Instant enlightenment is possible
only for those an instant away in practice.
There are teachers who proclaim that the only thing necessary to wake up is to ‘just do it.’ They tell us that we are already enlightened, we just do not recognize it. I have studied with such teachers, and their ‘quick-fix’ approach is seductive. But after hearing the same message repeatedly, I became discouraged. I couldn’t do it. It sounds true, it feels true, but no matter how many times I heard these teachings, I could not bring them into my experiences. Others also felt the exhilaration and promise of sudden enlightenment, but no one was getting enlightened.
These teachers deliver an accurate message, but they do so from an exclusively absolute perspective. This is where lofty views, like Dzogchen, are problematic if taken out of context. Even Buddhism asserts that the only difference between a Buddha and a confused being is that Buddhas know they are Buddhas while sentient beings do not. While these proclamations are absolutely true, they are not relatively complete. They are speaking half of the truth and can generate hardship for their followers by not acknowledging the other half.
It is true that we are already a Buddha, that everything is perfectly pure, and enlightenment exists here and now. But we cannot realize this truth without a path and without practice. Throughout history a handful of supremely gifted individuals were able to achieve sudden enlightenment, but these people who admitted they traveled the path in previous lives. They were completely ripe. If these absolute proclamations are not balanced with relative realities, they can lead one astray.
It is easy, and almost lazy, to proclaim the glories of the absolute; it is hard, but more realistic, to acknowledge the labors of the relative. The best approach is to balance the two. Maintain the absolute view that shows us where we are going, but acknowledge the relative work involved in getting there.
We have to honor the laws of spiritual reality. The momentum, or karma, of the worldly path must be acknowledged and exhausted. We cannot stop a freight train on a dime, and we cannot accelerate a freight train instantly. The momentum of the spiritual path must be cultivated and sustained – slowly but surely.
The ‘absolute-only’ gurus proclaim the notion of ‘no path’ and that any path leads one off track. At the highest levels of the path, this is the proper view. When we have struggled through the necessary hardships of the relative path and exhausted our bad habits, then we can relax into the absolute. Only then can we make the shattering discovery that the path was unnecessary. But we have to endure this painful joke in order to appreciate its punch line. Otherwise we just won’t get it.
We have been stressing the importance of proper view, and here we see the problem with having only the absolute view. The resolution lies in the middle. The absolute without the relative is lame – we are not going to get where we want to go. The relative without the absolute is blind – we have no idea of where to go. As the Indian master Padmasambhava says, ‘Your view should be as vast as the sky, but your conduct should be as fine as barley flour.’
John Welwood talks about spiritual bypassing, ‘using spiritual ideas or practices to avoid or prematurely transcend relative human needs, feelings, personal issues, and developmental tasks.’ This bypassing manifests in what Welwood calls ‘advaita-speak’, where ‘advaita’ is the Sanskrit word for ‘nonduality,’ a state ascribed to ‘God’, ‘Brahman’, or the Absolute alone. This superior state cannot be reached by reason or relativity. It is above the fray of humanity.
But if nonduality does not honor duality, it becomes sterile and disconnected. It becomes ‘a one-sided transcendentalism that uses nondual terms and ideas to bypass the challenging work of personal transformation. Advaita-speak can be very tricky, for it uses absolute truth to disparage relative truth, emptiness to devalue form, and oneness to belittle individuality.’ In other words, it engenders escapism.