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There are some teachings that go along the lines of:

'You are already enlightened. You just need to realize it. Actually there's no need for you to do anything. If you try to strive for enlightenment you just end up falling into the trap of dualism. Samsara, Nirvana, treat it all like a dream'

On the other hand, there are teachings which are like this:

'Work hard to rid your mind from its negative qualities, ignorance, greed, delusion. Do this practice. Purify your mind. Abandon worldly attachment. Also please do this sadhana everyday if not you break your empowerment vows and fall into vajra hell'

How to reconcile this dichotomy? Is asking this question even necessary? I am aware that asking this question is inherently dualistic, and that these views don't necessarily contradict because the first is an expression of the truth at the ultimate level, while the second is the conventional level. For someone whose mind isn't at the level to embody the first view, should I continue practicing? Or am I missing something entirely?

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  • You are what you are. No amount of any kind of practice or experience can actually make you anything else, it will still be you. The "today you" and "the enlightened you" are one and same thing. At the same time certain amount of struggle may force you the subject into actually seeing this (but beware of false realization, many psychos believe they realized something). There even is an opinion the role of any discomfort is specifically for this.
    – Ivan
    Sep 20 at 20:51
  • Whose wording is 'You are already enlightened. You just need to realize it. Actually there's no need for you to do anything. If you try to strive for enlightenment you just end up falling into the trap of dualism. Samsara, Nirvana, treat it all like a dream' Sep 25 at 21:53
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The key to the first philosophy mentioned is the phrase "You just need to realize it", where realize carries the two possible meanings of the word:

  • become fully aware of something; understand clearly.
  • cause (something desired or anticipated) to happen

D.T. Suzuki put it like this:

We practice zazen to express our true nature, not to attain enlightenment. Bodhidharma’s Buddhism [i.e., Zen] is to be practice, to be enlightenment.

Said differently, the emphasis is on expressing the true nature that enlightenment exposes, even if you do not yet fully grasp it. Enlightenment, though of course not unimportant, is not seen as a goal but as a natural consequence of this expression.

The key to the second philosophy mentioned is that it is more akin to a prescription or regime against the origin of suffering: attachment and the other mental pitfalls that stand in the way of enlightenment.

In the end, they are just different upaya to attain the same desired outcome.

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I don’t know of any text that says “you are already enlightened.” There are ‘teachings’ by unenlightened people who do say that, because they misunderstand the nondual teachings of the yoga tantras. Perhaps what they are trying to say is that ‘you’ are not other than the enlightened wisdom activity that manifests this world. As such, but for a constant attachment to the glitzy ornamentation, we would recognize our natural state.

The two truths are a dualistic understanding of this, that is dissolved in the higher tantras. Which is to say, you have your answer already before you: not having dissolved the dichotomy between absolute and relative, one cannot comprend the nondual teachings properly (this becomes clear when nondual ‘teachers’ talk of a “One”, forgetting there are no entities to be found anywhere). Therefore, in order to break-free of the duality which structures your understanding, there are certain prescribed activities. Once duality is escaped, those activities are no longer needed (but are still useful at times—like having a pocketknife to cut an apple, when one happens to fall into your hands). Escaping the dualistic structuring of our understanding is still not complete enlightenment. Why? Because it tends to be held onto as another conceptual understanding at first. Thus, still a bit more work to do.

(And this is where some get lost, go a little crazy, and start running around saying: “There’s nothing to do by no one!” confusing everyone.)

As it is pointed out in the “Undiminished Victory Banner:”

Simple, yet difficult—and difficult because of being simple, It is not an immediate state, though it is all-pervasive; But not even Vajrasattva can point it out By giving it a specific name.

These different doctrines are not at odds. It is our understanding that is at odds with reality. So the practices are all skillful means to help all sentient beings reach enlightenment. Holding on to certain doctrines, is just another form of attachment. Once they have served their purpose, like a boat you have crossed a river with, they are left behind, as you mount the glitzy motorcycle that will take you halfway to the mountains, at which point you walk, until the way becomes too steep, then you start using lines, anchors, and a harness, etc., until you finally reach the mountain peak.

Good luck!

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Here are the pali textual references that are maybe the basis for the things you've heard. Although the expression of realizing one's enlightened nature is rather unusual for Theravada and is closer to Mahayana.

AN 1.49-52 "Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements."

"Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements."

"Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements. The uninstructed run-of-the-mill person doesn't discern that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person — there is no development of the mind."

"Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements. The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — there is development of the mind."

SN 15.11 At Savatthi. There the Blessed One said: "From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. When you see someone who has fallen on hard times, overwhelmed with hard times, you should conclude: 'We, too, have experienced just this sort of thing in the course of that long, long time.'

"Why is that? From an inconstruable beginning comes transmigration. A beginning point is not evident, though beings hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving are transmigrating & wandering on. Long have you thus experienced stress, experienced pain, experienced loss, swelling the cemeteries — enough to become disenchanted with all fabricated things, enough to become dispassionate, enough to be released."

Dhp 170 One who looks upon the world as a bubble and a mirage, him the King of Death sees not

Sn22.95 Form is like a glob of foam; feeling, a bubble; perception, a mirage; fabrications, a banana tree; consciousness, a magic trick — this has been taught by the Kinsman of the Sun. However you observe them, appropriately examine them, they're empty, void to whoever sees them appropriately.

Beginning with the body as taught by the One with profound discernment: when abandoned by three things — life, warmth, & consciousness — form is rejected, cast aside. When bereft of these it lies thrown away, senseless, a meal for others. That's the way it goes: it's a magic trick, an idiot's babbling. It's said to be a murderer.[1] No substance here is found.

Thus a monk, persistence aroused, should view the aggregates by day & by night, mindful, alert; should discard all fetters; should make himself his own refuge; should live as if his head were on fire — in hopes of the state with no falling away.

As to reconciliation, this should help;

Sn12.61 "Monks, an uninstructed run-of-the-mill person might grow disenchanted with this body composed of the four great elements, might grow dispassionate toward it, might gain release from it. Why is that? Because the growth & decline, the taking up & putting down of this body composed of the four great elements are apparent. Thus the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person might grow disenchanted, might grow dispassionate, might gain release there.

"But as for what's called 'mind,' 'intellect,' or 'consciousness,' the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is unable to grow disenchanted with it, unable to grow dispassionate toward it, unable to gain release from it. Why is that? For a long time this has been relished, appropriated, and grasped by the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person as, 'This is me, this is my self, this is what I am.' Thus the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person is unable to grow disenchanted with it, unable to grow dispassionate toward it, unable to gain release from it.

"It would be better for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person to hold to the body composed of the four great elements, rather than the mind, as the self. Why is that? Because this body composed of the four great elements is seen standing for a year, two years, three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty, a hundred years or more. But what's called 'mind,' 'intellect,' or 'consciousness' by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another. Just as a monkey, swinging through a forest wilderness, grabs a branch. Letting go of it, it grabs another branch. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. Letting go of that, it grabs another one. In the same way, what's called 'mind,' 'intellect,' or 'consciousness' by day and by night arises as one thing and ceases as another.

"The instructed disciple of the noble ones, [however,] attends carefully & appropriately right there at the dependent co-arising:

"'When this is, that is.

"'From the arising of this comes the arising of that.

"'When this isn't, that isn't.

"'From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.

"'In other words:

"'From ignorance as a requisite condition come fabrications.

"'From fabrications as a requisite condition comes consciousness...

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Ted's is the best answer imo. To make his point even more explicit,

"You're already enlightened" means "fundamentally you already are outside the Matrix, so you don't need to go anywhere".

And "purify your mind" means, "you have to stop creating karma that keeps your attention trapped inside the Matrix".

And "stop striving" means "stop looking for an exit inside the Matrix, that's just yet another activity that keeps your attention trapped".

And "keep striving" means "keep stopping".

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  • Yes, it's all very sort of counter-intuitive to what we generally learn from the world culture.
    – Max
    Sep 22 at 8:44
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You're setting up a dichotomy where none exists. What you're asking is akin to someone inquiring how Joe DiMaggio hit safely in 56 games while he was playing center for the Pistons. It's a conflation of two things that aren't causal. In your case it's a mix of ontology and methodology. Just because all beings are naturally Buddha has nothing to do with the fact that they come to be Buddha's by cultivating the paramitas and seeing deeply into the true nature of things.

To further confound things, the approach to Dharmakaya has different phases each of which can be distinct and even contradictory from the ones that proceeded it. Just like an Olympic weightlifter might see his lifts improve by focusing solely on his mobility for a training cycle, so to might an adept see an improvement in his understanding of the dharma by backing of his efforts. Nonstriving is a technique and a state of mind. It's something that we all have to learn and bring into our practice at one time or another. It's not easily apprehended (it took Joshu the better part of 30 years to understand it!) mainly because it stands in stark contrast to the methodologies we employed to get to the point where nonstriving would be beneficial.

There are no contradictions here. There are just different facets catching the light.

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I think the notion that you are already enlightened and that there is no need to strive, comes from the Mahayana teaching of Buddha Nature or tathagatagarbha, that everyone has the natural potential to become enlightened.

This is apparently based on the sutta teaching about the luminous mind (pabhassara citta in Pali), which states that the mind is fundamentally pure, but it is defiled by incoming defilements. That's like saying, the dirty cloth, is actually pure white below all that dirt, but is soiled by dirt that got on it.

So, what you need to do is to coarsely, then thoroughly, remove the dirt from the cloth and then, prevent it from getting dirty again by ending the source of the dirt. For the mind, that's the ten fetters. The root is ignorance.

From a Theravada perspective, 'You should strive for enlightenment. Purify your mind!' is the correct way to get into the process.

If you start with 'You are already enlightened. There's no need to strive!', then you'll end up being lazy or confused. "I am enlightened, but... I am not enlightened?"

But there is a place for 'You are already enlightened. There's no need to strive!' too. In order to reach the state of jhana, the mind needs to let go of striving and simply fall effortlessly into the peace and stillness that is fundamental to the mind.

So you start with 'You should strive for enlightenment. Purify your mind!' and then go into 'You are already enlightened. There's no need to strive!' in order to reach jhana.

Ven. Ajahn Brahm is widely recognized as an expert of samatha meditation leading to jhana from mindfulness of breathing, with his book, "Mindfulness, Bliss and Beyond". I quote a part of this book below.

You experience every part of each in-breath and out-breath continuously for many hundred breaths in a row. That is why this stage is called full sustained attention on the breath. You cannot reach this stage through force, through holding or gripping. You can attain this degree of stillness only by letting go of everything in the entire universe except for this momentary experience of the breath happening silently. Actually “you” do not reach this stage, the mind does. The mind does the work itself. The mind recognizes this stage to be a very peaceful and pleasant place to abide, just being alone with the breath. This is where the doer, the major part of one’s ego, starts to disappear.

One finds that progress happens effortlessly at this stage of meditation. We just have to get out of the way, let go, and watch it all happen. The mind will automatically incline, if we only let it, toward this very simple, peaceful, and delicious unity of being alone with one thing, just being with the breath in each and every moment. This is the unity of mind, the unity in the moment, the unity in stillness.

The fourth stage is what I call the “springboard” of meditation, because from it one may dive into the blissful states. When we simply maintain this unity of consciousness by not interfering, the breath will begin to disappear. The breath appears to fade away as the mind focuses instead on what is at the center of the experience of breath, which is awesome peace, freedom, and bliss.

At this stage I introduce the term “beautiful breath.” Here the mind recognizes that this peaceful breath is extraordinarily beautiful. We are aware of this beautiful breath continuously, moment after moment, with no break in the chain of experience. We are aware only of the beautiful breath, without effort and for a very long time.

Now as I will explain further in the next chapter, when the breath disappears, all that is left is “the beautiful.” Disembodied beauty becomes the sole object of the mind. The mind is now taking the mind as its own object. We are no longer aware of the breath, body, thought, sound, or outside world. All that we are aware of is beauty, peace, bliss, light, or whatever our perception will later call it. We are experiencing only beauty, continuously, effortlessly, with nothing being beautiful! We have long ago let go of chatter, let go of descriptions and assessments. Here the mind is so still that it cannot say anything. One is just beginning to experience the first flowering of bliss in the mind. That bliss will develop, grow, and become very firm and strong. And then one may enter into those states of meditation called the jhanas.

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Just to use the natural, parallel analogy: we know how to breathe without thinking about it, but we still spend a lot of time in meditation focusing on our breath. That's because we've learned to control our breathing as an aspect of expressing thoughts, and our breathing is often affected by our emotions and our desires. The pure, simple breathing of an infant is something we have to remember, not something we have to learn, but sometimes remembering takes effort.

We all know the attitude of enlightenment, but we all have a million things pulling at us that keep us from being there. We don't need to do anything; we need to stop doing the things that push us off track.

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In my view, both teachings go hand-in-hand. The first teaching explains that you are already enlightened, defining "you" as your conscience, the part of you that is already fully enlightened. Once your mind realizes this (by practicing), then your mind will coordinate with your conscience.

The second teaching defines "you" as an individual, made up of the components of conscience, mind, body, and soul. Although the conscience is already perfect, the mind needs conditioning to work in accordance with the truth/your conscience.

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I think that these two ideas together are trying to tell you that trying to attain enlightenment is a bit like trying to go to sleep.

There are all kinds of things you can do to try and get a good nights' rest. A comfy bed, a dark quiet bedroom, getting some exercise and so on. These will all help, and you can do them consciously to help your sleep schedule. But the one thing that does not work is yelling at yourself to go to sleep. The more you fret about your need for sleep, the more fearful and anxious you become, and the more elusive sleep becomes.

So the second paragraph you wrote is an encouragement to get all the things that you need for enlightenment. You should practice meditation, and learn about enlightenment, and this will help you attain it. But the first idea is warning you that striving for enlightenment is still attachment, and wanting enlightenment is still desire. These will help you at first, but you can't take those with you on the journey. You will have to let them go. You will have to work really hard at striving for nothing, and that is why it is so hard and yet in some way also so easy.

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