We are honored to exclusively share with you, our dear readers, excerpts from Frank Berliner’s new book, which you can purchase here if so inspired. Frank is a Buddhist and Shambhala teacher and professor at Naropa University, and our original Buddhadharma columnist (going 12 years back!). He is my meditation instructor and life coach, of sorts (I just call him “mentor”…or consiglieri), and his ability to convey simple wisdom about how to be fully human is powerful, dignified and helpful. May it be of benefit! ~ Waylon Lewis
The Intelligence Within You
When you open yourself up to nowness fully, and allow the whole dance of hope and fear in your life to be there without immediately pushing it away, you begin to give birth to a kind of witness who is able to observe without being identified with what it observes. This is the beginning of this process of intelligence, and it is one of the key principles of meditation.
My teacher liked to describe the spiritual path as “the sudden discovery of intelligence.” This sudden discovery of intelligence arises both in the practice of meditation and in life situations, especially when your schemes to secure yourself or control others suddenly fall apart.
This intelligence is experienced as moments of understanding or insight about how things are. You experience a sudden shift in perspective, recognizing that the way you saw a situation before was only partial, or even completely distorted. For a vivid moment, it’s like waking up from a dream. These could be little glimpses. Over time they could become more and more powerful, reaching the level of “aha!” experiences, which all of us are familiar with.
It’s your confidence in the truthfulness of these glimpses of how things are that keeps you moving forward on the path, because it’s only through the sudden discoveries of intelligence that your relationship with hope and fear begins to change. As long as you are hypnotized by materialistic solutions, you are still engaged in your struggle with the mind of hope and fear. You block the functioning of that intelligence, because while that mind is cunning, it is not intelligent. It’s cunning in its ability to manipulate your world. It’s not intelligent in the sense that it is ignoring the space that surrounds its project to keep things under control.
“Space” means the open dimension of your life. This open dimension is always available to you in the present moment when you don’t impulsively fill it with your schemes and strategies merely to avoid discomfort of any kind.
Intelligence, and the practice of identifying with nowness, invite you into this space, in which your strategies to control and manipulate the world fall apart over and over again. Amazingly, you begin to discover that even as the strategies fall apart, you are still here and you have more strength, rather than less.
This intelligence is also referred to as penetrating insight. It is penetrating because it is experienced directly, rather than filtered through the mind of hope and fear. While it tends to appear to you in a sudden way, gradually over time your confidence in its profound value develops, and the intelligence increases in frequency and power. It is this confidence that is crucial if you are to give birth to the living Buddha within you.
Developing Confidence in What You Learn
In the Buddhist tradition, you slowly develop confidence by first studying the Dharma intellectually and then having a clear understanding of what has been taught. The word “Dharma” refers to the teachings of the Buddha about how to become free from confusion. It’s a Sanskrit word that has been variously translated as “the way”, or “the law of the universe”, or “the truth of how things are”. The Dharma taught by the Buddha developed in a culture that already had a long tradition of understanding this word in a different sense.
The dharma of Indian culture is the worldly or outer sphere of dharma. At its most basic, it simply refers to worldly things and worldly concerns altogether. At a more differentiated level, it refers to the appropriate or skillful way to conduct your affairs in any sphere of worldly life. Thus we speak of the dharma of law, or of medicine, or of family life, or of cooking, or of marriage. Here the dharma refers to the right way to do things, usually according to long-established traditions.
By contrast, the Dharma of the Buddha is an inner or higher dharma. Like the lower dharmas of worldly life, it also refers to the appropriate or accurate or skillful way to conduct your life. But it is less concerned with conduct, and more deeply concerned with insight and knowledge of your inner world, and with how to become a fully awakened human being.
By thinking about the Buddha’s Dharma you have been taught, which you have studied and can chew on, digest and apply to your life experience—or abandoning it if it isn’t true for you—your confidence deepens and becomes more personal. But if you limit your connection with Dharma to the level of intellectual discourse alone, no matter how interesting and stimulating this may be, eventually your understanding of nowness will become merely a stale concept. You will edit the teachings in order to reassure your hopeful mind. The Dharma will then become another commodity to be sold to whomever wants to buy it.
The only safeguard is to practice meditation, so that your understanding of what it means to identify with nowness is always fresh and up to date. In meditation, you drop the intellectual thinking and the logic and the concepts and you just sit with nowness. By sitting like this, the deepest insight and intelligence arises, beyond words or theories or confusion. It is direct understanding, and this is the ultimate intelligence.
Journeying Genuinely Through Meditation
Because the materialistic mindset is extremely cunning and resourceful, it is ready to co-opt anything for its own agenda—including the Dharma. It tries to hijack the wisdom of the Buddha’s approach by imitating it as closely as possible—like a fake Rolex. As a result, we often hear people speaking with great reverence about how they’re really living in the present moment, and that life has never been better. It is as if nowness were a fine wine, and they have their own private reserve. Their focus is always on pleasurable experiences, never on challenging ones.
My teacher used to say to us, again and again, “Without your practice, our real connection is extremely doubtful.”
He also used to say that those who study Dharma without meditation are neurotic scholars, but those who meditate without study are dumb meditators. So you must bring together intellectual curiosity with brave and consistent dedication to facing your life directly in meditation practice. There does not seem to be any other way. Otherwise the Dharma will become corrupted, just as it did in other cultures in the past.
There is a parable about God and the Devil walking together. A diamond-like object is shining by the side of the road. God points to it and says, “Look—there’s the truth!” And the devil says, “Wonderful—let’s organize it!”
Because we are human, because we are materialistic, because we have hope and fear, and because we are looking for the easiest way out of our deep existential tension, we tend to corrupt things. That is why—especially in the beginning—awakening is a lonely path. But loneliness is a sign that you are moving in the right direction,because it means you have resisted the temptation to settle for the seductive imitations or shortcuts that can always be counted upon to draw a crowd.
It is up to each of us individually to carry the genuine Dharma forward by accessing the intelligence of penetrating insight through meditation. It is your tool on the journey of cutting through all the sources of corruption, both internal and external.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Editor: Rachel Nussbaum
Photo: Frank Berliner