The essence of Buddhism is acquiring an enlightened understanding of life. Therefore, Buddhism and life are inseparable. There are many theories about the meaning of life. Some people believe that life is futile and meaningless. They end up being quite unhappy and are always struggling with something, if not with a particular situation, then at least with themselves. Life is this mysterious flow or force that unfolds on its own. We have very limited control. Things that we want to happen, don’t happen, and things that we don’t want to happen, happen. Sometimes we can make desirable things happen and this causes temporary happiness. But we have very little control over life. Life is not like a car where we are the drivers. Life is not like clay where we are the sculptors.
Sometimes we see people white-water rafting in the mountains. They are having so much fun, but we also see that they have very little control over the raft. Perhaps one of the reasons that they are having so much fun is that they are allowing themselves to ride along with the natural flow of the river. Imagine if they were fighting the flow and trying to go against the stream. That would be very tiring and they wouldn’t be having so much fun. They would be frustrated and they would be plunged into the depths of despair every moment. So true Buddhism is a form of white-water rafting in the river of life. It is devotional surrender to life.
What Is The Most enlightened attitude we can hold in relation to life? A spirituality that teaches us to reject life and look for a better existence in the hereafter is misleading. Many spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, teach that life is sacred. It is not to be rejected. It is to be embraced and loved because we will never discover a truth, a reality, or a oneness that is separate from life itself. We can come up with notions of truth or divinity that are supposed to be more sacred, more holy, and more transcendent than life itself. Then we end up worshipping those notions, but we are simply worshipping ideas and concepts. Concepts have no reality. One day we will wake up and realize that what we have been worshipping is a fiction, an illusion, a myth. We will realize that we have been wasting our time, misleading ourselves. We may come to this very shocking as well as radical conclusion that life is actually everything. There is no grand truth that is beyond life itself. Life is the divine. Life is emptiness. Life is oneness.
Of course, we can love the scriptures. If we are Buddhist we can read about notions of emptiness. We can worship the sacred ideas in the scriptures and think that this life is trivial and unenlightened. We can think that the beautiful ideas in the scriptures are sacred. We can think that they are pointing out a reality that is hidden from our consciousness, one that is completely separate from life itself. But sooner or later everything we are aspiring for, everything we have been worshipping, will be realized as an illusion.
An eleventh-century Tibetan master, Dromtonpa, once met with a monk who was doing many forms of spiritual practice, reciting sutras, circumambulating temples, and so forth. The master said, “Everything you are doing is not true spiritual practice.” The monk was very perplexed and asked, “Well then tell me, what is true spiritual practice?” The master answered, “Let go of this life.” It sounds like he was encouraging the monk to reject life. But what he meant was, do not reject life. Simply let go of all of your ideas about life. Our ideas about life veil life. They are the hindrances to fully experiencing life. They cover life so that we can never have this immediate, sacred contact with life itself. It’s like this. When we meet people we usually have preconceived notions about who they are, so we never really meet them. We simply meet with the person that we have constructed. We meet with our own concepts. Most of the time we don’t really meet anyone because of our own concepts. We rarely meet anybody and therefore we are very lonely and sometimes confused. In the same way, we have to go beyond all of our ideas and concepts about life to meet it. Otherwise we never experience life. Many people never know what life is because they live through ideas, fantasies, and projections.
Life Is Totally Precious. It is divine. It is the truth. It is oneness. But sometimes we are not ready to recognize that and therefore we have to be a little bit lost, intentionally lost. The realm in which we should be intentionally lost is called spirituality. We have to tell ourselves that we are embarking on a divine journey to some fantastic destination, a journey that has nothing to do with life, a journey into nirvana, or a journey into the great truth. We can stay on that journey for months and months, or even years and years. Then one day, if we are lucky enough, we realize that whatever we are looking for is not out there. There is no “out there.” Life is nirvana. This is nirvana. Coming to this conclusion is the great U-turn. Sooner or later we have to make that great U-turn and wake up, realizing that this journey of searching outside is not leading us anywhere. At the same time we must express gratitude for the journey because if we hadn’t been lost on that journey, we might never have realized that everything is already here.
The Buddhist master Asanga said, “A master discovers truth through the act of devotion.” Devotion plays a very important role in spirituality. Hindus call it bhakti yoga. Many of the ancient sages in India and Tibet taught that path of devotion. It is one of the most powerful, most effective paths to enlightenment. Devotion is a shortcut to liberation because it is nonconceptual. It is experience, direct experience. It has nothing to do with ideas or conceptual analysis. It is the raw experience of being one with the divine, one with our true nature. It is the experience of dissolving the illusion of self rather than acquiring the idea, or concept, of no self. Most of the time when we read scriptures, or think, or have discussions about no self, we are indulging in ideas. They are wonderful ideas, but they are simply ideas. Ideas are very limited. They are lacking in love, humility, goodness, and true surrender. Ideas are simply mental positions, merely mental constructs. They don’t take us anywhere. There is a point where we have to go beyond all of our ideas. When we don’t know how to go beyond our ideas, we can actually turn those ideas into a way of obscuring the truth.
Devotion is an experience that has nothing to do with belief systems. It is the right now experience of melting the illusion of self and dissolving into the holiness which is life itself. Devotion is actually the act of surrendering. True devotion has no object. Is it possible to have devotion without an object? Devotion without an object is devotion that has no object separate from us. True devotion has no truth, no sacredness that is separate from us or separate from life. It is not out there like some kind of celestial entity residing in a mystical dimension behind a cloud.
So devotion without an object means that there is nothing that you can worship, nothing that you can surrender to that is separate from life itself. There is nothing that is separate from us. This understanding is considered the highest spiritual realization. This is called sacred perception. Sacred perception is the transcendence of all perceptions. It is actually the destruction of all perceptions because all perceptions are colored and conditioned by our own ego, our own dualism and ignorance. Sacred perception is the only perception that sees the true nature of everything, the true nature of reality and life itself.
How Do We Practice devotion to life? This has to do with completely surrendering to life, being at the mercy of life, having no more hopes and fears, no more wanting this and not wanting that. Not being in control of life, but letting life be our master. Letting life be our guide and surrendering to it completely without having even the slightest desire to control it or to modify it. When we do that, there is no more my life and no more your life. There is only life. There is a big difference between these two points of view: life and my life. The moment we have the thought “my life,” there is an immediate urge to control it. “Oh, my life. This has happened. This has not happened. This should happen. This should not happen.” There is no more surrendering; there is only ego’s fight. There is a constant battle inside of us. We are always trying to conquer and control life. Then we become completely lost in the prison of hope, fear, and expectation.
So much unnecessary suffering results from simply believing in this notion called “my life.” We become very greedy, stingy, overprotective, and overdefensive the moment we fall into this delusion called “my life.” We want to defend and secure the thing called “my life” and we see sometimes that a huge percentage of reality is a direct threat to “my life.” We become completely paranoid and fearful of reality, of the people and situations we encounter. We also become afraid of death because death symbolizes the end of the so-called “my life.” The practice of true devotion is devotion to life. It is not devotion to some grand idea of the divine, but devotion to life itself. In that process the notion of “your life” and “my life” dissolves. There is only life.
It’s like sitting in the ocean. Have you ever had the thought “my ocean?” There is no my ocean or your ocean. There is only ocean. If there was my ocean, then we might not enjoy that ocean. We might want to kick everybody off of the beach. We might say, “You have to pay, otherwise you are not supposed to enjoy it here with your kids, with your dog.” Can you see that this “my” is such a destructive thought? An immediate contraction happens in our consciousness. Maybe that’s why we feel so much joy and so much spaciousness when we walk into the ocean. Walking on the beach and dipping our feet into the ocean is a very religious experience, where we are transcendent. It sometimes helps us take our attention away from this egoic mind because there is no more “my.” There is no my ocean. There is no my sky, my universe, or my cosmos. There is only ocean. There is only sky. There is only cosmos. In the same way, there is only life, and life is already unfolding.
How Can We Discover Life? The path is very simple, utterly simple. Buddha gave a sermon that he said summarized all of his other sermons. He said, “Do not live in the past because the past is already gone. Do not live in the future because that is filled with expectations and it hasn’t arrived. Be fully aware of whatever is arising in this very moment with total awareness and insight. Be in the present moment. This is the pure way to discover life that is none other than emptiness, divine truth, and oneness.” Can we be in the present moment? Can we be in the present moment by simply diving into the river of breath or by simply listening to the sound of birds chirping outside? Can we be in the present moment by feeling the dance happening inside our chest, the pulse, the divine dance? Can we bring all of our attention, all of our focus, all of our heart into that pulse and discover reality and life itself? Life that is free from all of the tenets of our projections and ideas and preconceived notions, life without any barriers. That, perhaps, is like meeting the eternal Buddha. Then when we try to describe life, all we can say is that it is happening in this moment—in-breath, out-breath, space between thoughts, and sensations in our body.
Can we surrender to this present moment? Can we surrender to life that is already unfolding right now? Can we open our heart and instead of waiting and postponing, immediately, in this very moment, surrender all of our ideas of what life should be? Can we surrender the concept “my life” with total trust that life, this mysterious and uncontrollable flow, this force, this existence, is indeed divine? In that moment my life and your life dissolve. There is no separation between us and the rest of the world. There are no more boundaries and limitations. Then there is only love. There is only joy. This is the true sacred outlook.
A Christian pastor recently told me that he often goes into the woods to hear the voice of God. Maybe the voice of God is actually the voice of life. Life is always speaking to us but we don’t hear it. Life is always inviting us to an eternal feast of freedom and unconditional love. Life is always asking us to let go of all of our fear, all of our hatred, asking us to dissolve into life itself. Then life is sacred. Life is actually everything. This is very simple, but very hard to understand. That’s why we may have to keep getting lost in spirituality for a while. So please, let’s continue getting lost for a while or we can quit being lost and be free, once and for all. It’s our choice.
Anam Thubten is a Tibetan Nyigma monk and the founder and spiritual advisor of Dharmata Foundation.