Spiritual Experiences and Realizations
There will be all sorts of experiences on the spiritual path. Positive periods of development—those that are reassuring and comforting—are an important part of the process. It is important to realize, however, that even positive experiences will fluctuate. We will rarely, if ever, perceive a steady development of them, precisely because experiences are fickle by nature. Enjoying a series of good experiences does not ensure that they will continue indefinitely; they may stop suddenly. Even so, they remain an important part of spiritual practice, not least because they help to maintain our motivation to continue practicing.
The way in which these positive experiences arise also varies enormously. You may have some amazingly moving experiences, something like a spiritual awakening that appears to arise out of the blue. In fact, such experiences do not really come from nowhere; psychic conditions will always precede them, although they appear to our conscious experience as independent. They can also vanish just as quickly as they appear. At other times, certain experiences will grow over a period of time, peak, and then gradually fade away again.
As spiritual practitioners, we are instructed not to attach too much significance to these experiences. The advice is to resist the temptation to become fixated on the experiences themselves. Experiences will come and go. Each experience has to be let go of, or the mind will simply close down in its fixation on that experience, leaving little or no room for new experiences to arise. This is because your fixation will encourage worries and doubts to arise in the mind and interfere with the development process. If there is no fixation involved in the process, positive spiritual experiences will start to lead you to spiritual realizations.
In Buddhism, we distinguish between spiritual experiences and spiritual realizations. Spiritual experiences are usually more vivid and intense than realizations because they are generally accompanied by physiological and psychological changes. Realizations, on the other hand, may be felt, but the experience is less pronounced. Realization is about acquiring insight. Therefore, while realizations arise out of our spiritual experiences, they are not identical to them. Spiritual realizations are considered vastly more important because they cannot fluctuate.
The distinction between spiritual experiences and realizations is continually emphasized in Buddhist thought. If we avoid excessively fixating on our experiences, we will be under less stress in our practice. Without that stress, we will be better able to cope with whatever arises, the possibility of suffering from psychic disturbances will be greatly reduced, and we will notice a significant shift in the fundamental texture of our experience.
Fixation on our experiences is seen as another variation of fixation on the self.
There are many accounts in Tibetan Buddhist literature of how spiritual disturbances may arise, but all point to fixation on experiences as the cause. Fixation on our experiences is seen as another variation of fixation on the self.
In the overall context of the spiritual journey, it is important to remember that self-transformation is a continuous process, not a onetime event. One cannot say, “I used to be a nonspiritual person, but now I have been transformed into a spiritual person. My old self is dead.” We are constantly being transformed when we travel on the path. While we may be the same individual on one level, on another level we are different. There is always continuity, and yet at each major turning point on the journey we have become transformed because certain habits have dropped away. The spiritual journey is dynamic and always tends forward because we are not fixating on things.
The spiritual journey, then, is a journey of detachment, a process of learning how to let go. All of our problems, miseries, and unhappiness are caused by fixation—latching onto things and not being able to release them. First we have to let go of fixation on material things. This does not necessarily mean jettisoning all our material possessions, but it implies that we should not look to material things for lasting happiness. Normally, our position in life, our family, our standing in the community, and so forth, are perceived to be the source of our happiness. This perspective has to be reversed, according to spiritual teachings, by relinquishing our fixation on material things.
Letting go of fixation is effectively a process of learning to be free, because every time we let go of something, we become free of it. Whatever we fixate upon limits us because fixation makes us dependent upon something other than ourselves. Each time we let go of something, we experience another level of freedom.
Eventually, in order to be totally free, we learn to let go of concepts. Ultimately, we need to relinquish our fixation on the reification of concepts, of things being “this” or “that.” Thinking of this and that binds us to a particular way of experiencing things. Even spiritual experiences will not be given complete, spontaneous, unmediated expression as long as the subtlest kind of conceptual distinction is present. Experience will still be mediated, adulterated, and tainted by all kinds of psychic content when we make discriminations. Therefore, it will remain impossible ever to be truly free.
The final step in the process of letting go is relinquishing the idea that material corruption and spiritual freedom are unequivocally opposed to one another and that we have to give up the former to attain the latter. While this is an important distinction to observe at the beginning of the spiritual journey, we have to overcome that duality. We have to transcend both the seduction of samsaric pleasure that turns out to be so illusory and the seduction of our spiritual goal that appears to be offering eternal happiness. Once the pull between these two poles is harmonized and transcended, we are ready to return home.
The Fruition of the Spiritual Path
The ultimate goal of the spiritual journey is to realize the union of your mind and ultimate reality. You discover eventually that not only are you in reality, but that you also embody that reality. Your ordinary body becomes the body of a buddha, your ordinary speech becomes the speech of a buddha, and your ordinary mind becomes the mind of a buddha. This is the great transition that you have to make, relinquishing your fixation on the separation of samsaric beings and buddhas. When we can talk about them as ultimately the same, when this actual transformation occurs within an individual, it is a truly great occurrence. It is remarkable because an ordinary, confused being still retains that preexisting continuity between an ordinary being and an enlightened being, in the sense that what you become is what you have always been. At the end of the journey, you are simply returning home.
Yet the journey itself was absolutely necessary. It was necessary to leave your familiar environment and venture through various trials and tribulations. It was necessary to deal with many unexpected things, to grapple with your inner demonic forces. It was necessary to go through the spiritual struggle and engage in vigorous disciplines. Spiritual struggle is valuable for the purification of the mind. Your mind has to be cleansed of the delusions and conflicting emotions that are the product of your karma, the product of the negative thoughts and actions that have accumulated in your mindstream over a long period of time.
After a point, however, you have to ease away from that struggle. As progress is made on the path, the positive qualities required for further advancement will become part of you, and you will gradually learn how to assimilate and become these positive qualities, rather than regarding them as something to be attained and possessed. So after the initial focus on learning how to replace vices with virtues, we must learn to let go of our fixation on virtues. We have to stop thinking about accumulating virtues, spiritual qualities, experiences, and realizations as if they were a form of wealth. We do not require spiritual wealth; moreover, spiritual wealth can only be accumulated by not fixating on it. All fixations lead only to all manner of trouble—envy, possessiveness, and egotism, for example. It is then that we really go astray and wander from the spiritual path.
As our virtuous qualities of love, compassion, joy, courage, determination, resolve, mindfulness, awareness, and wisdom develop, we progress further along the path. At some point, we have to accomplish one final act of detachment, which is to let go of reifying concepts altogether. Even the concepts of virtue and vice, redemption, karma, and liberation have to be relinquished. By way of illustration, I’d like to share a story from the Zen tradition.
It is not uncommon for Zen meditation students to keep in regular contact with their teachers concerning their spiritual progress. In this particular story, a Zen student has a penchant for writing to his teacher monthly with an account of his development. His letters began to take a mystical turn when he wrote, “I am experiencing a oneness with the universe.” When his teacher received this letter, he merely glanced at it and threw it away. The next month the student wrote, “I have discovered that the divine is present in everything.” His teacher used this letter to start his fire. A month later, the student had become even more ecstatic and wrote, “The mystery of the one and many has revealed itself to my wonderment,” at which his teacher yawned. The following month, another letter arrived, which simply said, “There is no self, no one is born, and no one dies.” At this his teacher threw his hands up in despair. After the fourth letter, the student stopped writing to his teacher, and after a year had passed, the teacher began to feel concerned and wrote to his student, asking to be kept informed of his spiritual progress. The student wrote back with the words “Who cares?” When the teacher read this, he smiled and said, “At last! He’s finally got it!”
At the end of the journey, you will be able to engage in everything on both the material and the spiritual planes without being tainted by them, because a spiritually realized being is no longer affected by the world in the same way an ordinary person is. Without going through the trials and tribulations of this journey, however, you will never find your home. You cannot simply stay at home and say, “I am already where I want to be.” It is only the journey that makes you realize your true potential, and only at the end of the journey will you understand that the goal is not to separate from the starting point. That is the attainment of buddhahood, the natural state of your own mind.
From Mind At Ease: Self-Liberation Through Mahamudra Meditation, © 2004 by Traleg Kyabgon. Reprinted with permission of Shambhala Publications.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.