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Life In The Theater

Reflections On The Essential & Non-Essential

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Tibetan lama Tai Situ Rinpoche once described (in a talk I watched via DVD) his discovery that one very simple practice -- the repetition of the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” -- had the power to reveal all that needed to be revealed. As a lineage-holder, he has the responsibility of carrying forward many different practices, but knows that one very simple one really is enough.

He spoke this in the context of describing how so often students believe that “being spiritually advanced” somehow equates with doing really complex practices -- and how this simply is not true. And how when he would suggest a very simple practice to someone, he could often see them interpreting such a suggestion as an insult of sorts, the assumption being that “advanced” practitioners do really complex sadhanas.

There are, he added, practices which, by design so to speak, have potentially very potent effects. Engaging with such practices does not, however, in and of itself guarantee that those results will be achieved -- particularly if one approaches them with a deluded “more is better” egoic orientation. Nor does it guarantee that what is most essential will be revealed, because what is most essential is actually very simple.

In response to this, a student later posed the question: “If one simple practice is enough, then why -- in the Tibetan tradition -- are there so many different practices?”

I loved Rinpoche’s response: “Well,” he said, “In France they have thousands of different kinds of cheese; in Germany, thousands of different kinds of bread; and in India, thousands of different kinds of sweets!”

In other words (paraphrasing here): why not welcome and enjoy a rich diversity of experiences, activities, explorations -- as long as these retain their rooting in, and act as pointers to our True Nature?

***

This exchange between Rinpoche and his student comes to mind now in the context of reflecting upon the dance between simplicity and richness, our one essential (and shared!) nature and its infinite diversity of expressions; and wondering how to allow an appreciation of new experiences, new avenues of exploration, without losing the proverbial “forest for the trees”?

***

I’ve been feeling a kind of nostalgia for my first meditation retreat: three weeks in Plum Village, Thich Nhat Hanh’s monastery in south-central France, in June of 1992. Utterly new to the whole meditation thing -- drawn there simply by an intuitive “yes” in response to a friend’s invitation -- and so relatively free from preconceptions, I somehow was open at a very deep level, and really profound things happened, which I embraced with a completely matter-of-fact attitude: not recognizing them, until years later, as rather classic signposts of spiritual unfolding.

I believe I’ve written elsewhere on this site about a couple of these, so will offer here just a brief recap:

* Being woken up in the middle of the night by an intensely-resonant gong-sound, vibrating through every cell of my body -- whose second stroke had me convinced that someone had dropped an atomic bomb nearby -- at which point I quite literally believed I was about to die, moved through intense fear and then (with the third gong-sound) to a place of complete surrender of my physical body.

* A vibrant-sweet dream-experience, in which I was facing Thich Nhat Hanh, who said to me, in his soft voice -- “Don’t be afraid” -- after which I leapt into his arms (like a child jumping into their father’s lap, to give him a big ‘ole hug) -- and at the moment of contact we both, simultaneously, dissolved into light -- with an ecstatic, blissful feeling unlike anything I had previously experienced.

The months following the retreat were equally magical. Back in Madison, Wisconsin, I was teaching yoga, writing poetry, and had picked up a part-time job for the summer doing external house-painting. I had purchased the tapes of the Dharma talks from the retreat, and played them continuously on my walkman, as I stood on ladders, brush in hand, giving a fresh look to one house after the next.

What was most interesting, however, were the nights, which I can only describe as “going to the movies” -- entering a theater, with four separate screens, four different shows, wondering each night as I lay down: which one will it be tonight?

Theater #1 featured flying and speed-walking dreams, which had a genuinely life-like 3D quality to them (well before 3D movie technology!). Whether flying (in my astral body?) through the sky or somehow traversing many miles with each very-long step, these movies required a kind of not-too-tight, not-too-loose interactive engagement, to keep them “loaded,” so to speak. There was a definite skill-set required, to use mind to “steer” the movement, which sometimes I would perform competently, and other times, not so much (resulting in various “crashes”). In any case, it was fun!

Theater #2 featured a whole cadre of fairy-like light-beings, dancing, playing & doing somersaults, or occasionally appearing in semi-grotesque (but never truly scary) forms. This was a show that frequently made me smile or even laugh out loud, right there in my sleep. It felt as though I were being afforded a glimpse into a whole other (astral?) dimension. I wondered if these playful beings weren’t somehow the source of inspiration for Walt Disney, and other creators of animated cartoon-figures?

Theater #3 featured page after page of texts written in some kind of script (Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan or Islamic?) which I never clearly identified; alternating with page after page of mathematical formulas. This was by far the strangest of the “theater-screens” -- since the speed at which the pages were turned made it impossible to identify their content specifically. Even if they had been moving more slowly, the scripts would not have been comprehensible by my mind -- since I didn’t know any of those languages (though perhaps I could have identified some of the mathematical formulas, since by that time I had received training in mathematics). Nevertheless, there was a deep intuitive knowing that some part of me (other than my conceptual mind) was actually understanding what was being transmitted -- as though via a computer “download.”

Theater #4 was my least favorite -- and was not so much visual as it was tactile: a feeling of some kind of not-entirely-friendly energy pressing closer and closer. Frequently I would attempt, internally, to say something like “get away from me!” or even, by an act of will, sit up quickly in my bed, to pop myself out of the experience. Luckily, this was the most infrequent of the four “screens” to appear -- no more than 5% of the time, I would say.

So .... for a period of three or four months, with great regularity, my night-time dream-experiences consisted of attending one of these four different “shows.” And as I said, it was so fascinating that I very much looked forward to going to bed, each night, curious to see which movie would be playing. And then, after a period of time, almost as quickly as it had begun, it stopped happening: as though that four-screened theater had simply, for unknown reasons, closed.

***

Now the universe is of course much more vast and intricate than we -- as seemingly-individual human bodyminds -- will ever know. And the avenues of potential exploration, infinite. How wonderful! -- that there can never and so will never be a “final official version” at the level of appearances. The kaleidoscopic transformations just keep unfolding .... so why not enjoy them fully?

And yet: there is, presumably, an “essential truth” to be experienced, to be revealed -- a truth whose full incorporation allows us then to authentically “enjoy the feast” -- to relish the myriad breads, cheeses and sweets of the phenomenal realm, without losing sight of the source of our deepest nourishment.

So it seems vitally important, regardless of our practice tradition, to identify clearly that “most important thing” -- distinguishing it from what is not essential, and becoming firmly established there. And to do our best to avoid “losing the plot,” as it were -- spinning off into all variety of extraneous this-and-that, getting lost in complexity in a way that takes us further and further away from the most obvious, most simple thing -- which for eons has been waiting patiently for us, closer than we could ever have imagined.

*

Suggested Reading

* Birdsong
* All Else Is Bondage
* Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind
* Clarifying The Natural State
* The Three Natures Of Existence

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