The situation of a modern spiritual aspirant is at least in one way very different than millennia of predecessors. Where those who came before have had to often search for years to find a genuine teacher, now everyone with some basic computer skills can find a hundred teachers in a day! Of course, there are some frauds, but there are also many authentic teachers, with real lineages, who are easy to find and pay a visit.
In the past, the aspirant suffered from a lack of real teachers, but now we suffer from too many. We have a new disease called “spiritual congestion.” People are naturally afraid of feeling left out, or that they might be missing out on something. So they learn from this teacher, or that one, this tradition, or that, all the while, the student gradually becomes filled with teachers that seem and feel extraordinary until the poor aspirant doesn’t know what to do, where to go, or who to pray to.
There is no doubt that from the summit of the mountain all paths look the same in at least one way: they all go to the top. But that is useless information for someone stuck at the base of the mountain because they are not able to decide where to start. One person tells them that this is the best path, right here, and another argues, “That’s nonsense, this is the best path, over here!” Every time the aspirant finally settles on a path, someone yells from below, “Oh God, what a bad path you chose. I wouldn’t even recommend that way for someone I hated! Climb this path over here.” On and on this goes until the desperate student finally gives up.
The only solution is to see the path with different eyes. All of these traditions come from different cultures with different values and lineages, so, naturally, they can be exclusive, at least superficially. Instead of focusing on the apparent differences that developed in these traditions over hundreds or thousands of years of separation, we must instead try to see those great and ancient mysteries at the heart of each tradition. Only then will we see that they have but one heart in common, and we will learn to see with eyes of truth instead of division.
As we look to the heart of each tradition, we will come to a great truth. There is only one true and ancient spiritual tradition that is at once mother and father to all other diverse paths and traditions in this world. Wherever we can find a spiritual path that is producing enlightened masters, we will also find this ancient and venerable tradition at its heart. Its truths are so simple and universal that no matter if you learned it from another master, or realized it yourself from your own enlightenment, its truths stayed the same. The Yogis in their caves, the Daoists in their grottos, and the Buddhists in their temples all follow this same tradition in their own way, however it may have come down to them.
So far as I have seen and been allowed to see, all traditions hold that there are three awakenings which we must always be working towards: Deity, Energy, and Awareness. Deity is that supreme and original divinity through whom and by whom all things are divine. In ever tradition, the aspirant must work to realize the inner deity by recognizing the outer deity. Energy is the awakening that purifies and exalts as kindling the inner fire, awakening the dormant powers that lie in all people. Awareness is the awakening of our inherent clarity and lucidity: the purifying of the mind to its original state of gnosis (knowledge) of truth.
These are the original three pillars of the spiritual path which support every authentic tradition and lineage. Some schools employ all three at the same time, while others move you through them one at a time, step by step. Many traditions also put more emphasis on one of these awakenings than the others, but all three are necessary if the student is to attain a holistic and balanced realization. Those who focus too much on deity will neglect the energy and awareness, giving an ecstatic enlightenment over which they have no control. Those who only cultivate energy for the sake of magic powers and long life so often fall short of true enlightenment, having failed to gain any true knowledge of the self and reality. Those who only train the mind gain frail bodies and neglect the many spirits who come to the aid of an adept and saint, as did they also lack the power to spiritually aid their fellow brothers and sisters of humanity.
To illustrate this, let us imagine a fruit tree. Such a tree will require three basic things: (1) the Sun, (2) nutrients, and (3) health. We can imagine that such a fruit tree, possessing all three of these things, is strong and tall, standing proud against the sun, full of aromatic and delicious fruit, with strong and healthy branches, and a great trunk that supports the whole tree. Now suppose that the Sun is much like deity to the fruit tree, and, in fact, if such trees could tell us who they worship, I should think that they would really say that it is the Sun. The Sun guides the growth of the tree whether the tree acknowledges it or not, much like deity does for us.
Now, if the Sun is the deity of our tree, the nutrients and water are the energy. Without the proper nutrients it may appear strong and healthy, but it will produce no fruit and be of little benefit to those around it. Let us also imagine that awareness is a tree free of disease, infestation, and all such hidden pests and killers which would lurk beneath the surface of the tree, like our own vices, lusts, and ignorance hide within us. What will happen if our tree has plenty of good soil and is disease-free, yet lacks the deity of sunlight? It will grow frail, have sparse leaves, and may not even produce fruit. Now, again suppose that it has ample sunlight but took root in sandy, rocky soil, where it will lack nutrients, its own energy. Its growth will be stunted, and if it fruits at all, it will be coarse and bitter fruit.
Finally, imagine our fruit tree has taken root in great soil and good sunlight. It grows large and beautiful, and all goes well until some pest or disease begins to take hold of it. For years, all may be fine as the tree grows and produces fruit — until a strong storm blows through and easily rips it in half. At first, everyone is in disbelief that such a beautiful tree fell so easily — until someone walks to the fallen tree and sees that the entire core of the tree was rotten. This is like the aspirant who tries hard to have faith and cultivate energy but neglects training the mind to recognize truth. Gradually, the pests of evil thoughts, desires, and lusts alongside the disease of ignorance wears down and weakens our soul’s resilience until, one day, a storm blows through our life, and what appeared to be a strong, saintly person on the outside is immediately uprooted. Unless one treats the infected tree with the medicines of reason, virtue, and awareness, it will gradually fall away.
The aspirant, then, should strive towards the Sun of their divinity through prayers, offerings, and constant remembrance of the divine. The energy should be cultivated through regular meditation, in order to nourish and water the soul, while the mind is purified through virtue, philosophy, and the gradual cultivation of awareness. Then, the aspirant will be treading the path walked by so many masters before, regardless of clothing, language, culture, or tradition; a friend to all who walk the path.