Monday, 15 May 2017

The Worshipping Buddha

This talk was given at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre on Buddha Day 2017

Today is about celebrating the Buddha’s Enlightenment. It’s about celebrating the actual Enlightenment or Awakening of Siddhartha Gotama and the possibility of Awakening that that opens up for all of us and for all humanity. Because this man – Siddhartha Gotama – awoke to the true nature of reality – because of his Realisation, his discovery of the path to Awakening – that Awakening is a possibility for all human beings. It is the hidden, unrealised potential of all. Because one human being was able to perfect wisdom and compassion that shows that human beings have the potential to perfect wisdom and compassion. The Buddha is both an historical person, a man who experienced a deep spiritual Awakening and also a symbol of that deep spiritual Awakening for all of us.

We can come into relationship with Enlightenment, Awakening, Nirvana, Bodhi – whatever word we use – we can come into relationship with that Realisation by coming into relationship with the Buddha.

But how do we come into relationship with the Buddha? And what was the Buddha’s realisation? Of course it is not possible to fully convey what the Buddha’s experience was. But he did teach and we can use some of those teachings to hint at his experience. But we have to use our imagination to give us some sense of the profundity and far reaching consequences of his Awakening.

The Buddha saw that everything that exists, everything that comes into being for however short or long time – everything from a thought or emotion to a mountain or an ocean – absolutely everything is dependent on a whole multitude of conditions and all of those conditions are also dependent on a multitude of conditions and so on, and all those conditions and all those conditions for conditions are interrelated.

One consequence of this is that nothing is fixed or permanent – everything is in process, including every aspect of you and every aspect of me – everything about us is changing all the time – nothing is fixed. Everything about the whole universe is changing all the time, nothing is fixed.

These facts of constant change and total interdependence – when we see deeply into them – when we realise their truth with our hearts and minds, when they penetrate to the core of our being, have profound consequences for how we see ourselves and how we relate to the rest of the world. This deep realisation is wisdom and it manifests in the world as compassion. Out of this realisation about constant change and total interdependence grows other teachings around the law of karma, ethics and meditation. So one way we come into relationship with the Buddha is through his teaching, the Dharma. By studying the Dharma, reflecting on it, putting it into practice in our lives – we come into contact with the Buddha – we begin to understand more and more deeply the significance of the Buddha and of his Awakening as we ourselves gradually start to awaken to reality. As our awareness grows and our Metta begins to flow, we have a better sense of who the Buddha was and what his experience signifies.

In the Pali Canon – the Buddha says to his disciple Vakkhali – “he who sees the Dharma sees me, he who sees me, sees the Dharma. Truly seeing Dharma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dharma”.SN 22.87  However this is not the only way we can come into deeper contact with the Buddha.

We can come into relationship with the Buddha by reading or hearing about his life. We could read the excellent book Gautama by Vishavapani or the Life of the Buddha by Nanamoli or we could read stories from the Buddha’s life in the Pali Canon – stories that bring out his qualities and his mysteriousness. We can come into relationship with the historical Buddha and see him walking the dusty tracks of Northern India, encountering all sorts of people – Kings, farmers, priests, prostitutes, aristocracy and peasants – the whole range of humanity. Encountering the Buddha in this way can give us a strong sense of his humanity and at the same time – as we see again and again the impact it had on others, we get a sense of how extraordinary he was.

We can also come into relationship with the Buddha through meditation and reflection. We can meditate and reflect on the qualities of the Buddha and in that way deepen our understanding of him. We could meditate on his compassion or his wisdom or his energy. We could reflect on his generosity, his simplicity, his contentment. There is the traditional practice of Buddhanussati – recollection of the Buddha. There are also meditations that involve visualising the Buddha sitting beneath the bodhi tree or visualising the archetypal Buddhas which give emphasis to an aspect of Awakening. All of these are ways of coming into closer relationship with the Buddha and with the Buddha’s experience of Awakening to the true nature of reality.

Today I want to concentrate on another aspect of the Buddha and another way of coming into relationship with the Buddha. That is ritual and devotion. In the Garava sutta the Buddha says: “one suffers if dwelling without reverence or deference. Now on what Brahman or contemplative can I dwell in dependence, honouring and respecting him?” The Buddha wanted to revere, honour and respect somebody. The Buddha was a worshipping Buddha. According to him having no one to reverence is suffering.

The Buddha is not just recommending reverence as practice. He is saying that it is essential to a fully human life, without it we suffer. He is saying reverence is a natural human need and the natural human response to something higher. When we encounter someone more spiritually developed, reverence is a natural response. It’s natural, but we are not very natural – our attitudes and ideas and conditioning all go together to build up artificial responses in us. So we may respond with resentment or feelings of inadequacy or cynicism or childishness or gullibility or fear. We may have all sorts of responses when we encounter someone more spiritually developed – we may not experience any reverence at all. Reverence may be very alien to us. The mere idea of reverence may seem weird. But nevertheless according to the Buddha, reverence is an essential ingredient in a fulfilling life. If we have nothing or nobody to look up to, to revere – that implies that we consider ourselves to be at the pinnacle of existence – and that may be a very uncomfortable place to find ourselves.

Another possibility is that for some people their natural sense of reverence finds other channels – the adulation of movie stars, singers, TV stars and so on.

So whether reverence comes naturally to us or not, as Buddhists we have in the figure of the Buddha the object of veneration. And we have in Buddhism many practices which give ritual form to the practice of reverence or devotion. By practising Puja and other forms of reverence, such as bowing before the shrine, making offerings and so on we strengthen our ability to experience reverence and to give expression to our devotional feelings. We come into contact with our natural human responses to that which is greater than us.

And we use the power of ritual to access these feelings of reverence and devotion. Ritual is an important part of human life that has been taken up by Buddhism to harness the deepest energies of the mind, energies that are not accessible by intellect alone but require the activation of imagination.

According to Eric Fromm, the well-known Jungian psychologist, there are two kinds of ritual – rational and irrational. He says “we not only have the need for a frame of orientation which makes some sense of our existence in which we can share with our fellow men; we also have a need to express our devotion to dominant values by actions shared with others. Ritual broadly speaking, is shared action, expressive of common strivings, rooted in common values. The rational differs from the irrational ritual primarily in its function; it does not ward off repressed impulses but expresses strivings which are recognised as valuable by the individual. Consequently it does not have the obsessional – compulsive quality so characteristic of the irrational ritual. In fact, one can always recognise the irrational ritual by the degree of fear produced by its violation in any manner.”

So irrational ritual is of the nature of obsessive compulsion – like washing your hands every ten minutes. Irrational ritual tends to isolate people.

And I’d like to make a further distinction between ritual and ceremony. Ritual is collective, ceremony is more individual. For instance in our own context we have Mitra ceremonies in the context of ritual. Puja is a ritual – “a shared action, expressive of common strivings, rooted in common values.” The Mitra ceremony is marking an individual’s decision to publicly declare that they are a Buddhist and intend to practice in this Triratna context. We also have the ordination ceremony – which similarly marks an individual decision and commitment. And in ordinary life there are funeral ceremonies and wedding ceremonies. There are elements of rational ritual here but Eric Fromm’s definition is a very good way of thinking about ritual - “Shared action, expressive of common strivings, rooted in common values.”

In the Buddhist spiritual context the common values that any ritual is aiming to express is the aspiration to wisdom and compassion or the aspiration to grow and develop in the direction of wisdom and compassion.

Ritual is “shared action”. It is done with others and this collective aspect is very important. Karma means action in the ethical sense and karma is about individual action of body speech and mind. The word for ritual is Kriya which also means action. In the case of ritual the action is also of body, speech and mind and it is done together with other people, and in fact tends to bring people together, to harmonise people. As Bhante puts it – “the performance of ritual action in company with others should celebrate a common spiritual attitude. For this reason a feeling of Fellowship is essential, which means that ritual implies a spirit of Metta and solidarity. If this is present, a very powerful spiritual atmosphere can be created.”
I’m sure many of us have experienced this at the end of Pujas or other rituals.

As well as being shared action ritual is also, according to Eric Fromm’s definition, “expressive of common strivings.” Fromm also speaks of ritual as “a symbolic expression of thoughts and feelings”.

Bhante talks about this in his book Ritual and Devotion in Buddhism. He says “essentially expression means bringing something out from within, even from the depths within. It is in order to express our depths that symbolic expression is necessary. Conceptual expression isn’t enough. Conceptual expression brings something out only from the conscious level of our minds – and we have got to do more than that. We’ve got to plumb the depths beneath the conscious level, to contact the parts of our being to which myth and symbols speak. We could say, in fact, that ritual is like an acting out of symbol or myth. By expressing what is deep within our being, we externalise it, see it, make it something we can know. We can then begin to understand it and incorporate into our conscious attitude. In this way our whole being will be enriched and integrated.”

So this draws out the purpose of ritual as a spiritual practice very well it is “to plumb the depths beneath the conscious level to contact the parts of our being to which myth and symbols speak”. Of course ritual in Buddhism is not isolated from all the other aspects of Buddhism. It is intimately connected with the goal of Awakening, the striving towards wisdom and compassion. It is supportive of meditation. It draws us into cooperation with other people in a way that can give us glimpses of ego transcendence. It helps to release the unconscious energies that may otherwise be blocked or unavailable.

Because ritual is a way of giving wholehearted expression to our spiritual aspirations and because our spiritual aspirations are embodied and symbolised by the Buddha and all the great awakened ones down the ages – ritual is also an expression of reverence and devotion.

We express our aspiration to wisdom and compassion by revering those who have realised and embodied these spiritual qualities. And by expressing reverence we are coming into contact with the Buddha, who also expressed reverence – the worshipping Buddha, who said that it is a source of suffering to be unable to reverence.

In Triratna our main rituals are the Sevenfold Puja, the Threefold Puja, the Dedication Ceremony and the Ti-Ratana vandanā. The Sevenfold Puja is a particularly full and effective ritual. It is based on the long poem – the Bodhicaryavatara – which is about the path of the Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva being the Buddhist practitioner who emphasises compassion particularly. The Sevenfold Puja is a ritual that evokes seven different moods, all leading up to a kind of outburst of compassion. This outburst of compassion is the arising of the Bodhicitta, the awakening heart. You could say this is the affective and altruistic dimension of what is often referred to as insight. This explosion of compassion in the heart leads to a fervent practice of the six perfections – generosity, ethics, patience, vigour, meditation and wisdom.

So the ritual is evoking in the practitioners the attitudes and moods which lead up to this enhanced aspiration and motivation. The different stages are also practices in themselves, each of which needs to be carried on outside of the context of the ritual. So the ritual is also a kind of poetic reminder of the path of practice.

As well as being a ritual the Sevenfold Puja can also be a meditation practice. As Bhante puts it “you can practice a mental Puja, going through the Puja silently as a form of meditation, visualising the Buddha, the offerings, and so on. This is regarded as a higher level of practice which is possible only for those who have the necessary power of concentration and experience.” We will try this later.

So the Sevenfold Puja is a ritual evoking a common spiritual striving and aspiration. It is also a devotional exercise, giving expression to our receptivity to and reverence for those further ahead on the path.

In the Mahayana sutras, especially the Pure Land sutras, there is a very imaginative evocation of a vast eternally ongoing Puja with hundreds of thousands of Bodhisattvas continuously singing hymns and chanting mantras in praise of Amitabha and all the Buddhas. This is a kind of cosmic Puja and is a symbol for Enlightened consciousness. Our Sevenfold Puja is a reflection of this state of being – an imaginative expression of the reverence and aspiration that is inherent in human consciousness and finds its fulfilment in Buddhahood.

Puja works best when we engage with it fully. We engage our minds by having an understanding of the purpose of the practice before we do it and by bringing that purpose to mind just before we practice Puja – as a preparation. We also engage our minds by imagining the offerings and the Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas as vividly as possible and imagining ourselves in the midst of those Buddha’s and bodhisattvas.

We engage our speech by saying the words consciously, with feeling and in harmony with everyone else. We engage our bodies by adopting the Anjali mudra – the gesture of reverence, by bowing before the shrine, by making offerings to the shrine.

Devotional ritual is important because it enables us to access our deeper, less conscious energies and it brings more of us on to the spiritual path – not just our head, but also our heart, not just our thoughts, but also our emotions, not just our rational mind, but also our imagination.

As Jacob Bronowski said, speaking of imagination: "of all the distinctions between man and animal, the characteristic gift, which makes us human is the power to work with symbolic images: the gift of imagination. The power man has over nature and himself lies in his command of imaginal experience. Almost everything we do, that is worth doing is done first in the mind's eye. The richness of human life is that we have many lives. We live the events that do not happen (and some that cannot) as vividly as those that do. If thereby we die a thousand deaths, that is the price we pay for living a thousand lives. To imagine is the characteristic act not of the poet's mind, or the painters or the scientists, but the mind of man. Imagination is a specifically human gift."

Aloka in his talk, The Life and Death of Imagination, speaks about imagination as follows: "by definition the imagination is a liberating faculty, it liberates you from the moment. Without it we would be stuck with whatever our present experience was in this particular moment, we would be stuck with that, we would have no way of projecting into the future and no way of really assimilating the past."

Outside of spiritual practice these deeper, more emotional and imaginative aspects of our being can be accessed and activated through engagement with the arts.

Great art, whether painting, poetry, music or whatever, is expressive of states of consciousness not usually accessible to us – even not usually accessible to the artist. By engaging with the art we come into contact with that bigger awareness and we are moved by it, even perhaps changed by it.

For art to have this kind of affect on us we have to engage with it wholeheartedly. If it’s a visual art we have to look at it and look at it for some considerable time. Sometimes in art galleries you see people walk around glancing at all the paintings or even just looking at the labels or photographing the paintings. To get something out of looking at paintings it’s probably best to settle in front of one painting for half an hour or 40 minutes. I often bring a notebook with me and write down any thoughts and feelings evoked by the painting as I look. Sometimes a painting will only divulge it’s secrets very gradually. You have to make friends with it. I’m sure something similar applies to music, literature, photography, dance and drama – the more you engage, the more attention you pay – the more you are repaid. Sometimes people feel inadequate in the face of the arts and the conceptual Dharma, but really there is no need to – we are not trying become experts who can answer all the questions – we are just trying to make use of whatever helps us to go deeper – “to plumb the depths beneath the conscious level, to contact the parts of our being to which myth and symbols speak.”

A combination of engagement with the fine arts and participating in devotional ritual will gradually give you access to the depths and the heights of your own being and enable you to practice the Buddha’s teachings more and more fully.

The Buddhist tradition down the generations has given birth to an abundance of ways of engaging imaginatively with the ideal of Buddhism, symbolised in the figure of the Buddha. More and more Buddha figures have emerged – like Amitabha the red Buddha – the Buddha of love, Ratnasambhava, the Golden Buddha of generosity, Amoghasiddhi, the green Buddha of fearlessness and Akshobya ,the blue Buddha of stability.

There are bodhisattva figures like Manjughosha, bodhisattva of wisdom; Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of compassion; Vajrapani, bodhisattva of vigour and many many more.

All of these Buddhas and bodhisattvas symbolise aspects of the Awakened mind and they also represent the totality of Enlightenment. They are extensions of or imaginative emanations of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Because we are all so different and respond so differently, we have different spiritual needs from each other and different spiritual needs at different times in our lives. This pantheon of imaginative emanations of the Buddha allows us to connect with the Buddha through symbols that attract our attention.

The Threefold Puja is perhaps one of the simplest devotional rituals – but although it is very simple and straightforward, it is also profound – going straight to the heart of Buddhism with a passionate fervour.

In the first section we are recollecting the Three Jewels, bringing them to mind and reminding ourselves of their importance to us. We express reverence, because that is the appropriate relationship with something so sublime. The Buddha as Guide. The Dharma as Wisdom. The Sangha as Inspiration and guide.

In the second section we express confidence in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We are saying we have faith that there is the possibility of Awakening, Enlightenment, Buddhahood. We are saying we have faith in the Dharma and want to practice it. We affirm that we will study and practice. This affirmation of faith in the Three Jewels is very important. This is our sense of commitment and emotional engagement. Here we speak of aspiring, aspiration is this emotional element of faith that moves us to act and in the third part of the second section we talk about making our own commitment, a decisive action. This is a channelling of energy in the direction of our spiritual goals, a channelling of energy into our life as a Dharma practitioner and follower of the Buddha. Commitment is of course something we have to do over and over, it is not a one off event.

In the third section we are opening up the channels of energy between ourselves and our ideals even more. The offerings of flowers, lights and incense symbolise a receptivity and openness to whatever the Three Jewels, the spiritual Path asks of us. With the flowers we are recognising our impermanence,  the Reality of constant change, which we need to respond to, the existential facts of life as represented by the four sights in the story of Siddhartha. The offerings signify our need for help and our aspiration to be of benefit to all beings. This is the Bodhisattva path in a very condensed form. We make our own individual commitment to the perfect life and that has an influence on others – it spreads in all directions. The incense offering is like the fourth sight in the story of Siddhartha.

Throughout the whole puja we express reverence again and again – this is a deep recognition that there is something higher, more sublime than our ordinary mundane consciousness. We are not the pinnacle of existence. And expressing reverence is a recognition of our relationship to what is highest and best in the universe and an expression of a heartfelt gratitude and love for those highest ideals.

I said at the beginning that there are many ways of connecting with Enlightenment or Awakening, which is symbolised by the image of the Buddha and all the archetypal Buddhas and Boddhisattvas. One way of coming into relationship with the Buddha is through ritual and devotion.

Here in Cambridge there is a rich intellectual and academic tradition and of course our Sangha, our spiritual community is influenced by that wonderful rich intellectual tradition. I’m often struck by the number of people who are doing a Masters degree or a Ph.D. or similar when I am conducting Mitra ceremonies – it is not like that at every Triratna centre – here there is this great intellectual and academic tradition which we benefit from and are influenced by.

In order to balance that bias in our community we may need to place more of an emphasis on the poetic, on the imaginative and on ritual and devotion. This is how our local Sangha here is going to touch depth. This is how we can become the collective manifestation of the Boddhisattvas of compassion and wisdom.

We have had lots of Dharma talks over the last few years, with lots of great speakers and those talks are very uplifting and inspiring but we need something more. Listening to a talk is relatively passive and it stimulates our thinking, our conceptualising. We need to go further than that and deeper than that.

We need to be engaging our energies, engaging our imagination, engaging the deeper energies of the unconscious mind and engaging all of that in the quest for Awakening. We do that through the poetic, the imaginative and the mythic and through ritual.

The arts are an important, perhaps essential bridge to these deeper energies and ritual is the spiritual practice which leads us into these depths – sometimes kicking and screaming. The rational mind, the intellectual pursuit, is often resistant to ritual and devotion and in the spiritual life we need to bring awareness and kindness to our tendency to resist the unfamiliar, to resist going deeper.

I think our Sangha needs to engage more frequently and thoroughly in ritual and devotion, we need more pujas, more chanting, more encounters with the world of the imaginative – more collective practice. When we have a talk at the centre we get a good turnout – people like to hear talks. It is my dream that when we have a Puja we also have a big turnout. It is my dream that even more people come to Pujas than to talks.

And we can make more of pujas. We can prepare for Puja’s. We can even prepare physically by having a bath or shower, putting on our best clothing, choosing the colours associated with the Buddha or Bodhisattva the Puja is dedicated.
I hope some order members will be inspired to organise and lead special pujas and get more and more people engaged in ritual and devotion. This year at Sangha night we are focusing on the theme of Sangha. Earlier in the year we had some talks, but it is time for us to act collectively, to practice collectively and to collectively grow and develop and become the great Bodhisattva of compassion that thousand armed, eleven headed Avalokiteshvara seeing the suffering of the unawakened in every direction and reaching out appropriately to everyone. We cannot do much alone, together we can be a real force for good in the world.

During the coming months we will have a series of devotional rituals at Sangha night’s. We will introduce these different facets of the jewel of Buddha and explore how to relate to them and how to fully engage our emotions and imagination in our spiritual lives. I hope that many of you will be able to engage with this new phase of deepening our imaginative connection with enlightenment, with the Buddha.

Today we will experiment by meditating on the Sevenfold Puja next and then after lunch we will experiment by exploring the cosmic vision of one of the Pure Land Sutras, by listening to a slow reading and allowing the expansive images of vastness to permeate our minds. Then in the late afternoon, Aryajaya will lead us in the Sevenfold Puja and we can experiment with experiencing it as if you were doing it for the first time, as come to it, freshly inspired by what has gone before. I hope you are willing to give the experiment of thoroughly engaging with ritual and devotion a chance to work it’s magic.


Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Getting Out of The Way

This is the sixth and final talk in the series given at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre in the summer of 2016.

In this final talk on the five stages of spiritual life I want to touch on the topics of Dharmic  Receptivity or Dharmic  Responsiveness and Spontaneous Compassionate Activity. Viewed as a path of practice this stage is Dharmic  Responsiveness or Receptivity, viewed as a goal it is Spontaneous Compassionate Activity. Dharmic  Responsiveness is Shraddha – usually translated as faith. Shraddha has the elements of intuition, reason and experience and Dharmic  Responsiveness is in the first instance an intuition – it might simply be the feeling and idea that there must be more to life. The intuition or feeling that there must be more to life than survival, procreation, distraction, old age, sickness and death. At this stage our faith is not faith in anything but when we connect with the Buddha and Dharma and when we begin to practice meditation, ethics, reflection and so on, then our intuition becomes, what Subhuti calls “a harmonic resonance” between the element of Buddhahood in us and the Buddha or as Bhante puts it – “the response of what is highest in us to what is highest in the universe”. This intuition is confirmed by reason and experience as we practice meditation, ethics and contemplation more and more fully.

Traditionally faith (shraddha) is spoken of as having the three aspects of deep conviction, lucidity and longing. Deep conviction or deep faith is the intuitive response to Dharma teachings and a conviction that the teachings are true. I remember that when I first encounter Buddhist teachings, the five precepts and the Metta Bhavana, I had this kind of response; there was the conviction of the truth of what I was hearing, together with a heart response; a deep intuition that I had found what I was looking for, the holy Grail.

Lucidity refers to the clarity that this deep faith brings to your mind. There is no longer confusion and vagueness, but a clearer idea of the goal and the methods for attaining it. Lucidity gives a strong sense of purpose and meaning. The longing aspect of faith refers to the aspiration to fulfil our potential. The aspiration to have the vision of the Dharma unfold in our own being and in our own life. Longing includes the confidence that Enlightenment is possible, not just in theory, but is possible for us. I am a human being and therefore I have the potential to be a Buddha – that is the confidence of shraddha under this aspect of longing.

“What the Buddha overcame, we too can overcome;
what the Buddha attained we too can attain.”

Shraddha is a Dharmic  Responsiveness that is intuition supported by reason and experience. It is deep conviction, clarity and confidence. Above all it is a heart response; it is placing the heart upon our highest aspirations. It is falling in love with the Dharma. It leads us to put our trust in the law of karma and in the whole process of dependent arising – pratitya samutpada. We know that if we create the right conditions, internally and externally, then the results will follow.

If we endeavour to observe the precepts – the spirit as well as the letter; if we meditate; if we take responsibility for our own mental states – not justifying or rationalising unskilfulness as the fault of circumstances or other people; not rejecting our skilful mental states through lack of self-esteem or fear of awareness; if we study the Dharma and try to understand the basic principles involved, rather than getting sidetracked into fruitless arguments and discussions about particular teachings or methods; if we try to simplify our lives and give ourselves fully to the practice of spiritual community; if we take time out to go on retreat; if we perform Puja and ritual, which is an enactment of deep faith lucidity and longing – if we do all of this – we will be setting up the best possible conditions for our own happiness and fulfilment and we can be confident that a process of transformation will take place that will be of benefit to others as well.

This is the nature of Reality. There are natural laws in the realm of physics and chemistry. There are natural laws of biology and botany and there are natural laws of zoology and basic psychology. These natural laws such as gravity, photosynthesis, procreation instincts and other instincts, are known in Buddhism as the niyamas. Niyama means law. These three levels of natural law are known respectively as the niyamas, Utu Niyama, Bija Niyama, and Mano Niyama. But in terms of the spiritual life, the life of awareness and love, there are two further levels of natural law – these are Karma niyama and Dharma niyama.

Karma niyama, the law of action, is the natural Law we rely upon as spiritual practitioners. The law of action – karma niyama – is the natural law which means that skilfulness of action, speech or of thought has beneficial consequences and unskilfulness has negative consequences. If this were not the case then there would be no point in any spiritual practice because the consequences would be random. But because Buddhist ethics is based on a natural law, then we can rely on our practice of skilfulness to bring about beneficial results. This is a key understanding for us. If we understand karma niyama and if we feel we can rely on the natural law of action, then we have a solid foundation for all spiritual practice, we have indeed a solid foundation on which to base our whole life. We can be confident that our generosity or kindness, our meditations and pujas, retreats and study all have a beneficial effect and are modifying and transforming us. Perhaps gradually and imperceptibly but nevertheless inevitably we are being transformed.

In the Anguttara Nikaya there is a section with five reflections for all Buddhists and another section with ten reflections for monks. Some of these reflections are the same for everyone and one of these reflections which is the same for everyone is a reflection on karma. It says: “A woman or man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus, I am the owner of my karma, the heir of my karma; I have karma is my origin, karma as my relative, karma as my protector; I will be the heir of whatever karma, good or bad, that I do.” Dasadhamma Sutta, AN 10.48.

So this is a reflection or contemplation that the Buddha is recommending to us. You could see it as a meditation practice – you sit down and get as concentrated as possible and then reflect on these five or ten reflections or perhaps just reflect on karma or one of the other reflections. You could reflect by asking yourself what does it mean to be the owner of your karma or the heir of your karma? What does it mean to say that karma is my origin, karma is my relative, karma is my protection? The purpose of reflecting on karma in this way is not to enable you to write a dissertation on karma. The purpose of these reflections is to make your so fully and immediately aware of the law of karma that all your actions of body, speech and mind are thoroughly influenced by that awareness. Awareness of karma niyama becomes the flavour of your mind. The law of action – karma niyama – paves the way for Dharma niyama.

If we really act in accordance with the law of karma, we create conditions which transform us. The nature of that transformation is that we become less and less egotistic, less and less self willed. When we become less self-centred and less self willed, something else begins to happen. Karma is willed action and therefore it needs a degree of self orientation. There has to be a sense of ‘me’ or ‘I’ as the one acting. A sense of ‘me’ or ‘I’ as the agent of all the action and a sense of ‘me’ are ‘I’ who takes responsibility for actions and who receives the consequences. I act and I reap the rewards or suffer the consequences. This sense of ‘I’ and ‘me’ is essential to the working of the law of karma. It is because we have evolved beyond the mano niyama of instinct and have developed self-awareness that it is possible for the law of karma to come into play.

But if we act skilfully in accordance with the law of karma then something happens; if we are persistent and consistent over years something happens, we are transformed and the nature of that transformation is that we transcend self. We don’t stop being self-aware, but we transcend self will. We are no longer motivated only by self advantage, we are no longer motivated by self interest and the whole separation between self and other starts to break down. The division between self and other becomes diluted and begins to fizzle out, to wither away. When that happens the motivation for our actions is no longer a matter of self will, it becomes much more a matter of Spontaneous Compassionate Activity. This Spontaneous Compassionate Activity is Dharma niyama. It can be experienced as if something is working through you, rather than as your own willed action.

Sometimes it is like a call – a call to which you quite easily and naturally respond. We are familiar with the idea of a vocation or calling. We may say that someone’s vocation is to be a doctor or an artist – it is their calling. The word vocation is rooted in the Latin ‘vocare’ meaning to call. If someone has a vocation or calling to be a Christian priest they naturally think of being called by God. In the Bible there are many instances of God calling in this way – to Moses, Abraham, Joshua – those old Testament prophets were very familiar with being called upon to do something and responding. Of course when we speak about a doctor or an artist or musician, their vocation or calling is not usually thought of as being a call from God. Nevertheless it is a calling, it is something different from a decision to take up a particular professional career based on weighing up the prospects for salary and promotion and so on.

We could say the call comes from within. Whether we say a call comes from within or from outside, that is probably just a matter of belief structure or how our imagination works or metaphor and really it doesn’t matter. What matters is that when the call comes we are ready to respond. It is generally acknowledged that a vocation calling is something higher and better than a mere career choice. Those of us who have felt called to the life of spiritual practice know what this is like. We could say it’s the call of a higher self, that aspect of us that longs for a meaningful life and intuitively knows that status and salary are not the best response to the fact of our death.

From the very beginning of our spiritual life we have a sense of what Dharma niyama means; a sense of what it’s like to respond to the call of a higher self, even though it won’t bring  material advantage or fame. And as we continue to practice we may experience to call in many different ways. We might experience a call to honesty – honesty with ourselves and others. We might experience a call to generosity – impulses of generosity rising up. We might experience a call to change our lifestyle, to change priorities. We might experience a call to take responsibility.

So long as we are not fully in the flow of Dharma niyama we will probably experience some discomfort from these calls to go beyond our current familiar self. We may find ourselves resisting the call to go deeper, the call to go further, the call to take the plunge in some way. It is quite natural that we should experience resistance, but if we keep on practising ethics, meditation, and wisdom then gradually the law of karma will ensure that our resistance fades away and eventually when the Dharma niyama predominates there will be no more resistance to the calls of our higher self. We will be our higher self. There will be no resistance to the calls of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas because we will embody what they represent.

This language of vocation and calling might give the impression that only some people, a small few ever hear the call to something higher. I can’t be sure, but I doubt very much that this is the case. I think that what happens is that more or less everyone is aware of the call to something higher. People will interpret this differently and for some it will mean politics, for others social work or charitable activity. For many it will simply get buried beneath the demands of ordinary life. For some there will be a deliberate turning away from the call to something higher because of fear, fear of disappointing others, fear of isolation or just fear of not being good enough. Once when I was Chair of the London Buddhist Centre I met someone who was a member of the House of Lords and also on the board of a large well known international company. He was interested in meditation and spiritual matters and was highly intelligent. He could understand things very quickly and deeply. And having heard something of my life story is said to me that he had not been courageous enough to pursue the sort of life I had lived. I was struck by that – that he highlighted courage as a key factor. I had never considered myself to be courageous, but when I thought about it I could see what he meant. I had knowingly embarked on a path of life that was materially precarious, with no knowledge of where it would lead and all I had to guide me was the call to something higher. From the perspective of any normal rational person concerned with security and material well-being my course of action was either courageous or foolhardy.

In his lecture on Perfect Vision, Bhante talks about all the different ways in which the Path of Vision may arise here he is using the metaphor of seeing where I have been using the metaphor of hearing. A vision or a calling amount to the same thing. He says that the Path of Vision may arise due to personal tragedy, bereavement or loss, or it may be the result of some unexpected mystical experience, or it could be from engaging with the arts – a painting or a piece of music, or the Path of Vision might be the result of deep and prolonged thought or it could happen through meditation or from engagement in some altruistic activity or it might just happen as a result of the whole experience of life as we grow older or it might even emerge in a dream. Bhante goes on to say that this vision is fragile he says: “however it does arise we should be very careful not to lose it, not to forget it. This happens very easily, for as the poet says “the world is too much with us”. We may have an experience so wonderful that we might think we will never forget it. But after a short time, after a few days or weeks, it is no longer there. It is as though it had never been.” Vision and Transformation, p. 21. Many people may hear the call but for some it is soon forgotten, for others it is experienced as a fearful demand, for others it will find an outlet in the arts or altruistic activity or some other vocation.

Even if we hear the call of a higher self and respond to that call by embarking on the path of transformation, the path of spiritual practice, even then we can be drawn away from that path by pulls in other directions. In an early lecture on Stream Entry, Bhante talks about the gravitational pull of the mundane. He imagines Buddhahood as one celestial body or planet and the mundane world of ordinary concerns as another celestial body and they each have their own gravitational pull and these fields of gravity overlap to some degree. When we are on the spiritual path we are in the area where the gravitational pull of mundane ordinary life overlaps with the gravitational pull of the higher life of Buddhahood. So we are being pulled in two directions at the same time. If we stop practising ethics, meditation et cetera we will be pulled back into the mundane, ordinary life, but if we keep going the gravitational pull of the mundane will get weaker and the gravitational pull of the Transcendental, Buddhahood will get stronger. And eventually the pull of the higher life is so strong that we can no longer be pulled backwards and we will no longer feel any resistance to the pull of the spiritual. This is when our whole life becomes a response to the call of Spontaneous Compassionate Activity – we have reached the stage of no more effort.


Dharmic  Responsiveness is not really a practice, apart from the practice of being aware of the Path of Vision, being aware of the call to something, whether that call is the small voice of an impulse to do something generous or a loud call to change the whole direction of your life. Dharmic  Responsiveness needs space. Mozart is reputed to have said “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them.” Commenting on this Bhante wrote: “as music is born of silence, and derives it’s significance and therefrom; and as a painting is born of empty space, and derives it’s significance therefrom; so are our lives born of silence, of stillness, of quietude of spirit, and derive their significance, their distinctive flavour and individual quality, therefrom. The deeper and more frequent are those moments of interior silence and stillness the more rich in significance, the more truly meaningful, will our lives be. It is the pauses which make beautiful the music of our lives. It is the empty spaces which give richness and significance to them. And it is stillness which makes them truly useful.” Crossing the Stream, page95.

The pauses and empty spaces are the times when we reflect or meditate or do nothing. They are the opposite of “a life that consists of a frantic a stream of activities” without any time for inward awareness and reflection. So if there is a practice that enables Dharmic  responsiveness it is probably the practice of doing nothing. This could be the practice of just sitting at the end of a meditation or Puja or it could be just a time we put aside each day to do nothing. In his book The Art of Reflection, Ratnaguna recommends this as a preliminary to any reflection. He says: “if we want to learn how to reflect, we first need to learn how to do nothing, because it’s out of the spaciousness of doing nothing that our minds can open out. This spaciousness allows our mind to range freely and unhurriedly around and through whatever it is that we’ve chosen to consider. We need to have a sense of timelessness. I don’t mean that we enter into the infinite, but that we feel that we have all the time in the world, that there is nothing for us to do, that it’s okay to do nothing, to achieve nothing. You might think that you don’t have the time for this, and if that’s the case it might be a good thing to take a look at your life to see if there is anything you can cut out, because having time to do nothing is important. However entering into the timeless realm doesn’t necessarily require a lot of time. We enter the timeless realm when we give up looking for results, when we stop trying to meet targets and deadlines, when we cease to think of time as a commodity. If we’ve only got 10 minutes to spare we can enter into the timeless realm, as long as we don’t try to fill that time up with something useful. Reflection is not useful. To reflect we need to feel free – we need to feel that it’s okay to be totally useless.”p. 36.

In his seminar on the Mangala Sutta, Bhante talks about what we could call Boredom Practice. He says: “if you feel discontented, say if you feel bored, what should you do? Not start trying to fill that emptiness and to remove that boredom: just stop and experience it; but remain with it, remain in the present: at least you’re in the present. If you can remain with it, and stop trying to remove the boredom by filling the void with something or other, then the boredom – the discontent – will slowly dissolve and you’ll feel more at peace with yourself, more at ease.” Auspicious Signs, page 52. So there is Just Sitting Practice, Doing Nothing Practice and Boredom Practice – these are all about leaving space in your life so that you can become receptive, so that you can receive.

But what do we receive? We could say that what we receive is the love of the Buddha – we receive the influence of the Buddha, we receive the grace waves of the Buddha – what is called His Adhisthana – also translated as ‘blessing’. If we are open to the call of the higher life, the call of the Buddha – we are blessed, we receive the blessing of wisdom and compassion. When we do devotional practices such as Puja, we are adopting an attitude of openness and receptivity to the blessings of the Buddha – we are opening our eyes to the vision and our ears to the call of the Buddha. This attitude of openness if it is practised again and again in Puja and Sadhana, gives rise to an openness in our whole life. Our whole life becomes open to responding to the call of Buddhahood, responding to the call of higher values. Puja is a declaration of receptivity and it is also a celebration of Spontaneous Compassionate Activity that arises when we are fully responsive to the call of the Dharma. In the sevenfold Puja we declare our openness and responsiveness when we say:
Saluting them with folded hands
I entreat the Buddhas in all the quarters:
May They make shine the lamp of the Dharma
for those wandering in the suffering of delusion!
With hands folded in reverence
I implore conquerors desiring to enter Nirvana:
May They remain here for endless ages,
So that life in this world does not grow dark.

And in the Transference of Merits and Self Surrender we celebrate Spontaneous Compassionate Activity. In the threefold Puja we express reverence for the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Nine times we express reverence and it is this ability to revere which indicates our openness to something higher. By reciting this again and again with a wholehearted intention to be open to the call of the Buddha, we are training ourselves in Dharmic  Responsiveness, and eventually that will become who and what we are.

We are coming to the end of this series of talks on the five stages of the spiritual life. We could also call them five aspects or five facets of spiritual life. Like a jewel different facets turn to the light at different times, but all are part of the one jewel. Spiritual life is one, it is not really broken up into stages or aspects, because we are one and our spiritual life is simply a way of talking about or describing our response to the existential facts of life. However, just as a river is the same river from source to estuary but changes and widens as it progresses, so we broaden as we progress. Just as a tree grows from seed to sapling, to a huge shady oak or beech, we can grow from a vague intuition and meaning to someone whose spread of awareness and compassion has a positive influence on the lives of many people.

This is what this series of talks has been about and I hope they will be of benefit to others so that more and more of us grow and broaden and become spiritually influential, like the offering of incense in the Puja “whose fragrance pervades the air”. May we all become spiritually mature so that our positive influence “spreads in all directions throughout the world”.



A Buddha Like No Other

This is the fifth talk in the series given in the summer of 2016.

From childhood right up until my early 30s I was something of a shrinking violet. There are probably many complex reasons for this; I wasn’t socialised early in life due to living in a very rural area, I was very shy and I am a natural introvert. And as far back as I can remember I lived with some uneasy fear of the world around me. I was a reflective and observant child and therefore often confused by people, religion, history etc. Whatever the reasons, I was a shrinking violet and that was internalised and became my habitual way of being in the world for at least the first three decades of my life.

I would not characterise myself as a shrinking violet now, perhaps more a sunflower or a hollyhock. Maybe I was never really a shrinking violet, just a sunflower in unfavourable conditions. In the Parable of the Rain Cloud from The White Lotus Sutra the Buddha compares the Dharma to rain, monsoon rain, and he compares people – us – to the plants which grow and flourish as a result of the rain:
“all the various trees,
lofty, medium, low,
each according to its size,
grows and develops
roots, stalks, branches, leaves,
blossoms and fruits in their brilliant colours;
wherever the one rain reaches,
all become fresh and glossy.
According as their bodies, forms
and natures are great or small,
so the enriching rain,
though it is one and the same,
makes each of them flourish.”
“Ever to all beings
I preach the Dharma equally;
as I preach to one person
so I preach to all.
Ever I proclaim the Dharma,
engaged in naught else;
going, coming, sitting, standing,
never am I weary of
pouring it copious on the world,
like the all enriching rain.
On honoured and humbled, high and low,
Law-keepers and law-breakers,
those of perfect character,
and those of imperfect,
orthodox and heterodox,
quick witted and dull-witted,
equally I rain the Dharma- rain
unwearyingly.”
All the flowers, shrubs, bushes and trees grow in their own unique way and similarly all the people hearing and practising the Dharma grow and develop in their own unique way according to their character, temperament, abilities and capacities.

At this stage, the Stage of Spiritual Rebirth, which we are exploring this week, we begin to see what kind of plant we are, what kind of flower or tree we are. We begin to realise at this stage what kind of Buddhist we are and what kind of Buddha and Bodhisattva we are becoming. Bhante Sangharakshita has referred to this stage as the Stage of Transformation, reminding us not to get too attached to any one metaphor. Transformation is symbolised by the flames and the Lotus on the kesa. He says: “this is when the vision that you have seen or experienced starts, as it were, descending and transforming every aspect of your being.” Seminar

We can see that although we are speaking in terms of stages, this is really a process that begins when we first respond to the Dharma and continues until it bears fruit in Insight and Enlightenment. Right from when we first hear and respond to the Dharma we have this experience of being transformed. Earlier in the year we had four mitras speaking on the topic “why I asked for ordination?” And the answer in a nutshell was that the Dharma had transformed them – how they lived their lives and how they thought about their lives had been transformed by their engagement with the Dharma. Like flowers nourished by the rain and opening to the sun their hearts had opened. This is Spiritual Rebirth beginning to happen. Or even earlier, people ask to become mitras because they have experienced the transforming power of the Dharma. As we continue to hear the Dharma, respond to the Dharma, practice the Dharma and be transformed by the Dharma – we become more and more the individual we really are. The protective armour and defensive strategies of our egotism slowly dissolves and the many faces we show the world give way to our true face, the face of the Bodhisattva or Buddha that we are becoming. Qualities begin to shine through, our gifts and abilities are more and more in the service of the Dharma. We are being reborn, shedding the chrysalis of self concern and emerging in all our splendour. As time goes by we become the answer to the request in Bhante’s poem Secret Wings:

Oh cry no more that you are weak
but stir and spread your secret wings
and say “the world is bright, because
we glimpse the starriness of the things”

Soar with your rainbow plumes and reach
that near – far land where all are one
where beauty’s face is aye unveiled
and every star shall be a sun.

Every star shall be a sun – every Buddhist shall be a Buddha. Buddhism has a positive goal, it is not just about the negation of egotism or the absence of greed, hatred and delusion. There is positive content to the Enlightenment experience that manifests in the actions, words, thoughts and imagination of the Buddha mind. As the great 18th century Japanese master Hakuin said: “apart from water, no ice, outside living beings, no Buddhas.”

The ideal of Buddhism can seem abstract, but the Buddha was not an abstraction. We aim to emulate the Buddha, to become Buddhas not to become abstractions. But emulating the Buddha and becoming a Buddha, is not about becoming just like a man who lived in India two and a half thousand years ago. That would be an absurd undertaking. We have to use our awareness to discern and experience what kind of Buddha we can be and we need to develop our imaginal ability, our imaginal power, to get a sense of who the Buddha really was and what being a Buddha really means.

There are a number of traditional practices which help us to awaken our awareness and imagination of the Buddha. The great Indian sage Vasubandhu taught four practices – known as Vasubandhu’s four factors. The last two of these are Recollection of the Buddhas and Contemplation of the Virtues of the Tathagathas. Here is how Bhante describes these practices in his book The Meaning of Conversion in Buddhism: “in Recollecting the Buddhas, one brings to mind the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, who lived in India about 2500 years ago, and the lineage of his great predecessors of which the Buddhist tradition speaks. In particular, one reflects that these Buddhas started their spiritual careers as human beings, with their weaknesses and limitations, just as we do. Just as they managed to transcend all limitations to become enlightened, so can we, if only we make the effort. There are several ways of approaching the fourth practice, the Contemplation of the Virtues of the Tathagathas. One can dwell on the life of an Enlightened One – the spiritual biography of the Buddha or Milarepa for example. One can perform pujas in front of a shrine, or perhaps just sit and look at a Buddha image, really trying to get a feeling for what the image represents. Then again, one can do a visualisation practice in which – to be very brief indeed – one conjures up a vivid mental picture of a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva, an embodiment of an aspect of Enlightenment such as wisdom, compassion, energy or purity.” The practice of Recollection of the Buddha is echoed in our Threefold Puja when we say:
“the Buddha was born as we are born
what the Buddha overcame we too can overcome.
What the Buddha attained, we too can attain.”

Reading a life of the Buddha such as Gautama by Vishvapani, is a good way to get a feeling for the Buddha as a person with a spiritual practice. Going on pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy places in India is another way.

The contemplation of the qualities of Enlightenment is reflected in our study, our longer pujas, our shrines and images, and the Sadhana practices of Order Members. The many and diverse images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas – the archetypal figures such as Amitabha, Avolokiteshvara and Green Tara – all these images produced from the depths of meditation experience can speak to us, speak to our depths, in a way that words and ideas may never do. These images emerged from the meditations of unique people, unique minds, unique experiences and we, in our uniqueness, may respond to some and not to others. There are so many figures, so many colours, and gestures, qualities and associations. There are many many different archetypes of Enlightenment symbolising and emphasising different qualities. They are like the different plants of The Rain Cloud Parable, the different unique individuals we can grow into or, of course, we may become a kind of Buddha as yet unimagined.

All of these different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas symbolise Enlightened or Awakened consciousness in its fullness and they each emphasise particular qualities of the Awakened individual. These figures and their qualities also indicate ways to practice – a path of wisdom, a path of compassion, a path of beauty, a path of energy, a path of generosity, a path of meditation and so on. Spiritual Rebirth manifests in even greater faith – shraddha – unshakeable faith in The Three Jewels, because now, at this stage, one is embodying the three jewels more and more and one is experiencing the fruits of practice – so faith has a very firm basis.

Spiritual Rebirth also manifests in altruistic activity – spontaneous altruistic activity – because there is less ego to get in the way; less worry, fear, anxiety, less self concern, less need for praise, less fear of blame. By this stage positive emotion is more established and present all the time. By this stage integration is manifesting as the unique kind of plant you are. By this stage, the victory over self-centredness is the norm and so altruistic, generous and kindly activity is becoming the natural unpremeditated way to be and behave.

As well as manifesting in great faith and altruism, Spiritual Rebirth also manifests as greater appreciation of beauty and less desire to possess. Possessiveness and pride and fear and status – they all kill beauty. When they decrease, beauty is more present all the time. This is what Bhante has referred to as the Greater Mandala of Aesthetic Appreciation – an attitude towards the world and people that is not wanting to use or own everything, but an attitude that is content with little and appreciates everything.

Spiritual Rebirth is not really something that can be practised – it is the result of practice. However, Spiritual Rebirth cannot really be divorced from Spiritual death or Spiritual Victory. Spiritual death is a way of talking about the deeper understanding and clear vision that brings about transformation in our lives and Spiritual Rebirth is a way of talking about how that transformation unfolds in our lives and manifests in the world. These are two ways of looking at spiritual practice – there is practice as discipline, as a means to bring about growth and development – practice as a path to transformation and there is practice as the expression of transformation, practice as the expression of deeper understanding and clear vision. The practice of ethics can be a discipline or training we undertake in order to enable us to experience higher states of consciousness or ethical practice can be the expression of a higher state of consciousness. The same applies to meditation or devotional ritual or contemplation.

At this Stage of Spiritual Rebirth, the Stage of Transformation, ethical practice will be more natural and spontaneous and engagement in devotional ritual will be an enactment of the nature of Reality. Buddhahood is the highest expression of humanity and to orientate ourselves in the direction of Buddhahood in all our activities is both a practice and an expression of realisation. To ritually orientate ourselves in the direction of Buddhahood through Puja is a necessity for those who aspire to realisation and the natural expression of realisation for those who have been transformed through practice. At this Stage of Spiritual Rebirth, Puja, devotion and even prayer are the practices most likely to engender the attitude and spirit of transcendent consciousness and give a flavour of the Buddha mind. Acting on kind and generous impulses is also a practice that can both lead in the direction of transformation and give a flavour of those higher states of mind.

Many people get a hint of Spiritual Rebirth through developing a connection with an archetypal Buddha or Bodhisattva – through contemplating images of particular Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, chanting their mantras, meditating on their qualities, even talking to them or acting as if you were that particular figure- acting as if you were Tara or Amoghasiddhi and so on – this intense imaginative interaction leads to a relationship with Reality via symbol and image. Imagination is essential to Insight. Imagination is essential to Spiritual Death and Rebirth. As Sangharakshita puts it in his essay Journey to Il Convento: “when one truly perceives an image one perceives it with the whole of oneself, with ones whole being. When one truly perceives an image, therefore, one is transported to the world to which that image belongs and becomes, if only for the time being, an inhabitant of that world. In other words, truly to perceive an image means to become an image, so that when one speaks of the imagination, or the imaginal faculty, what one is really speaking of is image perceiving image. That is to say in perceiving an image what one really perceives is, in a sense, oneself.”  The Priceless Jewel, p.57. Enlightenment is not conceptual, not a rational ideas-based experience. It is much more akin to the experience of being moved and transformed by great art or by the natural world, which speaks to us on deeper levels that involve the whole of us, heart and head, emotions and thoughts, all united in an imaginative identification with the nature of Reality.

In Ratnaguna’s book Great Faith, Great Wisdom (page2) there is a quote from Aaron Hughes which defines imagination, It says : “Imagination is the faculty that experiences and expresses in sensible form that which is essentially inexpressible”. So that is what archetypal Buddhas  and Boddhisattvas are doing. They are expressing through the senses , ‘in sensible form that which is essentially inexpressible’.

Spiritual Rebirth is the arena of imagination and inspiration. Inspired by the Buddha we make an imaginative leap out of our mundane concerns into the great expansive, cosmic, reaches of Reality. It is very important that we allow for inspiration in our lives. We need to become aware of what inspires us and as much as possible stay close to our sources of inspiration. Being inspired motivates us to practice and practice is the training that eventually leads to the imaginative breakthrough we call Insight, or Spiritual death or Spiritual Victory or Vision. That is the transformation which allows the qualities of Awakened consciousness to manifest more and more through our uniqueness.

The great Tibetan yogi Milarepa is a supreme example of the stages of the spiritual path and in his songs we can hear the expression of inspiration, imagination, kindness and compassion and realisation. One of those songs that many of us are familiar with it is the Song of Meeting and Parting. The first verse goes like this:
“in the immense blue sky above
roll on the sun and moon.
Their courses mark the change of time.
Blue sky, I wish you health and fortune,
for I, the-moon-and-sun, am leaving
to visit the four continents for pleasure.”

So here you have the poet Milarepa giving a personality to the sun and moon and that personality expresses Metta towards the blue sky, also perceived as a living being. Milarepa has a close, intimate connection with the natural world and this is where he finds his images. You also have a reminder of impermanence. Bhante says that what is here translated as ‘for pleasure’ might be better rendered as ‘out of sheer bliss’.So the whole verse is an exuberant outpouring of joy, an exulting in the nature of Reality. In the second verse the poet envisages a vulture speaking to a rock – there is again the reminder of impermanence and the expression of Metta is even more detailed, an imaginative identification of the vulture with the rock and it finishes with the refrain –
“inspired by the Dharma
May we soon meet again
in prosperity and boon.”

Milarepa’s song is a hymn to impermanence, symbolising the wisdom aspect of awakening and to Metta, symbolising the compassion aspect of awakening. It is also a hymn to the inspiration derived from the Dharma. The whole song is framed in highly imaginative terms that lift us into a realm of beauty and richness. It seems to me an appropriate way to end this talk on Spiritual Rebirth and as a special treat Arthasiddhi will now sing  Milarepa’s Song of Meeting and Parting to help us all soar into the exalted realms of the yogi Milarepa and his highly imaginative evocation of the nature of Reality.


In the immense blue sky above
Roll on the sun and moon.
Their courses mark the change of time.
Blue sky, I wish you health and fortune,
For I, the moon-and-sun, am leaving
To visit the Four Continents for pleasure.

On the mountain peak is a great rock
Round which circles oft the vulture,
The King of birds.
Their meeting
And their parting mark the change of time.
Dear rock, be well and healthy, for I,
The vulture, now will fly away
Into the vast space for pleasure.
May lightnings never strike you,
May I not be caught by snares.
Inspired by the Dharma,
May we soon meet again,
In prosperity and boon.

Below in the Tsang River,
Swim fish with golden eyes;
Their meeting and their parting
Mark the change of time.
Dear stream, be well and healthy, for I,
The fish am going to the Ganges for diversion.
May irrigators never drain you,
May fishermen ne'er net me
Inspired by the Dharma,
May we soon meet again
In prosperity and boon.

In the fair garden blooms the flower, Halo;
Circling round it is the Persian bee.
Their meeting and their parting,
Mark the change of time.
Dear flower, be well and healthy, for I
Will see the Ganges' blooms for pleasure.
May hail not beat down upon you,
May winds blow me not away.
Inspired by the Dharma,
May we soon meet again
In prosperity and boon.

Circling round the Yogi Milarepa
Are the faithful patrons from Nya Non;
Their meeting and their parting
Mark the change of time.
Be well and healthy, dear patrons, as I
Leave for the far mountains for diversion.
May I, the yogi, make good progress,
And you, my patrons, all live long.
Inspired by the Dharma,
May we soon meet again
In prosperity and boon!