Spirit Grooves Blogs

Published on June 17, 2014

Measuring spiritual experience is difficult and in the Tibetan system there are two main ways to do it. One way, quite common, is to just count up to a certain number the mantras or other practices we do, like how many full-length prostrations we have done, and so on. 111,111 is a common target number. 108,000 is the actual number, but the extra 3000+ are to make up for the ones we don't do properly. It is the same idea with mantras. Perform 111,111 recitations for each syllable of a mantra. Thus the famous six-syllable mantra of compassion and loving kindness, "Om Mani Padme Hum," would be recited 666,666 times and that would signify that you have done the minimum number for that particular mantra or practice.

Although performing a certain number of repetitions for a given practice does not guarantee anything other than you did that many, it is still commonly used as an approximate gauge for measuring spiritual practice. Practitioners keep count on malas (like rosaries) or even little click-counters.

Much better yet is to perform a particular practice (with no limit to the number) until certain unmistakable signs appear in the mindstream and life of the practitioner. This is the preferred method for measuring spiritual practice, although you may need a teacher to authenticate your accomplishment.

All of these practices -- mantras, prostrations, mandala offerings, prayers, and what-have-you -- are considered "preliminary" practices, preliminary to the recognition of the mind's true nature that we discussed in the first part of this article. So "recognition," although not anywhere near enlightenment, is a very important landmark in dharma practice, at least among the Kagyu and Nyingma Tibetan Buddhists, as well as many Zen Buddhists.

In my early years of meditation practice, I had never heard of "recognition" or, if I heard of it, I had no idea what it meant. I thought it might be part of Zen Buddhism or something. No, early on I was going for "enlightenment," not that I had the vaguest idea of what that was either. For many years I actually thought that I was meditating when actually I was only practicing meditation, try to learn it.

I had no more idea of what enlightenment was than I did of the 'heaven' in my Catholic upbringing. Enlightenment was whatever I had picked up over the years, some concepts, an idea, but I had never experienced enlightenment any more than I had ever been to heaven. And heaven is a one-lifetime one-way trip, while it can take many lives to reach enlightenment.

My point is that I used my made-up idea of enlightenment as a mirror to reflect any and all spiritual events into, anything that happened on or off the cushion, as if my concept of enlightenment was factual. It was not. Then I would judge whatever I actually was experiencing while meditating against my "idea" of enlightenment and make judgments about myself, which was a real waste of time – talk about the blind leading the blind.

Why do you think I am writing this? Not to bum anyone out, but perhaps to help others not spend the thirty years of practicing meditation that I did thinking I was meditating. I should have been working closely with someone who really knew meditation and could help trip me up with my B.S. I had a great lama for overall advice, but I saw him only once in a while and for a short time. All of my peers were as closed-mouth as I was. We never inquired or probed into each other's practice which, when it comes to basic meditation, should be no secret. I would like to see that change. That's why I am writing this.

I find it a good thing that there is something like 'recognition' between me and enlightenment because as I have mentioned, I had no idea or experience of enlightenment, and still don't. Recognition, on the other hand, is something anyone of us can achieve if we will follow directions and work with a good teacher. You won't learn it from reading books; I can promise you that.

And I repeat, "recognition" is not enlightenment or even close to it, but merely what we might call the threshold, a doorway to the path of realization and eventual enlightenment. It can mark the beginning of real meditation and a point where we do pass "Go" and collect the two-hundred dollars, so to speak. After recognition it usually takes years of practice to stabilize and deepen what was recognized.

In summary, we have a plethora of preliminary dharma practices all leading up to the moment of recognition when we catch a glimpse of the actual or true nature of the mind, which is just our everyday ordinary mind that we have managed to ignore for all this time.

The precise process leading to recognition is subtle and not something I will try to explain. It is done through working with a teacher who gives what are called the "pointing out instructions," in which he or she points out to us the true nature of the mind. This pointing out may happen many times, as many times as it takes for us to actually get what is being pointed out, i.e. the true nature of the mind itself.

Of course recognition shows us nothing new, but rather something that has always been there, an integral part of us all this time. What is new is our finally seeing it. I liken it to those figure-ground paintings where there is a picture hidden within a picture, but we can't see it. However, when it is pointed out, once we see it, forever after we can look at that painting and instantly see the picture-within-a- picture. Recognition is like that, not an experience (with ups and down), but a simple realization – a change of view. Lamas sometimes liken it to recognizing the face of a friend in a crowd of people.

Recognition is, as the Tibetan Buddhists say, not an experience that comes and goes, but a "realization," that once we see, it is forever there. Actually recognition is very matter of fact. We realize it once and that realization remains with us from then on. However, recognition also brings with it confirmation and authenticity that not only galvanizes us into independence, but deeply energizes us so that dharma practice is no longer an effort, but rather becomes an obsession (in a good way) that we seek out. And we don't have to 'try' to practice; we finally can see for ourselves what is needed and just do it as much as possible, like: all the time.

Now, I have sort of short-changed you here on explaining the details of recognition and how it is achieved, and that is because not only am I not qualified to teach it, but I have had only the briefest glimpse of it myself. But I have studied it enough to have understood the basic facts about recognition, at least as far as I know.

The main message here is that every practice we do, from beginning meditation all the way up to the very edge of Mahamudra meditation, is preparation for recognizing the mind's true nature. Recognition is the fruition of all streams of practices and the key to beginning Mahamudra Meditation. As I understand it, Mahamudra Meditation makes no sense without recognition of the true nature of the mind.

I know. All this talking about recognition is probably unintentionally off-putting. It can't help but remind us that we have not yet had recognition and turn us back upon ourselves to take a look at our practice. Are there things we want to adjust in what we are doing? If it is possible to doubt, we should take note of that.

However, if we have had recognition, we could care less what anyone says because we have all that we need, which is enough.

If you know, you know, and you know you know.

Let's discuss, if you will.

[Between rainstorms this morning found me out in a very wet microclimate on my knees taking this photo of a couple of Michigan's "Showy Orchids." Aren't they lovely! Mosquitoes were everywhere all around me.]