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Life With No Foundation

I was thirty when my teacher Geshe Rabten first asked me to address his Buddhist group in Geneva, I knew the material and had long felt a calling to teach it. Afterwards, a woman, very much my elder, beamed at me and exclaimed, “Such wisdom in one so young!” Her companion nodded enthusiastically.

These were just the words I’d hoped to hear, but they didn’t bring me any comfort. I squirmed. My teachers all had decades of experience under their belt. I hadn’t even one. Buddhism is a transformative practice, not just a belief system or philosophy. I’d had no blinding flashes of insight, no visceral feelings of universal compassion and bliss. My meditation was scarred by chronic distraction and self-doubt. I was mired in the petty concerns of ego. I felt like a fraud. Furthermore, protected as I’d been by the rules of monastic life, what did I know of the stressful and complicated lives of these people?

I quit not only teaching but monkhood. It was a momentous decision, more complicated than words can say, but I rationalized it thus, as an act of integrity. Twenty years were to pass before I once more took up the mantle. In the interim there’d been no drama. As I’d continued my practice it had simply dawned on me in bits and pieces that the pursuit of supernatural experience was a blind, that the path of insight was not spectacular. There were no colored lights, no comic quakes and no heavenly showers. The way to freedom consists simply in relinquishing the illusions that make life seem reasonable, safe and pleasant.

The thought of life without foundation is scary. Teaching is the process of nudging people towards that abyss. They go willingly or not at all, but the teacher must know deep down that it’s okay, that letting go isn’t the fulfillment of your worst fears but a discarding of your self-imposed limitations. The shock of sudden descent is real, the fear of hitting hard rock and smashing every bone is palpable — but the impact never comes. As you gradually you get used to that, your practice blossoms.

I love to teach. I enjoy formulating a deft phrase or, even better, a well-laid trap. Those who attend my workshops come to hear the truth (small-t), to be disabused of all the spin that’s pumped out by religion, consumerism and technology. The human world is a monument to the arts of illusion. It’s no mean feat to read between the lines and see the fiction, to even want to break through the veil.

I learn as much from my workshops as my students do, perhaps more. I’m indebted to them. I honor and respect them. Even as they teeter at the edge, half scared to death, they dare to peer into the chasm. My job is to reassure them that the leap, when it comes, is an affirmation of  faith in themselves, and not in any higher truth. How else can we live to our full potential?

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5 responses to “Life With No Foundation”

  1. Caroline

    I totally agree. We need not live a life without foundation or one built on shaky ground. If we’re lucky enough to have had the love, support and respect from our parents or caregivers, we have the tools to move fowards in this world of uncertainty. We can learn to access them. BUT if we didn’t have that early grounding we still have the choice to connect with like minded people who are motivated to face reality; the hard stuff. Opportunity exists today like never before. Your mindful reflection workshops are one example.
    Good for us, good for our children.

  2. Gina

    We have no choice but to plunge. Stephen, you are offering us a way to foundation without offering us a way to foundation… Tricky as always…

    Gina

  3. Gina

    You have changed your website. Or is it only changed on my computer?… I like the white.
    Funny… I am doing renovations in my house and have been encountering stray carpenter ants. They have wings, of course and are coming into the house, just above the foundation. I sit with these ants…I am bigger than them and their wings may or may not save them… I get to choose whether they fly away or not. When I look into that abyss, I can only make that plunge because of an inherent belief, nay, even certainty, that I will absolutely and without question, fly… and of course I hope that no greater entity is concerned about me coming through that foundation.

  4. Alison

    Interesting post that encourages and interesting discussion…

    As I get older, I find the notion of foundation has become less concrete in my mind and flight more so. And I think I am happier for it.

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