Saturday, 29 November 2008

Imagine a Sangha

This is the text of a talk I gave at the London Buddhist Centre on Sangha day 2008, which was part of the LBC's 30th anniversary celebrations.

It is a privilege to be invited to speak on this occasion of the 30th anniversary of the opening of the Centre. Thirty years ago, (3rd December 1978) the shrine room here was dedicated to Dharma practice and the following day Bhante gave a talk here. In that talk, he spoke about the vision of what he called Sukhavati. The LBC was seen as part of a bigger project called Sukhavati. Sukhavati, traditionally is a Pure Land, it is the pure land of Amitabha, Buddha of infinite light and Buddha of the West -- that is why there is a rupa of Amitabha here. A Pure Land is a place where the Dharma is being constantly expounded and practiced. There are no obstacles whatsoever to Dharma practice in the Pure Land -- everything assists Dharma practice, everything is conducive to attaining higher states of consciousness.

This project called Sukhavati of which the LBC was part, was envisaged as an attempt to create an environment where everything assisted spiritual practice, everything conduced to positive mental states. As Bhante put it at the time: "Sukhavati is that society and environment, that social and spiritual context, that context of fellowship with one another, which makes it easier for us to evolve, so that instead of frittering away our energies in resisting the effects Society has upon us we can put them into the process of our development as human beings. At present so much of our energy is spent just trying to keep society at bay! So much of it is spent trying to resist society’s ever present, coercive, crushing influence and preserve ourselves a little bit of space within which we can grow and develop! So much of our energy is spent trying to resist the counter - evolutionary forces! In an ideal environment, like that represented by Sukhavati, we will not have to resist all the time, or be on the defensive all the time, and the greater part of our energy will be available for our own individual development in free association with other, like minded people."

These like-minded people are the Sangha -- the spiritual community. The vision for Sukhavati was that these like-minded people would form communities to live together, create businesses or other work situations where they would work together and come together at the Buddhist centre to study, meditate, discuss, teach and relax.

The principle behind all this was that in order for Buddhism to flourish it needed to be practised intensively and for that to happen there was a need to transform conditions not helpful to spiritual development into conditions which are helpful. To put it another way -conditions are important for practice and the work of the Sangha and of each individual Buddhist is to create the best possible conditions for Dharma practice.

What has happened to the vision that Bhante outlined 30 years ago -- which, of course, was not just a vision for here, but for the whole F. W. B. O. Many people have lived together in communities over the years and many people have benefited from working together in teams and the Centre itself has been a place of study, meditation, discussion, relaxation and teaching. So in many ways, what Bhante outlined then did happen. However, in more recent years, it seems that there is less interest in residential communities, and it seems that less people are interested in working together in teams. The centre itself is fully used in many ways and has the additional facility of a retreat centre and will soon have even more facilities downstairs.

Has the vision of Sukhavati been a success? Well, the name didn't stick -- nobody thinks of Sukhavati as an umbrella project of which the centre is a part. As for the rest: well I think it is probably too soon to tell.

A vision of a new Buddhist movement and Sangha is an historic vision. It is a vision on a very large scale, and it takes much longer than 30 years to achieve fruition. This kind of vision cannot by its nature account for every practicality. It needs to be based on a broad principle -- that can find new forms, new manifestations, as the generations roll on. Each generation needs to envision afresh, each generation needs to articulate its own dream, its own vision -- based on the fundamental principles -- but taking account of contemporary conditions and issues.

For a Sangha to come into being -- we need like-minded individuals -- we need individuals who have an intuition and a conviction that the purpose of life is to evolve spiritually -- to evolve higher states of consciousness -- characterised by compassion, wisdom and energy. This intuition and conviction leads to a commitment -- it leads us to dedicate our lives to what Bhante calls the Higher Evolution of Consciousness. In more traditional Buddhist terms, it leads us to go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Sangha is the fellowship, co-operation and activity of those who dedicate their lives to going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

Sangha requires imagination. Going for refuge requires imagination. Spiritual life requires imagination -- perhaps all life requires imagination. Sangha happens, where there is imagination and the courage, ability and determination to act from the imagined. Sangha is a vision of an Ideal Human Community -- imagined as interactions and relationships between people based in love, imagined in terms of institutions, art, architecture, music, interaction with the natural environment and so on.

It is a vision of an ideal human community imagined as a fellowship of individuals who are altruistically motivated and who will work together co-operatively to help each other and all those they come into contact with to awaken spiritually -- to awaken to the true meaning and purpose of life.

Sangha is a vision of an ideal human community where everybody is dedicated to awakening from ignorance, awakening into enlightenment -- into wisdom -- and this provides the primary orientation for people's lives.

Sangha is a vision of an ideal human community, imagined as a fellowship of individuals who want to expand beyond any narrow sense of self in as many ways as possible.

Sangha is a vision of an ideal human community, and Sangha is the practice of joining together with like-minded others to bring that ideal human community into being. Sangha is about creating Sangha. The ideal human community creates itself and to do that it needs dedicated and imaginative people.

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."

Just as we need imagination to create sangha, the ideal human community -- we need imagination for all the different elements that are involved in the creation of Sangha. These elements are broadly speaking, commitment, interaction, and altruism.

Commitment or going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is very succinctly defined by Bhante in his book, What Is the Sangha:

" going for refuge to the Buddha means accepting the Buddha and no other as one's ultimate spiritual guide and exemplar. Going for refuge to the Dharma means doing one's utmost to understand, practise, and realise the fundamental import of the Buddha's teaching. And going for refuge to the Sangha means looking for inspiration and guidance to those followers of the Buddha, both past and present, who are spiritually more advanced than oneself."

We don't know what enlightenment is, we have had no personal contact with the Buddha -- so, to make the Buddha and all that he represents central to our lives, requires imagination -- we find ourselves responding very strongly to the Buddha's teaching, and his life and the lives and teachings of his followers down the ages -- we find ourselves responding, being attracted and imagination and intuition enables us to envisage a future in which we too can attain to great wisdom and compassion. That response and that intuition are sufficient to motivate us to dedicate our lives to spiritual awakening.

When we encounter a spiritual ideal and spiritual practices that attract us so strongly and from so deep a level of our being -- we embark on a process of integration -- gradually more and more of our energy, more and more of our thoughts, emotions and activities, begin to focus and orientate in the same direction. Gradually our psychology becomes more integrated -- we experience less conflict between different aspects of our personality. We begin to become more whole as a person, more aware of who we are and what life is about. As this happens, we become more able to make a commitment to the spiritual path. We become more able to place the ideal of evolving to higher states of consciousness at the centre of our lives.

When we are able to make this kind of commitment, when we are able to allow the principles embodied in the Buddha, Dharma & Sangha to be central in our lives, then we will begin to organise our lives around them. The more committed we are to spiritual growth -- the more it will be the primary consideration in every decision we make about our lives --. We will be always asking ourselves is this going to help me to evolve spiritually or will it hinder me. We will be asking this kind of question when we make decisions about where to live, what work to do, how many children to have, what to spend money on, what to do with our leisure time, even how to decorate the house or flat.

Ideally, when we are spiritually committed all our actions and decisions will be supportive of that commitment. Because we are often weak and unintegrated, we inevitably fall short of this and do things that undermine our attempts to live the spiritual life and make decisions that take us off the spiritual path. But of course, if the vision is still there, if the deep response to the spiritual ideal is there, then we may be lost for a while, but all is not lost.

Paradoxically, one of the things that will enable us to stay on the path is if we are honest and realistic enough to acknowledge to ourselves and others when we make choices or do things that hinder our spiritual growth, or take us in the wrong direction. If we rationalise our behaviour and insist that it is really for spiritual reasons, when it obviously isn't -- then we are indeed on a difficult journey.

Commitment to the Buddha involves using our imagination to grasp the sublime and un-graspable spiritual ideal and then working that out in our lives. Commitment to the Dharma requires study, reflection and discussion. And of course it means putting into practice what we learn from our discussion, reflection and study. It means actually applying the Dharma to our lives. If we don't make the attempt to practice, to apply the principles of the Dharma to our lives -- then we will be in danger of being in a fantasy world -- rather than the world of imagination. As the Buddha says we will be like a donkey who thinks he is a cow:

"Suppose, monks, an ass follows close behind a herd of cows thinking: I'm a cow too! I'm a cow too! But he is not like cows in colour, voice or hoof. He just follows close behind a herd of cows thinking: I'm a cow too! I'm a cow too! Just in the same way, monks, we have some monk who follows close behind the order of monks thinking: I'm a monk too! I'm a monk too! But he has not the desire to undertake the training in the higher morality which the other monks possess, nor in the higher thought, nor in that higher insight which other monks possess. He just follows close behind thinking: I'm a monk too! I'm a monk too!" Hopefully, we don't have anyone in this state here saying I'm a Buddhist too! I'm a Buddhist too!, but not really practising.

Commitment to the Sangha as one of the three refuges means looking to the Arya Sangha for inspiration and exemplification. The Arya Sangha or noble Sangha is the Sangha of all those who have gained transcendental insight -- it is a Sangha that traverses and transcends space and time and embodies the ideal of spiritual realisation, in actual people in different times, different places and different cultures. They are united by the attainment of insight into the nature of Reality. We can be inspired by the existence of the Arya Sangha, because it shows that it is not just one person, the Buddha, who awakened to the true nature of things, but many people over the last two and a half thousand years have evolved and awakened. And this means that we too can evolve and awaken -- we too can become part of the Arya Sangha -- this is what we are committing ourselves to. In more general terms going for refuge to the Arya Sangha also means recognizing the principle of spiritual hierarchy -- recognizing that some people may be more spiritually evolved than we are and some less spiritually evolved than we are. We can learn from those more spiritually developed and we can help those less spiritually developed. But of course, commitment to the Arya Sangha is put into practice in the actual Sangha that we come into contact with.

The insight which characterises the Arya Sangha is a matter of seeing clearly with a direct vision what it means to be a human being, it means discovering that constantly creative consciousness that is always latently potential in us and from the perspective of that consciousness we then see the world around -- we see what is real. One of the things that is seen at that level of insight is that there is no fixed unchanging self separate from a lot of other fixed unchanging selves. Rather, there is a flowing, intermeshed, constantly changing ocean of selves. Each one of us is a sea of changing thoughts, emotions, physical sensations, perceptions and responses and all together we are an interconnected dynamic matrix of consciousness. As the poet Shelley said:
"nothing in the world is single,
all things by a law Divine
in one another's being mingle...".

To live with constant perception of this mingleing is to live without emphasis on a personal distinct and fixed self. It is to live in fluid creativity with other conscious beings, according them equal value with our own consciousness of self.

When it comes to the practice of Sangha; creating a Sangha of like-minded people, who eventually evolve into an Arya Sangha, a transcendental sangha -- an Ideal Human Community -- then we need to work at trying to accord others equal value with ourselves and for both ourselves and others that should be a very high value. We need to work at seeing the potentially creative consciousness in everybody -- that consciousness, which is awake to Reality. In other words, we try our best to relate to the highest and best in each other. We create a Sangha or we engage in the practice of Sangha by interacting with each other, by relating to each other. What this means in practice is observing the ethical training principles and especially the speech precepts. Truthful, kindly, helpful and harmonising speech is what we are aiming for in the Sangha and it is what helps to create the Sangha.

When we create a Sangha we are endeavouring to create the best possible conditions for spiritual practice. The Ideal Human Community is one where everything is conducive to spiritual practice, everything is helpful. When conditions are helpful, then we have more energy available for practice because we are not always struggling against the tide of difficult conditions in the world around us. There are many conditions which are not helpful to spiritual practice: there are many conditions that are even antithetical to the spiritual life and we use up energy struggling against those things.

For instance, the predominant world view around us is that sufficient wealth and material well-being is the road to happiness and contentment. It is a materialistic view. Buddhism acknowledges the need for material well-being, as a starting point but not something to chase after or be attached to as an end in itself. But we live in this world of rampant consumerism and we inevitably get caught up in it, often in ways we don't even notice. We buy what we want rather than what we need. We replace because a replacement is available rather than because we need to replace. We become addicted to the shops as a quick route to satisfaction and remain dissatisfied.

To sevice our high levels of consumption modern life makes many demands on us and is very stressful for many people. Commuting to work each day can be stressful. The work environment itself can be stressful. Family life in our atomised society can be stressful. Bringing up children can be stressful -- with a thousand and one pitfalls and dangers. Even leisure can be stressful, if it involves a lot of TV, Internet both of which tend to sap energy. With all the demands and potential stresses of life, it makes sense to try to create better conditions, if we want to make spiritual progress. This brings us back to imagination.

To create better conditions for ourselves and others we need to be able to analyse and imagine what those better conditions might look like.

One of the conditions we need in order to make spiritual progress his communication with people who share our aspiration and commitment. Communication here means more than the usual exchange of information or chatting about where you've been, what you've seen and who is making up, taking up or breaking up with whom.

In the dedication ceremony, it says "may our communication with one another be Sangha".

This kind of communication goes deeper -- it is a communication of what is most meaningful for us, it is a communication that acknowledges and confesses faults and failings, it is a communication that involves listening, empathising and learning. It is a communication, above all, that leads to greater awareness -- we become more aware of ourselves -- we gain self-knowledge -- and we become more aware of our friends through this friendly, deep, sometimes moving, sometimes playful, sometimes painful, sometimes ordinary, but always worthwhile communication.

So in terms of improving conditions for spiritual life, one of the questions is, what kind of conditions will invite and encourage this kind deeper, more aware communication to happen. This kind of communication requires spending time with someone -- it requires seeing people in lots of different kinds of situations -- seeing them relaxed, seeing them busy, seeing them relating to others, seeing them angry, tired, upset, happy and so on. Meeting in a cafe once a week doesn't really do it.

Now the answer to this that Bhante outlined as he spoke 30 years ago, was for people to live and work together in residential spiritual communities and team-based right livelihood businesses, and to have their social interactions focused around the Buddhist centre. Is that the end of it? I said earlier that we need to imagine more -- we need to dream -- and we need to articulate our dreams. The basic need for conditions that enable and encourage deeper communication can perhaps be fulfilled in other ways. 30 years on, the vision of the project that was then called Sukhavati -- needs to be looked at afresh -- needs to be imagined, dreamed, envisioned afresh. It has gone through changes -- the overall set of conditions around here is sometimes referred to as the Mandala, sometimes as the Buddhist village. Some people like the imagery of building the Buddhaland. Whatever we call it, and names can be important, I believe it will be helpful if we imagine on the grandest scale, dream big dreams and then see whether we can move towards our dreams.

For instance, a number of Buddhists now live in flats around this area. Imagine if they all lived in the same block of flats, perhaps in Sugarloaf walk, imagine they all owned that block of flats and then they could make changes, could make decisions about doing some things communally, to save money, to help the environment and to deepen their communication. Imagine bigger than that. Imagine a whole tower block, like the one just across the road, owned and occupied by Buddhists, with many shared facilities -- shrine room, meeting room, library, laundry room, perhaps even a dining room, cold store and so on. This would have spiritual and environmental benefits.

Imagine bigger than that. Some years back the old town Hall in Patriot Square was for sale and another time it looked like the hospital on the Approach road might be for sale -- imagine a big complex like that -- with residential space for individuals, couples, families, small communities, large communities and space for a natural health Centre, an arts centre, a Buddhist Centre, a home for the elderly, study facilities, a library, studios, small businesses, -- a thriving Buddhist community in the heart of London.

Okay, not many Buddhists may want to live in large single sex communities these days, but we can imagine co-housing situations on a large scale that can include space fo communites and other types of accommodation for singles couples, families etc.

Not many Buddhists may want to work in shops or restaurants these days, but we can imagine other types of enterprise, in the caring professions, perhaps in education, architecture, building, technology. It may even be that initially people from similar professions just get together to share their experience and talk about how to practice spiritually in the workplace -- how to remain ethical, how to avoid the character assassinations and politics of the workplace, how to have a positive influence. It may be that some people want to look at the altruistic side of work and look into how to generate money for Dharma work. There are ways in which a pooling of resources could occur. For instance at windhorse I've been amazed at how much good can be done with relatively small amounts of money like £5000 or £10,000. If a group of people involved with the centre set up a fund and put a little in every month -- the combined value would be greater than any one person could achieve and a substantial donation could be made to the centre each year similar to what businesses have done in the past. There are other ways in which people can have an intensive experience of communication and working together through teams for retreats, classes and other projects. I don't know how many social events happen around the centre these days, but I think social events are a very good sangha activity and the work that goes into organising them can be a very good way of building spiritual community.

The main point I want to make here is that we need to imagine, we need to inspire ourselves with the dream of what could be, what the future could look like. It could be different from any of what I have just mentioned. Perhaps, rather than a big complex, there could be hundreds of small cells of Buddhists around London.

There was a song that said, "the future is not ours to see, que sera sera, whatever will be will be." This is not completely true; the future is not ours to see, that's true enough, although we can imagine it. But it is not a case of "whatever will be will be", it is more a case of whatever we will to be will be. The future is not ours to see, but we can begin to create it, we can begin to set the train of activities in motion that move in the direction of our future vision. The future is not ours to see, the future is ours to make.

The vision needs to be there, the dream, the imagined future and it needs to be articulated. The more we talk about something, the more likely it is to happen. Talking sets up the conditions that begin to attract the right resources. The practicalities can follow. It may take years, generations even, before a vision is realised. And then it may even look quite different from what was originally envisaged, but the important thing is to begin, to dream and talk.

Sometimes the money or the people or other resources are just not available, but you can still make a start. For instance, when we thought of getting a new retreat centre from the LBC over 10 years ago, we didn't have the money, we didn't have the people, we didn't have a place in mind, all we had was the idea, the vision and enthusiasm, determination and courage. Everything else manifested in time and now Vajrasana is there. At the time some of us had a very big vision of what we wanted; for example, there was going to be a shrine room with large murals painted on panels all-round, and there was going to be a library. It has not happened, maybe it will never happen, but a start has been made. The place is there and the potential is there. The will and the vision and the resources to transform it will emerge over time, and what eventually happens will be something we could never have envisaged 10 years ago.

This centre is of course is another vision that began over 30 years ago, with the shell of a burnt out building and a lot of energy and enthusiasm and very little money. It is still emerging, and being created, almost as I speak.

So the point here is about the importance of vision, a vision of an Ideal Human Community, based in the values and ethics of Buddhism and manifesting in the world in buildings, in institutions, in people living together, in people working together -- a Buddhist village, a Buddhist town, a Buddhist Borough, a Buddhist city -- libraries, stupas, shrines, workplaces, temples, streets, shops, all imbued with the spirit of the Dharma. Dreams can be as big as we can imagine, and we should articulate our dreams, talk about them, so that they become seeds of a possible future among all the possible futures. Architects can articulate architectural dreams. Doctors can talk about medical dreams. Teachers can have educational dreams, and so on: funeral directors, street cleaners, train drivers, traffic wardens, whatever your profession, whatever your interests, whatever your talents, dream your dreams and give voice to them.

All the dreams can be woven together and articulated as our Buddhist vision of a truly human community, an ideal human community, a sangha, permeated by the vision, the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha’s great insights into the nature of reality and permeated by Bhante's clarity and the radical immediacy of his vision for Buddhism in the West.

Going for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is essentially an altruistic activity. Our spiritual commitment is essentially a commitment to going beyond egotism and selfishness. This involves an outward expansion of consciousness, outwards to include and integrate all of ourselves, outwards to greater awareness of our self and others, an expansion of consciousness outwards in loving kindness towards our self and others. When all those individuals who are committed to expanding consciousness in this way, come together co-operatively in a Sangha, that Sangha will also be characterised by expansion, expanding outwards to include more people, always open, always encouraging.

A Sangha of individuals like this, all working consciously to expand outwards in awareness and loving kindness and co-operating together for the benefit of all, this sangha is the ground from which the Bodhicitta flowers. The Bodhicitta, the awakening heart of the Bodhisattva, is not a personal possession. By its nature, by it's altruistic transcendent nature, it must be shared and as Subhuti put it "if it is to be conceptualised then you can see it as what arises among a fellowship of friends, working closely together for their ideals". The practices that give expression to the Bodhicitta are the six perfections -- generosity, ethics, forbearance, energy, meditation and wisdom. Of these generosity is the most important and appropriate for most of us.

We could think of generosity as being in essence, an attitude, it is that expansive attitude that moves out towards others in giving and in kindness.

Before you can give you need to know what is yours, what belongs to you. And in this context, the primary thing you own, which belongs totally to you, is your mental states. This may seem obvious, but the major stumbling block for many of us on the spiritual path is that we fail to recognize and acknowledge that our mental states are our own, that they belong to us and not to others. What has this got to do with generosity? Well the basic attitude we need to cultivate in the Sangha, the most generous and expansive attitude is the attitude of Metta. So when we discover that our attitude towards a fellow Sangha member is not one of Metta, which often happens, then we need to ask ourselves why not?, why is our attitude, not one of Metta? And in answering this we should not be content with an answer that blames them. We should also not be content with an answer that just blames ourself. We need to go deeper than that, we need to seek a perspective of wisdom. If we acknowledge and recognize that our mental states are our own, our very own responses to people and situations, then we have an opportunity to go deeper, to transform, to gain awareness and even insight and if we do that we become more and more capable of generosity - the movement of expansion in consciousness, ever outwards.

We need to be trying to expand and move outwards from our habitual states as part of our spiritual practice. We need to move from being an habitual critic to being an encourager. We need to move from being an habitual consumer to being a giver. That applies to how we use the Buddhist centre as well. We need to move from a habit of exclusivity and cliqueishness to openness and hospitality. We need to move from a habit of being a commentator to being a participant. We need to move from the habit of being a spectator to being a player. We need to move from a habit of complaining to taking responsibility. There are probably many more. You could come up with your own personal list.

Where there are faults and weaknesses and flaws, there is all the more need for Metta. Metta is realistic, it is not an attitude that is blind to faults and blemishes in oneself or others, but it is an attitude that sees these faults as occasion for kindness, for an expansive, generous attitude. And that expansive, generous attitude manifests in words and actions, in friendliness, in kindness, in hospitality, in harmonising speech and so on.

The attitude of generosity is also an attitude of contentment. It is content with a simple life, not overly focused on accumulating and consuming money or possessions or people or ideas. It is an attitude of being content with less and of finding joy in less. It is an attitude that realises the burdensome nature of possessions, and the tiresomeness of being forever restless, restless for the next meal, the next gadget, the next news bulletin, the next sexual encounter, the next episode of Big Brother and so on.

So the imagination and vision which we apply to the external dimension of Sangha can also be applied to this more internal dimension. We can imagine ourself more developed, more expansive, kinder, more generous and try to get a sense of what that feels like, what does it look like, how would we behave, what does it sound like and so on. Imagination is the first step to realization of the vision of an ideal human community, so also with our self, we can imagine as a first step to realisation and we can articulate to ourselves what we see and experience in imagination. This is why images of archetypal Buddhas and Bodhisattvas can be so spiritually helpful to us.

On December the fourth 1978, when Bhante gave his talk, the day after the centre opened, among other things, he said this: "all of us, surely, at least sometimes, are dissatisfied: we feel dissatisfied with the world as it is and aspire to a higher, better, brighter, more beautiful world than that which we at present experience, or in which we seem to live -- a world where it will be easier for us to grow and develop. Surely, at least sometimes, we aspire in this way."

If we do aspire in this way, then we can imagine all the ways we could possibly create a future Sangha, that is large, harmonious, mutually helpful and an example to the world of how life can be lived both joyfully and meaningfully, an example of an ideal human community. Many others have attempted to create ideal human communities with varying degrees of success, like for example, the Fairfield Moravian Settlement in Manchester or the Whiteway Colony following the teachings of Tolstoy, or communities of the 1960s like the UFA Fabrik in Berlin, and so on. We can create our own dynamic Buddhist community here in Bethnal Green, we can dream big dreams, imagine great institutions, architecture, parks, libraries, paintings, schools and so on. We can act together, generously, in a spirit of metta and encouragement and allow the Bodhicitta to arise in our midst. The Bodhicitta, that Awakened consciousness that cannot be the possession of any one person, but is the flowering of the altruistic, compassionate activity of a large group of people, working together, awakening together in harmony and friendly fellowship.

We can be a Sangha of visions and dreams, a Sangha that dreams and visions itself into being -- here, even here in this corner of this city, at this time in history. This is a great work and it needs individuals who are committed, hard-working, determined, courageous and generous. Some of those individuals are probably sitting here today. If so, I wish you every success in what is a most worthwhile endeavour, the most worthwhile endeavour -- the creation of an ideal human community -- an effective Sangha.

Saturday, 6 September 2008


Some might be interested in a talk I gave recently to the warehouse workers in windhorse on the theme of efficiency and spiritual practice at work. It was posted to FWBO News by Lokabandhu on August 15th.
Find it at or my own site at

Saturday, 30 August 2008

My websites

These are my websites. Two of them consist of talks I gave to various audiences during the 90's and 00's and the other has some odds and ends about my life and views:

No Choice

Perhaps the greatest issue facing us in the world today is how to stop destroying the planet and how to begin to reverse some of the damage we have already done. One of the reasons we have done this to ourselves and to our home, the planet Earth, is because we, the human race, have been and continue to be ignorant of the connections between things, ignorant of how all life is interconnected and interdependent. We have been ignorant of the very existence of an ecosystem. And it would be a great mistake for us to continue this ignorance into our search for solutions. It would be a mistake for us to think of environmentalism as concerned with a particular aspect of life. It would be a mistake to think that environmental issues were separate from issues of war or poverty or economics or politics or leisure or work or spiritual life. To think of environmental issues as separate in that way would be to continue the ignorance that has brought us into this plight in the first place. The social, the spiritual and the ecological are not separate spheres of knowledge and activity, they are intimately and irrevocably interconnected and it is ignorance of this that leads us to behave in ways that are destructive to the planet and therefore destructive to ourselves. This ignorance comes about because human beings have developed self-reflexive consciousness. We are aware and we are aware that we are aware.

This consciousness, which is what distinguishes us from the animals, is our greatest asset, and our greatest gift and perhaps our greatest curse. Because of this consciousness of self there is a consciousness of other and a consciousness of insecurity in relation to other. The consciousness of self is crude, rudimentary even, and is closely identified with the body, with things, with people as things and with a rigid world view. This self is constantly buffeted by the winds of change externally and internally by the primitive forces of survival and reproduction. So a sense of insecurity is an inevitable accompaniment of emerging self-consciousness. As Subhuti says in The Buddhist Vision "the rudimentary self or immature ego tries to find security by using the same instincts as those by which the animal preserves itself. Just as the animal hunts for the food which will nourish its organism, so the ego tries to possess those things it considers as securing its identity. And as the animal will attack and destroy whatever threatens its survival, so the ego seeks to destroy whatever undermines its integrity. Aided and amplified by the human power of imagination, these reactions can reach the monstrous proportions of ruthless empire-building and of mass destruction through war." So the immature ego is ignorant of interconnection and experiences itself as separate, and as fixed and unchanging. This according to Buddhism is the basic spiritual ignorance, experiencing ourselves as separate and as fixed and unchanging. It is this basic spiritual ignorance that gives rise to the greed for possessions and people to give us a sense of security and it is this basic spiritual ignorance which gives rise to hatred and a violent rejection of anything that appears to threaten this separate fixed and unchanging self. Here we can see the source of all human conflict, the source of consumerism, the source of overpopulation, the source of our blind destruction of our own environment.

This is what is depicted at the centre of the Tibetan Wheel of Life. There are three animals, a cock, a snake and a pig biting each other's tails and going round and round in circles. The cock symbolises greed, the snake hatred and the pig ignorance. They symbolise the animal within us which is covered over with a thin veneer of civilisation. Animals of course are not destructive; it is only the animal in conjunction with self-consciousness that is destructive. So this picture is not saying anything about animals, it is a mirror for us to look into and if we are honest we will recognise, perhaps with the shock, that what we see is our own inner self, motivated by greed for possessions, for sex, for status, motivated by aversion to discomfort or criticism and motivated by the yearning for security. This is what the first circle on the Wheel of Life shows. It is directly confronting us with our spiritual ignorance and spiritual immaturity. Because we are dealing with symbolism here it is perhaps better not to or over conceptualise. Concepts can become a barrier between us and the truth. It is better just to look in the mirror and see what we see; a cock, a snake and a pig; pecking, strutting, crawling, hissing, rooting, snuffling animals. However we are self conscious, we are human beings and that spark of consciousness is what can save us from the excesses of ignorance. We have the choice to eat from the fruit of the tree of knowledge, to borrow an image from elsewhere. We have the choice to do something with our awareness. What we can do with our awareness is develop it. We can evolve further. We can make the choice to evolve our awareness and dissolve the fetters of ignorance, neurotic greed and hatred. We can embark on what has been called the path of the higher evolution, that is the evolution of consciousness or awareness. This is what the spiritual life is about, you could say this is what the truly human life is about and this is the long term and fundamental solution to the problem of human destructiveness. This is the radical solution in that it goes to the roots of the problem.

The second circle on the Wheel of Life is about this choice we have. A choice we make whether we want to or not because even doing nothing is a choice. This circle of the Wheel is divided into two segments, one white and one black. In the black segment, naked and anguished men and women tumble downwards tormented by demons, in the white segment men and women wearing bright garments and performing various benign activities are ascending. The message of this section of the Wheel of Life is that we experience the consequences of our actions. This is what is known in Buddhism as the law of Karma, a much used and often misunderstood term. To understand what Karma is we need to understand a very fundamental Buddhist teaching, the teaching of conditionality. After the Buddha's Enlightenment experience he tried to communicate what he had seen and understood in many different ways. One of the ways he used to explain his insight is formulated as the law of conditionality, which very simply states that everything arises in dependence upon conditions. In the texts it says "this being that becomes, from the arising of this that arises. This not being that does not become, from the ceasing of this that ceases." so everything comes into being in dependence upon preceding conditions. This applies to everything: a thought, a giraffe, a mountain, a war, a planet, a universe. So this would appear to be a very obvious and simple assertion, that everything arises in dependence upon conditions. However, simple and obvious as it may seem, it is the most fundamental teaching of Buddhism and it has vast implications. Karma is just one kind of conditionality. There are five kinds; there is conditionality on the inorganic level, the level covered more or less by the laws of physics. There is conditionality on the organic level, the level of biology. There is conditionality on the lower mental level involving such things as perceptions and instincts. Then there is conditionality on the level of intentional action which is the Karmic level and above that is the transcendental, Dharmic level of conditionality. The reason I have enumerated this rather technical list is simply to make the point that Karma does not explain everything that happens to us. There are a multitude of conditions at work all the time and it is impossible to separate out what results from our own intentional actions and what results from other kinds of conditionality. So we need to beware of simplistic understandings of Karma. It is not a model of linear cause and effect and it is not an exhaustive explanation of everything that happens to everyone. Everything arises in dependence upon conditions but not all conditions are Karmic.

Put simply Karma is intentional action. Buddhism teaches an ethics of intention. Traditional ethical systems in the West speak in terms of 'good' and 'bad'. Buddhism doesn't think in terms of good and bad actions. It focuses instead on the intention behind the action. Indeed the terms good and bad are alien to Buddhist ethical teaching, instead we use the terms skilful and unskilful. A skilful or ethical action is one that arises out of a mind that is loving, generous and wise and an unskilful or unethical action is one that arises out of a mind that is selfish, hateful and ignorant. Actions are understood to be of thought, speech and body. So the law of Karma states that unskilful actions have negative consequences and skilful actions have benign and positive consequences. Difficulties, suffering and unhappiness which we experience may be due to our unskilfulness in the past i.e. may be due to our past Karma, or may be due to other conditions. Happiness and good fortune may be due to our skillfulness in the past, i.e. may be due to our past Karma, or to other conditions. But the importance of the law of Karma is not that it may explain our present circumstances or help us to analyse the past. The importance of the law of Karma is that it allows us to shape the future and, because all things are interconnected, how we shape our own future inevitably affects others and even the whole planet.

Skilful or ethical action of thought, word and deed is the best way to create a happy and satisfying life. Skilful action is based in mental states of kindness, generosity and wisdom which are by nature expansive, outgoing and compassionate. This has a beneficial effect on everybody we encounter and on all the creatures and plant life. When we are experiencing kindness, love, generosity and wisdom we do not harm the world around us, we enjoy and protect it.

So the choice we have to make is whether to embark on the difficult task of overcoming our natural instinct to seek security for our fragile ego sense or go beyond that natural instinct by deliberately evolving consciousness that is expansive and self-less. It would seem that the obvious answer would be to say yes, lets go for it. However that is not a choice that the majority of people make. Most people decide to stay within the confines of their narrow self interest and seek as much security as they can from the world around them. This is because the spiritual path, the path of the higher evolution of consciousness, is truly difficult. It is not the work of a day or a week or year but of twenty, thirty, or more years and even then the fruits are gathered slowly. The truly spiritual life goes against the whole trend and logic of ordinary life. I have to make the effort, I have to change, I have to be transformed even, but ultimately it is not about any acquisition for me, not even the acquisition of wisdom. Certainly we must use our natural self interest to get started. We can be legitimately motivated by a desire for happiness and well-being. But ultimately all self-centredness is transcended, and our sense of self and other is radically transformed, so that to act in the interests of others is no different from acting in the interests of self. This is something that can be understood intellectually, but intellectual understanding is not sufficient to sustain consistent effort over many years. We need to have a heart response to the possibilities open to us, the possibilities of great wisdom and compassion that transcend all hankering after security all desire for personal gain, status, happiness even. We need to have a heart response to the ideal of becoming more truly human so that we come to value co-operation above competition, to value simplicity above wealth, value harmony above gain, value peace above revenge, and the welfare of all beings above our own life. We need to have a heart response because the heart or the emotions are where our energy is where our motivation is and we will need energy and motivation to make progress on the spiritual path. Because if we are not motivated strongly enough we will not be able to overcome the many obstacles and struggles that we will inevitably meet along the way.

For instance we will want to meditate but may get discouraged when we experience nothing but distraction for weeks or months on end. We will want to be loving and kind but may get discouraged when we meet people, especially Buddhists, were not nice kind people and who perhaps don't even like us. We will want to be wise but may get discouraged when nobody wants to listen to our wisdom and they even laugh of us. We will want to be ethical but may get discouraged when others take advantage of us. We will want to be more aware but may get discouraged when we become more aware and realise that we are not as good and truthful and kind as we liked to believe. We will want to transcend selfishness but may get discouraged by the tenacity of our egotism.

Spiritual life is not easy, it is not for the faint-hearted. It is a tough choice but it is worthwhile and it works. The alternative is to continue to seek security and happiness in ways that cannot ever deliver happiness and security. It may be difficult to make progress on a spiritual path but wisdom, happiness and compassion do arise in dependence upon the effort made. The mundane path of material success and status may appear easier but it is an illusion from top to bottom and it only brings sorrow and pain. This doesn't need any great elucidation, it is plain to see all around us and it is evident in the history of the human race down through all the generations. The great difference that has occurred over the last couple of centuries is that the world has become smaller due to the advances in technology and the human race is capable of massive destructiveness also due to the advances in technology. So our choice to pursue the life of material gain, power and status has greater implications now than ever before. And those implications are becoming more visible in such things as climate change, radioactive waste, weapons of mass destruction, large scale poverty and starvation and overpopulation. The implications of choosing a life of awareness, simplicity, ethical behaviour and compassion for all sentient life are also greater than ever before because of the possibilities of global communication and because of the spiritual vacuum at the heart of the world.

When we choose a life of spiritual quest within a Buddhist context, we undertake to live by five specific principles. These are the principle of non-violence, principal of generosity, the principle of contentment, the principle of truthfulness and the principle of awareness. The practice of meditation helps us to live by these principles.

The first principle underlies all the other principles and is the cornerstone of the whole edifice of Buddhist philosophy and practice. This is the principle of non-violence or to put it more positively, the principle of love. This love is what we call Metta, a love that is sustained, consistent, spontaneous and seeks no reward. This principle has implications for every aspect of our lives; most obviously it implies cooperative, forgiving and kindly relations with other people, even those we disagree with or dislike. So it rules out revenge, it rules out prejudice, it rules out persecution, it rules out discrimination, it rules out character assassination, it rules out slander, it rules out doing anything to others that they don't wish us to do. It rules out all kinds of manipulation and exploitation. All of these things appear in gross forms in the world around us, but as we become more ethically sensitive we will discover their more subtle forms in our own hearts and minds. We will begin to notice the edge of competitiveness or malice in our humour, we will begin to notice the subtle emotional blackmail between lovers, we will notice all the little ways we have of undermining the achievement of others and so on. Here we find our working ground and it is here in our everyday relations with others that we can begin the process of cultivating a compassionate mind.

The principle of non-violence has implications beyond our relations with other people. It applies to our relations with all living things: animals, birds, insects, trees, flowers etc. Before the Chinese invasion in 1950, Tibet was a safe haven for wildlife, and vast herds of antelope and musk deer roamed the plains together with bears, wolves, foxes and wild sheep. But all that has changed now. The American photographer and author Galen Rowell in his essay" The Agony of Tibet", writes, "the invaders made a sport of shooting indiscriminately at wildlife. In 1973, Dhondub Choedon, a Tibetan now in exile in India, reported that "Chinese soldiers go on organised hunts using machine guns. They carry away the meat in lorries and export the musk and furs to China". Important habitat for vast herds of animals was soon over grazed as the Chinese forced nomadic families into communes to raise livestock for export instead of their own subsistence. Tibetans, including the children, were forced to kill 'unnecessary animals' such as moles and marmots that vied with humans for grain and dug up valuable grazing land. Children were given a qouta for small animals to kill that, if not met, resulted in beatings and other forms of punishment." It is so sad to think of the children being conditioned to kill animals. A stark illustration of how totally different a materialistic outlook is from a spiritual and non-violent outlook.

The principle of non-violence or love extends also to our attitude to the natural world. The Thai monk Prayudh Payutto has said that it is best to avoid using the word 'environment' in our concerns for ecology. He feels the word 'environment' betrays its origins in Western attitudes that separate human beings from the rest of nature. Nature includes us. Ecology includes us. When we really begin to understand and see this then we see that the effort we make to transform ourselves is ecological work and that all our activities have ecological implications. If a river dries up it is relatively easy to see the ecological implications. If human hearts dry up the ecological implications are far greater. We must keep our hearts moist with the life-giving waters of love.

Prayudh Payutto has written an essay entitled "Buddhist solutions for the 21st century". In it he states that modern human civilisation is in the grip of three harmful and tenaciously held views, these are:
"1. The perception that mankind is separate from nature, that mankind must control, conquer, or manipulate nature according to his desires.
2. The perception that fellow human beings are not fellow human beings. Rather than perceiving the common situations or experiences shared among all people, human beings have tended to focus on the differences between themselves.
3. The perception that happiness is dependent on an abundance of material possessions.

The first perception is an attitude toward nature; the second perception is an attitude toward fellow human beings; the third perception is an understanding of the objective of life."
He goes on to say that for a human beings to live happily there must be freedom on three levels: physical freedom, social freedom, and inner freedom. Inner freedom is the ability to live happily and contentedly within ourselves without needing to manipulate and exploit the world around us. Without inner freedom human happiness is totally dependent on manipulation of the external environment and social exploitation. So this inner freedom, which is freedom from neurotic craving, freedom from hatred and freedom from spiritual ignorance is essential to the ecology of our planet. Without this inner freedom we are at the mercy of forces which push us into over-consumption and violent competition and a search for happiness and security where happiness and security cannot be found.

These are some of the implications of this first principle of Buddhism, the principle of non-violence. The other four principles are, as I said, based on this one. The principle of generosity extends the principle of love into our relationship to property and possessions. Generosity is basically an attitude to possessions, property and money which sees sharing and giving as more important than acquiring and owning. It is an attitude that holds things lightly, regarding ourselves as only temporary owners of whatever we have. In fact it is even better if we can see ourselves not as owners but as stewards, we are simply looking after something until it passes on to someone else. The Buddha said that a strong possessiveness about things or people lead to suffering; all things are impermanent and the stronger we hold on to them the more painful is the inevitable letting go. This applies to everything including our own body and sense of identity.

The principle of generosity runs completely counter to what has been called the 'religion of consumerism', with its scriptures and liturgies dedicated to exciting greed and its places of worship designed to entice us to acquire things we neither need nor want. Consumerism could be said to be the dominant ethic in the developed world today and this makes the principle of generosity all the more radical. Generosity as a practice in a society and world which is dedicated to its opposite is not an easy practice. To develop a truly generous attitude, an attitude of non-ownership, non-possession, non-acquiring, an attitude of sharing, stewardship and giving requires a big effort to overcome the constant conditioning and brainwashing that we are subjected to and have been subjected to since childhood.

Another Thai monk, Sulak Sivaraksa, writes "consumerism supports those who have economic and political power by rewarding their hatred, aggression, and anger. And consumerism works hand-in-hand with the modern educational system to encourage cleverness without wisdom. We create delusion in ourselves and call it knowledge. Until the schools reinvest their energy into teaching wholesome, spiritual values instead of reinforcing the delusion that satisfaction and meaning in life can be found by finding a higher-paying job, the schools are just cheerleaders for the advertising agencies, and we believe that consuming more, going faster, and living in greater convenience will bring us happiness. We don't look at the tremendous cost to ourselves, to our environment, and to our souls. Until more people are willing to look at the negative aspects of consumerism, we will not be able to change the situation for the better. Until we understand the roots of greed, hatred, and delusion within ourselves, we will not be free from the temptations of the religion of consumerism, and we will remain stuck in this illusory search for happiness.”

The third principle is the principle of contentment and this is traditionally related to our sexual activity. On the one hand we are enjoined to refrain from any form of exploitation or manipulation to satisfy our sexual desires and on the other hand we are encouraged to practise contentment with our current sexual status, instead of constant neurotic seeking after new experiences. Ultimately this principle aims at what is referred to as a state of stillness, simplicity and contentment which frees us to a large extent from any neurotic dependence on sex. For most of us this principle will in practice mean trying not to use subtle, or even not so subtle, manipulation or emotional blackmail to get others to behave as we want them to and it will also mean meditating to attain to more tranquil and contented states of mind.

The fourth principle of Buddhist ethics is truthfulness. Truthfulness is essential to the functioning of any society. Without truthfulness there can be no trust and without trust human relations fall apart and we are left with an atmosphere of suspicion and hatred. Truthfulness as an ethical principle has to be based on loving kindness and not used as a weapon to hurt others. And truthfulness, like all these ethical principles, begins with ourselves. We need to be honest with ourselves about what we think, what we feel, what we do and what we say. To be honest with oneself is not necessarily an easy matter, it may entail facing up to unpleasant aspects of our character and it may seriously dent our pride and even possibly put us in the position of needing to apologise to others.

Truthfulness means, firstly, being factual in what we say or write. It also means steering clear of exaggeration for effect. Exaggeration is one of the great building bricks of egotism. Truthfulness means not understating things and it means not deliberately omitting relevant information. Omissions can distort a narrative to the point of falsehood. And of course, truthfulness means not deliberately lying. When we tamper with the truth it is usually because we want to be seen in a particular light or we want to gain some advantage: we want to be liked, we want to be popular and bending the truth can seem to be an easy way to get attention and approval or get whatever we want. Of course if we do that habitually the person who gets attention and approval will be a fiction and in our hearts we will be lonelier than ever. For friendship to exist, for any loving human relationships to exist, there has to be honesty, otherwise we only have fictions relating to fictions, facades relating to facades, which is, to say the least, unsatisfactory.

The fifth principle of Buddhist ethics is the principle of awareness or mindfulness. You could say that awareness is just as fundamental as love. We need awareness that is saturated with love and compassion and our love and compassion needs to be as aware as possible. Love and compassion without awareness can degenerate into sentimentality and pity and awareness without love can be cold and alienated. So these two qualities, love and awareness, need to be developed in tandem. That is why we teach the two meditation practices, Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana. The Mindfulness of Breathing cultivates awareness and the Metta Bhavana practice develops loving kindness. Awareness begins with ourselves. We need to become more aware of our bodies and our actions, we need to become aware of our thoughts and of our emotions. This forms the basis for awareness of other people, awareness of the world around us and ultimately awareness of reality.

Sangharakshita has said ''awareness is revolutionary. It is revolutionary in that it brings about change of a far reaching and profound nature. Awareness is naturally expansive. As we become more and more aware become more expansive and full of life. Our energy becomes more focused and more available to us and we become more capable of taking responsibility for our lives. Our normal state is not really one of being aware, we don't really know what we're thinking, feeling, doing or saying and other people are just projections of our unconscious needs, desires and aversions. We think we're being original when all our views and opinions are received. We think we are independent of influence when our whole life is a constant swinging from one influence to the next.

Awareness gives us the possibility of a genuine individuality and more real relationships with other people. It is revolutionary in that it throws the light of truth onto our lives and wakes us up to what is really going on. Awareness transforms us. The greater the awareness the more far reaching the transformation and there is no limit to how aware we can become. Buddhahood or Enlightenment could be said to be a state of perfected awareness. Awareness of other people and awareness of the world around us shows us that we are one with humanity and one with nature. It shows us that there is beauty everywhere. Lack of awareness, which is self-centredness, is narrow in perception and sees threat and ugliness everywhere. Awareness sees beauty and optimism even in the most unlikely places.

Awareness of reality is a constant immersion in the reality that all life is process, all life is flux and change, all life is interconnected and interdependent. To be constantly immersed in this vision, to experience this all the time is to be free from all ill-will and possessiveness. This awareness gives life a quality of lightness and a vast prospective that turns all personal fears and anxieties into absurdities and makes much of what seems important in the world around us look ridiculous. Perhaps that is why the Dalai Lama is always laughing so heartily! However because of the presence of compassion there is no arrogance or impatience in this awareness. There is rather a tender regard for the suffering of the world which is one's own suffering too when one ceases to separate oneself from others and the world.

These then are the five principles that we undertake to live by when we embark on the spiritual path: non-violence, generosity, contentment, truthfulness and awareness. These are the principles that we train ourselves in over and over again in order to transcend the poisons of neurotic greed, ill-will and spiritual ignorance, which are the cause of human suffering, both on the personal level and the global level. By training ourselves to live by these principles we contribute to our own well-being and to the well-being of the whole world.

Perhaps all this gives some little explanation of the symbolism of the inner two circles of the Wheel of Life. The Wheel of Life is an ancient symbol over two thousand years old. In one Buddhist text, which dates from 100 years BC, the Buddha is depicted as telling his followers to paint the Wheel of Life at the entrance to every monastery and to have a monk on standby to explain the imagery to visitors and novices. In this essay then we are taking part in an age-old ritual. Buddhism was wiped out in India, so that only one ancient image of the wheel of life survives in India, at the caves of Ajanta. But Tibet inherited the riches of Indian Buddhism and the Wheel of Life is still very much used in Tibetan temples. It is the nature of symbolism that it cannot be tied down to concepts and that there is always more to say. The Wheel of Life is a mirror of truthfulness and in it we see ourselves, warts and all. We also see the seeds of our happiness, the seeds of our Enlightenment even. Sometimes our vanity leads us to the mirror and sometimes our vanity keeps us away from a mirror, but this mirror shatters our vanity so that we can begin to see things as they are really are and so that we can make the choice to embark on the path of the higher evolution of consciousness, which is in reality no choice, because we cannot live by choosing death, we can only live by choosing life.

To conclude here is a little story from 'The Snow Leopard' by Peter Matheson which perhaps illustrates this point quite well, "the Lama of the Crystal monastery appears to be a very happy man, and yet I wonder how he feels about his isolation in the silences of Tsakang, which he has not left in eight years now and, because he's crippled may never leave again. Since Jang-bu, the interpreter, seems uncomfortable with the Lama or with himself or perhaps with us, I tell him not to inquire on this point if it seems to him impertinent, but after a moment Jang-bu does so. And this holy man of great directness and simplicity, big white teeth shining, laughs out loud in an infectious way at Jang- bu's question. Indicating his twisted legs without a trace of self-pity or bitterness - they belong to all of us - he casts his arms wide to the sky and the snow mountains, the high sun and the dancing sheep, and cries, "Of course I am happy here! It's wonderful! Especially when I have no choice!"

Constant Change

Impermanence is central to Buddhism, this fact, this truth, that everything at every level is changing, from galaxies to thoughts, from personal emotions to planets, in fact everything is change.
Change is constant.

You can treat this talk as a reflection; one of my points will be the importance of reflecting particularly using your imagination, reflecting imaginatively.

I'm going to look at the life of the Buddha before he was the Buddha because that's possibly more relevant to us, Siddharta before he was the Buddha struggling to follow the path. I'm going to use this part of the Buddha's life as a kind of symbol, a representation of the life of any human being.

Buddhism consists of the Path and teaching which enable all human consciousness to unfold and evolve into the awakened state - awakened to the true nature of Reality.

In this talk I want to look at that Path as it is illustrated by the life of Siddhartha. The story of the life of Siddhartha is a universal story and the significant episodes in that life indicate truths relevant to the spiritual life of any practitioner.

I’m going to look at some of these episodes - from the Four Sights up to the four archetypal images associated with the Enlightenment experience and I want to draw out the universal significance of each episode and perhaps a few points that could be of specific significance to us here today.

So first I’ll begin with the episode known as the Four Sights.

I believe this episode prefigures the later story of the appearance of Mara, the Earth Goddess, Brahma Sahampati and Mucalinda at the time of the Awakening - we’ll look at these parallels later. The story of the four sights tells us that Siddhartha had led a very sheltered life, protected by his father from all suffering, but as a restless young man he found a way to get out and some wider experience. What he experienced was seeing a sick person, an old person, and a corpse for the first time in his life and also a wandering holy man. These sights, we are told, had a profound effect on him and led to him giving up his life of luxury and going forth into the world in search of truth and a solution to the problem of human suffering.

You could take this story literally - that he had never encountered sickness, old age and death before - or you could understand it as meaning that he saw these things as if for the first time, in other words, he saw the significance of sickness, aging and death. He saw that it was what happened to everyone and what would happen to him. He saw it clearly, with the full force of a shock - he saw it in such a way that he couldn’t deny it, he couldn’t ignore it, couldn’t just carry on living as if everything was the same as before. No, now death was a reality for him, illness and old age were realties and they had to be faced up to. He couldn’t go back to a superficial life in the face of these existential facts which had shocked him into waking up to the naked insecurity of life. This was a process of insight for Siddhartha and it is a process that happens for many people, perhaps it has happened to some of us here. For some people this sort of awakening has a profound life-changing effect and they set out on the journey of spiritual searching and spiritual discovery - as Siddhartha did.

For others the experience gradually fades and old habits take over so that they manage to ignore their deeper experiences. Some people deliberately bury their insight into life’s insecurity, beneath a life of hedonism or even addiction. And some people embark on the spiritual quest, but get lost along the way or begin to use their spiritual practice as a way of avoiding the raw truths of sickness, old age and death rather than as a way of facing and transcending them.

But many of us, hopefully all of us here, are inspired by the image of the wandering holy man - the image of someone who gives up everything for the sake of truth, someone whose life is a wholehearted quest for truth.

Seeing these four sights is not an easy matter and I don’t believe it is usually a one-off event. Seeing these four sights is a process of deepening insight, a process of dawning clarity, a process of emotional, intellectual and spiritual adjustment to the fact that life is change. Sickness, old age and death are inevitable because change is the nature of life. The more deeply we see and understand this, the more acceptable it becomes and therefore the less we suffer by trying to resist change. This process of seeing the four sights - seeing them deeply, being affected by them, understanding and being moved by the significance of them - this process can go on throughout our life and it is worth our while reflecting on these four sights again and again.

We can ask ourselves questions. What is my attitude to illness? Do I see any deeper significance in it? Is my attitude to illness different when it affects me and when it affects others? Why is it different? Similarly with old age and death. What are my attitudes to old age and death? Am I aware of old age and death around me? Am I aware of myself as someone subject to old age and death? And what does the wandering holy man mean to me? Is there an equivalent of the wandering holy man in my life? Is there something which reminds me of the deeper significance of life? How often am I aware of that dimension represented by the wandering holy man? Am I moved to action by the image of the wandering holy man and the spiritual dimension of life? Perhaps for some of us the question will be - Have I really seen the four sights and if I have, am I still aware of them?

Because I've been healthy all my life it comes as a shock to me when I get sick, it’s something I don't normally experience or reflect upon. As I get older I am having to take it on board more. Sangharakshita some years ago when he was experiencing the effects of old age, including the loss of some of his eyesight, said that he had reflected deeply on death but he hadn't reflected deeply enough on old age and it's affects. It's not easy to be aware of these things.

Siddhartha did see the four sights. He saw them very deeply. He saw the significance of sickness, old age and death and the wandering holy man and it shook him to the core of his being. He could not be the same again; he had to change his life. He left home and set out in quest of the truth, in quest of the answer to the problem of human suffering. This episode in his life is known as the Going Forth. Going forth doesn't just apply to the Buddha it can apply to anyone of us and in different ways. Some of us may go forth in the traditional way and undertake something like a journey. Sangharakshita talks about going forth in terms of getting rid of his papers, passport and all those things and journeying around India on foot. When I was 22 I gave up my career and possessions to go in search of meaning. That was the result of seeing an older person in the work place retiring and seeing how empty their life was after spending 50 years in that job, it just shook me and I gave up everything. I did find Buddhism 6 years later.

The Going Forth represents a reorientation of one’s whole life - it involves actively moving away from the mundane, self-interested values of the world around us and moving towards values that are compassionate and based in a deeper awareness of the nature of life.

Sometimes it is quite difficult to see what the values of the world are because we are so much in the world and so much influenced by what we read and hear, a bit like fish swimming in water we can't see the water, - the newspapers, internet, TV and so on. If we are not sufficiently aware, we may not even notice that certain values are being promulgated all the time by the media, by politicians and so on.

Some of the more obvious values today are: that choice is a good thing, that economic growth is a good thing, that nation states have a real existence, that quality of life can be measured by the ability to buy things and so on. And some of the values will be so much a part of the air that we breathe that we will apply them to our spiritual practice without even noticing. For instance I have noticed that the notion of choice has become more and more prevalent over the past 5 to 10 years. Politicians tell us that what people want is choice and on the Internet, on TV, in the shopping centres, we are inundated with offers of choice. And of course, we often believe it, we believe that we are being offered genuine choices and that having these choices gives us greater freedom. We become enthralled to the idea that choice means freedom and we start to look for choice in our spiritual life, a choice of practices, a choice of lifestyles, a choice of teachings, a choice of teachers and so on. And of course the choice is there, a whole spiritual supermarket of choices, a whole shopping mall of choices - even within Buddhism and then of course there are all the tasty morsels from elsewhere - from various therapies and other disciplines - a whole smorgasbord of choices. So this one value of the world we live in could potentially cause us a great deal of confusion and lead us astray on all sorts of interesting sidetracks, especially if we haven’t quite seen the four sights yet away from depth of experience. I am not saying it is wrong to investigate other practices - just that we should go for depth in what we do.

Going Forth then, is a re-orientation of our life towards the spiritual values of awareness and compassion, the value of awakening more and more to reality and we need to examine other values in the light of this - does the multiplication of choices lead to greater awareness and compassion? Does nationalism or consumerism lead to greater awareness and compassion? What values do we have? What values are promoting greater awareness and compassion in our lives? What values are hindering our awakening to reality? What values are obscuring our vision of the four sights?

The questions mean reflecting, and the importance of reflecting on life and experience. It’s not such a good idea to expect immediate answers from yourself or anybody else the important thing is the question not the answer, the best answers come from the depth of your own experience. If you have an attitude of question, of reflecting then in your ordinary life as experience happens you will be reflecting because you will be bringing that attitude to what ever happens. You will be seeing the significance.

For Siddhartha going Forth meant a complete change in his life - internally and externally - for each of us it may mean that or it may mean something else. Whatever it means I think that it is also best seen as an ongoing process rather than a one-off event. As we will see it was an on-going event for Siddhartha too. The event symbolises the process - a process that carries on until awakening dawns. It is the process of letting go of everything that holds us back from seeing clearly the truth of constant change and living our lives by the truth of constant change.

The truth of constant change applies to our bodies, our thoughts, our emotions, it applies to other people, it applies to everything in this world, it applies to the whole universe. The truth of constant change transcends death because death is only a moment in the vast interplay of energies we call life. So we go forth from limitations, limiting views, limiting values, towards an open road, an open dimension where we can live in harmony with the reality of constant change.

(Joyful theme evoked by Walt Whitman)

Here is how the Sutta Nipata puts it

“Now I will tell the going Forth. How he, the Mighty Seer, went forth. How he was questioned and described the reason for his going forth. The crowded life lived in a house exhales an atmosphere of dust; but life gone forth is open wide: he saw this, and he chose the going forth.” (Nanamoli p. 11)

Let’s hope that given all the choices we have, we too choose the Going forth again and again.

The next episode in the life of Siddhartha that I would like to look at briefly is his attainment of Dhyana.

Siddhartha became the disciple of Alara Kalama first and later of Uddaka Ramaputta and under these teachers he became adept at entering dhyanic states of consciousness - right up to the highest formless dhyanas. He was such a good disciple that Alara asked him to become co-leader of his community of followers and Uddaka Ramaputta asked him to take over complete leadership of his community. However Siddhartha was not satisfied and was well aware that he was still within the realm of egotism and had not solved the problem of suffering. So he left these teachers and went forth yet again - this time to a life of great austerities. I think many of us would love to be able to get into dhyanic states at will. Indeed many of us probably feel that not being able to attain to the dhyanas means that we cannot meditate and we may even become despondent about meditation and perhaps give up. But Dhyana is not the aim of spiritual practice - it is a pleasant side-effect. I some Tibetan traditions the student is warned against Dhyana and told to come out of it as quickly a possible - it is regarded as a dangerous distraction. In the Brahmajala Sutta the Buddha outlines the 62 wrong views to be avoided if one is to make spiritual progress. Now the interesting thing about these wrong views is that most of them arise out of some kind of higher experience and quite a few arise from misinterpretation of higher Dhyanic experience. As Kamalashila put it in a talk on the subject, “It seems that if one practices within a framework of self-view, ten every attainment in meditation will simply confirm that view.”

So the danger of dhyanic experience is that it may lead into a cul-de-sac of wrong views, which block any further spiritual progress.

Siddhartha saw this and went forth from Dhyana. Perhaps we need to reflect on the significance of this. If we are regularly in Dhyana - we may need to let go of it and go forth into deeper insight and if we are regularly yearning to experience Dhyana perhaps we need to go forth from that yearning and start to see our meditation practice as being concerned with truth seeking rather than pleasure seeking. The pleasure will arise of its’ own accord. (David Smith p.118)

So, then, Siddhartha undertakes severe austerities, in line with practices current at the time. It was felt that the demands of the body, for food, sex, warmth and so on, were a major hindrance to spiritual insights and therefore the body had to be subdued. It is said that he took this to an extreme too, but in the end he realised that was not helping and he went forth from the life of austerities too - his third major Going Forth. I don‘t think there are very many people in the FWBO who undertake austerities - I’m not aware of any really but perhaps there are still some lessons to be learned here.

So Siddhartha moved from blissful practices to painful practices, hoping that what he didn’t gain through bliss he would gain through pain. And it is true for many people in the FWBO that there can be an over-emphasis on pain. We can give a lot of attention to painful emotional experiences and value them perhaps more than we need to, even considering them to be somehow more authentic or real, than pleasurable experience.

The American psychotherapist and mystic, Suzanne Segal, talks about this from her experience as a therapist (quoted in my talk “The Five Wisdoms”)

So for some of us at least there may be a sense in which we could helpfully go forth form an over-emphasis on the painful aspects of experience. We could deliberately affirm what is positive in our lives, some people have a practice of thinking at the end of the day what did I enjoy today, think of 5 or 10 things that I enjoyed today and it can give you quite a different perspective on life if you deliberately do that, just very small things like the light through the trees or the clouds in the sky. What you find if you do that is that you start to notice thoughts enjoyable things and you start to have more enjoyment in your life. It’s good to do a practice like that as it affirms what's positive and what's enjoyable in your day-to-day life.

Sometimes it is said that Siddhartha was making an unbalanced effort in practising austerities and he needed to find a middle was of more balanced effort. This is not borne out by the texts, which represent him as making a strong, even forceful effort, when he sat beneath the Bodhi tree. What was wrong about his effort in austerity was that it was effort in the wrong direction, effort leading nowhere.

So what we have to consider about our spiritual efforts is not so much a matter of quantity, but rather a matter of quality. We don’t need to worry too much that our efforts might be too strong, what we really need to pay attention to is whether our efforts are effective, spiritually speaking. Whether they are leading in the direction of truth. The direction of more Compassion, more Metta.

So Siddhartha went forth again, in the process losing his reputation, and being criticised by his former companions. Going Forth can bring unpopularity it seems. Your friends and family might think you're being foolish or a failure if you turn your back on material values.

So he took some nourishment and sat down beneath a peepul tree, thereafter known as the Bodhi tree. This tree prefigures the image of Mucalinda - naga and youthful hero. The tree represents a uniting of the heights and depths. Its’ roots go deep down in to the rock and its’ branches soar heavenwards. It is generating energy in the hidden depths and manifesting beauty and protectiveness in the world. This uniting of opposites - depths and heights, inner and outer - symbolises the enlightened state - a state of completeness uniting Wisdom and Compassion, uniting energy and stillness. This is something worth reflecting on - do we have a sense of heights and depths on our lives? What do we mean by heights? and depths? In what way are our heights and depths not united? In what ways are they united? How could we bring about more unity of our heights and depths? Or to put it another way, do our ideals, aspirations, dreams and imaginings have a strong connection with our on-going awareness of ourselves, physically, emotionally and mentally? Are the branches connected to the roots by a trunk of awareness and metta?

Siddhartha was sheltered by the tree or put symbolically, his aspiration and faith gave him protection.

And he needed protection because now he is assailed by Mara. Mara is the personification to spiritual awaking.

Firstly he is attacked by Mara’s army, then tempted by Mara’s daughters and then Mara tries to undermine his confidence. So here we have very dynamic images for hatred, craving and ignorance.

Mara’s army attacks with arrows and spears but all the missiles hurled at Siddhartha turn into flowers, blossoms and settle gently at his feet. This attack of Mara’s army represents a massive internal conflict. Siddhartha’s unshakeable determination is coming up against all the forces of his psyche that resist the implications of spiritual death. This is an inevitable part of any spiritual endeavour. We are never 100% behind our spiritual aspirations and so we experience conflict and you could say that dealing with this conflict is the raw material of our spiritual practice. That's what we are working with our aspirations and our actual desires and experience. We can take that raw material of inner conflict and d o something creative with it. If we don’t deal with our inner conflict it will begin to manifest externally and we will end up blaming other people for our lack of spiritual progress and limitations. It can seem more reasonable and comfortable to blame others for our hindrances and settle down into a habit of rumbling resentment. On one level inner conflict is a manifestation of the integrated psyche and the disparate parts have to come into some sort of relationship - just as the Buddha’s awareness and faith comes into relationship with Mara’s armies and the conflict resolves into flower blossom - symbols of beauty and growth.

On another level inner conflict is a manifestation of the ego’s resistance to reality. It’s an existential thing this inner conflict. Experiencing inner conflict doesn't mean we are bad or un-spiritual or incapable of practice, it is what happens if you try to lead a spiritual life. If you haven't done so already you will.

Either way it is more creative to recognise inner conflict for what it is and take awareness into it. We have to become acutely aware of how we resist spiritual insight and how we cause ourselves suffering. If we manage to do this thoroughly then our resistances will subside. For instance, we have an ideal of spiritual community, an ideal of harmony and co-operation and goodwill. We value friendship and collective activities. But then we may find ourselves feeling lonely or isolated - our ideal is not working - and this leads to a conflict within us - a conflict between our personal experience and our ideal. So this could lead us to blame the other people around us. It is because they are selfish or because they are unfriendly or because they are English or whatever - that’s why your ideal of a harmonious spiritual community is not happening and that’s why you feel lonely. Or you might blame the circumstances - it’s because community life is unnatural - or because the Buddhist Centre is not being properly run or whatever. So we look outside ourselves for causes and we find lots of imperfections in the people and the world around us which seem plausible reasons for our dissatisfaction. But we could take a different approach. We could assume that our conflict was a manifestation of egotism in some form and once again I’m not saying that egotism is bad but we could investigate it from that standpoint. We could ask ourselves: in what way am I being selfish? How is my loneliness and isolation a manifestation of selfishness? And we might discover some things to make us sit up and take action. We might realise that the antidote to loneliness lies in our own hands - we need to think of others and go out to them, befriend them. It’s a kind of counter-intuitive response- loneliness doesn’t mean I need friends, it means I need to befriend others. In a way, what we discover if we look deeply into our dissatisfaction is that we are both victim and perpetrator, we are experiencing suffer and causing suffering and if we see that clearly enough we stop perpetrating our own suffering and the spears and arrows of inner conflict turn into benign blossoms.

Another aspect of Mara’s army is that they represent fear- our worst nightmares - all the fears that hold us back from living more fully. Fear is one of the most tangible experiences of ego that we can have. Where there is fear there is ego. Where there is fear there is self-centeredness. The tantric yogis go into the cremation grounds at night to encounter fear - to encounter ego in a very potent form - and by facing fear they break through to a new level of freedom - symbolised by the dakini.

Most of us have no need to find a cremation ground- we experience fears, large and small, all the time - sometimes it is just the fear of being with other people or the fear of being alone. We can try to notice our fears and make use of them in our spiritual practice - by taking little risks here and there we gain a little more freedom and develop the habit of freedom and confidence. On a little personal note here, at the time of my ordination one of my greatest fears was the fear of speaking in public, which I assumed every order member had to do. I was even on the verge of holding back from ordination, to avoid ever having to speak in public. It was only by doing it that I gradually discovered it wasn’t as bad as I had feared.

After Mara’s army we have Mara’s daughters - Siddhartha was a heterosexual man and so Mara’s daughters represent craving for sense pleasures. So Siddhartha is not having an easy time - it’s one distraction after another. Earlier we were told that he could get into dhyana at will and now he is enmeshed in conflict and distraction. From one point of view he is having a really bad meditation - anger, ill-will, fear and craving. I’m sure some of you are familiar with this kind of meditation, or at least you’ve heard about it. But Siddhartha knows what he is doing - he is deliberately facing all the resistance, all the egotistic forces of his own mind and transforming them into something positive. Mara’s daughters - the energy of craving, are transformed into inspiration - the energy of faith or shraddha - represented by the Earth Goddess. Mara’s armies, the energies of inner conflict, are transformed into compassion, represented by Brahma Sahampati. And Mara himself - the energy of ignorance is transformed into the great Wisdom represented by Mucalinda.

In the Vimalakirti Nirdesa - Mara tries to make a gift of his daughters to a monk - who refuses to accept them, but Vimalakirti does accept them and turns them into teachers of the Dharma. So Mara’s daughters are the energies of desire, which can move from being desire for sense pleasure to being desire for the Dharma - from kama chandha to dhamma chandha. In the symbolism associated with Siddhartha’s struggle, the Earth Goddess, Vasundhara, could be seen as his muse, his inspiration, his Dhamma chandha - she is the transformation of the energies represented by Mara’s daughters. The Earth Goddess is a witness to Siddhartha’s practice over lifetimes - she is an appeal to experience. In the context of transforming the energies of craving this means that if we bring awareness to our actual experience - we will see that our dissatisfaction has never been fully satisfied by succumbing to our sense craving - in fact our craving for sense pleasure is itself dissatisfaction, it is dukkha. Our experience is telling us the truth and if we listen often enough, eventually we will hear.
(Importance of reflecting on experience again.)

The earth Goddess is also an appeal to experience in the face of doubt and lack of confidence.

Mara suggests to Siddhartha that he is wasting his time - he could be having a good life - plenty of money, property, power - whatever he wanted - it’s all his for the taking - who does he think he is anyway trying to solve the problem of human suffering. He is assailed by doubts - doubting whether what he is doing makes sense and doubting whether he is capable of attaining to Wisdom. Any one on the spiritual path is going to experience doubt about whether what you are doing makes sense and if you are capable of it. And the Earth Goddess emerges and reassures him that she has witnessed all his efforts and he is indeed capable and worthy of gaining Enlightenment. The Earth Goddess has always been there - she represents something timeless, eternal - and she can attest that the pursuit of truth is worthy and worthwhile endeavour for human consciousness. Perhaps we could even say that the Earth goddess asserts that it is natural for human consciousness to want to evolve towards the truth. She is hinting at something that is made more explicit later in the White Lotus Sutra - that the dharma is eternal or timeless. Reality is always reality and has always been Reality and will always be Reality. So this is the answer to Mara’s attempts to sow the seeds of doubt.

When we experience doubt we may find it helpful to reflect on what spiritual experience we have had and what spiritual progress we have made. We may also find it helpful to reflect on the millions of people down the generation who have been inspired and uplifted by the Dharma - a concrete testimony to the power and efficacy of the Dharma. When we are beset by doubts, what we need is to appeal to experience and inspiration - our own experience and inspiration and the experience and inspiration of others -if we do that we will have the Earth Goddess on our side. If we are experiencing doubt we will need the help of others.

The next episode represents a big turning point - a kind of internal going forth. Brahma Sahampati appears. The story says that the Buddha was inclined to keep his realisation to himself because nobody would be able to understand it and Brahma Sahampati appeared before him, telling him there were some who would understand and pleading with him to teach what he had discovered.

Brahma Sahampati represents great compassion arising in the mind of Siddhartha. Previously he has been concerned with an internal struggle to overcome fear, hatred, craving and doubt but now he is turning outward - he is becoming concerned with the fear, hatred, craving and doubt of others. Having seen through the causes of suffering in himself - he now wants to help others to the same realisation.

This process is mirrored in our own lives. Often we take up the spiritual life for a mixture of selfish and idealistic reasons and as we practice we experience the conflict between our recalcitrant egotism and our altruistic aspirations. We necessarily become concerned with ourselves, with the workings of our own mind, the trajectory of our own habits and so on. However in time we should experience a quietening of the inner turmoil and a growing concern for the spiritual welfare of others and a willingness to help others through the mess of their inner conflicts.

As with all the other episodes in the life of Siddhartha, this episode also represents a process - the process of growing generosity and compassion. We all have our own version of Brahma Sahampati - a voice urging us to acts of generosity and kindness. As we progress spiritually we will find ourselves listening to that voice more and more. The more we hear that voice and pay heed to it, the more we can be sure we are developing spiritually.

The next episode is the appearance of the Serpent King - Mucalinda. He appears in order to protect Siddhartha from the rain. He wraps his coils around Siddhartha and spreads his hood over him. This image reminds us of the Bodhi tree shading Siddhartha from the sun. When the rain stops the serpent king transforms into a young man and salutes the Buddha. This young man, about sixteen yeas old, represents the prince of beauty and purity and is later seen in the forms of the archetypal Bodhisattvas - the great spiritual heroes. The serpent king - the king of the Nagas come from the depths of the ocean - Nagas are associated with wisdom, with depth of understanding. The great Buddhist sage Nagarjuna is said to have travelled to the depths of the ocean where the Naga kings transmitted to him the Prajnaparamita sutra. So the Naga king stands for Wisdom and the youth is the spiritual Hero, the Bodhisattva, acting compassionately in the world. The Serpent king and youth represent again the unity of heights and depths, as in the image of the Bodhi tree - but now at a higher level, wisdom/compassion, stillness/activity. The serpent is also an image of tremendous energy - the gathered energies of the Enlightened consciousness. Our spiritual life is fed and nourished by images and symbols and our imagination is the crucible in which our lives are transformed into energy streams of wisdom and Compassion. We need images and symbols of the life of Siddhartha - there are some I haven’t touched on. We need to allow our imagination time to engage with the whole rich panoply of images that Buddhism offers. It doesn’t do to reject some images as not suitable - all the images are interconnected - they are a huge pattern of psychic growth and if we reject some images we may be disrupting the pattern and making our psychic life more difficult. I mention this because in recent years some people have wanted to reject the image of the young hero - but here with Mucalinda we see that the young hero is integral to a complete image - a union of opposites. Usually when we want to reject symbols or images it's because we are taking them too literally, we are giving them a literal meaning, so we should reject literalism in the realm of symbols not the symbols themselves.

We began with the four sights - sickness - which mirrors Mara, the sickness of the mind, humanity’s illness. Then old age, which mirrors the appeal to experience and ageless wisdom of the Earth Goddess. Then death which mirrors the death of all the vestiges of ego or selfishness when Great Compassion arises as in the episode of Brahma Sahampati and finally the wandering holy man, the symbol of the pursuit of Reality mirrors Mucalinda, the Serpent king and young hero representing that reality at its height. The wandering holy man is also an image for the rest of the Buddha’s life. It's the archetype of spiritual life.

So we have been through a spiral of interweaving images, each with many meanings and each sparking off more and more imaginative reflection. This is the story of Siddhartha and this is our story, this is your story, because Siddhartha represents the individual human being - Siddhartha is everyman and every woman.
Siddhartha was born, as we are born
What Siddhartha attained, we too can attain
What Siddhartha overcame, we too can overcome
We reverence Siddhartha, and aspire to follow him.

This world of imagination and symbols, this world of heights and depths - intuited, imagined and experienced - this is the context in which we grow old, gain wisdom, suffer and experience pleasure. This is the rich tapestry of human existence. This is the context of constant change, constant letting go, constant growth and decay in which we live and die.

This vast context of flowing constant change gives us a perspective that can comfort our suffering and loss and can be a call to freedom for our exuberance and inspiration. We have only to engage with it - imaginatively and wholeheartedly - then death will be less important and life will be more full and meaningful.

I will conclude by giving the last word to a Christian monk and mystic, who was moved, inspired and awakened by Buddhist images. Thomas Merton, the American Trappist monk travelled widely in Asia and had many contacts with Buddhism.

At a place called Polunnaruwa in Sri Lanka there are some huge Buddha images carved from rock. There is a seated Buddha and a reclining Parinirvana Buddha and a standing figure of Ananda. When Thomas Merton visited there in 1968 these Buddha figures had a profound effect on him. Here is how he describes it in his journal. (By the way he died four days later in Thailand in an accident involving faulty electrics in his hotel). The reason why I’m doing this is the importance of images and the power of imagination. If we really want to attain spiritual insight you have to engage with the world imaginatively is where insight resides, the intuition, it is not something literal or intellectual.

“Polunnaruwa with its vast area under trees. Fences. Few people. No beggars. A dirt road. Lost. Then we find Gal Vihara and the other monastic complex stupas. Cells. Distant mountains, like Yucatan.
The path dips down to Gal Vihara; a wide, quiet hollow, surrounded by trees. A low outcrop of rock with a cave cut into it, and beside the cave a big-seated Buddha on the left, a reclining Buddha on the right, and Ananda, I guess, standing by the head of the reclining Buddha. In the cave, another seated Buddha. I am able to approach the Buddha barefoot and undisturbed, my feet in wet grass, wet sand. The silence of the extraordinary faces. The great smiles. Huge and yet subtle. Filled with every possibility, questioning nothing, knowing everything, rejecting nothing, the peace, not of emotional resignation but of Madhyamika, of sunyata, which has seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything - without refutation - without establishing some other argument. For the doctrinaire, the mind that needs well-established positions, such peace, such silence, can be frightening. I was knocked over with a rush of relief and thankfulness at the obvious clarity and fluidity of shape and line, the design of the monumental bodies composed into rock shape and landscape, figure, rock, and tree. And the sweep of bare rock sloping away on the other side of the hollow, where you can go back and see different aspects of the figures.
Looking at these figures, I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tired vision of things, and an inner clearness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident and obvious. The sheer evidence of the reclining figure, the smile, the sad smile of Ananda standing with arms folded. The thing about all this is that there is no puzzle, no problem, no ‘mystery’. All problems are resolved, and everything is clear, simply because what matters is clear. The rock, all matter, all life, is charged with dharmakaya - everything is emptiness and everything is compassion. I don’t know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual vitality running together in one aesthetic illumination......
I mean, I know and have seen what I was obscurely looking for. I don’t know what else remains, but I have now seen and pierced through the surface and have got beyond the shadow and the disguise......
It is pure, complete. It says everything. It needs nothing. Because it needs nothing it can afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered. It does not need to be discovered. It is we who need to discover it.” Thomas Merton, The Intimate Merton, Page 435.