Talk give at Sangha Night in Cambridge September 2017
Over the next couple of months we will be looking at the four Sangrahavastus – the four means of unification of the Sangha. Tonight I’m going to give a very brief introduction to the Sangrahavastus and then talk about another aspect of the skilful means of the Bodhisattva.
But to begin at the beginning. What do we mean by a Bodhisattva? In this context a Bodhisattva is anyone on the Buddhist Path who is aware of and endeavouring to practise the altruistic dimension of the path. A Bodhisattva aims to attain higher states of consciousness not just for his or her own sake and not just for the sake of a hedonistic buzz but also and primarily for the sake of all beings. This outward looking and other-regarding attitude is the hallmark of the Bodhisattva and of the Bodhisattva path.
The Bodhisattva path is sometimes laid out in terms of the four preliminaries or four reminders followed by the Annutara Puja, followed by the six Perfections. The Four Reminders or preliminary practices are – reflections on the preciousness of human life, the inevitability of death, the law of karma and the faults of samsara. This is followed by the practice of Annutara Puja. This is what we think of as the Sevenfold Puja – however as part of the Bodhisattva practice this is not only a ritual but also a description of the stages of the path, leading up to the realisation that is represented by the seventh verse, Transference or merits and self Surrender. This is what is usually talked about as the arising of the Bodhicitta, the awakened heart. So, you have a path from the four preliminaries, through the stages represented by the sevenfold puja to the arising of the Bodhicitta. The arising of the Bodhicitta represents a realisation that spiritual practice is not just about personal development, it is not about gaining personal insights and it’s not about a personal Enlightenment. It is a realisation that the whole point of the Buddhist path is to transcend all sense of self identity and expand awareness outwards to include all beings as being as precious to you as you are to yourself. This idea is well described in the Metta Bhavana practice.
When this realisation dawns and becomes more established then the traditional path of Bodhisattva practise is to follow the six Perfections (Paramitas). These are Generosity, Ethics, Forbearance, Energy in pursuit of the good, Meditation and Wisdom. This path of the six perfections is sometimes expanded into a path of Ten Perfections and it is the seventh perfection that we are concerned with. The seventh perfection is the perfection of Skilful Means. Just for the sake of completion the eight is the perfection of the vow or Aspiration, the ninth is the perfection of spiritual power and the tenth is the perfection of knowledge.
So the seventh Perfection is the perfection of Skilful Means (upaya kusala paramita)
Upaya is translated as ‘means’ or ‘expedient’ or ‘approach’. It is simply a way of achieving something. Kusala, of course means ‘skilful’ , in the sense of ethically skilful – based in mental states of love, generosity and wisdom. But in this context it also means skilful in the sense of the most effective and appropriate means. So, when taken together these words indicate a means of communicating the Dharma that is both expedient, in the sense of appropriate and skilful in the sense of being both ethical and effective.
Sometimes skilful means is taken to mean some unconventional or unusual way of communicating the Dharma and it could be that, but the main thing about Upaya Kusala is that it is appropriate, effective and ethically skilful.
Upaya Kusala can be looked at in terms of the four Sangrahavastus – the four means of unifying the Sangha together with the four Pratisamvids – the four Analytical knowledges as they are sometimes called. I will go into this last four in detail.
The first four is what the other speakers are going to explore over the coming weeks. They are Dana or generosity, Kindly speech, Beneficial activity and Exemplification. These four are Skilful Means : means of communicating the Dharma that are appropriate and skilful in the sense of being both ethical and effective.
So that is all I will say about the Means of unifying the Spiritual community – the Sangrahavastus. What I want to look into this evening is the four Pratisamvids, the four analytical knowledges. This phrase ‘analytical knowledge’ doesn’t tell us much.
What these four are really about is training in the best way to communicate the Dharma.
Buddhism began when the Buddha managed to successfully communicate the Dharma to one person. That first person to get it, to really understand what the Buddha was communicating was Kondanna. That moment when Kondanna understood is sometimes referred to as the setting in motion of the wheel of the Dharma. The wheel of the Dharma has been rolling ever since, down the generations to us. Perhaps we should be called Kodannists rather than Buddhists!!
This point in the history of Buddhism is often symbolised by an eight spoked wheel – the spokes representing the eightfold path – and it is the origin of Buddhism. This is such a key point, this successful communication of the Dharma, that the wheel of Dharma –the Dharmachakra – is often used to symbolise Buddhism, in the way that the cross symbolises Christianity or the crescent moon symbolises Islam.
So these four Pratisamvids or analytical knowledges are about what the Bodhisattva does to become a supreme communicator of the Dharma. The first thing to note is that communication of the Dharma is not just about verbal communication. It is worth noting that three of the Saghrahavastus – means of unification – are about doing rather than speaking. The most important communication of the Dharma is actually practising it. Only by practising the Dharma can we come to embody it to some degree and it is only by becoming loving, generous, mindful and so on that our verbal communication has the congruency and coherence to positively influence people. As the Dhammapada says “First establish yourself in what is good, then advise others” (verse 158).
Assuming we are practising ethics, meditation, study, friendship and going on retreat, then all of us have something to communicate. We may communicate through our actions, our example or verbally or in some other way.
If we are practising then what we can communicate is very valuable and can even be life saving for some people. There are many people in our Order and Movement who say that the Dharma literally saved their lives.
The four Sangrahavastus tell us that generosity, kindly speech, beneficial activity and exemplification are key ways to communicate the values and principles of Buddhsim and in that way contribute to the creation of Sangha. The four Pratisamvids go a bit further and suggest some very specific things to work on in order be a super-communicator of the Dharma – a Bodhisattva.
The first thing we need is experience. The first Pratisamvid is Dharma Pratisamvid, this can be translated as ‘knowledge of principles’ but what it is really getting at is that we need to have some experience of what we are trying to communicate to others. In order for our communication to have congruency it needs to be based in experience. The Buddha tried to communicate his experience of Enlightenment. We may communicate from our experience of being ethical or our experience of meditating or our experience of going on retreat. Often we have much more that we can share with others than we realise. We may think that we are only struggling to concentrate or that we are not very mindful or that we are always falling short of the ethical precepts or that we don’t understand the Dharma conceptually. And of course all of that is to some extent true, but nevertheless there will always be someone who has less experience who may benefit from what you have to give. If you have tried to meditate you will have something to say about meditation, if you have ever been on a retreat you will be able to give a first hand account of what it is like to be on retreat. So this Pratisamvid is encouraging us to practise so that we can be of benefit to others, so that we will have some authentic experience to share.
The second Pratisamvid is Artha Pratisamvid, which can be rendered as ‘knowledge of meaning’. This is about knowing the conceptual formulations of the Dharma so that you have a framework for communicating. This is encouraging the study of the Suttas and of all the commentaries that are available to us. We don’t have to try to struggle through the Diamond Sutra or the Sutra of Golden Light, we can read Bhante’s commentaries. Sometimes it is helpful to look at the original texts after we have read a commentary so that we learn for ourselves how to approach these texts.
By studying the Dharma we also equip ourselves to communicate about things that we have no direct experience of. Of course we should be clear when we are quoting someone else or communicating what we have studied rather than what we have experienced. So this pratisamvid is encouraging us to study the Dharma, to have familiarity with some of the conceptual formulations, such as the eightfold Path or the Five Spiritual Faculties or the Three Lakshanas – not for the sake of knowing things but so that we can effectively communicate something of the Truth, something the Reality the Dharma, for the benefit of others.
The reason I can give talks and lead study etc., is because I have read and studied Bhante’s commentaries and clarifications quite intensively and extensively. In my view if we are to practise effectively within the Triratna tradition we a thorough and deep knowledge of Bhante’s elucidation of the Dharma. We need to become experts in it. I have often encountered people involved with Triratna who think they have a thorough knowledge of Bhante’s teaching because they have done the Mitra study course and other study. But my own experience is that it is necessary to return again and again to the same texts to allow the teachings to affect you more deeply. And of course even after 33 years I have not read all of the seminars, there are many buried treasures – termas- to be unearthed in Bhante’s work.
If we don’t engage with our own teachers teachings we are in effect deciding to be own teacher and following our own path. This is consumerist Dharma – picking and choosing according to personal preference. And that is not really conducive to spiritual growth.
So that is Artha Pratisamvid , ‘knowledge of meaning’ , knowing the teachings.
So having mastered the first two Pratisamvids – having an experience of the Dharma and having knowledge of the concepts and ideas, we then come to the third Pratisamvid. This is Nirukti Pratisamvid. We could render this as ‘knowledge of words’ or more precisely ‘knowledge of etymology’.
This is about being able to communicate in the most effective and intelligible way. It’s not enough to have studied the Dharma, we also need to be able to speak about it in a way that effectively conveys the meaning we want to convey. So it’s important to have a sense of what words mean. This may involve having some idea of the etymology of words, but I think it is probably more important to have a sense of the provisional nature of words. It is as if all words are fingers pointing at the moon, all words are trying to give expression to something that is not the words themselves and therefore they are signposts, pointers. Having a sense of this provisional nature of words means that we don’t rely too much on one way of expressing things. For instance we are continually using metaphors and images in our speech and it’s good to have some awareness of this so that we can vary the images and metaphors we use. The other key thing we need to be aware of in relation to words is the tendency to be literal minded. It is very tempting to take things literally and allow the words and concepts to rule the direction of our thinking and our whole outlook on life. In the arena of Dharma practice we might for instance be fond of the metaphor of depth or the metaphor of height – as in going deeper in meditation or attaining higher states of consciousness and if we are too literal minded we could get into a whole argument about ways of practising and so on just on the basis of the images evoked by these metaphors. It is best for us to be aware of the provisional nature of words and the role of the imagination in interpreting language. Whole cultures have been influenced adversely by literal-mindedness, people have been persecuted and wars have been fought because of literal-mindedness. As Kamashila put’s it in a talk On the Eightfold Path, “ Literalism means taking words at their face value instead of recognising their metaphorical resonance. Literalism happens when we stop trying to understand, when we think we know, and start going through the motions. It is characteristic of merely external religion.”
Of course the other danger with words is that we don’t take them literally when they should be taken literally. We may sometimes try to avoid the impact of a teaching by trying to give a metaphorical slant to it, when actually it is intended quite literally. Our minds are wonderfully flexible and usually flexible in the service our very own ego empire building. So we could take the idea of a Path literally, as in the Noble Eightfold Path, when it is intended as a helpful image, but we might want to take the another teaching metaphorically when it should be understood in a straightforward way. For instance the Dhammapada says “Not by hatred are hatreds ever pacified here (in the world). They are pacified by love. This is the eternal law. Others do not realize that we are all heading for death. Those who do realize it will compose their quarrels.” Now if we have not composed our quarrels we may not want to accept that we are among those who do not realise that we are all heading for death and therefore we may be tempted to try to soften what the Buddha is saying by some rationalisation.
Anyway the point I am making is that when it comes to communicating the Dharma it is important that we try to not get caught up in misunderstanding simply because we don’t understand the words sufficiently or because we get too attached to particular metaphors or become blind to the principles behind the words. That’s Nirukti Pratisamvid – ‘knowledge of words’.
The fourth Pratisamvid is Pratibhana Pratisamvid, which can be rendered as ‘knowledge of courage’. It is not really about having knowledge of what courage is, it is about actually having courage or confidence. It is saying that when we are communicating the Dharma it is good to be prepared to communicate it at the time when it is needed. That again implies being very familiar with the concepts and ideas and with the stories and images of Buddhism. It also implies practising communicating so that you become more skilled at it. For instance we have Mitra Study sessions. These are discussions in a group and they are about helping us to understand the ideas and concepts but also about giving us practise in communicating our understanding and blending our experience with the traditional formulations of the Dharma. This is one of the reasons why it is valuable to study and discuss with others. It is a practice in sharpening our wits, making us familiar with the best ways of expressing ideas and showing us when we are failing to make ourselves understood. This pratisamvid is about developing the skill to be able to communicate with promptitude, clarity intelligence and wit when the need arises. Lack of confidence hampers us in all sorts of ways and in particular it can hamper our ability to share our experience of Buddhism with others. The Dharma is the greatest gift we can give and it would be a great shame if we didn’t train ourselves to be able to communicate well. We shouldn’t think that we are lacking in confidence and that’s the end of the story. If we are lacking in confidence we need to find ways to overcome that, ways to face our fears, liberate ourselves from our fears and become capable of giving others the gift of the Dharma. That is the path of the Bodhisattva.
The only way of overcoming fear that I have found that works for me is to face the fear. As the book title has it ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. As a shy and introverted person by nature and inclination it has been constant practice that has enabled me to become more confident and at ease in public situations. It is something I have to consciously work with still. He other thing that gave me confidence was being ordained – I experienced that as a major affirmation by people I looked up to and respected.
The Bodhisattva is a Buddhist who is training to become an exemplar and communicator of the Dharma and the Sangrahavastus and Pratisamvids give an indication of the areas that we need to train in. Now in the traditional Mahayana teachings the ability to teach the Dharma is seen as a very high attainment – that is the ability to teach the Dharma perfectly.
The four Pratisamvids are mastered at the level of the ninth Bhumi, which is just on the threshold of Enlightenment. But we don’t need to expect ourselves to be perfect – the perfection comes from practice and from making mistakes. Making mistakes is an important part of the Bodhisattva practice. The alternative is to not do anything in order to avoid making mistakes. If we act or speak we are likely to sometimes make mistakes and the importance of mistakes is that they are a vital part of the learning process. If we hold ourselves back from doing things because of fear of making mistakes, we could, as Bhante puts it, ‘become someone with a great future behind them’.
In the mandala of the five Buddhas it is possible to see a progression of practices related to the Sangrahavastus and pratisamvids . We begin with Akshobya and his Mirror-like Wisdom, which reminds us of the need to be objective. If we are communicating it is important not to rely entirely on our own subjective experience or our interpretation of experience. We need to be as attuned to reality as possible, as objective as possible.This is similar to Artha Pratisamvid, knowledge of meaning as taught by the Buddha. Then we have Ratnasambhava and his association with Generosity, which is the first of the Sangrahavastus. Then Amitabha reminds us that we need to go deeper and experience the nature of reality for ourselves, which is what Dharma Pratisamvid is about. Then Amoghasiddhi encourages fearlessness, which is what the Pratibhana Pratisamvid – the knowledge of courage - is all about. Sitting at the centre of the mandala of the five Buddhas is Vairocana and his mudra is of course the teaching Mudra. What is at the Centre of the Mandala is what the whole mandala is all about and this is indicating that what is represented by all of the Buddhas culminates in the teaching of the Dharma. There is no Enlightenment which is not shared, because Compassion is innate to the Awakened consciousness and the greatest act of Compassion is to give the gift of the Dharma, which is the greatest gift.
When the Buddha had sixty disciples who shared his understanding and experience of the Dharma he gathered them together and he said:
Go ye now, O Bhikkhus, and wander, for the gain of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good, for the gain, and for the welfare of gods and men, Let not two of you go the same way, Preach, O Bhikkhus, the doctrine which is glorious in the beginning, glorious in the middle, glorious at the end, in the spirit and in the letter; proclaim a consummate, perfect, and pure life of holiness. There are beings whose mental eyes are covered by scarcely any dust, but if the doctrine is not preached to them, they cannot attain salvation.
This is what the whole Bodhisattva Path is about – it is the path to the most perfect Compassion, the compassion which endeavours to cure the sickness of humanity, not by assuaging the symptoms but by going to the root cause and by means of the Dharma helping people to liberate themselves from the causes of suffering.