Aaron’s Final Lifetime
From the Emrich Retreat, February 21, 1998
Excerpted from the Vol. 6, No. 2 Deep Spring Center Newsletter
Aaron: Very rarely I offer an example of one past life or another. Many of you have asked me about my final lifetime, but I’ve only told the story once, to a small group. The being who I was, was a Buddhist monk and a teacher. He had a disciple whom he loved almost as a son. Perhaps with too much attachment. But it inspired him to see the degree of this disciple’s understanding, and that this disciple not only could translate what he himself taught but eventually would even take it one step further, giving voice to deeper understanding out of the voice of his own clarity.
Through a series of tragic circumstances for which the monk I was partially responsible, this disciple was murdered. Not by the monk that I was, of course not, but by another who was very angry. The being I was at that time had thought he was beyond anger. And yet, great rage arose in that monk at the senselessness and tragedy of this murder, for the one who murdered the disciple loved him. One could call it an accident, and yet a weapon was cast in anger, not with intention to kill this disciple but intending to do harm, intending to act out his anger. And this disciple was there and was killed.
I thought I was beyond anger because so many years had gone by in which I had not experienced anger. I deluded myself. I was not grasping at being enlightened. Simply, I was astonished. There was so much rage. Grief, yes. But also, rage. Then I knew that I was not free, no matter how deeply realized I had thought I was, until I understood this arising of rage. I did not condemn myself that it had arisen, but was very disappointed in myself for I thought that I had subdued this “demon anger.” But I understood that the conditions out of which it could arise were still present in me. And my work was to understand those conditions. So this monk that I was left the monastery where he had lived and taught and went off into the forest, there to wander alone for many years.
He looked deeply into the nature of his emotions, into how, when he fully understood that there was no separate self, how in a moment the delusion could recur and give rise to rage. He looked deeply at the nature of fear. The nature of need to protect the self, and of course to protect the self is not bad. If you didn’t take care of yourself, none of you would be alive today. You do need to care for the self. It’s a loving thing to do. But to care for the self can come from a place of love. It does not need to come from a place of fear. He looked deeply and found the places where his heart was still not fully open to himself in compassion. The places where he held himself separate from himself. The years passed and he thought he understood. And then, one night he was given a very terrible and wonderful opportunity.
It was that proverbial ‘dark and stormy night.’ He had settled himself in a place with a bit of shelter to spend the night, under dense shrubs. The rainy season was fast approaching. His shelter became flooded so he was immersed in cold water. Rather than sit there, he got up and began to walk down a path in the dark and the rain. As he walked, the wind blew a tree over on top of him, literally. Not a single branch injured him. He felt it coming, fell to the ground and tried to protect himself. Large branches fell around him. They made a cage. One very heavy limb rested on his back, not with enough pressure to make more than a scratch, but his belly was deep in the mud and he could not move.
I say “he”; perhaps I should phrase this “I”. When I say “I” you understand this is not me, Aaron. But that being who I was, one of many, many, many beings whom I have been. I don’t use the word “I” because I don’t associate with him as what I am now. But I think the use of the first person will make the story more vivid for you.
I lay there in the mud. I resigned myself to being muddy, cold, wet. I thought I should have to stay there perhaps two or three days but eventually someone would come down this path and find me. So I did not feel that I would die there. The rain let up a bit. But it was very dark and I could not see anything. Then I began to hear the soft breath and subtle growls of a large animal. There were tigers in these forests and I realized that a tiger had scented me trapped there. Again, after all of those years of my hermit’s life and working to subdue anger in myself, anger arose. Anger at this tiger, who in a short time was going to kill me. Anger at my helplessness.
And with it the thought, “I am a failure. I shouldn’t be angry.” Remember, I had grown up with this tradition, “Do not be angry,” with all of its misunderstanding. For me in that time anger meant I was a failure. It meant my whole life was a lie. “Abandon the kilesas” (negative mind states). But I was angry. I had been angry at the death of my disciple. I had spent all those years in the woods trying to understand how anger had arisen. But I had not done it with love, I had done it with intent to destroy anger. So there was that within me which was tight and cold, which considered anger as an evil oppressor which must be destroyed.
I lay there in the mud. These branches which imprisoned me also protected me. It was a species of tree you do not have in this country, with many very thick dense branches. And somehow I had just fallen into a small hole. I was surrounded by thousands of spikes. So this beast could scent me, but it could not easily reach me. He smelled my fear and he knew that I was meat, I was dinner. I could hear him tearing away at the branches, snarling at his anger, that they separated him from his prey.
How long can one continue to lie facing death without more honesty arising? I had felt I was a failure because I had not learned enough love to conquer anger. Then suddenly in a flash of light, I understood! I had not brought patience, love nor endurance to anger, but only more anger, and this had created self. Then it became my anger, and self expanded further. I did not see it in terms of the characteristics of impermanence, not-self and suffering. Finally I understood.” In this world, hate never yet dispelled hate. Only love dispels hate.” How could I hate this beast? It was simply a hungry animal doing what any hungry animal would do. Perhaps it had young that it had left back in its den. Perhaps its babies were starving.
And so I began to do lovingkindness meditation for myself and for this tiger. For the first time I allowed myself deeply to touch my pain. I saw how the tiger and I were one. I saw even how I could not die but would continue inside the tiger. And when the tiger defecated that which I had been out of itself, I would continue in the nurturance of the soil that fed the trees. I could not die.
But even more, I saw the nature of fear and how fear had been a catalyst for anger. More specifically, I understood how the illusion of separation had been a catalyst for fear, and how my own harshness with myself had created that separation. When I opened my heart deeply to myself in kindness, separation dissolved, and then fear dissolved, and then anger dissolved.
I lay there experiencing such deep love and gratitude, knowing that it really didn’t matter at that point if the tiger devoured me or not, that I was free. To cease to experience the heavy emotions did not mean to conquer them, but to touch the conditions that gave rise to them so deeply that there was nothing left to burn.
There’s a beautiful quote in a Mahayana text, a Buddhist sutra offered after the time of the Buddha, called The Holy Teachings of Vimalakirti, “That which has no intrinsic substance, and no other sort of substance, cannot burn. That which does not burn is not extinguished. Such lack of extinction is the meaning of peace.”
What does this mean, in terms of my story? Simply, there was nothing left to burn. Anger could not burn because I found myself to be substanceless. Because anger could not burn, there was nothing of me that could be destroyed. That did not mean the body could not die, but the pure awareness mind, the heart, the place where I am inseparable with all that is, could not be destroyed. Buddhism calls this knowing the deathless.
At that point, there was nothing left to fear. At that point, anger ceased. This does not mean that if there was a skillful way to escape that trap, I shouldn’t use it. This is to take care of the self lovingly and not out of fear.
What actually happened was quite wonderful. When my fear and anger ceased, I stopped giving out that prey scent. I could feel the tiger’s confusion. Prey, as she experienced it, had suddenly left. It made no difference that there was still a human sitting there; it was no longer prey. She snuffed around for a bit and then she left.
I lay there for a day and then people walking the path found me, cut the limbs away and freed me. I spent several more weeks in that woods and then, as the rains began in earnest, went home, went back to the original monastery that I had left 10 years earlier, and again began to teach.
That was my final human lifetime. I tell that story in part to help you to understand that full freedom is possible. But most of you at this stage are more concerned with freedom from the suffering of everyday life. Freedom from the negative patterns which create pain for you and others is also possible.
You are not here to conquer any heavy mind state. You are here to learn how to bring love to the various experiences of the human: How to rest in that awareness which observes arising and understands it without being taken in, possessed, by it: How to allow yourself to be so present that that which had arisen ceases to arise.
The secret is presence. To allow yourself to be touched deeply by your experience takes much courage. Every being wants to be safe, and there is really an instinct to protect the self. You are staring in the face of all of that instinct, asking yourself literally to stand there and watch the tiger arrive.
Vipassana practice is the most useful tool I know to learn this. But your practice must also be balanced by devotional practice, by practices of metta and the other brahma-viharas, by sila or intention to live in non-harm and with devotion to the precepts, by service in the world, touching and being touched in literal ways; I don’t mean touching by the hands although that too. The touch of the heart. There is a Buddhist teaching of the spiritual warrior. You are indeed all spiritual warriors. But you do not fight with the sword to conquer, you fight with the heart to learn how to love ever more deeply. Mother awareness attends. I prefer this image to that of the warrior.
You can use support tools such as the awakened heart teachings with which we work. These are practices which nurture the deep aspiration to offer one’s energy with love. Use practices such as clear comprehension of purpose in which you ask yourself, “What is my highest purpose here? Is it really to be safe or is it to work in the most skillful way that I can in this situation and to bring love where there has been confusion and pain?” In order to enact that highest purpose, you must be honest with yourself about your degree of fear and the strong impulse to protect the self. If you deny it and are dishonest with yourself, then you are shifting into conquest rather than love.
I cannot begin to describe to you how all of this comes together, and how it does will be different for each of you. Each of you have your greater strengths and areas of weakness. Your teachers attempt to observe those areas of strength and help you build on them, and to know along with you the areas of weakness and help you to find more strength in those areas. So the path for each of you will be subtly different. I can only ask you to trust that if you continue to meditate, to be mindful, to give frequent inner voice to your deepest aspirations, to live your life with purity, clarity, kindness and love, that it will all come together and you will find freedom. Yes, freedom from the arising of these heavy mind states and even more important, freedom from reactivity to them. You will learn how deeply you can love. And that is what I wish each of you. When you know who you are, when you know your true nature, you cannot doubt your ability to love for you are each of you inherently divine, and divinity is love.
I would ask you to sit for a few minutes in silence with my thoughts. And then I would be glad to speak to your questions. I thank you. That is all.