July 12, 2000

(Held at the cabin.)

Aaron: Good evening and my love to you all. I am Aaron. We usually don't have the opportunity to spend time together over the summer. It's a joy to feel all of your energy and I thank you for bringing yourselves out here to this tree house and woods.

It's such a lovely environment I'm tempted not to say anything, just to give you the privilege to sit here in silence and hear the birds, the wind rustling the tree branches, the natural sounds. But I know you have come here to hear me, so although I don't think I can offer anything better than this rich silence, I will share my thoughts with you.

An interesting question came to me this week. I'd like to share it with you. You know that when newcomers are present I usually precede my talk with the statement that what I offer is simply my own perception, what I perceive to be true, and that I do not claim it to be ultimate truth. A friend came to me and said, "When the Buddha taught, he said that what he taught was Truth with a capital "T." Why don't you offer this as truth?" If it's not truth, what is it?

Good question. I do not say it is not Truth, I only say that I do not tell you it is ultimate truth. That's for you to decide. I offer you what I perceive and of course if I did not consider it to be truth I would not offer it. The Buddha said, "Be a lamp unto yourselves." That means that you must light the way with your own wisdom and your own presence. You must discern for yourselves what rings true. I would not deny you that process.

There are relative truths. We may call them "views." Two people can go to the lake and one can say, "The water feels warm today." That's her experience of the water, her view, her truth. The other can say, "The water feels very cold to me today." And that is his truth. Neither one is wrong nor right. One experiences it as warm, one as cold. Both express their own truth as they experience it. In the ultimate sense, the water simply is as it is. That is ultimate Truth. The water has a certain temperature relative to the body and relative to the air.

When I say that I speak from my own perception, and then offer that perception, I am not merely saying the water feels warm to me. When I speak of suffering and the causes of suffering, for example, I speak with a certainty born of my own experience that suffering does exist and that that suffering has certain causes. And finally, that there is a cessation to it. I do not experience this merely as a view, but as Truth. But if I then were to say to you, "This is how it is. Don't argue with me. This is ultimate truth," two things could happen. I would disempower you. If you have a lot of faith in me, you'll believe me and you'll become lazy and not investigate for yourself. Your own lamp flickers low or goes out. If you don't have much faith in me or have never met me before, you might quarrel with me. But the quarrel might be an intellectual quarrel. Again, it does not well serve the lamp. I don't want you to believe or disbelieve me. I do not claim to be an authority on anything but my own experience. Use my words as a map and find out for yourself.

If I state that experience simply as, "Well, I think it's this way but I don't know," then I'm being irresponsible in not stating, "This is my experience"; I'm being vague and imprecise. "Maybe it's this way, I don't know." But I do know. So I must state it, "This is my experience." But if I say, "This is the ultimate truth," I don't leave you any space to do your work. My statement "this is my own perception" then is not an expression of doubt either about my own experience or about what I consider to be ultimate truth, but it is an invitation to you to look deeply and see if what you experience as truth resonates with my experience of truth. If it doesn't then one of us has some confusion.

When someone whom I respect says something that contradicts what I experience, I like to look at that to see if there's something I'm misunderstanding. I would hope that my statements invite you to the same exploration.

When the resonance is there, that is a sign that we do experience this in the same way. When the resonance is not there, it doesn't mean that one of us is wrong so much as that something is not yet fully understood. Sometimes it's just the particular articulation or language which creates misunderstanding. After all, we cannot share our experience but only the labels of language which we put on that experience. Sometimes it's a surface level contradiction. Sometimes one does not want to look as deeply as is needed because it feels frightening. Sometimes we cling to old and erroneous perceptions. Then view gets in the way of Truth. The voice that offers its own experience with the authority of practice, but without ego which says "only this," is a voice from which you can learn. Thus I am very careful how I articulate when I teach.

In some traditions the teacher is looked upon as the authority. Whatever the teacher says is law; nobody would dare to contradict him or her. I have been a teacher in those traditions. I understand the responsibility of that role of authority. When people are accustomed to it, it can work to a degree. But both sides have a great responsibility. The teacher, not to betray that authority, and the student, to do his or her own work and not simply take the teacher's word for it. Like any way of being in the world, the authority model has its strengths and its weaknesses.

In the Theravadin tradition, the tradition within Buddhism with which I am most at home, the teacher is looked upon as a spiritual friend. That also has its strengths and weaknesses. The difficulty here is that the teacher who is not comfortable-let me say this very clearly-the teacher who still has an active ego and at some level seeks to be an authority over others and is uncomfortable with that ego and its grasping for authority may then back down and refuse to take any responsibility at all for what he teaches. The teaching becomes indecisive. The teacher may say, "Well it could be this way, it could be that way." Certainly, this leaves the student to work it out for himself. In that way it may empower the student. But the student has come to the teacher because the teacher has certain experience which can serve as guidance. If the teacher is unwilling to be the authority on his or her own experience, it doesn't serve the student well at all.

There's a very fine line. It is not the teacher who has authority, it is the dharma that is the authority. It is sati, mindful presence, which is the authority. It is awareness which is the authority. It is the deeply loving and open heart which is the authority. It is the Ground of Being, the divine essence of each, which is the authority. The teacher who has done his or her work, understands the practice and has developed a depth of realization of how things are, has no need to be the authority to another, but is willing to offer what he or she knows with a certainty, offering it for the guidance of others, but with no need to say, "This is it!" If it really is it, others will discover that through their own practice.

None of you would have any trouble if I handed you a bowl of plastic fruit with a delicious and ripe orange in the bowl, if I pointed to that ripe orange and said, "That one, this is it!" You wouldn't need me to say that, you'd look at the bowl and you'd pick out the ripe orange if you were hungry. Who would go for the plastic fruit? Who would be so easily deceived? But if the ripe orange is buried among the frauds and not so easily seen, it will help if I say, "The ripe one is there; the true fruit is there. Look and you will find it."

So to convey what I know, I must take responsibility. I must say to you, "This is my experience. This is what I find to be true." I don't have to say, "This is it!" with an absolute authority, only, "This is what I experience as true." Here I am being a responsible spiritual friend. I'm offering you my experience. If it's useful, I will offer you ways to deepen your own practice so that you may enter a similar kind of experience and see if the fruit is really as sweet as I experience it to be. Is this the sweet fruit or is this one plastic? I offer you the whole bowl. I point to the ripe one, the real one. If you're still going to bite into the plastic fruit, you're going to have to do that for as long as you need to. Eventually when you come around to the ripe sweet fruit, I have no doubt that you'll know it.

What happens here is that dharma empowers us both. We each have a responsibility: the teacher, to say what he finds to be true without any hesitancy. For if it is the result of his experience, he knows it with certainty But pride and ego do not speak this Truth, compassion speaks it. Out of compassion I must give whatever I can to aid in the resolution of suffering. The student, not to take the teacher's word for it but to use the teacher's words as a guide, to find out for him or herself, is this really Truth? And then, both can know Truth as Truth.

Nobody is really empowered or disempowered. How can one be empowered when each has limitless power? How can one lose that which is inherent to its being? But each finds within himself his own inherent authority which is not a personal authority but is the voice of dharma, the voice of Truth, the voice of love. This is why I teach the way I do.

The way I see it, the teacher does not empower the student so much as the student empowers himself. You empower yourself by doing your own work, looking into things as they are and finding the truth for yourself. The teacher may invite in the student the faith in his/her ability to do that work, and may introduce the needed skills. You disempower yourself if you take the teacher's word for it and don't look. And it doesn't matter here whether the teacher claims himself to be the ultimate authority or simply a spiritual friend. In either stance from the teacher, the teacher does not disempower you, you disempower yourself because of how you relate to the teacher's words. And in the same way, regardless of the teacher's stance, you empower yourself. If the teacher claims himself or herself to be the ultimate authority, you still don't have to take him or her as that authority. Check it out for yourself.

In your lives, everything is a teacher. Some teachers come to you with a soft whisper, some with a shout. Some are pleasant in their demeanor and some very unpleasant, even very painful. When life is shouting at you, when people you work with are blaming you, for example, telling you everything you did wrong, or when a relationship is falling apart, and the other person in that relationship is angry and blaming, you are the authority, or more precisely, your innate wisdom and compassion are the authority. No matter how much another blames you, even many others, you have the responsibility to check it out for yourself. If what they say is appropriate, then you can apologize and change your behavior. If what they say is inappropriate, no matter how many of them there are swearing that you are wrong, then you have the responsibility to uphold your own truth. But you must be very honest to make sure it's truth and not ego. Each of you does have the ability to discern that.

And if the other praises you and places you on a pedestal, that also you must check out. Remember that the praise is not yours, but returns to the dharma.

When the voice comes as a whisper, just a small nagging doubt that was raised, again you have the responsibility to look deeply into it. Maybe you have helped somebody with a project and at the end they raise their eyebrows a bit and say, "This is not quite what I expected." Maybe they were grossly disappointed but still all they said was, "Not quite what I expected." Again, you are the authority. What was the mission here? Was it done as clearly as was possible? What was wholesome and skillful about the results? What was unwholesome and unskillful? What can be learned from this situation?

Here is where you begin to cut through views and uncover truth. Some truths are painful. Perhaps a truth that there was anger that led you not to do the work as carefully as you might have. That's a valuable insight. A truth of resentment or jealousy or pride-again, valuable insights. These mental states arise and one can be led astray by them. The next time when such an emotion is present, perhaps it will be possible to be aware of it, to work with it in a more skillful way so it doesn't taint the final result.

These are small truths; that is, they are clearer than views but are not ultimate truth. The ultimate truth here might be that when there are opposing views and people hold on to them, there will be suffering.

When you believe you are suffering because of some offense, words from another, or an injury from an object, look deeply into that suffering. In the suffering is wisdom if you will but look, for then you will discern the true causes of suffering, and with the causes you will see the cause/ effect relationships, the impermanence of it and its cessation. Here again, you become the authority on your own experience, which reveals reality if you will but look. The truth of dharma empowers you to open to the freedom which is there for the taking.

No matter how a person approaches truth, carefully or not, skillfully or not, with their own huge or negligible ego, with their own anger or kindness, whatever they present to you, take it into yourself and look at it and find out if it rings true to you. And if so, what does that truth mean? What does it lead you to? What new ways of being in the world might it open to you, if you allow yourself deeply to experience that truth? Never be afraid of truth. It may be uncomfortable at times, may lead you to feel grief or shame, resentment or confusion. That's not a problem. If a certain truth leads you to feel shame, just be there with the shame. Anger, confusion-be present with it. Allow it to open your heart, allow it to teach you.

Sometimes what one experiences as one's truth seems to differ from the truth of those around one. For example, one being might feel strongly that beings of all races, all ages, body builds, religious beliefs, and cultural and national backgrounds have an equal right to various kinds of opportunities. Others might say that their own truth teaches them that people of this or that color or religious or national background are wiser or better. This is like the water is warm, the water is cold. Two different views. Do not confuse views and Truth. Beyond the views there is a Truth and one can discern that Truth if one releases all views.

How do we know the difference? Views may change. Views are the result of conditions. The small truths which grow out of views are also subject to conditions. Truths do not change. For example, to say that one person is superior to another is a view based on the observation of those persons, based on conditions. A truth with a small 't' may emerge from that view. But when one transcends conditions and sees how things really are, then one arrives at Truth.

If your own truth resonates deeply for you, and you find it is Truth and not a view, you must honor that truth. It dishonors Truth to get into a shouting match with another. "Mine's better." "Mine's better." "Mine's better." "Mine's better." Not useful.

If there's real wisdom there, you will be able to understand how the other arrived at what seems to you to be a distortion of the truth, what is in reality a conditioned view. You'll understand certain conditions such as fear or misinformation, which led to those erroneous conclusions. You cannot force your view upon another. What you can do is lovingly to offer that view and to stand firm knowing that your statement may provoke a lot of anger in the other.

Let's use a very simple example. One partner in a relationship drinks too much. The other partner is aware that each time the first drinks, he or she becomes angry and loses control, becomes unskillful in relationships to the first and to others. So the one who has ceased drinking or does not drink says to the other, "My experience is that when you drink it causes harm." The other says, "No. I'm always in control." This can get into a does/does not kind of argument. But you have the responsibility to state your view clearly, not "This is absolute truth," but "This is how I experience it. What I experience is, when I see you drink, then negative behavior erupts and causes harm. Therefore, each time I see you begin to drink, I am going to leave this place where you are. I will not stay with you and therefore support this behavior." The other may become very angry. Of course, if they becomes physically abusive, you must put a stop to it by leaving the spot. If they become angry, that's just a statement of how afraid they are, how defended they are of their position, which they may thoroughly believe to be true.

One's view is "in control; drinking's no problem." The other's view is "drinking's not in control; causing suffering." These are views. The Truth is that all behavior which is not grounded on presence, kindness, wisdom, may cause suffering. The Truth is that mindlessness creates suffering. These are not views, not changeable facts, but Truth. Then you add your personal truth, "I cannot participate in this creation of suffering, so if you drink, I must leave."

You can't round up friends and vote on it. The one who is drinking will say, "Well, you're all wrong." You just note that this is a view. Don't argue the view; find the Truth that transcends views, such as, that mindlessness enhances suffering. But state it with compassion, not self-righteousness! You have the responsibility to stand by what you experience as true, but not to force your opinion on the other. Simply make the statement, "I will not participate in this behavior." The other may catch on. He may not.

Another example. This is a hard one. The boss at work who is constantly abusive, constantly berates your work. At a time when you know you have done good work and the boss looks at it and scowls, picks out one or two very minor flaws, perhaps even points that he had urged you to include although you felt they were not appropriate. Says, "Why did you include this information?" "Well, you told me to." He's angry. This is habitual with him.

What does it mean to state your view there? You might say, in your own words, "I hear that you are dissatisfied with this. Our opinions on our work are our views, and subject to change. It feels to me like you are always dissatisfied with whatever I do. This is also a view. We both want my work to be useful to you. If you will give me more specific instructions in the beginning and will write it out, I will try to meet those instructions. When you simply berate my work at the end, when I feel I have done what you asked, I cannot accept that." Here you are stating a personal truth. Again, he may be angry. You're taking some risks. There's always a risk to state your own truth to those who see it differently.

Remember, beyond the views, there's a Truth. The Truth here may be that people will have different views. If they cannot agree to hear one another's views, there will be suffering. If they wish to avoid suffering, they must work to hear one another. Here is letting go and cessation of suffering!

Your son wants the car. The last time he had the car he came home two hours beyond his curfew. Your own truth says "no." He's furious. What you are speaking from is your own deepest clarity and wisdom possible at the moment, your view. You might later discover that you did not understand the whole issue. This is how we learn. If it's clear that you don't understand, then of course you don't say, "This is my truth," just "This is what I experience so far but I don't really see the whole issue. This is my view." Maybe your son was late because he had a flat tire. Maybe the flat tire was your fault because you ran over a nail earlier in the evening. Maybe he had not had the chance to explain that to you.

We must differentiate between views, relative truths and ultimate truth. Views about who is at fault; relative truth about the flat tire and the out-beyond-curfew situation; and ultimate truth about treating people as if the divine in each being were apparent to all, treating people with respect, kindness, care, treating yourself in the same way. An ultimate truth may be about the power of love and kindness. An ultimate truth may be about the nature of suffering and the fact that there is freedom from suffering. An ultimate truth may be about responsibility and the karmic formations which are the fruits of both responsibility and irresponsibility, kindness and lack of kindness.

If you state your truth from your own experience, that's all you can do. If others present information which you had not previously considered, then you must take that into the experience and seek to understand it further and see if your insights change. But the ultimate truths will not change, the truths of goodness, of non-harm, of presence.

Never be afraid of the truth. It can lead to painful situations but in the long run, it is your strongest ally. Ego may want to present the stories, how he or she did this or that to me. Let go of that. That's not truth, that's ego's stories. But truth is truth. It's not so hard to get to know it.

I've touched on a wide range of subjects tonight, all revolving around empowerment and what it means to be the authority on your own experience. I'd be happy to speak further about any of these issues, none of which we went into in any depth. I thank you very much for your attention. I will let you get yourself something cool to drink and then we will continue. That is all.

Copyright © 2000 by Barbara Brodsky