Sudden Awakening

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

Nina Wise

These fantasies quickly came undone as Wendi told me about the next phase of her research, a translation of the inscriptions left on cave walls by the nuns of Baoshan, in the Yunnan Province of China. In the twelfth century, these women practiced an extreme form of asceticism, including severe fasting, or what scholars today call “holy anorexia.” Clearly, women can be drawn to practices that are characterized by self-affliction as well as those characterized by ease and noneffort. So where does this leave me? Am I an adherent of Advaita and the notion of Sudden Awakening, or am I a Buddhist who practices Vipassana on the zafu, with the occasional foray into Dzogchen retreats? Must we be adherents of only one school to be authentic in our practice and our devotion, or can we straddle however many traditions we find inspiring and helpful?

Last winter, I attended a ten-day Vipassana retreat at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California. For the first few days, I followed the instructions with a quiet and obedient commitment despite Poonjaji’s gruff voice echoing in my mind, “Do not meditate.” As my mind calmed and my body became more comfortable with the long hours of stillness, I abandoned the rigorous noting of sensations, thoughts, and feelings to the most minute of details; instead I allowed myself to open into a spacious awareness where all these came and went of their own accord, in their own rhythm, and I watched, felt, heard, and saw in an easy, allowing way. When I felt the urge, I did not walk in slow motion steps noting the lifting, rising, and falling of one foot and then the other; instead I strode up the hill under the most blazing of winter-blue skies until, far beyond the earshot of fellow yogis, I sang out loud and danced in the wind. And when such activities led to a vagueness of mental acuity and a spaced-out drowsiness accompanied my return to the zafu, I went back to noting breath, thoughts, and sensations until my attention became stabilized enough to allow an openness of mind to flourish once again. I did not keep my antics secret from my teachers, nor did they discourage me. Different students respond to different styles of practice, they said. At a certain point you have a toolbox full of techniques, and you pull out what you need at any given moment. Awakening is the point, not methodology.

I was happy to be back in the dharma hall, a place I had come to love beyond measure during all my years of practice. It was here that I felt most safe, not only from a world that was characterized by rampant violence, glorified greed, and a global politic severed from truth-telling—but also from the confusion of my own mind. It was here that I was able to experience the deepest clarity of heart and mind. It was here that I dissolved into the grief that had gone ungrieved, here that my heart broke open enough to let everyone in, even those I had ousted, here that I found myself most vulnerable and most alive. I have come to realize that despite the fact that the spiritual teachers whom I have had the good fortune to encounter in this lifetime can appear to be in conflict about the methodologies that foster awakening, my own experiences form an unbroken continuum. Wisdom does accumulate—not in a linear arithmetic progression but in a complex, dynamic system. Each understanding sheds light upon the others in an interactive living process. Insights that seem unassailable may suddenly meet passionate doubt, all clarity shattered at the very moment it is most needed. Then, just as suddenly, wisdom will resurface, stronger for having vanished, wisdom that now knows of its own disintegration.

At the core of Buddhist teaching is the awakened mind—the knowing that we are not this body but consciousness itself, a boundless, luminous, loving, peaceful, intelligent presence. I have seen this in one way or another over and over again. Having tasted and glimpsed and savored such knowing, now what?

Now, I go on retreat when I am able. Poonjaji did say not to meditate, but he also said, “Be quiet. Be still.”

Here, perhaps, lies the heart of the quest. Here, perhaps, is the most repeated guidance in all of Buddhist practice. Here, perhaps, is the place where all traditions come together without conflict. Be quiet, be still. Let the mind rest. Discover who you really are.

“In the moment of no-thought, no-thought itself is not,” said Wu Zhu.

Be quiet. Be still.

Nina Wise is a performance artist and writer living in San Rafael, California. She is the author of A Big New Free Happy Unusual Life.

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