HOW TO GROW A LOTUS BLOSSOM: Reflections in a Disciple's Life

by Rev. Koshin Schomberg

Section IV
Contemplative Aloneness

The profundity of ourselves and things is deep.
Its mystery is hard for human beings to understand.
The forward and return processes are full of compassion;
The Great Immaculacy wards off all evil from our long, contemplative aloneness.


The Ore and the Gold

The process of spiritual conversion is the greatest mystery in human life. We neither see nor understand most of the process. It is as if our spiritual need is a great vein of gold ore which must be mined and then refined in order to obtain the pure metal of enlightenment. The mining process takes place deep in the mountain where it is very dark. The refining happens when the ore is brought to the furnace of meditation, there to be worked upon by the fire of Compassion and Wisdom.

The ore from which the gold will be refined is not bright and pretty. It may just be rough dirt and mud. Our spiritual need contains greed, hate, delusion, grief, confusion, doubt, regret--and above all, self-judgment. This is not pretty stuff, and there is no neat and orderly way to process it into the gold of enlightenment. By hook or by crook, we have to get it out of that mountain and into the furnace. It may be that we break some tools in the process--and perhaps break our skulls bashing around in dark mineshafts. But if we keep at it, the ore will make it to the furnace and the fire will do its work.

It is easy to think less of the ore than of the gold that is to be refined out of it. But if we despise the ore, we will not think that it is worthy material to laboriously mine and bring to the furnace. However confused and pained any aspect of our spiritual need may be, we can bring it to that furnace of meditation in faith and confidence. The fire of the Eternal's Compassion and Wisdom makes no judgment about the ore that is placed in the furnace: it works on everything with the same tireless mercy.

All through my developing spiritual crisis from 1980 to 1987, I kept meditating and training. At times, I was a very messy gold miner. But I kept at it. Looking back at that time, I see the strength of my resolve, and I recognize the purity of intention that imbued it. And I see something much bigger. I see in the whole process, in all the ups and downs, all the twisting and turning, the Hand of the Eternal--mostly unseen by me at the time, yet always present. If this double reality of underlying purity of intention and omnipresent help from the Eternal is true for me, it is true for everyone. We can trust that foundational purity of heart in all other beings, and we can entrust all beings that we love to the Compassion and Love of the Eternal.

Following my sange in early 1987 I returned to my temple. I was alone in a way that I had never been alone before. And in contemplative aloneness, precious gold began to trickle from the furnace. This trickle culminated in 1993 in a quiet flood.

Loneliness and Aloneness

I trained in relative solitude for several years. I lived thirty miles from the nearest congregation members and over sixty miles from the house where our Seattle meditation group met each Wednesday evening. I drove up and back once a week, and sometimes travelled to other more distant meditation groups. But I always returned to my little trailer in the woods. I began to build the meditation hall building. Sometimes congregation members would come for a workday on the weekend. But again I was alone at the end of the day.

I had been alone a good deal before I ever became a monk. But this was different because I was in a different place spiritually. Each year for the first three years that I lived in this way, I felt pure loneliness for a few weeks in autumn. There was no despair, no sadness. I did not feel alienated from anyone or anything. It was just loneliness.

After the third year, something else took the place of the loneliness. It seemed as if the loneliness was converting into a quiet sense of aloneness with the Eternal. How can I describe this?--It is like having been in the middle of an open field surrounded by broken glass, and then finding one day that I was in a meadow full of lovely flowers and soft grasses with no broken glass anywhere to be seen. Of course, the change that was quietly happening was within me, not in the world around me. I did not have to understand this change in order to be grateful for it.

Dependent Origination

During my retreat in 1980, it had come up clearly to study the Buddha's teaching of dependent origination (or "dependent arising", or "conditioned arising"). I had tried to study this teaching at that time, but I quickly saw that I would have to put it on the back burner: I was not yet ready for it.

After the sange in 1987, it came up to look again at dependent origination. I found a good explanation of the teaching, and this time it made perfect sense. The term "dependent origination" is a rather highbrow-sounding term for the Buddha's description of how the wheel of karma/rebirth was set in motion in our past-life inheritance, how we tend to perpetuate it in our life, and how it will continue into future lives if we do not turn the whole process in another direction through correct spiritual training. In other words, the teaching of dependent arising is a detailed explanation of the Buddha's first two Noble Truths: existence is permeated with suffering; and the cause of suffering is craving rooted in ignorance. The way in which this works is shown in twelve successive steps, each of which arises out of ("depends" upon) the previous step. Furthermore, the steps are in one great cycle, so that the last step in the cycle leads to the first step, and so on in a continuing round of birth, confusion, suffering and death until someone pulls the plug on the whole thing.

I wrote a series of articles on dependent origination. We later published these articles as a little book. This book is now available as a pdf file at the website of North Cascades Buddhist Priory. I have put a link to this book at the bottom of this page.

The Buddha's teachings are amazingly simple and clear. But when they are obscured by ignorance, they are inpenetrable. Sange literally opened my mind and heart to the Teaching. Note that the third of the "Five Columns" in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom is "heaven penetrating earth", which Rev. Master describes as "the Dharma constantly given to those willing to receive it." (Plate XLV; Plate XXVII, first edition). What changed in me with the sange?--I let go, and a greater willingness manifested. Note also that this third column follows the second, which is the Water of the Spirit in Its "cleansing" mode: sange. It all actually works exactly as Rev. Master describes in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom.

The Heavenly Heart

In early spring in 1990, I was meditating as usual in my little trailer. Suddenly, I felt the Water of the Spirit go up my back and over my head to the "Third Eye" or "Heavenly Heart" (the middle of the forehead). There was a kind of melting at the Third Eye and movement of the Water of the Spirit around the Third Eye in a circular path like a whirlpool. A deep compassion arose within me. A few days later, I was meditating and I was shown very clearly and dispassionately that, if I kept up my training, I would have the choice at the time of death whether to pick up more karma in order to shepherd it to the help of the Eternal. What happened next I can only describe as an instantaneous upwelling of unconditional willingness. There was no time for deliberation, no time for thought. The upward surge of willingness arose within my body and mind, but I could never say that it was "mine"--it just was. And yet it was not not my willingness. It was something much greater than me, and yet still it was my instantaneous choice.

Later in the spring I went down to Shasta Abbey for the monastic retreat. I had written Rev. Master a letter about this experience, and she talked with me about it while I was there. She said, "Yes, that's just how it happens." Rev. Master was very precise and careful in speaking of such important matters. Note that she did not say, "Yes that's how it happened to me." or "Yes, that's how it happens to everyone." All I know for sure is that this is how it happened to me.

Shortly after my kensho in 1977, I began to have a quiet, but very firm, wish to formally take the Bodhisattva vows. I knew almost nothing about the Bodhisattva vows. I asked Rev. Master if I could take the vows. She told me to read some different forms of the vows. Then she made me wait a few months. She knew--as I now know--what a serious matter the taking of these vows is. She needed to be sure that I was certain about doing it, because she knew far better than I what I was in for if I really took them. When I did take them, it was in the Founder's shrine at Shasta Abbey. Rev. Master would not administer the vows, but she was there as witness. She knew that this is a matter between oneself and the Eternal, and that one will be taken at one's word.

The way I think of my choice to take the vows in 1977 is, "I took the Bodhisattva vows." The way I think of what happened in 1990 is, "The Bodhisattva vows took me."

Ever since I left Shasta Abbey in 1985, I have retaken the Bodhisattva vows on the first and fifteenth of each month. I have always viewed the taking of these vows as being entirely between an individual and the Eternal. I would no more administer them to another person than Rev. Master would administer them to me, though I am willing to witness the taking of the vows if I believe that the trainee is truly ready to take them.

The experience that I have described here can be compared with that described by Rev. Master in the text accompanying Plate XXX of How to Grow a Lotus Blossom (Plate XVII of the second edition). There are obvious differences. In general, when the Heavenly Heart opens, and in whatever manner one experiences this opening, one is going to be shown something very important.

The Great Circulation

After experiencing the opening of the Heavenly Heart, I began to have a recurring vision when I meditated. The vision was of a circulating stream of golden light.

It might be good to take a moment and say something about my own experience of visions. My general view of visions is expressed in the essay on visions in Part I of How to Grow a Lotus Blossom-Reflections. I have put a link to that essay at the bottom of this page.

"Visions" is a general term applying to any special use made by the Eternal of the senses for delivering teaching. (There is another kind of vision as well. I discuss it in the above-mentioned essay, "On Visions", and will not go into it now.) I have already described some of the "auditory visions" that I have experienced. I have also experienced visual visions, and even olfactory "visions". When Rev. Master first spoke to us about the visions that are pictured in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom, I had, as far as I knew, no experiential context for what she was saying. For a long time I thought I was "the kind of person who does not have visions." And here is the strange thing about that: I continued to think this even after I experienced genuine visions. This was my self-doubt: my "visions" might just be my imagination. I did not stop to think that I was never trying to have visions, and did not particularly care about them one way or the other, so that if I had one, there was probably something to it. Even with this element of confusion, however, I had an instinct that told me that what mattered, as Rev. Master is careful to point out in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom, is the teaching being conveyed by the vision, not the form of the vision itself, nor, for that matter, the clarity or vagueness of the experience.

I have had visions when I was awake, and I have had dreams that I believe to be genuine visions. The latter have a certain indefinable "extra dimension of reality" quality and, usually, a clear teaching. I think the distinction between waking consciousness and sleeping consciousness (or seeming lack of consciousness) is another of those suspiciously superficial distinctions that do not hold up under close scrutiny. For example I have been aware in my sleep that I was meditating. At any rate, I am not going to try to second-guess the Eternal, and whether a teaching is given when one is awake or asleep seems to me a completely irrelevant concern: again, what matters is the teaching, not its vehicle.

Rev. Master treated the experiencing of genuine visions by herself or anyone else as being completely normal, and she never thought that not experiencing visions is indicative of a lack of genuine spirituality. She presumed--and I wholeheartedly agree with her in this--that the Eternal provides all of us with what we need.--And is it not a wonderful world in which there can be so much variety of experience? I have always found that taking true teaching to heart and applying it in my life is difficult enough without adding in worries and doubts about the form--or lack of form--in which the teaching has been conveyed. Visions do not make people saints; the absence of visions does not prevent people from training deeply.

A vision is not necessarily self-explanatory. While I understood at the time of experiencing this recurring vision that the ring of circulating light represented the circulation of the Water of the Spirit, that has not made me an expert on the subject. I know that I have only ever glimpsed the "tip of the iceberg". Nonetheless, I would like to try to give some sense of the "Great Circulation":

It is the circulation of the Love and Wisdom of the Eternal in our body and mind--always working for our true spiritual good.
It is the pathway of our cry for help rising to the Eternal and the healing Compassion of the Eternal descending to our need.
It is the stream of Compassion that carries the raw material of enlightenment (greed, hate and delusion) round and round in the cosmic "washing machine", accomplishing the work of conversion.
It is the longing love that rises to the Eternal and the "peace that passes all understanding" that returns to the hara.
It is the pathway of bodhisattvic merit that picks up spiritual need and brings it to the help of the Eternal.
It is the "forward process" of the making of suffering and the "return process" of the cessation of suffering in one great cosmic cycle of incomprehensible Compassion.
It is the "going in" to take refuge in the Eternal in pure meditation and the "going out" to follow the Eternal through all the twisting and turning of daily life.
It is getting on the bull, riding the bull, falling off the bull, being trampled by the bull, getting back on the bull, riding the pacified bull, and rider and bull vanishing into Immaculacy.
It is endless training, endless following the Eternal, endless bowing, endless willingness.
It is Love beyond our wildest dreams.

The Flame of Love

The experience described above ushered in another period of retreat lasting a few months. And for the next three years I would be in and out of retreat even while I continued to build the temple, take disciples and travel to meditation groups. Within the first year, I began to experience strong devotional feelings directed, first, toward Avalokiteswara Bodhisattva, and then toward Amitabha Buddha.

I tend to think of the cosmic Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as representing the Compassion and Wisdom of the Eternal. Avalokiteswara (Kwan-yin, Kanzeon) represents tender Compassion and Mercy for millions of Buddhists. Amitabha Buddha represents saving Compassion and Benevolence. I have always thought that I must have inherited the karma of someone to whom this Bodhisattva and Buddha were very precious. For several months, my meditation and daily life were full of love for, and adoration of, this Bodhisattva and Buddha. And then the strength of this devotional focus gradually diminished.

Please note that I do not say that the cosmic Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are only "symbols". At the same time, I have no personal experience of a separate Pure Land. I like the Sixth Zen Patriarch's explanation that the Pure Land is the pure mind and heart of the trainee. But I am not going to say that a separate Pure Land does not exist: I do not know.

Aloneness--aloneness with the Eternal--was a recurrent theme in my training during these years. Sometimes the emphasis was on the "aloneness", sometimes on the "with the Eternal", sometimes it was all in balance. Looking back many years later, it seems as if I was being prepared for my master's death.

In 1993 came the culmination of what I now look on as the most peaceful years of my life. Again I was in retreat. One day in meditation I experienced the upwelling of the Water of the Spirit to the crown of the head and an opening at the crown of the head. It felt as if a ring of flame or electricity was on the crown of my head, surrounding the place that had opened. It was not just open, but open to the Eternal in quiet love, adoration, worship, reverence, gratitude. I think of this point at the crown of the head as the "Gate of Immaculacy". I believe I have heard Rev. Master refer to it as the "Heavenly Gate".

The reader can compare my description of the "ring of flame" with Rev. Master's descriptions of the "lotus blossom upon my head" in How to Grow a Lotus Blossom (e.g. Plate XLIV [Plate XXVII in the first edition]). Again, each person experiences these things in his or her own way--and what is happening spiritually is essentially the same for everyone.

During this retreat I experienced what I knew at the time, and have known ever since, to be perfect contentment. So often in the year following her great kensho in 1976-77, Rev. Master would say, "It is enough for me to know the Lord of the House." And often she would answer a question with, "Just long for the Lord of the House." When all of our longing coalesces into the quiet flame of longing love for the Eternal, then indeed does the Treasure House open naturally, and then indeed is it enough to know the Lord of the House.

The experience of perfection of any kind is both an end and a new beginning. I had no illusion at the time that I experienced this perfect contentment that I would always feel such contentment. The contentment that I knew during that retreat never was just a feeling, and it never was my creation. It never belonged to me: I was allowed to experience it. It is an aspect of the Eternal.



Click here to go to Dependent Origination.

Click here to go to Part I, "Some Keys to Understanding How to Grow a Lotus Blossom". Scroll down the page to the heading "On Visions".


Click here to go to Section V, "The Great Circulation in a Day"

Click here to return to Table of Contents of Book Two: How to Grow a Lotus Blossom: Reflections in a Disciple's Life



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