I often say when I teach meditation, "We meditate not just to be calm, but to be real."
Meditation has become quite popular in the West, and Buddhist teachers abound, but I wonder if we have yet learned this profound lesson well enough. The Buddha himself, beginning his spiritual pilgrimage, studied with many meditation teachers. For the most part, these teachers taught a type of meditation designed to induce calm, even trance. The young Siddhartha mastered all these techniques. He was so good that some of his teachers urged him to teach with them, but he was not satisfied. He had an intuition that these meditation practices, while deep, were but a temporary respite from the primal suffering of human existence, and that once one emerged from trance the suffering was still there. He left these teachers and vowed to look deeper.
As meditation is finding its way in the West and looking for authentic cultural roots, we are bound to re-enact Siddhartha's own search, re-discover his own disappointments and illuminations. As Kalu Rinpoche, one of the young Tibetan teachers (he is in his early 20s) said recently in a public gathering, "Dharma is reality." I thought this was quite profound, especially coming from one so young. He went on to explain that most religion, including Buddhism, offers an escape from reality, rather than a transforming insight about it. But Dharma is not like that. It is about what is true and real. Buddhist meditation is ultimately a way to discover that truth.
Once a student said to Suzuki Roshi, "My meditation is no good; I'm thinking all the time." o which Suzuki replied, "What's wrong with thinking?"
Suzuki meant it as a deep question. What is wrong with thinking? Is all thinking wrong, or just some thinking? Is thinking during meditation a bad thing? The sixth ancestor of Zen, Hui Neng, specifically taught that to empty the mind of all thoughts during meditation is not a Buddhist practice. Thrangu Rinpoche, a living Mahamudra master, once said (in the book "Pointing Out the Dharmakaya"), "sometimes you have a really bad thought when you meditate." And to stress the point he added, "No I mean a really bad thought!"
When the laughter subsided he went on to say, "No problem. Just keep meditating."
There is nothing wrong with meditating in order to calm the mind. All of us can use more calmness in the midst of a busy life. In fact, without some calmness in meditation it is impossible to see anything clearly or distinguish what is real from what is illusion. Once we have attained a stable, calm mind, we can then go deeper. We can, as Zen Master Dogen famously said, "study the self." Who is this person that is meditating? Where do these thoughts and feelings that rise and fall originate, and where do they go when they subside? Why do I suffer? Why do other people suffer? What is the cause of that woe? How can it be convincingly assuaged?
These are the questions that Siddhartha asked as he continued his spiritual quest, continuing to probe deeper, until he was satisfied that he had gotten to the bottom of his inquiry. That is the real treasure that Buddhism has to offer, and it may take us a long time in the West to bring this treasure to full fruition.
It is possible. The Buddha was not a god or a super-being, but an ordinary human being just like us. If he could do it, we can do it. People in every generation have the same opportunity as the Buddha had to see behind the curtain of illusion to the reality beneath.
Each of us can be Buddha, which means being awake to what is real.
Follow Lewis Richmond on Twitter: www.twitter.com/lewrichmond