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  • Form is emptiness, emptiness is form.

    --Heart Sutra


    1.

    In order to live, I had to kill the Buddha.

    In order to move forward, I had to retreat backward.

    In order to find what was true, I had to lose everything that was false.


    2.

    I sold my books.

    A library of Buddhist books that I had accumulated over the years

    The heart sutra. The diamond sutra. The flower garland sutra.

    Thich Nhat Hanh. The Dalai Lama. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. S.N. Goenka. Suzuki Roshi.

    I bade farewell to the Hindu masters of advaita vedanta.

    Nisargardatta. Krishnamurti. Ramana Maharshi.

    I bowed my last bow to New Age metaphysics.

    The Power of Now. The Secret.

    No more books by channels claiming to transmit messages from the Pleiades or Arcturus. (No jokes about Uranus please.)

    No more books about Gnosticism, Sufism, Kabbalah, Taoist alchemy, Kundalini yoga.

    Sayonara. Auf Wiedersehen. Adieu.

    Afterwards, it felt like a love affair had ended. The empty shelves. Missing. Memories of sitting on the couch with a cup of chamomile tea, my eyes devouring the text, hypnotized by the poetry of truth.

    Now. I felt naked. Alone. Again. In this carnivorous world where wolves mangle lambs.


    3.

    I had reached a dead end in my spiritual practice.

    I had achieved epiphanies, moments of illumination. Moments when liquid ecstasy permeated every fiber of my body. Moments of lucidity, sharp, brilliant like a diamond.

    Moments of bliss when I felt as if I was swinging inside a Fragonard painting, swimming in a sea of Debussy, drifting in clouds of Rothko.

    I experienced Oneness. The dissolution of my ego. Bodhisattvas visited my meditations. Visions of my past lives scrolled through my mind like a 3-D film.

    And yet, and yet, and yet.

    As wondrous as these spiritual highs felt, they were always temporary. Ephemeral.

    With every high came a low. Sometimes worse than low. Depression.

    When you experience even for a moment the dissipation of your ego, that moment when you return into consensus reality, into your body, is a moment of heartbreak.

    Having licked a morsel of freedom, but now forced back into the prison of the flesh, the miasma of the mind, you feel caged like a lion in a squalid zoo.

    Not only trapped. I also felt frustrated. Despite the wondrous experiences, at the core of my being, nothing really changed.

    No matter how long I sat in meditation, weeks, ten hours a day, no matter what insight I gleaned from my retreats into silence, it eventually vanished.

    A few days later, or even as soon as I stepped off the tatami mat, the same delusional vanity, spiteful thoughts, inveterate selfishness, exasperating impatience, would uncoil itself.

    The hydra of my mind had not been vanquished, only subdued. Temporarily.


    4.

    There is a famous Zen story. A monk one day returned from the forest after gathering wood. He saw his temple, his home, in flames. The villagers were rushing around with buckets of water to quench the fire.

    The monk ran as quickly as he could towards the temple, adding the pile of wood into the fire, clapping his hands, he told the villagers:

    Let it burn. Let it burn.


    5.

    Something changed.

    After I sold my books, I continued to sit in meditation, practice qi gong, but without the discipline, the zeal, that I had once pursued the task.

    I practiced because I wanted to, not because I had to.

    Something changed.

    I did not become omniscient, omnipotent. I still had to do my laundry, wash the dishes. I still had my human foibles. My vanity, my selfishness, all that was still there.

    And yet and yet and yet.

    Something changed.

    Somehow. I had entered that gateless gate the Zen monks mentioned.

    The division between spiritual and mundane, sitting still inside a temple, and cavorting outside in a bar, these boundaries became permeable, interchangeable, the categories inside my mind, the divine and the profane, were deconstructing.

    The wisdom of the sutra could now be read in the calligraphy of the wind.

    A field of purple irises was as beautiful as any dharma talk.

    The many-headed hydra I had once tried to slay was now a bouquet of fragrance.

    By burning the temple, the entire world became sacred.

    By killing the Buddha, samsara became nirvana.
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