Today I offer a map for something that seems to me to be quite different -- when practice is a calling, or a response to a calling. Maybe you started here and forgotten, or maybe your motivation has evolved out of your efforts in either or both of the other approaches to practice. In responding to a calling, you are not concerned about how practice may benefit you, nor are you concerned about achieving or finding something -- awakening, meaning, etc. It is just something you have to do, something that you are called to do. In this respect, it is analogous to art, and there are many parallels between the path of the artist and the path of the practitioner.
When I look back on my own practice history, I think this is what always motivated me. At the beginning and for a good period of time, I was of course fascinated by the accounts of experiences and awakenings that I came across in my reading. Yet it is hard to say which was the cart and which was the horse, the lure of awakening or the sense of a calling. At this point in my life, it is quite clear -- it is the calling. Awakening, at least as it is presented in the traditional texts, seems to be a well-defined goal. However, it’s a bit like a rainbow -- clear and beautiful to behold, but it mysteriously recedes and fades as you move toward it. A calling, however, is different. It is in you, not out there. You feel it, in your body, in your heart, in the very core of your being. It's always there, to guide you, to push you or to call you back.
Associated with that sense of calling are two powerful emotions, humility and awe, neither of which are particularly easy to write about.
I’m not going to say much about humility, except to say that it’s essence seems to be in some kind of implicit recognition that this self most of us are so obsessed with is nothing but a story, an idea -- an idea whose maintenance usually disturbs or disrupts the natural flow of life. It is also connected with the recognition that much that comes about in our lives -- good or bad -- does not come about solely through our own agency.
As for awe, it is difficult for me to imagine a spiritual practice in which awe is not present. By awe, I mean a feeling of being intimately connected with something that is infinitely greater than any sense of who I am. Without the intimacy of connection, there is no participation. One is only an onlooker. (This is one of the reasons that I do not encourage the “detached observer” approach in meditation practice, helpful though it may be to many people.) Without the greatness (and the greatness may come through verticality, breadth, depth, or an aesthetic dimension), one has only that ordinary sense of self, a paltry obsession to put against the grandeur of all that it is possible to experience.
I encounter awe in various ways. Certain works of art inspire awe - the opening bars of Mozart’s Requiem, the statue of Guan-Yin in the Nelson-Atkin’s Museum, Monet’s paintings in L’Orangerie in Paris, or the Blue Mosque in Istanbul. Indeed, many temples, including mosques, cathedrals and memorials such as the Lincoln Memorial were designed to elicit awe, but when there is no sense of participation, they become little more than tourist attractions. Similarly, people’s stories can inspire awe, whether the lives of great teachers, the myths that come down to us today, or the wonder and magic that bring out compassion and understanding, courage and love, in the happenings and encounters of daily life. I also encounter awe (and humility) in my meditation practice, the "it's turtles all the way down" quality, for instance, that I talk about in A Trackless Path, or the seemingly fathomless capacity for love, loving kindness and compassion that seems to part of our human heritage.
To respond to a calling, you need to develop the skills and build the capacities that are essential for spiritual practice. To train deeply in an established tradition can be very helpful. You will certainly learn a lot, and the challenges presented by the traditional methods build capacity. In doing so, you necessarily take on the path and methods that the tradition sets out, along with its world view and ways of living your life. And here a lies a danger: those world views and ways of living may result in your losing touch with your calling. Here it is especially important to distinguish between faith and belief.
A traditional training will generally deepen your understanding of possibilities and help you develop skills and capacities. But it may or may not fit with your calling and you may find that, at some point, you have to respond to that calling and find your own way. At that point, the importance of the validation of your understanding by the tradition and your teacher begins to ebb. This is a difficult juncture: whether to set out into the unknown or to stay within the traditional framework. There is no way of knowing except to listen as deeply as you can to the stammering voice of your calling that comes from deep inside you.
Many teachers in the past have come to this point and had to find their own way. You will find some accounts of this in Lives of the Lineage Holders. One has to read these accounts carefully because the internal struggles of the teachers are often described in metaphorical language that disguises the challenges they faced. In the first few verses of The Magic of Faith, for instance, I try to bring out the internal struggles that Khyungpo Naljor faced.
From then on, you are in the unknown, in the dark. I’m not talking about the dark night of the soul. The dark here is the dark of the unknown that T. S Eliot writes about in Four Quartets:
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.
You draw upon all your training to meet the challenges of the dark, but the direction you take is not necessarily that set out in traditional teachings. Rather, you have an internal compass, and you go where it points, regardless of the consequences in your life.