This Side of Nirvana: foreword

by Cheri Huber

I like this book because it’s from the student’s perspective. It’s through students that I see the results of my work as a teacher.

And yet, as I often tell people, and as my own teacher said to me, there are no great teachers, only great students. Whatever awakening people may experience comes from within them. In fact, one of the teacher’s main tasks is to repeatedly point out that just as suffering happens within each of us, so do ease and joy and freedom. But because we are conditioned to look outside ourselves for happiness, it can take a long time to see that truth.

Meanwhile, we project “enlightenment” onto teachers. That can be useful in drawing us to people who have undertaken deep spiritual practice. Such people not only encourage us to do the same but can serve as models and guides. However, once we set out on a spiritual path, our ideas about what we want and what teachers offer and how spiritual practice works and even who we are all that is called into question.

This Side of Nirvana reflects the process of discovering, examining, seeing through, and letting go of preconceived ideas, as Sara experienced it in the early years of her Zen practice. As she makes clear, having our most cherished assumptions about ourselves challenged is not pleasant. In fact, I call it “the suffering to end all suffering.” However, as we walk this path, our attitude toward suffering changes. Instead of avoiding suffering, we become curious about how it happens. Then our spiritual practice is on a new level.

When someone comes to me for guidance and I see a way in which their view is limited, I draw their attention to the larger perspective—which is, in fact, what they are seeking. With repeated attention, we become aware of the beliefs and attitudes and assumptions that support the deeply conditioned sense of existing as a self separate from all that is. Little by little we come to understand how false and how limiting that sense is, how harmful it is. One by one we see through the structures that keep us locked in suffering, and eventually we find the willingness to let them go. The teacher may have quite a bag of tricks, from hand-holding to directing attention in ways both subtle and shocking. But the essence of the process is the same: to encourage people to see for themselves how they operate.

So, the teacher’s role is to prod students to keep going when they want to quit, to keep them from straying off in other directions, to present them with appropriate challenges, and to protect them from themselves. Because following the Buddhist path requires us to work diligently to see our own suffering and its causes and its cessation, we can offer compassion for students in their suffering.

What is the student’s role? To show up and to pay attention. This book describes a student who (like many) holds a lot of ideas about how she is not doing spiritual practice properly, and she suffers as a result. But neither those ideas nor that suffering kept her from following the promptings of something much deeper, something we cannot name. In spite of all her resistance, she keeps showing up, she keeps paying attention. One by one, she sees through ideas that limit her life, and she lets them go. Each time she experiences freedom from a particular suffering, it builds her trust that she is on the path after all. And that is what truly matters.

I think I have the best job in the world. I came to this job not because being a teacher was something I aspired to, but because I was required to accept it as part of my practice. Frankly, leading a group terrified me, and my teacher wisely gave me the choice to go head-on into that fear or to leave the monastery. Dealing with that fear was invaluable for me. The only way I could survive being in front of a group and answering questions was to be fully present to myself.

Being present with others who seek the same thing I seek—ending suffering—is the greatest privilege I can imagine. It is such a joy to see people come to spiritual practice because they sense something in their hearts that they are hardly aware of, and to see them persevere, to face down their demons, to keep asking themselves questions to find out exactly what those demons are (and are not), to allow themselves to live free of the self-punishment we’ve been taught is necessary for us to be good. On retreats I often think, where in the world could you find a group of people so innocent and unprotected, so sincere and intent in their yearning for freedom? And I think of the students who have spent time training at our monastery, how hard they work at their practice and how their lives are transformed in the process.

The monastery itself (which was brand new at the beginning of the period covered by this book) has been transformed, in response to our desire to participate more fully in the life around us, to share our practice, to extend our compassion and our service to people who can benefit from it, which benefits ourselves. This is the natural evolution of deep spiritual practice. We are literally “living compassion,” which is the name of our umbrella organization for the retreats and workshops offered at the monastery, our Peace Center in Assisi, Italy, and the variety of projects serving vulnerable children in Zambia.

All of that activity flows from individuals taking responsibility to end suffering in their own lives. The process is the same, whether it’s our inner work or training monks or building a medical clinic in Africa. We become aware of a need, and we act to meet it. The more we follow our hearts in this way, the more we trust in the process. More and more, we leave behind those illusory suffering selves because they are no longer important to who we are. Who we are is what we do.

The personal journey described in this book follows the same pattern. Sara felt a need in herself and responded. Recently she told me about an important realization: spiritual practice doesn’t work the way she imagined. Sara was going along mostly enjoying life and now and then getting caught in believing those familiar voices that judged her meditation practice: “This isn’t working, I’ll never get it, I might as well quit.” Those voices represent the perspective of egocentric conditioning the internalized messages aimed to fortify the sense of ourselves as separate from all that is. Listening to those voices is what I call “getting advice from the devil.” Something happened in Sara’s life that previously would have thrown her into turmoil, but instead she was jolted into a larger perspective from which she saw her life as a whole. Rather than succumbing to the belief that something is wrong and urgently needs to be fixed, she saw her job as maintaining a sense of well-being within the difficult circumstances that arisen. That’s like sitting meditation: within the experience of being present to the breath and everything being okay, your knee hurts, and you bring compassion to that situation and go right on being present. Sara’s situation showed her that her spiritual practice is working, on a completely different level from where she was looking.

How did that happen? We cannot say. Over time, our view of spiritual practice tends to shift toward accepting that its very nature is something we will never understand. No matter how far we go along our path, it is always the same: we cannot name what guides us, but we can trust that it is always there. As that trust grows, we become free to live our lives in joy and service to all.