By Life Positive
An interview with Jason Shulman, author of the newly-released book, The Instruction Manual For Receiving God.
Jason Shulman is one of America’s leading spiritual teachers and promotes a spiritual perspective embracing both the personal and the transcendent.
A highly respected exponent of Kabbalah, Shulman is also a Buddhist. He is the founder of A Society of Souls, a spiritual school and community that encourages a deep look at reality. Excepts from a wide-ranging conversation between Shulman, his students and readers:
What do you mean by God?
God is the individual, personal sense of the Deity I turn to when I believe I am a personality-only, that is, only my personal self. When I know that I am more than personality-only and see my true nature, God is all that is. Because I am human, both are needed.
As a Buddhist and dharma teacher, how and where do you give God a place?
One of the problems that Buddhists have with the word God is that Buddhism – at least on the surface – tends to de-emphasize the personal side of things and the word ‘God’ as is commonly used posits a completely separate being of some sort who created the universe, somehow separate from his creations.
From my perspective, this is a limited view of both nondualism and theistic religion and sets up an opposition where none is truly called for.
The confusion arises because many people – including Buddhists, other non-dual paths and even theistic ones – often believe that the personal self is an illusion, or that it is not important in some manner but only the cause of suffering; that it needs to be transcended or overcome in some manner.
However, my experience is that the personal self still exists quite nicely after enlightening or awakening experiences. It exists, but in a new form and for a different purpose. And even more interestingly, God still exists as well. Not the God of our childhood, but the Personal Intelligence that the heart of the universe presents to the individual who is ready to surrender to the great What Is.
What would enlightenment look like in the 21st century?
Because we have minds that compare one thing to another, when we begin thinking about self-realisation, we all look for models of how enlightenment or God-realisation should look and behave. On one hand, this is not a bad idea. Receiving wisdom from the past is an important part of our learning. Whether it is something Rav Nachman wrote in the early 1800s or an ancient Buddhist sutra from a thousand years ago, we want – and need – to read and consider the wisdom that has been handed down to us.
On the other hand, God-realisation, awakening and enlightenment, have nothing to do with the past. Our encounter with God happens when we clear away the obstacles to being present-centred. So we need to look to ourselves as well to find out who we are and why we are here and not scan the horizon for smoke signals or signs.
People also seem to believe that enlightenment, awakening, and so on, are not culturally-bound. That these states are ‘beyond’ history, are ‘eternal’ in some way. Again, there is some truth to this and something that will also lead you astray. When we read 12th century writing by Dogen, or 19th century writing by Reb Nachman, we are one with their mind and heart. We can feel the connection. We join their lineage because they are us and we are them. We are absolutely in connection.
At the same time, the featureless and timeless plain of the Absolute is not only what enlightenment is about. It is also about being in your own time and place: connected to the unchanging All and connected to the transitory, historical moment. It is about meeting God and then returning to the marketplace, the affairs of this place of red dust. In other words, enlightenment and awakening and surrendering to God must also have a relative aspect. Without these aspects, these so-called vaunted conditions remain stone monuments, deceptions of a living enlightenment that ‘might have been.’ Our conditions on earth are now different than at any other time. This is going to call forth a type of enlightenment that will differ in the dualistic sense from those that have gone before. Bodhidharma needed to bring Buddhism from India to China: Why? Shinran, the great Pure Land teacher, and Honen before him, needed to return Buddhism to the common people. Why did the Ball Shem Tov find it necessary to bring his Hasidic way to Judaism? Why? The answers arise from both the relative and eternal plane.
What is our eternal purpose and what is our ‘marketplace’ purpose? After all, enlightenment, God and awakening are of no consequence without other people.
So the question is not a choice between an old model and a new one. It’s realizing that everyone who ever walked the road to God or truth throughout history, had to come to this same question and answer it as best they could from their own undeniable heart. What does your heart tell you to do? And can you trust your heart? Have you done enough work on your past wounding so that your heart shines within you because it is free to be in the present? What will you and I do with our time here? This is the question before us: How will we deal with the suffering within ourselves and which we see all around us?
Your book offers practical steps one can take to actually experience God. What might that feel like? How would one know that is what is happening?
As far as experiences go, the earlier ones are always more dramatic: falling off horses like Paul in Damascus; being suddenly filled with light and believing you understand the universe. But as you mature in practice and intent, these experiences give way to something far more profound: the ability to be completely free, to be completely human; to be open-hearted toward yourself and all your faults and shortcomings as well as that of others. In more advanced moments yet, this openness is combined with the ability to commit oneself to total effort, total effort in joy. Being and doing becomes one thing. For a while you miss the horses and the lightning, but eventually you know better and accept the universe.
A number of spiritual teachings identify ego as an enemy and seek to overcome, dissolve, or transcend it. Yet you say that a strong sense of self – a healthy ego – is necessary to our spiritual awakening. Why is that so?
Who is it who bows to Buddha? Or says the Standing Prayer of Judaism? Or prays five times a day to Allah?
It is a person, a concentrated whirl of consciousness, temporary though it may be, that answers to a name and looks out of eyes and has a heart and mind; that knows suffering and can also know joy.
There is nothing wrong with being a person, in fact, very few people on this earth are actually complete and real ‘persons.’ It takes hard work, guidance and the right circumstances to begin to heal into our true humanity. The ego is our sense of self, and usually is the hull of the ship to which the barnacles of our suffering and the flotsam of our neuroses attach.
But there is another type of ego we could call the ‘personal with no history.’ It’s not that all the barnacles picked up on the voyage disappear – some do and some do not – but that we are free of their influence to some degree.
There are no absolutes. There is no ‘completely pure.’ Instead, for full awakening to occur, the ego needs a respectable home, a good and kind home, where it can do its job without having to be king of the world. Then we are a person who can peer into the mystery where there are no eyes, no nose, no tongue, as the sutra says. If we don’t heal the ego, accepting its nature as our own, we build our enlightenment and surrender to God on a foundation of sand.
What is spiritual awakening? Is this different from enlightenment?
All of these words are both the whip that drives us through this very, very hard work of waking up, and the greatest obstacles to achieving that goal.
The ego needs to be enticed into the suffering that the search for enlightenment will bring. Eventually, though, we have to change horses. ‘Why do we meditate? asks one Zen koan. ‘To grow weary and tired,’ it answers. Enlightenment starts as awakening begins to be less important.
Actually, the ego is very intelligent: It won’t settle for awakening and satori experiences. It always spurs us onward to something simpler and more profound, something that is beyond experiences. I would say that awakening is somewhat more akin to satori in the Zen tradition than it is to enlightenment. Enlighten-ment, or God-realisation to use another term, happens when the flash of understanding that awakening brings is integrated into the whole self. The ego is healed and given a home. Our imperfections and the impossibility of being perfect are given a home. The Absolute and the relative are given a home.
Awakening is just the first, important signal that we are on the right path. It is an experience in time. It alerts us to that fact that everything we believed to be true has shifted; that another truth is trying to appear. These first steps, of seeing the new light, the new territory, are very important. The next step, of integration, goes on forever. It is no longer time-bound. That is what unites the heaven of spiritual experiences with the earth of our daily life.
Where do practices like prayer and meditation fit in?
We all need to practice, not only to ‘get better at what we are trying to do,’ but to give ourselves a home. In the beginning, there is a separation between our practice and our self. We practice to achieve something for this self we have. Eventually however, practice and self become the same thing.
One of the ways we do this in A Society of Souls is through prayer. In the way we have learned to pray, we understand that eventually the pray-ing session becomes goal-less in the sense that what we are praying for is for the moment, and our relationship with God in that moment, to be revealed. When we have reached that level, everything is ki tov or ‘good.’
We cannot make real spiritual progress without a practice of some sort. That practice might be having therapy sessions or sitting facing a wall or chanting or dancing. But when it is approached as a practice, which means we are willing to have it lead us anywhere, practice and life become the same thing.
Like yourself, a number of people have found deeper understanding in a synthesis of more than one – and sometimes seemingly contradictory – courses of study and practice. Why is this? Does such exploration better suit today’s spiritual seeker, or is it better to dedicate oneself to only one practice?
We usually associate dedication with staying on one path; with putting our nose to one grindstone. There is truth in this: if we switch horses each time we run into what we believe is an obstacle, we never find out the hidden secret each obstacle brings, the small and great enlightenment it offers.
At the same time, since I believe that true non-dualism must include the relative, personal plane as well as the impersonal or transcendent basis for existence, we must also look to what is needed in the moment. Responding to the moment is part of enlightenment or God-realisation.
The concept of ‘one-thing, one way,’ has been perverted in our world, transformed into a weapon of hate rather than a tool of love. In this distortion, people either work solely on personal empowerment or transcendent realisation. Both of these distortions can lead to the ability to see others, who work and live in different ways, as somehow ‘less than.’ If you don’t practice our revelation you are less than; if you don’t sit and meditate our way, you are less than; if you don’t believe in a separate God, you are less then….and so on.
So when I say we are looking for a new form of enlightenment I simply mean that work on the personality and work on the transcendent aspect of reality must, must, must go on together. To split them is to make believe that we need to be less than we are; less than human. How we walk into the dry cleaners or pass the mustard at the table is just as important as understanding the Torah or a sutra. It’s not that we have to be perfect in either case: it’s that we need to understand that both the personal and the impersonal are part of the unity of God.
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