Spiritual death and rebirth are implicit from the very beginning of our journey on the path to awakening. When we are able to see our habits more clearly and allow them to transform in the light of awareness, we simultaneously realise what else is possible, and we also see that “what else is possible” has always been possible since the very beginning. The only difference is that now we know. We have cultivated enough clarity of mind to see both the way things actually are, and our potential to live in a way that is more aligned with that reality. Spiritual rebirth is as much about deepening faith in the transformative power of the Dharma, as it is about confidence in our own capacity to change. In fact, the two things are inseparable. The Dharma can only transform us if we believe we can change. And the extent to which we trust in the Dharma to change us is also the extent to which we will allow ourselves to be changed.
So what is it we are waking up into? What is it that we have been distracted from? What emerges at this stage in our practice is the open, boundless, and infinite nature of reality and of ourselves, for ultimately we are not separate from reality. Awareness becomes something lucid, sensitive and deeply nourishing. It is our true nature, full of beauty and wonder. Within this awareness, all of experience, the whole of our lives and everything it is made up of, can arise and pass away without interference by a “self”. There is no longer any need to control things, suppress things, indulge in things. A deep contentment arises that we can learn to familiarise ourselves with more and more.
In our meditation practice we can begin to get curious about the nature of this awareness. We may find that the boundaries we previously perceived have softened, for where is the actual boundary between ourselves, others and the world? Or we might start to notice how the objects within awareness arise with clarity, are perfect in and of themselves. Can we actually separate this awareness from the objects arising within it? This is where we can start to intuit what Sangharakshita has referred to as the third level of sunyuta, or emptiness, where the distinctions between form and emptiness, the conditioned and the unconditioned begin to break down.
This is not to say that we don’t continue to exist in the world as people. We continue to think, speak and act. We continue to feel. Life goes on, and with it there continues to be cause and effect. This is why the practice of ethics is so critical. In fact, at this stage ethical sensitivity can deepen quite significantly, because we are aware of how intimately we are connected to the world and others. We become even more invested in acting with kindness and compassion, because we can feel even more deeply the consequences of not doing so, and the suffering bound up there. This is when spontaneous compassionate activity can arise - a response to the world that is not diven by nor bound up in egoic clinging.
This can all sound quite grandiose, yet spiritual rebirth doesn’t have to happen in one big, orgasmic event! Any time we sit, turn towards our experience, notice how it’s changing, and allow something else to happen, we have had a spiritual death and rebirth. The training here is to notice these moments and learn to dwell in them more and more. Learn to familiarise ourselves with experiences that have the taste of freedom. Sensations, images, thoughts, and emotions that open us up, allow us to soften, provide relief, or a sense of expansiveness, all these experiences can help us to deepen our faith in what else is possible. In fact, with enough curiosity, we can begin to get a sense of this kind of freedom both within and outside of meditation.
It can be helpful at any stage in our practice to reflect upon the qualities of the enlightened mind. Who do we imagine we will be when we are awake? How will we think and act? What might that feel like? At different times we will be drawn to different qualities. It is important to pay attention to what we are drawn to and learn to bring awareness to that more and more. What would it be like to be less reactive? How might fearlessness manifest in me? Sometimes, bringing to mind a Buddha or Bodhisattva that embodies the qualities you are drawn to can also be helpful. We could even imagine sitting in their presence and draw on the inspiration there.
Ritual and devotion can also be aids to connecting with those qualities within ourselves. During ritual practice we consciously bring to mind and heart something or someone we can revere, look up to, place our confidence in. Yet, what we revere is not only something outside of ourselves, but also our own capacity to awaken, which we can build confidence in by taking stock of how we've changed. This confidence helps us to trust that we're heading in the right direction, with a little help from those who have gone before us, or figure that represent what we are heading towards. That awakening will be as unique to us as the conditions that we’ve worked with up until now. For as Sangharakshita has said, we are the path.