My spiritual pilgrimage began at a very young age as I searched for a sense of place and belonging. The Lutheran minister who, when I was eight, told the story of the monk on the cliff and later baptized me with “just” tap water at thirteen was my first spiritual teacher. His stories and support encouraged me to keep looking within for the meaning and belonging I craved. During the younger years of my pilgrimage, I was a vigilante in search of God. Later in life, I found that giving up the myth of the spiritual quest was a way to “discover Spirit” in my day-to-day experiences. On my path to the present, I found the I Ching at the age of sixteen. I also began to refer to God as the Great Unknown. This helped me hold a conversation with that “Something” I knew was here without holding it captive in some religious scheme.
Then, about eight years ago, I had a dark passage that lasted about two years wherein I felt a break in my connection to Spirit, although I didn’t give up my various spiritual practices entirely. I had been heartbroken by the dogma and possessiveness within a spiritual sangha where I had previously, for a decade, found teachings and refuge. What broke my relationship with these teachers and teachings was my inability to endorse their emphasis on ritual, their belief in and manipulation of the idea of hell, their advocacy of human dominion over the Earth, and their emphasis on accumulating merit through certain rigid practices.
At one particular dark edge, I felt desperate and wanted to give up. I can’t say how that “giving up” would have manifested entirely, but I felt a bottom to my hope, which I’d never felt before. My connection to the teachings and to my spiritual source felt severed. I did manage to keep some conversation going with the Great Unknown, although I had more or less given up on the idea that God, or some greater power, existed.
My isolation from spiritual friends and from my spiritual source generated a chronic sadness in me. Was I utterly on my own? Determined to lift myself out of my malaise, I went online and looked at an email I’d received from Wisdom Publications on their recent books. There was one book written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, so I thought it would be relatively user-friendly. His teachings were generous, and more often than not they were nondogmatic. So I clicked on “purchase” and waited for the book to arrive. I had a small ligament of hope as well as the intention of using the book’s teachings as a way to host this particular edge and hopefully get beyond it.
When the book arrived, I dove into it within minutes and couldn’t believe what I was reading! This from the foreword by Donald Swearer: “It is only by being in nature that the trees, rocks, earth, sand, animals, birds, and insects can teach us the lesson of forgetting the self—being at one with the Dharma. The destruction of nature, then, implies the destruction of Dharma.” I can now reveal that some of the disillusionment I felt with my former colleagues at the sangha was due to their belief that animals, although sentient beings, are less than we are. We are considered the better species, as taught in so many religions. This assumption encourages a selfishness that is wholly destructive. I felt then and continue to believe now that we are all part of a great circle of life. Further in the foreword by Donald Swearer, I read how it is important for us to live “according to the laws of nature, and the consequences of following the laws of nature reflect his view that all human beings share a common natural environment and are part of communities embedded in the natural order of things. This interconnected universe we inhabit is the natural condition of things. To act contrary to this law of nature is to suffer because such actions contradict reality. Consequently, the good of the individual parts is predicated on the good of the whole, and vice versa.”
These words spoke directly to my recent alienation from my sangha. On nearly every visit I had made to the temple, a nun had pointed out various things I was doing incorrectly. The emphasis in the book that I held in my hands wasn’t on ritual and worship and doing things correctly, but on understanding our part in the natural scheme of things and respecting the interconnectedness of reality.
Jack Kornfield wrote in his preface: “When I asked him how so many Westerners who begin spiritual life with deep inner wounds, pain, and self-hatred can best approach practice, he replied simply with two suggestions. First, their whole spiritual practice should be enveloped by the principles of metta (loving kindness). Then they should be taken out into nature, into beautiful forests or mountains. They must stay there long enough to realize that they too are a part of nature.”
I wept and felt the active, large conversation between me and the Great Unknown. I felt myself at a threshold.
But I wondered.
I was getting through the forward and preface with no mention of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and only occasional references to Buddhadasa Bhikkhu. I read on and when I got into the text it became clear to me that the book I had received was not the one I’d ordered. The cover of the book was the one I’d ordered, but the book inside the cover was not. The publisher or printer had mistakenly put this book inside the Dalai Lama’s book cover.
The book I ordered was The Middle Way: Faith Grounded in Reason, by the Dalai Lama, translated by Thupten Jinpa. The title of the book I received was The Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree: The Buddha’s Teaching on Voidness by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, edited by Santikaro Bhikkhu. At the time, I would not have chosen a book about voidness. I already felt enough void and was drawn, as I shared earlier, to teachings from His Holiness the Dalai Lama. And yet, this book that I’d received instead was exactly what my soul needed at that time. This book and its message instantly lifted me out of my darkness. This is because I knew at the time I was being helped.
Early on in the book, I read: “To call something a ‘fundamental principle of Buddhism’ is only correct if, first, it is a principle that aims at the quenching of dukkha (pain, misery, suffering) and, second, it has a logic that one can see for oneself without having to believe others.” Buddhadasa Bhikkhu warns here about spiritual life becoming a matter of “superstition, or rites and rituals, and of making merit by rote to insure against some kind of fear; [where then] there is no contact with real Buddhism.” This was exactly what I needed to read and to receive to host the edge of my spiritual discontent and isolation. I read through the book, taking in its message as my heart opened up at this threshold to a revitalized conversation with the Great Unknown.
Further into the book, I learned that its transcriber and teacher, Santikaro, who had previously been living in Thailand, was now living only an hour’s drive away from me in Wisconsin. There he and his spouse had established a quiet rural refuge center (Kevela Retreat Center). I have since attended some of his teachings and continue to do so.
What made the Unknown known to me was remaining at this threshold and conversing with its inherent edge. If I had given up on this conversation at this dark time, I cannot be sure where I would be now. And I so love the contradictions and paradoxical nature of the Great Unknown’s arrival coming to me in Buddhist teachings that I can understand and relate to.
As long as we keep the conversation going and keep hold of the red thread, the Great Unknown in return becomes a thread and the giver of threads. This practice of staying in the eternal conversation with the Great Unknown is not always easy, but as I do, when I do, I feel myself to be an expression of this great source. Other large conversations on this same order of magnitude can take place while we sit under a tree, walk mindfully on a path, or sit somewhere in the wild at a time the sun is about to rise or set. These thresholds of conversation hold the secret nectar of a fulfilling life. They can, and ideally do, take place as we listen. Through these conversations, we are in dialogue with our spiritual source, with nature, with each other, and with our true self.
This blog is an excerpt from my recent book, The Clue of the Red Thread: Discovering Fearlessness and Compassion in Uncertain Times (p. 93). Shanti Arts Publishing. 2021
How have you been helped by some divine intervention? Write about that.
How have you gotten through your dark edges and found your red thread? Contemplate that.