Interview with Edward Salim Michael, Samsara magazine, january 2003 :
Samsara: You have just published a new book whose title is most intriguing: “To Awaken: A Matter of Life or Death,” can you expand upon this title ?
Edward Salim Michael: Yes, with this title, I wanted aspirants who think they have embarked on a spiritual path to become aware to what point this is something serious and vital for them. In fact, it is the most important thing there is, that can give meaning to life and justify our existence on this Earth. Yet, most people don’t even know what they are really looking for in a spiritual practice and they often content themselves with a simple intellectual approach. Additionally, they find it very hard to understand the nature of the efforts which are required of them, as well as the type of difficulties they will encounter en route.
Samsara: Is ignorance not the primary difficulty ?
Edward Salim Michael: This is quite true: in the Dhammapada, the Buddha affirms that ignorance is the worst of taints. The type of ignorance in question here is actually not intellectual ignorance of the Buddhist doctrine or any other doctrine, but ignorance of our true nature, our Buddha Nature which we all have within us and which we must, through incessant efforts, succeed in discovering before death takes hold of us.
It is recognition of this Buddha Nature in us by a direct experience, and not by an intellectual conviction, which constitutes enlightenment. Nevertheless, it must be made clear that there exist several degrees of enlightenment and that enlightenment does not mean liberation. In fact, a certain degree of enlightenment represents the first crucial step in starting a true practice, because it is only then that one has clearly discriminated between the side of oneself which one must abandon and the higher and impersonal side in oneself towards which one must turn.
However, even then, it is still a very long road. Indeed, for as long as one is incapable of remaining all the time with this side of our nature which is already perfect, one will inevitably sink back into the other side of self, subject to impermanence and suffering; this lower side of oneself which is nothing but a jumble of influences and conditioning, as Buddhism has clearly explained.
Samsara: The Bardo Thodol (the Tibetan Book of the Dead) speaks about recognizing the “Clear Light,” is this the same thing as this higher side you speak of ?
E-S.M. Exactly. Furthermore, I have covered this matter of death and confrontation with this Clear Light in an entire chapter of this latest book. It is because we have this higher side of our double nature in us that in the Bardo Thodol, the dying person is addressed with these words: “O, nobly-born.” We are in fact of divine origin.
S. You said a strange word, and even stranger for Buddhists, the word “divine.” In your books, you use a vocabulary which is sometimes completely Buddhist, for instance when you stress the fragility and impermanence of earthly existence as well as the suffering of this form of existence, and sometimes, you speak more like a mystic. Do you consider yourself a Buddhist ?
E-S.M. I consider myself a Buddhist in that I recognize in Buddhism the most complete spiritual path which emphasizes simultaneously the importance of work on oneself in life to transform undesirable tendencies, as well as intense meditation and concentration which are essential for discovering this impersonal side in oneself which is beyond time and space.
If one only sets out to study the functioning of the constituents of our ordinary personality, in other words the impermanent and imperfect ego, one is missing the purpose of a spiritual practice and one will never be able to attain the higher side that one has in oneself and which is none other than Being, Consciousness and Bliss.
In another respect; if one only wishes ardently to seek this higher side whilst neglecting study of oneself and one’s undesirable tendencies, one will not be able to go very far and one will always be weighed down by everything which is untransformed within oneself.
As you have stressed, my vision of the world merges with the Buddhist one; I see the impermanence of everything I lay my eyes on as well as the suffering which afflicts all beings; as their fundamental dissatisfaction cannot be fulfilled by something belonging to the world of senses.
Certainly, I do feel I am a mystic, because, through indisputable experiences, I know that something exists which is higher than the small ordinary self of man.
S: Would you say that mysticism exists in Buddhism ?
S.M.: For me, it cannot be otherwise as every true spiritual quest must lead to the experience of Transcendence.
The religious contexts of the world’s various traditions may be different, but the inner experience is the same. Catherine of Siena stated, “My me is God,” a famous sufi was killed for having asserted, “I am God,” and Ramana Maharshi said, “The Consciousness within purged of the mind is felt as God.”
Amongst many Buddhists currently, there is a lack of understanding as to the aim of their practice, which is most harmful to them and prevents them from even understanding the sort of effort required of them if one day they wish to succeed in Awakening.
Indeed, God is not the venerable old gentleman supported by angels as painted by Michelangelo on the spectacular ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In the West, it is hard to free oneself from the word associations due to the cultural schemas representing an anthropomorphic God.
S: But what religion are you yourself ?
E-S.M. My parents didn’t practice any religion and, as a child I don’t remember ever having entered any place of worship. We lived in various countries of the Middle East where we experienced a fair amount of tribulations; as my parents were of Anglo-Indian descent, we escaped massacres perpetrated by religious fanatics on a number of occasions. From this, I have maintained a deep aversion to any blind belief.
Because of this particular situation, I never went to school and only learnt to read and write at the age of nineteen; we had just arrived in England when World War Two broke out. As a British subject, I was posted to the Royal Air Force as a simple infantryman. It was there that I met an extremely kind chaplain who taught me the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic. This lack of education has always been a serious handicap for me; and I required the help of my wife grammatically speaking to complete the translation of the Dhammapada successfully, as well as writing my books.
S. Can you relate to us the circumstances which decided your spiritual commitment ?
E-S.M.: A few years after the end of the war, I made the acquaintance of a man who entertained high spiritual aspirations. It was at his home that I saw for the first time in my life a statue of Buddha. It was a rather large statue of a Buddha seated in the meditation position, of almost a meter in height, inlaid with colored stones which shone in the light. This serene face with its eyes closed conjured up a feeling in me which is impossible to describe, as if I wanted to remember something belonging to an unfathomable past without being able to express it in words. When I went back home, I felt impelled by I know not what mysterious force to put myself into the same position as this Buddha: I closed my eyes and I started to meditate !
Immediately, I felt the need not only for intense concentration during meditation, but also during active life, and to succeed in this, I invented all sorts of concentration exercises. I must say that I had the privilege of swiftly having powerful spiritual experiences which allow me to state, without any possible doubt, that something exists in the human being which escapes him, something which it alone can fulfill him.
The existence and nature of this Transcendence remain controversial subjects with those who only have an intellectual approach to Buddhism; but those who have had this experience to a sufficiently profound degree recognize it in each other and fully understand the descriptions which have been made about this down the ages, whether it be by a Zen Master like Dogen or a Christian mystic such as Meister Eckhart.
One has to get past the popular misconceptions and aversion (which result from conditioning) which one can sense towards certain words in order to understand that the Divine, or the Brahman (a Hindu term), represents the same experience as the “Buddha Nature.” And this Absolute can and must be experienced in oneself before death takes us. Is it not the most extraordinary thing to have, as a human being, the opportunity to make this monumental discovery ?
Through intense concentration during meditation, enabling a seeker to detach himself from his state of being and ordinary consciousness, the Infinite can be comprehended as a state of Pure Ethereal Consciousness, in which one loses one’s customary individuality; it is a sacred Emptiness which is not a nothingness, but the Dharmakaya, this Clear Fundamental Light, described in the Bardo Thodol in the following terms:
“And now you are about to experience in its Reality in the Bardo state, wherein all things are like the void and cloudless sky, and the naked, spotless intellect is like unto a transparent vacuum without circumference or center. At this moment, know you yourself, and abide in that state.”
In other words, this injunction “know you yourself” associated with “abide in that state” means that our true self, our true nature is a state, an impersonal state of the greatest subtlety, which frees us from all the limitations and imperfections connected with individuality.
S: The instructions of the Bardo Thodol are read precisely so that people who did not recognize this Clear Light when they were alive may be liberated at the time of their death.
E-S.M. These words must apply not only to the state one knows after death, but also to the state that one must, with appropriate efforts, succeed in experiencing during meditation. Although it is certainly important and necessary to prepare a dying person to turn his thoughts to something higher at the time he leaves this world, it should be understood, as is clearly repeated in the text itself and in the commentary of the Bardo Thodol, that if someone has not recognized, even to a small degree, this state while he is alive, it will no longer be possible for him to do it after death.
There is specific work to abandon the attachment that one has with the tangible and the world of senses which has to be done whilst one is still in a body, as well as abandonment of the customary individuality which people falsely believe to be themselves.
S: Exactly, what has differentiated Buddhism from Hinduism is the Buddha’s insistence on the fact that there is nothing permanent which one may call oneself.
E-S.M. A clear distinction has to be made between the ordinary self (which Christianity calls the old man) and the Self, which Hinduism also terms Atman (and which is equally called soul or spirit in current Christian terminology).
The Buddha has to be put back into the Indian context of his era. One has the tendency to forget that he was Indian and therefore that his teaching was nurtured by the cultural context of Hinduism.
He rejected the concept of “jiva,” i.e., the fact that a man, who has come to the end of his life, remaining what he is, simply casts off his worn out body to find a new one in an endless series of existences. He stressed the fact that the human being is changeable from one instant to another and that his customary individuality, resulting both from the influences of his environment and the manner in which he has lived, cannot survive as such after death—a concept which is the wish of many people and commonly encountered in India and even in the West.
On the other hand, however, the identity of the Atman and Brahman, i.e., the identity between the higher nature of the human being and the Supreme Divinity is something which was evident in the Hindu cultural context and was recognized by the Buddha in the sutra, “There is, monks, an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned. If, monks, there were no unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned. But because there is an unborn, unbecome, unmade, unconditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, become, made, conditioned.” (Udhâna, VIII).
One finds this knowledge present in Christianity when it is said that man was made in God’s image, and that his soul is immortal. It should be understood here that this is the impersonal side of one’s being and not, as people naïvely believe, their ordinary self or ego.
It is this ignorance of that aspect of their being which is the source of all the suffering which afflicts human beings; this is why the Buddha said, “Abandoning this taint, be taintless, O Bhikkhus !”