A Little Bit About the "Power of Now" and the True Path of Spiritual Cultivation

Time to speak a little bit about the "Power of Now."

Where people often go wrong in their spiritual cultivation is to mistakenly think that "don't have wandering thoughts" means not to think of anything. If that's the case, then it's no different than the state of an insentient rock.

Let me state this clearly so there's no mistake: you shouldn't try to dull your mind or block thoughts on the road of spiritual practice. The real meaning of this phrase is to get rid of the coarse discriminatory aspect of the mind, not its knowing aspect.

You always have to keep alive the knowing aspect of the mind in spiritual cultivation, otherwise you are trying to obscure your wisdom nature and won't recognize your original nature. It's true that the internal dialogue or coarse discriminatory aspect of your mind will naturally dissolve away, or simply die down, if you leave it alone and don't supply it with any energy. That's the crux of spiritual practice, and what spiritual cultivation is all about ... we use nonattachment to decrease this factor of mental obstruction because it isn't the real us.

If we silence it somewhat then our clinging to it will also decrease, and then we have a higher chance of seeing the Tao and realizing "God," which is what we really are.

Your false mind of internal chatter, that propels you this way and that so as to prompt you to create bad karma, will gradually disappear if you don't continually energize it. It has to leave because it's a false construction, and so it will die away if you don't feed it. But that's a different matter entirely than trying to get rid of the knowing aspect of your mind by blocking thoughts or cultivating senselessness or forcing open a field of consciousness.

You might be able to arrive at the samadhi of no-thought if you take this route, but the samadhi of no-thought isn't the state of spiritual enlightenment. In fact, someone who practices blocking their thoughts risks being reborn as an ignorant animal in a future reincarnation. Tsong Khapa and many Zen masters have told us this is true. At the very minimum, their mind will tend to be dull in a future life because that's exactly what they had cultivated.

If you practice dullness, sleepiness, or incoherence as a state of spiritual cultivation, you're simply planting those seeds for some sort of future outcome. Who ever said that this was the cultivation path? Nonetheless you'll be surprised how many people try to suppress their thoughts in order to become free of them, and who know nothing as to how they should be liberated into emptiness.

And now we finally come to "the power of now."

Another mistake in cultivation is to hold to a state of silence and peace within, for this is also incorrect spiritual cultivation as well. This is the misguided Zen of silent illumination which the great Zen master Ta-hui often criticized. You can cultivate this sort of enforced stillness by clinging to open awareness, but since that usually means suppressing your natural vitality without knowing it, it's also a mistaken form of spiritual practice as well.

Yet another big mistake is to cultivate the naturalism of mirroring awareness without engaging in sitting meditation, for while this practice can cultivate the sixth consciousness to a state of peace, it cannot transform the body or cut off birth and death. It's a flawed approach because it cannot let you illuminate mind and see your true nature. If you just go along with the flow, you are born and die with the flow. Who ever said this is the path of spiritual practice?

People who cultivate Mahamudra often take this incorrect path, and this is the mistaken path we see in the New Age schools of modern spirituality. There's lots of teachers who teach this, and yet they know nothing of the physical transformations of the spiritual path because they are actually clinging to open awareness and trying to force it, which is itself a type of blocking.

To help you understand this, remember that while Mahamudra practice requires the three essentials of "equilibrium, relaxation and naturalness" in practice, these have particular meanings that are often ignored:

'Equilibrium' means to balance the body, mouth, and mind. The Mahamudra way of balancing the mouth is to slow down the breathing, and of balancing the mind is not to cling to and rely on anything.

This is the supreme way to tame the body, breath (prana), and mind.

'Relaxation' means to loosen the mind, to let everything go, to strip off all ideas and thoughts. When one's whole body and mind becomes loose, one can, without effort, remain in the natural state, which is intrinsically non-discriminative and yet without distractions.

'Naturalness' means not 'taking' or 'leaving' anything: in other words the yogi does not make the slightest effort of any kind. He lets the senses and mind stop or flow by themselves without assisting or restricting them. To practice naturalness is to make no effort and be spontaneous.

The above can be summarized thus:

The essence of equilibrium is not to cling.
The essence of relaxation is not to hold.
The essence of naturalness is to make no effort.

-- Teachings of Tibetan Yoga, trans. by Garma C.C. Chang, (Carol Publishing Group, Secaucus: NJ, 1993), p. 38.

The naturalism of mirroring awareness, without the work of cultivating realization through meditation, has inherent problems. While practitioners let thoughts come and go without attachment, and therefore empty themselves by detaching from false thoughts and by "going along with the flow," they don't engage in meditative concentration and therefore fail to transform their bodies.

The big problem is that they don't differentiate between ordinary mind and prajna wisdom -- our bright intrinsic wisdom awareness. They bypass cessation and contemplation practice -- which is the correct principle of all cultivation methods -- and therefore as Zen master Pai Chang said, they fall into the error of naturalism.

It saddens me to see so many of the modern New Age teachers today telling students to "remain in the present," and cultivate the "Now!" without understanding all sides of the equation. This sounds so logical and correct, but the this path will never lead to enlightenment, nor to any transformations of the physical body or any sure climbing of the spiritual ladder. That's why these people hardly ever experience any changes in their own chi and mai, and don't even know that it's possible. They'll look at you with a quizzical look because they think the path is simply one of present clarity.

With this type of practice, at the most you might be able to achieve a small visaya of seeming clarity, but your vitality will never blossom to rise and accordingly, you'll most likely fall into all sorts of mistaken byways. You'll just think that the path is one of being clear, so you'll keep holding onto the body, or suppressing distractions, and will never come upon its actual miracles.

Almost all of these possible mistakes involve cultivating what's called "dead tree emptiness" or "stale (sterile) clarity," which is what you find in the mistaken roads of Japanese Zen practice today. You must remember that to keep dwelling in immediate mirroring awareness is the same as delusion because it's only seeking to be natural without doing real meditation work:

Many do not understand this mode of being just as it is, and instead make their path a passive state of awareness that does not differentiate between ordinary mind and intrinsic awareness. Outwardly they perceive apparent phenomena to be substantial and karmically neutral entities that have ultimately defining characteristics. Inwardly they are rigidly bound by the concept of their bodies as substantial entities that are karmically neutral and permanent. They may achieve a stable experience between these two poles, which is merely a state of unimpeded consciousness, lucid and aware. However, through there is the slight possibility that this will create virtue that propels them to the two higher realms, they will not attain a state of liberation and omniscience. This, therefore, is a flawed approach.

-- Buddhahood without Meditation, Dudjom Lingpa (Padma Publishing, Junction City: California,1994), p. 93.

When your sixth consciousness becomes quiet and settles so as to return to its original nature, it can still relate to the first five consciousnesses that empower the senses of seeing, hearing, tasting and so on. The karmic force will still be flowing, so these consciousnesses will still be operating although in the mode of direct perception. It's just that when the sixth consciousness calms and thereby returns to its roots, then your mind isn't off following phenomena anymore. This is what typically scatters your chi because of the simple fact that your chi and thoughts are linked. If you want to talk about the power of "now," you should actually be talking about cultivating direct perception.

What you want on the road of spiritual cultivation is for your physical body to finally follow its proper course of full development without any interference--which is usually interrupted because of our thoughts--and that's when you can experience the real manifestation of your chi mai. They can only open when the mind becomes clear and peaceful due to the fact that the sixth consciousness has settled. Hence, when you don't hold onto thoughts and let emptiness arise, this is the only time that the natural transformations of jing, chi and shen can finally occur.

While I don't like referring to cultivation information sources that do not even reach the realm of the samadhi and dhyana, even the clairvoyant readings of the American psychic Edgar Cayce state,

Meditation is emptying self of all that hinders the creative forces from rising along the natural channels of the physical man to be disseminated through those centers and sources that create the activities of the physical, the mental, the spiritual man; properly done must make one stronger mentally, physically … 281-13

When you try to visualize the chakras and chi mai, then you're actually destabilizing the mind and adding extra garbage to the picture. Yes, you can use visualization as a method to cultivate concentration, but most people usually end up playing with the sensations they generate without ever achieving anything at all. What this principle therefore tells us is that you shouldn't make an effort to try to move your sixth consciousness, or to shape it or retrieve it. Just let it go so that it returns to its natural state. That's the power cultivation of "now," and to think the proper route of cultivation is otherwise is already a mistake.

In cultivation, you should just allow your mind to rest in a state of energetically unobstructed direct cognition.

From a naturalistic point of view this makes perfect sense, for non-abiding is man's natural mental state. We're the ones who have disturbed it, and for no purpose. If there is to be anything such as real spiritual cultivation or an ontologically authentic path that doesn't depend upon artificial techniques, this is the only route that makes sense as well.

Most people in the esoteric schools (and other schools as well) such as tantra, yoga, Taoism and Tibetan Buddhism, are always playing with their first six consciousnesses in violation of these basic principles. The big secret within the Esoteric school, which many of the great monks don't even realize, is that their cultivation methods are all employing the omnipresent mental factors of contact and sensation, and of the omnipresent factors these are the ones most prone to errors in practice!

The koan practice of the Zen school, however, focuses on tying up the omnipresent mental factor of intent while the cessation-contemplation practices of shamatha-vipashyana engage the alaya's omnipresent activities of discrimination and concentration (attention). The omnipresent factors of mentation are such an important topic in the Consciousness-Only School that we can match them up with the five skandhas, and make a measuring scheme for cultivation out of these factors themselves.

This side commentary on the omnipresent factors must be considered one of the big secrets of cultivation science. It's easy to say that spiritual cultivation initially involves breaking the habit of conceptually translating experiences into internal mental dialogue-talk so that spiritual transformation can occur. However, sometimes we have to describe things in a more scientific sense such as this. In fact, another method of grading progress along the spiritual path, or a method for building up the principles and justification for the spiritual path, can be entirely constructed based upon the subtle omnipresent factors of mind! One could even develop an entire spiritual sect whose core cultivation techniques addressed these five omnipresent mental factors alone.

What I just said is a very high stage cultivation secret. It's an incredibly high commentary and yet without the proper background you probably don't realize it. However, these are the real teachings of Esoteric Buddhism we're talking of here, but because of the complexity of this topic it's not something we can go into with detail. Nevertheless what I've just told you is the very biggest and deepest of secrets.

It's not that it's an actual secret. Rather, it's just that so few people realize or recognize or even grasp the significance of what I've just said that it's not understood, and not being understood, it's considered a "secret.".

The important point regarding the esoteric schools is that their adherents almost always take their medicine incorrectly by trying to bring the sixth consciousness into the body into order to "open up their chi channels and chakras." When your chi mai are not opened, however, it means your sixth consciousness hasn't become tranquil and thus cannot settle to its origins.

You can't recognize the nature of the sixth consciousness when wandering thoughts are still active, so naturally in this condition you don't make any progress in spiritual cultivation. Furthermore, wandering thoughts will always remain prolific as long as your chi channels (chi mai) aren't opened, and in turn your chi mai won't open until your sixth consciousness settles. So if you keep using the sixth consciousness to try and imagine that your chi mai are open through visualization practice, you'll never reach the point where the sixth consciousness eventually becomes pacified. You'll never reach the point of becoming calm and clear.

Looking at matters from the other end, if you cannot recognize the clear, empty, peaceful nature of the sixth consciousness by letting go of it to cultivate emptiness, then your chi mai won't open. So we have here a reflexive process of mutual dependency because if you can cultivate your chi mai completely (as in the fourth dhyana), then the sixth mind can truly return to its true original state. When you calm your sixth consciousness, then in return you can open all your chi mai! This back and forth mutual dependency is why they're all fully opened by the time you cultivate to reach the fourth dhyana.

The key on the road of spiritual cultivation, then, is to just throw everything away so that the mind reaches a state of pacification. Stop attaching to thoughts and sensations, and your mind will settle. Don't force an openness of "Now!" Your mind should simply remain alive with awareness, but it shouldn't attach to any thoughts that come or go. Staying in this state of non-involvement, like a third person observer, the sixth consciousness will eventually settle and then you will be truly cultivating.

Even in the Western spiritual traditions we find these same instructions for performing this cultivation practice, which is essentially cessation-contemplation. You have to cultivate a third person type observer which Plato called the "Spectator," Plotinus called "ever present wakefulness," and St. Augustine's called immediate awareness and which he also identified as the "soul." Even Western psychology is starting to recognize this "silent observer," for we find:

The observing self is the transparent center, that which is aware. This … self is most personal of all, prior to thought, feeling, and action, for it experiences these functions. No matter what takes place, no matter what we experience, nothing is as central as the self that observes. In the face of this phenomenon, Descartes' starting point, "I think; therefore I am," must yield to the more basic position, "I am aware; therefore I am."

The most important fact about the observing self is that it is incapable of being objectified. The reader is invited to try to locate that self to establish its boundaries. The task is impossible; whatever we can notice or conceptualize is already an object of awareness, not awareness itself, which seems to jump a step back when we experience an object. Unlike every other aspect of experience-thoughts, emotions, desires, and functions-the observing self can be known but not located, not "seen."

The Yogic discipline of Ramana Maharshi prescribed the exercise of "Who am I?" to demonstrate that the observing self is not an object; it does not belong to the domains of thinking, feeling, or action: "If I lost my arm, I would still exist, therefore, I am not my arm. If I could not hear, I would still exist. Therefore, I am not my hearing." And so on, until finally, "I am not this thought," which leads to a radically different experience of the self. …

The observing self is not part of the object world formed by our thoughts and sensory perception because, literally, it has no limits; everything else does. Thus, everyday consciousness contains a transcendent element that we seldom notice because that element is the very ground of our experience. The word transcendent is justified because if subjective consciousness-the observing self-cannot itself be observed but remains forever apart from the contents of consciousness, it is likely to be of a different order from everything else. Its fundamentally different nature becomes evident when we realize that the observing self is featureless; it cannot be affected by the world any more than a mirror can be affected by the images it reflects. …

Western science has ignored this transcendent element, assuming that the observer and the observed are phenomena of the same order. In contrast, the distinction between the observer and the observed is an important aspect of mysticism. It is emphasized in Vedanta and especially and especially Sankhya philosophy, which distinguishes between Purusha, the Witness Soul, and Prakriti, all the phenomena of Nature.

-- The Observing Self: Mysticism and Psychotherapy, Arthur J. Deikman, (Beacon Press, Boston, 1982), pp. 95-96.

Many cultivation schools tell us that we must start down the road of spiritual progress by cultivating this state of the observer or watcher. In fact, you absolutely must cultivate this type of body-free awareness if you really want to climb the ranks of spiritual attainment.

In the Surangama sutra, Shakyamuni Buddha even engages his cousin Ananda in an extensive discussion to show him that this awareness is not in the body or outside the body, but is everywhere. So ages ago Buddha already told us that the mind isn't in the body or outside the body, but is actually non-local. He didn't use the words "non-local" but he said the same thing. Two thousand years later we have scientists finally catching up to what he said, and as with so many other things taught in Buddhism, they're simply putting footnotes on Buddha's body of teachings.

This necessity for forgetting the body and cultivating awareness is why the Zen school says that true learning is putting down everything, letting everything depart. If your mind lets go, then you will gradually transform the omnipresent mental functions of the alaya consciousness. In the freedom of non-clinging, they will then eventually self-purify.

For instance, if you let go of clinging to the body and mental functions then you will eventually achieve the state of gong-fu called hsi, which is the awakening of kundalini and absence of external breathing, but this feat requires that you first learn the real meaning of truly letting go -- relaxing the mind -- so that it rests in its natural state without clinging.

If you rest your mind, your chi will become full, and in becoming full the body will calm and lose the necessity of coarse respiration. That's how the state of hsi will be initiated. So here's the secret of all the Tantras and yoga and Esoteric texts: all the transformations mentioned in Esoteric Buddhism basically come about from cultivating the respiratory cessationary state of hsi, and when you reach this cessationary state of hsi then your mind-body transformations will proceed very quickly.

In other words, the secret cultivation technique commonly found within the Esoteric schools (Tantra, Vajrayana, Tibetan Buddhism, etc.) is simply to cultivate your breath! Most all their strange practices revolve around cultivating your breath, and thus your chi.

When your breathing stops, this marks the initiation of the various kundalini transformations--the real kundalini that's the true Stage of Warming on the path. The Tao school doesn't make a big fuss about this principle but simply says, "The absence of fire [breathing] is called energy." This is the stage where your gong-fu attainments really start to appear, because this is when you're in close reach of the initial samadhi attainments. If you can therefore cultivate this state without looking for the Tao outside the mind, then why subject yourself to the possibility of mistakes and errors?

This very brief overview of some key principles has prepared you to understand some of the errors of the path and the principles embedded within the true esoteric Tantric path of cultivation, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention there are several books that would be quite helpful to anyone who wishes to navigate though this particular school of practice:

Tsongkhapa's Six Yogas of Naropa, Glenn H. Mullin
Readings on the Six Yogas of Naropa, Glenn H. Mullin
Highest Yoga Tantra, Daniel Cozort
Paths and Grounds of Guhyasamaja According to Arya Nagarjuna, Yangchen Gawai Lodoe
Buddhist Yoga: A Comprehensive Course, Thomas Cleary
Tao and Longevity, Nan Huai-Chin
Twenty-Five Doors to Meditation, William Bodri and Lee Shu Mei



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