Meditation: Awakening, by Catherine Rathbun (Lama Jetsun Yeshe)

Awakening, transcendence, enlightenment. These are almost ‘buzz’ words now, symbolizing the quest for spiritual excellence mentioned so often in texts from the Eastern traditions. As Westerners, we sometimes toss them around as if they were a BA or perhaps the penultimate PhD. We think of awakening as something to go and get and once we have got it, we are perfect and fully perfected. ‘Job done’. In some of the Buddhist texts we read that there is a stage of ‘no falling back’ and so we think that, if we reach that stage, everything from then on will express enlightened energy.

Sadly, since the early 1990s, we have been made aware of oh, so many examples of behaviour that is incompatible with this view of perfection. The list is long and painful to contemplate and has caused great heartache in many people.

So we must think again about these terms. What do they actually mean? I have seen an unnamed Zen master quoted as saying, “There is no such thing as Enlightenment, only enlightened activity.” That seems to me a very wise approach to take when we are searching for a teacher or a teaching, or when we think of ourselves as having advanced on The Path.

Basic Buddhist teaching tells us that nothing is permanent, so perhaps enlightenment is not permanent either. The simple fact is that each and every moment we are affected by conditions, past and present and thus every moment there is a possibility to speak, act or think in an awake manner, or fall back into ignorance.

According to the Dalai Lama, the stage of ‘no falling back’ means that we will no longer fall back into the idea of having a permanent, separate self. When that realization becomes an experiential part of our being, we begin to awaken. The world changes and we are freed from the painful grip of our hindrances, though like a tree cut down the branches will stay green for some time and the roots may still try to re-set themselves. But we become much better able to encourage an increase of the qualities of kindness, compassion and clarity in our lives.

So let us never say that we, or another is “Awakened”, but rather that we are awakening day by day to try with greater skill to become more enlightened each day in thought, word and deed. If we can accept with humility and patience that we are fundamentally human and make mistakes, then we can spend the rest of our lives learning and growing. And when we make mistakes, we will be able to treat ourselves with compassion and learn from that how to treat others in a similar way.

Copyright: Catherine Rathbun, 2012. All rights reserved for future publication.

Catherine Rathbun has studied meditation with His Holiness XVI Karmapa, head of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, and with pre-eminent individuals like Ven. Kalu Rinpoche, Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoche, Ven. Namgyal Rinpoche and John Coleman. She received her traditional teaching name, Lama Jetsun Yeshe, from Ven. Karma Thinley Rinpoche, a lineage master of the Sakya and Kagyu traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, in 2002. Catherine taught meditation studies at York University for seven years (1989 to 1997). With a background in dance — she was a member of the National Ballet Company of Canada from 1962 to 1963 — and a modern dance career in England (1967-69), she frequently incorporates creative movement exercises into meditation studies as a way to bypass the tight hold that the Western intellect has on one’s development.

She is the author of Developing the World Mind and Clear Heart, Open Mind, and is currently working on a new book called Waiting for Truffles: Meditations for Daily Living. Her books are available from her directly or from Friends of the Heart or Snow Lion Meditation Shop, both in Toronto.

She is the founding teacher at Friends of the Heart, a meditation centre in Toronto.