Howell Advanced Practices Retreat
October 27, 2007
Aaron's Talk

Aaron's Talk and Q&A on Enlightenment Experience, Wisdom and Compassion

Aaron: Barbara has me wired, here! (Aaron is talking while the 3 microphones are adjusted) … Many hundreds of years ago we shared the dharma very well, and we had no tape recorders! We simply repeated it until everybody had heard what they needed to hear. Your lives are different today. You're all in such a fast track in the busyness of your lives and toward enlightenment. No time to waste! Do you play the recording while driving the car? What's going to happen if you have an enlightenment experience as you're driving down the highway at 80 mph? Will you pull over and stop to cherish it, or speed through it?

You've worked hard today and I'm not going to offer formal instruction tonight, but rather, just to inspire you with stories. In my final human lifetime, I had the blessing to have as my first and foremost teacher a monk who was, by the time I met him, quite advanced in years. I've never shared his story with you. All you need to know of his name is Ajahn, teacher.

He became a monk when he was very young. He was very intellectual, very precise in his experience. He studied the teachings with precision, applying himself to each aspect of the dhamma. But as you have been discussing today in your own experiences, his practice was a bit rigid and controlled. He believed he was able to avoid pain through analysis of experience, and misinterpreted that distancing of pain as freedom.

After about 5 years as a monk, he made the decision to disrobe, since he did not feel he was progressing well. The vows are not taken for life; this decision was not a problem. He married and fathered a family. He continued to do his practice, although he believed, as was the idea at that time and place, that only a monk could become enlightened. He continued to use his practice has he had used it during his monastic years, to control his experiences.

He had what seemed to others to be great equanimity. So when things were wonderful, he didn't become overly enthused, and when things were terrible, he did not become depressed, he just said, 'Everything arises, everything passes away.' But he wasn't really at peace.

Then a very tragic event befell him. He had a small farm beside a small, steep hill. One of the fields of his farm was just at the base of that hill. There were many days of torrential rain. He and his children were working in a small shed at the foot of that steep slope. He had just gone outside when suddenly the earth gave way and the whole hillside slid down on top of the shed. All 3 of his children were buried in mud.

The way he told the story, he said it was clear from the start that it was hopeless, that there was no way he could find them buried beneath that mud. There was just too much; the whole hillside had come down. He sat just looking at this disaster, and all that came to mind was, 'Everything arises and passes away, due to conditions. This is the outplay of conditions.' So he went home and told his wife, 'Our children just died. They are buried in the mud.' He said he did not even cry, he just said, 'This is the outplay of conditions. This is how it is.' And he bade her not to weep.

He lived with his wife for another few months, and they decided they needed to part. He did not know what to do with his life. He had tried to be a monk and not found any peace or happiness. He had tried to be a householder, and a father, and not found any peace or happiness. From my perspective now, it would seem he was quite depressed and trying to explain the loss of what he loved by the simple statement, 'It arises and passes away.' But his heart was closed. It had probably always been closed. I do not know; I was not his intimate confidant but only a young disciple of his elder years.

He went at last to his first teacher, told him what had happened to his children, and said, 'It would seem I have equanimity, but I have no peace or happiness. I do not grieve but there is no happiness. Is that it? Is that liberation?' The teacher said, 'No, that's not it. Why don't you ordain again and see if you can benefit from the practice better this time?'

So he re-ordained. Years went by. He was still practicing the dhamma from his head. He would not let his heart enter into his experience. Then one day, after he had been a monk again for perhaps 15 years, the seeming impossible happened. He was walking down the road in the rain when he saw children walking in a field with their father. Suddenly it seemed like the earth shook, and the whole hillside came down upon the children.

He watched them. He watched the earth cover them. I can only share his words to me. First, the mind said, 'This is it again. Everything arises and passes away out of conditions.' And then there was a sudden inside voice that said, 'You are part of the conditions. You are not apart from conditions but intimately involved with the conditions. That the hill slid down upon the family is an environmental condition. That you are an observer means that you have the opportunity to participate in saving them.'

He says it seemed like he had suddenly stepped back so he could see a bigger picture, not just a close-up, 'Oh, this happened and then that happened,' but that he was high above in space seeing the vast panorama of tragedies occurring all over the globe, floods, landslides, earthquakes, and fires. There were those who were injured by these events and those who watched and perhaps could be of help.

In that moment, he understood, 'I' can not be of help but love can be of help, and suddenly he saw that out of fear of loss he had never allowed himself to love. Perhaps something from his early childhood created that limitation. He never spoke to me of his early childhood but I would guess there was some loss in his childhood years that had closed his heart.

So in his words—of course, he was speaking in Thai and not in English, but in his words—he said, suddenly a vast awareness opened. Conditions come and go. Fear can use the dhamma to control experience and deny experience, or love can enter fully into the experience. One may not be able to change the outcome, but one must not cease to enter into the field of life because one fears one cannot change the conditions. He says there was no further thought; he just found himself digging fiercely. As he dug down, the father sat there staring, much as he had stared some 17 years earlier, not knowing what to do.

He dug; with his bare hands he dug, and he pulled the father into it and he said, 'Dig! Dig! Dig!' But it wasn't fear that was digging, it was love. As they dug some of the earth away, they heard some cries. Dig more earth away. They were able to lift the roof of the shattered shed, which had created an air hole, pull it up and drag out all 3 children.

He said there was only digging, pulling the children out, no stories, and then he simply walked on his way. He left this family, assured that while bruised and shaken, they were all okay, and walked for only a short time, to a woods where it was quiet. He sat in the forest for several days only drinking some water from the stream, and meditating. He asked himself, 'What happened?' He began to see how he had misused the dhamma in the past to hold the heart closed, because he was rigid and trying to control his experience to protect himself.

In the moments of digging for these children, his heart broke for his own children. In the woods he wept the tears he had not been able to weep 17 years earlier. But with this weeping came the first true equanimity. Before it was separation posing as equanimity, but here his heart opened. There were tears, and there was the understanding, 'Everything arises and passes away,' but beyond that was the knowledge of how the heart remains engaged.

He began to share his experiences with others, to teach much what I teach you., to dwell in the true dhamma that knows, 'Everything arises out of conditions and passes away, is not self, and yet the heart must be engaged.' We cannot use the dhamma as a way to separate ourselves from life.

He was a wonderful teacher. I owe him a great deal. Unfortunately, he was old when I first met him and I had only a few years with him before he died. But he taught me enough to start me on the true way.

His words had taught me, his teachings had shown me, that I must not separate myself from life. And yet we do separate ourselves. When things are very painful, we have a habit to protect ourselves. And sometimes we hide that fact from ourselves.

In my final human lifetime, my brother had sent his son, my nephew to ordain as a monk with me when the boy was young. This boy loved the dhamma and was very happy with his life, and an apt student. Now he had been a monk for many years. I loved this young man as the son I never had, and he was my foremost disciple. My brother's other son died in an accident, leaving young children. My brother, who was now an older man incapable to care alone for the farm and family's needs, came to get his younger son, saying, 'He must come home and help me.' He was angry. He was afraid. His heart was broken. The one I was did not speak compassionately to him. I was attached to this younger monk who was, I didn't think of him so much as my nephew as much as my senior student, the one who would carry on the dhamma teaching when I passed.

So my heart was closed and I said no to my brother. My brother was experiencing some degree of madness, you might say, caused by his grief and fear. In his anger, he threw a spear at me, a weapon. He was completely out of control of himself with grief and anger to throw this missile at me. His son stepped in front of that missile to protect me so it hit him in the belly. He lived for a day in great pain while my brother and I looked on heartbroken to see the death of the man we both loved.

I learned then that I was not enlightened, as I had thought I was. It's easy to convince yourself that you're enlightened when nothing shakes up your equanimity, when you life a peaceful life in the forest. Alms came to me, or I was hungry; the sun shined, or the rain came down. Life went on year after year. It was an arduous life but also very peaceful, very pleasant. There is little catalyst for craving.

So no strong emotions come up and you begin to believe, 'I'm free; I'm enlightened.' And there was much wisdom, but clearly I was suffering and caught in emotions, and I didn't understand it.

I left the forest refuge where I spent the rainy season, and where I was the senior teacher and began to wander in the forests. I spent 10 years wandering in the forest. Wisdom deepened. Everything arises out of conditions and passes away. It does not come from any solid self. Yet, there was still some denial.

I was able to forgive my brother and myself, to let go of that whole tragic circumstance and release blame. But I saw that in a similar circumstance, I might act the same way, controlled by fear and grasping. There was still something I didn't understand. I knew I wasn't free.

Here again there was very deep wisdom but the heart was still closed. I was trying to use my wisdom as a way of denying loss, helplessness, and suffering. I believed if there was true wisdom, I would not feel pain. But of course, both are true: there can be deep wisdom and there's still pain. Not fear but loss, sadness, and pain. Enlightenment does not prevent of pain, neither bodily or emotional pain, it prevents suffering. Because I was trying to make it prevent pain, I was suffering!

One night I was walking in the forest quite late, when it began to rain. As I walked faster, looking forward to the shelter to which I would come, the wind was blowing the trees, sky filled with lightning and thunder. Suddenly there was a loud crack; a big tree fell right on top of me.

The trunk did not hit me. The branches fell around me like a cage. It was a tree that had large thorns on the branches. None of them impaled me in a way that would cause serious injury, just deep enough into my flesh, into my back, that I could not move. I was on my belly in the mud, held down to the earth by the thorns pressing down on my back. I couldn't get myself out of the mud without pushing the thorns further into my flesh. What could I do? I lay there in the mud.

The universe has interesting ways of inviting our attention. I lay there in the mud and there was nothing I could do but rest there, wet, cold, with skin burning where the thorns had penetrated flesh. Some pain, mind noting, 'Unpleasant.'

By now in my years as a monk, I was quite good at noting. This has arisen. Sense consciousness—wet, cold. Knowing mud, unpleasant. Impermanent and not self, just lie there and be present with it. Of course, there was not much space in that mud, and with the sharp burning sensations in many places on my body where the thorns scratched. Still, there was peace and no fear, no stories of dying under that tree, just the experience of the moment, discomfort. So I lay there doing my practice, simply noting, and feeling some assurance sometime in the next 24 hours, somebody would come along and lift this tree off of me. All I needed to do is lie there and be present. There was no need to scream or panic, just to lie there.

Then I heard soft padding footsteps, loud breath, and a growl, a snarl. Here was a tigress who had been drawn by the scent of blood. The thorns that imprisoned me also served as a barricade that kept her from reaching me. So I couldn't get out, she couldn't get in, but I didn't know she couldn't get in. Fear came up. Terror came up. The mind easily ran away with this. What part of me will she eat first? Will she get my feet? Will she get through to my head, a hand? The hands were out at the sides. What will she eat? What would I feel? Mind that had seemed so peaceful just moments before now was running away with these stories. Noting, stories, stories. Come back to this moment's experience, hearing the tiger, just hearing the tiger. Feeling fear, which is just fear.

Can you see how I was misusing the practice not to let myself know my sadness? I did not want to die. I would not say I was afraid of death, but perhaps the strongest point was that I knew I was not yet liberated and I did not want to die without that liberation. But I also just did not want to die painfully, especially not to be gnawed slowly by a tiger.

She snarled, a pained cry. The snarling got louder, the more frustrated she became. Hearing her snarling and crying, I became of how hungry she was and I thought to myself, perhaps she has a litter of cubs. Perhaps she has not been able to feed her babies. My heart opened to her, and as it opened to her, it opened to myself.

And just as my teacher had described it, suddenly there came a shift from the position of misusing the dhamma to control experience, to this pure vast awareness, imagining how many beings there must be like myself at that moment, having fallen and broken a leg, having been burned in a fire, having been attacked by a wild animal or by a human. How many humans there were all over this planet in pain at that moment, feeling anguish. And how many sentient beings were hungry at this moment, like my tigress.

I suddenly understood the dhamma does not protect me from pain, it only protects me from suffering. It protects me from suffering when I acknowledge pain is real and inescapable for the human. Death is real. This human body will die and perhaps it will die in a painful way. All human bodies will die. My work as a human is not to perpetuate life but to love, and through that love, to take care of life as best I can, not to perpetuate it from a place of fear and grasping, but to take care of it.

With that insight, I realized, if I lived, that would be wonderful. And if I died and in so doing I feed this hungry tigress, that was okay. I will live on in her and in her cubs. I simply relaxed then into the moment, the spacious mind filled with peace. Everything will be as it will be, there is nothing to fear. I will live or I will die. There is nothing to fear.

The stories stopped—what part will she eat? What the pain be unbearable? If it happens, it will happen. There is nothing to fear. It will be as it will be. Whatever happens will be okay. Not okay as in comfortable, okay as in workable, because it is grounded in love.

I suppose at that point, having dropped off the fear, I stopped smelling like prey. So although there was still a blood scent, there was not a fear scent. She gave up interest and left. Perhaps she just gave up because she could not get through the thorns. I don't know.

The next morning, very early, monks walking down the path found me there, lifted the tree off of me so I was able to crawl out. They washed the wounds. I walked on with them, not seriously hurt, but free. Free because the beauty of the dhamma; whatever has the nature to arise has the nature to cease and is not self, and free because the open heart, capable of loving, had connected. I was no longer using my dhamma practice to protect myself from anything but willing to be intimate with everything, with the ten thousand joys and sorrows of the world.

That intimacy is the hallmark of enlightenment. Nothing is separate; to be willing to be fully connected to everything and not use your practice or anything else to separate you. And yet that intimacy is only possible when you truly understand that everything is arising and passing away out of conditions and is not self.

So these are two stories I hope will illustrate for you the power of this practice, the practice of wisdom, the practice of awareness. Here is the mind that is able to be deeply present with each arising and passing experience, penetrating deeply into the nature of that experience but not using that penetration as a way to defend itself against experience. But coming to the experience from this space of openhearted awareness, deeply capable of love, fully capable of passion.

Sometimes people think the enlightened master is dispassionate. Passion has two meanings. Sometimes we think of passion as grasping, or attached. That's not how I mean it. I mean passionate as in connected and intimate with. Our time is almost up. I had promised some time for questions here. Let me finish up quickly.

Passionate, the heart filled with love, grounded in wisdom. This is your potential. This is why you practice. And I wish you all that profound peace, happiness, and openhearted connection. May all the blessings of the dhamma come to you.

We'll sit for just a few minutes and then I would be happy to hear your questions.

Q: I work as a psychotherapist so I hear a lot of human distress. And I also have some situations with my own health and my children that seem to be draining my energy. It's almost as if I had too much compassion, too much of an open heart, and I wonder if it's maybe not balanced with wisdom. So what do you have to say about that?

And there's a part 2 of my question. The Christians have a teacher, St. John of the Cross, who talks about the dark night of the senses, and I wondered if that could part of what's going on and how that fits into the Buddhist tradition.

Aaron: May I take these questions separately, my sister? When there is suffering from your clients or students, your family, your friends, you self, and you feel yourself caught up in that suffering, it's important to know, this is suffering. You feel the contraction of the suffering. It involves grasping. You can't simply say there should be more wisdom, that's just a judgment. Instead, you use your practice to invite wisdom.

So you feel yourself getting snared. There is compassion but there's also suffering. I distinguish here between pain and suffering. You might feel pain for your friends or your children, feel sadness that they are stuck, but there's also an equanimity that knows, this is just where they are right now. They are safe. I will love them and support them in whatever ways I can and hopefully they can learn without too much suffering.

But when you get caught up with fear saying, 'How can I fix this?' then there's contraction and you are suffering. At that point, the wise mind notes, 'suffering, contracting, grasping.' There will either be grasping or aversion that's very obvious, aversion to the situation or grasping to fix.

When you see that grasping, go directly into the experience of it. What is the experience of grasping without any stories? Feel the contraction, the tension, and note it. It's probably unpleasant; note the unpleasant feeling. Watch it. Everything changes. In what way does it change? Is it solid or are there bits of space in it?

You begin to see the space in it and see that it's impermanent, that it changes. As you work with this with some dedication, repeatedly and in different situations, wisdom, I would not so much say develops, as it becomes stronger and more accessible. As wisdom more accessible, it becomes very clear: in this moment I have a choice, I can suffer or not suffer. But the heart is connected. You're not disconnecting the heart and saying, 'I can ignore this situation. I can push it away.' Rather, the heart is connected, and you begin to see, what perpetuates the suffering is not their situation or your own but the way you are relating to it. So the wisdom becomes more accessible. It's very important that the heart remains connected. Then there is balance.

The connection of the heart is not creating the suffering, the grasping is creating the suffering. You must know that for certain in order to hold the heart open in a balanced way.

You ask about John of the Cross, dark night of the soul. I'd rather treat this as a separate question, although there is some connection at some levels.

John of the Cross says, I'm paraphrasing him, that the soul sees that perfection and beauty of the divine, so strongly yearns toward it, and despairs because it finds itself inadequate to that perfection and fears that it will always be inadequate. He says it with much more poetry and grace. That dark thought is the dark night, that seeing of the light, yearning for the light, seeing one's own darkness and feeling trapped by darkness. Within that darkness, one despairs of finding light.

This is a necessary stage on the path, as John of the Cross notes, that it is, because unless one acknowledges there is darkness in one, one cannot acknowledge that one is also light. If one clings to the idea, 'I am light, I am perfect,' and denies the human failings, one is in a state of denial and untruth. If one only grasps ahold of those negative traits and does not see one's innate light, one goes deeper and deeper into despair.

As one moves through this dark night, one begins to understand, 'Yes, there is the habit energy that has brought me into a place of darkness, and there is also innate divinity. I have a choice, to trust and follow the glimmer of light or to despair into darkness.' This insight leads you to the same 'living from an open heart,' touching your own negative habit energies with love instead of condemnation. That opening the heart to the self with kindness helps you to center in on the light and beauty, the radiance of the self, and to know that truly you ARE made in God's image. You ARE light. And this is the pathway through that dark night, to know that you ARE light and all beings are light. That this is the true nature; your true nature is light.

I sometimes use a window as an example. The true nature of this glass is clarity. If it became covered with mud, you would not need to break out the window and install new glass, rather you would wash the window. We asked this in class last week, I asked what the composition of the glass was, and somebody said, sodium chloride, was it? No, that is salt. (Group: Sodium silicate) Sodium silicate. Thank you. The nature of the glass is not sodium silicate, the content of the glass is sodium silicate. The nature is clarity.

So we don't worry. If it's now sodium silicate and mud, it's just sodium silicate and mud. The nature doesn't change, the nature is clarity. Wash off the mud. To move through the dark night, we attend to the mud that has splashed upon us without losing track of our true nature as radiance, clarity, and light. But we do have to attend to the mud because the clarity of the glass cannot be seen when it's covered with mud.

Does that answer your question?

Q: Thank you.

Q: (Difficult to hear clearly) I had a similar situation. I thought of you, actually, Aaron. Two weeks ago a client came into my office and he has a 20 year old daughter who is killing herself with anorexia. He was crying. She had come to me 2 weeks before she was in the hospital. I just felt very, I couldn't help her, couldn't help him. She was talking about Christianity and denying her body and hating her body. And I thought, if I were <>, I could <> her the way to respond to her body, the way of being in her body, I could save her. I should call Barbara, and Barbara could save her! I don't know, I just sent her several emails and told her, I wish you well, would you like me to visit… Anyway, it reminds me of what we were talking about. I felt like all the other professionals were just completely detached, not detached but just… not open hearted, not connected.

Aaron: The other professionals may have been exhibiting what we call a false equanimity by distancing themselves because of their fear, 'I don't know what to do.' For someone in such a situation, the most powerful tool is love, which does not distance itself but also does respect free will. So you do not enter the scene say, 'Now I will fix you.' That's not love. Only, 'I hear you. I am here with you. I love you. Not love you for who you are; I don't really know you. I love you for your radiance and light that you don't yet see. I love you because you are divine. I love you because you are me! I will hold that space of love for you. I respect your free will decision. But know that I am here to support your decision toward health, toward healing and growth, in any way that I can.'

But to do that, you make yourself vulnerable. You're vulnerable because if she continues her path, she'll kill herself. And then you feel, 'Perhaps I participated in that, her killing herself. I didn't stop her.' But short of force-feeding her, you cannot stop her. If she is hospitalized, I suppose they would force-feed her. But eventually she would be released from the hospital. Then she has free will again. I say to all of you, do you dare to love enough to allow that intimacy that knows, 'This is not 'her', this is all beings; this is my own child; this is myself,' and yet to respect the free will of the other?

Q: I found myself also hating her for what she's doing to herself, and judging her ego.

Aaron: And in that way, my sister, she is your teacher, because here you have the opportunity for judging and hating her, and to find right there with the judgment and hatred, that which is capable of love. The judgment and hatred don't have to be resolved completely to touch the love, they only have to be acknowledged with compassion.

If we may be of any assistance with this woman, we certainly offer ourselves. Let us have one more question.

Q: Aaron, in your last human lifetime, and your teacher who did not try to dig through the mud to his children, how did he forgive himself for closing his heart to them and for not trying to dig through the mud?

Aaron: How did he forgive himself? He never came to that until after his experience with his second set of children. Then—here I am surmising this, he never said this to me—but I would imagine that his heart opened, he dug out those children, and he grieved after he left, he went into the woods and cried. He cried for his children. He cried for what was lost. He cried for all humans who must close their hearts because they're so afraid of the pain. And in that crying, he opened his heart and forgave all beings, including himself. It was not only about himself, it was about all humans who close themselves off to protect themselves, because that is such a pronounced habit for humans. But the insight then led him to compassion for the self, a compassion beyond any need of forgiveness.

What I ask of you all, as you sit later tonight and tomorrow morning, look at that for which you have not been able to forgive yourself. Look at yourself as if you were your child, your closest friend in that terrible situation. How would you help your child or your dear friend to open his or her heart to his or her self?

This is where the vast field of awareness is so important because we see everything arises out of conditioning including the need to deny, to protect, out of fear of pain. This is inherent in the human also, we don't condemn that. It's because the human has such a tender heart that he or she is afraid of pain and denies and protects. So instead of condemning those qualities, cherish those qualities that mirror the heart's tenderness. This is so beautiful. Cherish this in yourselves. And forgive yourself for those places where you feel you have failed, by backing away from pain.

Freedom is such a precious thing. When I say freedom, I don't mean just freedom from karmic pull into a new lifetime, not just freedom from this cycle of samsara, but truly the freedom to love, the freedom to live one's life with joy, with passion, with connection. Not so much freedom from fear, because fear arises with conditions that may not be fully released as yet, but freedom to recognize fear as fear and not build stories on it.

May you all find the freedom to love. Good night to you. May your practice bring you great benefits.

(taping ends)

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