Sudden Awakening

Recently unearthed Chinese texts provide new inspiration in the search for enlightenment here and now.

Nina Wise

In 1993, I went to Lucknow, India to receive teachings from the Advaita master H.W. L. Poonjaji, a disciple of Ramana Maharshi. Many of my friends and colleagues, including several dedicated teachers of Vipassana meditation, had preceded me to Poonjaji’s door. By the time I arrived, his fame had blossomed and his small living room bulged with seekers from around the world who had elbowed their way into his morning satsang. I found a flat square saffron cushion in the back of the room and squeezed onto it, my knees bumping my neighbors on both sides. Ceiling fans spun in a feeble attempt to cool the already rising temperatures of the still early morning, and stifling a yawn as I wiped sweat from my brow, I wondered what I was doing in this steamy room at the foot of a guru. I Ninadidn’t believe in gurus. I had discovered meditation in my early twenties, had wended my way through various practices for the next decade, and had landed squarely in the Vipassana Buddhist camp. For years I diligently attended retreats and was grateful for the outpouring of insights, albeit not entirely flattering, that occurred during the ten or twenty-one days of silence and requisite slow motion. No matter how easy or difficult the days of sitting had been, I consistently cherished the hard-won openness of heart that accompanied my return to the world, even though I knew that within days my normal life would overwhelm my senses and dispel all calm from my seemingly imperturbable mind. Still, my spiritual progress was steady and assured, and I assumed that if I kept practicing I would gradually become clearer, calmer, kinder, and wiser.

“Do nothing,” Poonjaji advised from his dais at the front of the room, his voice raspy with age, his Indian accent thick, his wool-capped head bobbing in that nod-like motion that characterizes Indians and perplexes Westerners. Exuding a seductive warmth laced with an icy, commander-in-chief sternness, Papaji (as we called him to show respect) insisted we not meditate or do yoga or fast or sit naked in the snow to awaken the mind. Then he chuckled, flashing his pearly false teeth, and the whole room burst into laughter.

Any practice one did would create a state of mind that was temporary, Papaji told us. Meditation, yoga, psychedelics, fire walking, visualizing deities, bungee jumping, and other techniques might be effective in inducing temporary states of calm, bliss, or insight, but he was not interested in fleeting conditions of the mind. What Papaji demanded we recognize was the beingness that resides at the core of existence, that is untouched by birth and death, joy or sorrow, and requires no effort to attain because there is absolutely nothing to attain. By engaging in any practice, no matter how effective, one gave substance to obstacles that did not in fact exist by reifying the notion that awakening required some kind of special activity. All one needed to do was turn awareness away from objects of perception and onto awareness itself. “See the one who is seeing,” Papaji said. “Be quiet. Be still.”

In Papaji’s presence, recognizing one’s already extant awakening was effortless if one relaxed deeply enough to simply be. Nearly everyone who visited this teacher tasted true nature—a feeling of boundless awareness that existed within us and around us regardless of what we did or did not do, a consciousness that we could see in one another’s eyes. The one who is seeing was the very same one looking back, consciousness itself. And in that moment, all of the Buddhist teachings I had been struggling to understand through the gradual accumulation of insights became strikingly clear: there is no separate self; all arising phenomena are impermanent; suffering exists until we identify not with the changing conditions of our lives but with consciousness itself, which is boundless and more intimate than our breath.

Inadvertently, Poonjaji created waves in the territory of those who espoused the theory of gradual awakening, namely, in the land of Western Buddhism. Many of my Western friends who had studied with the most famous Thai and Burmese meditation masters and had sequestered themselves repeatedly in rigorous three-month meditation retreats, began seeking out teachers who espoused the formless practice of sudden awakening.

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