As a chaplain, one thing that I frequently come to witness in the hospital is the relative personal theological certainty that the patients I meet have established throughout the course of their lives. Naturally the range of established belief is wide and varied; it includes a variety of orthodoxies (Greek, Russian, Jewish, Muslim), as well as the views of moderately liberal faiths such as followers of the Episcopal church, reform Jews, progressive catholics, as well as passionate Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ and Baptists. There are also Wiccans, New Age folks, and a whole host of individual prophets of the new age who I come across.
Just last week one man shared with me his belief that Jesus was more akin to Obi Wan Kanobe and Yoda than anyone else seems to realize. For this man, the essence of God is much more similar to the Force than the compilers of the Bible could understand. In fact, rather than feel with his “heart”, a common human metaphor for the seat of emotion, especially as the seat of love, he told me that he feels with his larynx. After all, in the beginning was the word….
The certainty that this patient expressed regarding his inner beliefs felt palpable, and lead me to wonder about certainty. I can only really speak for myself when I say that I can never really know how true or theologically sound the spiritual underpinning of any given person who I come to meet with may be. I have my own biases, my own stubbornness, and without doubt, I have plenty of blind spots. To have a full understanding, in an ultimate sense, of the beliefs of others- or in other words: to truly know how right or correct how full or effective a particular path that another person treads, for me, seems to be an impossible task. Just like trying to hold water in my cupped hand for any length of time, such definitive knowledge escapes me. In fact, I often wonder where the utility of trying to know such things may lay- it seems like trying to know if the person next to you sees the color blue in the same way that you do. Is there even a right blue? What is blue?
What is everything for that matter?
What is mind? What are thoughts? What are feelings? Are they different?
What is Buddha-nature? How do we recognize it?
What are our dreams? How are they different from waking life?
What is meditation? How is it different from hustle and bustle?
How are we suffering? What is the cessation of suffering? What does that mean for you?
How are we not shackled by discursiveness? What does that mean?
What is certainty?
This particular question seems to touch upon and lead us to something that we may be able to come to know, albeit with effort and focus. Certainty suggests a lack of doubt; a knowing born of experimentation; security from error. Ultimately, it may be that entry into the realm of certainty is an intensely personal process. Spiritually, I feel that the tent poles of certainty are planted, and firmly fastened through wrestling with instructions left behind by the traditions that we follow. Once we have come to appreciate these instructions, internalize them, digest them, and come to know with confidence what they mean, then we may fully know the secure and tender shelter that our tradition affords us. Only then do we see that the words found in our dusty books are in fact thick golden ambrosial nectar, and that the experience of life can become more of what it is: alive, fresh, and full of energy. Even as it wanes, this life of ours, subject to pains, worries, sorrows and regrets still holds the unique and ever profound richness of spontaneity and depth of meaning.
The work of distilling certainty from our experience of, and interaction with life asks us to try to see ourselves for who we really are. It asks us to understand our outer, inner and secret anatomy. It also leads us to a taxonomy of self- a clear reflective understanding of who we are- for it is only through knowing who we are and how we experience our life that we can understand how to enter into relationship with developing greater awareness of what being open and more free means. Openness and freedom, for me, tend to be something that I associate with the flexibility needed for solidifying these natural attributes, for providing ground, for being able to really see who we are.
Then there is who we are in relationship to our tradition. Tradition and lineage can take a number of forms, but in its most essence oriented function, tradition and lineage speak to how we become who we are in time and space. In this particular case it isn’t about adopting a particular set of beliefs or perspectives, but more how the integration of lineage perspectives cause us to individuate within our lineage; in essence how we become more ourselves- empowered and confident, free and self-assured. It may very well be that we come to find ourselves within the natural ebb and flow of our tradition or lineage without much to really do.
How this comes to be, of course, may be impossible to fully explain- except in relation to our own journey. Such inner-transformation is very personal and unique to each individual. This fact is easily gleaned from reading the lives of the eighty-four mahasiddhas. The story of their processes of liberation often involves embracing circumstances unique to each master’s life. Whether it be using a goiter as a focus for stabilizing the mind, or a fabulous jewel, trying to steal the essence of mind to ascertain its nature, or the use of conceit as a means for attaining siddhi in arising as the yidam, nothing was spared. No fear too mundane; no shadow too dark. In fact, in these stories we can easily see how structured aspects of practice lineages were transposed upon, or woven throughout, the experience of the lives of each mahasiddha. The result of such a skillful weaving, a blending, or circulation (circumabulation) of tradition within the experience of life is twofold- the experience of being becomes easily imbued with simplicity (an expression of simple appearance) and offers the possibility of complete fiery annihilation of obscurations.
Paradoxically, such seemingly simple self-styled practice requires not only a sense of openness with regard to exploring who we are, what we are, and how we function in the world- but also knowledge of our lineage, particularly certainty in its effect. The stories of the mahasiddhas are very approachable, and should be read by everyone. A few examples can be read here. These stories really capture the depth and simplicity of a well grounded and distilled practice and offer a kaleidoscopic expansion of experience that I have come to value. From the simple comes everything, the full richness of a practice lineage with all of its subtle distinctions.
The other day a friend of mine who also happens to be a chaplain and a rabbi reflected to me a growing concern, namely that religion and religiosity are increasingly something that people are distancing themselves from- and that even spirituality is something that is regarded with some suspicion. Her larger point focused around the need for a wider tool-kit for chaplains that allows for the inclusion of people for whom feelings of connectedness may not be centered around religion and spirituality. The tool-kit that she refered to invariably requires her, and anyone who wants to be able to be there with others in the exploration of their location within the axes of spirituality and religion, to know their location and the story of their journey (how they got there). If these aspects of ourselves are unexamined how can we help others? More broadly, without knowing where we are and how we function in relation to our individual traditions how can we hope to integrate them into our lives?
This point speaks well to the establishment of certainty within our spiritual practice as it invites us to wonder what we feel about religious thought. Do we consider ourselves religious, or, do we tend to think of ourselves as spiritual? Is there a difference? What about those two words hold intense reactions and why?
There is no right answer, only our own- which if it is an honest one, can hold up to a little inquiry, and also be allowed to change as we change.
I bring my friend’s point up because in many cases real training (study, receiving instruction, practice, and reflection) within our individual lineages is very important for gaining certainty in the path, as well as what is possible. Within the model of tantric buddhism this process is described as the Ground, Path and Fruit.
The Ground represents the larger theory, the teachings on the way the mind works, how suffering arises, how the dharma can eliminate our experience of suffering. The Path is primarily the method of putting this dharma into practice- really blending it with our experience of life. The Fruit is the true naked experience of mind- an experience of seeing, feeling, and really knowing the Ground to be alive within our experience of being. Certainty can be, and needs to be known in all three relational models of buddhist practice, or however many stages we experience within our own particular liberation story.
Certainty in Ground. Certainty in Path. Certainty in Fruit.
I wonder where the mahasiddhas Luiypa, Saraha, Ghantapa, Tilopa,Virupa, Aryadeva or Dhokaripa would end up without their experience of certainty upon their paths and within their experiences?
In what way do we need to attend to the development of certainty within our own experience? Can we allow ourselves the room to attend to these needs without regard to how we appear to others? Can we approach certainty with honesty? From a place of deep personal concern?
Some may feel the need for increased study- a real immersion in the Ground. Some may feel a need to develop more confidence/familiarity with the Path. Others may feel a need to open themselves to the possibility that they may indeed experience the Fruit.
Jey Gampopa (1079-1153), the first monastic lineage holder of the Kagyu lineage wrote in his famous work The Precious Garland of the Supreme Path, that we should protect our practice just as we would our eyes. Similarly, I wonder if we should regard the maintenance of certainty in our practice as we would not only our eyes, but the rest of our body. The distillation of certainty is a process that is subtle and mysterious. It is not necessarily obtained from taking classes or attending lectures, nor from reading books or studying, and yet it can sometimes be gleaned from those activities as well. Sometimes we may experience it in a flash of anger or humiliation, or as a sudden joy. Nevertheless, however it arises it arises from within- it is a fruit born from an inner journey that if deep and genuine leaves us naturally settled, grounded, and in harmony with the arising of phenomena. It is a mysterious inner-organic manifestation that like the morning mist is hard to pin-down and locate. Perhaps, only when we let our defences down, when we shed our firmly held ideas about things that certainty becomes a possibility. When that happens, the distinction between who we are in relation to our lineage is more a question of us just remaining who we are, not much else remains for us to do.