This Side of Nirvana: preface


People who tell me they’ve read this book often mention my courage in writing about personal matters. In this context “personal” usually implies difficulties and shortcomings—what’s “wrong” with us, what we want to hide from others. I don’t see myself as courageous, but I do have a growing willingness to look unflinchingly at myself. Well, okay, there are times when I flinch. But then I look again. I learned how to do this from Cheri Huber, starting with the experiences described in this book.

I love it when I discover in print something I’ve learned from Cheri from the inside out, so to speak. An article I read recently addresses the importance of acknowledging personal shortcomings (Thanissaro Bhikku, “The Integrity of Emptiness,” Lion’s Roar winter 2006). It describes the Buddha’s instruction to his son to examine his thoughts, speech, and actions to see if they would be likely to cause harm. He cautioned his son not to feel embarrassed to reveal whatever he discovered in himself, noting that if we hide our flaws from others, we will tend to hide them from ourselves. Thanissaro describes how we can deflect judgments away from our sense of self, where judgment creates arrogance or guilt, and focus directly on our actions, where judgment helps us learn from our mistakes.

. . . Honesty here is a simple principle: you don’t add any after–the–fact rationalizations to cover up what you actually did, nor do you try to subtract from the actual facts through denial. Because you’re applying this honesty to areas where the normal reaction is to be embarrassed about or afraid of the truth, it’s more than a simple registering of the facts. It also requires moral integrity. This is why the Buddha stressed morality as a precondition for wisdom and declared the highest moral principle to be the precept against lying. If you don’t make a habit of admitting uncomfortable truths, the truth as a whole will elude you.

In my experience, aspects of suffering that are repeatedly investigated in this way simply disappear. That can happen in an instant or over many years. I have no way of knowing it when one of them disappears; it’s more that I become aware at some point that a form of suffering I used to experience hasn’t been around for a long time. Each time that happens, it reinforces my confidence that this practice really works, even though exactly how it operates is invisible to me, and even though I continue to experience my doubts. Gradually, though, the balance shifts, so that when doubts arise, I simply go ahead with whatever I’m doing. Often it happens like this: I think, “I don’t want to meditate,” then without making a decision, I walk to my cushion, put it on the floor, sit down, and begin to follow my breath. Cheri has challenged me to pay close enough attention to understand how that happens. So far, I have no idea. But that experience definitely undermines the concept of a “self” who is in charge.

I could say that I’m still on this side of once-and-for-all enlightenment, but Cheri challenges that whole concept. Wherever I am, more and more, I like it here. I still feel spiritually challenged, but I’m no longer hiding from myself, and that in itself is wonderfully liberating. In spite of all this talk about suffering, a huge part of Zen practice is just plain fun. As I mention in this book, the laughter during discussion at meditation retreats is like no other—and we’re usually laughing at those very qualities we think we need to hide.

One of my favorite responses to this book is an online reader review: “This is a good book to read after you’ve read all the spiritual masters, the meditative high-flyers— then read this, breathe a sigh of relief, and know that this is how spiritual life really is for most of us here on earth.” In writing about these experiences, it was in fact my aim to show what it’s really like, at least for this ordinary person.

My path has taken many interesting twists and turns since I wrote This Side of Nirvana, but it all still stands. The teaching I received then is true now, as it always has been, since “before the beginning of beginningless time.”

The places mentioned in this book are real places, and the teachers are real teachers. The other people are real, too, but their names have been changed; sometimes they are blends of several people, and often time and place have been compressed in the interest of succinctness. This story is simply the gist of what happened, from my point of view. What I hope to show are some of the remarkable benefits of Buddhist meditation practice for those of us who are something less than spiritual superstars.

My use of quotation marks reflects how the incidents described exist in my memory. That is, I “hear” people saying the things I have written, which is not to claim that those very words were spoken. Indeed, the spiritual path portrayed here calls into question most of what we think we know. My aim is to express the deeper truth of what I have learned as best as I can from where I am in the ever-changing understanding of life on this side of nirvana.