It never ceases to amaze me how we live our lives shrouded by several layers of veils! We think we know the assumptions that are guiding our actions but, so often, we don’t. The veils shield them from our view. And then, one day, a wise being gently prods one of these veils, saying something like: “I think there’s something underneath your question that is niggling you”. And this riddle gets you thinking.
And so it was for me, a short while ago while I was on retreat. I was finding myself conflicted over my loyalty to a particularly ornate, daily, tantric Vajrayana practice given to me in a Tibetan Buddhist empowerment several years ago. Specifically, I was struggling to relate to some of the language and symbols in the meditative visualisation that appeared to belong to an ancient and alien culture. As part of the conflict, I was drawn to spend more time ‘just sitting’, mindfully watching experience unfolding in the present moment. So it was no coincidence that I chose this retreat, organised around Anapanasati, or mindful breath meditation.
Many paths or just one right way?
Another aspect fuelling my uneasiness with this particular Tibetan Buddhist meditation that I had undertaken to practice daily was that, for some years now, I have been noticing and holding question over the wide range of spiritual beliefs and practices that are so fervently believed in by us humans. Whether these are based on belief in one God, many gods or no god, there is evidence that many people are prepared to give up their freedom, be killed (or kill the unbeliever) in defence of their belief. There is evidence that great wisdom and compassion, or blind prejudice and persecution, can accompany these many disparate religious explanations about the human condition and the world we live in.
So if there are many paths to the same place of wisdom and compassion, why is it that many of us are so determined to find the ‘right’ path? Thankfully, in many parts of the world, there is now more religious tolerance – and even respect – of different religions and spiritual paths.
The veils of ignorance
My conflict and question about ‘the right path’ is at a much more subtle level than an overt belief that there is only one right way. Intellectually, and from a values perspective of inclusiveness and respect for difference, I was unaware that I was seeking a ‘right’ way when I expressed my doubt about practicing this particular daily meditation. So we’re back to the veils that cover the assumptions that drive us!
When I looked deeply (in a meditation session) at what was behind my uneasiness, I was truly surprised to discover a hidden assumption of only one right way. One spiritual truth. One set of best spiritual practices. As I followed the trail, I found that it led back to my childhood and early youth, immersed in the Catholic faith. This teaching of exclusive righteousness was backed up by the threat that to disobey or leave this religion landed you in hell! Ironically, one of my overt criticisms of Catholicism – once into my teens and now – is their claim to being the only ‘true’ (or right) faith. Ah ha! What a shock to discover that this piece of religious indoctrination was, at a very deep level, secretly guiding my present spiritual practice.
The light of awareness liberates!
The interesting thing is that, like all insight, once seen, the hidden assumption dissolves under the light of awareness. It has also been interesting to observe how the demise of this assumption dissolved the spiritual conflict I was experiencing. In its place I have found myself free to blend a form of the traditional Tibetan Buddhist practice with mindfulness practice, uncluttered by alien cultural forms. I am no longer frightened to improvise. The unseen threat of damnation or excommunication is gone.
I am sharing this particular experience with you as I am aware that many of my peers who identify with Tibetan Buddhist teachings and practices, grew up under the Catholic umbrella and were, like me, spiritually conditioned by Catholic views at a vulnerable age.
Can any of you relate to this experience of discovering hidden religious assumptions, laid down in childhood, that have covertly ‘muddied the waters’ of current spiritual practice? I’d love to hear about them.