Who is hearing?
Your physical being doesn’t hear,
Nor does the void.
Then what does?
Strive to find out.
Put aside your rational Intellect,
Give up all techniques.
Just get rid of the notion of self.
~ Zen Poem
One of my favorite Zen stories is the one about a Buddhist scholar who goes to study with a Zen master. He expresses his sincerity about wanting to learn from the master but then proceeds to ramble on about how many spiritual books he has studied and meditation techniques he has mastered. The master listens patiently and then offers the scholar some tea. He continues to pour tea into the scholar’s cup until it is overflowing. “Stop, stop! The cup is full, what are you doing”, the scholar yells? The master replies, “you are like this cup, you are so full of spiritual ideas about the Buddha’s way, there is nothing I can teach you”.
Spiritual practice is not just about acquiring knowledge, chanting mantras or perfecting Yoga Asanas, it is also about letting go and emptying ourselves. This is especially true about meditation, which is our natural blooming; it is not an art, skill or performance that can be perfected. It is simply about dropping all our preconceived ideas and “isms”.
My spiritual teacher, Amma says that we should all diligently study spiritual scriptures and books but doing sadhana (spiritual practice) solely by consulting books can be dangerous. The difference between spiritual study and practice is similar to that between theory and hands on work in a classroom. We can learn theories by reading, but lab work for instance should be done under the supervision of a master teacher.
Many years ago, I was deeply immersed in advanced formal study of the ancient Vedic scriptures and I was learning new methods and techniques for spiritual awakening. Since I met my guru Amma in 1995, I had been following a simple spiritual practice prescribed by Her followed by meditation, but as my studies deepened I began to question if I was missing out and even holding back my spiritual progress.
On one of my spiritual retreats with Amma, I was walking around the gift shop at the ashram looking for something to buy when my eyes fell upon a beautiful, shiny copper Shri Yantra. In Hinduism, Yantras are sacred geometric representations of the different aspects of the divine, similar to mandalas. The most auspicious and sacred of all the hundreds of Yantras is the Shri Yantra representing the divine mother. It is formed by nine interlocking triangles interlaced to make 43 smaller triangles in a web representing the entire creation or cosmos. Just that past week, I had studied in my course work about the significance of meditating on the center of this most sacred of Hindu symbols, so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to purchase one and have it blessed by Amma. As the edges of the metal inscribed Shri Yantra were quite sharp I also purchased a beautiful cloth painting to wrap it in.
As some of you know, Amma is called the hugging saint, since she receives everyone who comes to meet her with a caress and a hug. I had not seen Amma for months, and I waited anxiously in line for my annual embrace. I was quite pleased with my purchases and excited at the prospect of Amma beaming at me as she blessed my noble intentions and the advancement I had made in my spiritual study. When my turn finally came, I handed Her the shiny Shri Yantra to bless, so ritualistically folded in the beautiful cloth painting. Amma took it from me and carelessly tossed it to one her attendants. She then gave me a sweet hug and her attendants pulled me up as the next person in line was already in Amma’s arms.
I walked away confused and despondent, why would Amma not bless a Shri Yantra? What could I have possibly done wrong? Why was she not giving me her blessing to deepen my spiritual practice? I felt horrible, as I played out the scene in my mind over and over. I talked with Amma’s senior monks, who assured me that I was over reacting. Besides, a master’s touch alone is a blessing, so I should not worry. But, I knew what I had seen, Amma had made a deliberate point, but I was not sure what it was.
I had never payed much attention in the past but this time I sat close to Amma and I watched carefully as she lovingly caressed and blessed a silk Om meditation shawl and wrapped it around a young girl’s shoulders, she then kissed a prayer bead bracelet for another person and slipped it around his wrist. Then someone approached her holding a yellow smiley-faced balloon on a stick - Amma laughed and placed no less than ten kisses on the balloon!! I was filled with pity for myself, as I felt my guru surely did not care for me and definitely did not think I was worthy.
The next day I made the resolve to confront Amma, so I woke up early in order to secure a spot in the question line - "Can Amma tell me why she did not give her blessing to my meditating on the Shri Yantra"? Bipin, the translator, posed my question to Amma, I became quite alarmed to see that Amma was very animated. Although, I could not understand what she was saying I could clearly tell that she was not pleased with my question, as she made a dramatic gestures moving her hands first to the right then to the left and then she pointed in the middle.
Bipin took me aside to give me Amma’s answer. He said that Amma was not pleased; she felt that while it was fine for me to pursue my studies, but I should not be all over the place with my sadhana (spiritual practice). She said I needed to stick to one thing, and not go here (gesturing left) and there (gesturing right) but stay fixed on my goal (gesturing to the center). The Shri Yantra will come to me on its own accord when it was time.
Bipin was sympathetically trying to give me some explanations of his own for why Amma was displeased with me. I needed no explanation, as I had clearly understood what Amma was saying. I had not seen Amma for the past five months and like the scholar in the story I had become so “full” with knowledge. I had become distracted with the cornucopia of spiritual practices in my books and was being drawn by the allure of the methods rather than the true desire to know the spirit. It was suddenly clear as day that I was no longer holding a “posture of consciousness” during my spiritual practice but rather one of attachment, greed and accumulating experiences.
All masters teach that without the right attitude even the most sacred of practices becomes ineffective, and with the right attitude and consciousness behind the act even the most mundane of practices become sacred.
May we all be so blessed to have such master teachers in our lives.