May 2, 2012 Wednesday Evening, Emerald Isle Retreat, Aaron

Aaron's personal stories of the three dharma gates of Suffering, Impermanence, No Self: the Three Dharma Paths; Three of Aaron's Past Life Stories and Aaron's final lifetime and enlightenment.

Barbara: Good evening. Aaron is going to give the talk tonight, but I want to share just a couple of thoughts. I came into the doorway here as you were chanting. It was so sweet, the chanting and the candles lit on the altar, the Buddha, the sacred objects, the flowers. Here is the whole of the dharma. And I felt such a deep sense of blessing to be able to be here with you and spend a week sharing dharma together. It's such a priceless gift.

As I stood there, I was reflecting how in June 1989, five months after I met Aaron, I went to my first vipassana retreat, which John was leading. Six months earlier I had never heard the word vipassana. I knew nothing about Buddhism. I ran into Aaron. Clearly this was my karma. Everything was flowing as it should.

Aaron at first would not tell me whether it was Buddhism or not, or what he was teaching me. And then he began to say yes, this is vipassana meditation, and it's related to Buddhism. But he cautioned me, “I'm not teaching you this to make you a Buddhist but to help you awaken.”

I went to a woman, who is now a very dear friend in Ann Arbor. I did not know her. I looked up Buddhism in the Yellow Pages in the phone book. I found the Ann Arbor Zen temple. I knocked on the door. Haju answered. She invited me in. I said, “What is Buddhism? Can you tell me what Buddhism is?” She said, “Well, I teach Korean Zen Buddhism so I have that slant on it. Here's a book about Korean Zen Buddhism.” And that had some things, like the Four Noble Truths, which Aaron had been teaching me.

So I read the books. I went back to her. I said, this is what my teacher is teaching me. She said, “Oh, he sounds like a very clear teacher. Trust him.” I wanted to learn more specifically about vipassana. Aaron said okay, it's time to go deeper into this. A day later, a flyer appeared in my mailbox for a retreat that John was leading. I had no idea that people came together in silence and sat for a weekend meditating. I had no idea—what, I'm gonna go there and I'm gonna sit and I'm not gonna talk? I can't hear; what am I going to do?

I wrote to John. You've heard this from him. I sent him some of the things I was learning. He said, Come. A friend came with me who offered to take notes for me, fingerspell for me. It just all clicked. It's just been such an incredible gift, and I feel so blessed, and so much love to it.

I was looking at the Bodhi leaf on the altar. It must be 12 or 13 years ago now when my son Mike spent a year traveling through Asia, and in India he sat under the Bodhi tree. There was a big storm. Leaves came down so he picked up a leaf and pressed it, a handful of leaves, pressed them and brought them home to me. That's one of them. I've got another one just like it framed on my altar. So it gives me much joy that my son, traveling all over the world, knew exactly what to bring me as a gift. No material gifts; what would Mom really like? A sacred Bodhi leaf!

I just wanted to share this. I'm feeling so much gratitude and joy and love and appreciation for the dharma, for all of you, for Aaron.

That's all. I'm going to let Aaron talk.

Aaron: My blessings and love to you all. I am Aaron. Some of you enjoyed Ariel's presence this afternoon, a very beautiful entity. He is my master teacher, to whom I owe a great deal. Everything I teach, everything I know of the dharma comes from him. When I say everything I know of the dharma, of course I had many lifetimes studying the dharma in human form. But Ariel has been my inner teacher through so many lifetimes on the astral plane. I have a great depth of love and gratitude for him, as Barbara was just expressing to me. And so we pass it down. Part of the beauty of the dharma is the sharing of it and the great joy of sharing it.

You know that I was not always enlightened, and I evolved fully on the human plane, experiencing suffering just as you do. There are traditional three dharma paths: of suffering, of impermanence, of emptiness, and each of them in one life or another was a profound teacher for me.


In one lifetime long ago I was not a very lovable person. I was not a mature person. I stole. I abused others. It may be hard for you to think of me, Aaron, as having been a thief or abusive. But I was caught up in my own views, in my anger, and this is not casting blame, simply I was raised that way. My parents, the influences of my childhood in that lifetime, they were not honest people. They were not caring people.

I had a family, a wife and children, and I did not take very good care of them, but I did try to feed them. Sometimes I could earn money for food; sometimes I could not. At one point I stole food to feed my children, but I knew that it was not wholesome to be stealing that I could have earned the food in some way. So it was not desperation that led me to steal but laziness.

I was caught. The punishment for stealing in those days was to have one's hands cut off, a terrible punishment because then one can no longer earn money to feed one's family. While I was thusly confined for several days, about to be punished, a group of Buddhist monks came into town. Something in their chanting and their demeanor called deeply to me, deeply opened my heart. This was in the Buddha's time, but I never had the good fortune to meet the Buddha directly. But this was a group of monks who simply radiated compassion.

They saw me, I was tied to a post, and they asked the authorities, why is he tied there? “He is a thief and he will be punished at dawn. His hands will be cut off.” Something in their demeanor had called to me, and when they were kneeling and chanting, I began to chant with them, trying to follow their chants. They said to me, “Would you like to become a monk?” The choice was not made just to escape from punishment. I actually believed they would cut off my hands and then allow me to go off and be a monk. Their demeanor called to me. I said yes.

Somehow they negotiated my release and took me with them. I was instructed in the novice vows and eventually ordained. I cannot say that the avarice, hatred and anger left immediately, but suddenly there was a different path possible. All the old conditioning toward greed, toward anger, toward self-centeredness, became so apparent to me, and I felt such deep regret for all the harm I had done in my lifetime. I also felt a bit overwhelmed. How can I ever make that up? A very loving teacher said, “You do not make it all up. You just shift your path and start to do good deeds instead of harmful deeds, and eventually the karma will balance.”

This one who was my teacher in that lifetime, he was older at that time when he brought me in, and I was perhaps just in my late 20s, a rather young man. For 20 years I was very close to him, revered him. And then he became old and sick, and I had the wonderful opportunity to take care of him. He could no longer walk on his alms round, so I could collect the food for him, medicines for him. When he became unable to walk, I could help him to use a bowl to toilet himself and clean it for him, could bathe him. It was such a gift to have this teacher in my life, willing to be receptive to my sometimes blundering attempts to take care of him, but openhearted.

I made mistakes through those years. Celibacy was hard for me but I mastered it. Greed was hard for me, and grasping, but I learned how not to enact the movements of greed. Anger was the hardest for me. I never conquered anger in terms of stopping anger, but I learned how not to be reactive to my anger. But I suffered enormously through that lifetime, and through the gateway of suffering, I saw that there truly was an end to suffering.


In a later lifetime I was very happily married, a much more settled human in this lifetime, much kinder. I was still experiencing greed and anger at times. I had a beautiful family, a number of children who I adored, and a beautiful wife.

There were heavy torrential rains and a serious mudslide that overran our whole village. Many of the people in the village escaped, but my family's home was more at the bottom of the hill. I was out of the house at the time of the mudslide and came home to find my whole family buried by mud, dead. Impermanence. There is nothing you can hold on to. I was devastated. My heart was broken. I loved my family so much. They were the core of my life, and they were my teachers of love, or so I thought. And without them I felt I would become completely adrift and revert to the old paths of anger and greed that were still not purified.

Fortunately for me our village had a crisis with the mudslide because the single well in the village was buried beneath the mud. The villagers who survived did not know what to do. There was no water for drinking. The nearest water source was miles away. This well was fed by a pure spring. The villagers were ready to disperse, and given the weather at that time it was likely that many would not have survived.

We had enough water for several days, stored in pots. I said, “I know where the well is, and it is fed by a pure spring. Let us dig it out.” And so we began to dig. Many were very skeptical. Some even left and began to walk, searching for some place they could go where there would be water.

We dug. We moved the dirt away. We found the well. We dug down, pulling the dirt out of the well. Lowering a man down the well shaft, digging, hoisting up the dirt by bucketfuls until finally we reached the bottom where the spring opened out and the water flowing clear.

What drew me to that task? I had no more family. I could have simply walked off. Seeing so deeply into impermanence and loss, I was looking for some ground for being, love of my people. The Ground was also that deep spring. This is where the name Deep Spring Center has come from. Finding that Deep Spring, that ever pure water. No matter what devastation there is around you, that pure spring is there and accessible.

So life continued. The village pulled itself together. We buried our dead and mourned them. I did not remarry. I did not have more children. But I became a kind of uncle and grandfather to many in the village, including some who were orphaned by the mudslide. Seeing impermanence, my heart cracked open to find the pure source of loving-kindness.

No Self

Some of you have heard this story from me before. A crime was committed in my town.  I was blamed, although I was innocent. It was sandy climate, a desert climate, and the way that people were held prisoner in that time and place was to be confined into a deep hole dug in the sand. It was not soft sand that would constantly collapse but sandy earth. A rope ladder was put down into the hole, and I was placed in a room about 12 feet square, with walls 12 feet high, such that I could not climb out. I was given a few large palm leaf-type branches for shelter.

I was enraged. “It's not fair! It wasn't me! Why am I being punished?” There was such a strong sense of self, so much anger. I poured that anger out at my jailors, who were simply people who were doing their work in order to feed their families. They meant me no harm. Each day they brought me some food and water. Once a week they would pull me out of the hole, throw buckets of water over me so I could bathe myself a bit, and lower me back down into the hole. They gave me a pot in which I would urinate and defecate, and they would lift it up daily and empty it for me. They really gave me a lot of service. But my anger was so intense that I took it out on all of those around me.

I had no family attachments in that lifetime. I did not really know about monasticism. I simply wanted a quiet place to meditate. I was infuriated because here I was, imprisoned in a hole, and I could not go and live off in the woods and meditate! (laughter) My needs were met. Not rich, but sustainable food, fresh water. Quiet, with nobody bothering me. And rage.

It took about two years before I fully understood, when I yelled at the jailors they would yell back, treat me abusively. I finally realized, “I am inviting this abuse unto myself. If I'm going to spend the rest of my life in this hole, it can be pleasant or unpleasant and the choice is mine. I create this for myself.”

So I began with a simple thank you to my jailors. I began to talk to them and ask them about their lives. Do you have children? What is your life about? They began to sit up there at the edge of the hole and talk to me. And eventually, when they pulled me up to bathe, they would let me sit up there for a few hours. They would sit and talk to me. They gave me better food.

Gradually they began to pull me up every day to sit under a tree. They would talk to the point that I would think to myself, “I just want to go back to my hole where it's quiet!” But I understood their need to talk, and that here was somebody willing to listen to them, and it was something good I could do in the world. So gradually that whole sense of self that wanted it “this way” not “that way,” grasping and trying to manipulate the environment, fell away. A deep sense of emptiness came through all those hours and days and months of meditation, just sitting in this hole. Nothing to attain; no place to go; the deep experience of emptiness. And here also was the deep joy of living from the open heart, in service to others.

Eventually I became almost like a priest to the village. People who had troubles would come and sit under my tree and talk to me. Often I had good advice. It was not my advice; I had known little of human life. It was simply my heart prompting, sharing the dharma. So many people came to love me. Not so much me, because there wasn't much self there, but this trusted, kind, loving advisor. And I had no ego built around that. There was simply a spacious emptiness, and a great joy and peace to my life.

Many years passed like that. Then a man was caught committing some crime and he was to be put to death. It was a serious crime. He said to them, “You know that man in that hole in such-and-such village? I did that crime. He ought to be let go.” He knew enough about the crime that they were convinced it was true, that he had done the crime. They simply came, the man whose goods had been stolen, whose house had been broken into, a rich man, and he said, “Oh yes, let him go.” No apology for 20 years of living in a hole. No amends. They just said, “You're free to go.”

My beloved friends of jailors knew of course that I had no place to go. They built me a small hut in the woods area under the trees where I used to sit, so I didn't go far. There were others in holes in this prison area and me in a little hut under the trees. My life continued except I no longer lived in a hole, I lived in a hut. But it was empty, no self.

This has been my journey. Of course these are just three out of many lifetimes of suffering, of confusion, of anger, of fear, of despair. I have experience all the human conditions. I've been a woman dying in childbirth. I have been men killed in war, in battle, and I have been men who have killed other men in battle. I was once a sea pirate. I've lived in Aborigine cultures and as a merchant in large cities. I've been a politician and I've been a slave. I've been priests and shamans in many traditions, different religions. I have been one who betrayed his people and one who was betrayed, one with closed heart and one who learned to forgive.. I've covered it all;  different cultures, work, religions, skin color, male and female.

Through it all, this dharma path has been a guiding light. It has quite literally been the source and ground of freedom. So it's not just from my final lifetime, which some of you have heard me speak of, that I teach this path. When I look back I see sometimes it was not presented as Buddha-dharma. That doesn't matter; the dharma is the dharma. The Buddha did not invent the dharma. The Buddha discovered the dharma and revealed it to others. So wherever in the world I was, these teachings came through: to be present, to be kind, to watch the impulse of actions that lead to suffering, and to find the courage and love to cease those harmful behaviors.

Because I have walked this path, I know your suffering. Any kind of body pain you can imagine, I have experienced. I know your suffering. Any kind of loss you can imagine, I have experienced. Any emotion, I have experienced. And there IS freedom. Freedom does not mean a cessation of feeling. My heart cries out in sadness for the enormous suffering of the world. But I do not suffer from that sadness. Rather, it more deeply impels me to commit myself to this bodhisattva path. To teach, to share the dharma, and to love.

Barbara taught some portions of the path this week. Wherever you are, that is the start of the path for you. I don't mean the absolute start, because all of you are well-launched on that path, but that is the first step from today onward. If you have bad body pain, that's where you are. If you have chaos in your life, that's where you are. If you have deeply loving, rewarding relationships but you feel you are not worthy of those relationships, that's where you are. If you are confused, that's where you are. If you are angry, that's where you are.

Start where you are and ask yourself, “Seeing I am here, where do I wish to go?” You can't just walk, you have to have a destination or you'll go in circles. Where you choose to go will change as you mature. You're not making a final choice of where you will go. You might say, “Well, I want liberation.” That's fine, but until you get it, where are you going? Is it sufficient simply to love a bit more in your life for now? Then the liberation will come.

Where are you going? What is it that you choose to enact in your life at this time, in this moment? I think many of you have heard my story of my final human lifetime. Is there anybody who has not heard that story? I don't want to repeat it unnecessarily. Who has not heard it? Put your hands up. Alright, many of you have, so I will share it briefly, just to come to the final point.

I really thought I was enlightened. My life was deeply peaceful and full. I was a meditation master in northeast Thailand, in a forest setting. The villagers loved me and supplied my basic needs, and I loved them and was delighted to share the dharma with them. I had many monks who came during the rains retreat and sat with me, and a smaller group of monks around who were with me much of the year. There was nothing lacking in my life. There was deep peace and joy.

My brother's son, my nephew, was my senior disciple. So although I had never had children, he was the child of my heart, so to speak, and I knew that eventually when I died he would take over. His dharma understanding was very deep. So we lived in a kind of bliss, like you're experiencing here. No swimming pool, not even an ocean, but streams to bathe in; peaceful woods in which to meditate; wild animals and other wildlife to remind us of the broadness of the sentient consciousness; wonderful people, and the blessed dharma.

And then one day my brother's older son was killed in an accident. He lived several days' walk away, so the first I knew of this was when he came storming into my monastery. When I say monastery, don't picture a big building but just a simple covered area, a small pavilion where people could meditate in the woods, and a few huts, kutis. He came storming in and demanded to take his younger son home. He needed him. He had his older son's children to raise. He had no one to help him with the farm work and the various work he had to do. “Release my son from his monastic vows. Give him back to me.” He was very angry. He was very frightened.

I saw later how attached I was to this nephew, this disciple, this son of my heart. In a very uncharitable way, I simply said no. He did not want to go, and I did not want him to go. The compassion was lacking. I couldn't open my heart to my brother's need. “No.”

My brother, in rage, picked up something between a spear and a knife. Not just a little knife but not a long spear. And he threw it at me. And his son, my heart-son, stepped between me and this missile, and it penetrated into his guts. He was not killed instantly. He lived for about 24 hours in enormous pain. My brother was screaming, “Look what you made me do!” And I was feeling such deep pain, because I understood that my saying no had catalyzed this whole flow of karma, to some degree. I was not responsible for throwing the knife. But I knew my brother. I knew he could be easily enraged and that rage triggered into action.

I saw my selfishness. I did not have to have asked the young man to disrobe. It would have been sufficient to send him and two other monks along with my brother to get things settled. To stay there for three months, help with the farm work. It's not usually permitted in the monastic vows, but in an extreme situation one can take that kind of action if necessary. The highest value is human life. So I could have sent them to stay long enough for him to find sufficient help, for him to get over the extremity of his grief, and then they would return to the monastery. It was my attachment that held him there, so I participated karmically in the killing of this young man.

The son died. The brother left. And I closed down my affairs at the monastery as quickly as I could and left the monastery and the villagers in the care of another senior monk, not one capable of leading the monastery for a length of time but the best that could be done. I went off into the jungle where I lived for ten years, examining the karma, examining any remaining tendencies that needed to be purified. You don't need the details of the ways that they were purified. But everything needed to be investigated and purified, nothing left unturned. And so this is what I did for almost ten years, alone in the forest.

Finally, I thought, “Maybe I am ready to go back.” But something in me knew I wasn't fully enlightened yet. There was something left to be released. I hope I'm not boring you by the repetition of this story, those of you who have heard it before. But I hope there's some learning in hearing it again.

It was a stormy night and I was walking along a path in the jungle, trying to get back to my small dwelling place before the rain really came down hard. I'd walked a distance that morning to town for alms and not come back immediately, as was my usual process, but stayed to help some villagers with some problems. So I was walking late at night on this path.

The storm hit in its full force, and a tree came down on top of me, a tree that had long spikes of thorns. I was pinned to the ground, quite literally. The thorns were not deeply penetrating my skin, although there were scratches, but there was no way to move. A thorn here, a thorn here, I was literally pinned down, with a tree that was too heavy for me to lift.

I was lying face down in the mud, rain pouring down on me. Cold, wet, muddy. But there was equanimity. I felt, “I can survive here for 24, 48 hours, even longer. Eventually, this is a well-enough traveled path that somebody will come through. They will find me. They will lift this off of me.” I continued just breathing and feeling the rain, breathing and feeling discomfort. It was not a problem with it. I was in a very empty and openhearted place.

And then as the rain let up, I began to hear the footsteps of an animal that I knew to be a tiger. I could hear it digging and sniffing. And I thought, “She's going to eat me.” Even there, there was some degree of equanimity at first, but gradually terror came up. What will it feel like? Will there be terrible pain? Will she gnaw off my leg first, or an arm? Will she kill me first before she eats me, or will she just slowly devour me?

Awareness was present with all the tension, with all the fear, with all the anger. I began to see the whole flow of karma, what you might call on this retreat the akashic field; the whole field of all of my tendencies through many lifetimes, to separate myself, to cherish myself above others. And also the very blessed karma of service I had done through many lifetimes. And as in the Buddha's story where he touches the ground and says, “I claim, through the earth as my witness, I claim the right to enlightenment,” there was a clear seeing not only of the harm I had done but of the good I had done, and that they balanced. I was ready for liberation. I only had to say, “Yes, I choose this.”

My heart opened to this tiger. I thought, “Maybe it's a mother with cubs. She needs meat to feed her cubs.” And there was a readiness to give of myself. There was no fear anymore. If it's a painful death, it will be a painful death. If it's an instant death, that's how it will be.

So I relaxed. All fear dissolved. There was not complete body dissolution, but there was complete ego dissolution. There was no self there; there was only love there. Sending love to this tiger, male or female, I had no idea which. Sending love to myself and all beings in their moments of death. Asking that my life or my death, whatever it might be, would continue to be a blessing to other beings.

Everything shifted. There was no longer any center of self. All the karma was purified. And the tiger, no longer scenting any fear, any victim, the rain having washed away any scent of blood, the tiger just walked away.

I lay there the rest of the night, wet, muddy, cold, and in bliss. Knowing, I am liberated. This karmic stream is no more.

The next morning, monks came through and lifted the tree off. They washed off my scratches. They shared their alms with me. They asked me where I would go. At first I went with them back to their monastery and taught the dharma there. But I knew I needed to return to my original monastery of ten years ago, and did that, and found that it still remained, just a few monks there, not many, but a few people offering dharma to the town and supported by the town. There I taught the dharma for the rest of my life.

Was liberation different? I told you how before this episode with my nephew and my brother I had thought I was liberated. But there was a difference. “I” thought I was liberated. There was a self, thinking about this. Now there was no longer a thought, “Am I liberated? Am I not liberated?”, only, where is love to be found? What needs doing? Not me serving, just the offering of service and the sharing of the dharma; the great blessing of sharing the dharma; the great blessing of service to all beings.

So I lived the rest of my life in a deep place of peace and joy. There was at times sickness, body pain, and so forth. People whom I loved died. There was sadness to see them die, both some of the beloved villagers and some of the monks. I was not beyond joy and sadness, but I was beyond grief or despair, beyond fear or grasping. There was nothing perpetuating any karmic stream. There was freedom.

And this, my dear children, is what I wish for you, this degree of liberation, and nothing less. In that beautiful sutra the Buddha says, “Abandon the unwholesome. One can abandon the unwholesome. If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do it. Cultivate the wholesome. If it were not possible, I would not ask you to do it.” And he says, yes, liberation is possible. And yes, it is.

Do not ask, will I be liberated in this lifetime? Only, am I following a path to liberation, however many lifetimes it will take? Persevere. Just keep walking the path.

Thank you.

If you have a few questions, I would be happy to hear them. If not, we will just end here.

Q: What level or stage of consciousness were you in when you were liberated?

Aaron: Non-dual consciousness.

Perhaps we can put the books out tomorrow, because the chapter with the states and stages of consciousness is in Cosmic Healing, and a number of people have asked about that...

Beyond the causal. Non-dual awareness. So I was still in causal consciousness. I was in subtle consciousness, at the time when the brother's son died. Through those years of living in the woods, I was mostly in causal consciousness, and moved into Christ/Buddha consciousness, but I was not yet fully awake. And then with that experience I moved into this beyond-the-causal, fully into non-dual awareness. And that is where I remain.

Q: At the beginning of your talk you mentioned three dharma paths. Could you say more about those, what they are, and a little more about those?

Aaron: There are generally thought to be three basic paths. Each one of you follows one path more of the time, although each of the three will enter into your experience. Suffering, impermanence, and emptiness. Each of them becomes a path. For some of you, one path is the clearest route; for others, another path. But all of you will experience all three.

So the truths of suffering, impermanence, and no self, anatta and anicca, these are not just things to realize but they are teachers. When you suffer enormous loss, as I did in that lifetime with my family, either you become embittered by it or it teaches you.


Q: When you say non-dual consciousness, is that the same non-dual consciousness that begins with the fourth training?

Aaron: In the talk of trainings? But there are degrees of non-dual consciousness. Looking at Q's list here, it comes from Barbara's book, I believe. The first level of enlightenment, the stream entry level, is in subtle consciousness, high astral. The once-returner is also in subtle. The non-returner is in causal, Christ/Buddha consciousness. The arahat is beyond the causal plane in non-dual awareness. The one who is not yet fully an arahat but is a bodhisattva  is also likely beyond the causal plane,  

Remember, in those trainings I say they're like a spiral, so we move into insight into non-dual consciousness, but it's in no way stable. There's just insight into it. As you ascend, it becomes more and more stable.

Any other question?

Let us end here, then. My blessings and love to you all.

(session ends)