Monday, 30 April 2012

Touching the Earth

This talk was given to people working in Windhorse:Evolution on the 27th April 2012 as part of the celebrations in the run-up to Buddha Day.

Touching the Earth is the English translation of the Sanskrit Bhumisparsha - sparsha means to touch and bhumi is ground or earth.

Bhumisparsha -touching the earth - is the gesture of the Buddha at the time of his Enlightenment. Many Buddha statues (rupas) depict him in this gesture.

There are different accounts in the Buddhist scriptures of what happened when Siddhartha Gautama, sitting underneath the Bodhi tree, became a Buddha, an Awakened One. In some accounts it says that the earth shook and there were great rumbling noises - like an earthquake. In the account given in the Lalitavistara sutra it says that the Buddha was visited by Mara just before he gained Enlightenment. Mara is the personification of craving, hatred and spiritual ignorance. This is also described in the Padhana Sutta of the Sutta Nipata. The Buddha says Mara approached him as he was striving speaking kind words (karunam vacam bhasamano). The words attributed to him are as follows:
“O you are thin and you are pale,
And you are in death’s presence too;
A thousand parts are pledged to death,
But life still holds one part of you.
Live, Sir! Life is the better way;
You can gain merit if you live,
Come, live the Holy Life and pour
Libations on the holy fires,
And thus a world of merit gain.
What can you do by struggling now?
The path of struggling too is rough
And difficult and hard to bear.” [12]

So Mara is saying to Siddhartha – ‘take it easy, don’t be so hard on yourself, have a comfortable life’
Siddhartha recognises Mara and refuses to be tempted. He goes on to describe Mara's army in this way:
“Your first squadron is Sense-Desires,
Your second is called Boredom, then
Hunger and Thirst compose the third,
And Craving is the fourth in rank,
The fifth is Sloth and Torpor
While Cowardice lines up as sixth,
Uncertainty is seventh, the eighth
Is Malice paired with Obstinacy;
Gain, Honour and Renown, besides,
And ill-won Notoriety,
Self-praise and Denigrating Others:
These are your squadrons,

And Siddhartha declares his readiness to take up the fight - the spiritual life is often likened to a battle or a fight in the Pali Canon -
“None but the brave will conquer them
To gain bliss by the victory.…
Better I die in battle now
Than choose to live on in defeat.…
I sally forth to fight, that I
May not be driven forth from my post.” [15]:
“For I have faith (saddha) and energy (viriya)
And I have wisdom (pañña) too.”
 “Your serried squadrons, which the world
With all its gods cannot defeat,
I shall now break with wisdom
As with a stone a clay pot.” [16]

So Mara is all the negative, undermining and tempting mental states and emotions and the spiritual practitioner has faith, energy and wisdom in response.
In the story Mara first sends his army of monstrous creatures against Siddhartha, but their weapons turn to flowers when they come into his aura. Then Mara tries to tempt Siddhiartha with his daughters who dance seductively, but again Siddhartha is unmoved. So then Mara tries a different way - he says that Siddhartha has no right to sit on the spot where all previous Buddhas gained Enlightenment - in other words he tries to sow doubt. He asks Siddhartha whether he has anyone who can witness that he has a right to sit there, and that is when Siddhartha touches the earth and says the earth is my witness. The Earth Goddess then arises and vouches for him.
Before we go into the meaning of this episode there are a few things I'd like to mention that may be worth reflecting on - firstly in many other religions this sort of confirmation of teachers attainment comes from the sky rather than the earth - it may be in the form of angels or a voice from the heavens, but it is often from the sky rather than the earth. It is worth reflecting what this means for Buddhism and Buddhists.
Another thing to note is that, at least according to the Sutta Nipata, Mara and his armies and his daughters is an allegorisation of various mental states. such as boredom, cowardice, malice, obstinacy and denigrating others. Most of us will be quite familiar with some if not all of these, which means we are on very familiar terms with Mara and he probably speaks to us with kindly words quite frequently. So this is also worth reflecting on.
Another thing worth reflecting on is the use of warlike metaphors in the Buddhist scriptures - fighting, doing battle, conquering, staying at your post. Why is all this imagery used and does it have any relevance for us ? What metaphors or imagery do we habitually use and what is the affect of using different kinds of imagery?  Is the kind of imagaery we use or the stories we tell ourselves realy just the kindly voice of Mara?
Another thing woth reflecting on is that Mara did not just turn up as Siddhartha was sitting beneath the Bodhi tree. Here is what happened according to the Lalitavistara Sutra:
“while the Bodhisattva was was seated at Bodhimanda, the thought occurred to him: ‘The demon Mara is the lord of this realm of desire – the master who wields the power; it would not be right to become a Buddha without first informing him. I shall therefore summon Mara Papiyan.’”
What does it mean that Siddhartha summoned Mara?
But to come back to the Earth Goddess and touching the earth. The earth here is firstly a symbol of stability, unshakeability, constancy and also a symbol of  abundance, fertility, wealth
The Earth Goddess is a universal symbol and she has many names around the world - Isis, Gaia, Demeter, Ceres, Sheela na Gig , and Pachamama  are a few names from different cultures. In Sanskrit there are names like Sthavara, meaning Stable One, or Prthvi, meaning Earth or Vasundhara which means the Bearer of Treaure.
So this whole story of Siddhartha touching the earth has three elements that we could look at a little more closely - there is the attack by Mara, there is the response of calling on the earth to witness and there is the emergence of the earth goddess. What this story does is tell us some universal truths about spiritual practice in the form of the rich symbolism of mythology.
There are three spiritual truths in particular that we can draw from this story:
Firstly, spiritual practice involves struggle with forces of resistance which may be experienced as internal or external.
Secondly, we need to find a source of stability and confidence - something to trust in - if we are to be able to access the spiritual riches which are there for all.
Thirdly, we live in a universe where spiritual progress is possible and if we make the effort we will get a response.
Throughout the Buddhist scriptures you will find the Buddha exhorting his disciples to be aware, to develop mindfulness (sati) and one of the things we have to become aware of is our own mental states - we can think of this as becoming aware of our skilful and unskilful thoughts and emotions or we can think of it as becoming aware of Mara and what we might characterise as the Siddhartha within. In the  Dvedhavittakka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya the Buddha puts it like this:
"Bhikkhus, before my Enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, it occurred to me: 'Suppose that I divide my thoughts into two classes. then I set on one side thoughts of sensual desire, thoughts of ill-will and thoughts of cruelty, and I set on the other side thoughts of renunciation, thoughts of non-illwill and thoughts of non-cruelty.
He goes on to say that that is how he practised and then he says:
Bhikkhus, whatever a bhikkhu frequently thinks and ponders upon, that will become the inclination of his mind.
I saw in unwholesome states danger, degradation and defilement and in wholesome states the blessing of renunciation and the aspect of cleansing."
So this is the Buddha exhorting his disciples to practise in the way that he had practised by becoming aware of their mental states, both positive and negative.
Throughout the Pali Canon Mara comes to the Buddha to try to tempt him in one way  or another and each time the Buddha recognises him and when he is recognised he disappears. Mara cannot bear awareness.
So the point of this for us is that mindfulness of thoughts and emotions is an important and crucial practice, which will enable us to purify our minds or put more poetically ,it will free us from the clutches of Mara. If we think of our unskilful thoughts and emotions as Mara it may help us to be less attached to them.
Then Siddhartha touches the earth. This symbolises getting in touch with sources of stability, within ourselves and externally. We need to have confidence in what we are doing with our life, confidence in the practices of metta and mindfulness, confidence in our ability to make progress, confidence in our teachers and guides. This confidence is the stable basis from which can flow the energy and persistence that the spiritual path demands. To achieve anything a motivating energy is needed. If we want to get rich we have to have confidence that it is worthwhile and if we are convinced that it is worthwhile we will have the energy and be able to put in the effort that is required in order to get rich. If we want to be successful in any way we need to have a confidence in the value and worth of what we want to achieve and with that confidence comes the motivating energy, the dynamo which powers our efforts and gives us the ability to persist and be constant and consistent in our efforts. Confidence arises out of our intuitive and imaginative relationship to the goal and it also arises out of our reflections on life and it's purpose. We should be frequently thinking about the purpose of life. It is complacent to assume you already know what life is all about and more importantly it’s not making full use of your human consciousness. Confidence also arises out of reflecting on our positive qualities and abilities. Reflecting on what we have already achieved and on the opportunities open to us. A thoroughly positive and realistic appraisal and acknowledgement of our positive qualities and abilities is a really essential ingredient in a successful spiritual life.
We also gain confidence from other people - from seeing them and knowing how they have made progress, from listening to their feedback and just from being in contact with people who are more spiritually experienced and developed than we are - more mindful, more generous, kinder, wiser and so on. And of course we gain confidence in the Dharma from studying the Dharma, engaging imaginatively with the Buddha and his teaching and by hearing what Bhante and our own teachers have to say.
In response to Siddhartha touching the earth the Earth Goddess appears - Vasundhara appears - the Bearer of Treasure and she bears witness that Siddhartha has practised generosity, ethics and meditation for many lifetimes and is therefore well qualified to sit on the vajrasana - the seat of Enlightenment. She rejoices in his merits. The earth Goddess is universally a symbol of abundance, fertility, richness. Reading this more psychologically you could say that Sidddhartha's confidence, his faith or sraddha, gives him access to a depth of riches within, which envelop his mind and flow out into the world. The next part of the story after this is about Brahmasahampati persuading the Buddha to share his Insights with the world - in other words the Buddhas Insight in the nature of reality flows out in compassion.
The Earth Goddess is both Sthavara, which means the Stable One and Vasundhara, which means the Bearer of Treasure – the treasures of confidence and abundance, Sraddha and Dana, Faith and generosity.
So the message of the episode of Touching the Earth for us is that we need to pay attention to our sources of confidence and allow confidence to grow in us and we also need to be mindful of the vast riches available to us both within and externally.
By focussing on what is positive in our lives - even the things we may take for granted such as our health, our ability to see, hear and walk, the trees, grass and flowers, water and air - by being aware of and focussing on these things we can develop confidence by counteracting our tendency to focus on our problems, faults and weaknesses and worse still the faults and weaknesses of others.
And by giving attention to what is positive in us, in others and in the world around us we develop a sense of richness and abundance which reinforces our positivity and gradually turns us into the sort of person who can easily give to others and to the world out of an abundance and richness.
This is something of what touching the earth is about and if we reflect on these things we will benefit just as Siddhartha benefited, when he touched the earth .
I will finish with the passage from the Lalitavistara, where the Earth Goddess appears:
"as the Bodhisattva touched the great earth, it trembled in six ways: it trembled, trembled strongly, trembled strongly on all sides; resounded, resounded strongly, resounded strongly on all sides. Just as the bronze bells from Magadha ring out when struck with a stick, so this great earth resounded again when touched by the hand of the Bodhisattva.
Then the goddess of the earth that is in this world realm of the three thousand great thousands of worlds, the goddess named Sthavara, surrounded by a following of a hundred times ten million earth goodesses, shook the whole great earth. Not far from the Bodhisattva, she revealed the upper half of her body adorned with all its ornaments, and bowing with joined palms, spoke thus to the Bodhisattva: ' just so, Great Being. It is indeed as you have declared! We appear to attest to it. Moreover, O Bhagavat, you yourself have become the supreme witness of both human and god realms. In truth you are the purest of all beings'
Having frustrated the guile of Mara with these words the great earth goddess Sthavara honoured and praised the Bodhisattva and showed in several ways her own power; then with her following she disappeared."
I hope that by reflecting on the Enlightenment of the Buddha and the myths surrounding it we may gain a bigger perspective on our own lives and our practise of the Dharma.I hope, especially that by reflecting on this episode of Mara and the Earth Goddess, we may grow in confidence – confidence in ourselves and confidence in the Path.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Freedom of Giving

This talk was given at Cambridge Buddhist Centre on Sunday 18th March 2012.

There are many kinds of freedom: for instance political freedom - freedom from persecution and oppression, freedom to choose our political representatives; economic freedom- freedom from poverty; psychological freedom- freedom from debilitating conditions like depression, chronic anxiety or compulsive obsessions and so on. And then there is spiritual freedom. It is spiritual freedom that I want to talk about today - spiritual freedom and its relation to giving.

What is spiritual freedom? perhaps the most straightforward definition is that it is freedom from craving, ill-will and the delusion of ego-identity. We could also say it is freedom to give and to love. It might seem strange to assert that we are not free to give and to love, but that is in effect what Buddhism is saying. We may have the political freedom to give and to love, we may have the economic freedom to give and to love, we may have the psychological freedom to give and to love , but our giving and our loving is compromised by our lack of spiritual freedom. because we are enchanted by the ego delusion our giving and our loving is limited, restricted, diminished, confined, impoverished, stop and start.

Complete spiritual freedom is Enlightenment; liberation from all the mental poisons, liberation from states of mind such as craving, hatred, delusion, envy, pride and fear. Freedom from subjective limitations.

When we free ourselves from these states of mind, when we become completely free in the spiritual sense, then we are free to give and to love fully; there are no longer any barriers to a continuous flow of generosity and love. On the way to complete liberation we use the practices of metta and dana, kindness, friendliness and generosity, to gradually become more free, gradually dissolve the boundaries that restrict us.

All of our Buddhist practices are about freeing ourselves in this way. Buddhism is practical - there is a task and there is a set of tools with which to accomplish the task. We need only to understand the task and to use the tools.

The task is to free ourselves from the delusion of ego-identity and it's manifestations in neurotic craving, ill-will, pride, envy and fear or to put it more positively the task is to free ourselves so that we become embodiments of love and generosity.

In order to free your self in this way you need to be able to see how these mental poisons manifest in you. You have to become aware of the thoughts and emotions, which are proud or envious or anxious and so on. And you also need to be aware of the generous and kind thoughts and emotions that you experience.
You have to be aware of how the poisonous thoughts and emotions slip out through your speech and actions and aware of how you give expression to your more positive thoughts and emotions.

This level of awareness and self-knowledge is achieved partly by meditation, partly through study and reflection, partly through open communication with friends, partly through the positivity engendered by rituals and definitely by intensifying all of these by going on retreat regularly.

Sometimes people think that meditation must be the primary way of gaining greater awareness and self-knowledge and meditation is indeed very important . However it has to be balanced by other practices or it can itself become an exercise in subtle craving, where we are always in pursuit of some special experience. It is possible to do a lot of meditation and remain deluded or even increase our delusions, so it is important to touch earth with communication that challenges our habits and self-questioning that challenges our egotism. In my own experience it has been the practices of communication, confession and confiding – in other words spiritual friendship- which has frequently led to greater awareness and self-knowledge.

When we are trying to free ourselves – we are not just trying to free ourselves from negative states of mind like hatred, greed, pride or fear – we are also trying to free ourselves to be more loving and more giving, we are trying to free ourselves so that we become embodiments of love and generosity -the qualities of love and generosity flow spontaneously through us and from us.

So it is important then that we become aware of how these positive qualities manifest in our thoughts and emotions, in our speech and in our actions. As we become more aware of these positive qualities in us, we need to nurture and encourage them. We may, for instance , become aware of urges to give or to say a kind word, we may become aware of our generous acts or our friendly, encouraging speech. In all of these lie the seeds of our freedom and the more we can give these positive qualities and these positive actions space to flourish and multiply, the more free we will become.

How does this work? How do positive mental states and positive actions lead to greater freedom.

Negative mental states and unskilful actions have a limiting and isolating affect on us. The more greedy we are, for instance, the more we come to inhabit a narrow and narrowing world – becoming more isolated from others and more obsessed with our own security, comfort and gratification. On the other hand as we allow our generosity to flow unhindered we find ourselves connecting with others, experiencing more expansive mental states and in time, less anxiety about our security and comfort. So, the development of positive mental states and acting from those mental states leads to greater freedom because it leads us out of the dark cave of deluded self-obsession and out into the more open space of heart-connections with other people. It helps us to soften the defensive and protective boundaries we build around ourselves. This leads to greater freedom because it is accordance with the nature of reality. In reality our minds and hearts are not fixed and isolated entities to be defended and protected. Rather we are fluid processes needing the fresh air of kindness, generosity and wisdom to fulfil our full human potential, the potential to awaken from the sleep of delusion.

I have been speaking about this process of becoming free in terms of moving from greed to giving. We could equally speak about moving from anger and hatred to love and kindness. These unskilful mental states also have the effect of isolating us, leaving us in a narrow world where we sit like some disgruntled spider at the centre of a web of resentment and blame weaving stories of self-justification and righteous indignation.
As Shantideva says in the Bodhicaryavatara;
“Even friends shrink from him. He gives but is not honoured. In short, there is no sense in which someone prone to anger is well off.”

It is easy to see that when we are friendly, kind and loving we are naturally connected to other people and experience the security of friendship and positivity.

Lets come back to the theme of giving and how it leads to freedom in the sense of awakening.

We are probably all familiar with the word 'Dana ' , which means giving, the act of giving. There is another word which we may be less familiar with – this is 'caga' (chaaga) which means generosity – the quality of generosity or the quality of liberality as it is sometimes translated.

Caga is known as one of the noble treasures. For instance in one list of the five treasures there are saddha -faith, sila – ethics, suta – right knowledge, caga- generosity and panna- wisdom. In the Anguttara Nikaya there is a sutta where the Buddha is speaking to Migara's mother, whose name is Vasakha – he first tells her about four qualities she needs in order to be successful in the worldly life and then he goes on to say :

“ when a woman possesses four other qualities she is heading for victory in the other world ( in other words the spiritual world) . What four? Here a woman is accomplished in faith, virtue, generosity and wisdom.”
These are sraddha, sila, caga and prajna and are known as the treasures.

He later says the same thing to a man called Dighajana.

Dana is the practice of giving which leads to the mental state of caga and caga is the mental state of generosity which is expressed in acts of giving. Caga is the generous mind which leads to freedom – freedom from all clinging or attachment to 'me', or 'mine'- freedom from possessiveness and any sense of inner poverty. Sometimes caga is translated as relinquishment – it's the mind that is not holding on tightly to anything.

We can speak of generosity as a quality of the mind, but in a way that is not quite right. What we are aiming at through the practice of dana is not to become a generous person – a person who possesses the quality of generosity – what we are really aiming for is to become generosity.

We are not fixed centres of consciousness on to which we add qualities such as generosity, loving kindness and wisdom. We are fluid processes, ever changing, consciousness constantly in the process of being created. We are not so much creatures, we are more like the process of creating and what is being created is generosity, loving kindness and wisdom – these qualities become the nature of consciousness rather than attributes of consciousness.

By acting generously we modify our being – everything we do, say and think modifies us to some degree and those things we do most frequently or say most frequently or think most frequently – those things modify us the most.

We are shaped and moulded by the constancy and consistency of our actions, our speech and the stories we tell ourselves.

If we are frequently generous in action, in words and in thought we will be on the way to becoming embodiments of generosity – caga.

In order to be generous, in trying to be generous, we will inevitably encounter our attachments, our clinging, our insecurities and this is one of the great spiritual benefits of dana. In order to overcome or expand beyond the boundaries imposed on us by insecurity, attachment and clinging, we need to become more and more aware of how these mental states manifest in our lives and how they restrict our freedom.

Non-attachment is one of the 51 mental states mentioned in the Yogachara Abhidhamma – early Buddhist philosophy. Non-attachment (alobha) is a positive mental state. Alobha literally means non-greed.

Bhante says this about non-attachment in his book Know Your Mind :
“The traditional image for non-attachment is that of thistle down blown on the wind. One is serene, confident, balanced in oneself. One doesn't settle on or stick to things, because one is self-contained. One doesn't need to be appropriating things or people so as to feel fulfilled. one doesn't insist on keeping certain elements of experience to oneself, or maintaining certain patterns of experience that support a particular idea of oneself. One has the confidence and the wider vision to be free from being neurotically involved with things. As should be clear, generosity is intrinsic to this positive mental event. “ (Know your Mind, Sangharakshita, p.130)

The practice of generosity helps us to attain this state of being 'serene, confident, balanced' . The practice of generosity challenges our insecurities and attachments and in this way makes us aware of how we 'appropriate things or people so as to feel fulfilled'. For instance, if we feel the urge to respond to an appeal for donations, we may immediately become aware of our insecurity in relation to money and our attachment to money as something that helps us to feel secure. Or if there is an appeal for volunteers to help out with some event, we may immediately become aware of how attached we are to our spare time.
By becoming aware in this way we give ourselves a greater opportunity to become free from 'being neurotically involved with things' -as Bhante puts it.

In this short quote from Bhante about non-attachment he mentions confidence twice – one is 'serene, confident, balanced' and 'one has the confidence and wider vision to be free from being neurotically involved with things'.

Confidence is crucial to our ability to be generous. The English word confidence has it's roots in the Latin 'fides', which means trust or faith. It is trust or faith that enables us to be generous and to become embodiments of generosity. We usually use the Sanskrit word 'shraddha' or the Pali 'saddha' when we talk about faith in Buddhism. These words come from a root meaning 'to place the heart upon. The English word 'creed' from the Latin 'credo' has similar root -'to place the heart upon'. What does it mean to 'place the heart upon' ? When we speak of the heart in this way we are usually talking about our emotions, we are talking about what we love - placing the heart on something is a kind of falling in love. It is not an idea about something, it is a full-blooded response to something. Neil Young recorded a song entitled 'I believe in you' and it's obvious he is using the word 'believe' here in the sense of 'I love you' ' I think you're wonderful' – he is not saying I believe that you exist! So faith in the sense of placing the heart on something is much more like this – it is a response of love and moving towards a very strong, motivating, even at times overwhelming response and just like with falling in love it has the feeling of great richness and abundance, joy and delight.

When we talk about faith or confidence in Buddhism what is it that we have faith in? What are confident about? Or to put it another way what do we place our heart on, what do we fall in love with?
In a conceptual sense it is the nature of reality, it is the law of karma and in a more emotional sense it is the Buddha or perhaps out teachers or archetypal forms of the Buddha such as Amitabha or Ratnasambhava or Green Tara. But the point is that if we are to let go of attachments, of clinging neurotically to possessions or people, we need to have an inner sense of richness and abundance and this inner richness and abundance arises from our shraddha our confidence, trust or faith in something or someone far greater than our own limited ego sense. Without this heartfelt response to something higher, something that transcends us, something greater than us – without that it is not really possible or even desirable to try to let go of our attachments, because we will be letting go into an impoverished space.

It may be that to begin with we only have a vague intuition of something, a glimpse of something more to life, and that we have to take a leap – a leap of faith – into practising meditation and ethics and studying the Dharma and listening to talks and by doing this our confidence grows stronger because we start to see more clearly that the Dharma works and that there is more depth and profundity to it that we had ever realised.

For instance, if we reflect on our actions – of body , speech and mind – and reflect on the consequences of our actions, then in time we can gain greater trust and confidence in the law of karma. We will see that we can rely on it. We can feel secure that our actions do have consequences, that skilful actions have positive consequences and unskilful actions have negative consequences. And that can lead us to feel secure that by giving we ourselves will benefit greatly.

Whether our faith, our confidence in the Buddha and his teaching is a strong and immediate force in our lives or whether it is something we have to work at to develop over time, it is the source of the energy, emotion and passion which we need in order to feel an inner abundance, an inner wealth, and which will motivate us to practice a generosity of spirit in all our relationships both with ourselves and with others.

In this talk I have deliberately not tried to be very practical. I have not talked about what we can give, to whom we can give, or how to give. I want to leave it to you to work out what it all means in practical terms – what you could do. I will be content if some of you are inspired by the vision of dana and caga – the practice of giving and the quality of generosity.

In the little promotional paragraph for this talk which I wrote for the Cambridge Buddhist Centre website I said:
"Giving benefits the giver most and the greatest benefit is freedom. When we move outwards from our self-island in acts of generosity we touch the lives and hearts of others. The connections we make in this touching of lives and hearts form the basis of true security and free us from the need to build a citadel of self-protection. We can free ourselves from our sense of isolation and insecurity through the counter intuitive practice of dismantling the walls we hide behind."

I hope many of you have already started to dismantle those walls and are well on the way to experiencing the freedom of giving.