First of all I want to give a big shout out to occult researcher and visionary artist Reverend Illuminatus Maximus over at the critically acclaimed Gnostic Friends Network website. His is the brilliant mind behind the “Choose Your Delusion” graphic that graces this post.
The other major inspiration for this post was Brad Warner, who wrote a fascinating essay for his blog under the title “Use Your Illusions“. The main thing that Warner does in that essay is to contrast two different ways of looking at the student-teacher relationship in spiritual practice.
One way of approaching the student-teacher relationship is to (1) project one’s fantasies of an ideal, perfect human being onto someone else who has a fancy title (Zen Master, Roshi, Guru, Rinpoche, High Priestess, Grand Poobah, whatever), and (2) when one inevitably finds that the object of one’s projections does not live up to this fantasy to wallow in disappointment.
The other way is to relate directly to the teacher as a real, live, flesh and blood human being. That is, as opposed to primarily relating to one’s own fantasies and only relating to the teacher in terms of that fantasy. This approach treats the teacher-student relationship much more like other relationships between individual human beings.
Warner mostly focuses on the whole teacher-student thing, but he also makes it clear that same kind of dynamic is involved in how we each relate to our own spiritual practice: Do I primarily relate to my own practice as it really is, or do I focus on an imagined ideal of practice? He even nicely ties these two issues together with a little story about his own teacher. Read his post to see what I’m talking about.
But I want to go off on a tangent by focussing on the word “illusion”. Buddhists and Hindus often use the word “illusion” in a purely negative sense. But not always. In fact, the Hindu Goddess Maha Maya (“Great Illusion”) is much revered. And Buddhists should also recognize Maha Maya as the name of the biological mother of the Buddha!
Sri Aurobindo, in his ox-stunning masterpiece, The Life Divine, devotes chapter XIII (of Book I) to The Divine Maya. He begins that chapter with these words:
Existence that acts and creates by the power and from the pure delight of its conscious being is the reality that we are, the self of all our modes and moods, the cause, object and goal of all our doing, becoming and creating. As the poet, artist or musician when he creates does really nothing but develop some potentiality in his unmanifested self into a form of manifestation and as the thinker, statesman, mechanist only brings out into a shape of things that which lay hidden in themselves, was themselves, is still themselves when it is cast into form, so is it with the world and the Eternal. All creation or becoming is nothing but this self-manifestation. Out of the seed there evolves that which is already in the seed, pre-existent in being, predestined in its will to become, prearranged in the delight of becoming. The original plasm held in itself in force of being the resultant organism. For it is always that secret, burdened, self-knowing force which labours under its own irresistable impulse to manifest the form of itself with which it is charged. Only, the individual who creates or develops out of himself, makes a distinction between himself, the force that works in him and the material in which he works. In reality the force is himself, the individualised consciousness which it instrumentalises is himself, the material which it uses is himself, the resultant form is himself. In other words it is one existence, one force, one delight of being which concentrates itself at various points, says of each “This is I” and works in it by a various play of self-force for a various play of self-formation.
Although I think that Aurobindo put that very nicely, it’s a bit dense. In fact, unless you already have a pretty good idea of what he is talking about, I doubt it makes much sense at all! Ramprasad Sen, the famed mystical poet and devotee of Goddess Kali, perhaps described the same basic idea more simply when he wrote (as translated by Lex Hixon in his Mother of the Universe):
Though my mind
I am not to blame.
You are the brilliant Magician,
and I am Your sleight of hand.
The point itself is really quite simple and self-evident. It is easily grasped by the mind in a spontaneous flash, and we hear ourselves say, aha, of course! In fact it isn’t difficult at all to see the world of constant change all around us as the play of the Gods, the Dance of sat, cit and ananda (essence, consciousness and bliss). Unless, of course, you happen to be experiencing suffering! Then the “play of the Gods” tends to look more like some monstrously cruel joke.
But even if we are fortunate enough to be able to spontaneously grasp the immediate reality of the dance of Maya, Sri Aurobindo urges us to realize that, at that stage, “all has not yet been explained”:
We know the Reality of the Universe, but we do not yet know the process by which that Reality has turned itself into this phenomenon. We have the key of the riddle, but we still have to find the lock in which it will turn. For this Existence, Conscious-Force, Delight [sat cit ananda] does not work directly or with a sovereign irresponsibility like a magician building up worlds and universes by the mere fiat of its word.
Here Aurobindo is making a not-so-subtle dig at the Christian concept of a “Creator God”. Christians imagine an infinitely powerful bearded gaseous vertebrate who floats suspended (by what?) in an utterly empty Void and creates everything out of nothing by the sheer force of his command and will. But the Vedic perspective, according to Aurobindo, sees Maya as a playfully dancing Creatrix, whose feet already touch solid ground [prakriti], and who creates each particular limited impermanent phenomenon (“this phenomenon”) out of an eternally existing infinite potentiality. In Latin: Creatio ex nihilo versus creatio ex omnia.
The power to create, it turns out, has nothing to do with pulling universes out of one’s arse (ta da!). The Vedic conception of the power of creation is something else altogether:
This power was known by the Vedic seers as Maya. Maya meant for them the power of infinite consciousness to comprehend, contain in itself and measure out, that is to say, to form — for form is delimitation — Name and Shape [namarupa] out of the vast illimitable Truth of infinite existence …. [O]ut of the supreme being in which all is all without barrier of separative consciousness emerges the phenomenal being in which all is in each and each is in all for the play of existence with existence, consciousness with consciousness … delight with delight.
Lest we think Aurobindo is describing some bullshit fairy-tale universe where all is light and love and angels singing and children’s laughter, he immediately says that at first we mistakenly see ourselves as somehow outside of this play “as a separated being”, that is to say, “not as a being always inseparably one with the rest of existence.” Aurobindo even posits two Mayas: a “lower” Maya that gives us the false sense of separation from the cosmic dance all around us, and a “higher” Maya that is that dance itself, inclusive of each of us (and even inclusive of our sense of separateness).
Again I will look to the Bengali mystic Ramprasad Sen to restate all of this more simply or at least more poetically:
O small self, you are a sparkling fish
at play in the ocean of consciousness,
and your life is swiftly coming to its end.
Death will skim above you and throw its sharp net.
You will not be protected by your watery world,
for selfish actions have kept you in the shallows.
The fisherman’s fatal net will surround you suddenly,
Why do you remain so near the surface of relative existence
where Death is granted its fishing grounds?
Yet there is still time.
Leave the dangerous shoreline, mundane mind,
and plunge into the silent produndity,
the black waters of Mother Kali’s mystery.
The small self is not so bad, really. A little too cluelessly self-involved, maybe; so much so, in fact, that it fails to realize that it is a beautiful “sparkling” fish swimming through a vast, limitless ocean of consciousness. Once we understand a little better what we are, and what the situation is, this realization must lead to some kind of appropriate action that manifests our understanding. Ramprasad’s suggestion is to notice that the water is rather shallow here, near the shore. He encourages us to be brave and to venture out into the deeper waters away from the illusory safety of the shoreline.
Speaking of deeper waters, I have only just barely scratched the surface of what Aurobindo has to say about The Divine Maya. But now I want to leave Aurobindo and Ramprasad and come back to the original question that Brad Warner addressed in his post. The question was:
How does one reinvigorate one’s practice after losing the illusions that brought one to practice in the first place?
Even though I liked a lot of what Brad Warner said in his answer, I’m going to come at it from a different perspective. But it’s (very!) important to remember that this was a question asked of Warner by someone that he knows. He was responding to the person – I am just responding to the words themselves without knowing anything about the person who asked the question.
And yet I think it is valid to question the very basis of the question itself. The idea that we are brought to practice by our illusions is almost certainly wrong. In fact, we are brought to practice by our Buddhanature (of course).
It’s like the butterfly and the butterfly bush. We have three big butterfly bushes in our backyard, and during the summertime they attract huge numbers of butterflies — not to mention hummingbirds, bees, ants, and even the occasional hummingbird hawk moth! The branches of a butterfly bush are very light – the whole plant is really quite delicate. So many butterflies will congregate on a single branch that they actually weigh it down visibly, which is pretty incredible when you consider that it takes over 100 butterflies just to weigh one ounce! Is that right? I think I read it somewhere on teh internets……
Anyway, why is the butterfly attracted to the butterfly bush? Maybe it’s attracted by the color, or by the scent. Or maybe butterflies have their own version of google, and do a search on “what do butterflies eat?“, and a picture of a butterfly bush comes up, or something. You could get very scientific and try to identify precisely which genes in the butterfly account for it’s being attracted to the butterfly bush. You could even genetically engineer butterflies that had no interest in butterfly bushes at all, in order to test your hypothesis. And then you could start all over again, and identify which genes in the butterfly-bush are responsible for butterflies being attracted to it! And then you could create genetically modified butterfly bushes that no butterfly would pay any attention to!
That kind of thing appeals to certain kinds of people, while other people might recoil in horror at the idea of evil mutant monster franken-butterflies. That kind of person might even go so far as to write love poetry in honor of the romance of the butterfly and the butterfly bush, claiming that these pretty words tell us more than “science” every could.
But the thing is, whether you do experiments or write poetry, still there is really no doubt that it is right and good and proper for the butterfly to be attracted to the butterfly bush. (I mean, you know, that why it’s called a butterfly bush!) And just so it is also right and good and proper for human beings to be attracted to spiritual practice. That being said it is undeniably true that, as the saying goes, “many are cold but few are frozen”. That is, many people have some vague interest in Zen (etc.) but very few people really persist, year after year, in a serious engagement with the practice of Zen.
Zen is a path that demands a lot. In fact, it pretty much demands everything. Each Zen student is responsible for her or his own practice. It is not my teacher’s job to make sure I am comfy on my cushion, or in my head. Zen practice is difficult, and the attrition rate for newcomers tends to be rather high. But this is a self-selection process. No one else can put your ass on your cushion. Whether we practice or not is completely up to each one of us individually.
And what does it really mean to “not practice”? It simply means to return to the superficial, unexamined life: “near the surface of relative existence.” The shallow waters of the shoreline appear safe because this is what we know, what we are used to. But in reality they pose the greatest peril of all: the danger of passing our days and nights in vain.
[The cool pic of Brad Warner is from albill’s photostream on flickr. The cool pic Sri Aurobindo’s statue is from Frank’s gallery at Picasa Web Albums.]