Saturday, 30 August 2008

Reflections for Wesak 2008

Today we are celebrating Wesak. The word wesak is a Sinhalese version of the Indian Vaisakha, which is the full moon that corresponds to our month of May. It was under the full moon of Vaisakha that the Buddha gained enlightenment according to tradition. And so today, quite close to that full moon, we are celebrating the Buddha’s great achievement – his awakening, his enlightenment.

The first question that probably occurs to us when we hear this is – what is Enlightenment, what is awakening? And what is its relevance to us here in 21st century Britain.

Enlightenment is a deep profound insight into the nature of reality and a simultaneously arising profound compassion for all deluded beings.
It is the perfection of wisdom and compassion. It is the overcoming of all greed, hatred and delusion. It is Nirvana, the blowing out of the fires of negative selfish emotions.

There are many ways we could talk about enlightenment, but in the end we have to try to grasp what it is about intuitively and imaginatively and what we really need to get a feeling for is the direction of Enl. Because Enl. is not a thing, it is not something that can be possessed or gained or grasped. It is a process, it is a creative journey it is a direction to be intuited, experienced and internalised. When we are being kind, generous, wise, thoughtful, aware, loving, - then we are partaking of the direction of enlightenment – however imperfectly. Of course, when we are harsh and thoughtless and unaware etc., then we are heading in the opposite direction – we are heading in the direction of Dukkha, suffering.
So it is easy to see how this is relevant to our lives and to all human life.

The Buddha’s teaching highlights for us the fact that all our dissatisfaction comes from delusion. We suffer because we are ignorant.

If we can remove the delusion then the suffering, the dissatisfaction will also be removed.

It is possible to remove the delusion. We know that because the Buddha did it and all his enl. followers since have also done it.

The Buddha has given detailed instructions, teachings on how to achieve freedom from delusion and suffering.

So in order for us to progress in the direction of Enlightenment and away from ignorance we need, first of all, to notice and acknowledge our dissatisfaction, secondly we need the ability and willingness to change, thirdly we need external conditions that are helpful and fourthly we need to undertake the practices of generosity, the precepts, meditation and reflection.

Noticing and acknowledging our dissatisfaction involves being aware of what we are doing and why we do it, it involves being aware of the tendency of our mind and emotions, what are we thinking about and why, what do we want and why. Our practices of meditation, mindfulness and reflection help us to have a clearer and more objective view of ourselves and are therefore fundamental to any spiritual endeavour.

Our ability and willingness to change is something I’d like to go into a bit more. This is what we are talking about when we use the terminology of Going for refuge to the three jewels – we are talking about our ability and willingness to change – so if we have spiritual aspirations within the Buddhist tradition it is important that we pay close attention to our ability and willingness to change. Later I will say something about external conditions and the four practices of generosity, the precepts, meditation and reflection.

Our ability to change and our willingness to change could be seen as internal conditions that need to be established in our life to enable us to go for refuge to the Buddha, dharma and sangha. The external conditions, which I will say a little bit about later, are prior in the sense that good external conditions help us to establish the best internal conditions.

I am going to talk about ability to change and willingness to change as two separate things. They are my own categories and as with all categories are not to be taken too literally, they are just a convenient way of speaking about something, they have no ultimate validity, just as the eightfold path as a list has no ultimate validity – it could be the seven fold or six fold path.

So in order to have an effective spiritual life we need to be willing to follow the spiritual path as taught by the Buddha and all the great Buddhist teachers and especially as taught by our own teacher |Sangharakshita and we need to be capable of practising what we have been taught.

What do we need to do to be more capable of living the spiritual life? How can we increase and enhance our ability to live the spiritual life?

Perhaps you are already perfectly capable of living the spiritual life and practising the Buddha’s teachings – in which case you simply need to get on with it. However I know that some people do struggle and I have often struggled myself.

Our ability to practice the Dharma, that is our ability to meditate, to practice ethics, to communicate openly, honestly and with kindness, to befriend people, our ability to reflect, to be honest with ourselves, to take responsibility for our mental states, to access and express faith and devotion – our ability to engage in all of these is affected by our conditioning – the conditioning we have received since infancy within our family, and from the society around us – the conditioning that we are all the time subject to from all the ideas and behaviours we encounter. Our ability to practice the Dharma is also affected by our psychology and temperament and how we have responded to our conditioning. And how we continue to respond to our conditioning.

Also from the perspective of the Buddha and the whole Buddhist tradition to date we are also the product of our karma – our intentional actions over many lifetimes, and that too affects our ability to practise the Dharma.

So, in order to develop, enhance and build our ability to practice spiritual life we need to pay attention to our conditioning, our psychology and our intentional actions of body, speech and mind.

I had a very strong catholic conditioning and also a strong nationalistic conditioning from childhood until I left home at the age of 18. When I started meditating and committed myself to the Buddhist path back in 1983 I had to spend about five years understanding and dealing with the consequences of this conditioning, which undermined my ability to practice the Dharma in many ways. I also spent many more years discovering what was positive and helpful in that conditioning. And some aspects of the conditioning went so deep that I was still making discoveries about how my conditioning had affected me even 18 years after I had first started practising. For the past 7 or 8 years I have not made any major discoveries in this area so maybe I have got to the bottom of it or maybe there is something buried deeper than I have managed to dig.

Anyway the reason I mention this is just to emphasise that we need to take time and pay close attention to our conditioning in order to really know whom we are and in order to practise as fully as possible. I used writing, meditation, reflecting, discussion, dream analysis, conscious visualisation, auto hypnosis, painting, yoga, tai chi, dharma study, solitary retreats – all of these were ways in which I delved deeper and deeper into who I was and came to know myself and my abilities better. You may need to try different things, but I thing solitary retreats is one of the most effective ways of really getting to know yourself and of course in the context of a solitary retreat you can try different things out – such as dream analysis or drawing and painting.

Of course our conditioning in childhood goes very deep and can affect us for the rest of our lives, but conditioning doesn’t stop when we grow up – we are being conditioned by the world around us all the time and this is something that is in some ways even harder to recognise and do something about – it demands a lot of awareness. One way of noticing the affect something has on us is to remove it from our lives for a while. So, for instance if we don’t watch television for a few months, when we return to it we will have quite a different awareness of it’s impact, or similarly with newspapers or the internet or even just using technology. This is another reason why retreats of all kinds are so useful. They insert a gap, however short, into our lives. A period when we are not engaging with our usual conditioning factors. I have heard however that increasingly people bring their mobile phones on retreat and use them to stay in touch with people. There may be exceptional circumstances when this is necessary, but apart from that I would say it is, to be blunt, quite a stupid thing to do, and undermines the value of the retreat considerably.

We can of course experience a lot of resistance to dealing with our conditioning and our psychological traits, tendencies and attitudes. We are comfortable with what we have even if it’s a mess – it’s our mess and we can live with it. Anything beyond what we are accustomed to can be experienced as threatening and frightening.

There are three things we need to do in relation to our habitual ways of being in order to help ourselves to develop the ability to change radically.

Firstly we need to accept our habits and tendencies without condemnation. So if we feel insecure, for instance, we need to accept that we feel insecure and not condemn ourselves for having that feeling. Or if we often feel angry we need to accept that and not condemn ourselves. It is jus a fact – I often feel insecure or I often feel angry – we can say it to ourselves and just acknowledge it as a fact.

Secondly we need to become aware of how that habit or tendency manifests, how it gets expressed. So, for instance insecurity might manifest as a desire to please everybody or it might manifest as anger. Or anger might manifest passively in an unwillingness to listen or co-operate or it might manifest in harsh speech.

Thirdly we need to take responsibility for this mental tendency or habit. So we can say to ourselves – yes it is me, it is my mind, my mental states. It is not somebody else’s mind; it is not an inevitable consequence of any circumstances or any event. It is just my habit.

This taking responsibility for our mental states as fully as possible is an important element in gaining insight into how our minds work and in giving ourselves the ability to change. Until we are able to see and accept that our mental states are something we do rather than something that happens to us it is virtually impossible to change. When we do see deeply and clearly that our mental states are something we are doing rather than something that is happening to us, then it is as if habits dissolve in the light of that awareness. There are different levels to seeing into our own minds and we may find that we have to come back again and again to seeing the same habit or pattern at work before we finally see through it completely and it dissolves away. We also need to see deeply and clearly that our positive mental state are something we do and don’t just happen to us. In seeing this we learn that we can choose positive mental states, we learn that we can choose to see the world around us in different ways, we can choose to highlight the ugliness or the beauty, we can choose to see the suffering of others or see others as obstacles to our satisfaction, we can choose to be angry or understanding, we can choose to feel lonely or connected.
In order for all this to happen we need to accept our mental states without condemning ourselves if they are negative and without getting big headed if they are positive. We need to become aware of how we give expression to our mental states and we need to take responsibility for our own minds at deeper and deeper levels.

As well as working with our conditioning and our psychology, the Buddhist tradition asks us to look very closely at our intentional actions of body speech and mind- our karma in a word. If we pay close attention to whether our actions, our speech and our thoughts and emotions are skilful or unskilful, we can begin to develop the sensitivity to notice very quickly whether we are being skilful or unskilful. We can also develop the ability to create new attitudes, and a new experience by choosing to act in ways that are skilful. We can deliberately and intentionally be kind and generous in what we do, honest and harmonious in what we say and mettaful in our thoughts. This is the creation of new karma, which leads to the creation of a new person, a new experience, and a new identity – a major step out of dissatisfaction and into contentment.

When we try to develop our ability to live the spiritual life through looking deeply into our conditioning and psychology and by practising intentional positivity, we encounter resistance within our hearts and minds. Everybody I know who tries to live a spiritual life experiences internal conflict. If you have not yet experienced internal conflict of some kind you probably will if you continue to become more aware. There is a basic conflict between our aspiration to enlightenment and the strong attraction towards mundane life. Even when we get beyond the psychological conflicts we may experience conflicts about how best to give expression to our spiritual commitment. For instance Bhante experienced the conflict between the desire to be a poet and the desire to be a monk. Some people experience a conflict between wanting to help others and a desire to withdraw from the world. Many of us experience a conflict between the desire to lead a simple life and the constant craving engendered by this consumer society. Or we may experience a conflict between our aspiration and desire to be generous and our feelings of insecurity and attachment.

There is a conflict between being unenlightened, or deluded and our aspiration to enlightenment. This not something to worry about or criticise ourselves for. It is just the nature of samsara, the nature of unenlightened consciousness. There are two ways to avoid this sort of conflict – one is to become less and less aware so that you are so thoroughly deluded that that is all you know and experience and the other is to become more and more aware so that you see through the conflict completely or rather rise above it.

There is a Sutta in the Pali canon, which I think highlights in a very dramatic way this conflict between delusion and Reality. It is the Culasaccaka Sutta in the MN No 35. In this Sutta the main character Saccaka is a man who likes to debate philosophical questions and he has a very high opinion of his own abilities as a debater. He boasts “ I see no recluse or Brahmin, the head of an order, the head of a group, the teacher of a group, even one claiming to be accomplished and fully enlightened, who would not shake, shiver and tremble if he were to engage in debate with me, and sweat under the armpits if he were to engage in debate with me. Even if I were to engage a senseless post in debate, it would shake, shiver and tremble if it were to engage in debate with me, so what shall I say of a human being?” p.322
Then he hears that the Buddha is in the area and he goes to the local people, the Lichavis and he tells them he is going to have a debate with the Buddha which it will be worth their while hearing. He boasts again, “ Come forth, good Lichavis, come forth ! Today there will be some conversation between me and the recluse Gotama. If the recluse Gotama maintains before me what was maintained before me by one of his famous disciples, the bhikkhu named Assaji, then just as a strong man might seize a long-haired ram by the hair and drag him to and drag him fro and drag him round about, so in debate I will drag the recluse Gotama to and drag him fro and drag him round about.” P. 323. He goes on in this way, gining three more examples of how he will defeat and humiliate the recluse Gotama.

He meets the Buddha with a crowd of onlookers and he asks the Buddha some questions. However the Buddha asks him something return and he cannot answer without losing the argument so he remains silent and the text says, “ A second time the Blessed One asked the same question and a second time Saccaka the Nigantha’s son was silent. Then the Blessed One said to him: ‘ Aggivesana, answer now. Now is not the time to be silent. If anyone, when asked a reasonable question up to the third time by the Tathagata, still does not answer, his head splits into seven pieces there and then’. Now on that occasion a thunderbolt-wielding spirit holding an iron thunderbolt that burned, blazed and glowed, appeared in the air above Saccaka the Nigantha’s son, thinking: ‘ If this Saccaka the Nigantha’s son, when asked a reasonable question up to the third time by the Blessed One, still does not answer, I shall split his head in seven pieces here and now.’ The Blessed One saw the thunderbolt-wielding spirit and Saccaka the Nigantha’s son. Then Saccaka the Nigantha’s son was frightened, alarmed, and terrified. Seeking his shelter, asylum and refuge in the Blessed One he said: ‘ Ask me, Master Gotama, I will answer.”

I won’t tell you the rest of the story, except to say that Saccaka is thoroughly humiliated. But what strikes me about this image of the thunderbolt wielding spirit about to split Saccaka's head and the fact that both he and the Buddha are aware of it, is that it is a very graphic image of the conflict between Reality and delusion and the suffering that will follow if we deliberately ignore or deny Reality. And of course that is what most of us are doing most of the time. The Sutta portrays Saccaka as arrogant and proud and later we see the Buddha humiliating him in a way that seems almost cruel – until we understand the spiritual message that is being conveyed. Reality humiliates the ego-centred consciousness. In later Buddhism we see this in the Diamond sutra where the Buddha says: “ those sons and daughters of good family, who will take up these very Sutras, and will bear them in mind, recite and study them, they will be humbled, - well humbled will they be! And why? The impure deeds these beings have done in their former lives, and which are liable to lead them into the states of woe, - in this very life they will, by means of that humiliation, annul those impure deeds of their former lives, and they will reach the enlightenment of a Buddha.” P.157, Wisdom beyond words.

So internal conflict is part and parcel of spiritual practice and sometimes on the spiritual path we have to accept that we are not as clever or wise or compassionate as we think we are, but the humiliation of that is purifying and a symptom of progress on the Path.

So I have been talking about our ability to practice the Dharma. Now I would like to say a little about our willingness to live the spiritual life and there may be some overlap with what I have already said.

Our willingness to practice is hampered by our deluded sense of a fixed separate self. Having this deluded sense of a fixed separate self leads us to expend energy defending that self and continuing to construct and create that self. In order to escape this delusion of a fixed separate self we need acceptance, awareness, reflection and action.

So just going into each of these four things briefly:

We need acceptance in the sense that we need to accept that we are egotistical and self-centred – whether in a crude or subtle way. This is not any reason to feel bad about ourselves, it is simply a matter of accepting that we are as yet un-enlightened, un-awakened and therefore deluded and the delusion finds expression in an egotistical way through our actions, words and thoughts. This initial acceptance of our egotism is an acknowledgement that we need spiritual practice – that the spiritual path is essential for our well-being.

Then we need awareness of how this deluded view of a fixed separate self is expressed in our lives. In what ways are we egotistical? We can ask ourselves from time to time in what way am I being egotistical. Or even, when we find ourselves in some particular state, for example, anxiety; we could ask where is the egotism in this. If we are lonely we can ask where is the egotism in this. If we are gregarious we can ask where is the egotism in this. Even our positive qualities can be hijacked by our sense of self. For example when I first started meditating I realised that much of my generosity previously had been unconsciously giving me a sense of superiority and was a way of dealing with insecurity. Seeing through that allowed me to become a bit more genuinely generous.

As well as acceptance and awareness we need to reflect. In particular we need to study the Dharma so that our minds become permeated by the concepts of the Dharma – the law of conditionality, karma, the six perfections and so on. When our minds are permeated by the concepts of the dharma we can reflect on our own experience with the help of these concepts and gradually over time we gain greater insight into our own mind, our own experience and by extension into the minds of others and into the nature of reality. A natural consequence of this is to experience compassion.

If we experience compassion we will act on it. In fact compassion isn’t really a feeling or emotion, as we normally understand them, it is better thought of as an activity – ultimately it is the only activity of an enlightened mind.

So I have been talking about the internal conditions that we need to create in order to live an effective spiritual life. An effective spiritual life is one that is tending towards Insight and compassionate activity. These internal conditions will enhance our willingness and ability to follow the Buddha’s teaching.

In order to help ourselves to create these internal conditions for spiritual practice we need to have good external conditions. The main external condition we need is a Sangha, a spiritual community. We can only have a spiritual community if we engage in creating a spiritual community. A spiritual community is not something abstract and it is not simply a group of people or an organisation. A spiritual community is something dynamic and changing – it is the interactions - the open, honest, kindly communication between people who hold a common spiritual ideal and a common practice.

So to create the essential external condition for spiritual practice, spiritual community, we need to engage with others who share our ideals and our practices.

We need to gradually befriend some people and build trust and honest, open connections.

To do this we need to spend time with people. This is one of the reasons why retreats are so valuable; they allow an opportunity for deeper communication. Of course it is not enough just to see people on retreat, which is why the Buddhist centre with all its activities is such a great resource. Some people of course want to engage with each other even more deeply by living together in community and by working together. However we go about creating spiritual community we will need to befriend people by listening to them, empathising with them, thinking of them, rejoicing in them and being generous to them. If we do this we will create a growing network of kindness and goodwill, which is sangha.

If we can establish the internal conditions of being able and willing to live a spiritual live and the external condition of spiritual community, which supports us, then our practice will be enhanced enormously.

That practice is essentially the practice of generosity, ethics, meditation and reflection.

Generosity means thinking of other people, being aware of them and being willing to help them with time, energy, money, sharing knowledge, creating positive conditions and so on. It is about giving appropriately bearing in mind our own capacity and what is needed.

Ethics is all about metta and awareness. It means bringing metta and awareness into all our relationships, whether our relationship to our self, to other people, to the environment, to parents, mentors, children, politicians, animals, birds, teenagers, and so on – it is about becoming mettaful and aware so that everything and everybody we come into contact with is perceived through the eyes of metta and awareness.

Meditation is the means to opening into higher more refined states of consciousness, and it is important that it doesn’t just remain a technique that we use for an hour a day, but rather permeates our whole life. An effective meditator should be in a higher state of consciousness all the time and this is expressed in positive emotion, awareness of other people, awareness of the world around and a free flowing energy.

Reflection is what deepens spiritual practice into insight. We reflect in meditation, or by thinking about things, or we reflect by writing and by engaging in discussion and study.

Today is wesak. We are celebrating the occasion when Siddhartha became a Buddha – an awakened one. Before he became a Buddha he had to make an effort, he had to practice generosity, ethics, meditation and reflection just as we do.

In the Dvedhavitakka Sutta (MN 19) he says:

“Bhikkhus, before my enlightenment, while I was still an unenlightened Bodhisatta, it occurred to me: ‘ Suppose that I divide my thoughts into two classes.’ Then I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill-will, and thoughts of cruelty and I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non- ill will and thoughts of non-cruelty.” P207.

He goes on to talk about how he would become aware of his state of mind and then he would deliberately reflect on the consequences of that mental state – in terms of the effect on himself, the effect on others and whether it would move him in the direction of Enlightenment. I find this Sutta quite helpful and encouraging. Although the basic idea is quite simple and it is a teaching to be found in various forms throughout the Buddhist scriptures – the teaching of right effort- there is something particularly encouraging about how the Buddha talks about himself having to make this effort – needing to reflect, needing to meditate. He says he also noticed that if he spent too much time thinking and reflecting he would get stressed and his antidote to mental stress and strain was to meditate.

So according to this Sutta, Siddhartha was not some kind of superman. He experienced negative mental states; he had to make an effort to be aware and an effort to change his state of mind. He had to be careful not to strain too much by thinking too much, so he would relax into meditation to refresh his mind and body.

Here we see Siddhartha practising awareness of mental states (which includes emotions), we see him bringing an ethical dimension into his reflections-reflecting on the consequences of his mental states and we see him meditating to refresh himself.

The practice not mentioned here is generosity – in the Sutta he speaks instead of renunciation.

However all Buddhist practice is done within an understood and implied context of generosity and compassion. The whole point of Buddhist practice is to alleviate the suffering of ourselves and others by transcending narrow egotism and going beyond the greed, the ill-will and the delusion which are all about bolstering up a sense of a fixed and separate self.

This going beyond greed, ill-will and delusion is the ultimate generosity – it is also the ultimate happiness – Nirvana- the blowing out of the flames of all negative emotions.

This is what the Buddha achieved sitting beneath the Bodhi tree. It is this triumph, this victory of all that is best in human consciousness over all that is worst – this is what we celebrate at Wesak. And the celebration is a reminder to us of what Buddhism is really about – namely, awakening to wisdom and compassion. It is also an encouragement to us because the Buddha was human and subject to the same mental conflict and struggles that we are subject to and he has shown that it is possible to go beyond these conflicts and struggles.

That is why the Buddha is a true refuge – he can be relied upon. That is why the Dharma, his teaching is a true refuge – it can be relied upon and that is also why the spiritual community of his enlightened followers are a true refuge.

To make progress we need to move ever closer to those refuges by practising generosity, ethics, meditation and reflection.

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