When you first begin, you will find only darkness, as it were a cloud of unknowing. You do not know what it means except that in your will you feel a simple steadfast intention reaching out towards God. Do what you will and this darkness and this cloud remains between you and God . By 'darkness' I mean a 'lack of knowing'--just as anything you do not know or may have forgotten may be said to be 'dark' to you, for you cannot see it with your inward eye . So if you are to stand and not fall, never give up your firm intention: beat away at this cloud of unknowing between you and God with that sharp dart of longing love.1This deepest form of prayer is really just the willingness to be still and let the longing in your heart go out without defining or understanding where it is going. This is faith. Our minds cannot see the goal of our spiritual training. Meditation is the willingness to let go and learn to trust so that we may enter into this seeming darkness. In the passage from The Cloud of Unknowing, the writer is expressing the idea that our minds cannot grasp God, cannot even begin to say what God is, yet our hearts are reaching out. A Buddhist way of saying this is that our small minds and intellects cannot even begin to fully grasp or understand the boundless life of Buddha.
In Buddhism, the real ground of reality is the Dharmakaya, the pure body of the Buddha, the Absolute, the One. While this immeasurable reality will always transcend the ability of our minds to comprehend it, there will always be the longing in our hearts to find this real place and to let go of everything else. We need to let go of our opinions of who we think we are, and of all our opinions of what our mind grasps as the Buddha or enlightenment. We need to turn away from our burning desires and instead seek stillness and peace and put our effort into growing this indescribable longing.
But our lack of faith makes us struggle. We say, "Yes, but...." Buddhist training is the process of gradually softening our habitual resistance. The Dharma keeps telling us to open our hearts and let go, but we keep qualifying this letting go, looking for loopholes in the Dharma and searching for attachments we believe will not cause problems. Yet anything we grasp will help to turn our hearts away from this one, true longing.
We often don't recognize that faith in the Dharma means fully accepting ourselves. The most difficult aspect of faith is seeing that we are the Buddha, that all of our delusions are still the Buddha, and that all of our sufferings are the life of Buddha. Our faults and suffering and the world's faults and suffering are not impure; they are simply telling us that we and others are turning away from the light of Buddha. We enfold ourselves in darkness as we focus our hearts on empty desires and empty fears. When we don't accept ourselves, our shame, our pride, and our often hard and critical mind, we are simply increasing the waves of karma. Think carefully about how this lack of acceptance fills our lives. In anger, the whole world reflects our anger; in guilt, the whole world reflects our guilt. These delusions reinforce themselves. While we search to make our lives clean and whole, looking everywhere for what will work, we often fail to recognize that the greatest treasure is already living in our hearts. It takes faith to let go and realize the unimportance of both our pride and our inadequacies and to turn our hearts toward entering this Cloud of Unknowing.
There is no way by effort of will by which we can simply say, "I'm not going to struggle any more" or "I'm not going to have any more attachments." All we can do is be willing to see what we are grasping, what is stopping the longing from blazing up in our hearts. By recognizing these things, we can begin to open up and let go of our demands. It doesn't necessarily mean that we no longer have to face these desires; rather we no longer try so desperately to grasp them. In The Cloud of Unknowing, the author says,
Therefore, if I am able to give a vital and wholehearted attention to this spiritual activity within my soul, I then can view my eating and drinking, my sleep and my conversation and so on with comparative indifference. I would rather acquire a right discretion in these matters by such indifference, than by giving them my close attention.2Faith allows our hearts to be open and to see what is actually moving through us. It takes deep faith to have such an open heart because this awareness often hurts. It is painful to see what we are doing, to see the wounds that we have in our heart, and to see all the suffering our mistakes have caused others. It is painful to see the suffering that is flowing throughout the world, filling so many beings. Only our deep commitment and acting on our faith allows us to open our hearts and embrace all this pain while trusting that the pain is not a real problem. Faith means to trust that the Dharma is true, that all this pain and suffering is not fundamental. The suffering will be washed away when we are willing to open our hearts and let the waters of compassion flow through us so that we can see that light and purity is enfolding everything.
A key to cultivating faith is not letting ourselves to indulge in doubt. We should view doubt like any other emotion, such as anger, worry, desire or fear. Without cultivating doubt, or grasping it, simply recognize that it is only a wave of thoughts and feeling sweeping through us. In the same way that there is no reason to be angry, there is no reason to doubt. There is no reason to doubt the Buddha, there is no reason to doubt the Dharma, and there is no reason to doubt the Sangha. Just as there is no reason to doubt ourself or to doubt others.
Work hard at learning to trust that the unfolding of all karma is all right. The fact that there is suffering, beginningless greed, hate and delusion, is not a reason to doubt. The faith is not that there will not be any suffering; rather that under all of the suffering is the compassion of the Unborn and that is always there. Nothing is ever really hurt; the hurt is simply waves of feeling sweeping through our bodies and minds. If you do not cling to them, nothing is really being hurt. Suffering is a Dharma lesson that is pointing us to the Truth. To see karma, to see cause and effect, is not a reason to doubt.
If we wish to see what is real, we need to have faith in the Dharma and work at accepting whatever life is offering us. This allows our hearts and minds to be peaceful, and then we will find something much deeper calling us.
Meditation is a way to learn to hear and respond to the call and the longing that is flowing out of the stillness in our hearts. There is a love that keeps looking the wrong way, mistakenly trying to grasp whatever seems to help us be happy. Then there is real, unshakable love that is the ground of Buddhism, a love that demands nothing and is open and embraces everything. This love is calling us and this love is our true heart, the Bodhicitta, the boundless heart of Buddha. The depths of this love is unfathomable, and it will wash away all the barriers we face. What we need to do is to be still, whether we are on a cushion or going about our daily lives, and allow that deep and inexpressible longing to grow. This longing is the Buddha calling the Buddha, and it will open our hearts and free us from the seeming darkness of our passions and confusion.
1. Translated by Clifton Wolters, The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works (Penguin Books, 1978) pp.61, pp.66, pp.76.
2. ibid, pp. 110