A year before my mother died of cancer, we went to the Grand Canyon together. Her brother, my uncle Gus, lived in Mesa, Arizona, and he wanted to fulfill one of my mother’s last wishes, to see the Grand Canyon. I got to go with her, and it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
The meditation on emptiness is the vehicle that gets you to the Grand Canyon, which is Buddhanature. It’s the car, the van, the bus, or whatever it is that gets you there. You start at the east coast and drive across the country for four days. You drive in shifts, ten hours a day. You sleep in stinky motels with bedbugs and eat bad food. You drive and drive non-stop so you can get to the Grand Canyon.
Finally you arrive in Flagstaff, and you’re almost there. And then you get to the entrance to the Grand Canyon National Park, and you drive through the gates and you park in the designated parking area. And there you are. You’re finally there—you’re at the Grand Canyon. Emptiness, the vehicle, got you there.
But then you just sit there. You’re still in the vehicle. You won’t get out of the car. “Emptiness” you say, “we have to keep focusing on emptiness.” And I’m saying, “You’re already there. You’ve arrived. You’re at the Grand Canyon. Get out of the car. Come. Look! It’s absolutely magnificent! It’s breathtakingly beautiful, beyond anything you might have imagined, mind-blowing beyond belief!”
And you just sit in the car, and you won’t get out. The meditation on emptiness is nothing more than the vehicle that gets you to Buddhanature. Once you have glimpsed Buddhanature, like once you’ve seen the outer ridge of the Grand Canyon, and you know you’ve arrived, it’s time to get out of the car.
“Get out of the car, man.” I keep telling my fellow Buddhists. “You’re here already. Get out of the car and experience the Grand Canyon.” And they won’t get out. They just want to sit in the car and focus on emptiness.
So I walk over to the Grand Canyon and I sit at the edge. I watch the magnificent play of Arizona sunlight over the cliffs of the Canyon. I see all the colours of the rock, painted in jagged striations across the cliffs, a rainbow of colours. I feel the immense and powerful energy that emanates from the depths of the Canyon below, from the Colorado River, and below that, deep from the centre of the earth itself, a limitless spiritual energy that emanates from the Grand Canyon. I have profound bhakti for the Grand Canyon. I sense its immense and powerful divine spirit, that it emanates Buddhanature.
I feel sorry for the people sitting in the car. But I have bhakti for them too. Because they are also beautiful pieces of the Grand Canyon, emanations of Buddhanature. “Ok, well then, open the car windows, stick your head out and feel the breeze. Use your binoculars. You’ll get a glimpse at least.”
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Buddhism is not an identity. To “become a Buddhist” is actually to misinterpret most of what Buddhism teaches, which is non-self and emptiness. One does not become a “Buddhist”; even the Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist. One practices Buddhism. It’s not an identity, it’s something you do. It’s literally a vehicle: it gets you from Point A to Point B. Once you get to Point B, you don’t need the vehicle anymore. Let go of Buddhism.
I’ve had the experience of letting go of Buddhism several times since I began six years ago. At first I let it go because it became too burdensome. It felt like a heavy suit of armour that I needed to shed, to get off my back. Once I shed that armour, I felt lighter, enlightened, “lightened up” as Pema Chodron says.
Sometimes I let go of Buddhism because it becomes a kind of obsessive-compulsive addiction, another contradiction of the teachings. One should not become addicted to Buddhism. Zen practitioners, like Roshi Joan Halifax , call this “zen sickness” or “dharma sickness.”
Recently, I’ve been letting go of Buddhism by doing exactly the opposite of what Buddhism teaches me to do. Sometimes I end up agreeing with Buddhist teachings, sometimes I find that I continue to disagree. My most recent “do the opposite” has been embrace samsara—stop running away from your life, from our lives as human beings on this planet. Yes, there’s a lot of suffering, and there’s a lot that’s wrong with the world. But avoiding it and running away from it into religious experience or “spirituality”, is not going to make it any better, and it’s certainly not going to prevent your own suffering. Be courageous, like a Boddhsattva—embrace samsara.
I’ve also recently reclaimed my passion. If Buddhism teaches you to be dispassionate about everything, do the opposite: reclaim your passion. Let it lift and energize you to experience and accomplish amazing things. It’s my passion for the environment and for social justice that empowers me as an engaged Buddhist.
I’m starting to think that I need to let go of Buddhism more often, as a regular practice and not just when it feels overwhelming or addicting. Buddhism is, after all, just another system of concepts, another way to frame reality, another way to screen out aspects of reality that are unpleasant or overwhelming. When I let go of Buddhism, I feel totally free, radically, blissfully free.
I have had many awakenings in my practice of Buddhism. But the most amazing awakenings I’ve had is when I let go of Buddhism itself. I let go of Buddhism and just experience life, without the filters. Look Ma, no hands!
—by the Ediitor, Shaun Batone