Awakening the Buddha Within

This Web page is an extract from Lama Surya Das' book Awakening the Buddha Within: Eight Steps to Enlightenment; Tibetan Wisdom for the Western World (New York, NY: Broadway Books, 1997) that focuses on enLIGHTenment.

Today, Right Now

If you were able to go inward right now and waken your sleeping Buddha, what would you find? Tibetan Buddhism says that at the heart of you, me, every single person, and all other creatures great and small, is an inner radiance that reflects our essential nature, which is always utterly positive. Tibetans refer to this inner light as pure radiance or innate luminosity; in fact, they call it ground luminosity because it is the "bottom line." There is nothing after this, and nothing before this. This luminosity is birthless and deathless. It is a luminescent emptiness, called "clear light," and it is endowed with the heart of unconditional compassion and love.

Whatever your past or present religious beliefs, you will probably recognize that Tibetans are not alone in associating luminosity with enlightenment or an incandescent spiritual presence. In Christian churches and Jewish synagogues as well as Buddhist temples, people light candles that symbolize spiritual luminosity. Saints and other figures are universally represented by shimmering halos of light, surrounded by nimbuses and auras. Some people can even see them in reality. The tradition in Judaism, the religion of my childhood, is for the women in the household to light candles at sundown on Friday night. Why? To invite the light and spirit of God into the temple of the home for the Sabbath.

Think about all the millions of men and women who have bowed their heads in prayer while lighting candles. Do any of us really think that the Buddha, or any other penultimate image of the absolute, needs a candle to see or to stay warm? Lighting a candle is just a symbolic, ritualized way of offering light in the darkness. The candle symbolizes the inner light and luminous wisdom that can guide each of us through the darkness of ignorance and confusion. The candle's shining flame is an outer reminder of inner luminosity and clarity--the living spiritual flame burning within the temple of our heart and soul.

The timeless wisdom of Tibet assures us that when you are able to hear the Buddha's wisdom, when you are willing to ponder his insightful lessons, and when you are genuinely committed to practicing these lessons by doing your best to lead an impeccable life, you can actualize this ground luminosity. You will reach the heart of awakening; you will know where you have been, and you will see where you are going. Your own inner light and truth--the clear light by which we see and are seen--will guide you. This is total awareness; this is perfect enlightenment. Enlightenment means an end to directionless wandering through the dreamlike passageways of life and death. It means that you have found your own home Buddha. How does the Buddha feel? Completely comfortable, at peace, and at ease in every situation and every circumstance with a sense of true inner freedom, independent of both outer circumstances and internal emotions.

Waking up your inner Buddha and staying awake requires extraordinary self-knowledge and presence of mind. It means paying close attention to how you think and how you act, and it means making an ongoing commitment to searching inward for answers. Inward. Deeper. Beneath the surface of things, not just inside yourself. (pp. 18-19)

Loving-Kindness is the Heart of the Dharma

The Buddha once described the spiritual path that leads to nirvana or perfect freedom as "the liberation of the heart and mind, which is love." Learning to love life in all its forms, and to love unconditionally is the way of Dharma. Unconditional love and compassion, as embodied by Chenresig and as taught by many Buddhist masters, is something that I personally feel strongly about. In the presence of my spiritual friends and teachers I have often experienced both unconditional love and a total acceptance of myself, just as I am. This is a very rare and precious experience I think; this sense of belonging is probably one of the main reasons why I stayed in the monastic sangha in Asia as long as I did.

My teacher's pure perception of me, just as I am, helped me to connect more completely to who I am. In the mirror of the awakened teacher's clear seeing, I could better know my higher sense and my true inner nature. I had a distorted picture of myself, and perhaps you have one of yourself. These invaluable Dharma teachings encouraged me to know that it is possible for everyone, not just a guru or monk, and not just the Buddha-- but me and you too--to connect to the Buddha within. The authentic Buddha is beyond time and space, beyond gender, beyond form or nationality. You carry a Buddha with you right now, in your heart.

A great Indian master once said,"Wisdom tells me I am nothing; love tells me I am everything. Between the two, my life flows."

Choosing Universal Love: The Bodhisattva Vow

Traditional teachings about rebirth say that most of us are unwitting prisoners on the wheel of samsara; we keep returning because we have no choice. According to this way of thinking, there are also men and women walking among us who are here of their own conscious volition. These men and women are known as Bodhisattvas. Bodhi means awakening; sattva means being. This is a being who is ready for nirvana but whose compassion is so great that he or she remains on this earth solely in order to reduce suffering and help free others. A Bodhisattva is someone with pure, impeccable intentions--a gentle yet fearless spiritual warrior who strives unceasingly to help everyone reach nirvanic peace and enlightenment.

A transcendent Bodhisattva has seen beyond delusion and selfishness; he or she has felt and experienced the intolerable despair, alienation, misery, and suffering in the world. Because such a person is able to understand that we are all caught in the same existential plight, he or she seeks to alleviate the suffering of all.

In Mahayana Buddhism, one is encouraged to take what we call the Bodhisattva Vow. Taking this vow means you understand the world's pain, and you commit to work for the enlightenment of all. That means all the people, all the creatures, including all the inhabitants of the air and sea--insects, birds, shellfish, dolphins, whales and sharks, all the shiny little eyes in the dark forests, as well as all the creepy crawly, buzzing things trying to get in and chew on your house or on you.

The first time I heard the Bodhisattva Vow was in 1971, and I was at Lama Thubten Yeshe's monastery in Nepal. I felt overwhelmed by the magnitude of it all. And I'm still somewhat intimidated by it. Lama Yeshe explained the vow very simply. He said,"Think of what you want, and realize that all beings want and need the same things. They are just seeking it through different ways."

If you were to take the Bodhisattva Vow, you would commit yourself in this way:

Sentient beings are numberless: I vow to liberate them.
Delusions are inexhaustible: I vow to transcend them.
Dharma teachings are boundless: I vow to master them.
The Buddha's enlightened way is unsurpassable: I vow to embody it.

This is a four-line affirmation sangha members chant and avow every day. To take the Bodhisattva Vow means that at least for a moment, one can see past one's own problems and preoccupations and elevate the spiritual gaze toward universal fulfillment. The moment you affirm that great intention--to work for the good of all living creatures--whether or not you are always able to follow it as perfectly as you might wish--you are called a Bodhisattva, a child of the Buddhas.

When this epiphany occurs, all the Buddhas rejoice. The scriptures say that as soon as you make this Bodhisattva Vow to realize enlightenment and relieve universal suffering, all the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, devas, angels, and guardians of the Dharma clap their hands and rain down celestial flowers and divine nectar. It's like you scored a touchdown or hit a home run. As poetic as that seems, I really feel that this is true in a spiritual sense. You can feel it yourself as you open a little more to the joy of spiritual awakening. It also says in the scriptures that when the Bodhisattva Vow has taken root in your heart, then everything you do is beneficial--even snoring, sleeping, and brushing your teeth. They say that when a Bodhisattva turns over in his or her sleep, beings are awakened. Even if this is mainly metaphorical, it still means that this awakening mind and aspiration for enlightenment is extraordinarily important. (pp 142- 144)

May all beings have happiness and the cause of happiness.
May all beings remain free from suffering and the cause of suffering.
May all beings remain unseparated from the sacred joy and happiness that is totally free from sorrow.
May all beings come to rest in the boundless and all-inclusive equanimity that is beyond attachment and aversion.

If you look at these four lines, you will notice that each of them refers to one of the Four Heartitudes: The first is lovingkindness; the second, compassion and empathy; the third is joy and rejoicing; and the fourth is equanimity and peace of mind.

You can meditate on these four lines by chanting or saying them silently to yourself, again and again. As you do so, reflect on each of the lines. We are cultivating attitudes of the heart, so put all your heart into your chanting your prayer. Focus on one at a time, and reflect on that single line's meaning. Make a noble wish from deep in your heart. Think of your heart as a brilliant sun that is radiating in all directions. It is warming your heart, your body, and your mind. Feel your overflowing heart flowering and blossoming like a sunflower. Visualize this golden, glowing, warming sun in your heart, radiating outward in all directions at once. Love unconditionally, loving yourself as well. Forgive yourself, accept yourself, embrace yourself. Open yourself up to give love and receive love. Soften up. Share the blessings and merits with all.

Sometimes in retreat we chant these four lines 3,000 times a day, which takes about ten hours. You can resolve to cultivate these Four Heartitudes for the next half hour. Let this divine state of mind settle and take root in your inner being, like a powerful affirmation. This is like a New Year's resolution for your heart, which can make every moment a fresh new year.

Here are some more wishes, prayers, and affirmations for the good of all: May all beings be happy, content, and fulfilled. May all be peaceful, harmonious, and at ease; may all be protected from harm and fear; may all have whatever they want, need, and aspire to. May all be healed and whole. May this planet be healed and whole. May all beings awaken from the sleep of illusion. May all beings be awakened, delivered, liberated, and free. May all realize their true nature and awaken to the Buddha within. May all equally enjoy, actualize, and embody the innate Great Perfection. (pp. 294-295)

Looking Forward

Anticipate Road Bumps

The spiritual path isn't always a joyride; it can be like a roller coaster. Don't stop with the cheap thrills--go for long lasting fulfillment. Stick to it through the rainy days and the barren deserts and the feeling of being stuck on a plateau of development. It's often said that the brighter the light glows, the deeper and darker the shadow becomes. The shadows are always inseparable from the light. They come from light; they are light. Constancy and perseverance pay off. Furthermore, life is much like photography: You use the negative to develop.

On the spiritual path, we are unraveling the tight straitjacket that is the cocoon of ego. We are threatening ego's dominion over us. It's like when we squeeze a wet bar of soap and it suddenly squirts out of our hands. Ego is a slippery fellow, intent on survival at all costs. If we don't squeeze it, it's glad to just sit there as ruler of our domain. When practice heats up, the ego can become like the squeezed soap bar, and things can become a little confusing. That's when we really need to maintain the bigger perspective that is such an important part of the process. It is during these times that sangha practice, spiritual friends, and experienced teachers can be most helpful. (p. 394)

Ushering in the Future

Each of us is like a jeweled star in the universal constellation called the greater Sangha, the complete circle of all beings. We are modern mystics--living in monasteries without walls. The entire planet is our heaven on earth. Instead of being overly dependent on anyone else, we must be the leaders and seers. We must take the lead and see for ourselves. We must pick up our meditation cushions and walk.

Here in the West, as we renew ourselves through the Dharma, the Dharma is also being renewed. We are the elders now. Let's remember that we are the ancestors of generations to come. This is no small responsibility. Yet we can manage to wear it lightly.

The Dharma is a gift, a present we can give ourselves. As a sage of old said,"lf not you, who? And if not now, when?"

The summit of Mt. Everest is made of marine limestone; once upon a time it was part of the ocean floor. Awakening is simply a matter of spiritual evolution. Practice is perfect. What we seek we are. As the Buddha said,"Help yourself." (pp. 394-395)

For more information from Lama Surya Das, visit The Dzogchen Foundation.
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Last modified on August 16, 2008 by Kay Keys (