Authenticity. Authority. Devotion. What role do these play in spiritual practice? How are they related to each other? How do they contribute to genuine empowerment? To deep realization? Are there a priori "answers" to these questions that might be useful to us, or is it best to tease out some kind of understanding more directly, in the context of our practice?
The Zen-Advaita teacher Adyashanti has said: “there is no such thing as a true belief.” This rings true, and yet still I notice within me an impulse to formulate a set of beliefs, or at least provisional guidelines – ways of using my mental energy that are productive, that lead in the direction of Truth, of Reality – or at least feel satisfying.
As a Buddhist/Taoist practitioner, I'm committed to avoiding (as best as I’m able) the extremes of both reification – the unquestioned “faith” in an external authority – and nihilism – the kind of “doubt” that slides into hopelessness, depression and/or unquestioned negativity. So where do authenticity, authority and devotion fit into this picture?
Words like “naturalness” and “authenticity” and “spontaneity” are used a lot in relation to Taoist practice. Wu Wei – the action of no-action – is one of our most cherished tenets. But what do these things mean, really? To me, “being authentic” has something to do with a deep honesty, a willingness to inquire, to turn the light around, and to then speak and act in a way that is in alignment with my inner experience.
It also has something to do with a capacity to relate to others in a way that is fresh and ever-new, that is without an “agenda,” without preconceptions, to be able to set aside habitual assumptions about “how things are” or “who such-and-such a person is.” It’s a willingness to be “naked” in my perception of whatever happens to be arising.
Can I listen to another person talk in a way that I might listen to Mozart’s flute quartets? Can I appreciate the arising of the shapes and colors of my visual field as I might appreciate the shapes and colors of a kaleidoscope? Can I honor my own experience, inquiry, and insight enough to present it in an uncensored way to others – instead of feeling the need to “posture” – to “construct” myself in accordance to some unspoken agenda?
Or perhaps the whole thing is nothing more than a theatre-game? If there is no “self,” then who/what is “being authentic”?
This is a big one – yes? – in terms of spiritual practice. Where does authority lie? Or to whom do we grant it? - To an external Deity, God, Goddess, Saint or Guru or Immortal or Buddha? - Or to our own internal experience? Both? Neither? What is the relationship between “authority” and “respect”?
One thing that I really appreciate about the Taoist and the Buddhist paths is the encouragement for each practitioner to locate and stand within her or his own authority. Initially, this might simply mean tuning into what my unique experience of things is, right now, honoring it, and perhaps also expressing it, as best as I can.
Ultimately it means finding out for myself whether the so-called “truths” of these traditions are actually true for me. Am I able – by walking the path laid out by previous Masters (or perhaps an entirely new path) – confirm in my own experience what these Masters have previously experienced? Can I become a “lineage-holder” by embodying, by realizing internally, what the words of the Masters point to?
Implied in the word “authority” is also some notion of power. The Immortals, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are endowed not only with wisdom and compassion, but also with power – the means to actually implement what they aspire to. To stand in my authority means to be empowered – to have confidence in my inherent goodness, in my (ever-shifting) uniqueness as a human being, and my capacity to be of benefit to the entire web of living beings, of which I am a part.
As I learn to stand in my own authority, to look deeply at my experience – my perceptions, feelings, thoughts – I become aware not only of what is truly excellent about my “inner space,” but also get to notice the places of confusion and stuckness. Of course I could continue, at this point, to “work with my own bodymind” – to use various techniques to, by my own power, unwind this confusion. And maybe not!
To be in relationship with one or more teachers whose vision is more clear than ours, can be a truly excellent thing. To be able to receive such support requires a certain level of respect, gratitude and humility. In a sense, we need to acknowledge the (external) authority of the teacher – their skill and knowledge – and trust that the interaction will be mutually empowering, and will ultimately allow us to stand more clearly in our “personal” authority.
There are aspects of both Taoist and Buddhist practice that are highly devotional – that involve, for instance, making offerings to various Deities. Is this completely at odds with the kind of internal “authority” described in the section above? Maybe … and maybe not. Seems to me the answer to this question has much to do with our intention, our view/understanding of the ritual we’re enacting.
Why do we make offerings to the Immortals, to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas? To the extent that these beings actually exist - in some realm beyond what our gross senses can perceive – they certainly do not “need” our offerings! We generate feelings of devotion, and make offerings such as these, not for the benefit of the Immortals, etc. but rather for our own benefit. Devotional practices affect our bodymind – e.g. open the flow of qi through the meridians - in ways that are productive of our own spiritual deepening.