Flint Sparks, PhD

Once, in a psychotherapy training session with John Gladfelter, my primary therapist, mentor, and first real dharma teacher, someone asked a poignant question about their life and what they could hope for in their process of transformation. John sat silently for a moment before responding. Then he said simply, “Hope is cruel.” This came as a bit of a shock. Most of us bring ourselves to a therapist, spiritual director, priest, or practice during times when we feelwe’ve lost hope. We’re searching for comfort and hope provides the possibility for comfort. So what could this surprising response mean?

I also remember a dialogue between a young student of Buddhism and the great Tibetan teacher Trungpa Rinpoche. In this case, Trungpa reportedly said something like, “To practice is to walk the path between hope and despair, straight into the face of uncertainty.” I believe he wasn’t only suggesting that there’s no solace in hope, but that we can’t hide in despair either. Instead, we’re apparently being asked to reside in not-knowing, impermanence, and the ever-changing reality of existence. The invitation is to stop in this shimmering, uncertain Now. These aren’t the kinds of teachings that generally bring people merrily to the zendo. They’re the kind that give Zen the reputation of being too hard or too cold. Yet, these teachings are essential if we’re to see the truth of our existence and wake up out of what Joko Beck calls “the self-centered dream.”

In Everyday Zen, Joko writes, “Intelligent practice always deals with just one thing, the fear at the base of human existence, the fear that I am not.” She’s making a rather strong statement: intelligent practice always deals with this one thing; the deep fear that resides at the very base of human existence – the fear that “I am not.” We often think that the fear of death is the core human anxiety, but actually it’s the fear that I don’t exist right now; that all of this isn’t real somehow. Joko continues: “And of course, I am not. But the last thing I want to know is that. I am impermanence itself in a rapidly changing human form that appears solid.” In those few brief sentences she’s reminding us of the three marks of existence: we’re impermanent, with no independently existing self, navigating an unsatisfying world. Further on she says, “I fear to see what I am, an ever-changing energy field. I don’t want to be that. So good practice is about fear. Fear takes the form of constantly thinking, speculating, analyzing, fantasizing. With all the activity we create a cloudy cover to keep ourselves safe in a make believe practice. True practice is not safe. It’s anything but safe.”

How does one navigate the transition from living in fear, resisting the fact that we don’t know who we are, to dropping the barriers to clear seeing in order to live with freedom and ease? This is a fundamental question of practice and these very potent and surprising statements by these different teachers all point to a common key. In order to unlock the gate to freedom from suffering, we have to face our addiction to hope. We must loosen our grip on safety and ease, which is only possible within the loving, supportive environment of sangha. This loving container is the context for moving toward uncertainty.

In Christianity, facing these difficult teachings often ushers in what St. John of the Cross called the Dark Night of the Soul. In Zen, we call it the Great Doubt. What usually starts out as a romanticized possibility for a spiritual solution to life turns out to be more challenging than we thought. Even if we have an initial shift, a kensho or opening, this surge of freedom and joy can’t be sustained if we don’t continue to mature and ripen in practice. The problem is that the ego will take the “high” of a kensho and cling to it as the next form of hope. The reality is that such an opening initiates the longer and more arduous part of the path. It doesn’t signify its end.

Stephen Mitchell, a wonderful translator, once said “It’s not that hard to get enlightened. What’s difficult is to keep giving up our sense of the world so that the world can come to us on its own terms with its vast, pitiless, loving intelligence.” The opening isn’t that hard. It’s living our way into the opening that takes time and work, usually with a teacher who’s been down the road and can help us. In doing so, we can face this “vast, pitiless, loving intelligence,” but also find gratitude without an object.

As I’ve endeavored to move through these universal obstacles and make my way along this same path, I’ve been blessed by an enormous amount of love and support. I feel a lot of gratitude and, in turn, I’ve offered myself to many of you as you’ve struggled and celebrated movement along your path. Recently, as I’ve shifted my role within the sangha, dropping much of my identity as a leader, teacher, and priest, I’ve been shaken deeply. As I’ve reflected on this shift and the disorientation that’s followed, I reread some of Jack Kornfield’s book, A Path with Heart. Reading as a beginner, yet again, I ran across the following statement and was stunned to see myself reflected in the words: “After we abandon our spiritual identity the meditation leads us through a total dissolution of self, through the dark night like death itself. To enter this consciously challenges all we know of our identity, yet it is the path to freedom.”

The loss I’ve experienced in this dissolution is deeper than disappointment. No one can really prepare us for this. This place is not depression, because it’s not simply psychological or merely a triggering of conditioning. It’s not that conditioning isn’t triggered, or that psychological content doesn’t move, but the Great Doubt, the Dark Night isn’t fundamentally psychological. This shift isn’t about being frustrated or disappointed that things aren’t going your way. This is about a core resistance to meeting life as it is.

I heard a definition recently, a mathematical equation offered by Shinzen Young: suffering = pain x resistance. Without resistance it’s just pain, plus pain, plus the next thing. Life unfolding as it will. Suffering is pain multiplied by the resistance. If you feel some of this deep dropping of identity too soon in practice, the likelihood is that you’ll just leave practice. You’ll trigger too much resistance. This is something that I’m reminded of over and over. Traditionally, one of the important functions of the teacher is to help students as they stumble and fall, as they face the fears that arise, allowing the letting go of false hopes, and fending off a slide into despair. However, I also think that this is too big of a job for the teacher alone. Without a good bit of love and support, you simply can’t tolerate this undoing. You have to know you are being held, and I don’t mean coddled and protected. This is the only way we can keep going. And when the time is appropriate, we come to know that there’s actually nowhere to go, no place to hide, no turning back, and we meet a kind of despair.

Jack Kornfield writes: “Traditionally the dark night arises only after we have had some initial spiritual opening. In the first flush of practice, joy, clarity, love and a sense of the sacred can arise. And with them we experience a great excitement at our spiritual progress. However these things will inevitably pass away. It is as if they arise for us as initial gifts but then we discover how much discipline and surrender are required to remain in these realms.” And this is the entry into the long, long mission. This is what our forms are for, to offer a container in practice to hold us as we transform. This is what a thousand years of Zen has been cultivated to sustain and support.

Now, in the West, we are allowing this great tradition to find its fullest expression. It’s done so over and over in every culture it’s moved into, and we hope not to loose any of its transformative power, its truth, or its heart.

Kornfield goes further: “Everything seems to be dissolving. We sense the dissolution of life, moment to moment. Now the dark night deepens. As our outer and inner worlds dissolve we lose our sense of reference. There arises a great sense of unease and fear leading many students into a realm of fear and terror.” This is the stuff we don’t talk about much because it’s not very popular. This is also why we have to cultivate real intimacy as spiritual friends, so we can tolerate these kinds of challenges and use the energy released through these dissolutions to guide us toward freedom and away from despair. This is unavoidable and everyone experiences it differently but this is where we have the possibility of waking rather than running. Basically we give up on trying to redirect life or avoid what we dislike. Oddly, in choosing reality, we have to include the suffering. This triggers some of the most difficult forms of resistance I’ve faced so far — the resistance to allowing things to be as they are. This is often why we need each other, in order to help bring us back to “things as it is,” as much as we may hate it.

At this point you can’t count on anything that previously gave you hope. All you’re left with is the present — with “just this’ — no fancy edges. Dogen said, “When you find your place where you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point.” It’s not as if Dogen is suggesting we’re home, once and for all. When there’s nothing left except the present moment, when you give up all the ideas about yourself and all the roles that gave you an identity, practice can occur. He says, “When you find your way at this moment practice occurs, actualizing a fundamental point. For the place, the way is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others. The place, the way is not carried over from the past nor is it arising now. Here is the place, here the way unfolds.” This is the gateway to freedom, with no self, no experiences, no witness. Everything has fallen away. And you don’t get some new, improved identity as a replacement.

Dogen continues his relentless teaching. “Do not suppose that what you realize becomes your knowledge and is grasped by your conscious. Although actualized immediately the inconceivable may not be apparent. Its appearance is beyond your knowledge.” In the final picture of the Ox Herding series, the student returns to the world with “gift bestowing hands.” Ordinary. Nothing special. Ready to serve. There’s nothing left from a conventional perspective, and everything available from the awakened perspective. We’ve emptied ourselves, yet we’re full. And so we choose to come back, over and over to this moment and this life. We let go of the absolute, we let go of our kensho, we let go of the spaciousness, and we let go of the resistance. We let go of it all.

After practicing with some dedication, possibly opening to glimpses of the absolute, we land right back in the middle of our lives. And we have the opportunity to emerge as what Genpo Roshi calls the “integrated free functioning human being.” You’re now free to move back and forth between the relative and absolute. There’s no difference. All perspectives are available. You’re not stuck in any one perspective. You don’t try to find the right perspective, which becomes “the point” of your life. There isn’t one point. You’re free. And then you can experience the love that won’t leave anything out, or anyone behind. The love that does surpass all understanding.

A final quote from Genpo Roshi: “Some spiritual paths seem to end at the top of the mountain and perhaps some people manage to stay there. But the Zen path is the path of the Bodhisattva, or the path of the human being. After realization we knowingly choose to return to being human.” We didn’t really have a choice before practice because we were stuck in duality, in the realm of suffering. After we’ve traveled the entire cycle, or spiral, we can make a conscious choice to reside as an ordinary human being. A Bodhisattva is someone who’s awakened yet chooses to return to the world to help others. How many people can you reach from the top of the mountain? To meet others, you have to get down to earth, into the mud. That’s where the Bodhisattva can make a difference.

We say in the precepts ceremony, “we live like a cloud in an endless sky, like a lotus in muddy water.” We don’t transcend and take up residence in heaven, nor are we stuck only in the mud. We actually are both. As this spacious mind of awakening, grounded in everyday-ness, we move beyond hope and despair, face uncertainty, and, from an ordinary perspective, we are guaranteed to lose everything. We begin to see, however, that in the bargain we gain the whole world. This world. Not another one.