Saturday, December 24, 2011

Climbing the Inner Mountain

Scott Bradley


A lot is said about the ‘true self’, ‘original nature’, and ‘buddha-nature’, and all of these must surely be the same ‘thing’. And the spiritual endeavor is often expressed in terms of realizing this reality. We are enjoined to discover this truth about who we ‘are’. Personally, I have decided to pursue this path. I share this now by way of introducing what follows, but also because I wish to identify it as such — a path. It is but one among any number of approaches which one might take. There are many ways up the mountain; and some might prefer to explore the valleys.

When we say, “Know thyself”, this refers to what might be described as discovering and mapping the mountain we wish to climb. We cannot reach the summit by simply studying the mountain and considering what ‘face’ and route might allow us to do so, however. But it is a good start.

We climb the mountain by physically putting one foot ahead of the other, finding a toe-hold, and lifting ourselves up. This corresponds to the contemplative method which I have previously espoused and wish to further discuss here. Let us say we are seeking the summit of our true self. We look within, but each new toe-hold we encounter, though it might feel like ‘me’ in some increasingly transcendent sense, is not true self. And the reason I know this is because I cannot know it. If true self is no self, then it does not know itself as self.

I have previous quoted Murti: "Reflective consciousness is necessarily consciousness of the false." I cannot “know” my true self. What I can know of my self may assist me in the climb to the summit, but true self is not of the same stuff as self. No toe-hold is the stuff of true self. Thus, the act of climbing the inner mountain is essentially a perpetual process of saying neti-neti, not this, not this. However transcendent and rarified my sense of self may seem to be, it is not no-self. No solid ‘thing’, no perceived self, is true self. If you know it, it is not it.

And this is where the mountain climbing metaphor breaks down. If it had not already been taken, perhaps I would have entitled this post “Into Thin Air”. Because this is, in fact, what it would mean to reach the summit; it would be to vanish into thin air.

When pressed to describe the essence of Buddhism, Shih-tou Hsi-ch’ien (742-?) replied, “The vastness of the sky does not hinder the white cloud flying anywhere it likes.” (Studies in Zen; D.T. Suzuki) This seems a complimentary concluding metaphor for what it would be to reach the summit and vanish into the vastness. Just as the flip side of neti-neti is ‘letting be’, so the apparent negation of the self is the embracing of the totality of one’s experience. Just as the climb begins by letting thoughts come and go as they wish while not being them, so the self-experience is affirmed within the vastness.

You can check out Scott's other miscellaneous writings here.

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