The Quest Begins with a Question
Come Holy Spirit…
Send forth your spirit
and they shall be created,
And you shall renew the face of the earth.
I was in grade four when a profound restlessness took over me. As I went to church every day, a question nagged me no end, “What is my life for and why?“
This led me into a long spiritual expedition. This long subjective quest triggered a series of realizations and religious experiences. Arduously, I went from insight to awakening as I went striving from one spiritual goal to another. In high school, I started my fascination with St. Francis of Assisi. Then I encountered modern mystic Thomas Merton and devoured his books.
Years passed and I was endlessly enduring the so-called “dark night of the soul” so aptly described by St. John of the Cross. While remaining faithful to
my baptism, I scoured through the world’s wisdom traditions beginning with Taoism, the Gita, Siddharta, the Jewish Kaballah. Richard Bach’s Illusions captured my imagination as well. In college, I experimented with various types of meditation as I experienced untold ecstacy as the kundalini energy dramatically rose up my spine. Through thick and thin, I took a crack at the lessons of Don Juan until inner silence unstoppably dawned.
From the heights of spiritual ecstacy to the depths of existential depression, I plodded on and on until at last one day, after years of hardship, reached the end of the road – the proverbial Enlightenment. Transcendental bliss.
Collen Mccullough was right in saying, “The best is bought at the price of great pain.” At this point, no tragedy could ever affect me. I reached a place where no pain could be so unbearable; no problem too great for me to solve; no burden I could not carry. The perplexity and chaos of the self had evaporated. I was surrounded by deafening perpetual silence rising from within. Life’s troubles passed me by as I was unmoved and completely at peace. I was bound to eternity and the world had “stopped”. I became transparent as a shadow passing the land.
What is the purpose of enlightenment?
And yet, in some concealed location of my seeming contentedness, an emptiness was precipitating into a giant storm. An infinite sadness and longing coming from some unknown place in the universe overtook me waves upon waves and destroyed my silence with an even greater silence. The Buddha said, “Only those who go where few have gone can see what few have seen“. Yet what I have seen was to push me farther from my transcendental position to a more factual place: back to the objective reality of this world. I thought that I was at the end of the road only to find that I was only beginning – to trek the road on the way back. Yet, true to T.S. Elliot’s poem, The Little Gidling, I saw the world for the very first time.
We shall not cease from exploration
And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to come back where we started
And see the place for the very first time.
Acting in the World, Implementing New Insights from Spiritual Awakening
I not only came back. I returned with vengeance as I immersed myself in suffering humanity – the peasants, the workers, the urban poor, the fisherfolks, the indigenous peoples. At first it was only to reclaim my sanity and solidity to get the “feel” once again. I never thought that the road on the way back was going to be even more difficult to traverse. Yet indeed I saw the world for the first time. The world which I sought to conquer within my soul had become so engaging it had become a daily challenge.
I realized that it is here, in this world full of pain, irony and contradiction is where creation will fully manifest. It is here that the real world begins. Amidst the reality and terror of the day, life pulsates deeply in the dreams and struggles of the oppressed. In the dreariness of poverty and oppression, the human spirit dares to hope unconquerably – of land beloved and freedom aspired. Here, hidden in the desecration of the land, lies beauty in the soul of the struggling people. Here in this world, the passions run wild, the colors are more alive, the smiles and pains of people throb, and love finds a way through the maze.
The pain and exploitation is so real that it kills. The love so sweet that it hurts. The mind barely dances that one can barely distinguish between anger and the yearning for justice. Earthly life which I had long ago neglected in my inner practices has become an exhilarating adventure and a thrilling educational tour. The flesh which took years of restless nights to conquer has become delightful, mysterious, enchanting…vividly lively. The world which was earlier for me a cage has become an escapade of free will.
And so I tread this path that seems forever beginning: where detachment has given way to passionate engagement; where peace has given way to feeling and fervor; where inner silence has merged with voices of protest for justice and freedom; and where mysticism has found flesh in the social confrontation with oppressors. In the seeming complexity, I find solace with the thought that all things are interconnected and in perpetual change. It was the 3rd Patriarch of Zen who said, “When the ten thousand things are viewed in their oneness, we return to the origin and remain where we have always been”.
The Beauty and Challenge of Being in the World
Yet being in this world is no picnic. Morris West, in his book The Shoes of the Fisherman says:
It costs so much to be a full human being that very few who have the enlightenment or courage to pay the price. One has to court doubt and darkness as a cost of knowing. One has to embrace the world like a lover and yet demand no easy return of love. One has to accept pain as a condition of existence. One needs to have a will, stubborn in conflict, but apt always to the total acceptance of every consequence of living and dying.
The world begs for healing. While the few have the time and the luxury to sit and meditate, hundreds of millions are dying in poverty, malnutrition and disease. Militarism has become the global religion. Nuclear weapons can destroy our planet ten times over. Corporate greed is destroying life-sustaining dynamics of this planet. The earth itself is ready to explode in an ecological time bomb. The banks steal with one hand what the other hand lends. The more the poor countries earn, the more they owe. The more foreign investments we receive, the less we have. The more production of commodities, the more reproduction of poverty. Those who work, do not eat….
Theoretical physicist Fritjof Capra states that this crisis is of planetary dimensions – a crisis as widescale and comprehensive as it is urgent. Our survival as a species lie in the hands of the current generation.
The ultimate question of this millenium is: What will happen first, the destruction of the earth or the rallying of the human spirit to save humanity and our planet altogether? This is a question, all of us must answer and the answer lies in our hands. What are we to do now? The whole creation awaits our response. Is it going to be the buddha or the bomb? Can the churches steeped in pomp, ritual, and inward looking religiosity rise appropriately to the occasion?
Those who have experienced enlightenment, whether social or spiritual, are compelled to share the light. In sharing, we light the world as we ourselves endure the burning. Thus proceeds the healing of the world. Healing the world demands the totality of our beings: humility to accept we ourselves need change, courage to confront the darkness, compassion to feel the pains of suffering humanity, will to withstand temptations, resoluteness to stand up to truth amid lies, resilience in suffering, hope amidst despair, and the goodness of heart to believe in beauty amidst the cynicism and smugness of the status quo. In the end, it requires an indomitable love stronger than death to fulfill all things unto its last and finest detail.
Spiritual Awakening as a Stepping Stone for Social Activism
Thus we lend muscle to the spiritual reservoir of the world’s wisdom traditions, not as the impotent practice of false piety does to most people. We lend power to heal all things broken, all things in pain, unite the separated, integrate the alienated, dispel fear and fight the darkness. It means incarnating spirituality into the flesh – in common terms understood by the masses – in the language of freedom and struggle and liberation. In our assertion of human rights, in our protest for better living conditions, in confrontations against the State, Spiritual love metamorphosed into Action: reinventing insipid liturgies into vibrant celebrations of renewal and transformation; taking on novel projects for freedom; singing new songs of a new world that breathes unity instead of prejudice, equality instead of pain, enlightenment instead of ignorance, and courage instead of fear. It would take a Marx to point to us that, “When theory is embraced by the masses, it becomes a material force in history“.
In Eccelesiastes we find that there is a time for everything under the heavens (Ecc. 3:1). Now is the time to bring spirituality into union with the global activism that is taking place. It is the time to dip our spiritual hands dirty into the mud of the earth in order to mold it and make a new creation. This world is our world and it is the only world we have. We cannot escape it in mindless spirituality. We cannot forever seek union (yoga) while separating ourselves from suffering humanity. We can only embrace the world and immerse with the oppressed to eventually bring healing and transformation. This is the time to manifest the knowledge of the sacred in tangible terms that help people in their concrete pains and needs – in the struggle to re-create a better world.
The time has come to let all those engaged in spiritual path unite with the oppressed of the earth to take on a grand undertaking to reinvent the world!
Even our meditations now can no longer shun the groans of pain and the anguish of the poor – for the shouts come from within the depths of our very souls.
All of creation groans in pain, like the pain of childbirth. But it is not just creation alone which groans; we who have the spirit groan within ourselves as we wait for God to make us his children and set our whole being free.Romans 8:22-23
To realize the mystical truth of being “One with everything” also means carrying on one’s shoulders the responsibility for all the world’s problems. No gall, no glory. No cross, no resurrection. When the ego recedes in favor of the larger Self, it touches base with the material reality that “the human being is an ensemble of social relationships” (Marx). Before this. one cannot even dare appreciate the subjective experience of “seeing a world in a grain of sand and a heaven in a wild flower” (William Blake, Auguries of Innocence).
For long, the world’s religions may have been silenced by the terror of the powers-that-be not to engage in the issues of our time. But now, everything is turning to ruin…
The Need for Social Enlightenment
Does not spiritual enlightenment necessarily entail social enlightenment? In these times of social crisis, spiritual enlightenment can no longer exclude social enlightenment. By itself only, the spiritual path becomes an empty path, a dead end, a path with no heart.
For me, there is only the travelling on paths that have heart, on any path that may have heart. There I travel and the only worthwhile challenge is to traverse its full length. And there I travel looking, looking breathlessly.Carlos Castañeda from Don juan
No longer can we hide now in a spiritual fortress that escapes from the social responsibility of fighting for justice with the poor. No longer can our spiritual hands be not involved in the healing of our land in the economic, political and social dimensions. For it is only in real life on earth that the virtues of heavenly life may be revealed. It is only in the flesh and the material that the spiritual can be expressed.
For the love of God and for the love of humanity, come let us together sing of freedom. Remember what the evangelist told us:
This is how we have known what love is: he gave his life for us. We, too, ought to give our life for our brothers. If anyone enjoys the riches of this world, but closes his heart when he sees his brothers or sisters in need, how will the love of God remain in him?1 John 3:16-17