Wouldn’t it be wonderful if what we were looking for in life is what we are? After we strip away what we are not, that is. This is the central message of “The Secret of the Golden Flower,” a delightfully simple book that could take a lifetime to grasp.
Thomas Cleary translated this classic Taoist guide to meditation. In his introduction he says:
The golden flower symbolizes the quintessence of the paths of Buddhism and Taoism. Gold stands for light, the light of the mind itself; the flower represents the blossoming, or opening up, of the light of the mind.
…This manual contains a number of helpful meditation techniques, but its central method is deeper than a form of meditation. Using neither idea nor image, it is a process of getting right to the root source of awareness itself. The aim of this exercise is to free the mind from arbitrary and unnecessary limitations imposed upon it by habitual fixation on its own contents.
…The essential practice of the golden flower requires no apparatus, no philosophical or religious dogma, no special paraphernalia or ritual. It is practiced in the course of daily life. It is near at hand, being in the mind itself, yet it involves no imagery or thought. It is remote only in the sense that it is a use of attention generally unfamiliar to the mind habituated by imagination and thinking.
Every religion is based on conjectures about the nature of God, soul, morality, salvation, heaven, and such. Yet the nature of the mind that is conjecturing about all this stuff rarely is given much thought.
Not that it is possible to understand that nature by thinking about thoughts. But at least this leads to the humble realization that we don’t really know where the contents of the mind come from, nor how much faith should be placed in them—especially when it comes to abstractions that have no evident connection to material reality.
The Secret of the Golden Flower suggests that before we start making bold pronouncements about God, we should give some attention to the mind that is prone to making bold pronouncements about things it doesn’t have a clue about.
Here are some passages from the book:
Naturalness is called the Way. The Way has no name or form; it is just the essence, just the primal spirit.
Turning the light around is not turning around the light of one body, but turning around the very energy of Creation.
If you can look back again and again into the source of mind, whatever you are doing, not sticking to any image of person or self at all, then this is “turning the light around wherever you are.” This is the finest practice.
Deliberate meditation is the light of consciousness; let go, and it is then the light of essence. A hairsbreadth’s difference is as that of a thousand miles, so discernment is necessary.
The Way is present before our eyes, yet what is before our eyes is hard to understand. People like the unusual and enjoy the new; they miss what is right in front of their eyes and do not know where the Way is. The Way is the immediate presence.
If you read “The Secret of the Golden Flower,” be sure not to skip Cleary’s extensive notes on virtually every passage. His deep knowledge of Zen and Taoism clarifies what would be murky to an average reader like me.
Cleary also offers an Afterword where he speaks about how he has applied golden flower principles in his own spiritual practice and further explicates the meaning of this profound churchless text.
This teaching calls itself a “special transmission outside of doctrine,” free from attachment to dogma and form, based on direct perception of the essence of mind and recovery of its inherent potential.
…For practical purposes, a distinction is made in the golden flower teaching between the “original spirit” and the “conscious spirit.” The original spirit is the formless essence of awareness; it is unconditioned and transcends culture and history. The conscious spirit is the mind-set of feelings, thoughts, and attitudes, conditioned by personal and cultural history, bound by habit to specific forms.
…Intuition belongs to the original spirit; intellect belongs to the conscious spirit. The essence of Taoism is to refine the conscious spirit to reunite it with the original spirit.
In doing so, you’ll be saying goodbye to religion, which can’t exist without dogma, theology, concepts, emotions, commandments, and other artificial creations of the human mind.
Trust your intuition. When the original spirit calls, put down your holy book and attend to its wordless message. You’ll never be able to tell anyone else what you heard. But the smile on your face will speak volumes.