“If a person beholds a lesser happiness and a greater happiness, let them leave behind the lesser to attain the greater.”
– The Buddha in The Dhammapada
It has been said that the spiritual path can be summed up in a single word: remembrance. Remembrance of what? The word remembrance points out that, in the spiritual path, we are seeking something we all know deep down to be life’s most important pursuit. We all know that every person we love, and every material thing we cherish, will eventually be taken from us. We all know that death will take even our body from us in a cosmic blink. Deep down, we all know that true happiness cannot be found in impermanent things and people. It can only be found in the realization of God, who is Bliss Itself and is our True Nature.
The word remembrance also reminds us that God-Realization does not imply the gaining of something. Rather, the sages tell us that we have simply forgotten that we are God! We have spent lifetimes upon lifetimes falsely identifying with our temporary minds and bodies, trapping ourselves in the illusion that we are not already Eternal. Luckily, sages like the Buddha and Christ come to the Earth to remind us of what will truly bring us happiness, and to show us a path to Awakening.
There are many paths to God-Realization, but they can all be summed up by a Sanskrit word often used in Buddhism: upaya. Upaya means “skillful (or expedient) means.” Realization is not attained through effort, since you yourself in this moment already are It. Nor is Its Infinite Reality limited to any path, however helpful it may be. Yet in order to actually know this beyond doubt, we must practice some sort of spiritual discipline and engage in various upaya. Otherwise our realization will only be at a surface intellectual level and won’t actually benefit us.
My upaya includes daily Zen meditation and prayer, practices I talk extensively about in my book (link above). I don’t do these practices because I “should,” but because they enable me to experience spiritual Bliss. If my writings persuade you of anything, I hope it is this: that the spiritual path is about finding Bliss and genuine unspeakable and incomparable happiness! It is not about “doing the right thing,” pleasing authorities, or anything involving a “should.” God won’t love you one iota less if you never seek Him. Yet if you truly understood the Unconditioned Bliss of God, you would not need to be persuaded to sacrifice other things in life to realize It. As Yogananda said, God would “Tempt you more than temptation” if you knew what He truly was, and you would easily trade a copper penny for the Gold Mine right now hidden in your own back yard.
The “Holy Man” Myth
When we think of enlightened sages, we often irrationally separate them from the human race and create the myth of the unattainable “Holy Man or Woman.” In reality, anyone who ever attained awakening was just like you and me. They had a body that often made life difficult for them. They had relatives that annoyed them. They had doubts. They had fears. They had attachments to various people and things. Yet they also understood that any human being, through effort in the correct spiritual means, can become spiritually enlightened. Our deification of enlightened sages like Jesus and the Buddha actually does them a great disservice, for it undermines their core message, which is that any person can realize exactly what they realized in full measure.
Many people understand that they have the capacity to realize enlightenment, but are afraid to begin. They have the attitude that they will not practice spiritual disciplines until they wholly devote themselves to the path at some point in a foggy future. They think, “Someday I’ll go to India and live in a cave, someday I’ll fully dive in, but first I’ll have my fun…” Such an attitude is truly unfortunate. It is like saying, “I won’t exercise at all until I decide to run a marathon.” It is never wise to wait until “the right time” to begin seeking God, for even a small amount of effort in spiritual discipline can be immeasurably beneficial.
The path to enlightenment is difficult and potentially takes many lifetimes. I also believe it eventually requires a wholehearted commitment that involves the inner renunciation of lesser goals. Yet it is also possible to recognize that even though you do not currently have this aspiration, enlightenment is indeed the goal of life. You can understand, even if only intellectually, that there is no greater happiness than God-Realization, and that every other form of happiness is only temporary.
Then, following this understanding, you can skillfully integrate spiritual practice into your day – even in very small doses. Remember that a little goes a long way! I would bet that every person reading this sentence has at least 20 minutes per day to meditate and some time to devote to prayer. If not, do you have 5 minutes? What about 3 minutes per day? That may sound like a small goal, but it is actually very powerful to make any daily commitment to meditation. As Lao Tzu famously said in the Tao Te Ching, “The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.” It is said in the Hindu scriptures that even hearing about meditation is fortunate karma; how much more, then, to actually practice it on a daily basis? For many years my daily practice was simply 20 minutes of meditation per day. I found that, although modest, this made meditation a deeply rooted habit for me. This habit is a powerful blessing that I am deeply grateful for.
Yet I have found that, to this day, excuses and rationalizations can easily plague me on the path to God. Like me, if you dig down you will probably find that what stops you from seeking God or Enlightenment is a set of misplaced priorities. Ramakrishna would often say that people will cry “A whole jug-full of tears” for their wives, children, and wealth, but so few display a similar longing for God. Similarly, Yogananda would often talk about having an appointment with God. If your “dream job” boss asked you to do an interview tomorrow at 5 a.m., you know you would be there. Yet how many people take their spiritual practice that seriously? Once you realize (and this realization can only occur by God’s grace) that things and people simply cannot bring you lasting happiness, the desire for God will effortlessly and spontaneously arise; when the fruit of God’s Unfathomable Bliss appears, the flowers of lesser desires will drop away.
My main point here is that this ideal can be integrated into daily life, at least to a small degree, by anyone. Even a small amount of daily meditation and prayer can be a powerful practice that virtually any person in modern America can integrate into their day. As Yogananda said, “Everything else can wait, but your search for God cannot wait!” Don’t wait for the “perfect” conditions to begin your quest for God, for they will never materialize. Don’t even wait until you are fully devoted to your spiritual ideal to begin doing small amounts of meditation practice that can build you a solid foundation for the future. And, most importantly, never discredit your own spiritual potential. Your birthright as a breathing human is the potential to become fully awakened. As Rumi so eloquently put it:
If an ant seeks the rank of Solomon,
Don’t smile contemptuously upon its quest.
Everything you possess of skill, and wealth and handicraft,
Wasn’t it first merely a thought and a quest?
The Two Most Important Things I do Everyday
There are days when meditation is the last thing I want to do. Yet deep down I recognize that nothing will satisfy me apart from God-Realization. In this sense, meditation and prayer functions for me as a profound remembrance of what really matters. However I feel, I commit to meditating for a specific amount of time each day. And when I sit down, I am spontaneously reminded of my highest goal with a physical act that goes beyond words and phrases.
The two most important things I do every day are practicing meditation and asking God to reveal Itself to me. I have experienced many lesser prayers get answered, and many times I put material requests before the Personal God. Yet, at the end of the day, there is only one thing worth praying for: “Lead me, oh Lord, to Enlightenment, and Reveal Thyself to me!” I pray a version of this prayer twice per day, once before I start my day and once before bed.
These daily rituals in my life are such wonderful blessings! Some days I am having a “rock star” day, and other days nothing seems to be going right. I have learned, however, that the path to God transcends the ups and downs of daily life. Every morning and evening, when I sit down for meditation and prayer, I am not merely following a habit; I am reminding myself of my life’s deepest purpose. If a dunce like me can find such peace in the ocean of God-Consciousness though such modest efforts, I know for a fact that we all can. I have not reached the ultimate goal, yet I have learned through my actual experience that even small efforts in meditation can reap a wonderful harvest of spiritual peace.
Every human relationship in my life is temporary, and all I accomplish will someday be forgotten. Yet the Bliss of God, revealed in the silent temple of daily meditation and prayer, is everlasting and cannot be taken, even if the world itself should cease to be!
The Double Blessing
The great paradox of Zen is that Enlightenment or God is our life, but that it simultaneously takes immense effort to actually realize this. One should never, however, be deceived into thinking that God or Buddha Nature is somewhere outside us, or that realizing It somehow negates the reality of the material world.
The truth is that the realization of God is a double blessing. One way to say this is that God or Enlightenment must be first in our heart, or our highest goal. When you think about it, this leaves room for human relationships, a career, etc. Such things are not bad in themselves if we do not put them above God.
The wonderful truth is that you can realize God and still enjoy the world as if you were watching an interesting movie. You can enjoy friendships, hobbies, have an engrossing career, a romantic relationship, etc. Yet all the while you can simultaneously realize that you are the Watcher of the movie and that your true Self is unaffected by change. The highest state is to realize that God is pretending to be everything, and therefore one’s relationships and hobbies naturally become an undivided extension of one’s love for God. This is a very hard state to attain, however, and is only fully mastered through constant effort in meditation.
Ramakrishna pointed out that you can hold poison in your hand without getting hurt if you are wearing a glove, meaning that we can enjoy the illusion of the world without being hurt by it if we abide in the inner state of Self-Realization. Jesus similarly pointed our that if you “Seek first the kingdom of God, all these things (or desires necessary for the maintenance of life and the completion of your life’s purpose) will be added to you as well.” Both sages understood that the realization of God includes the world. Therefore, in realizing God, one can have a moderate amount of worldly fun (excluding immoral or harmfully addictive activities), but simultaneously have access to an eternal peace and joy that never changes – a double blessing indeed!
All genuine sages are in agreement, however, that effort is required in a spiritual discipline to actually realize this blessed state. Additionally, enlightenment must become our highest goal, or be first in our heart. I encourage you to build things into your day that remind you of this highest goal. For me, it is Zen meditation and prayer. For you, it may be different. Yet do not think you must be a “spiritual hero” to benefit from meditation or make great strides in the path to God. As Krishna says of meditation in the Bhagavad Gita, “On this path effort never goes to waste, and there is no failure. Even a little effort toward spiritual awareness will protect you from the greatest fear.” Krishna also gives comfort to all aspirants by saying, “Even though you be the most sinful of all sinners, you will completely cross over the sea of misery with the boat of spiritual wisdom.” If even the “sinner of sinners” can find God through sincere effort in meditation, how could you not also?
I don’t know what your path is in this lifetime. Yet I do know that if you fall on your face and sincerely pray, “Lead me, oh Lord, to Enlightenment! Reveal Thyself to me!” that God will answer you in wondrous and mysterious ways. I also know that, whether we know it or not, we are all destined to return to the Beloved, who is only pretending to be separate. Like rivers leading back to the Sea, so our diverse lives return to the One from whom we came, and in that day you will rejoice in the knowledge that, in reality, you never once left!
Praise and glory to God, whose grace has enabled me to understand that He alone can make me happy! May all beings realize that true happiness is found in God-Realization alone! May all people experientially know the peace of a mind stilled through meditation! May all people awaken to the Divine Love radiating in every human being, in every atom, in the whole universe and beyond!
- Being and Doing
- Many Paths, One Goal
- Six Practical Ways to be More Connected with God in Daily Life
- Lessons from the Gita 2 – Three Dimensions of Renunciation
- Life at a Zen Monastery
- Effortless Effort: Some Thought’s on Ehei Dogen’s Fukanzazengi
- Thoughts for Christmas on my Song, The Bridegroom
- Working from the State of Rest