The Heart Of Spirituality.

Via Benjamin Riggs
on Mar 4, 2011
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Spirituality begins with becoming a refugee…

Here is the dilemma we all face: Consciousness revolves around some sense of self. Therefore, it is ego-centric. In order to establish some form of lasting security, ego must produce solid ground, as the very existence of self is dependent upon constant validation from other. To achieve this end, ego attempts to freeze or conceptualize experience. However, this proves to be an impossible task. There is no hope in trying to suspend the continual stream of change that is life. Since the very existence of ego is dependent upon pausing life, and freezing life isn’t an option, we are plagued by disappointment.

We will never know genuine happiness, the simple joy that spontaneously emerges upon true surrender, until we give up trying to neatly arrange life around this old bag of hopes and fears that we call the ego.

If we are ever to know deep peace and contentment we must see through this chaotic operation. We have to move beyond the delusional and self-centered projects of ego. In the book of Matthew, Jesus says, “Repent; for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Repentance simply means, to change direction and this change of direction is a necessary prerequisite for realizing the Kingdom of Heaven. In the Buddhist world, this pivotal point in which we change our course is called refuge.

There has to be a drastic change in the way that we see and experience the world we live within. Having realized that our belief in a solid-central persona was the origin of our dissatisfaction, a type of revulsion toward the ego-centric position begins to emerge. This revulsion inspires us to renounce the self-centered pattern of thought that has given rise to all of our troubles. We have realized that all of our problems have an internal origins. So, we disengage the search for external distractions, and turn within to look for internal solutions. This sort of shift in focus begins with our resignation, with becoming a refugee.

A refugee is someone who flees their familiar environment in order to escape the destructive dictates of an oppressive regime. For someone to pick up and leave everything they’ve ever known, things have to be pretty corrupt. There has to be a real sense of despair… We must be poor in spirit. This sort of desperation emerges once we have realized that the whole ego-centric project is hopeless and futile… That it is doomed to disappointment.

Strangely enough, this air of desperation is our ticket to freedom; it is a powerful and direct message from basic intelligence pleading with us to look inward. It is our true nature saying, “You are looking for me, and I am not out there. You’re lost… Turn around and look within!”

Persuaded by cyclic disappointment, we begin to seek refuge elsewhere. This new land has to have promise. It has to provide hope. There has to be a sense of freedom in exile. Most importantly, it has to be practical. It has to be an entirely new way of seeing and experiencing the world and it has to be accessible.

Fortunately, there is such a land. There is a world that goes beyond the anxious and competitive world with which we are so accustomed. It is a state of simplicity that transcends all of our neurotic fears, outrageous expectations, and petty squabbles. A world that isn’t revolving around us, so life doesn’t seem to be some terrible thing that keeps happening to us. It’s a world where we are neither the administrator nor the foreman. We are not charged with the task of overseeing or managing every single little detail. In this world, the purpose of Life is Life itself. We get to retire from the burdensome task of playing God and actually live. This world is constantly being made new, so every moment is a fresh start.

The name of this world is reality!

Luckily, this new land is not some far-off distant place. In fact, it is closer to us than we can possibly imagine. We do not have to trek across high mountain passes or set sail across shark infested waters on a small piece of plywood to reach it. All we have to do is come back to this moment— right here-right now. Wake-up!

For the sake of this discussion remaining sensible, let’s call this new found land a room, an inner-room. This inner-room has three doorways, and these doors serve as our refuge. In truth, it is this inner room that is the ground of being; the very thread that runs through the whole network of life. But it is through these three doorways that we are able to gain access to this inner-room. From the outside, these doors appear to be separate and distinct, but from within it is discovered that all three doors converge on the same point. This point of convergence is your original face. The three doorways or refuges are: Original Mind, Suchness, and Being.

Having realized that suffering is a pattern set in motion by a misunderstanding, the situation becomes very workable. Furthermore, this infers that there is something beyond our confusion. In other words, we realize that we have been asleep. But if you realize that you are asleep, you have also discovered the possibility of awakening. We start to realize that there is a great intelligence, which up until this very moment we have ignored. Taking refuge is essentially learning to trust this intelligence.

Beating within each and every one of us is the heart of enlightenment. Taking refuge in this heart is the essence of spirituality.

“Ultimately speaking, devotion is not directed outside our mind. We direct devotion toward ‘ordinary mind,’ which is the Mahamudra mind, and to the genuine heart of enlightenment that is within us and within our emotions. We direct devotion to the mind of enlightenment that is right within our fear and hope. There is no Mahamudra mind outside these experiences.” ~ from Wild Awakening by Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche

Everybody, without exception, has the capacity to discover genuine happiness. This capacity is present, because Original Mind is present. It is original mind which serves as the very seed of enlightenment. This inherent state of sanity is the very basis of meditation practice. It is because this natural form of intelligence is present and fully operational that the possibility of enlightenment even exists. Taking refuge in original mind is not about becoming a better or more perfect human being, but about radically accepting the totality of Humanness.

Original mind is mind without the unnecessary additive of confusion. It is not a created, contrived, or produced mind. It is simply Mind beyond all the pollutants— it is all natural. This natural mind is never infected with the epidemic of insanity that is constantly plaguing our individualistic existence. Original mind is complete openness— capable of seeing anything, as it is not governed by boundaries, preconceived ideas, fears, or expectations. It is without division, so there is nothing to fuel friction or conflict. Original mind is free of elaboration. It is complete or whole— needing no-thing and as a result, beyond discontentment. It is eternal; without beginning or end, and therefore without a center or self. Original mind is not organized around some central theme or persona. We do not need to invest any effort in the creation of an enlightened mind. There is no need to build or construct such a mind, as it has been there since the beginning. Taking refuge in Original mind is not about developing some new state of the art enlightened mind; it is a process of discovering and trusting our fundamental intelligence or basic sanity. We just have to excavate it from the rubble of ego’s insanity.

This Natural Mind is revealed as it reflects Suchness, things as they are. In this case, suchness refers not to the ‘things’ being reflected, but the reflective quality itself. Suchness  transcends all of the superficial judgments and concepts produced by ego. Simply put: it is things as they are and not as we would have them be. It is truth; free of all the self-centered commentary, complex story lines, and plots saturated with drama. Naked awareness. Suchness is beyond explanation, ineffable, but it is eternally present. It is clear, sharp, and precise. Reality is not some thing that we can take hold of or freeze. It is now-ness. No one owns now-ness, but we all have the capacity to participate in it. This capacity is suchness or mind’s reflective quality.

Original Mind and Suchness (emptiness & form) are uniquely blended together in the eternal song of Life, Being (luminosity). Being is utter simplicity. It is a vibrant dance in which spaciousness and possibilities co-emerge as a single unit, primordial experience. Since Original Mind is pure or empty, it has the capacity to reflect reality in its infinite manifestations. One teaching says, “Existence and emptiness are of the same nature, space. Are the water and its waves separate?” This ceaseless play between emptiness and appearance is alive. In fact, it is the unified stream of energy we have been calling Life. We are not some body cut-off and separate from life, we are Life.

These three refuges: Original Mind, Suchness, and Being, are simply three aspects of one essence, Human-Nature. In other words, this awakened mind is our inheritance as human beings. Buddhist spirituality is all about discovering this awakened mind. Furthermore, they are viable refuges. They are practical, accessible, and consistent. They are three doorways that lead to who we were before we had a name, naturalness. In the famous words of Benjamin Rand, “Chauncey Gardner, you have the gift of being natural.” Everyone has the gift of being natural, and this gift is often called grace.

Grace is not something we can will around through prayer or somehow manipulate to our advantage in meditation. It is the effortless nature of our natural being in its utter simplicity— it is our capacity to be. It is something to be accepted and expressed. The type of radical acceptance required to accept this gift is surrender. We must completely let go of the need to control or seize life. We have to first relinquish the desire to become some one or acquire some thing, in order to discover that we have been complete or in need of nothing all along!

All we have to do is make the journey back to our home, back to the here-&-now. This journey is a bit of an odd journey, as we have to traverse backwards through the whole network of ego’s programs, shedding off layer upon layer of self-deception, only to arrive where we actually are.

So from here on out, all our discussions will revolve around this journey. We have outlined the path that leads to suffering and dissatisfaction. Now, we will walk backwards down this path as we move through the stages of meditation. We will begin by renouncing the ego-centric poverty mentality that suggests we are insufficient. We will do this by addressing our attitude and posture in meditation. Then, we will move beyond the inbred thought processes of ego-centric consciousness with calm-abiding practice. In the weeks that follow, we will pick through the solidified world of conceptualization, perception, and impulses with the practices of equanimity, loving-kindness, and compassion. Finally, we will learn to rest in natural simplicity by unlearning our tendencies to pursue happiness with the practice of natural joy.

My explanation of internal refuge may have seemed vague or difficult to grasp, but I assure you, the awakened mind is never far off. In our most difficult hours we are only one step behind it! Everyone has some basic experience of their enlightened potential, regardless of whether or not they have practiced meditation or read a bunch of books about spirituality. Everybody knows what it feels like to lay in the grass, and for a moment, as the sun hits your skin, there is no other moment. We have all been in the midst of chaos and saw clarity come shining through. Meditation is about discovering that capacity and familiarizing ourselves with it. Eventually, we become so familiar with our own enlightened potential that we begin to discover it in our relationships and daily affairs. This is the resurrection of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is our one true refuge— the heart of spirituality.


About Benjamin Riggs

Ben Riggs is the author of Finding God in the Body: A Spiritual Path for the Modern West. He is also the director of the Refuge Meditation Group in Shreveport, LA and a teacher at Explore Yoga. Ben writes extensively about Buddhist and Christian spirituality on Elephant Journal, and his blog. Click here to listen to the Finding God in the Body Podcast. To keep up with all of his work follow him on Facebook or Twitter.


22 Responses to “The Heart Of Spirituality.”

  1. Cynthia says:

    I like this. A lot. I wonder if we could also say that "awakening" is unstable and constantly changing (hence, "awakening," instead of "awake"). This is part of what it means to be a subject instead of an object. In other words, subjectivity (the "I" instead of the "me") involves constant action (a verb) and a pointing toward something (an idea, an object, etc.), even when that action is *inaction*. So it's not really possible to say "I am awakened," but "I awaken" (an ever-evolving process that is as transient as everything else).

  2. BenRiggs says:

    I like where you are going with this! What is "I" is awakening? Not in the sense that awakening is some action I is involved in, but I and awakening becoming synonymous???

  3. Ramesh says:

    Great article! My ego says to myself… yeah yeah 'you know all that, what now …' He he , I wish I could wack this ego … with a heavy stick .. :))

  4. Ariyanama says:

    YES! YES! Thank you! I am so grateful for this teaching. You are giving word, almost a narrative my very process. I am so excited with the unfolding clarity of awareness. Meta, Meta, Meta,

  5. TamingAuthor says:

    Ben, you write, "Here is the dilemma we all face: Consciousness revolves around some sense of self. Therefore, it is ego-centric."

    Not sure that is entirely accurate. A Buddha Self is conscious but not necessarily ego-centric. The idea is correct only If one qualifies ego-centric as the negative condition of attachment to an aggregate self, to self as form.

    A Buddha Self is conscious. Yet that first-person consciousness need not connote some kind of ego-centric aggregate self trapped in the suffering of samsara.

    There seems to be subtle nihilism at work in your analysis. The analysis seems to equate aggregate self and aggregate consciousness with Buddha Self and Buddha consciousness. It fails to distinguish the two. In other words, if it is conscious, it is ego-centric. This eliminates or avoids the discussion of Buddha Self as conscious yet not ego-centric.

    This collapse of aggregate self and Self is followed by a move to get rid of (annihilate) Self as a pre-condition of enlightenment. There is the attempt, it seems, to annihilate the first-person conscious view of a Buddha and replace it with an abstraction. Do you see that? Is this simply a failure to speak to the nature of Self or is it an attempt at annihilating Self?

    This quasi nihilism seems to arise out of the confusion regarding teachings on the aggregates, which the Buddha taught were not Self. The problem the Buddha laid out had nothing to do with first-person consciousness or "ego," rather it had to do with Self becoming attached to form. It had to do with a formless Buddha saying I am form. The "solid ground" he addressed was not so much ego but rather attachment to an aggregate self (self as form). In other words, a Buddha forgets the truth of Self (suffers ignorance) and assumes an identity as aggregate self, which is never Self.

    For example, a formless Buddha becomes attached to a body and then says, "I am this, this is me," when the body is not self, when the body an aggregate self. The same thing happens when one uses the collective "Human nature." This says we are form (humanoid bodies), which is identification with aggregate self, which is not Self. Collectively, we are not human any more than individually. Both collectively and individually to identify with a humanoid form as Self is an error, it is ontological ignorance.

    Thus, the term "ego" has dubious value as it does not make the distinction between Self and aggregate self. There is always a first-person view as Self. An awakened Buddha, has first-person consciousness.

    It is not first-person consciousness that is ignorance, it is attachment to form, it is identifying with form as self, it is saying "this form is me. I am this form." Do you see how it is only the act of attachment to form that brings about the "ego" problem, not the fact of first-person consciousness?

    It seems you are advancing the quasi nihilism that seeks to annihilate Buddha consciousness rather than looking at how Buddha consciousness, through the condition of ignorance, becomes attached to the not self of the aggregates. Is this not the case?

    If one recalls all former lives, one returns to the consciousness of Self and one is able to view all forms, and all attachment to forms as temporary. First person consciousness expands. Attachment ceases. The "ego" can then be seen in the context of attachment to aggregate self, to self as form. It thus becomes subservient to the more important concept of ignorance—of not knowing one's true nature. Does that make sense?

  6. Great article, Ben! Thank you 🙂

  7. BenRiggs says:

    Greg, what is the fifth skandha called?

  8. TamingAuthor says:

    Aggregate consciousness. Not the same as Buddha consciousness. Critical distinction.

    This has been the foundation of my comments. If one confuses the nature of aggregate consciousness with Buddha consciousness, the entire subject collapses.

    Aggregate consciousness has to do with mental formations that produce a mechanical "consciousness." A body, for example, has a basic consciousness that is mechanical in nature. It would be better to call it sentience as it depends on the senses. It is not the same as Buddha consciousness.

    There are subtle forms of mind, such as the storehouse mind, comprised of karmic imprints, that operate as though with independent consciousness but it is not Buddha consciousness but rather a mechanical, mental formation based type of "consciousness." It would better be called mechanical mind, some have called it the monkey mind. It is an aggregate mind/consciousness.

    There are two directions from which to approach this to gain understanding:

    First, is to recognize the Buddha taught cessation of attachment to the aggregates. This means ALL of the aggregates, gross and subtle. It means cessation of attachment to aggregate mind or consciousness. This requires detachment of Buddha consciousness from aggregate consciousness. We learn to detach from the storehouse mind, the monkey mind, the body sentience. As a Buddha one separates from these mechanical or sense-based forms of mind.

    Second, one can approach it from an understanding of the twelve links that give rise to all fabrications, that give rise to all aggregates. In this teaching (or in the practice that brings one to observe these factors) one finds there was Buddha consciousness prior to any and all fabricated or aggregate conditions. This is pure Buddha Nature. From this level of consciousness we then have the arising of ignorance. Ignorance of this nature was an inability to view things exactly as they were…and from this arises fabrications (which has the double meaning of something made and a lie). We then see aggregates forms of consciousness, which are not Self, arising in the form-based mechanics of the aggregates. Thus, we see we are dealing with two very different types of consciousness.

    The usage of the same term for both is very problematic. This causes much confusion. Once again, to sort out the confusion one goes to the teachings and practice of cessation of attachment (anatta doctrine) and understanding of causes and conditions (twelve nidanas).

    Does that begin to answer the question regarding the fifth skandha?

  9. BenRiggs says:

    Greg, consciousness is a word that has a meaning… That meaning is, "an alert cognitive state in which you are aware of yourself and your situation." Self consciousness & Buddha-Nature are not synonymous. Buddha-nature is not a form of consciousness.
    I am not in anyway denying Buddha-Nature… This entire article is about the possibility of awakening, i.e. Buddha-Nature.

  10. Thanks Ben… I enjoyed this piece about the original mind; "Original mind is mind without the unnecessary additive of confusion. It is not a created, contrived, or produced mind. It is simply Mind beyond all the pollutants… This natural mind is never infected with the epidemic of insanity that is constantly plaguing our individualistic existence…" To me that makes 'sense' and sits well with what I believe to be true for me… <smiles>

  11. TamingAuthor says:

    Buddha Nature, the nature of a Buddha, includes primary consciousness, Buddha Consciousness. Buddha Nature is simply the nature of a Buddha, the properties of a Buddha, which include being aware.

    It is a state of being aware of being aware without objects. Pure consciousness without object. It is the quality of awareness of an enlightened being. It is unborn, unconditioned, unattached awareness.

    One does not have Buddha Nature without such consciousness. Buddha Nature is not an abstract Thingness but rather the properties or nature of an aware and awakened being conscious of Self as Buddha.

    In Buddhism, depending on the school, there are six or eight different types of consciousness. This often causes confusion. Aggregate forms of consciousness are not the same as primary consciousness, the awareness of an awakened Buddha.

    You skipped over the discussion of aggregate consciousness, the various mechanical aspects of mind, as distinguished from Buddha consciousness, which transcends conditioned or fabricated aggregate consciousness. Is that something you are including in your description?

  12. TamingAuthor says:

    Taking up your last point first: "Geared to beginners." That is perhaps why it is even more important to be simple and precise in these matters.

    An appropriate metaphor is the archer—if his aim if off a millimeter at the bow the arrow will miss the target by a yard. If a beginner starts down the path in the wrong direction, he will never arrive. It really is that simple.

    Second, I am not necessarily writing for others to the exclusion of yourself. If you feel you have this all taped and there is no way you can advance further by working through these concepts and practices, so be it.

    Perhaps you have no need of taking another look, perhaps you have no need of progressing further in the practice. I was hoping you would take the opportunity to work closely with the concepts. In trying to articulate our understanding, we often realize new ways of looking. When we grapple seriously with questions, it helps mature our own understanding.

    For both the beginner and yourself, it is important to realize that one of the most altered and mangled aspects of Buddhist teaching in the West has been the concept of aggregate self versus Self as Buddha.

    While these teachings are remarkably clear in both the texts and in the practice, there has been a major effort to obfuscate and alter and dismiss the Buddha's teachings in this regard. This is a function of clinging to philosophical materialism. Given attachment to philosophical materialism, there is a need to bend and alter Buddhism to fit such wrong views.

    If one does not allow oneself the time to inspect these ideas over and over, one risks becoming stuck and attached to wrong views. In the TIbetan school, at least, the value of being able to respond in this type of questioning discourse is considered very important.

    While the Buddha spoke to what is not, this was always in a context of revealing what is. With a tendency toward materialistic nihilism, the negative tends to overwhelm the positive teaching.

    A lack of practice tends to limit the realization of "what is" when attention gets stuck on "what is not." One cannot teach Buddhism by remaining on one side of this dynamic. Once again, the negative (what is not) was only taught as a way to reveal "what is." In a metaphorical sense, it was a process of shedding mental overcoats so as to reveal the naked essence of a being, a Buddha. This is enlightenment.

    For this reason, when one is speaking in negative terms, in terms of what is not, it is important to include the subsequent discovery of "what is." This is especially vital when teaching the central Buddhist concept that aggregate self is not Buddha Self, and that in order to become enlightened one ceases attachment to the aggregates and comes to know Self as Buddha. This is a vital progression every student must know or the practice will simply lead to a student being stuck in the mud of attachment to materialism.

    I do not have "a problem." It is not a matter of "traditional enough" but rather a question of whether it Buddhism or not. The path the Buddha laid out works now as it did then. It is one path good for all time. It is not about traditional or contemporary. If one follows the path, one gets the results he promised. If one does not, the results are not there. And there is not question of confusion with Christianity, as I have restricted my comments to Buddhism, and the teachings of the Buddha in the particular discipline known as Buddhism.

    Perhaps others would chime in if you were to take up these aspects of the teachings and respond in ways that shine light on these vital concepts. If students are to learn, it requires working with the teachings. It requires getting one's hands dirty. It requires taking these concepts and practices apart. What I have posted is simply the basic concepts. They should not pose much difficulty.

    If I were to take off on an exposition on handling the various realms in the bardos while practicing tonglen and similar practices and was walking you through specific karmic imprints that block consciousness and if I was detailing the actual history and make-up of the wheel of birth and death and the traps laid into the karmic mind to enforce the compulsion to become attached to body after body in a semi-comatose state, then we might be on advanced ground.

    Instead, these are very basic and fundamental concepts that everyone who calls themselves a Buddhist should know with certainty and ease.

  13. Bob Miller says:

    Excellent, thank you for putting this out so eloquently. A beautiful, wonderful and powerful commentary. I look forward to each new post and am grateful for being able to recognize the sign posts along the way. Your words speak to the awareness that "I am."

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  15. matt helmick says:

    Great post, Ben. This was a skillful explanation of the problem we all face (whether we’re aware of it or not) and a clue to “the way out.” Thank you!

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