Buddha mind is sufficiently robust, it begins to challenge the habit-energy of the ego-mind. We become aware from within that not only are our feelings and perceptions the cause of our suffering but they are a product of our mind. They are not our true self; that is our heart, and these feelings and perceptions are foreign to the heart. Instead we learn that our heart is light, love, faith, trust, humility, compassion, gratitude, joy, strength, courage, and wisdom.
We ask ourselves what we value most, what is most important to us, and we find that the answer is “peace and happiness.” Not what our ego-mind has been telling us. And so we form the intent to allow nothing, absolutely nothing, to disturb our heart’s peace and happiness. We begin to test every guidance we receive and if it disturbs us we reject it; either the action/thought itself is harmful or we are approaching an otherwise skillful thought/action from a lack of equanimity and so it turns into an unskillful craving.
And so we begin to purposefully shed our feelings and perceptions and thereby open up our heart to the light where it can breathe. This requires much discipline because it is usually a very painful and difficult process as we are letting go of everything that has defined us for our entire life. But we now know that our true self is our heart, and we know the qualities of our heart.
We open up our heart to embrace all aspects of our being and experience, and so nothing offends. Then all internal and external struggle ceases and we know we have everything we need inside ourselves to be at peace and happy. Letting go of our feelings and perceptions becomes easier. We have faith that regardless what life throws our way, all will be well because we know we will always return to our true Buddha nature and so be at peace and happy.
We thus come to a point in our lives where we are at peace and happy. Things do not agitate us. We are aware of our experiences, we are concerned about the problems of the world, but we are not agitated. Instead, we work in our own small way to do what we can through our own actions to make this a better place. We have compassion for both ourselves and all people. We offer others joy. That is our purpose in life.
But while we become free of the control of our ego-mind, we are never free of it. Walking the path does not sanitize our ego-mind. It will always be as it is; it will always be a part of us. And it will, when it senses a weak moment, rise up and seek to tempt us from the path. Even the Buddha was tempted periodically by Mara. But our heart and our faith is strong, and so we say to it, “no.”
The path is thus never-ending. We must always be awake and vigilant. We need to be disciplined. We need to meditate every day. And throughout the day, if we are not already there, we need to bring ourselves back to the present and home to our heart using the tools we have.