Monday, 2 November 2009

The Greatest Gift

National Order Weekend November 2009

“This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment, enjoys attachment. For a generation delighting in attachment, excited by attachment, enjoying attachment, conditionality & dependent co-arising are hard to see. This state, too, is hard to see: the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving; dispassion; cessation; Nibbana. If I were to teach the Dhamma, others would not understand me, and that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me.'
"Just then these verses, unspoken in the past, unheard before, occurred to me:
'Enough now with teaching what only with difficulty I reached. This Dhamma is not easily realized by those overcome with aversion & passion. What is abstruse, subtle, deep, hard to see, going against the flow — those delighting in passion, cloaked in the mass of darkness, won't see.'
"As I reflected thus, my mind inclined to inaction rather than to teaching the Dhamma.” MN 26, p.260.

We are all familiar with the story of how the newly enlightened Buddha was disinclined to teach the Dharma, because others would be unlikely to understand and because it would be vexatious to him, wearying and troublesome as it says here. In this, many of us can probably empathise with him. Fortunately for us he did communicate his experience, and here we are over 2500 years later still benefiting from and engaging with that communication -- which tells us something about the significance of the experience he had for humanity and something about the significance of communication itself. When we communicate universal ideas, we are entering a conversation that carries on over centuries and millennia. The Buddha communicated his insights, others have responded by practising as he recommended and by further elucidating his message. This practice and elucidation then becomes another expression, another communication of the Buddha's message, which others then respond to, and so on down the centuries, across cultures and nationalities and via many languages. The conversation initiated by the Buddha continues. We have joined in that conversation by responding to Bhante Sangharakshita's elucidation and so the wheel of the dharma continues to roll on.

The Buddha encouraged his followers to spread the dharma from the beginning. He urged his first 61 disciples to " go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and men. Teach the dharma, that is good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end, with the meaning and the letter." Nanamoli, Life of the Buddha, p.52.

Those disciples did as they were asked and the Sangha grew rapidly. There are some verses in the Samyutta Nikaya which are a conversation between the Buddha and Mara, some seven years after the Enlightenment in which Mara tries to discourage the Buddha from teaching. He says "if you have truly found a path that leads in safety to the deathless, depart. But go by it alone, what need to let another know?" And the Buddha responds. "People who seek to cross beyond asked me where death cannot prevail: thus asked, I tell the end of all, where is no substance for rebirth". Nanamoli, p.61.

In the Majjhima Nikaya, Sutta 49, there is another conversation between the Buddha and Mara. Mara is trying to convince him that if he teaches the Dharma he will suffer an inferior rebirth. Mara follows up his argument by saying "So, bhikkhu, I tell you this: be sure good sir to abide inactive, devoted to a pleasant abiding here and now , this is better left undeclared, and so, good sir, inform no one else".

I suppose there are many ways to interpret a conversation between the Buddha and Mara -- especially after the Enlightenment. But one way of seeing it is that there are always opposing forces to the dharma. Whether these manifest in the external world or within our own minds, they are powerful forces, which are constantly encouraging us to think of our own comfort and to avoid what may be inconvenient, to look after number one, in short to be self-centred.

Bhante says in Wisdom Beyond Words. "Every advertisement that you see is in effect an advertisement against Buddhism, because it promotes greed, hatred,or delusion or all three", and it's not just advertisements. There are lots of things which are easy, stimulating, interesting and which keep us distracted from the dharma; watching TV or BBC iplayer, surfing the Internet, playing computer games, facebook, twitter, e-mail, iPod and much more. Mara doesn't have to try very hard to persuade us to give a lot of time to personal pursuits and even to see our Dharma practice as another personal pursuit among many. But the Buddha is quite explicit about what we need to do -- "go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and men. Teach the dharma, that is good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end, with the meaning and the letter."

Later in the Mahayana sutras, you get what seems at first a strange and annoying refrain -- any son or daughter of good family who takes just one verse or four lines of this sutra and bears it in mind, recites and studies it and illuminates it in detail for others -- will beget incalculable, immeasurable merit. You find this refrain in the Diamond Sutra and something similar in the Sutra of Golden Light. And sometimes you feel like saying "all right, but where is the sutra.". It's as if the compiler of the sutra is so concerned that you take it up and teach it that he forgets to tell you what the message of the sutra is. But of course, the importance of sharing the dharma is precisely the message. The Diamond Sutra, is for instance, a perfection of wisdom text and pretty abstruse and paradoxical, but you get this refrain about illuminating it in detail for others about eight times, I think. And of course the message is that there is no Perfection of Wisdom without compassion -- Sunyata is nothing unless it is compassion. And compassion is not just about responding to people who are suffering in some obvious way like physical or emotional distress. Compassion is primarily a response to spiritual ignorance, it is pointing out the path for those who want a path, it is the finger pointing at the moon of the Dharma As Bhante puts it in his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, " any amount of giving of material things in the ordinary worldly sense, however appropriate, necessary, and beneficial it may be on its own level, or however meritorious in a traditional Buddhist sense, is completely incomparable with even the smallest amount of giving of the Dharma, and especially with the gift of the perfection of wisdom. The Buddha is the effectively saying that if you go and give just one talk on the Dharma to an audience of people who have never heard the dharma before, disclosing to them perspectives which have never been disclosed to them before, the amount of merit, you thereby generate is far greater than if you had spent, say, 10,000 lifetimes as a social worker in 10,000 different worlds. It is almost impossible to overestimate just how meritorious, teaching the dharma is." (Wisdom Beyond Words, p.115.)

In the Vimalakirti Nirdesa there is a passage about how Bodhisattva's harm themselves which re-inforces this message about sharing the Dharma with others -

"Maitreya, there are two reasons the beginner bodhisattvas hurt themselves and do not concentrate on the profound Dharma. What are they? Hearing this profound teaching never before heard, they are terrified and doubtful, do not rejoice, and reject it, thinking, 'Whence comes this teaching never before heard?' They then behold other noble sons accepting, becoming vessels for, and teaching this profound teaching, and they do not attend upon them, do not befriend them, do not respect them, and do not honor them, and eventually they go so far as to criticize them. These are the two reasons the beginner bodhisattvas hurt themselves and do not penetrate the profound Dharma."

So this about not being receptive to the dharma and being disrespectful and dismissive of those who are committed and practising.

"There are two reasons the bodhisattvas who do aspire to the profound Dharma hurt themselves and do not attain the tolerance of the ultimate birthlessness of things. What are these two? These bodhisattvas despise and reproach the beginner bodhisattvas, who have not been practicing for a long time, and they do not initiate them or instruct them in the profound teaching. Having no great respect for this profound teaching, they are not careful about its rules. They help living beings by means of material gifts and do not help them by means of the gift of the Dharma. Such, Maitreya, are the two reasons the bodhisattvas who aspire to the profound Dharma hurt themselves and will not quickly attain the tolerance of the ultimate birthlessness of all things." Page 101, Thurman.

"They help living beings by means of material gifts and do not help them by means of the gift of the Dharma." This brings us back to the earlier tradition of the Pali Canon.

In the Itivutakka the Buddha says "there are two kinds of gifts: the gift of material things and the gift of Dhamma: the greater of these is the gift of the Dhamma." (Nanamoli, p. 200.) In recent years, I've noticed that Bhante has reiterated again and again the importance of spreading the dharma. He has mentioned it in question and answer sessions many times, and in his recent message to the order he says, quite emphatically that if an order member is not actively working to spread the dharma, then they are not going for refuge as effectively as they might be. Indeed, the archetype of the order is the 1000 armed Avalokitesvara, which implies that every order member is engaged in the bodhisattva activity of dispelling ignorance with the light of the dharma.

The Buddha of the Pali Canon says teach the dharma, share the Dharma , spread the dharma. The Mahayana sutras say share the Dharma, spread the Dharma, teach the Dharma and Bhante repeats over and over spread the Dharma, share the Dharma, teach the Dharma. So what is this Dharma that we should spread and share and given that we are not all spiritual geniuses or gifted communicators, how can we teach the Dharma?

From one perspective the Dharma is the Truth, it is Reality, the way things are. The Dharma is also the teachings and practices which lead to the Truth. In other words the Dharma is the Path, the spiritual path. It is difficult if not impossible to give the Dharma as Truth. First of all you have to realise the truth for yourself, embody it and then there is really no question of giving anything – everything you say and do is a sharing of the Dharma. For most of us, however, giving the Dharma is a matter of telling others about the teachings of the Buddha and helping others to do the practices outlined by the Buddha. Even that is not easy. The teachings and practices have been added to and filtered through two and a half thousand years of history, diverse cultures and many great teachers and masters. So we are faced with a huge and complex myriad of teachings and practices, some of which contradict each other and some of which don’t seem to bear any relationship to the Buddha’s original thoughts in so far as we know them from the early scriptures of the Pali canon. What are we to do? How are we to make sense of it all – Theravada, zen, tantra. Hua yen, yogachara, tien tai, shingon, madhyamika, the forty meditations, the pantheon of tantric deities, koans, mantras, prayer wheels, the alms round, and so on. We need a teacher. Each tradition has it’s own teachers, elders, gurus, and masters who elucidate a path and a set of coherent views for their followers and disciples. In our own tradition, our teacher is Urgyen Sangharakshita. He has elucidated a coherent path and view, which manifests in all sorts of ways. He did this by taking aspects of the dharma and drawing out their significance by giving talks – often a series of talks on one topic, such as eight talks on the Bodhisattva Ideal and eight talks on the Tantra or five talks on Zen and so on – about 200 talks in total. He also took various texts- either scriptures or commentaries and elucidated their deeper meaning in seminars which were recorded, transcribed and often published in edited form. In this way we have been given a clear set of teachings and a clear path – we have been guided through the jungle of complex teachings and practices and given what we need in order to progress towards realisation of the Truth.

The key view or teaching at the heart of all this is Pratitya Samutpada – conditioned co-production and the central practice is Going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Both of these can be unfolded to reveal more and more depth and profundity and both overlap and interconnect.

Pratitya Samutpada is the seemingly simple concept that everything arises is dependence upon conditions. Or to put it another way nothing has an essential nature that is apart from conditions. Further to this – not only does everything arise in dependence on conditions, but all of those conditions are similarly interfused, interconnected and inter-penetrating. Everything arises in dependence upon a multiplicity of conditions all of which are inter-related. This is an idea that we can grasp intellectually, but we need to go further than that. This idea is a symbol of a deeper reality that has to be realised on the deepest possible level. When any individual realises this Truth in all it’s depth and significance it has the effect of total transformation. Nothing is as it was before. What we think of as ‘me’ or ‘I’ can no longer be related to in the same way and what we think of as ‘other’, as ‘him’ or ‘her’ or ‘them’ can no longer be related to in the same way either. Conditioned co-production is not just an idea, it is not an attempt to give a scientific description of our world, it is , rather, a profound spiritual Truth that has to be intuited, imagined, embodied, felt , has to become the way we experience everything, everywhere, all the time.

Going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is the practice we commit ourselves to in order to bring about this realisation. Going for Refuge implies a commitment to having the Three Jewels at the heart of our life. The more intensely and wholeheartedly we Go for Refuge to the Buddha, dharma and Sangha the more sure we are to realise the Truth of Pratitya Samutpada. We go for refuge to the Buddha by taking him as our Ideal. We see the Buddha as the embodiment of the highest possible spiritual ideals. We aim our lives at emulating him and becoming Buddha’s ourselves. We aim at Awakening to ‘knowledge and vision of things as they really are’ as the Pali canon puts it. We go for refuge to the Dharma by putting into practice the ethical guidelines and the meditation practices we have been taught and by reflecting often and long and deeply on the concepts of the Dharma and on our own experience in the light of our understanding of the Dharma. We go for refuge to the sangha by venerating and revering our teachers and all those who have realised the Truth and by giving full rein to our heartfelt gratitude for all that we have received from the Buddha and the generations who have kept the light of the dharma shining down the centuries and into our present time and our individual lives.

These two teachings, Conditioned Co-production, sometimes called Dependent Arising ( in Sanskrit – Pratitya Samutpada) and Going for Refuge, are at the heart of Sangharakshita’s elucidation of the Dharma. This is what he sees as the unifying principle and practice of Buddhism and all other teachings serve and relate to these. Everything else is an unfolding of the view of conditioned co-production and an intensifying of the centrality of Going for refuge to the Buddha Dharma and Sangha.

So this is the Dharma that we want to practice and to share.

But why should we share the Dharma? If people want the Dharma can’t they find it for them selves just like we did? I hope it’s obvious that this is spurious reasoning. We share the Dharma because it is in the nature of the Dharma to be shared. Or to put it simply – the practise of the Dharma means sharing the Dharma. There is no such thing as a self-centred practice of the Dharma. To the extent that it is self-centred it is not the dharma. We didn’t just find the Dharma for ourselves – others, many others, went to the trouble of making it available to us in many different forms, in different places and so on. They did that because that is what it means to be a Buddhist. Of course not all of us can teach the Dharma – as in giving talks or leading study or retreats. But we can help in many, many ways to make the Dharma widely available. I’ll come back to that later.

If we have some idea of what the Dharma is, if we have responded with faith and enthusiasm to the ideas and practices and if we have the guidance of a teacher we trust, then we are indeed very fortunate. And if we have all that we probably also have a desire to see others benefit from the Dharma too – we quite naturally want to share our good fortune.

So the questions that arise are- who should we share the Dharma with, when should we share the Dharma, where should we share the Dharma and all importantly how should we share the Dharma.

When I first became a Buddhist I was extremely enthusiastic about the Dharma and I couldn’t help talking about it all the time and recommending it to my friends. I was a Buddhist bore and I actually alienated people by an insensitive over-enthusiasm. I think the best policy really is to only share the Dharma with those who really want it. In the Tiratana Vandana the Dharma is said to be of the nature of an invitation. So the people to share the Dharma with are those who accept the invitation. There is no question of trying to convert or persuade people that they should be Buddhists or that they should meditate. Freedom is of the essence in Buddhism and only those who feel free not to be Buddhists can really be Buddhists. Only those who feel free not to be part of a Sangha can really be part of a Sangha. So when we talk about sharing the Dharma or giving the Dharma, what we mean is making it available for whoever may be interested.

There is really no limit to when and where to share the Dharma. However, there are some parts of the world where you would not be allowed to openly teach meditation or Buddhism, without risking very severe punishment. The best time to share the Dharma is when we are inspired and energised by the practices – ethics, meditation, reflection, puja, retreat and sangha. And of course the best place is where there is receptivity and interest.

The question of how to share the Dharma is an interesting one. We talk about Dharma teachers and about teaching the Dharma – but in a way, we can only teach about the Dharma. Sharing the Dharma is not really a matter of talking about the Dharma, that may be a part of it, but essentially it is a matter of practising the Dharma as fully as we can and embodying it’s principles to at least some degree. Unless we practice and what we say comes from a lived Dharma, it will only be empty words, at best the foamy bubbles on the surface of the river of the Dharma. In the Dhammapada the Buddha says “First establish yourself in what is suitable, then advise others”.(Verse 158).

So the first thing to say about how to share the Dharma is that it is not just about teaching or giving talks or leading study groups or leading retreats. Any practising Buddhist is a living , walking, talking Dharma teaching. Your mindfulness, your kindness, your ability to listen and empathise, your friendliness, your honesty and openness, your generosity, your energy, your co-operativeness are all qualities and behaviours that communicate very strongly the spirit of the Dharma. Often when people go on retreat for the first time or come to a Buddhist centre for the first time they will report that what struck them most was the way the retreat team related to each other or the attentive way someone listened to them or just the atmosphere of friendliness. These things often have a greater impact than what is said. So anyone can communicate the Dharma in this way – by putting it into practise wholeheartedly.

However we do also need those who can explain and elucidate texts and commentaries. We need those who can give talks and lead study – although, it is still necessary that the basic foundation of wholehearted practise is there too. There needs to be a degree of congruency between what we say and how we behave and our mental states.

I think Bhante Sangharakshita is a very good example of how to share the Dharma. He has been practising intensively for nearly seventy years. As a young man he studied and meditated constantly and as young monk he practised mindfulness all the time – adopting the traditional practise of looking at the ground ahead of him whenever he had to go out, as a way of avoiding distraction. On the basis of his insight into the Diamond sutra and his assiduous practice, he was able to communicate from a great depth of understanding and elucidate even very difficult texts out of his experience. He gave lots of talks, wrote articles and books and published magazines and he created sangha. He even did a stint lecturing at Yale University. In 1970 I think. He has been interviewed and filmed and now he uses the internet. He has made connections between the Dharma and western culture and philosophy and he has of course led retreats and study seminars. He has in short used all available means to communicate his understanding and experience of the Dharma.

It is possible for us to engage with all of these ways of making the dharma available – we may not be ready or able to communicate the Dharma directly to others, but we can support those who do and we can intensify our own practise of ethics, meditation and reflection so that our life is an example and a communication in itself.

It cannot be emphasised too much that the primary way to communicate and share the Dharma is by practising, by Going for refuge to the three jewels. Going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is dependant on conditions – this is the truth of Pratitya Samutpada in the area of spiritual life. A major part of Going for refuge is creating the conditions that enable us to GFR effectively and of course engaging with and making use of the conditions that are available to us. Often people feel they are not making much progress on the spiritual path, and often if they look honestly at their lives they will see that the reason is that they have put themselves in conditions that make progress difficult or put themselves outside conditions that are helpful. For most of us most of the time the primary condition we need to have in our lives in order to make spiritual progress is other people who are also enthusiastically treading the Path. Without the presence of others and communication around the pleasures and pitfalls on the path – we are at a great disadvantage. Perhaps even more basic than open, honest and friendly communication is psychological health and integration. If we have unresolved psychological issues they will often obstruct our ability to be effectively engaged with the sangha and cause us to blame and complain and feel hurt and offended to such a degree that we become isolated and alienated and what seemed to be a solution to our problems becomes an even bigger problem. So, I believe it is essential that those who need to should see psychological work as part of the necessary conditions for going for refuge effectively. If we expect too much from others we will be sorely disappointed and we could tragically send ourselves on a downward spiral into illness and loneliness.

So we can communicate something of the value of the Dharma by making efforts to sort out any psychological difficulties we have that cause us to experience irrational fear of others or put us in conflict with them, and we can also communicate the value and spirit of the Dharma by setting up and engaging with the best possible conditions for practise – which may not be in accordance with our mundane preferences. Just by the way, I would say one condition that is absolutely essential if any progress is to be made is going on retreat. I am not at all sure it is possible to effectively go for refuge without the benefit of retreats which take us away from our usual routine for a time. To put it a bit more strongly- I am not sure you can really be a serious Buddhist unless you go on retreat – at least for a couple of weeks a year. This is my personal view based on experience and observation.

If we are working on our psychological issues and doing our best to involve ourselves in good conditions for practise, then we will be communicating the Dharma to some extent.

We cannot all give talks but we can listen and try to be receptive, we can tell others about any especially inspiring talk and we can read transcripts if there are any or we can even make transcripts if we feel so moved. A Dharma talk is not an entertainment – it is an attempt to communicate something of value – different speakers have different abilities, but as listeners we need to try to hear the message and not be overly concerned with the speakers nervousness or habits of speech or whatever. Every Dharma talk probably has something to teach us if we only listen.

I say we can’t all give talks – but is that right. If we can talk then we can give a Dharma talk or at least talk about the Dharma as we understand and practice it. When I first got involved I was very shy and didn’t like to speak in groups, even the mitra study group and when I was given the letter in Guhyaloka in 1988 saying that I was going to be ordained my immediate response was that I couldn’t possibly become an Order Member because I couldn’t lead study or give talks, which was what I considered central to the life of an OM. I did take on leading study fairly soon after ordination but I didn’t begin giving Dharma talks until six years after ordination, when I became chairman at the LBC. I still found it difficult to be in front of an audience but by dint of practice that has ceased to be a problem. However, whenever I am asked to give a talk or lead a retreat or lead anything my immediate instinctive response is to recoil – an aspect of me just does not want to lead or be the focus of other peoples attention – but that can be overcome and I do manage to overcome it most times. I am saying all this, for the benefit of anyone who thinks that for some reason they cannot give Dharma talks or lead study - you may be right but maybe you can do a lot more than you think.

Bhante says something which I find encouraging in this regard. In Wisdom Beyond Words he says, “ The verbal formulation of the Enlightened point of view can actually create an impression on the hearer that is more profound than the impression it makes on the person speaking. Even in the context of a poor lecture the teaching can mean more to the listener than it does to the speaker. In other words, a teacher can allow for some kind of inherent power, not just in the Dharma, but in the Dharma as formulated”.. P. 216.

Or to put it another way you may be able to communicate the Dharma even if you don’t really know what you are talking about !!!!!!

Similarly with Dharma classes or study groups – perhaps we can’t all be leaders or facilitators, but we can be supportive of those who do take on that task. We can give practical support- make the tea, arrange the cushions or whatever is needed. We can give our friendliness and extend hospitality and a welcome to whoever turns up. These things are not insignificant, indeed as I said earlier they often make a deeper impression on people than what is said in the course of the study or class. So your friendliness and ability to listen could be communicating much more than the leader of the class does, because it is very human to respond strongly to friendliness and attention and sincerity.

When I lead study, what I find most supportive is the engagement of those in the group. There are some people who seem to feel that thinking for themselves means being in opposition to almost everything they hear. But the first thing required for genuine engagement is understanding. You must understand what is being said first. It is then very necessary to get a sense of how we feel about it and what we think about it – two different things and whether we can see any relevance to our life and to spiritual practice. Here is a quote from Sangharakshita, which gives us some tips about how to reflect on Dharma texts “ many years ago, I constantly asked myself: ‘ how does this teaching relate to one’s actual spiritual experience, spiritual life, spiritual development? Why did the Buddha say this? Why was the Buddha concerned with this? Where does it connect up with the spiritual life?’ “

This kind of reflection and enquiry is part of the practise of wisdom. If we can reflect on the Dharma and on our own experience in this way, we will become teachers of the Dharma by example and by reason of a new depth of understanding.

Many of us will have made our first contact with the Dharma through books, and this is still a major way of communicating and making the Dharma available . We can’t all write books perhaps. Although it is sometimes said that there is at least one book in everybody. If we can’t write books, we can buy them and in that way support the authors and the small publishers. We can read books and tell others about them, thus giving more support to the author. And of course we can learn from books, be inspired by books and books can change our lives. So even if we don’t write a book we can try to be aware of what it means for someone to write a book and give them a s much support as possible if we feel that what they have to say is important or is a good communication of the Dharma.

Today we live in an increasingly multi-media world and therefore the Dharma can be and needs to be communicated using video and internet. There are two FWBO charities, Clear Vision and FWBO Dharmachakra, which do this very well,as well as Suryaprabha’s Lights in the Sky, but unfortunately all struggle to survive because of lack of financial support. Clear Vision, makes excellent videos. In particular they communicate Buddhism to teachers and classes in schools throughout the UK and even further afield. They also video all of Bhante’s talks for posterity and they keep an archive of film and photos. All of this is a lot of work and their small charity finds it very hard to make ends meet. So if you want to help to communicate the Dharma via film then think about helping Clear Vision. And of course Lights in the Sky.

The internet is an amazing resource with it’s almost world wide reach and it’s web-like networking ability. Free Buddhist Audio is a website which makes available to anyone with access to the internet all of Sangharakshita’s talks in audio format and seminars in transcript. It also makes available talks by other Order Members and has a community section which links to Buddhist centres around the world. There is a section for Mitra Study and many more features. It is an outstanding achievement and an invaluable resource. It is especially precious to those who do not live near other Buddhists or a Buddhist centre. Via Free Buddhist Audio they can access teachings on every aspect of the Dharma and get a sense of connection with other like-minded people. Before Free Buddhist Audio there were cd’s or tapes and these were not cheap for many people. Free Buddhist Audio is as it says – free. It is not paid for by advertising, it is not sponsored by any corporation – it relies on donations. Unfortunately only about 4% of people who use it actually make a donation, as yet. Thousands of people all over the world use Free Buddhist Audio every month. A huge number in the US for instance but also people from every other continent. It is a fantastic resource and ongoing project and needs the support of all of us.

The Buddha lived in a less complex world than we do. It was also a world in which the geographical scope of any communication was very limited, when compared to the possibilities of today. So in order to spread his message he had to exhort his followers to " go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and men. Teach the dharma, that is good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end, with the meaning and the letter."

That was the best way to reach the largest number and variety of people. Bhante is still encouraging us to go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and men. In his recent message, he said, “I wish more Order Members would go and pioneer. Why should dozens of Order Members cluster around a single urban centre when they could be spreading the Dharma somewhere else?”

Bhante expresses it as a wish because he obviously doesn't feel he can just tell us to “ go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and men.” as the Buddha could do with his disciples. But perhaps we should take it as something stronger than a wish. The voice of Mara is loud and clamorous, insidious, and ever present, saying "be sure good sir to abide inactive, devoted to a pleasant abiding here and now, this is better left undeclared, and so, good sir, inform no one else".

So, we have Bhante’s wish and the Buddha’s exhortation against Mara's seductive plea. Let's not remain inactive. If we cannot “go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world,” then let's do what we can do to share and spread the Dharma. If we can give talks and lead retreats and study let's do that. If we can support those who work to spread the Dharma, by listening to them, by working for them, by giving them money, let's do that. If we can support activities and institutions to spread the Dharma through books, videos and the Internet by giving them money or other help, let's do that.

Above all, let’s spread the Dharma by going for refuge more effectively and by paying close attention to setting up, establishing and maintaining the conditions that are most helpful to effective going for refuge both for ourselves and others. As the Buddha said, “there are two kinds of gift: the gift of material things and the gift of the Dhamma, the greatest of these is the gift of the Dharma”. It is the greatest gift.

Monday, 10 August 2009

Ratnasambhava Forever Giving

Ratnasambhava - Forever Giving

This is the text of a talk given at Windhorse on 15th August 2009.

I have been asked to talk about Ratnasambhava. I assume the reason I have been asked to speak about RS is because I have been meditating on Ratnasambhava for the last 21 years. Ratnasambhava is part of the very rich symbolism of Vajrayana Buddhism and the reason why someone ends up meditating on a particular form of Tantric symbolism is quite mysterious. It is quite mysterious to me why I have come to have this association or relationship with RS. It began very simply with something I read about Mamaki who is the female consort of RS and represents the Wisdom aspect. However beyond that it seemed to be a spontaneous arising of images in meditation that sealed the bond with RS. As with any Tantric image the symbolism is rich and intricate and has all sorts of connections with the whole system of symbolism which is the language of the Tantra. It is as if our minds have a deep pattern of wholeness which is not expressible in words and concepts but which images and symbols are able to embody and communicate at deeper and deeper levels of integration and awareness. And the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas give expression to the most awakened states of consciousness possible. Each Buddha and Bodhisattva expresses in symbolic form the whole of the Enlightened experience and each emphasises some particular aspect at the same time. So each figure speaks to us individually in different ways and is also a complete symbolic communication and embodiment of Enlightenment.

Ratnasambhava is one of the Buddhas in the mandala of the five Buddhas or five Jinas. The whole Mandala is a symbol of Enlightened consciousness and each of the five Buddhas is also a complete symbol of Enlightenment, but each one emphasises a particular aspect. Akshobya, the blue Buddha, emphasises patience, imperturbability and objectivity. Amitabha, the red Buddha, emphasises tranquillity, depth, love and the wisdom that sees uniqueness. Amoghasiddhi, the green Buddha, emphasises courage, confidence and compassionate action. Vairocana, the white Buddha, emphasises communication of the Dharma. Ratnasambhava, who is yellow or golden yellow, emphasises generosity, beauty and the wisdom that sees how all beings are the same.

So the image of RS is of a Buddha seated in full lotus posture on a white moon disc which is in the centre of a yellow lotus. The lotus throne is supported on the backs of four golden yellow horses. Ratnasambhava’s body is made of golden yellow light and he is wearing richly embroidered yellow robes. His right hand is resting on his right knee with the open hand facing outwards – this is the gesture of supreme giving, the varada mudra. His left hand is resting in his lap with the palm facing upwards and resting on the open palm is a shining jewel. His hair is blue/black in colour and he is smiling compassionately. Around his head is an aura of green light and around his body is an aura of blue light. Ratnasambhava is associated with the qualities of giving, richness and abundance, expansiveness, beauty, creativity and the Wisdom of Equality.

I want to go into some of this symbolism in more detail and draw out it’s significance for the life of spiritual commitment.

I will begin with the horses. Horses were a symbol of wealth. Anyone who possessed horses was wealthy – a bit like owning a BMW or SUV. So because Ratnasambhava is associated with spiritual richness and the attitude of abundance and generosity, the horses became the symbol of that. More psychologically the horse symbolises the natural animal energies which are gathered together, integrated and focussed so that they come to be supportive of spiritual endeavour and spiritual experience. Energies which would be expended in craving or aversion are sublimated and channelled until they are no longer a hindrance but rather a help to spiritual efforts. Or to put it more simply rather than illwill, resentment, arrogance, pride, greed, and so on we transform our energies into something more positive and this transformation is symbolised by the horses steadily supporting the lotus throne of Ratnasambhava.

Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, evokes something of this energy in his poem called Horses (Caballos).

I saw horses from the window

I was in Berlin, in winter.

The light was without light,

the sky without sky.

The air, white like soaked bread.

And from my window I saw a desolate arena

bitten by the teeth of winter.

Suddenly, conducted by one man

ten horses stepped out of the fog.

Gently wavering, they emerged like flames,

yet for my eyes, they filled the whole world,

empty until this hour.

Perfect, burning, they were like ten gods

on large, chaste hooves with manes like the dream of salt.

Their rumps were worlds and oranges.

Their colour was honey, amber, blazing.

Their necks were towers

cut from the stone of pride,

and energy, like a prisoner,

rose up in their furious eyes.

And there in silence, in the middle of the day,

in a dirty and dishevelled winter,

the intense horses were the blood,

the rhythm, the inciting treasure of life.

I looked and looked and so returned to life:

not knowing there was the fountain,

the dance of gold, the sky,

the fire that lives in Beauty.

I shall not forget the winter of that dark Berlin.

I shall not forget the light of those horses.

Beneath the lotus is the mundane mind and above the lotus is transcendental consciousness, so the lotus symbolises the transition from the mundane to the transcendental. The transition from the selfish in all it’s subtlety to the selfless in all it’s sublimity.

The horses represent the highest of mundane consciousness – a great concentration of energies which is sufficient to enable a breakthrough into an altogether different level of consciousness – an altogether different perspective on life and it’s experiences.

The mundane experience of life, whether gross or subtle, is an experience that is filtered through a narrow sense of self, a sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’, a sense of possessiveness, defensiveness, fear, insecurity, pride, status seeking and so on. The fully Awakened consciousness on the other hand, is free of insecurity and status seeking, free of any sense of possessiveness or defensiveness, free of all sense of ‘I’ or ‘mine’.

In between these two – the mundane and the fully awakened consciousness – there is a whole spectrum of relatively more awakened, more transcendent states. In the various Buddhist traditions these are referred to in many ways. For instance there is the sequence of Stream Entrant, Once returner, Non-Returner and Arahant. There is the Bodhisattva Path and the bhumis. There are the levels of Going for refuge.

Practically speaking it is probably best that we see this as a continuum from a relatively self-centred state of consciousness or awareness to a more and more expansive state of awareness. The more expansive state of awareness is equally concerned with self and others and able more and more to relate to the spiritual potential of others rather than to their personalities or their usefulness.

The lotus can be seen to represent this continuum of awareness which is what the spiritual path really is. The metaphor of the spiritual path is an image for the growth in awareness and compassion that gradually becomes an awakening into Reality. We are the path to the extent that we are growing, changing and expanding in awareness.

In the middle of the lotus there is a moon mat of brilliant white light. This represents the purity at the heart of the awakening mind. Perfect morality or purity is associated with the non-returner of the Pali Canon. So we could see the horses as representing dhyanic states, the lotus representing insight or stream entry and the moon mat is the stage of the non-returner or perfect purity. This is a spiral path in symbolic form.

By making an effort to observe the ethical principles in all aspects of our lives and in more and more subtle ways, we pursue a process of purification and this process can continue for a long time, burning up more and more of the scattered debris of our previous unskilfulness.

The practice of purification involves confession of our faults and rejoicing in our merits and aspirations. In order to purify our minds we try to become aware of when we are indulging in unskilful mental states. Meditation enables us to slow down enough to notice the tendency of our mind. When we become aware that our mind is tending towards the unskilful or is completely immersed in unskilful attitudes, then we have to remind ourselves of our higher aspirations and the attitudes and awareness that characterise a purified and skilful mind. Sometimes we may need to look deeper into the roots of our unskilful mental states before we can develop a more positive awareness. For example, we may find that we are angry and going over and over in our mind some situation that has given rise to anger. We may need to look deeper into why our response is one of anger. Perhaps we are anxious or frightened about something and anger is a kind of defence or perhaps we had expectations of love and attention that we didn’t get. Then we can look deeper still and gradually uncover the existential insecurity and constructed ego identity that lie behind our response to the world, our responses to other people.

By reflecting deeply in this way our ethical practice becomes insight practice and we move from developing skilful sates to experiencing a state of purity, a state of pure awareness. This state of pure awareness is what the moon disc in the middle of the yellow lotus represents. This clear pure skilful state is the basis for the awakened mind represented by Ratnasambhava. Ratnasambhava sits on the moon disc in full lotus posture. His body is made of golden yellow light.

Golden yellow is a very rich vibrant colour. This continues the theme of richness and abundance associated with Ratnasambhava. Golden yellow is the colour of ripeness, of harvest, the fruits of the earth, and the rewards of labour. It is the colour most associated with the sun at it’s brightest, so it is the colour of life, aliveness. Ratnasambhava is intensely alive; the Awakened consciousness is here shown as the most vibrantly alive that we can be, bursting with the light of wisdom and drawing out the life and light of others, causing growth and ripening.

If we want to talk about this in terms of practice, then golden yellow represents the practice of encouraging – seeing the seeds of wisdom and compassion in ourselves and others and encouraging them to grow and ripen. Ratnasambhava is the great Encourager. The whole symbolism of richness, abundance and generosity is encouraging – coaxing the best out of us – encouraging the little seedlings of goodwill and affection and awareness to germinate and grow into fully blossoming loving kindness and wisdom and bear fruit in compassionate activity.

This is where the colour yellow evokes the Wisdom of Equality which is the particular aspect of wisdom associated with Ratnasambhava. The Wisdom of Equality is a very heightened awareness of the spiritual potential of all living beings. If you have a heightened awareness of the spiritual potential of others then you regard them all as equally important, equally valuable and you treat them with equal kindness and consideration. As with all the five Wisdoms associated with the Buddhas of the mandala, when you look closely you see that wisdom is compassion. Compassion in the sense of Maha Karuna –the Great Compassion – is the response of a Buddha to deluded beings.

Sometimes we think of compassion as a response to suffering, a kindly and helpful response to the physical and emotional pains of others. The Great Compassion is a response to the existential pain of deluded beings, it’s a response to the suffering caused by spiritual ignorance. The Buddha’s compassion goes towards all unenlightened beings regardless of whether they themselves realise that they are suffering. For example in the images of the Tibetan wheel of life the Buddha is depicted as playing the music of impermanence in the realm of the gods. This is Maha Karuna in action – the god’s do not know they are suffering but from the perspective of a Buddha they are. Perhaps they don’t even want to be reminded of impermanence!

Ratnasambhava’s Wisdom – the Wisdom of Equality, Samatajnana, is also the Wisdom that sees clearly the sameness of all beings in that all beings live within the Reality of Pratitya Samutpada. Pratitya Samutpada is the reality that everything in the entire universe arises in dependence upon conditions and therefore all beings, physically and mentally, arise in dependence upon conditions and all of the conditions are interlinked. All beings are part of the conditions in dependence upon which all beings arise. There are no beings who do not arise in dependence upon conditions and there are no beings who are not conditions for the arising of other phenomena. Because we inhabit a world of beings we are totally inter-connected and inter-dependent and therefore we are fundamentally, essentially, the same. The Wisdom of equality sees and experiences this so deeply that the only possible response to others is compassion.

The right hand of Ratnasambhava is extended in the mudra or gesture of supreme giving. This symbolises the continuous flow of generosity or compassion towards all beings. This continuous flow is the visible manifestation of the Awakened mind that has seen deeply into the truth of conditioned co-production, or dependent arising, as pratitya samutpada is sometimes translated.

The left hand of Ratnasambhava rests in his lap and a radiant jewel rests on the palm of his hand. The jewel is yet another symbol for the enlightened mind. It is precious, invaluable and it radiates light in all directions. Sometimes it is spoken of as the wish-fulfilling jewel, the jewel that grants all skilful wishes.

The two hands of Ratnasambhava taken together form a symbolism of the internal and the external, stillness and activity, the fullness of being overflowing into the fullness of giving. This is a unification of opposites or at least what can seem to be opposites from an unawakened perspective.

We tend to swing between withdrawal into stillness, followed by activity or a focus on inner life, the inner world followed by a focus on the external world, a concern with self followed by a concern with others – but this symbolism – which is repeated again and again in different ways in the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas – this symbolism is telling us that these seeming opposites can be united, need to be united and will be united if we continue to progress spiritually.

We learn to be still in the midst of activity, to be aware of others and the external world without losing awareness of self. We come to experience for ourselves the sense of abundance and richness that is not depleted but rather enriched by giving. The two hands of Ratnasambhava form a kind of circle, an endless flow of energy, an endless flow of compassion – a mind purified and manifesting in compassionate activity and compassionate activity enhancing the purity of the Awakened mind.

Taken all together the symbolism of Ratnasambhava is all about expanding awareness in every direction. It is about including everything in awareness, or to put that a bit more mystically it is about expanding the mind, expanding consciousness until mind and the universe coincide, become synonymous.

What that means on a more everyday, down to earth, level is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the key practice in Buddhism. In the teaching of the five spiritual faculties there are two pairs of opposites – Wisdom and Faith and Meditation and energy – and the balancing faculty is mindfulness. It is the practice of mindfulness that brings everything else together.

What we are aiming for is an inter-connected mindfulness. We need to be aware of ourselves; our thoughts, emotions, words and actions. We need to be aware of other people in the same way. We need to be aware of our environment, the objects, space, light and colour around us. We need to be aware of reality; of impermanence, of the unsatisfactoriness of worldly things, of the higher truth represented by the Buddha. But our awareness in all these areas, all these dimensions, needs to be interconnected. We need to be aware of how everything affects everything else, how everything is always part of the conditions for something else. How does our environment affect us? How do we affect our environment? What effect do other people have on us and, even more importantly, what effect do we have on other people? In what way does Reality impact on us, on our environment, on other people? What is the effect of the potential for Awakening on our lives? Asking ourselves questions and reflecting in this way we can develop an inter-connected awareness, which is an essential basis for Awakening.

The symbolism of Ratnasambhava is encouraging this kind of interconnected awareness. When we take our awareness deeper into ourselves and further out in to the world around us, the promise is that we will experience great beauty and access to energy that is always flowing out into generous activity. This interconnected awareness is alive, rich and abundant. In symbolic terms it is golden yellow, a sun that gives warmth and nourishment everywhere equally and encourages us to grow and to emerge from the solid resistant earth of our mundane egoistic selves.

Ratnasambhava is known as the Buddha of Generosity and also as the Buddha of Beauty. What is Beauty as an aspect of the awakened Mind? The beautiful mind or the mind of beauty is the mind which sees and experiences everything from a non-utilitarian perspective. It is an aesthetic appreciation rather than a consideration of usefulness. Bhante talks about this in his latest book, Living Ethically. He says ‘ The Buddha remarks more than once in the Pali scriptures that a sign or characteristic of metta is that you see things as beautiful, subha. This is because the key element of both subha and metta, which raises them above ordinary human emotion, is disinterested awareness. …. a pure delight in the object for it’s own sake’. (page 86) He goes on to say, ‘ The aesthetic attitude is one that sees everything, including other people, with a warm and clear awareness, and appreciates things just as they are, without thinking how they could be improved or put to some use.’ (page 92)Our unawakened perspective is often materialistic and utilitarian in relation to the rest of the world. We tend to want to possess or accumulate that which enhances our sense of self and we want to exclude that which threatens our ego identity. The attitude of Beauty excludes nothing. This brings us back to Ratnasambhava’s Wisdom of Equality as represented by his consort Mamaki. Mamaki is known as the ‘my’ or ‘mine’ maker, in the sense that she makes everything her own, nothing is excluded and there is no grasping and no aversion.

What does this mean for us? We are engaged in this project of awakening to reality, the spiritual life, and one way of thinking about that is that we are trying to become bigger – we are trying to expand and develop an awareness that misses nothing, that denies nothing. We are trying to develop an attitude that does not condemn or praise what arises in our own minds too quickly. We accept what arises, reflect deeply on it and rely on the transforming power of awareness in alliance with our spiritual aspirations. Our spiritual aspiration is the context of all our practice. We usually talk about this as faith, (Sraddha in Sanskrit). Because of our spiritual aspirations we are able to distinguish between skilful and unskilful mental states and our task is to bring awareness to all mental states equally, so that they can all be transformed towards the more skilful, towards wisdom and compassion.

The auras around the head and body of Ratnasambhava symbolise the effects of the process of the accumulation of merit and wisdom. When we are skilful in our actions, speech and thoughts it is as if we create a field of influence around us, an aura, which has an affect on others. The green aura around the head of Ratnasambhava represents the accumulation of wisdom and the blue aura around his body represents the accumulation of merit. This word ‘accumulation’ indicates that this is a process – the arising of insight into the nature of Reality is a process, Awakening is a process and the building up of purity of mind and merit, which enables us to be compassionate, is also a process. Our spiritual life is a process of unfolding like the leaves of the lotus unfold or growing like the lotus grows from the mud in the depths of the lake. As the Dhammapada says, using a different image, “Do not underestimate the good, thinking ‘it will not approach me’. A water pot becomes full by the constant falling of drops of water. Similarly the wise man little by little fills himself with good”. (verse 122)

I hope I have managed to convey something of the meaning of Ratnasambhava. I would like to finish off with a poem by the English poet Philip Larkin, which is called Solar and could almost be about Ratnasambhava.

Suspended lion face

Spilling at the centre

Of an unfurnished sky

How still you stand,

And how unaided

Single stalkless flower

You pour unrecompensed.

The eye sees you

Simplified by distance

Into an origin,

Your petalled head of flames

continouously exploding.

Heat is the echo of your


Coined there among

Lonely horizontals

You exist openly.

Our needs hourly

Climb and return like angels.

Unclosing like a hand,

You give for ever.