I read a book recently called What Makes You Not a Buddhist by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse. The subject of the book is the “four seals” of Buddhism:
All compounded things are impermanent; all emotions are pain; all things have no inherent existence; nirvana is beyond concepts.
I had heard of the book while practising the lam rim at a study retreat, at a time when I was considering ordination ~ reading the book was part of my investigation into whether I actually wanted to be a Buddhist. The teachers at the retreat recommended the book as a good introduction to what a student should understand before they consider even taking refuge.
So I read the book with fervour and very much enjoyed Khyentse’s style ~ so much so that I eventually travelled up to Sydney to watch him speak at a day-long teaching that was more reminiscent of a rock concert than it was of any teaching I had ever attended before. He was very funny, and he managed to convey a lot of insights that were valuable without talking directly about Buddhism very much.
He remains one of my favourite Buddhist teachers, but there was something in the introduction to the book that has just now popped into mind and caused me to question the value of asking the question, “What makes me not a Buddhist?”
No wait … it wasn’t in the introduction to that book ~ it was in another book that was discussing the same concepts, the four seals. Anyway,
wherever I read it, the author was drawing on the same notion: that to be a “card-carrying” Buddhist, one needs to agree with or understand the essence of the four seals.
Based on the current state of my research/understanding, this includes me. I believe I understand and agree with each of these four principles.
These principles, however, are not exclusive to Buddhism ~ they are principles understood by mystical traditions everywhere … or perhaps almost everywhere. If we agree with or understand these principles, we are not necessarily Buddhist, but to identify as a Buddhist we need to agree with these principles.
I understand that doctrine is a valueable guide in the search for truth, but this feels a bit too-dogmatic to me, especially now, but even a little bit back then. I was willing to let the dogma-feel slide, because I was (and still am, sometimes), eager to feel like part of a group that shares the same beliefs ~ it’s comforting, no?
But just now when I was doing something other than actively thinking about truth (I was doing a sort of zentagle, a form of art therapy … and waiting for Centrelink to take me off hold … 1:02:51 hours so far ;/
I was doodling and it came to mind that if we want to call ourselves a “card-carrying” Buddhist, we need to look at that:
the mystical path is a search for our true identity, our true nature ~ in Buddhism it is taught that what we believe to be our identity, our self, is an illusion: our identity is comprised of such elements as, say, male, thirty-four years old, brunette, dread-locked, quite handsome but a bit lopsided 🙂 Other elements include our cultural affiliations: Australian, public-school educated, progressive and a little bit Buddhist.
It’s that term “card-carrying” that caught my attention while I was doodling. A card-carrying member of a club has easy access: show the card; people trust you won’t get drunk and trash the place; they let you in. To say that understanding the four seals makes you a card-carrying Buddhist just renders the whole purpose of understanding these truths irrelevant, because these concepts are also an illusion. Yes? No?
Something I remember now from the Khyentse book is that the conclusion, maybe even the final line of the book, is the statement that if you realise enlightenment and still think you’re a Buddhist, there could be a problem, you know what I mean?
I really appreciated that Khyentse concluded his book with that sentiment. I want to be accepted as part of a group as much as the next bloke, but if we look around and cling too much to various labels to know whether we are or are not making progress along the spiritual path … well, that’s a lot different from just straight-up knowing we are on the path without having to identify as a Buddhist or a Gnostic or a shaman or a Hindu or whatever.
I think it’s realy important to remember this. What do you think?
What makes us not Buddhists/shamans/whatever is what makes us mystics, I reckon.
Learning to commune with Spirit is a process that requires a huge amount of trust, a deep willingness to embrace uncertainty and allow Cosmos to speak to us through means we are often too quick to discount as woo-woo in this age where linear rationality and material reality reigns supreme.
I often find myself wondering, What even is Spirit?, like I’m some Native American wannabe, but we don’t have to be Indians to commune with Spirit. I use the term “Spirit” in my journalling practices because it’s a word that comes easily to mind for me and because it seems to speak of a higher power that is beyond me, but which I can access.
That said, I’m starting to see that Spirit is not beyond me, not some supranatural force that exists outside ~ and yet, it must be called upon to enter my life.
It’s confusing for me because so much of my meaning-making is done through a deeply conditioned dualist perspective. If I feel like I cannot navigate this human experience using only my human wits, then I must need to call in some suprahuman power to guide me. But the power I seek for guidance is precisely what makes us human.
To live without access to this inherent power guiding us is to be de-human: the dehumanising forces at large in the world are those that separate us from that which is naturally inside us ~ empathy, compassion, intuition, and faith in the knowledge that Spirit is within, if only we can learn to communicate with our unconscious.
I sense very strongly that Spirit is nothing more and nothing less than the deep wellsprings of wisdom that reside in those parts of our Being we are only dimly aware of.
[Three miner birds (who I believe are my primary Spirit guide) are visiting now, as I write this. My life-path number from Dan Millman’s interpretation of Pythagorean numerology is 30/3. Because I believe the whole external world is an expression of our total consciousness, I believe these birds have come to visit from my unconscious to convey to me the message that yes, these words are truth.]
Spirit is not some otherworldly force we must call in from outside ~ and yet, we must call it in: the wisdom of Spirit does not communicate with our conscious mind if we do not create the space for this communication to occur, so in a sense it is outside us, in the sense that in our hyper-rational modes it remains outside our conscious awareness until we expand our conscious awareness to include that which we are yet unconsciously aware of.
How do we do this? How do we expand our conscious awareness to include that which we are yet dimly aware of?
I believe a basic principle of learning to commune with Spirit ~ with that which is yet buried in our unconscious awareness ~ is to keep an eye out for patterns:
if you observe a pattern, honour it by taking some action to integrate whatever insight might have arrived through interpreting the meaning of the pattern; the more we observe, honour, interpret and integrate any messages we divine from the machinations of Spirit, the more Spirit knows how to communicate with us.
[7:07 ~ resuming this draft after having it pointed at (in a comment at 11:17) that I woke from a dream at 3:14 … pi.]
An example from my own experience is the observation of pattern in numbers.
During periods of rapid spiritual growth in the last few years I have begun to notice patterns in the numbers I observe around the place ~ 11:11 or 3:33 on a clock, 22 on a letterbox, then 022 at the end of a phone number, then 22% battery left on my phone, three ducks lined in the row of the timespace continuum.
Many a naysayer will poo-poo this as nothing but woo-woo: “You’re only seeing those patterns because you’re looking for them,” as though this negates the significance of our observations.
People who say this are evidently not aware that we make our own meaning. It may be questionable to conclude from developments in quantum theory that we create our own reality, but it seems beyond reasonable doubt that we make our own meaning by interpreting reality ~ in that sense we are certainly participants in the creation of reality, and what else is reality but what we interpret reality to mean.
I think we tend to forget that we make our own meaning ~ a consequence of an education system where we are taught what to think, not how to think.
But how did people arrive in the first place at the ideas we are taught at school? Through observations of pattern. Long before educational institutions were a thing, humans were left to their own devices to make the meaning that has gone on to inform the structures of our institutions. This process continues, and what follows from this is that by taking responsibility for the process of our own meaning-making, we also continue to inform the structures of our institutions.
We are the culture makers and the meaning brokers.
What are the devices we use to make meaning and create institutions? Our physical and metaphysical sense organs ~ our eyes and our minds.
So with my eyes I perceive patterns in number and with my mind I interpret what they mean (to me). (I have done some cursory and haphazard research into numerology, but I’m less interested in what, say, Dan Millman has to say about numbers than I am in what numbers mean to me. [7:31]
[7:33] So, for example, I finished long-handing this draft at 7:31 and by the time I was at the keyboard the clock read 7:33, which might make more sense if I enumerate what each number means for me at this point (some of these are pulled from Pythagoras via Dan Millman, others from a numerologist I once saw, and others, especially 5, are my own interpretation):
1 ~ certainty
2 ~ masculinity
3 ~ expression/communication and sensitivity/compassion (from Dan Millman)
4 ~ femininity
5 ~ the Cosmic Joke
6 ~ ?
7 ~ higher mind
8 ~ abundance
9 ~ completion
So I read the time period 7:31~7:33 (a period of 2 minutes) to mean assertive but compassionate communication about ideas from the higher mind, and this gives me confidence that what I’m composing is relevant and significant.
How have I arrived at this meaning? By observing a pattern, and honouring it by taking some action to integrate whatever insight might have arrived through interpreting the meaning of the pattern, and by trusting that wisdom arrives through metaphysical sense organs that process their own form on non-linear rationality.
I’ve started to keep a numbers journal, where I honour the pattern I have observed by noting the numbers I see and the thoughts or events occurring at the time. I don’t always know what the numbers mean, but simply noting their emergence into my conscious awareness is a way for me to integrate the broadening of my conscious awareness.
If I don’t know what the numbers mean, I trust that at least they are communicating to me that my path is unfolding appropriately. Sometimes in the darkest times when everything else around me seems meaningless and pointless, a numerical pattern will emerge and it reminds me that there is light at the end of the tunnel.
I also honour observations of numerical pattern by taking screenshots on my phone, a simple action that says to Spirit, to my unconscious, Yes, I’m listening. So my phone memory is filled with screengrabs like this one:
I told a guy once that I had been seeing many auspicious numbers, and he poo-pooed it by saying “all numbers are auspicious ~ if you get too much into that you’ll just be left with a phone full of screengrabs that mean nothing”.
This is like the idea that we’re only seeing the patterns because we’re looking for them ~ in attempting to negate your insight, the naysayer unwittingly reveals a truth that undermines their own denouncement: yes, all numbers are auspicious … everything is auspicious if we choose to interpret it this way.
Imagine how such an attitude might transform our experience of suffering, for example. Got hit by a bus and broke your leg? Maybe the bus stopped you from crossing paths with a rogue gunman committing a massacre round the corner. Observing a pattern of repeatedly attracting partners who are emotionally unavailable? A good sign that you need to look at your own emotional availability.
And how it might transform our experience of what we previously considered to be meaningless and innocuous. Saw three magpies eating worms on the way home from school? Maybe magpies represent a paternal figure for you, and by observing this behaviour you are reminded that you need to take more responsibility for your own physical and spiritual nourishment ~ this might remind you to have a snack and do some meditation when you get home, instead of having a coffee and cramming for that exam.
Whatever it is, if we believe it to be auspicious, then it is. By taking small signs in the external world to be meaningful messages from Spirit or from the material expression of our unconscious, we begin to open a space in our existence where spiritual meaning can begin to pervade our interpretation of all that happens.
So much of the modern malady is caused by a deep sense of meaningless we all feel to some degree. If we can extract meaning from our daily existence by interpreting reality according to our own organic, ever-growing framework of reference points, we might stop seeking meaning in shiny external pursuits like career, relationships, wealth and status ~ our daily encounters with instances of meaningful relevance will keep us feeling that everything is unfolding according to plan and we’ll feel less inclined to chase meaning externally or to impose our interpretation of reality upon others.
So if you’re seeing patterns that seem not-uncanny, you’re probably on to something and you’ll be surprised by what begins to emerge and how strongly it begins to emerge if you just honour it and trust that you’re learning something.