Saturday, 19 November 2011

Happy Indeed We Live

This talk was given on Sangha Day, November 2011 at Cambridge Buddhist Centre.

The Buddha often talked about the importance of Spiritual Community. Before he died he talked to his disciples about the conditions for the stability and continuity of the Sangha and on another occasion he exhorted them to look after each other as if they were family and early on he sent them out to spread the Dharma far and wide for the welfare of the many. His vision for the spiritual community was a vision of a community of people who made continuous efforts to transform themselves , who took his teaching out into the world and who were supportive of each other. So the Spiritual community is both a condition for spiritual practice and a spiritual practice in itself. We need the support of others in order to practice and we need to support others in order for them to practice effectively.
In the Dhammapada that vision is given in a very condensed form in the following three verses:

“Happy indeed we live, friendly amid the haters. Among men who hate we dwell free from hate.

Happy indeed we live, healthy amid the sick. Among men who are sick we dwell free from sickness.

Happy indeed we live, content amid the greedy. Among men who are greedy we dwell free from greed. “

I will look into these three verses and try to draw out their relevance to us as a spiritual community here in Cambridge. All three verses speak about being happy in the midst of or among those who are greedy, sick and given to hatred. The ideal being put forward is not one of complete withdrawal from the world but of being in the world and unsullied by it. Being in the world but not being worldly. It is an ideal of remaining in positive and skilful mental states even when surrounded by those who are predominantly negative and unskilful. The reason for being in the world in this way is to spread the truth of the Dharma out of compassion for the suffering caused by spiritual ignorance. This is what came to be known later as the Bodhisattva ideal. So that is the first thing to note about the spiritual community – to be an effective spiritual community it has to be in the midst of the world and working for the welfare of all. This is not to say that individual members of the spiritual community should not withdraw from the world from time to time. It is important that we all have the opportunity to withdraw from the world and be alone on occasions. In fact it is probably not possible to attain to the state of being happy among those who are unskilful and negative unless we do withdraw into retreat quite frequently.

Each of the verses begins with “Happy indeed we live”. The word for 'happy' here is 'susukham'. 'Sukha' is the word for 'happy' – we use it sometimes in the mantra 'sabbe satha sukhi hontu', meaning 'may all beings be happy'. Adding the prefix 'su' intensifies the word – 'sukha ' is happy, and 'susukha' is something like 'very happy'. In other words this is not just ordinary happiness, it is an intense happiness, a deep happiness and given the context it is an unshakeable happiness. It is a kind of equanimity. So this is a very high ideal. This happiness is not a fleeting ephemeral thing,it is not a good mood, it is a deep river of positivity flowing right through our whole being continuously. So for most of us this is something yet to be achieved. This is what we are aiming for. This does not of course mean that the verses have no relevance for us. The verses give us a sense of the direction in which we are heading both individually and collectively. We are aiming for this deep integrated happiness – 'susukha' – which will enable us to be an effective spiritual community easing the suffering of the world and deepening our own insights.

Then the verses talk about what that looks like in practice – friendly amid the haters, healthy amid the sick and content amid the greedy. This gives us an idea of how to practice to achieve the state of happiness. When we are happy in this sense we will be friendly amid the haters, healthy amid the sick and content amid the greedy and so in order to get to the state of happiness we can practice these things that are manifestations of that particular consciousness. This is the same principle that applies to ethical practice. The precepts are a description of how one who is Enlightened acts spontaneously and in order for us to be able to attain to the same experience we practice the precepts as a discipline.

How then do we practice being 'friendly amid the haters'? There are various elements to friendliness and various levels of friendliness. Friendliness includes hospitality, being interested in others, listening to others, being a friend in the sense of befriending others and it also includes Metta, Karuna, and Mudita. And as with the Metta Bhavana we can practice friendliness towards ourselves, our friends, our families, our work colleagues, the local community, the rest of the city, the whole country, all other countries and all other forms of life.

The practice of hospitality for us as sangha members should involve making any new person feel welcome here in the Buddhist Centre, whether they are a visiting Order Member or mitra who is new to this centre or someone who has come in out of curiosity or those who have booked on a course. Hospitality also means being welcoming and friendly even to those who we are familiar with. Many of us may be shy or introverts and therefore have a tendency to sit quietly in the background and others of us may have our own set of friends whom we want to chat with, but we need to always try to be aware of others and be friendly and welcoming to them. This means going beyond our comfort zone sometimes, but it is a necessary stage on the way to being so lacking in ego that we are deeply happy all the time. If we are to become the sort of people who can be friendly amid the haters, we need to start by being friendly amid the friendly and that means being hospitable and welcoming in the first instance.

To engage more deeply with the Spiritual community we need to be interested in others and we need to listen to them . Being aware of others and taking an interest in them is a training on the path to compassionate involvement in the world. The most practical way to develop this faculty is by learning to listen – listening to what is being said and being aware of what is being communicated non-verbally too. In the Sangha we will have some friendships which are much more intimate, where we share ourselves more fully. It is important for our spiritual and psychological welfare that we have good friends and the only way to have good friends is by befriending people. Friendship is active; it is something we do rather than something that happens to us.

To work on this ideal of being 'friendly amid the haters', we need to make an effort to be friendly in whatever situation we find ourselves in. We can try to be friendly with our family for instance and friendly with our work colleagues. These are two arenas that can often bring out the worst in us and sometimes we have to make a special effort to maintain awareness of our aspirations – to be happy and friendly in the midst of the world. The reason why these situations – especially perhaps the family – can be especially difficult is because we have roles that can be limiting. We may be a husband or wife, a mother or father, a daughter or son, a grandfather or grandmother and sometimes these roles can be a hindrance to being a human being in relationship with other human beings in the family context. We have to make an effort to see our mother as another person in her own right or we have to make an effort to relate our son as a person independent of us. But this is the sort of effort in awareness and friendliness that will lead us in the direction of our ideal.

Friendliness in relation to the wider community is a matter of taking an interest and supporting positive initiatives that encourage the values of kindness, generosity and awareness. There are many positive things happening here in Cambridge, whether in the area of the arts or ecology or caring for the elderly and less fortunate and as a sangha we need to be aware of what's going and and co-operate with and encourage what is positive and life enhancing when and where we can. Perhaps the very least we can do is to rejoice in what is well done, whether it has been done by a local politician or business person or artist or whoever.

Being 'friendly amid the haters' means above all that we do not take sides in any acrimonious disputes and where possible we try to calm troubled waters, if not build bridges over them.

The next verse is a little more difficult to understand – it exhorts us to be 'healthy among those who are sick'. Now we could take this literally, because research has shown that those who are happy are generally healthier and live longer than those who are not happy. And the Buddha speaks about non-violence, (another way of talking about friendliness), as being beneficial to health in the Culakammavibhanga Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya (no.135). Also in the Anguttara Nikaya there are eleven positive results of practising Loving Kindness, some of which would be very health giving, such as sleeping well, not having bad dreams, not being injured by weapons or poison, having a serene complexion and not being confused when death approaches.
However, you can also take this verse about being healthy among those who are sick in a more poetic way. In the Maagandiya Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya (75), the Buddha meets a wanderer who doesn't like him called Maagandhiya and in the course of their discussion the Buddha recites a little verse and then proceeds to explain it. The verse is “The greatest of all gains is health. Nibbana is the greatest bliss, The eightfold path is the best of paths, For it leads to the deathless”. He goes on to explain what he means by sickness and health. He talks about clinging to the five skandhas as the disease and the cessation of clinging as health. Clinging to the five skandhas is another way of talking about clinging to a fixed self-view, or clinging to ego. So being healthy among those who are sick comes to mean being egoless among those who are egotistic, or more simply being selfless among those who are selfish. This verse of the Dhammapada is about overcoming the delusion which binds us to selfishness through fear and ignorance. Being deeply happy and therefore being able to let go of self-centredness becomes easier if we are able to realise on a deep level that we are constantly changing beings and that all around us is also constantly changing so that the attempt to shore up our security by grasping and clinging on to our sense of self or to possessions or people will only cause pain and suffering. In case this all sounds a bit abstract, here is a quote from Bhante Sangharakshita that gets to the heart of the matter in a very direct way.
“A common misapprehension is to think of Insight and egolessness in abstract, even metaphysical, terms rather than as comprising concretely-lived attitudes and behaviour. But realizing the truth of egolessness simply means being truly and deeply unselfish. To contemplate the principle of egolessness as some special principle that is somehow separate from our actual behaviour will leave it as far away as ever. If we find it difficult to realize the ultimate emptiness of self, the solution is to try to be a little less selfish. The understanding comes after the experience, not before.” Living with Kindness, p.134.
It is worth noting that most of us probably have some experience of being selfless on occasion and are therefore not completely at sea when it comes to having some understanding of the truth of egolessness.

Let's have a look at what some of those concretely-lived attitudes might be if we want to be 'healthy amid the sick'. Well firstly it is important that we look after our physical health, so that we can practise the Dharma and be of use to others. In the Bodhiraajakumaara Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 85) the Buddha outlines five things that enable someone to practise the Dharma and the first is “being free from illness and affliction, possessing a good digestion “.
So, eating nourishing food and taking exercise are part of our spiritual practice and as well as helping ourselves can have a positive influence on others.
If we look at some of the unhealthy delusions that we could be prone to, this might enable us to see what it would be like to have healthy attitudes and behaviour. Here then are some of the things that come to mind when I think about our delusions:
the delusion that we can have a perfect life
the delusion that anything will last forever
that material things bring lasting satisfaction
that we are victims and others are to blame for our dissatisfaction
that security is a matter of money or housing
that we can control the future
that we know what other people are thinking (especially about us)
the delusion that we are not dependant on others

If we are to have 'concretely-lived attitudes and behaviours' that lead us to being 'happy indeed- healthy amid the sick' , we will need to try to let go of our delusions- there are many more than I have mentioned.

Becoming even more practical, we could start by looking at our relationships with other people and consider how we might be more wise and less deluded in those. For instance, we could ask are we possessive in relation to partners or lovers ? do we allow them the freedom to live their own lives and be themselves or are we trying to mould and change them to suit ourselves? In relation to parents – do we expect them to take responsibility for us and always be there for us or can we see them as individuals who have their own needs and desires? In relation to children – de we feel that we own them or do we let them go at the appropriate age? In relation to friends – do we treat them as supports to lean on all the time or do we also provide them with the warmth and support they need? In relation to the wider sangha – do we think in terms of what we can get for ourselves or do we think about what we can contribute? And similarly in relation to the local community or the country – do we expect to be provided for without having to contribute? Do we think in terms of our rights only or do we also think in terms of our duties?

The third verse of the Dhammapada that we are looking at is “happy indeed we live, content amid the greedy.”

The word used for greed here, ' ussuka', has a sense of restless longing to it. Sometimes it is translated as restlessness. So contentment has the sense of not being restless. Contentment manifests in non-attachment, which could be more positively described as generosity and a sense of abundance. Contentment also expresses itself as living a simple life, with few possessions and taking joy in ordinary beauty. Contentment allows us to be generous and think of others.

To develop contentment we need to learn to find enjoyment and satisfaction in simple things – the colours of the leaves, the lights of cars on a wet street, rain falling in puddles, flowers, pebbles, a wrinkled face, a smile. Or the pleasure of sitting still, or walking or the sound of voices in the street, or the taste of water. There are so many things that we can enjoy if we can relax into being aware of them. If we can relax into the present free of restlessness we can get even greater enjoyment from chatting with friends or seeing a painting or listening to the wind.

Contentment can also be cultivated by focussing on what is positive in our lives and cultivating a sense of gratitude for all that we have. We could reflect at the end of each day on what enjoyment and pleasure there has been during the day. It might be the pleasure of seeing a happy child or the evening light on the autumn leaves or it might be a chat we've had or a friendly interaction with a shop assistant or even our usual breakfast. It's a matter of noticing what is good and pleasing in life and one effect of making the effort to do that is that you start to notice more and more things that you enjoy.

Another aspect of contentment is having a bigger perspective on our lives and the events and people we encounter. If we place ourselves in a context of vast time and cosmic space, or in the context of the great Freedom envisaged by the Dharma, we can start to see that our worries and stresses are perhaps not as significant as we take them to be when we are without any bigger perspective.

Contentment is the opposite to greed, because it is the absence of a restless longing for more stimulation. Generosity is the natural activity of contentment and acting generously can help to cultivate contentment, as we go beyond a narrow self-focus again and again. There are no shortage of outlets for generosity within the sangha and beyond the sangha.

The most obvious way to be generous is to give money to our Buddhist Centre, which is the institution that fosters the growth of the local sangha. People have all sorts of conditioning and emotions around money and it is an area where a great deal of attachment and delusion can be experienced. Because of that it is an area in which we can learn a great deal about ourselves and our deepest motivations. Issues of security and identity are often experienced in our attitudes to money. If we want to make spiritual progress then a thorough exploration of our relationship to money will be very helpful. And it will be even more helpful if we do it in the context of the sangha – exploring with others what money means to us, what our conditioning around money is, how our attitudes to money affect the rest of our lives, and what is real or delusional in our relation to money. It is even worth trying to understand what money is. All of that could help us to be less neurotic and more generous with money and all that it represents and symbolises in our lives.

Other areas for the expression of generosity are volunteering, whether within the sangha or outside, and in our personal practice of ecological awareness. We can volunteer to help out at the Buddhist centre, something which we would probably gain a great deal from as well as benefiting the Centre. We can also volunteer in the local community as some of our friends do. I have known people in the sangha who volunteer at a night shelter or for the Samaritans or to write letters for Amnesty International. All very positive contributions to the community.

Ecological awareness is a matter of extending the meaning of the first precept-the precept of non-violence or loving kindness – to all aspects of our relationship with the world around us. It is necessary that we come to see clearly that we are not separate from our environment, but that we are intimately bound up with it. It is not the case that we have humanity on one side and the natural environment on the other side. We are an intrinsic part of the natural environment. So, in order to practise loving kindness even towards ourselves we need also to practise loving kindness towards the whole natural environment.

I have been talking about these three verses of the Dhammapada:

“Happy indeed we live, friendly amid the haters. Among men who hate we dwell free form hate.

Happy indeed we live, healthy amid the sick. Among men who are sick we dwell free from sickness.

Happy indeed we live, content amid the greedy. Among men who are greedy we dwell free from greed. “

I have been talking about these verses as an expression of the Buddha's vision for the Sangha. I said at the beginning that the Buddha's vision of the spiritual community was a vision of a community of people who worked on themselves to develop positive mental states and go beyond selfishness completely, a community of people who would go out into the world and share the Dharma with others, for the welfare of the many and a community of people who would befriend and support each other in these endeavours. This is what spiritual community is about in the Buddhist tradition and this is what the Triratna Buddhist Community is about too.

The Triratna Buddhist Community is a community of people who want to grow in awareness and kindness, a community of people who want to share the message of that awareness and kindness with others and a community of people who are willing to befriend and support each other in all of this.

We grow in awareness and kindness by meditating, going on retreat, being ethical, reflecting on the Dharma and communicating with our friends.

We share the message of awareness and kindness, the message of the Dharma, by living it, teaching it, and helping those who are able to live it and teach it more fully than we can as yet.

We can support each other by being friendly, by taking responsibility for our own mental states, both positive and negative (not attributing them to or blaming them on others) and by giving encouragement, money and a helping hand where needed..

A Sangha that is effective will have a positive affect on the world around it; it will be a beacon of sanity in a deluded world. We can be that Sangha at the local level here in Cambridge and on a much larger scale by integrating as fully as possible with the wider Triratna Buddhist Community throughout the country and throughout the world.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

The Paradox of Happiness

A talk given at Cambridge Buddhist Centre Oct 2011

I want to begin with a few quotations from different periods in history.

The first is from an 8th century Indian poet called Shantideva. He says:
"All those who suffer in this world do so because they seek their own happiness. All those happy in this world are so because they seek the happiness of others."

Then from the 18th century we have the philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who is seen as the father of the European enlightenment. He says:

"The greatest happiness of the greatest number is the foundation of morals and legislation"

And influenced by Bentham we have Thomas Jefferson with the American Declaration of Independence, which states:
"We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it's foundation on such principles and organizing it's powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Then coming right up to date here is quote from Professor Richard Layard. He says:
"Most people want more income and strive for it. Yet as Western societies have got richer, their people have become no happier. This is no old wives tale. It is a fact proven by many pieces of scientific research. We have good ways to measure how happy people are, and all the evidence shows that on average people are no happier today than people were fifty years ago. This paradox is equally true for the United States and Britain and Japan" Layard, Happiness, p.3

The first quote sees happiness as a profound paradox. The second and third quotes see happiness as a right and the last quote says happiness is much more elusive than is generally suspected. It points to another seeming paradox - more wealth does not equate with greater happiness. And perhaps hidden in there is another paradox - even though most of us may have no difficulty in believing that greater wealth does not equal greater happiness we still want greater wealth.

The American Declaration of Independence was mainly written by Thomas Jefferson who visited Paris around the time he was working on it and had contact with the revolutionaries there. The French revolution's declaration of human rights was influenced by Jefferson and that in turn has had a huge influence worldwide that continues to this day.
The American Declaration of Independence was written in 1776 and it states that the pursuit of happiness is a God given right. It also infers that government that is not effective in helping people to be happy is not an effective government.

What has it meant for the modern world that the pursuit of happiness is seen as a right and that governments are to some extent judged by their ability to effect the happiness of the citizens?
Well governments can only do so much and the way in which they can affect the well-being of the citizen has often been seen in material and financial terms. So happiness has come to be associated almost exclusively with material prosperity. Partly this is because this is what governments can help to bring about but also it is because the evidence shows that when people are lifted out of poverty their level of happiness and well-being increases. It is also one of the easiest things to measure.

However as with many things in the affairs of human beings we have taken something that brings positive results and assumed that if we multiply it indefinitely we will continue to get more and more positive results. The evidence shows this to be untrue.
This is where the economist Richard Layard comes in. In his book Happiness he quotes many experiments which have shown that beyond certain levels extra income does not give rise to more happiness and in fact can have the opposite effect because of disappointed expectations.
In the same vein Barry Schwartz, Professor of Social Theory and Action at Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, has shown that increasing choice can enhance life up to a certain level but when choices continue to multiply they can have an adverse affect on well-being. His book is called The Paradox of Choice.
I think these two books, Happiness by Richard Layard and The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz are quite important contributions to any debate about consumerism, ecology and well-being.

We live in an age of consumerism which is to some extent an experiment in social engineering. During the 19th and into the early 20th century there was a strong culture of frugality, however in the 1920's in the US the economy was changing rapidly and this had far reaching consequences. To quote from America: a Narrative History by Tindall and Shi :
"Dramatic changes in efficiency meant that the marketplace was flooded with new consumer delights. Goods once available only to the wealthy were now accessible to the general public. Middle-class consumers could own cameras, wristwatches, cigarette lighters, vacuum cleaners, and washing machines. But those enticing new goods would produce economic havoc if people did not abandon their traditional notions of frugality and go on a buying spree. Hence, business leaders, salesperson's, and public relations experts began a concerted effort to eradicate what was left of the original Protestant ethic's emphasis on plain living. The public had to be taught the joys of carefree consumerism, and a new industry of mass advertising obliged. By portraying impulse buying as a therapeutic measure to bolster self-esteem, advertisers shrewdly helped undermine notions of frugality."

However the Depression of the 1930's and the world war of the 1940's reinforced habits of frugality, such as, saving rather than spending, repairing rather than replacing and valuing what lasted over the new. This meant that the US economy faced the same problem of over supply in the 1950's. To quote from America: a Narrative History again:
"To perpetuate the post war prosperity, economists repeated the basic marketing strategy of the 1920s: the public must be taught to consume more and expect more. Economists knew that Americans had more money than ever before. The average adult had twice as much real income in 1955 as in the rosy days of the late 1920s before the crash. Still, many people who had undergone the severities of the Depression and the rationing required for the war effort had to be weaned from a decade and a half of imposed frugality in order to nourish the growing consumer culture.

Advertising became a more crucial component of the consumer culture than ever before. Expenditures for TV ads increased 1000% during the 1950s. Such startling growth rates led the president of NBC to declare in 1956 that the primary reason for the post-war economic boom was that "advertising has created an American frame of mind that makes people want more things, better things and newer things.". Paying for such "things" was no problem; the age of the credit card had arrived. Between 1945 and 1957 consumer credit soared 800%. Whereas families in other industrialised nations were typically saving 10 to 20% of their income, American families, by the 1960s were saving only 5%."

So while in the Soviet Union and it's sphere of influence there was a Marxist/Leninist social engineering experiment, in the US and it's sphere of influence there was what we could call a consumerist social engineering experiment. The Soviet experiment has more or less come to an end, however the consumerist experiment continues.

And now with the wide acceptance of concerns about the earths ecology and the continuous population growth, some prescient voices are beginning to question whether this consumerist social engineering experiment can continue unabated.

And also apart from the questions about ecology and population growth, there is the simple question of whether consumerism works as a way to give human beings a better quality of life.

The answer to this question seems to be no - at least according to the research quoted by Richard Layard and Barry Schwartz. No, having more and more choice or having more and more money does not improve quality of life or increase happiness. The reason for this is what is known in the field of psychology as adaptation.

Adaptation simply means that we human beings quickly adapt to new conditions and circumstances. We get used to things so that they quickly cease to give us greater satisfaction. If you buy a new TV or computer you may have eagerly anticipated its arrival and excitedly set it up, but within a very short time it is just another thing in your life and your level of happiness and satisfaction is back to where it was before you got it.

However, the research also shows that there are some things we never fully adapt to, some pleasant for instance, intimate relationships and friendships and some less pleasant, for instance, bereavement or a serious illness of someone close to us. Also, those things which give us a sense of life as meaningful, such as spiritual understanding and practice within a community of like-minded people.

So the secret of happiness according to Richard Layard is "to seek out those good things that you can never fully adapt to."

What we get used to most easily is material possessions, and to quote Layard again. "If we do not foresee that we get used to our material possessions, we shall over invest in acquiring them, at the expense of our leisure. People tend to underestimate this process of habituation. As a result, our life can get distorted towards working and making money, and away from other pursuits."

We could say that the problem for contemporary Western societies is that while material prosperity has multiplied many many times, the general level of happiness and well-being has either stayed at the same or declined for the vast majority of people.

So the big question is, is it important to be happy? If so what's the best way of going about it individually and communally? What are the implications for our daily lives? Can Buddhism help?

Happiness is about how much one likes the life one lives. There are two components, firstly, how well we feel most of the time, and secondly to what degree we get what we want from life. To be happy means that, broadly speaking, you like the life that you live, you feel good most of the time and to a large degree, you get what you want from life. Being happy in this sense has advantages, for instance, research shows that happy people are healthier and have a greater life expectancy than those who are unhappy. This is a mundane level of happiness and from a Buddhist perspective is just a stage on the way to complete liberation of the mind which is the supreme happiness. Although happiness is quite subjective, it is important that we don't think that our happiness is totally divorced from that of others. If each one of us pursues our own happiness in an individual and selfish way, then our happiness would contribute to the misery of others, which in turn would come back to bite us one day. And in fact, Jeremy Bentham was quite clear about this, our own happiness is intimately tied up with the happiness of others especially those we are in close contact with. He wrote in a birthday letter to a friends young daughter:

"Create all the happiness you are able to create: remove all the misery you are able to remove. Every day will allow you to add something to the pleasure of others, or to diminish something of their pains. And for every grain of enjoyment you sow in the bosom of another, you shall find a harvest in your own bosom; while every sorrow which you pluck out from the thoughts and feelings of a fellow creature shall be replaced by beautiful peace and joy in the sanctuary of your soul." (quoted in Happiness, Layard, p.235.)

This echoes what the Indian Buddhist poet Shantideva said in the eighth century:
"All those who suffer in this world do so because they seek their own happiness. All those happy in this world are so because because they seek the happiness of others." And Shantideva goes on to give a Buddhist analysis of why this is the case. " the calamities which happen in the world, the sufferings and the fears, many as they are, they all result from clinging on to the notion of self, so, what good is this clinging of mine?" verse 134.

He is saying that the root of human suffering is clinging to a sense of self -- or to put it in more contemporary terms -- the degree to which we protect and defend our ego identity determines the degree of our happiness or unhappiness.

What does it mean to cling to the notion of self? The first thing to note here is that Shantideva talks about a notion of self, rather than a self -- from the Buddhist perspective -- the self is an idea, a construction, a notion. It is not a reality. What does this mean? It seems to contradict our experience. I experience myself -- you experience you. So the notion of self that Shantideva is referring to is the idea of a fixed, unchanging, separate self.

So, to put it rather paradoxically, you could say that the Buddhist perspective is that there is a self but that it is constantly changing and has no boundaries -- so it is not fixed in time or space or anywhere else.

To put this more simply, what we experience when we experience ourselves is constantly changing -- physically, emotionally, mentally -- nothing ever stands still. We are not things, we are processes. We are not nouns we are verbs. Each one of us is a dynamic process of changing thoughts, changing emotions, and even physical change.

This perspective grows out of the more fundamental Buddhist view that everything changes always.

The most fundamental teaching of Buddhism is what is referred to as conditioned co-production (translating the Pali paticca samutpada). What this says, in a nutshel,l is that everything in the entire universe -- material and non-material -- arises in dependence upon conditions. In other words, there is no chance or randomness -- there is an ordered universe in which all phenomena occur because of preceding conditions. This is relatively easy to understand intellectually but the aim of Buddhism is not simply to have an intellectual understanding of this teaching, but to have a full and profound realisation of all its implications, so that our lives are permeated by its significance to such a degree that our actions, our words, our thoughts, our emotions -- the totality of our being -- functions on the basis of this realisation. There are many implications of conditioned co-production, of conditioned co- arising, but for the purposes of this talk I want to just talk about the implications for the self -- the notion of self -- which dictates so much of our thoughts and actions.

Because everything arises in dependence upon conditions -- everything that we are, everything that we experience also arises in dependence upon conditions. The implication for us is that everything that we do, say and think is a condition in dependence upon which future experience will arise. So not only are we a process, an ever-changing flow of thoughts, emotions, actions and words -- we are also participating in the creation of this process. To put it another way -- the self that we are is a self that we are constantly creating. This fluidity of self and self-creation confronts us with a huge opportunity -- the opportunity to create the best of all possible selves -- the possibility of actively intervening in the evolution, the creation of our consciousness; the possibility of expanding our consciousness, or, more rightly of becoming aware of the expansive nature of consciousness. And the implication of conditioned co-production -- everything arising in dependence upon conditions -- is that we are part of the conditions that give rise to the rest of the world, to the social, ecological, political, economic environments, we find ourselves in. We are part of the conditions that create and mould the consciousness of a whole society, a whole community.

A further unfolding of the Buddhist teaching of conditioned co arising is spoken of as the law of karma. Karma means action. The law of karma applies conditioned co arising to the ethical dimension of life. When we act, we and others experience consequences. An action can be by body, speech or mind. Thoughts and ideas are actions that can have powerful consequences. Words are extremely potent forces for good or ill, and of course deeds can easily be seen to have consequences that ripple out in all directions. The law of karma simply states that skilful or positive actions of body, speech and mind will have positive consequences for ourselves and others and unskilful or negative actions will have negative consequences for ourselves and others. So it is not just an ordered universe, but you could even say a benign universe.

So to come back to the topic of happiness, from a Buddhist perspective, the happiness of an individual is a condition for a deeper insight into the nature of reality and the nature of self and it is also a result of any such Insight. When one sees deeply into the profound and far reaching implications of patticca samutpada -- when one realises in the depths of ones being that our self is a flow of conditions, many of which we create and that we are connected to all other selves by an intricate web of interweaving and interpenetrating conditions -- out of this realisation there grows a compassionate, imperative.


The imaginary isolated cocoon of the self that we had previously believed in and operated from gives way to a fluid sense of a changing and connected flow of self, which requires no egotistical defending or protecting. With this realisation we function more freely and fearlessly in the world, with a cosmic perspective and a natural kindness that requires no effort. And happiness is never far away, because the conditions that give rise to happiness are never far away. So we could say that happiness is important because it helps us to focus our minds in such a way as to lead to a realisation of something much greater than happiness -- liberation. Happiness is not an end in itself and not something that can be acquired for oneself in the way you can acquire a new coat or a new television or mobile phone. From a Buddhist perspective, what is really important and really worth giving time and energy to are the conditions that give rise to liberation of the mind, of which happiness is one.

What gives rise to happiness? I’ll have a look at this first of all from the perspectives of Barry Schwartz and Richard Layard and then see what Buddhism has to say.

In his book --' the Paradox of choice', Barry Schwartz comes to a number of conclusions about how to avoid the dissatisfaction brought about by having too much choice. Some of these conclusions are relevant to the topic of how to create the conditions for more happiness.

For instance, he suggests that it is better not to take up every opportunity to make a choice that presents itself to us. Some choices are not worth making. The time and energy expended is likely to cause more dissatisfaction than it's worth. A silly example would be if you were to spend an hour in the supermarket trying to choose which packet of biscuits to buy from the 300 choices that are usually available. Happiness and satisfaction are subjective feelings and the more objective we try to be about our choices the less likely we are to be satisfied. Another suggestion he makes is to deliberately restrict our choices -- if you are buying a coat or shoes -- just go to two shops, rather than five or six.


He also suggests that it is far better for your own well-being to just accept what is good enough rather than always wanting the best. Another way to achieve greater satisfaction is to make our choices or decisions irreversible-he gives the example of marriage -- he says, " finding a life partner is not a matter of comparison shopping and trading up. The only way to find happiness and stability in the presence of seemingly attractive and tempting options is to say," I'm simply not going there. I've made my decision about a life partner, so this person's empathy of that person's looks really have nothing to do with me. I am not in the market -- end of story". Agonising over whether your love is the real thing or your sexual relationship above or below par, and wondering whether you could have done better is a prescription for misery. Knowing that you've made a choice that you will not reverse allows you to pour your energy into improving the relationship that you have, rather than constantly second-guessing it." The point he is making is that accepting what is good enough and making a commitment to that is better for happiness.


Even in the Buddhist community we often encounter people who seem incapable of committing to a particular course of practice or a particular school of Buddhism. This is no doubt the influence of our consumer culture of unlimited choice.

Another suggestion Barry Schwartz makes is to practise an "attitude of gratitude" by giving attention to what is good and satisfying and pleasing in your life -- even quite small things or things we normally take for granted -- like being able to see, walk or hear. The idea is to help yourself to feel better about your life as it is and less driven to find all the supposedly new and improved products, activities, and people that will somehow enhance it. In Buddhism we have the Katannuta Bhavana, which literally translates as development of gratitude. This gratitude meditation has the effect of making us happier and more content with our lives.

Another important point made by Barry Schwartz is that we should anticipate a tendency to adapt to the new quite quickly -- he says. " as the number of choices we face increases, freedom of choice eventually becomes a tyranny of choice. Routine decisions take so much time and attention that it becomes difficult to get through the day. In circumstances like this, we should learn to view limits on the possibilities we face as liberating not constraining. Society provides rules, standards, and norms for making choices, and individual experience creates habits. By deciding to follow a rule (for example, always wear a seat belt: never drink more than two glasses of wine in one evening), we avoid having to make a deliberate decision again and again. This kind of rule following frees up time and attention that can be devoted to thinking about choices and decisions to which rules don't apply."


This is what is behind much of the monastic tradition. It is the counter intuitive wisdom that freedom is found through discipline and restraint of appetites rather than through unlimited choice and unlimited individualism.

I think the message of Barry Schwartz's book is an important one for our time in history and an interesting contribution to the debate about the efficacy of the consumerist social engineering experiment which we have all been taking part in for the past few generations.

Richard Layard -- who is an economist -- writes about the sources of happiness in terms of externals -- public policy and the organisation of society. However, he is also keenly aware of the internal dimension to happiness and recommends Buddhist meditation among other things.

Many studies have shown that human relationships are what make people happiest -- friendship, marriage, and family. In Britain and the United States in particular -- economic policies that have encouraged mobility have been very effective in generating more wealth, but have also had the unfortunate effect of destroying communities and dispersing families, thus undermining one of the primary sources of happiness. Many of the things which are lauded as beneficial to us, such as choice, flexibility, change are actually not that helpful in creating a stable society where people trust each other. When the level of trust drops in a society, the level of happiness and well-being also drops and this is what has happened in Britain and the United States -- since the 1950s -- the percentage of adults who think most people can be trusted is half that of 60 years ago. The upshot of this is that for the general well-being of society there are huge advantages to inflexibility and predictability -- in short stability.
Richard Layard also makes some interesting points about the role of taxation in creating a happy society, but I won’t go into that here.

Turning to the inner dimension of happiness, he thinks that it should be a major goal of education to develop an inner strength of character, which allows people to accept themselves better, and to feel more for others. He goes on to say " for adults there is a range of spiritual practices that help to bring peace of mind from Buddhist meditation to positive psychology. For those who are struggling, cognitive therapy has a good record of success. For those in the extremes of misery, psychiatric drugs and cognitive therapy have probably helped more than any other changes in the last 50 years, and we can expect further major advances."

His recommendations for a happier society could be summarised as follows:
monitor the development of happiness
* re-think our attitudes to taxation
* re-think our attitudes to performance related pay and bonuses
* re-think our attitudes to mobility
* spend more on helping the poor, especially in Third World countries
* Spend more on tackling the problem of mental illness
* introduce more family friendly practices at work
* eliminate high unemployment
* in schools teach the principles of morality as established truths, rather than as interesting points for discussion
* prohibit commercial advertising to children, as in Sweden


I found this last point interesting. I had not given it any thought before -- probably because I don't have children -- but thinking about it I could see his point very clearly. We are conditioning children from an early age to be consumers. I suspect that in 150 years time people will look back at the practice of advertising junk food etc to children in the same way that we now look back to 150 years ago at the practice of sending small children up chimneys. They may very well wonder why we considered it okay to abuse the minds of young children with advertising in this way.

Those are some of the thoughts of Professor Layard on the happiness of society and whether we agree with him and not, his arguments are well worth considering and discussing.

What about the Buddhist perspective on the conditions for happiness? Not long before his death, the Buddha spoke to his followers about the conditions for the stability of society and the conditions for the stability of the community of his followers. This is in the Parinibbana Sutta of the Digha Nikaya. The Buddha outlined seven conditions for the stability of society and seven conditions for the stability of the spiritual community. The first four are the same for both.

The first condition for a stable society and a stable spiritual community according to the Buddha is that the people meet together in assemblies regularly and frequently. This is acknowledging that a society or community is based on relationships of trust and meeting together is a way to build those relationships and foster that trust.

The second condition is that people meet in harmony -- the text says -- "meet in harmony, break-up in harmony and carry on their business in harmony." I take harmony here to mean that there is genuine communication -- listening to the views and opinions of others as well as proffering our own.

The third condition for the stability of society and the spiritual community is respect for tradition or not introducing change just for the sake of change.

The fourth condition is the honouring of the elders. The text says honour, respect, revere and salute the elders and consider them worth listening to. This is of course quite the opposite to the cult of youth that often pervades our society. The elders are repositories of the values and the story of society and therefore worth listening to.

The fifth condition for a stable society is that there should be no abduction of women. I think we could broaden this out and say that the exploitation of people for sexual purposes -- whether women, men or children -- causes great distress and undermines the stability and happiness of society.

The sixth condition is to honour, respect and revere shrines at home and abroad and continue to give proper support to them. This is a call to respect the diversity of religious belief.

And the last condition for the stability of society is to support those who are trying to live a spiritual life full-time -- support here means material support, guaranteeing their safety and allowing them to establish temples or other appropriate buildings.

These are the seven conditions for the stability of society, according to the Buddha and of course that stability is the condition that gives rise to both prosperity and well-being. Some of these overlap with Richard Layard's suggestions about the sources of happiness in a society -- for instance -- promoting community life and having established moral principles.

Turning now to the individual -- what does Buddhism have to say about the conditions that give rise to the happiness and well-being of the individual. Well in a sense the whole of Buddhism is about the happiness and well-being of the individual, because individuals are the building blocks of community, of society, of a nation or world. To have a happy society, we need happy individuals. What Buddhism says is quite simple really -- all our suffering is caused by clinging on to the idea of a self -- a fixed and separate self -- and it is only by letting go of that idea of a fixed and separate self that true happiness and liberation are found. To use more psychological language -- ego or ego identity is the problem -- going beyond the limitations of ego is the solution or rather realising that ego is only a constructed idea and not a reality is the solution to the problem.

We don't just have ego-identity or self-centredness as individuals but also as groups. For example, nationalism in relation to a nation state is a kind of group egotism -- a limiting and separating idea. A nation state is an abstract idea that we give reality to by a complex system of symbols and rules. An individual ego-identity is an abstract idea that we give reality to by a complex system of desires and habits.

Although what Buddhism has to say about happiness, liberation and suffering is quite simple, nevertheless, it is difficult to achieve this state of egolessness. It is easy to think it, but not to live by it or from it. And so the whole of Buddhism is essentially a pragmatic system of practices that help us go beyond the habitual, narrow, limited state of consciousness.

Buddhist practices, such as meditation, ethics, reflection and ritual, aim to help us to integrate our personalities, so that we can focus our energies and develop positive emotions -- gradually transforming greed into generosity, hatred into love and delusion into wisdom. This process of practising meditation, ethics, reflection and ritual leads us to the stage of what we might call positive egotism, having a notion of self, but a healthy positive self, imbued with the aspiration to expand beyond the narrow confines of family or national conditioning, the confines of habit and assumptions. This is the level of what we could call mundane happiness. From here the practices are all about what is often referred to as spiritual death -- followed by spiritual rebirth.

Spiritual death refers to the experience of egolessness -- letting go of the notion of a fixed, separate self. It manifests in a total lack of selfishness, of self-centredness and in a spontaneous response of goodwill towards all living things, spontaneous compassion. This spontaneous flow of energy towards others is the spiritual rebirth.

I have been a Buddhist for 28 years and I'd like to talk a bit about what that has done for me. It's always a tricky thing to talk about oneself in a way that is objective and observational rather than subjective and either inflated of deflated, but I'll have a go and I'm sure you'll make allowances for any lapses into bad taste. I grew up within the world of Irish Catholicism in the 1960s, and what I gained from that was a non-materialist outlook, an emphasis on the importance of the spiritual dimension of life -- I'm not sure if that is what I was meant to get from it but I did. I left home at 18 and went to London where I drifted into a career in accountancy. There a combination of what I observed in the people around me and what I felt in myself led me to a sense of meaninglessness -- a sense that I was living a meaningless life and sometimes I felt quite despairing and wondered whether there was any point to being alive or was it all just a cruel joke. When I was 22, this came to such a pitch for me that it led me to give up my career before completing my training. I decided that I must discover the meaning of life -- I just couldn't bear to live for the sake of money, possessions, family and a cosy retirement. For whatever reason, none of these conventional life purposes satisfied the yearning in my heart.

For the next six years, I did odd jobs and spent a lot of time undertaking symbolic journeys, either on foot in the British Isles or by bicycle around continental Europe. I just travelled around, camping out in the woods, because it was the cheapest way to live and all the time I had in my mind that really my travelling was symbolic of an inner journey. But I didn't really have any idea of what I was looking for. Eventually, in January 1981, I settled in West Berlin. I had many adventures, and it was there I discovered Buddhism or perhaps Buddhism found me. I met a monk from Sri Lanka, who taught me the meditation for developing loving kindness and told me about the five ethical precepts of Buddhism. This was a big turning point in my life -- I knew immediately that I had found what I was looking for and that I was a Buddhist. I felt very happy -- even ecstatic. That was in August 1983 -- I have been a Buddhist ever since, but I didn't remain happy. Happiness was not so easily attained -- happiness proved very elusive.

My first task as a Buddhist was to change my ethical practice, which I found fairly easy. I was already a vegetarian, and I had given up alcohol too. I just had to stop some activities that contravened the second precept. Meditation proved to be much more difficult for me -- I was a very restless and active young man and I found sitting still for more than 10 minutes very difficult. Sometimes I would prepare my place to sit, light incense and sit down with great anticipation of the wonderful experience about to unfold -- and then 10 minutes later I was in the kitchen making toast and I had no recollection of getting up and going to the kitchen. It was as if I lived in a restless daydream.

In spite of the difficulties I had with meditation it did begin to have an effect on me, and as I became more aware I discovered that my personality was quite dispersed and even in conflict. This is quite common. When people take up meditation and gain greater awareness it can seem to them that they are experiencing more difficulties than before. This is because what we first become aware of is the aspects of our psyche which were previously unconscious. When what was unconscious comes into consciousness, it can seem as if our sense of who we are is disintegrating. This was my experience. But gradually through communication with people more experienced than myself, through meditation and reflection, I began to integrate all the seemingly disparate parts of my psyche into something more coherent. This probably sounds simpler and more straightforward than it was. The actual experience for me was painful and messy, sometimes leading me into despair and depression and was characterised by almost violent internal conflict. It was a period of great unhappiness in my life. But the most intense part of this experience only lasted for about one year.

However, there was still further to go before I could be happy. There are habits of thought and emotion which are deeply ingrained. We are conditioned by our families and our societies -- by school, religion and even politics, and this conditioning can leave a residue of patterns in our mind which dictates how we think and feel, how we perceive and experience life around us. In my case, I regularly fell into a sense of isolation and loneliness, and I rationalised this to myself as being to do with other people not caring about me. I tried to explain my experience of myself in terms of the imagined thoughts and actions of others. This is another surprisingly common phenomenon. Eventually after another couple of years, I saw through this. I realised that what I was experiencing had nothing to do with others and was a habitual reflex of my own mind -- which led me to dislike myself and project that dislike onto others.
Often it was through communication with a good friend over many months and intensive reflection by writing that I broke through into greater awareness and freed myself from some destructive mental and emotional habits. Sometimes I used a stream of consciousness style of writing which seemed to enable me to objectify some intensely subjective states.

When I broke through this habit of feeling very isolated and lonely -- I started to experience a genuine happiness for the first time. I can even date that to April 1989. I mean, I experienced very positive emotions without an undertow of worry and anxiety that they were about to disappear. And the consequence of this was that I felt able to consider the needs of others in a clearer and cleaner way than before. I had always been helpful and wanted to help others, but I now realised that often that had had an unconscious motivation of wanting to feel good about myself or even of wanting to feel superior to others. Now, it felt different.

So after about five years as a Buddhist, I had finally reached a point of happiness, but from a Buddhist perspective, this was just the beginning. I won't go into what has happened for me in the intervening 23 years -- except to say that I'm deeply contented.

The point I am making here and perhaps the main point I want to make in this talk is that happiness is important, and for some people like me, it is quite an achievement, but nevertheless it is not an end in itself and there is much more to life, there is much more to being human -- meaning is beyond happiness, not just a means to happiness. And what we ought to be aiming at is complete liberation from all delusion of self, so that the fountains of compassion can flow freely. This higher evolution of consciousness beyond happiness, beyond psychological integration, to the heights represented by the Buddha -- the perfection of wisdom and compassion -- this is what makes life worth living -- we should not settle for less.

There are levels of happiness -- from the fleeting happiness we experience when we buy something new, to the deep happiness found in friendship and other personal relationships, to the happiness of a healthy and integrated psyche and all these levels of happiness prepare the ground for the possibility of something even greater -- the happiness of liberation from the confines and limitations of ego-centredness -- even from subtle ego-identity. This liberation -- this awakening from the delusion of self -- leads to an awareness of the expansive nature of consciousness and a spontaneous response of loving kindness to all other living beings. This is what is hinted at by Shantideva in that quote with which I began this talk and which seems as good a place as any to end: "all those who suffer in the world do so because of their desire for their own happiness. All those happy in the world are so because of their desire for the happiness of others."

Friday, 24 June 2011

Spiritual Community

A talk given at the UK Men's National Order weekend March 2008

‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ This is how Charles Dickens begins the Tale of Two Cities and he is referring to how the French Revolution was seen from Britain depending on the political views of the people speaking.

We could perhaps adapt this to looking at the Order and Movement at this time of our 40th anniversary. For some people it is closer to being the best of times and for others unfortunately the worst of times. Some of us think this is the best of Buddhist Movements and the best of Orders and Bhante is the best of teachers and the best of Kalyana mitras, Others, who are probably no longer with us, see us as the worst of Movements the worst of Orders and Bhante as the worst of teachers.

This is probably the subjective experience of almost everything in this world of ours – it is always the best of times and the worst of times, depending on where we are looking from.

For me it has been the best of times, our Movement and Order have been the best of Movements and Orders and Bhante has been the best of teachers. I have of course encountered difficulties- personal difficulties because of my own psychology and conditioning and difficulties with other people – which I have of course seen as being because of their psychology and conditioning.

Nevertheless it has been the best of times for me and that will inevitably colour whatever I say about spiritual community.

My conversion to Buddhism happened in 1983 as the result of meeting a Sri Lankan monk call the Ven. Maha Dhammanisanthi. I met him at the Buddhistisches Haus in Frohnau, West Berlin.

I had some previous knowledge of Buddhism from reading but it had not had a strong or life changing impact. So it was this encounter with a practising Buddhist that made all the difference to me. In meeting the Ven. Dhammanisanthi I experienced the congruency of words and a way of life. That is what he represented for me and after an hours conversation with him I knew that I was a Buddhist That I had found what I had been searching for.

So it was meeting with the spiritual community in the form of that Sri Lankan monk that was the crucial turning point for me.
When I cam across the FWBO about a year later through Subhuti’s book Buddhism for Today, it was the the fact that people were living and working together and trying to create the seeds of a new society that inspired me and drew me in. I interpreted this as a congruency between words and actions and I think anything less than this sort of active idealism would have just seemed like ordinary religious hypocrisy to me – something I was very familiar with from my upbringing in catholic Ireland.

All through my involvement with the Order and Movement what has been of most help to me is the other people around me. I have a depth of gratitude to people like Atula, Danavira, Dhammarati, Jayamati, Sumangala, Tejamati, Subhuti and many many more, who were so kind and patient with me in my first tottering steps on the spiritual path and who have helped me so much by befriending me, listening to me, exhorting me, drawing me out, and being examples to me.

And as I have learned to walk the path under my own steam, I have found that extending a helping hand to others has been a strong and transformative practice – which puts flesh on the bones of the Dharma.

The example of the lives of practitioners around me was important to me from the beginning – it strengthened my faith in the Dharma.

I had a strong faith in what was taught to me by Bhante and Subhuti, through their writings, about the importance of Spiritual Friendship, about the need to co-create the best conditions in which to experience friendship and transcend self-centredness, about the value of living and working together as a context for friendship and transcendence of egotism. I began with faith without very much experience, and now I can honestly say that after twenty four years of steady application, I have no doubts whatsoever about the truth of what Bhante has always asserted- spiritual friendship is of central importance to spiritual life and that communities and working situations provide excellent opportunities for working on dissolving the tight knot of egotism that is the motivating force for so much that we think, say and do.

Some of the institutions of the FWBO such as communities and right livelihood businesses have gone through difficult times during the past ten years and I think a lot of order members have lost faith in the spiritual efficacy of these contexts for practice. I would not try to persuade anyone from this view although I don’t share it – for me what is paramount is the spiritual friendship which is enabled by these situations rather than the institutions as ends in themselves. So what I would want to encourage is spiritual friendship and I would hope that if sufficient numbers of Order Members really took to heart the importance of spiritual friendship and the dependence of such friendship on conditions – conditions which involve spending time with other people, getting to know them intimately in different situations, engaging with them in many different ways- if as I say this was taken seriously then I feel sure that in time other contexts will develop that will enable and encourage spiritual friendship to flourish. In the Anguttara Nikaya the Buddha says that to really know another person you need to live with them, have dealings with them, see them cope with misfortune and have conversation with them – So – a bit more than a weekly chat over a cup of coffee. If we focus on building friendships between us then the institutions which support those friendships will grow up naturally as they did in the past, because they will grow out of our need and our enthusiasm.

Something else which I learned from my teachers early on was that the Buddha insisted during the last weeks of his life that the health and well-being of the Spiritual community depended on coming together frequently and in large numbers. I have tried to practice this and I have found that it has become a great source of happiness in my life. By resisting my natural introverted tendency to steer clear of large numbers of people as frequently as possible, I feel I have come to a better understanding of what the Buddha was talking about and it seems to me to go to the heart of spiritual community.

Until we meet a person and experience their presence as a living consciousness, our experience of them is necessarily subjective – we relate to them in the privacy of our own mind as an idea of a person, even a fixed idea of a person, rather than as a real multi dimensional person in all their complexity and mysteriousness.

It is essential to meet people and to become more intensely aware of them – of their uniqueness and similarity- it is essential if we are to get any grasp on the notion of interconnectedness. It is essential to meet people and interact with them on as deep a level as possible if we are really to establish insight into the fluid, non-fixed, non-separate, interconnected nature of consciousness.

Bhante talks about this as ‘vital mutual responsiveness’ and the’ third order of consciousness’. I don’t believe the third order of consciousness can be experienced without very frequent personal face-to-face interactions. Communication via the internet won’t do it – it lacks too many dimensions, and communication via shabda is also not enough. What we need is face-to-face interaction. We need to spend time with some people on a daily or weekly basis and establish trust, understanding, friendship and mutual helpfulness. This forms a group which is an atom of the larger spiritual community and when all these atoms of friendship and mutual helpfulness come together the result can be very uplifting – approaching that third order consciousness – an inspiring spiritual community in which we are collectively our own teacher, our own guru – an embodiment of the Dharma that inspires us to more wholeheartedness. We become our own teacher and inspiration.

As I said, this fact of meeting other Order Members face to face and communicating with them and listening to them, being mutually aware is at the heart of what spiritual community is about. It is the meeting place of wisdom and compassion – where at best we can see through our own fixed self-view and it’s expression in selfishness and isolation and we can also see into the world of others and begin to erode barriers as we act on our natural impulses of generosity and kindness.

Within this ‘vital mutual responsiveness’, this ‘third order of consciousness’ the problems of spiritual hierarchy, of authority and autonomy are not problems. Spiritual hierarchy is only a problem if the spiritual community has degenerated into something less or is only a problem for those who perceive the spiritual community as having degenerated, as being a group. If we are aware of people as people, of order members as spiritual beings and if we come into contact with them personally, rather than relate to an idea of them which is simply a product of our imagination- then we can rely on spiritual hierarchy to manifest naturally in the course of our interactions. It is not something fixed or static and who will be in the position of learning and who will be in the position of being receptive to new or higher perspectives is not something that can be established by titles or badges or kesas or roles – it is fluid and changing as everything is. And to be paradoxical we could say that those who are likely to be higher in the spiritual hierarchy are those who are most receptive to learning.

Autonomy is an issue for some people. They experience their autonomy to make decisions about how they live as being under threat when they encounter someone speaking with confidence and authority.

This seems to me to be a psychological problem – the problem of lack of confidence or lack of self-esteem which can manifest as feeling inferior to others and sometimes manifests as compensating for those feelings of inferiority by acting in a superior way and being very critical of others.

It can also be an existential issue – in that our ego identity is threatened by our own idealistic response to the Dharma.

As far as life in the Triratna Community (FWBO) is concerned I always felt – from my earliest involvement that the FWBO and it’s institutions were something that we were creating together and therefore something I could have an influence on and an input into. It seemed to be a simple matter of being involved and engaged – like playing a game – you can’t score a goal unless you’re on the pitch.

From the first week of my involvement I threw myself into the collective work – I painted the windows of the LBC reception room, then I helped out with transcribing a seminar and within about 3 months I was working full time at the LBC. This all seemed very natural to me and still is. I have not found any reason to curtail my involvement and I still feel that the Movement and it’s institutions are in the process of being created and probably always will be. That is the nature of reality. Being involved is for me just a logical extension of what I have decided to do with my life – committing myself to the practice and sharing of the Dharma.

Although spiritual hierarchy is not a fixed and final thing – what is more an established fact is that some people have helped us and are helping us and when we see this, when we recognise that we are receiving something from others it is natural that we should experience gratitude and loyalty. Even if the situation changes and they fall from grace in our eyes – nevertheless the fact remains that we have been helped by them, we have benefited and it would be ungracious and dishonest for us to dismiss or denigrate what was given to us. Loyalty to our teachers, preceptors and Kalyana mitras is a matter of personal integrity and natural gratitude, not to mention good manners and propriety.

However, it is unfortunately a well established fact of human nature to be ungrateful and to denigrate those who have helped us. It is one of the ways in which egotism works. That is why Langritampa’s verses on mind training include one which says

Even if someone I have helped
And in whom I have placed my hopes
Does great wrong by harming me
May I see them as an excellent spiritual friend.

And of course the Buddha had to put up with this kind of thing too – his disciple Sunnakkhatta left the Order because the Buddha would not perform miracles for him and then he went around criticising the Buddha to others.

So although loyalty and gratitude to teachers is something quite natural it is also quite natural for some people to be ungrateful and critical and there is no need for us to be particularly surprised or even unhappy when it happens.

This Order of ours – this order of men and women who have made a commitment to live by the Dharma and to share the fruits of that life with others is a precious and fragile thing. It is not an organisation or corporation – it has no legal existence, it has no literal existence – it is a current of spiritual energy manifesting through the lives of individuals but given form and force by the power of collective practice and the power of imagination – as in the image of the 100 armed Avolokiteshvara.

It is fragile and precious – like a dream – and it’s survival and strength depends on our individual efforts:

It’s survival and strength depends on our efforts to come together frequently in large numbers

It’s survival and strength depends on our efforts to be aware – mutually aware

It’s survival and strength depends on our efforts to move from selfish self-interest to true self-interest

It’s survival and strength depends on the frequent expression of kindness and gratitude among ourselves and beyond

Above all the survival and strength of this precious and fragile order depends on the arising of knowledge and vision of things as they really are in a substantial number of Order members.

We could be well organised, we could have good ordination courses, we could come together frequently, we could be an exemplary body of people in all sorts of ways, but to really ensure our spiritual survival we need insight – we need the Bodhi heart to be manifest in our midst – then we will be able to withstand ‘the slings and arrows of misfortune’ and the constant blowing of the winds of materialism that would otherwise chill our hearts.

I was asked to say something about the order after Bhante’s death. However, I think that what applies to the order after Bhante’s death applies equally to the order now – namely that we need to give rise to insight, Bodhicitta, Knowledge and vision of things as they are – whatever phrase we want to use – we need to transcend any sense of fixed separate selves. The order is a means to that and in essence is the realisation of that transcendence.

Bhante is a great teacher and a man of profound insights, but as the Vimalakirti Nirdesa tells us a Buddhaland is built from living beings. A spiritual community is built from living beings and in creating the Order Bhante has needed willing, cooperative, energetic and capable beings – and if we are to continue to build our Buddhaland, continue to create the Order we need to be willing, cooperative, energetic and capable and we need to be welcoming to all those willing, cooperative energetic and capable beings who will want to be part of our Order as the years and generations come and go.

Bhante has already given us a legacy of teachings which is vast and deep. Buried within all those teachings are many treasures, termas to be unearthed by future generations and given life and form. We as an Order and Movement are very young, a mere speck on the radar of time. There is scope for developments beyond our current achievements and even beyond our current imagination.

But to come back to the present I will leave the last word to Bhante – at the end of the first chapter of ‘what is the sangha’ he says:

“There is no future for Buddhism without a truly united and committed spiritual community, dedicated to practising together. And when Buddhists do come together in the true spirit of sangha, there is then the possibility of inhabiting, for a while at least, the dharmadhatu, the realm of the Dharma. In this realm, all we do is practise the Dharma, all we talk about is the Dharma, and when we are still and silent, we enjoy the Dharma in stillness and silence together. The clouds of stress and anxiety that so often hang over mundane life are dispersed, and the fountains of inspiration within our hearts are renewed.”

Listening: the essence of communication

This was a short talk given at Cambridge Buddhist Centre in May 2011.

I have been asked to talk about Sangha and connect it with Wesak. I could just say that without the Buddha there would be no Sangha and leave it at that. But I think more is expected.

We are all part of the Mahasangha of Buddhist practitioners worldwide and we are also I assume part of the Triratna Sangha. The Triratna community is the community or sangha of all those who choose to live and practise the Dharma in accordance with the elucidation and recommendations of Bhante Sangharakshita. So those of us who make this choice – the choice to live and practice the Dharma according to the elucidation and recommendations of Bhante – we collectively make up the Triratna Community and the Triratna Order is at the heart of this community and is made up of all those who have made a specific commitment to observe the ten precepts and go for refuge in the context of Bhante’s teaching.

We are the Triratna Community. Community implies communication. Communication is what creates and maintains community. Mutually supportive communication is the essence of Sangha.

There can be no communication without listening. Occasionally I have done mediation work for people who have come into conflict and it is very noticeable in those situations that the missing ingredient is listening. Because one or both people are not listening there is no communication and when the ingredient of listening is brought back into the mix very often the problems diminish quite quickly. Ironically the only time when I’ve seen this fail completely was when one of the parties was someone who spent a lot of their time facilitating communication workshops.
There is no Communication without listening. There is no listening without interest. You have to be interested in the other person – in their life, in their point of view – if you are going to listen to them. If you are not interested in them or if your primary interest is in yourself and getting your opinion heard, then you won’t be able to listen.

Listening requires interest. There is no interest without awareness. In order to be interested in a person or in anything you have to be aware of that person or that thing. If you are not aware you can’t be interested and therefore can’t listen and therefore will not be in communication.

There is no awareness without silence. Silence, stillness, solitude, and reflection are what we need from time to time in order to allow our awareness to grow and expand and deepen. See Crossing the Stream by Sangharakshita –chapter on ‘Pauses’ and ‘Empty Spaces’. Sometimes people think of meditation in terms of getting into blissful states of mind, but what is really important about meditation is that it enables awareness to grow and expand and deepen. Regardless of whether we are able to get into the dhyanas or not, meditation is important because it allows us to sit still, be silent and experience the solitude of our own minds at least for a short time. And it is also important because it creates the conditions that allow us to reflect more deeply and continuously

Communication, paradoxically enough, is dependant on silence. You have to develop the ability to be silent if you want to communicate.

If you can be silent you can become aware of yourself and of others, if you become aware you can become interested, if you become interested you can listen and if you can listen you can communicate.

As well as being able to listen you have to learn to reflect. Reflecting on your experience in the light of the Dharma means being able to ask yourself questions and give frank, honest answers. It means seeing clearly how egotism operates in your thoughts and emotions, how it gets expressed in your words and actions. If you can see clearly how egotism operates in you and how you give expression to it, then you have greater self-knowledge. Greater self-knowledge opens up the possibility of greater empathy with others and therefore the possibility of deeper and more satisfying communication.
In this context then, meditating means taking the listening and the reflecting deeper so that you get more and more glimpses of the freedom that comes from going beyond ego-identity and self-concern.

I have been talking about community and communication in terms of listening, reflecting and meditating.

When through our reflections and meditation we experience letting go of the burden of self-centredness, when we experience laying down the burden of ego, even for a moment, there is a sense of relief, a sense of freedom and a feeling of release from confinement.

From silence we can learn awareness, from awareness interest can grow; from interest we find listening becomes easier. When we listen we gain food for reflection and our reflections can lead us deeper into contemplations that loosen our attachment to self-defending. This improves communication enormously and creates and develops sangha.

All these are elements of spiritual community – sangha.

Spiritual community can be experienced on different levels – all of which are important and essential. There are the four levels of social interaction, personal friendship, kalyana mitrata and the third order of consciousness.

Social interaction is a very important foundation and building block for spiritual community. In social interaction we experience the delights of human communication and the clash of egos and temperaments. The Buddha recommended that any society or sangha should come together frequently and in large numbers. There is something about seeing people, hearing them, touching them and being in the same physical space that cannot be in any way replicated by telephone, emails, facebook or online forums. If we don’t come into contact with people in this way we can only relate to the image of them we carry in our minds and that image can never adequately represent the person in all their complexity and changeability. This first level of social interaction is very important in creating any community.

The next level is the level of Personal friendships. We sometimes define the Order as a network of friendships and I think it is a very good definition. It is the personal friendships that give depth and life to our community. It is also personal friendships that make the spiritual life such a rich and pleasant experience. Nowadays there are many people in the Order who have close friendships, which have lasted for 20, 30 years or more. The health of our community depends on this tradition of deep personal friendships continuing and growing. When we develop a friendship we are doing something that is crucial to the effectiveness of our individual spiritual practice and also something that is crucial to the vitality and strength of the community as a whole.

The third level of spiritual community is kalyana mitrata or spiritual friendship. This obviously overlaps with personal friendship, but it is not the same thing. For instance I do not have a personal friendship with Bhante, but I have very much experienced him being a kalyana mitra to me. Usually, but not always, kalyana mitrata is about those who are more experienced on the spiritual path sharing that experience with those who are less experienced and those who are less experienced being receptive to what is being communicated. You do not have to have a personal friendship with someone in order to benefit from their experience or to share your experience with them. Kalayana mitrata has been spoken of as a flow – something that flows through the sangha. It flows down through the generations and it flows within a particular spiritual community. In order for it to flow it needs the receptivity of those who wish to learn and the generosity of those who have something to impart. The ultimate source from which all kalyana mitrata flows is the Buddha and his experience of Awakening, which he communicated to others as soon as he could. Kondanna was the first to understand. Kondanna’s receptivity to the Buddha’s message is in a sense the first instance of effective Kalyana mitrata in the wider Buddhist community. [See Gautama by Vishavapani Blomfield p.116] That example of kalyana mitrata and the communication that flowed between them was the beginning of the river of spiritual friendship that has continued to flow ever since and continues to flow today within our own Triratna Community.

The fourth level of spiritual community is what Bhante has called the ‘third order of consciousness’. The third order of consciousness is what happens when there is what Bhante calls a ‘coincidence of wills’ between those who are spiritually developed. This coincidence of wills leads to a very great harmony and fellowship within the spiritual community. It is this great harmony and fellowship which is the third order of consciousness. Bhante has used the image of the 1000-armed Avalokitesvara as a symbol of this where each hand holding it’s particular implement represents each individual Order member making their unique contribution in harmony with all the others. This is the level of communication you would expect of the Aryasangha – the noble sangha of Stream Entrants and beyond. This is an aspiration and sometimes a reality for our own Triratna Community.

I have talked about communication being essential to spiritual community and I have looked at some of the elements that go to make for good communication; saying that in the end silence and reflection were essential for communication and therefore for the creation and development of Spiritual Community. I have talked about four levels of spiritual community each of which is important and essential. For our Triratna Community to be a truly spiritual community it needs to embody all four levels of Sangha, gathering together in large numbers, a network of personal friendships, the constant flow of kalyana mitrata, and the deep and satisfying harmony of the ‘third order of consciousness’. I believe our Triratna community does embody all of these to some degree.


But all of this originates with the Buddha’s Awakening and his communication of his insight to others who in turn had their own experience of insight into the nature of Reality which they communicated and so on down to the present day. This phenomenon of communication giving rise to spiritual experience and spiritual experience being communicated is the flow of kalyana mitrata and is central to the Buddha’s experience of Awakening and his subsequent teaching. Within a very short time he was telling his disciples that they should go forth and wander and teach for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many. This is the essential activity of sangha, this is the flow of kalyana mitrata at work and this is what animates the whole Buddhist tradition and what has led to the creation of the Triratna community and what will lead to it’s continuation as a Sangha and an important spiritual tradition in the modern world.

If we continue to meet in friendly social gatherings, if we create among us deep and lasting friendships, if we have a flow of spiritual friendship and a deep and harmonious meeting of minds then we will thrive as a community.

And for that to happen we need to deepen our understanding of ourselves and our awareness of others through reflection, solitude and silence, we need to develop interest in others and listen to them. If we do this we will have Sangha, we will have Spiritual Community and we will be following the footsteps of the Buddha and Kondanna. Because the Buddha communicated his insight and because Kondanna listened the whole of Buddhism was possible. We will always benefit if, as well as trying to be Buddhists, we also do our best to be Kondannists.