Do we really believe we can awaken?
Stephan Bodian talks with popular lay teacher Adyashanti.
One of the most popular Buddhist teachers in the San Francisco Bay Area these days is not a Tibetan lama or a traditional Zen master but an unconventional, an American-born lay teacher named Adyashanti. His public talks and dialogues (which he calls satsangs, a term borrowed from India’s Advaita, or “nondual,” tradition) attract hundreds of seekers, Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. At a satsang I attended recently at a church near Lake Merritt, in downtown Oakland, Adyashanti sat on a large chair at the front of the hall, flanked by flowers. After a period of silence and a brief dharma talk, in which he focused on “the futility of seeking what we already are,” he invited members of the audience to engage in dialogue with him.
One man asked about the value of a regular meditation practice, and Adyashanti observed, “Whenever you aren’t manipulating your experience, you’re meditating. As soon as you meditate because you think you should, you’re controlling your experience again, and you’ve squeezed all the value out of your meditation.”
Again and again, he urged students to connect directly, in the moment, with the palpable truth of their own inherent nature—with the one who, in Adyashanti’s words, is “always looking out through your eyes right now.” The intensity and intimacy of these encounters reminded me of a kind of public dokusan, the private exchange between master and disciple in traditional Zen.
Although Adyashanti rarely talks about Zen or Buddhism these days, he did train closely with a Buddhist teacher, spending more than a dozen years practicing meditation under the guidance of Arvis Justi, a lay teacher in the lineage of Zen master Taizan Maezumi, the founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. Beginning at age nineteen, Steve Gray (as Adyashanti was then called) shifted his youthful intensity from bicycle racing and backpacking to the pursuit of enlightenment, attending weekly gatherings in Justi’s living room, sitting periodic week-long retreats with Jakusho Kwong Roshi, a disciple of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, and logging three or four hours each day in a meditation shed he constructed in his parents’ backyard.
At age twenty-five, while sitting alone on his cushion, Gray had a classic kensho, or awakening experience, in which—as he describes it now—he “penetrated to the emptiness of all things and realized that the Buddha I had been chasing was what I was.” As powerful as this experience had been, however, Gray knew immediately that he had seen just the tip of the iceberg. “I had discovered that I am what I’ve been seeking,” he explains. “Then the next koan arose spontaneously: What is this that I am?”
Although Gray continued to meditate, absorbed by this new question, he reports that all sense of effort and anxiety disappeared. During this period, he married and went to work in his father’s machine shop. “I was happy,” he recalls, “but I knew it wasn’t enough.” As his inquiry deepened, his practice diverged from the traditional format, and he lost interest in doing retreats or relying on his teachers for guidance. Instead, his energies turned inward and became, in his words, “exclusively focused on realizing the truth of my own being.” In addition to meditating, he spent many hours sitting in coffee shops writing out answers to the questions, or life koans, that spontaneously came to him.
Finally, at thirty-one, Gray had an experience of awakening that immediately put to rest all his questions and doubts. Two years later Arvis Justi asked him to teach, and he changed his name to Adyashanti, Sanskrit for “primordial peace.”
I interviewed Adyashanti—a teacher of mine for several years—at his home in San Jose on a warm Indian-summer afternoon. He’s a small man, slight of build, with blond hair cropped close like a monk’s. Our conversation was grounded in our familiarity, as friends and as teacher and student, and we laughed frequently as we talked.
Stephan Bodian:I understand that in the later years of your practice, before what you describe as your final awakening, you lost interest in the traditional Zen forms.
Adyashanti:Yes. I was still practicing and seeing my teacher, but my intense investigation of truth had purged me of all fascination with tradition, with Buddhism, with Asian culture. When I looked around at the Buddhist tradition, I realized that the success rate was terrible. People were in it for enlightenment, but very few were actually getting enlightened. If this were a business, I thought, we’d be bankrupt. I didn’t reject anything. I just stopped blindly adhering to the traditional approach, and the energy bound up in following transferred to looking deeply into what’s really true. I felt very much on my own.
SB:How did this solitary investigation finally bear fruit?
Adyashanti:It was actually quite simple. One morning I sat down to meditate, and I heard a bird call outside the window. From my gut, I felt a question arise that I had never heard before: Who hears this sound? Immediately the whole world turned inside out and upside down, and I was the bird and the sound and the hearing of the sound, the cushion, the room, everything. It’s not that I as a separate self merged with everything. It was just a pure seeing that everything is one, and that I am that. Unlike other kenshos, this one unfolded with no emotion whatsoever.
Then, in the middle of the experience, something—or rather, nothing—woke up out of the oneness. I knew that I was everything in manifestation, however subtle or dense, and yet I was also total emptiness, empty of even the experience of emptiness, and suddenly everything was seen to be a dream. There was a deeply felt kinesthetic sense of being everything and at the same time nothing. I knew with my whole being that who I really was wasn’t even the oneness, it was the emptiness prior to the oneness, forever awake to itself. This knowing has never changed or faded in any way.
SB: This “knowing” you talk about is traditionally called enlightenment. As you know, enlightenment has been both idealized and trivialized in the West. How would you define it?
Adyashanti: Enlightenment is awakening from the dream of being a separate me to being the universal reality. It’s not an experience or a perception that occurs to a separate person as the result of spiritual practice or cultivated awareness. It doesn’t come and go, and you don’t need to do anything to maintain it. It’s not about being centered or blissful or peaceful or any other experience. In fact, enlightenment is a permanent nonexperience that happens to nobody. The separate person is seen through, and you realize that only the supreme, universal reality exists, and that you are that.
The joke is that you are now and have always been what you are seeking. Everybody is already the supreme reality, Buddha-nature, or Christ consciousness, except that most of us are asleep to this fact.
SB:What’s the relationship, do you suppose, between all those years of sitting zazen and this kensho experience? Did they prime the pump of awakening? Were they steps leading to awakening? You now seem to be dismissing the concept of “stages of the path,” yet there appears to be some causal relationship between your Zen meditation practice and your awakening.
Adyashanti:I’m deeply grateful for my Zen practice. It ultimately led me to fail well. I failed at being a Buddhist, I failed at being a perfect exemplar of the ten precepts, and certainly I failed at meditation, failed at all my efforts to bust down the “gateless gate” to awakening that Zen speaks of. And the fact that I actually got to the point where I failed—and I failed completely—was useful. Zen provided a place for me to fail, and I needed that. In fact, I’d say my process wasn’t so much a letting go as an utter failure. Zen did a good job of letting me fall on my face.
SB:What would have been a success—awakening?
Adyashanti: Well, failure was the success—awakening happened through failure. In that sense I have a great respect for the lineage. What was transmitted was bigger than all the carriers, it was even bigger than the lineage, much bigger than Zen, much bigger than Buddhism.
SB: What was that?
Adyashanti: I’d say a certain spark, an aliveness.
SB:How has your own enlightenment changed the way you function in the world: your relationships, your family life, your everyday behavior? Does being enlightened mean that you never get angry or reactive or make big mistakes?
Adyashanti:There’s no such thing as never getting angry. Enlightenment can and does use all the available emotions. Otherwise, we would have to discount Jesus for getting pissed off in the temple and kicking over the table. The idea that enlightenment means sitting around with a beatific smile on our faces is just an illusion.
At a human level, enlightenment means that you are no longer divided within yourself, and that you no longer experience a division between yourself and others. Without any inner division, you stop experiencing most of the usual forms of reactivity.
SB:Could you say a little more what you mean by no “inner division”?
Adyashanti: Most human beings spend their lives battling with opposing inner forces: what they think they should do versus what they are doing; how they feel about themselves versus how they are; whether they think they’re right and worthy or wrong and unworthy. The separate self is just the conglomeration of these opposing forces. When the self drops away, inner division drops away with it.
Now, I can’t say that I never make a mistake, because in this human world being enlightened doesn’t mean we become experts at everything. What does happen, though, is that personal motivations disappear. Only when enlightenment occurs do we realize that virtually everything we did, from getting out of bed to going to work to being in a relationship to pursuing our pleasures and interests, was motivated by personal concern. In the absence of a separate self, there’s no personal motivation to do anything. Life just moves us.
When personal motivation no longer drives us, then what’s left is our true nature, which naturally expresses itself on the human dimension as love or compassion. Not a compassion that we cultivate or practice because we’re supposed to, but a compassion that arises spontaneously from our undivided state. If we undertake being a good, compassionate person as a personal identity, it just gets in the way of awakening.
SB:In traditional Buddhism, at least as I practiced it, there’s a taboo against talking openly about enlightenment, as we’re doing now. It seems to be based on the fear that the ego will co-opt the experience and become inflated. In your dharma talks you speak in great detail about awakening, including your own, and in your public dialogues you encourage others to do the same. Why is that?
Adyashanti: When I was sitting with my teacher, Arvis, we’d all go into the kitchen after the meditation and dharma talk and have some fruit and tea, and we’d talk openly about our lives. For the most part we didn’t focus on our spiritual experiences, but they were a part of the mix. Then these same people would do retreats at the Zen Center of Los Angeles and have big awakenings, and the folks in L.A. began to wonder what was happening in this little old lady’s living room up north. Arvis’s view was simple: The only thing I’m doing that they’re not, she said, is that we sit around casually and talk, and what’s happening on the inside for people isn’t kept secret or hidden. This way, people get beyond the sense that they’re the only ones who are having this or that experience. They come out of their shell, which actually makes them more available to a deeper spiritual process.
The tradition of talking about certain experiences only in private with your teacher keeps enlightenment a secret activity reserved for special people. I can understand the drawbacks of being more open, of course. Some people may blab on about how enlightened they are, and become more egotistical. But when everything remains open to inquiry, then even the ego’s tendency to claim enlightenment for itself becomes obvious in the penetrating light of public discourse.
In the long run, both ways have their strengths and weaknesses, but I’ve found that having students ask their questions in public breaks down the isolation that many spiritual people feel – the sense that nobody else could possibly understand what they’re going through, or that they’re so rotten at their practice, or that nobody could be struggling like they are. And when people have breakthroughs and talk about them in public, awakening loses its mystique. Everyone else can see that it’s not just special people who have deep awakenings, it’s their neighbor or their best friend.
SB:Would you claim that you are enlightened?
Adyashanti:Well, no, not with a straight face. I would say enlightenment is enlightened and awakeness is awake. It’s not an experience; it’s a fact.
SB:People can be pretty skeptical nowadays about people who claim to be awake, and it may appear to many that you’re setting yourself up for an awful lot of criticism. And isn’t that telling?
Adyashanti:I think it’s unfortunate that a person can spend hour after hour, day after day, year after year, lifetime after lifetime dedicating his life to enlightenment, and yet the very notion that anybody attains enlightenment is a taboo. We’re all going after this, but God forbid somebody says they’ve realized it. We don’t believe them, we’re cynical, we have doubt, we go immediately into a semi- or overt attack mode. To me it highlights the fact that people are chasing an awakening they don’t believe could happen to them. That’s a barrier, and the biggest one.
SB:What might explain this tendency?
Adyashanti:People want liberation, but they are also terrified of it. If they completely let go, they fear they’ll find a dangerous, deluded person underneath it all. The sense of Original Sin is alive and well in us. We think that there’s something fundamentally black about our nature, that something monstrous will emerge if we let go. We walk around all day in this virtual reality, physically experiencing what the mind is telling us. If we stop, see through it all, and give it up, what will become of us? It’s scary. Everything in the end is a defense against nothingness.
SB:You seem to find that satsangs quicken people’s awakening, and most of your public events focus on these public dialogues. Yet you yourself spent many hours sitting in meditation facing a wall. Why don’t you include more silent sitting in your satsangs and intensives?
Adyashanti:I actually do incorporate more sitting in my intensives these days, and my retreats include six periods of silent sitting each day. The main reason I focus on public dialogue is that most of the people who come to see me have been meditating for years, but what they’re missing is the ruthless ability and willingness to question—their own personal psychology, their spiritual beliefs, the teachings of their tradition, even the assumptions of their meditation practice.
Watching a teacher work with his students in a direct and intimate way to investigate and question deeply their stories and beliefs, opens up a world of possibilities for them. Any beliefs or stories we take to be true, even age-old spiritual beliefs, just obscure the truth of who we really are.
SB: You seem to have left behind most of the traditional Zen forms. What caused you to diverge from the Buddhist tradition? Do you still consider yourself a Buddhist?
Adyashanti:I didn’t leave Buddhism. I just woke up out of the identity of being a Buddhist, as anyone who wakes up will. I could have been drawn to teach in the Buddhist forms, but as it turned out, I wasn’t. I simply let the teaching come out in a natural and spontaneous way, and it looks and sounds however it arises in the moment. If it sounds Buddhist, fine; if it doesn’t, fine. I’m not teaching to transmit a tradition or carry on a lineage; I’m teaching to awaken whoever may be interested in awakening.
SB: What about private interviews? You no longer offer them. Isn’t this a limitation in working with students?
Adyashanti: Yes, absolutely. I didn’t decide to do it this way, it just evolved because there are now far too many students for me to work with everyone privately. But I’ve asked a number of people to teach, and these teachers are generally more available for personal interactions than I am.
SB: Do you still work with a teacher? Is your understanding still deepening, evolving, and changing, or do you consider yourself to be “done”?
Adyashanti: No, I don’t practice with a teacher any longer. As for deeper understanding, once you know yourself to be the infinite, the ultimate reality, there’s nothing more to know. From the point of view of the infinite, there isn’t any evolving or deepening, there’s only more manifestation, the ultimate revealing itself in different forms. At a relative level, of course, new insights continue to come through, but they are just applicable to the moment and don’t hold any ultimate significance.
As for “being done,” it doesn’t mean perfection. In fact, the more we realize that we’re “done”—that is, that we know who we are and that there’s nothing more to seek—the more we realize that it’s ludicrous to make any conclusions about what may or may not happen in the future. If I ever concluded that I could never slip back into illusion, it would be the first sign that I’d started to slip back into illusion. When we fully realize the truth, the one thing we know is that we can’t possibly know.
SB:Is awakening an end or a beginning, then?
Adyashanti: It’s a beginning, but it is the end of seeking. It’s not that you should stop seeking; the energy is just no longer there. And that’s an ending. But a new world opens up. What’s it like now? How does this move in the world now, for a human being? In one’s own self, what’s it like? What moves it? What pushes it? It’s a whole new beginning; it’s like being born. As infants we’re helpless, we don’t know much. And awakening is like that; being born into reality doesn’t mean you’re fully functional, any more than you’re functional when you’re born out of your mother’s womb.
SB:There’s an ancient debate in Zen about the nature of enlightenment. Some schools claim that it’s sudden, and others claim that it’s a gradual process. What do you think?
Adyashanti:It’s usually a combination of the two: a sudden penetration into the true nature of being, and then a gradual embodiment of this realization on the level of body, mind, and personality. It can take time to live our understanding fully, to express fully who we know we are through this human form, in the world of time and space, in the ways that the emotions and energy move and the mind functions.
This gradualness differs tremendously from individual to individual. In rare cases, the awakening and the embodiment seem to happen in the snap of a finger: The false self drops away at once and never returns. More often, the process of embodiment involves a continual seeing through any remaining false layers of self, belief, and identity, as well as an ongoing surrender of anything that would cause us to stay separate. Whether it’s sudden or gradual, in the end one comes to an absolute and unconditional “yes” to reality just the way it is.
SB:What are some of the greatest challenges or obstacles to this full embodiment?
Adyashanti:That’s a good question. For one thing, we need to let go of all the ideas and beliefs we’ve accumulated over the years about what enlightenment is supposed to look like. The mind tends to use these beliefs to discredit awakening, arguing that because we still feel fear or anger or have difficulty with our job or relationships, it must mean that we haven’t had a genuine glimpse of the truth.
Some people who come to see me are already quite awake, but the mind causes confusion because the awakeness doesn’t fit their pictures of it. On the other side, the mind may take ownership of the awakening and turn it into a possession of the ego.
Another challenge of the embodiment process is getting the hang of the enlightened state itself. When you wake up, nothing works the way it did before. The personal dramas that other people are involved in no longer have any energy for you.
SB: Can people have a genuine awakening and not be aware that they’re awake?
Adyashanti:It’s common for people to have a deep seeing of truth and then to throw it out because it doesn’t fit their preconceptions. In the spiritual culture that has evolved here in the West, we tend to confuse enlightenment with mystical experiences.
SB: Could you say a little more about the difference between mystical experiences and true awakening?
Adyashanti:When the personal “I” merges and becomes one with everything, that’s a mystical experience. Or your consciousness expands infinitely, or your kundalini [innate spiritual energy] awakens, or you have a vision of the Buddha or Mother Mary, or you feel totally blissed out and peaceful. Even an ongoing experience of being unified with God or Buddha is just another mystical experience.
But even though they’re the highest, most beautiful states a human being can have, mystical experiences are happening to the dream character you take to be “me” – and this “me” is the one you wake up from. Awakening is the realization that you are the awakeness or lucidity that’s experiencing every moment of the dream, including the so-called spiritual or mystical, without being caught by it. As I said before, awakeness is not an experience, it’s a fact, whereas a mystical experience happens to someone at a particular place and time.
Another way I like to put it is, you’re not the personality or mask, you’re the one that’s always peering through the mask, always awake to every moment of your life without being identified with it. At the same time, you feel deeply intimate with the dream because the dream is known to be an expression of the awakeness itself. At first, of course, the dream may seem to be different from the awakeness.
But when awakening completes itself, the awakeness sees that everything that’s perceivable, including this human body, mind, and personality, is an expression of itself. The realization is completely nondual. As the Heart Sutra puts it, form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
Stephan Bodian is a Zen teacher, author, and licensed psyschotherapist. Ordained as a Zen monk in 1974, he studied with several teachers, including Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and Taizan Maezumi Roshi before receiving dharma transmission from Adyashanti. His latest book, Wake Up Now: A Guide to the Journey of Spiritual Awakening, was published in 2008 by McGraw-Hill