Who Are You? Getting to the true answer

Nancy Baker

THE DIAMOND IN YOUR POCKET: DISCOVERING YOUR TRUE RADIANCE
Gangaji
Boulder: Sounds True, 2005
280 pp.; 22.95 (cloth)


diamond

THIS IS AN EXCEEDINGLY CLEAR and accessible book about the realization of our true nature and what gets in the way of that realization. Its author, the American spiritual teacher known as Gangaji, writes in the introduction, “What I speak about makes no distinction between Hindu, Christian, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, male, female, you, or me.” In the tradition of the nondual teachings of the great Indian sage Ramana Maharshi (her teacher’s teacher), Gangaji invites us to inquire deeply into the question “Who am I?” It is a question whose answer transcends all traditions and concepts, all knowing in any conventional sense, and thus even anything we might normally call an “answer.” Zen practitioners will recognize it as “Show me your original face before your parents were born” or any of a number of other koans. In Keizan’s The Record of Transmitting the Light Zen master Dogen is reported to have said, “Who am I? I am the one who asks 'who.'” His words appear to be an answer in the ordinary sense, but it is understood that they are expressed from a place of deep realization, which is, of course, the true answer.

But how do we even get to this question? It doesn’t seem a natural one to most of us. What does seem natural is that all human beings desire peace and happiness. Sooner or later, however, many of us recognize that the kind of peace and happiness we truly desire cannot be found in possessions or circumstances. This recognition can come to us out of disillusionment, out of fear of losing what has already been gained, or even out of some glimpse of the truth. Whatever the cause of our recognition, what we took to be the ground of happiness begins to shift for us until eventually we start wondering who we really are. It is by gradually getting us to inquire deeply and clearly into all this that Gangaji makes the question “Who am I?” real for us. Most important, she shows us how we become subject to the same misconceptions about what we truly want and where to look for it, even when we have made our search “spiritual.”

In getting us to inquire into the spiritual version of those misconceptions, Gangaji helps us see that realization is not a state, that we often misunderstand what suffering is, and that enlightenment will give us absolutely nothing. An important part of the inquiry into who we truly are is a willingness to meet whatever is here—our stories about who we are, our emotions, the impermanence of states of mind, the difficulties of our own and other people’s lives, and ultimately the world as it is. As Zen master Sosan put it, “The Great Way is not difficult for those who have no preferences.” This is the teaching that shines forth from The Diamond in Your Pocket. Not only are we shown what it is not to reject or cling to any personal experience, but we are warned against the pitfalls of such a pursuit. In the passionate end of the book, in a sense the “return to the marketplace,” which for us now includes war and unimaginable suffering from natural disaster, Gangaji says:

One of the dangers I have seen of the so-called spiritual life is the ego’s attempt to use spiritual life to escape heartbreak, difficulty, and continued patterns of hatred, revenge, and war—to escape the idea of hell. The desire for transcendence becomes bigger than the willingness to let the heart open to it all, the totality of human beauty as well as the totality of human catastrophe.

Although its contents, which include such topics as practice, delusion, not-knowing, enlightenment, and compassion, would be familiar to any reader of contemporary dharma books, this book is distinctive in several respects. First, its various topics are taken from fifteen years of teachings and could easily have been treated individually as a collection of talks or teachings. Instead, they are integrated into a whole like the spokes of a wheel, relentlessly pointing to the truth of who I am at the center. Second, it is clear and concrete without sacrificing depth to accessibility. In it we find the deepest teachings about the nature of mind made real for us in terms of our own ordinary experience of being human.

This is an intimate book. As a teacher, Gangaji speaks from experience. She also speaks about her experience, not just of her own awakening but also of her own suffering, as a way of speaking directly to the reader, inviting the reader to realize what Gangaji has realized. What she offers us is not a challenge so much as a loving, personal, and truly optimistic invitation. There is an equality here between student and teacher, which helps to focus the reader on the inquiry being offered and not on the teacher or the teachings. It is an equality that has its source in the truth of who we are.

Nancy Baker is a Zen teacher in the White Plum lineage and a professor of philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College.

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