Years ago I interviewed the Dalai Lama for my book, The Ecstatic Journey, Walking the Mystical Path in Everyday Life. The book is about what happens when you have a spiritual experience and what happens afterwards, and it was written out of my own need for such a guide after having had some dramatic spiritual experiences. (We all have them; why don’t people talk about it?) The interview took place in Dharmashala, India, and it was life-transforming. Yet now, years later, I think of questions I didn’t ask. I wish I had the chance to do it over again. And yet, it was extraordinary. First, I was bowled over by his greeting. He saw me walking down the colonnade of his office and living quarters, turned and strode forward, hands out, his face wrinkling with smiles. Holding my hand, he led me into his office, directed me to a couch. “Sit here,” he said, “What can I do to help you?” Wow! That’s how I want to be greeted. What’s with this English reserve I learned while growing up? Why didn’t I ever express such joy at seeing someone? Why didn’t I make them comfortable like that? Right there, my trip to India paid for itself! Second was the depth of the interview. “When I was young,” he told me, “I used to think I could attain enlightenment.Now I know I have only this much.” He illustrated with thumb and forefinger only ¼ inch apart.
I left and went to lunch with the friend who had accompanied me on this trip. And then (sitting in a sweet Tibetan restaurant with its laminated tables and straight-backed chairs), I began to shake with energy that rippled up my spine and out my fingertips, inchoate whirling and swirling through me. Tears poured down my face, and all I wanted with all my heart and humbled soul was to bring enlightenment—surcease of suffering— to all sentient beings, everywhere, in every age, right down to the ants and spiders skittering in the dust. I was filled with exquisite agony. My friend was shocked. “Stop it,” he hissed. “Get control of yourself.” I did. To this day I regret it. What would have happened if I had sent him off to hike while I integrated whatever the Dalai Lama had given me? What if? If only! I know enough to know that the experience itself is not the important event but rather how it affects your life. It is not the moment but the fruits that indicate the depth of spirituality. Did your epiphany make you kinder, more tolerant, peaceful, loving, caring, compassionate, generous, good-hearted, more aware, awake? In the words of Micah, did you“ love mercy, walk humbly with your god?” Or did you revert after a while to old behavior and critical ways? Which brings me to a young guru I read about recently who claims to have reached enlightenment at such and such a date and time. He is now teaching over the internet, and I wonder again about this word enlightenment or awakening. All the wisdom texts indicate that enlightenment is an incremental process, not an event, but a life-long deepening. True, the Shakyamuni Buddha, having rejected ascetic practices, sat meditating under the pipal tree and attained three vidhya or insights:
- into his past lives
- into the workings of karma and reincarnation
- into the Four Noble Truths. These are that:
. All life is suffering . Suffering is caused by desire or craving (either for pleasure or release from pain) . The cessation of suffering comes through the release of craving . Release is achieved through the noble eightfold path: right thoughts, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. These insights brought the Buddha straight to enlightenment or “awakening.” But was that all? It seems not. We are told that the Buddha, already fully awakened, spent two hours a day practicing the Metta prayer of forgiveness. Two hours daily he spent forgiving himself for any offenses caused accidentally or deliberately and praying for all beings, visible and invisible, to forgive and be forgiven for offenses they had committed by thought word and deed. Maybe it’s a simple as that: not a state or ecstasy, not a single spiritual Revelation or Epiphany, but just a continual opening of the heart more and more, the constant practice of detaching from desire while simultaneously feeling the suffering of others: It is a limitless endeavor, and probably never fully attained. But how do you eliminate all desire? The Buddha, poisoned by a mushroom at the age of eighty, is said on his deathbed to have said, “The unconditioned consciousness has been attained, and every kind of craving has been uprooted and destroyed.” I’m not enlightened. I have a friend grieving at the death of his beloved wife. It seems appropriate. Even the Tibetan sage Mileropa wept on the death of his son. The tears of grief and desire in such conditions—not quiet detachment—seem to me to BE “right thought,” “right action.” I’d like to ask the Dalai Lama more about enlightenment.