This article was originally published in Tricycle: The Buddhist Review (Fall 2023). tricycle.org.
There’s nothing to do and nowhere to go.
he spiritual path is in desperate need of rebranding. It is plagued by two massive problems. The first is the use of the word “spiritual”; the second is the use of the word “path.” In tandem, these could be the two worst things that ever happened to the spiritual path.
Let’s start with the notion of “spiritual.”
The term is placed not merely in contrast to the material, but often in opposition to it. “Spiritual” then invites a host of insidious and dismissive interpretations. It implies a dangerous transcendentalism: in order to be spiritual, you need to get away from the material. Spiritual is good, material is bad—and never the twain shall meet. With this wrong view, those of us embarking on the spiritual path are often setting out toward some version of heaven. The journey then devolves into escapism, and we get lost.
The Buddhist psychologist John Welwood noticed this trap years ago and coined the term spiritual bypassing to describe the avoidance tendencies we all have as spiritual practitioners. In more than forty years on the path, I’ve noticed that it’s not a matter of whether a meditator will be snared by this pathology, but rather when. It’s completely understandable. The material world sucks; get me out! Or more accurately: the real world sucks; take me to the unreal. But when we confuse renunciation with avoidance, all sorts of problems pop up.
Although we might say that the way out of samsara is renunciation—which is an integral component of the path—what exactly is it that we are renouncing? If we answer the world of conventional appearance, we’ve again gone astray. Samsara is not a place; it’s a state of mind. What we really want to renounce is our inappropriate relationship to matter, not the material world.
Likewise, we might say that the spiritual path is a journey to nirvana. But where exactly is that? Nirvana is not a place where we’ll arrive at some point in the distant future. Nirvana is also a state of mind. And it’s available right here and now.
So what really sucks? Our relationship to the material world. What do we really want to get out of? A samsaric state of mind. Tibetan Buddhist teacher Trungpa Rinpoche said, “There is no way out. The magic is to discover that there is a way in.” If we go deeply into matter, we will find spirit. If we go deeply into ourselves, we will find everything that we seek. Then we can realize that, ultimately, samsara is nirvana. This is real nonduality.
We turn to the spiritual path because we’re hurting. The First Noble Truth that suffering exists finally hits home, and we set out on the path to alleviate that suffering (the Third Noble Truth). But following a genuine path is not about feeling good (unless we’re talking about basic goodness). It’s about getting real. And getting real means embracing all of reality, including the material. This requires embracing and including your smelly body, your messy emotional life, and all the sticky things in between. It requires embracing all that you see—not just what we think of as “spiritual.”
“Waking up” is common parlance on the path, but it’s more about “waking down.” Instead of looking up to the heavens, do a face-plant onto the earth. Really feel the soil in your eyes and you’ll finally mix dirt with divinity. Matter and spirit are just two ends of the same spectrum of reality: matter is just gross (reified) spirit; spirit is just subtle (dereified) matter.
The notion of “path” adds insult to injury. A path to where? To enlightenment, awakening, and nonduality? But where exactly is that? Take a close look and you’ll discover that it’s a path to nowhere, or to now-here.
Set this magazine down. Take a few deep breaths. Now look up. That’s it! What you’re looking for is hiding in plain sight. That’s, ironically, why you don’t see it. It’s like trying to look at the inside of your eyelid; it’s so close, you can’t see it. When we think of enlightenment, most of us are looking for a Hollywood-level experience—a “spiritual event.” But it’s more like Oklahoma (I love Oklahoma)—something very ordinary. . . and material.
On the spiritual path, you can walk right past the ordinary on your way to the extraordinary, failing to see that enlightenment is truly extra-ordinary. This is why Zen master Suzuki Roshi said, “Enlightenment was my biggest disappointment.” For the glory-seeking ego, awakening is the ultimate letdown, a real downer—into reality.
Stand up with me and clear the space in front of you. Now take the most important step of your life. Step toward yourself. Where would you turn? Where would you go? This is the kind of path I’m talking about.
You don’t need to have any special experience to be free. You don’t have to go anywhere.
You don’t need to have any special experience to be free. You don’t have to go anywhere. Thinking that you do pulls you away from that which you truly seek. To set forth on a path, you need to assume the absence of what you’re seeking. To search for the truth, you need to deny that it’s already here. But the path is perceptual, not actual. Just recognize what is forever right in front of you. As it says repeatedly in The Tibetan Book of the Dead: “Recognition and liberation are simultaneous.”
Many of us on the spiritual path are driven to experience something other than what we’re experiencing right now. That’s not a desire for enlightenment. That’s a desire to escape. Pema Chödrön wrote The Wisdom of No Escape to counteract this motivation. If you’re looking for anything other, you’re on a dualistic path. Sengcan, the Third Zen Ancestor, said in the Faith Mind Poem: “Even to be attached to the idea of enlightenment is to go astray. Just let things be in their own way.”
Trungpa Rinpoche, in one of his seminal teachings, said, “We could say that the real world is that in which we experience pleasure and pain, good and bad. . . But if we are completely in touch with these dualistic feelings, that absolute experience of duality is itself the experience of nonduality.” Be one hundred percent present with whatever is happening—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and that’s it!
This implies that you never actually attain enlightenment—you simply cease to be deluded. How can you attain something you already have? Trying to get close only draws you away. As the Dzogchen master Longchenpa said, “If you want to experience natural mind, you can do it only by not wanting to.” At the highest reaches of the pathless path, trying to attain enlightenment, and even meditation itself, are subtle forms of distraction. They are a dis (“away”) and traction (“to draw”)—a “drawing away”
So what should we do? Nothing. But do it really well.
So what should we do? Nothing. But do it really well. This is the art of meditation at the most refined level of “nondistracted” nonmeditation. Don’t draw apart, or dis-tract, from anything. Don’t let the feeling that you can attain awakening only through practice, or even meditation, distract you. And definitely don’t let the spiritual path distract you.
These absolute-level teachings transcend but include the relative truths of the path. They lead us to the end of the path, not as a final destination but as the realization that enlightenment is a false destination. And so, although we need the path provisionally, we also need to let it go. Zen teacher Norman Fischer said, “There is nowhere to go and no way to get there. We have been there all along.” Stop deferring your enlightenment. Stop rescheduling your appointment with reality.