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Glowing phoenix ... or smouldering moth?

by Ron Urquhart

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   Once I spent time in a jungle monastery in Thailand. I found myself there to learn inner peace, the gifts of transcendence and to become wise beyond my years - not much to ask for really, I thought. After all, that's the stuff monks do: they become wise and peaceful - it shouldn't be that hard to teach me to do the same.

   How wrong can a fat westerner be? It wasn't peaceful at all. In fact, it was downright hard work, getting up at 3 am from a hard rattan mat on a bare wooden floor to sit in meditation positions that my western legs just couldn't maintain.

   The peace was replaced by pain, my meditation was hopeless and, to make it worse, they didn't teach me much at all for the first week or so. I just had to do hard, totally meaningless work, carrying logs from one place to another and back again, sweeping constantly falling leaves from endless jungle pathways and, even though I was a westerner, I had to sit at the back of the group like an ignorant child during dharma sessions each evening.

   The only time the abbot would even talk to me 'one on one' was on alms rounds each morning. I was a successful businessman, a man of respect in my community, a spiritual teacher to many, but here to even get some basic questions answered I had to scurry along beside him like some lapdog.

   It was humiliating, and then even the questions I asked about masturbating my way through celibacy and how to speed up the enlightenment process seemed to be offensive to those around me. The frustration with this new life was growing on all levels. Even when I learned how to overcome the physical pain of sitting for an hour or so without having to stand up, they didn't notice, didn't once congratulate me and no-one helped me unless I had to grovel to them for assistance.

   They obviously didn't understand me I thought, if they only knew how spiritual I was compared to most westerners they would take notice. I wanted to run away; actually I did leave for one day and then returned with my tail between my legs.

   The world that only weeks before seemed so normal to me outside the monastery had already changed. It was even worse than inside the monastery. People were loud, unskilful in action, rambunctious and uncaring, and although they did take notice of me, it was because I was a business man or a westerner or to get something from me. It seemed that the relationships outside seemed based on what I did, or what people could gain from me, rather than what I was as a person.

Who was 'I' after all?

   Something had changed. The 'me' that had suffered through interminable meditation, listened to convoluted dhama teachings and asked all the wrong questions, and knew exactly how right I was and how wrong the others were, suddenly floundered. I felt out of my depth. Who was 'I' after all? The part that sat and meditated and hurt, or the part that found peace in the vastness that existed beyond the pain; the part that sat and judged, cajoled, tried to win approval and wanted to run away, or the part that watched it all happen from some distant place and knew that no matter what happened it would be all right in the end.

   It seemed as if every time I flew closer to the light of peace in meditation or in the fleeting seconds between thoughts, when sweeping or just being, a new me was being born. The conflict was immense.

   I desperately sought calm and wisdom but, like a moth drawn inescapably to the flame, the closer I got to my goal, the more I burned in the fire of resistance and confusion. One part said it must hurt to get to this space, the other part said this space is within you right now. I wanted quick enlightenment, but instead the closer I got to beginning to understand, the more confusing it became.

   I left the monastery then - 'the discipline was too restrictive' my ego argued, unnecessarily harsh and seemingly ill considered rules. 'That Spartan lifestyle wasn't really for me anyway', said the judge within. 'I don't need to sit lost in the jungle away from the rest of the world to find peace', the warring parts of me screamed. So I left, not quite like the phoenix rising from the burning embers of samsara or illusion to the light of spirit as I had intended, but changed nonetheless.

   For almost 15 years i wandered from culture to culture, tribe to tribe around the world learning, teaching, seeking enlightenment, all the time with hand outstretched for 'them' to give 'me' the wisdom. Like the moth to the flame I was constantly burned by my ignorance. My ego self rebelled, I always knew better, or more, or felt insignificant in their presence, or felt rejected, or felt special, but always separate.

   It was 'me and them' the student, the teacher apart, 'more' or 'less' knowing, depending on the role I found myself playing. Sahamadi, the awkward gift of awakening, still eluded me. I wanted to be a glowing phoenix of light but was still little more than a smoking, smouldering moth, burning away my beliefs bit by bit each time I touched that millisecond of knowing.

   No correct pathway to the truth. It wasn't until much later I realised that the gradual and often painful burning away of each layer of belief of each instant of separation was the light itself at work. 'The way' considers that there is no correct pathway to the truth. The truth just is. It's beyond the words, the dharma, the brightest mind. It's the 'is' that is within each of us in the space of knowing which lies between the thoughts of 'me' and 'them'.

   You are, as I am, on the right track right now, today, this instant. If we act skilfully it's the right track, if we act unskilfully it's the right track.

   We all have our path home. For some it may take many cycles of life and death before we open the door, for some just a few

   Who is more advanced, less advanced, who has lived more life experience or more spiritual experience? How many have come back specifically in this life to learn the lessons of false gurus, or of trying to win by harming others so they need never return again? Who can say that the path sweeper who cares for all life and his community is less spiritually aware than the chela monk working his asanas day in and day out in the monastery surrounded by beauty?

   We choose each life to fulfil the lessons that must be learned before we can get off the wheel of life and death. If we choose struggle, so be it. If we choose hatred, so be it. If we choose compassion, so be it. None better nor worse, more enlightened or less enlightened. Our journey to enlightenment is to assist all sentient beings whatever their (or our) level of spiritual awareness, toward the light.

   I once held a wounded 7 year old 'guerilla soldier', given by his parents to the war effort in Burma, and watched him die. I cried and abused the soldiers, threw their guns in the dirt and spat at them. Trapped in my emotion and view of what was right and what was wrong, I saw only through western eyes, saw death as the end, and felt the fear within me around my own death. All this from the luxury of knowing I could go back to a country without a single bomb dropping on me, to a house and the security of those I loved. As if I knew what was 'right'. What audacity.

   Who am I to say that that child did not have the right to perhaps release himself forever from this cycle of life and death by coming back one last time as a child soldier?

   Now with hopefully more insight than those drama filled days I see that we simply play our part, That it's all just what it is: Lessons, illusions, shadow games we play out in life on a level that we believe to be real.

   'The way' is the teaching that all of it is real - and none of it is real; the duality of life that began the moment we were torn from our God (in whatever for s/he took to us). The moment we took on our identity of 'me' separate from 'God', we entered into the collusion with illusion game.

   Our sense of separateness, better/worse than, more/less deserving, more/less advanced, and so on, is what purifies and burns each time we fly into the flame of truth. With the many passes through the fire of knowing in every lifetime we hurt and burn off just a little more unskilfullness, until, instead of setting complicated physical and spiritual goals that we hope will assist us to fly toward the light, we recognise we are in fact the light itself. We no longer need to seek - just 'be'.

   The street sweeper, the business person, the mother, the dying child - the instant we can remain in the present moment, beyond thought, at one with the light, the godliness that radiates within, not having to be clever, or all knowing, or powerful, or special, but just to be what we are truthfully and honourably in that instant, to give our natural essence of love to all beings in that instant - it is it is at that moment that the singed moth becomes the glowing phoenix of light - the light being we call Jesus or Buddha or Mohammed or any of the great teachers who walked this earth. At that moment we are one with the truth, and at that moment, the singed moth realises its true beauty.


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