By Andrew Peers
In his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1973) the young monk Chogyam Trungpa, friend of fellow Trappist monk and writer Thomas Merton, wrote about the dangers of what he called ‘spiritual materialism.’
The materialism of the economy appears to drive souls together in a collection of separate units that forget the social dimension of society. Zen is no exception and often seems annexed by psychology, in turn annexed by the market. What can’t be measured, what you can’t explain, what can’t be conformed to and what does not serve a doubtless very spiritual ego, no longer seems necessary.
It’s a jungle out there, even in the spiritual world—a moist, dense jungle where all the plants and trees are competing, growing through or leaning on each other. Zen Buddhism is just one of many other varieties of tree.
Psychology has been a part of Buddhism from the beginning and cannot be considered the culprit in itself. The danger is rather the use of this discipline as an inroad for the soul-burrowing cunning of the economy. Basic religious training assumes that aspirants already have a strong and well-functioning ego with which to begin the journey. Postulants who apply for entrance to a monastery with no ego-power or too big an inferiority complex have insufficient raw material for the process of (de-)formation. The emphasis in authentic training has to do with opening up a healthy ego to the benefit of the community.
Meditation requires faith.
Faith grasps the deepest truth of our existence and requires that we see beyond the ego and through the business-consumer game. In the words of martyr Edith Stein whose feast we celebrate today in the abbey, the last words before her death, “Only the great love will remain—how could it be otherwise?” Love implies the other, love needs another in order to love. And this is to get out of the spirit of materialism.
The monkey instinct in us keeps on swinging from tree to tree through the jungle, its mind full of fantasy and self-deception. It fails to see what is. On our own, we won’t make it. There are just too many trees and tangling vines.
The practice of meditation is a great grace in my life (or it has become). I’m talking here about formless meditation, meditation without meditating on something, without content. Call it ‘zazen’ or ‘contemplative prayer’ if you want; it doesn’t make any difference at all to the experience of it. It’s about the practice of it—the practice of meditation, just doing it, and regularly.
I sit down and focus on my breathing, open to my mind and emotions. This fundamental attitude of openness spreads to the surroundings and the room in which I sit. It becomes an awareness that passes through the walls of the zendo and out to embrace the whole universe. I feel like a tiny dot, a speck of dust. That’s a lonely feeling at first but if the dot disappears, things change.
When my heart opens up to the silence, I often experience pain. If you are asking my opinion, the root of all pain in this world is the same for everyone. It is the pain of feeling separated from the original unity of ‘earlier.’
When I say ‘earlier,’ I mean really early. Perhaps we have to go back to the first three months in the womb—the blessedness of the Garden of Eden—to the time when we were not quite born yet. Perhaps we have to return to a timeless time even before this, to the oneness of the Spirit. Which brings me right back to now and sitting on this meditation cushion
This pain of loss and the pain of separation exists in me, though I may not yet be fully conscious of it. Long practice in meditation over many years has shown how deeply trauma can be buried. The unconscious sense of loss may be triggered by the loss of a friend or some other sadness evoking my deeper primal pain. On my meditation cushion it is possible to access these realms and I cry out as tears flow down my cheeks.
Yet if I don’t run away, if I can completely open to this pain, I can become aware of something else present at an even deeper level in my heart—a glimpse of which can be caught precisely by sitting in the pain.
What is that I see through the tears? It seems to pre-exist me, is closer to myself than any pain. It feels like the first warm rays of dawn, the first greeting of day. A serene sun rises, imperturbable and full of peace. Lin Chi shouts again, “What are you looking for? You are lacking nothing!”
In the midst of my tears I start to laugh. The tears are a grace because they mean I am human, a person with a heart who can feel pain and pleasure. And the laughter is a grace because it means I have discovered—through the practice of meditation—that I’ve never really lost the original unity of Paradise Lost.
Paradise is not lost.
It was there all the time, I had just failed to notice it. Or: I had forgotten, fallen asleep in a dream of separation—a dream of scarcity.
This new-found richness is no personal property, neither should I grab hold of it. There is no need to anyway: it is who I am, a new spiritual reference point in life, the only one I need to stay on course. It seems a matter of trust, of having the confidence that it is always there. But that’s not exactly it either. It’s more a matter of living out of this trust, becoming trust itself.
It doesn’t have so much to do with my efforts to meditate. Rather I am meditated. Meditation meditates me.
It happens all by itself, just as the sun rises naturally. I do not need to cultivate the light or protect it. I myself am the sun. There is no room left for strategy, manipulation or doubt. The constant strength of this compassion is what I can bring to situations and gives me the courage to open up further—to open to everything in my body and mind and everything that is going on in life, in whatever circumstances. Even to open to the negative energies that come up.
Such grace is possibly the greatest I can receive because it connects me deeply with others and can point the way to liberation.
If there is anything correct in what I write here, the reader will understand why I consider the vocation of meditation teacher as one of the most beautiful and valuable. I wish everyone could come home to themselves in the practice of meditation, a practice that would ‘construct a true and contented world’ (Hisamatsu).
It sounds so simple.
Simplicity is the way, but the way to it is often long and complicated.
*article taken from The Family Jewels: Letters on Zen Koan by a Trappist Monk
Andrew Peers is Anglo-Irish and spent over 20 years in Trappist monasteries in England, Ireland and the Netherlands. In 2011, he left the Order, traveling to the home of Celtic Buddhism in America and returned to Europe to work as a meditation teacher in the Celtic Buddhist tradition. He combines this work with a passion for writing. Check out his website for more information. You can also read more in his recently published book, The Family Jewels: Letters on Zen Koan by a Trappist Monk.
Photo: Mitchell Joyce/Flickr
Editor: Dana Gornall
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