"We do not see things as they are. We see things as we are." This is written in the Talmud. Shakyamuni Buddha said the same thing, in different words: "All existence is conditioned." As a result of that conditioning, our perception is skewed, and as a result of living based on skewed perception, our life is characterized by pain, boredom and restlessness, and we surely deal out enough of it to others. In fact, it is often through pain that we come finally to take up a spiritual practice. Once we have seen that all the ways in which the human race attempts to escape that pain, that dukkha, are nothing but impotent stopgaps—that they work for awhile (and may destroy our lives in the process, if it’s drugs or alcohol or rampant sex through which we seek to escape) but then that same empty hole is back—we are ready to face the task of searching for the Source of our Being, for our Buddha-nature, for That Which Is Beyond Birth and Death—or, if you want Christian terminology, for God. It takes a certain amount of perseverance, grit, and determination to stick it out long enough to wade beyond the muck into something deeper, clearer, to the place of stillness where answers arise of their own.

Robert Browning wrote:

"Truth is within ourselves, it takes no rise
From outward things, whate’er you may believe.
There is an inner centre in us all
Where truth abides in fullness; and around
Wall upon wall the gross flesh hems it in
That perfect, clear perception which is Truth.
A baffling and perverting carnal mesh
Binds all and makes all error, but to know
Rather consists in finding out a way
For the imprisoned splendour to escape
Than in achieving entry for a light
Supposed to be without."

How perceptive! There is no other place we can find Truth but within. It is always there, albeit our conditioning usually blinds us to it. It never dies, was never born. This is the Face Before Our Parents Were Born, clear and shining, "eternal, joyous, selfless, pure," as we chant in the Ten-Verse Kannon Sutra each day.

But it can be a rather tall order to settle down and open to that Face. We are going to be faced with many places of stickiness in the process, and many of you will be tempted to give up. Some of you will leave the practice in anger or discouragement, or with disparaging remarks about the seeming inadequacies of the teacher or the practice. But those of you who stick it out will find something amazing—the very miracle of Being.

Countless human beings have stuck out the practice through thick and thin, the smoothly rolling moments and the most challenging ones, to find that Miracle. It is open to each one of us, regardless of race, nationality, creed or lack thereof, of I.Q. scores. Simply relax, focus from the hara (just below the navel)—that is, place our center of awareness there—and begin extending each outbreath. The inbreath flows in as fast or slow as it is inclined to, but the outbreath is extended beyond the point at which one automatically breathes back in. The gift of this extension of the outbreath—when we truly attend to it and don’t just breathe on in automatic—is a gap between thoughts, a spaciousness through which that Face may reveal itself. Simply doing the practice over and over and over again—and you will get bored and likely frustrated until you reach that point at which something miraculous seems to be at hand, just out of reach, but so close! To keep on going no matter what appears—not to block out, repress, chop off, extraneous thoughts, emotions, etc., but to simply re-commit to the drawing out of the breath as far as possible without gasping, and of attending to the possibility inherent in each breath—this is all that is required. In this lies the promise of Total Liberation.

Ven. Mitra Bishop, Abbot of Mountain Gate in Northern New Mexico, and Spiritual Director of Hidden Valley Zen Center in San Marcos CA.

back