Sunday, 17 November 2013

An Ever Widening Circle

This talk was given on Sangha Day at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre November 2013

I became a Buddhist one afternoon in August 1983 (30 years ago!). I was living in Berlin at the time (what was then known as West Berlin) I was about to leave Berlin and just a week before I left I went to visit the Buddhist Temple in the suburb of Frohnau. I had been there several times before, just to use the garden and the library. On this particular occasion one of the monks came up to me as I was sitting in the library reading and asked me, without any preliminaries – "do you meditate?". At the time I had learned the om mani padme hum mantra from a book and I used to chant it every day – so I replied that I did meditate. The monk, who was from Sri Lanka, dismissed my mantra chanting and sat down at the table and proceeded to teach me the Metta Bhavana with the aid of pen and paper and also to teach me the five precepts.

I didn't really get the Metta Bhavana, but the precepts appealed to me. What I was most struck by and what brought about my more or less instant conversion to Buddhism, was the monk himself. He was 63 years old and had been a monk for 12 years and what came across to me very strongly was the congruency between what he was saying and what he was doing with his life and how he was as a man. His kindness and awareness were palpable and left a deep impression on me. I had the experience of knowing that I was a Buddhist and would dedicate myself to Buddhist practice. The monk's name was Maha Dhammanisanthi and I never saw him again after that afternoon. He did ask me to send him a photograph of myself so that he could put me in his Metta Bhavana practice and I did send him a photograph.

A year later, in London I picked up Subhuti's book "Buddhism for today" in Swiss Cottage library. It's a book that was published in 1983 and was about the history of our Triratna movement up until then. I was immediately struck by what I read about Spiritual Community and the New Society, about people living and working together and I decided there and then that I was going to get involved with these people – that was May 1984 and I'm still here and have no regrets.

I want to pick up on a few things from this story of my first steps on the Buddhist path and contrast them with my own view of the Buddhist path at the time. The things that made the biggest impression on me were the five precepts, which give very helpful guidelines for the relationships between people, the monk Maha Dhammanisanthi, who impressed me because of his warmth and kindness and awareness of me. And I was impressed by what I read in Subhuti's book about spiritual community, the new Society and people living in communities and working together right livelihood businesses.

However, although everything that made an impression on me was to do with other people and community I didn't really realise that at the time. At the time, my view of the Buddhist path was that it was mainly about meditation and everything else was there to create conditions for meditation. And I also assumed that if I was going to be a real Buddhist I would go off somewhere – into the mountains preferably – and meditate alone until I was ready to come down – like Zarathustra and dispense wisdom to the ordinary folk. So in my imagination – Buddhism was about meditation and meditation was about having some kind of experience that would immediately endow me with wisdom, which I could then dispense.

Now after 30 years as a Buddhist that seems to me to be a naive and very limited vision of Buddhist practice and the Buddhist path. However it is not an uncommon view and even in our own Triratna movement you will still find people referring to Buddhist practice but meaning meditation, as if meditation and Buddhist practice were synonymous.

But for me things have worked out in practice very different and I have to say that it has taken me a long time to appreciate what Buddhism is really about and I am still learning and discovering it now.

Of course when I became involved with Triratna, I encountered Bhante Sangharakshita's teachings about spiritual friendship and I came across the Buddha's teaching that spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. This is a teaching that comes out in a conversation between the Buddha and Ananda and later in another conversation between the Buddha and Sariputta.

"Thus have I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was dwelling among the Shakyans where there was a town of the Shakyans named Nagaraka. Then the Venerable Ananda approached the Blessed One. Having approached, he paid homage to the Blessed One, sat down to one side and said to him . Venerable sire, this is half of the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.


"Not so, Ananda! Not so, Ananda! This is the entire holy life, Ananda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. Samyutta Nikaya.


The Buddha says quite clearly Kalyana Mitrata is the whole of the spiritual life.

Now I knew this teaching, I repeated this teaching, I accepted this teaching, I probably gave talks about this teaching – spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life – but I don't think I really believed it. I think what I really believed – in my guts – so to speak, is that meditation is the whole of the spiritual life and that what I really needed to do was to have that experience that will transform me into the person who could dispense wisdom to the masses. I think that for my first 10 or 15 years as a Buddhist that's what I really believed, often without even fully realising it.

However, my life didn't happen like that. For a start I was rubbish at meditation. When I first started, I was so restless that I would find myself in the kitchen making tea after 10 minutes, without even noticing that I had got up from my cushion. Later I could sit for longer, but my mind was up and about doing other things. Then I started getting headaches whenever I meditated and for many years the clash between my view that meditation is the most important practice and my experience of not making much progress in meditation, was a source of distress and even despair for me.

Somewhere during the 1990s I managed to change my attitude and relax about meditation. And also I did begin to understand more and more deeply that spiritual friendship might indeed be the whole of the spiritual life. I do of course meditate on a daily basis – and I believe meditation is very important, but it has to take its place among all the other practices.

If it is true, as the Buddha said to Ananda and Sariputta, that Kalyana Mitrata is the whole of the spiritual life, then of course it must follow that the practice of spiritual friendship is the most important spiritual practice on the Buddhist path and since the practice of spiritual friendship implies the creation of spiritual community, it follows that the creation of spiritual community is of paramount importance for Buddhists. Buddhism has at its heart the three jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha – not the one jewel of Buddha, not the two jewels of Buddha and Dharma but the three jewels of  Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

We have had the year of Kalyana Mitrata here at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre and we have explored the theme in many ways with talks and workshops and now we are going on to the year of spiritual community. The two are of course closely related – spiritual friendship is the practice at the heart of spiritual community. But when we talk about spiritual friendship there might be a tendency to take a narrow view and to think in terms of me and my close friends and then we could start to see the practice of spiritual friendship as being about the creation of a little clique of me and my friends.

So we need to broaden out from the view that the spiritual life is about me , me having a big experience. We also need to broaden out from the view that the spiritual life is about me and my close friends, me and my close friends having a great experience of spiritual friendship. We can broaden out from that and see our spiritual life in terms of creating and developing a spiritual community. We can see our spiritual life in terms of creating and developing a local spiritual community here in Cambridge and in terms of contributing to the creation and development of a worldwide spiritual community.

To get a deeper understanding of the importance of spiritual community we need to revisit the topic of spiritual friendship briefly and understand again why the Buddha said that spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life. I explored this theme in a talk I gave here earlier this year – the talk was titled The Reality of Spiritual Friendship and can be found on Ratanaghosha Blog.

I won't go into all that again. Instead I will just give you a quote from Bhante that states quite succinctly why spiritual friendship is so important.

"The Brahmacarya or spiritual life is that way of life that leads to the Brahmaloka or spiritual world. But how is it able to do this? To fully answer we must turn to yet another early Buddhist text: in the MahaGovinda sutta we find in it this very question being asked: "how does a mortal reach the immortal Brahma world?" In other words how can one cross from the transient to the eternal? And the answer given is short and simple. "One reaches the Brahma world by giving up all possessive thoughts, all thoughts of me and mine." In other words, one reaches the Brahmaloka by giving up egotism and selfishness, by giving up all sense of I. Thus the intimate connection between spiritual friendship and spiritual life starts to come into focus. Spiritual friendship is a training in unselfishness, in egolessness. You share everything with your friend or friends. You speak to them kindly and affectionately, and show concern for their welfare, especially their spiritual welfare. You treat them in the same way you treat yourself – that is, you treat them as being equal with yourself. You relate to them with an attitude of Metta, not according to where the power between you lies. Learning to relate to our friends in this way, we will gradually learn to respond to the whole world with Metta, with unselfishness. It is in this way that spiritual friendship is indeed the whole of the spiritual life." The Essential Sangharakshita, p. 511 & 512

And of course this is why spiritual friendship is the most important practice in Buddhism. The Sangha or spiritual community consists in the coming together of all those who are aiming their lives at the ideal of Buddhahood, by practising the Dharma as taught by the Buddha. The Triratna Sangha – the Triratna Community and Order consists in all those who are aiming their lives towards the ideal of Buddhahood, by practising the Dharma as elucidated by Sangharakshita and Sangharakshita's disciples.

These are the principal elements to any particular spiritual community – there is the common ideal – in this case the ideal of Buddhahood, the ideal of human enlightenment. And secondly there is a common set of practices and thirdly, a common way of talking about spiritual practice, a common language of practice.

So if you are involved with a Soto Zen community you will have a particular set of practices and a particular language of practice. If you are involved with a Tibetan Buddhist community you will have a completely different set of practices and a different way of talking about practice. If you are involved with a Theravadin Buddhist community you will have yet another different set of practices and yet another mode of communication. Or if you are involved with any of the more Western Buddhist communities – such as the Order of Inter Being or the communities of Joseph Goldstein or Reginald Ray or others – they will all have their own discourse, their own emphasis and their main practices. To be able to take communication deeper we need a common language of practice and a common experience of practice as well as a common spiritual ideal. So these are the elements that characterise any particular spiritual community.

One of the teachings and practices that characterises the Triratna community and Order is the emphasis on spiritual friendship and spiritual community. So because this practice of spiritual friendship and spiritual community was emphasised by the Buddha and has been repeatedly emphasised by our own teacher Sangharakshita, it seems important that we do explore it thoroughly. That is what we have been doing this year with the Year of Kalyana Mitrata and that is what we will be doing during the coming year with the Year of Spiritual Community.

How can we make spiritual community into a more central practice? How can we move from the natural tendency to view the spiritual life as something personal, primarily about my experience, to seeing the spiritual life as something collective and primarily about going beyond self and going beyond the seeking after personal experiences?

Well it isn't easy. We quite naturally want something out of spiritual practice for ourselves – whether it's peace of mind, ecstatic experiences or profound wisdom – we would like to be rewarded for our efforts and why not. It is best to accept that we are creatures of desire and then to look at how we can channel our desires most appropriately and effectively. So in order to motivate ourselves to engage with the practice of spiritual community, we need to convince ourselves that it is beneficial to us as well as others. If we have strong faith in the Buddha it may be enough for us to know that the Buddha said that spiritual friendship is the whole of the spiritual life and that the Sangha should come together regularly and in large numbers or that in the Sedaka Sutta he says
Looking after oneself, one looks after others. Looking after others, one looks after oneself. And how does one look after others by looking after oneself? By practicing (mindfulness), by developing (it), by doing (it) a lot. And how does one look after oneself by looking after others? By patience, by non-harming, by loving kindness, by caring (for others). (Thus) looking after oneself, one looks after others; and looking after others, one looks after oneself. Sedaka Sutta, Samyuta Nikaya 47.19

Or if we have a strong faith in our teacher, Bhante Sangharakshita – it may be enough for us that he said – "you cannot help yourself without helping others and you cannot help others without helping yourself." Or you might be inspired by the Mahayana teacher Shantideva who says – "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." Bodhocaryavatara, chapter 8, verse 129.

All of these teachings could convince you that you need to throw yourself into the practice of spiritual community very wholeheartedly. But we can be convinced and not convinced at the same time. We can agree with the teachings, we can think that the teachings are wonderful and we love to hear them and feel uplifted and inspired by them – but at the same time not act on them. This is a common enough experience. So what are we to do?

Well a lot of spiritual practice is simply a matter of discipline – at least initially. You need the inspiration, the emotional connection that motivates you but then it is like anything else that we want to learn or achieve – we have to put in the effort even when we don't want to, we have to traverse the early stages in order to experience the fruits of the later stages. This is true of learning a musical instrument, studying mathematics, becoming an athlete, learning a language et cetera sometimes we just have to do what is recommended, even if we don't find it immediately satisfying and enjoyable. But of course when we do what needs to be done, we often find that the rewards come quite quickly and our motivation grows.

What do we need to do in order to practice spiritual community? Well the first thing is relatively simple – we just need to be friendly. I say it's simple but of course it may not be so simple for everyone. Apparently the majority of people involved with spiritual groups are introverts by temperament. And of course some people can be very shy as well and I can tell you from experience that if you are a very shy introvert, then being friendly may not be at all easy. I myself was extremely shy and quite socially awkward when I first got involved withTriratna and I feel very fortunate others befriended me so that I was able to learn gradually how to be friendly and relate to people without so much awkwardness. Then some people are more prone to irritation and anger and may have to make a conscious effort to be friendly and cooperative rather than critical and spiky.

Another aspect of being friendly is hospitality. When you have been coming along to the Centre for a while it is a good practice to look out for new people and make them feel welcome. Especially if you are naturally sociable and outgoing you can do a great service to more shy and retiring people by being welcoming. Even if you're not naturally outgoing you can help yourself by thinking of others and making them feel welcome.

The second practice that helps to create and build spiritual community is the practice of friendship. Friendship is something more than friendliness. It is a matter of taking communication deeper – opening up to another person, being aware of them, listening to them and regarding them with kindness and in time being willing to confide and confess with them and being able and willing to accept their confidences and confessions. Spiritual friendship is at the heart of spiritual community and it is our network of friendships that in the end constitutes the spiritual community.

Then there is the practice of generosity. Ideally in a spiritual community everything works on the basis of generosity. It would ideally be what we might call a Dana society, a world in which we all gave what we could in terms of time and money and energy to the collective efforts and we all got what we needed in terms of guidance, friendship and help. Of course, our spiritual community is probably not ideal or perfect, but that is all the more reason why we need to practice generosity and support each other and support the collective work that is channelled through the Buddhist centre. In this context generosity means giving time and energy and money to help the centre with its work of teaching the Dharma and building Sangha. It also means participating in the Centre's activities, not just for your own sake, but for the sake of others too. It means being willing to help out. It means contributing our skills and abilities to help the collective efforts. Just now there is a particular opportunity because the Centre is going through a period of transition - Vajradevi is leaving and Taradasa is training up to take on some of the work she did. But during this time of change there will be extra pressure on all of the team here - Abhayamati who does an enormous amount behind the scenes, Lee who keeps tab on the finances and Liz who has made a huge difference to the property maintenance and safety. All of them - Taradasa, Abhayamati, Lee and Liz , will need our help and support and goodwill. If we see something is not happening as it used to - don't complain just find a way to help. Generosity is a key practice in Buddhism, because it contains the seeds of the Great Compassion, which is Nirvana. By practising generosity we are very directly beginning the process of dissolving egotism and simultaneously developing the positive mental state of non-attachment which is the ground from which the Great Compassion grows.

The fourth practice that helps to create and develop spiritual community is the practice of awareness, especially in this context awareness of other people. Communication only really works when there is awareness and one of the best ways of being aware of others is to listen to them. You have to listen with your eyes as well as your ears, because so much of communication is wordless. Perhaps in this year of Spiritual Community we should pay particular attention to awareness of others.

Following on from these four practices – friendliness, friendship, generosity and awareness – there is one more practice – perhaps a higher practice, which is both crucial to the creation of spiritual community and to the spiritual community expressing itself in the world.

This is the practice of co-operation– which is both simple and profound. The main thing the spiritual community is trying to do in the world is to create the conditions for more and more people to live meaningful lives, imbued with the values of kindness and awareness and to create opportunities for those who wish to, to join the spiritual community.

In order to create the conditions for more and more people to live full lives, imbued with the values of awareness and kindness and in order to create opportunities for people to join the spiritual community – it is not enough for us to talk about Metta and mindfulness, it's not enough for us to talk about spiritual community – we have to live it, to exemplify it to some degree, to embody it.

Just as in my case it was meeting with the monk – Maha Dhammanisanthi – and having a strong sense of the way he embodied what he talked about that changed my life, so in the case of any of us who practises we need to allow the Dharma to transform us into kind, aware and cooperative people. That transformation will convey the spirit of the Dharma to others. If we want to share the Dharma with others we have to live it. If we don't live the Dharma, we can't share it, we can only talk about it. If we do live the Dharma we will be sharing and giving it whether we talk about it are not. The spirit of the Dharma and the spirit of Sangha is mutual helpfulness.

Mutual helpfulness manifests in cooperation. Sometimes we want to do things in our own way. Even quite ordinary things like washing the dishes, vacuuming the floor – we may have our own way of doing it and we may want everyone else to do it in the same way and if they don't we may become quite irritated and critical. When it comes to things like creating a shrine or giving a talk we may also have our own way and want others to do it in the same way. It can be quite hard to co-operate, to bear in mind the objective needs of the task in hand rather than our own subjective preferences. We are of course going to have preferences and the spiritual work is in trying not to overly identify with those preferences – not to overly identify with our subjectivity, our feelings about things. Instead we try to co-operate and allow space to others – to their ideas and their methods.

So in terms of creating and developing spiritual community one of the best things we can do is to join in with all sorts of projects and do our best to co-operate with others. It could be running a jumble sale, supporting a class or weekend retreat, painting the centre, clearing up after a festival day. The main thing is to get involved and practice co-operating. The key to spiritual community is participation - that could be our catchphrase for this year - participation, participation, participation. When this works well we can get to a point where people are working together almost telepathically. There is so much awareness of others and of the task in hand that very little needs to be said and the energy just flows. When that happens there is an experience of what spiritual community can really be like – energies intermingling without obstruction and a joyful sense of achievement.

Looked at from one point of view the spiritual life is all about the dissolving of egotism and coming to a realisation that there is no fixed and separate self or ego. It is about seeing through the deluded nature of most of our views and the actions that follow from those views. Looked at from another point of view the spiritual life is all about developing spiritual friendships and creating the spiritual community.

It is necessary to look at the spiritual life from both of these standpoints and to practise from both of these standpoints. If we do that we will be aiming our lives at both wisdom and compassion. By practising from both standpoints we will eventually see and experience that wisdom and compassion are one – not two.

Today I want to emphasise the practice of spiritual community as a path to transcendent insight. With many meditation and contemplation practices we approach the question of self and other from the angle of seeing through self. With the practices of spiritual friendship and spiritual community we approach the problem of self and other from the angle of other. We approach so close to other that the boundaries start to dissolve and we arrive at a beautiful intermingling of energies that naturally dissolves away our fixed self delusion.

For this to happen our engagement with spiritual friendship and spiritual community has to be quite intense and ongoing. Meeting for a coffee once a week probably wouldn't be enough – no more than meditating once a week is enough. Some people solve this by living with other Sangha members and/or working alongside other Sangha members. This is not going to be possible for everyone. However if your circumstances do allow you to change your living arrangements, then I would encourage you to consider experimenting with communal living. You don't need to think in terms of joining some existing set-up. You could just think in terms of sharing a flat or house with some Buddhist friends. First you need to get to know people as well as you can and then together lay down some basic ground rules such as perhaps being vegetarian and taking turns to cook and so on. If your circumstances are such that living with friends from the Sangha is just not possible then you will need to try to share your life with your Sangha friends as much as possible, visiting each other's houses, sharing activities, helping each other out and so on.

As regards working together – this again may not be possible – but there may be a number of people in the Sangha who work in the same profession – for example, teaching, medicine, social work, construction or whatever – and it may be beneficial to get together sometimes with people who work in the same profession to explore how best to practice in that particular world. How do you bring the precepts in? how do you deal with office politics and gossiping? how do you keep up a meditation practice? how do you communicate your Buddhist values without alienating or annoying your colleagues? Perhaps some people may even be able to work for the same institution and support each other in that way.

The practice of spiritual community can be very challenging if it is engaged with intensely, and also very rewarding. This can lead to a lived experience of transcendence.

Before I finish I would like to touch on some specific things in relation to our year of spiritual community. How can we make the most of this year for exploring the practice of spiritual community?

Of course there are many things that we are already doing that contribute hugely to developing the spirit and practice of spiritual community among us. There are the courses and classes at the centre, the festival days, the Mitra study groups and Mitra evening's, going for refuge groups, order chapters, outreach groups and so on. I would just like to encourage us to participate as fully as possible in the activities of the Centre as part of our year of spiritual community. As I said participation is the key to building spiritual community among us. I would like to especially emphasise retreats. This is because I have noticed over the years that deeper friendships are more likely to develop on retreats – and historically it was the experience of enjoying being on retreat together that led people to experiment with communal living.

Other things that are already happening which enrich Sangha life are the young people's group and the choir. It would be great to see more people coming together to enjoy films or poetry and drama or some other cultural activities that stimulate thought and discussion and also build more bonds between us. There are also other interests such as ecology or veganism which it is good to explore in the Sangha context. Perhaps money and economics would be another topic to explore in the sangha context.

During the coming year, as well as the existing Sangha building activities there will be some special events. We don't know yet what all of them will be, but one thing that will happen is that Arthapriya will explore the whole theme of spiritual community with a series of talks. I'm sure others will want to contribute to the year in other ways.

The main point I want to leave you with is that spiritual community is a practice in itself, as well as being a context that supports our practice. It is the practice of participating and co-operating in our collective work and activities. It is the practice of going beyond narrow self interest and developing kindness and compassion. It is a practice that is not divorced from the realities of life. You can meditate and have your head in the clouds. It is possible to become deluded about your depth of compassion or your great awareness. But when you meet people and communicate in an honest, open and authentic way, then you have to be present, you have to have your feet on the ground.

In the end Buddhism is all about practice – Buddhist compassion is not an idea – it is something you do. Buddhist awareness is not an idea – it is something you do. Buddhist ethics are not pleasant ideas, they are practices that you are trying to do all the time. The Sangha is the context in which we can learn to put Buddhism into practice more and more thoroughly and creating Sangha is the practice of putting our Buddhist ideas into action. The Buddha spent his whole life teaching the Dharma, sharing his understanding of life with others. By doing this he gradually created a spiritual community.


Because of this the Dharma has come to us as a living tradition. The Sangha embodies the Dharma and keeps it alive. We are the Sangha and our task is to embody the Dharma and keep it alive and share our understandings with others so that the Sangha continues to grow – an ever widening circle – that can be the catalyst and the context for the spiritual transformation of more and more individuals and in that way be a tremendous force for good in the world.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Demons for Every Ocassion

This talk was given on September 15th 2013 at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre.

There is a lot of conflict in the world, whether at the level of nations going to war, or civil wars, or terrorism or gang warfare in cities and towns or even neighbours quarrelling. There has always been conflict among human beings – competition for resources, competition for sexual partners, struggles for power. There is conflict between humans – external conflict and there is conflict within each person – internal conflict. The external conflict is not total however. It is restricted, restrained – there is civilisation, co-operation and helpfulness too and on the individual level there also exists contentment and happiness.

There is conflict in the world and in individual people because of greed, hatred, ignorance and fear. There is co-operation and contentment in the world and in individuals because there is spiritual aspiration and a sense of moral values.

When we embark on the spiritual path we can find ourselves in conflict with our own immediate world – family and friends think we are becoming strange, taking a wrong path, joining a cult. We also experience internal conflict – our nascent spiritual aspirations come into conflict with our lower nature. We want to love but we discover ourselves hating. We want to be generous but we experience greed. We aspire to courage and boldness but we experience fear and insecurity.

I experienced this very strongly myself for the first four or five years of my involvement with Triratna. I had a very strong aspiration to change, to become a bodhisattva, to help others, even to contribute to solving the problems of conflict in the world. But I discovered aspects of myself were petty, angry, frightened and altogether childish. I went through periods of mental and emotional anguish – intense fear, depression, self hatred, blaming others and all the time the spiritual aspiration was there. I was a mess – a conflicted and unhappy mess.

In a passage in his book – "A Record of Awakening" – David Smith describes a period of internal conflict that he suffered:
"The mind broke into two halves: one half, totally possessed by mara, had nothing but hatred and contempt for me and my hypocrisy and impure practice; the other half tried to reason, defend, and contain this onslaught.
Mara didn't let up. He tried with all his might and cunning to get me to let loose the tremendous power that consumed my whole being, battling the whole time with the part of me that brought forth insight, the part that say's 'Don't react, just accept'. The intensity just never let up.
It really did take all of my years of experience to keep myself contained.
I could easily have fallen into the delusion that this creature came from outside of me, for it was quite happy to finish my life, but I never once saw it like that. The battle was always seen as a product of my own deluded mind. I felt cut open. With all these terrible thoughts coming up from the great depths of the subconscious I felt very vulnerable and near to despair."  David Smith, A Record of Awakening, p.51.

It seems that for many people the path to Insight is paved with the crazy and cracked paving of internal conflict.

In the Lalitavistara there is a description of the lead up to the Buddha's enlightenment.  Mara's armies, Mara's daughters and Mara himself appear and create as much disruption as possible – these are personifications of the forces of hatred craving and ignorance and these are what constitute ego. When we talk about our ego, it can sometimes get a bit abstract, as if we were talking about a thing – something within us that makes us behave selfishly or angrily. There is no ego, there is no such thing. There is just spiritual ignorance, craving and ill will and these are not things either – these are tendencies of our minds, they are activities of our minds, our speech and our bodies. They are movements of energy – we are energy and that energy flows through our thoughts, our emotions and our actions. Our thoughts and emotions and actions are a flow of energy and that flow of energy is what we are. The spiritual life is all about giving a positive, helpful, cooperative, compassionate, wise direction to that flow of energy.

We are able to do that because we have self awareness and aspiration towards higher values. Awareness and spiritual aspiration are also energy – energy in pursuit of the good or what we call virya. Padmasambhava – the great Guru – personifies viriya.

Padmasambhava, as far as we know, was an historical character – living in the eighth century. But more importantly he has become associated with a very rich symbolism and it is a symbolism that deals very much with the conflict that arises in spiritual life. Symbolism, images and myths are all crucial to understanding and practising in a spiritual context. Spiritual practice needs to address, to move, very deep subconscious energies and these energies cannot be encapsulated in concepts, ideas and lists. The deeper energies manifest in dreams, in images, in visions, in mythic forms and in the language and forms of symbolism and metaphor.

In my own experience, during the period when I experienced a great deal of conflict – my dreams were a key part of coming to a greater understanding and awareness of what was happening. And as the conflict subsided new images emerged in meditation – more peaceful and expansive imagery. At one point I could even see quite clearly that it was as if I were two people who looked different and had differing thoughts. They gradually came into dialogue and an understanding of their mutual dependence. So this is just like a mythological story of conflict and resolution.

In the David Smith example he sees the forces of destruction as Mara and then he also personifies the Dharma. He says:
 "I have always had a wonderful relationship and rapport with the Dharma itself. I would talk to it, pray to it, and sometimes even curse it when I didn't get my own way. I always felt protected by it as it guided me so skilfully through each new situation and experience along the Path. I always trusted that each new twist in my life, however unexpected, would work out okay, and so it always proved to be. Now I needed help like never before. I opened myself to the Dharma, bowed, and asked for help, it came.
It came in the form of the 'inner voice'. the link between me and the Buddha." David Smith, A Record of Awakening, p.52.

So he evokes the image of a guiding voice, that helps him along the way and from conflict to peace. In the case of the Buddha, Mara's armies are hideous and violent and turbulent, Mara's daughters are seductive and insinuating and Mara is tempting and undermining and all are highly symbolic of the powerful forces, the powerful energies aroused by spiritual practice. Then resolution comes with the arising of the Earth goddess, Brahmasahampati and Mucalinda – even more powerful energies – but this time peaceful, cooperative and helpful.

So these powerful energies that are aroused by spiritual practice – both negative and positive, destructive and constructive, reactive and creative – these energies play a huge part in the symbolism and myth of Padmasambhava.

There are three major schools in Tibetan Buddhism and these three schools grew out of the particular emphasis in the teachings of three great Gurus. These three founders were very different and are depicted very differently. Tsong Khapa, who founded the Gelug School, is in the dress of a scholar and appears with books, symbols of wisdom. Milarepa, founder of the Kagyu school, is a naked Yogi, deep in meditation and singing of the bliss of shunyata and Padmasambhava, founder of the Nyingma school, is richly dressed in different coloured robes and carries a Trident, a Vajra, a bell and has many special symbolic additions to his dress. Broadly speaking the emphasis of the three schools is respectively on wisdom, meditation and action.

Padmasambhava is the "action man", concerned with accessing and transforming the deep energies of the human psyche. Padmasambhava is concerned with radical transformation. Buddhism from the beginning was concerned with bringing about radical transformation in the individual human being. The Buddha seemed to have the effect on people of transforming them – this can be seen in a passage from the Pali Canon that gets repeated many times. Here is an example:
" Then the Brahma trembling with his hair standing on end , went up to the Blessed One, and fell with his head at his feet and said this to the Blessed One: ' Wonderful, Venerable Gotama, wonderful, venerable Goatama. just as, venerable Gotama, one might set upright what has been overturned, or uncover what has been covered,or point out the way to one who had gone astray, or bring an oil lamp into the darkness, so that those with eyes might see shapes, in the same way the doctrine has been declared by the venerable Gotama in manifold ways."  K.R. Norman, The Rhinoceros Horn (Sutta Nipata), p. 13.

This is a strong image of someone being radically transformed – shaken to his roots – trembling, hair standing on end – to set upright what has been overturned is an image of complete change of direction and this is the affect the Buddha could have on people.

In later Mahayana Buddhism this experience is spoken of as the parivritta – the 'turning about' which happens in the Alaya Vijnana, the 'storehouse consciousness', and means that all our volitional thoughts and words and deeds, our kusala karma and our akusala karma – are all deposited, so to speak, in the storehouse consciousness or to put it more simply – what we are now is the result of what we have been and what we have done and if what we have done is skilful – the build up of skilful karma eventually pushes out the effects of any previous unskilful karma and when that happens, what is experienced is the 'turning about' (parivritta) in the Alaya Vijnana, which Suzuki translates as 'the deepest seat of consciousness' – so the Yogachara is concerned to bring about this 'turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness'. Ordinary consciousness, mundane consciousness is transformed into the wisdoms of the five Jinas.

This is also what the Vajra symbolises – this transformation of the poisons of ordinary consciousness into the Ambrosia of the five wisdoms.

When Padmasambhava wields the Vajra he is holding reality and he is wielding the energy that arises when consciousness is integrated and transmuted.

Padmasambhava went to the cremation ground to meditate. He sat on dried human bones, he encountered his deepest fears and all the powerful forces of the subconscious mind as 'The Life and Liberation' puts it:

“There to be seen countless dakinis. Some of them have eyes that dart out sun rays, others give rise to thunderclaps and ride water buffaloes. Others hold sabres and have eyes which inflict harm. Others  wear death's heads, one above the other, and ride tigers. Others wear corpses and ride lions. Others eat entrails and ride garudas (great winged birds). Others have flaming lances and ride jackals. Others, five-faced, are steeped in a lake of blood. Others in the numberless bands carry many generations of living beings. Others carry in their hands, their own heads, which they have severed.”  Others carry in their hands their own hearts which they have torn out. There are others who have made gaping wounds in their own bodies and who empty out and devour their own intestines and entrails." Quoted in Sangharakshita, Talk 151, Padmasambhava Day 1979.

The Dakinis are primordial energies of the mind which have to be integrated into the conscious mind. Natural forces that have to be transformed, even tamed, so that they are supporting spiritual practice, just the animals support the lotus thrones of the five Jinas. They are not energies or forces that should be crushed or cast out in the night, because without them our spiritual practice would be anaemic, bloodless, dull, stagnant.

When these energies are integrated, transformed, our spiritual practice takes flight – there is energy, there is direction, there is courage, there is joy and abundance. The Dakinis dance naked through the sky, uninhibited by egotistic boundaries and anxieties – abandoned to the great play of the Bodhisattva's compassionate activity.

But how are the energies integrated? How do the Dakinis become friends and protectors, instead of disruptive forces of nature? First of all we have to meet the Dakinis. Padmasambhava meets the Dakinis by meditating in cremation grounds. Cremation grounds were terrible places for ordinary people – inhabited by ghosts and ghouls and everything fearful – especially at night and especially when you're alone. So you meet the Dakinis in the places, or perhaps better to say, on the occasions when you are alone with the things that cause you fear and anxiety. When you're sense of insecurity is at its greatest – especially when you have no choice but to go through with whatever it is you fear, when you can't back out, when you have to face your fear, then this tremendous energy is released and you find you can do things you were convinced you couldn't do. For some people simply being alone is enough – for instance on solitary retreat. Somebody told me recently that they had spent the two weeks of their solitary retreat working with fear. That is what sitting in the cremation ground means.

For others the cremation ground, what Bhante calls 'the crucial situation' might be giving a talk or presentation, or travelling alone in a country whose language you don't speak, or doing something your parents or family disapprove of (for example going on retreat at Christmas), speaking up even though you know you will be criticised, or showing your artwork publicly or singing a solo. It is almost any situation in which you fear failure or humiliation.

There are more crucial situations than there are people and it's in these crucial situations, in these cremation grounds that we encounter the Dakinis, these energies, these primordial forces, that can paralyse us with fear or that can lift us to heights we never thought possible. The Dakinis live on the other side of the wall erected by our fears and anxieties and insecurities. And as the Dakini energies are integrated we find great confidence and the free flow of energy.

Later in the career of Padmasambhava he is invited to Tibet by King Trisong Detsun, who wants to re-establish the Dharma there. The great scholar saint Shantarakshita had already been to Tibet to teach the Dharma but his efforts were opposed by the local gods and demons. Why did the local gods and demons oppose Shantarakshita? What did he do to upset them?

Well it seems that what he did was ignore them – he didn't even notice them, he was unaware of their existence. But who or what were the gods and demons of Tibet? And what if anything is their relevance to us here in civilised, cultured, well mannered Cambridge in 2013? The gods and demons are the non-rational forces at work in each individual and in society as a whole.

Shantarakshita went to Tibet and set to work laying out the principles of the Dharma – he taught the 10 precepts, he taught the 18 elements of the perceptual situation, he taught the 12 nidanas – he systematically taught Buddhist ethics, philosophy and metaphysics. When asked by the king, what is your doctrine? He replied straightforwardly "my doctrine is to follow whatever is proved correct after examining it by reason and to avoid all that does not agree with reason." So his approach was quite rational, almost scientific. It has a logic to it.

But he didn't teach meditation, he didn't introduce ritual – he ignored the deeper forces at work – the non-rational, emotional energies that constantly bubble away beneath the surface of the rational and the well mannered.

Padmasambhava – having passed through the cremation grounds and danced with the Dakinis – had a different approach. He was very aware of the local gods and demons and set about subduing them so that they would become protectors of the Dharma, rather than opponents. In this Padmasambhava is successful and then Shantarakshita can return to Tibet and together they work to build Samye monastery and to establish Buddhism in Tibet. The rational and non-rational approaches work together in harmony and gradually out of their efforts a spiritual community is founded. In our own situation we to have to appeal to both the rational and non-rational aspects of ourselves and others.

Rationally, we understand the precepts and we aspire to be good people and good Buddhists. We know the importance of mindfulness and Metta. We know the importance of regular meditation, of retreats, of spiritual friendship. We know a lot of things – we know what the best conditions for spiritual practice are. We know so much and we know it very thoroughly – we study it, we discuss it, we explore it, we reflect on it.

And in spite of all that we continue to be unmindful, to harbour ill will, to distract ourselves with all sorts of rubbish, to miss meditation, to neglect friendships and to deliberately put ourselves in conditions that are not conducive to spiritual practice. We continue to crave satisfaction from all the wrong things, we continue to be deluded.

It's as if there are gremlins in the works! We know what's right and perversely we do the opposite. Our demons are at work, Mara is playing with us or to put it more conceptually, we have not yet found 'emotional equivalents for our intellectual understandings'. That is how Bhante puts it – and all our spiritual practice is to help us find these emotional equivalents. Our responses to Puja and to symbolism, story, myth and metaphor all play a part in gradually transforming our intransigent Mara nature into a heartfelt faith and energy that enables us to follow our spiritual aspirations without great conflict and destraction.

But in order to find this level of emotional integrity and wholeness, we have to be willing to fearlessly face our demons – we need to get to know our little demons and acknowledge them as ours. We need to be aware of and recognise and acknowledge our own craving and ill will and fear and insecurity and ignorance. We need to be able to accept our imperfect state, our perversity. To put it simply we need to own our mental states and moods as our own and not blame others or situations for our state of mind. The shops with all their wonderful array of baubles might be designed to give rise to craving, but the craving is ours and we need to take responsibility for it. Our craving for gadgets is not engendered by Apple or Samsung– they just tap into what is already there. It's not Next or John Lewis or Zara that cause craving, they just use it. It's not our colleagues at work or other road users that cause our ill will and anger, they just provide opportunities for it.

So we need to learn to see our demons, get to know them thoroughly and through that awareness we will begin to transform them and of course in order to be able to look the demons in the eye and acknowledge them as ours we need to love ourselves – demons and all.

Because human beings are unawakened and subject to craving and hatred – because this is what unenlightened consciousness is like – it follows that human societies are pervaded and permeated by these demons too. And because we are dealing with deep irrational energies not under the control of reason it follows that all human societies will be affected by undercurrents of greed and hatred and delusion and from time to time these undercurrents will burst out in explosions of energy that shakes society to the core. This is war, this is economic melt down, this is religious fanaticism, this is mass hysteria and delusion.

I want to look at just one of these external demons, demons of our society – that resides here, even here, in quiet, civilised, well mannered Cambridge. I'm sure there are many demons in Cambridge, but I want to just look at one many-headed monster.

In the story of Padmasambhava, he encounters a monstrous character who is known as Black Salvation and also as Matarangara, which means 'the one who devours his mother'. The depiction of Black Salvation is a description of everything that is repulsive and revolting and monstrous and it is a symbolic way of saying that Samsara is repulsive and monstrous. It is a way of saying that what we have to overcome on the way to spiritual awakening is something that has tremendous power and energy and fills our world, a huge monstrous presence. Listen to talk 151, Padmasambhava day 1979 to hear Bhante reading out the description of Black Salvation.

For our society, for us, I think the great monster is what is known as consumerism, or progress through consumer led growth. Why is consumerism monstrous, a Matarangara – one who devours his mother – a Black Salvation? Our whole world is based on a view, a philosophy even, and this view manifests as an accepted way of life and this accepted view and accepted way of life exerts a powerful influence on all of us. It is all around us, it pervades and permeates our world. It is so ever present that we cannot see it's influence sometimes. It reaches into the depths of our emotional and subconscious life. For many people, for the vast majority of people, this view, this philosophy is so self evidently true that it's not possible to conceive of another view or another way of being. The view, put very simply, is that happiness and fulfilment are a product of economic well-being. Your security, you contentment, is dependent on the posession of a sufficient amount of money and goods. And as our irrational minds engage with this view, our natural craving assumes that greater happiness and fulfilment is achieved by a steady accumulation of money and possessions. Also an offshoot of this view, is the view that choice is a supreme good and having choice is the equivalent of freedom and the more choice we have, the more freedom we have. Another head of this many headed monster says everything is something to be purchased and appropriated, whether it's a smart phone, and overcoat, a car or meditation, yoga and Buddhism. It's all something we can accumulate and posess. Individualism is also part of the logic of consumerism. Individualism leads us to consider ourselves as somehow separate from and unconnected to others. Consumerism also encourages narcissism – the tendency to see everything in terms of how it affects me and the self-centredness and vanity that goes with that.

In a culture of consumerism we are consumers before we are anything else – before we are citizens or family members or adherents of a religious doctrine – above all of that we are consumers, that is our identity and if we refuse that identity we will find ourselves pitted against the many headed hydra of consumerism. In Greek mythology when one of the heads of the monster Hydra is cut off, two more grow in its place.

That would suggest that in encountering the many headed demon of consumerism we need a more subtle and intelligent approach – cutting off heads that regrow doubly is no solution. In the work of overcoming the demons of the mind and the Demons of the marketplace, we need intelligence and awareness or alertness and love. Intelligence shows us how to be skilful how to create the conditions that give us the most advantageous position. If you want to grow flowers, you have to plant flower seeds and tend them. If you want to grow wisdom and compassion you have to plant the seeds of wisdom and compassion and tend them. Awareness helps us to see the demons around us and within us and the light of that awareness starts to transform the demons and love or Metta is the context in which the whole drama can play out to a satisfactory conclusion.

If we are not to be swamped by the consumerist culture that surrounds us and forms the ideological basis for our whole society - affecting our relationships with each other and with our environment, our conception of freedom, progress, happiness, success and so on – then we need to be alert, we need to be aware of how the influence of consumerism is being exerted on us continuously. We need to be aware what that influence leads us to experience, to feel and to do. We need to see and acknowledge the ways in which we are deeply affected by consumerist attitudes and assumptions. Denying that we are influenced in this way may hold us back, unless we really are above it all on a different level of consciousness. As always in the spiritual life it is essential that we are honest with ourselves. We need then to find intelligent ways of gently diluting those attitudes and assumptions and leading ourselves in a more positive, expansive and compassionate direction. Skilfulness of all kinds is the way to tend the seeds of awakening and compassion. And the context of kindness or Metta is supremely important because it helps us not to polarise with all the aspects of ourselves and our society that are symbolised by the demons.

Padmasambhava does not destroy the demons and gods of Tibet, he subdues them and transforms them into protectors of the Dharma. He does not destroy the deep irrational forces of the subconscious, he transforms them into allies. Our task is not to destroy the deep irrational forces of our nature or of our society – it is to transform them.

It is interesting to note that in Western mythology the monster is usually killed – St George kills the Dragon, Hercules slays the Hydra, Beowulf kills the monster Grendel and his mother, in the film of Jaws the hero Brody kills the shark, and so on through science fiction, westerns and warfare – the monster is killed. I can't think of a Western myth in which the monster is subdued and changes sides – unless Beauty and the Beast is interpreted in that way. Perhaps this may show how Buddhism is very different to the underlying currents of Western culture, which are cast in the much more polarised form of good versus evil, God versus Satan, rationalism versus the irrational, hero versus villain and so on. It would be interesting for someone to do more research on this.

The underlying current of Buddhism is that no one is beyond redemption, all have the potential to awaken. This is seen in how the Buddha never tries to destroy Mara, it is seen in the conversion of Mara's daughters in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa and it is seen in the subduing of the demons and gods of Tibet by Padmasambhava and in all the symbolism associated with Padmasambhava.

Padmasambhava is a figure of great optimism and joy. He is the one who shows that no dark forces of the mind or the world are irredeemable. He is the one who shows that if we face our fears and insecurities, if we face our greed and ill will, if we face our ignorance and delusions and acknowledge them as our own, we can become free from them and experience the liberation of the sky dancers, the uninhibited freedom of Dakini consciousness.

Padmasambhava comes to us via Bhante Sangharakshita. Bhante's first encounter with Padmasambhava was in a Tibetan Gompa or Temple in Darjeeling.
He writes about it in his memoirs - the volume entitled Facing Mount Kanchenjunga :
"I had never seen an image of Padsambhava before, perhaps net even a painting. As I entered the temple, all the greater was the shock, therefore, when I saw in front of me, three or four times larger than life, the mighty sedent figure of the semi-legendary founder and inspirer of the Nyingmapa tradition, a skull cup in his left hand, a staff topped with skulls in the crook of his left arm, and the celebrated 'wrathful smile' on his moustached face. All this I took in instantly, together with the 'lotus hat', the richly embroidered robes, and the much smaller flanking figures of his two consorts, one Tibetan and one Nepalese. Having taken it in, I felt that it had always been there, and that in seeing the figure of Padmasambhava I had become conscious of a spiritual presence that had in fact been with me all the time. Though I had never seen the figure of Padmasambhava before, it was familiar to me in a way that no other figure on earth was familiar: familiar and fascinating. It was familiar as my own self, yet at the same time infinitely mysterious, wonderful, and inspiring. Familiar, mysterious, wonderful, and inspiring it was to remain. Indeed, from then on the figure of the Precious Guru, - Guru Rimpoche, - was to occupy a permanent place in my inner spiritual world, even as it played a prominent part in the spiritual life and imagination of the entire Himalayan region." Sangharakshita, Facing Mount Kanchenjunga, p. 100.

Later Jamyang Khyentse Rimpoche asked Kachu Rimpoche to give Bhante the initiation into the Padmasambhava Sadhana. The ceremony took place in Bhante's Vihara in Kalimpong and lasted two days.


Padmasambhava has been a huge influence in Bhante's spiritual life. And being a big influence in Bhante's life, Padmasambhava has come to be a tremendous influence in the life of the Triratna Order and community. The teachings about the cremation grounds, subduing demons, and other elements of Tantric practice have been translated by Bhante into forms that are useful and effective for us in leading our spiritual lives and it is just for us to open ourselves to their message. It is up to us to face our demons, to recognise our cremation grounds, to free our energy for the radical transformation that comes about if we allow Padmasambhava, and all that he symbolises, to touch our lives.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Spiritual Friendship and Ethics


This talk was given in the  Cambridge Buddhist Centre, March 2013

This year it is thirty years since I became a Buddhist. In August of 1983 I was in West Berlin as it was then called). I had been there for over two years and I was about to leave. Just a week before I left I went to visit the Buddhist Temple in Frohnau, in the suburbs of Berlin. I had been there before to use the library and enjoy the gardens, but this was the first time that one of the resident monks approached me and spoke to me. He asked me whether I meditated and I told him that I chanted a mantra, which I had learned from a book. He sat down and taught me the Metta Bhavana and talked to me about the five precepts. This conversation had a huge impact on me and by the end of it I was a Buddhist and I have been ever since. The monk was from Sri Lanka and his name was Maha Dhammanisanthi. He asked me to send him a photo of myself so that he could include me in his Metta Bhavana practice. I did send him a photo. When I visited Berlin again seven years later he had left and gone back to Sri Lanka, and I never saw him again. But I am very grateful to him and I regard him as my first Kalyana Mitra.
Eight or nine months later I got involved with the FWBO ( now Triratna) . This was as a result of reading a book by Subhuti called Buddhism for today. When I read this book I knew immediately I wanted to get involved with the Movement.

The first Order Member I met when I got involved with Triratna was Danavira. He helped me in many practical ways including with housing and looked after me extremely well. He was a real exemplar of generosity. Then I met Atula who was very at home in the world of dreams, emotions and psychological problems and who helped me open up emotionally and cope with distress.

When I started working at the London Buddhist Centre I was working with a man called Colin Lavender who later became Sumangala. He was a very close friend of mine for many many years.

There are many others over the years who have helped me enormously just by being there to listen and by befriending me. Satyabandhu, Vimalabandhu, Maitreyabandhu. Now there are many people that I am a Kalyana Mitra to and people who want me to be their preceptor - Dougie, Pedro, Pete. I hope I can give them some of what I have received from others over the last 30 years.

Spiritual friendship is one of the main gifts I have received from involvement in Triratna and it is a gift whether receiving or giving. I experienced the very idea of spiritual friendship and the practice as gifts from Bhante and therefore he too has been a Kalyana Mitra to me over the last 30 years.

Looking back like this and remembering all those friendships and connections which are woven into the tapestry of my life and considering all the friendships and connections I am involved with in my life just now and also reflecting on all the friendships and connections that I will encounter in the future – I feel very rich. This is where the wealth of my life is, not in property, not in bank accounts, but in friendships and relationships. It is other people who give my life a sense of richness and abundance.

Also when I look at all these relationships I have a sense of the flow of spiritual friendship from Bhante to people like Subhuti, Atula, and Danavira and from them to me and from me to others and from those others to more and more people and so on – a giant river of Kalyana Mitrata flowing on and on down the generations. Or to change the image – it's a huge matrix of connections stretching over space and time, encompassing the lives of more and more people.

And what it is all about is people communicating with other people and what is being communicated is the experience and understanding of the Dharma. The Dharma – the message of the Buddha, is being passed on through relationships of one kind or another. The Dharma, is animated, is given life by being practised and those who practice begin to embody the Dharma and it is this living, breathing Dharma that gets passed on through Kalyana Mitrata.

The Buddha was of course the original spiritual friend, after his enlightenment he sought out people he could communicate with and when his communication had transformed the hearts and minds of his first 60 disciples or friends, he asked them to go off and communicate with others – "go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and men. Teach the law that is good in the beginning, good in the middle and good in the end, with the meaning and the letter. Explain a holy life that is utterly perfect and pure. There are creatures with little dust on their eyes will be lost through not hearing the law."

He refers to himself as a friend in the Samyuta Nikaya for example.

In the Dhammapada he teaches the importance of association with the spiritually mature. In verse 78 he says" One should not associate with friends who are evildoers nor with persons who are despicable; associate with friends who are virtuous, associate with the best of men. " The words for 'friends who are virtuous' are mitte Kalyane. (translation - Radhakrishnan)

Spiritual friendship is at the heart of Buddhism. In the beginning our practice is to be receptive to those who can guide us; later on our practice is to be mutually supportive with those on the path with us and later still our practice is to share our experience and knowledge of the Dharma with others. This is Buddhism in a nutshell – learn how to practice, practice, share your experience of practice with others and this is all about spiritual friendship – friendship based on common spiritual aspiration and a common spiritual practice. Spiritual practice does not mean meditation practice. Meditation is only a small part for most of us. In a 24 hour day we spend about seven hours asleep and perhaps one hour meditating. The other 12 hours are the really important part of the day for spiritual practice.

What then is spiritual practice? Perhaps we need first to answer the question – what do we mean by spiritual? Based on our understanding of what the spiritual is we will be able to understand better what spiritual practices and what spiritual friendship is and how they relate to each other and this in turn will help us to understand the relationship between spiritual friendship and ethics, which is of course the theme of this talk.

The spiritual in the Buddhist context is that which relates to states of consciousness which transcend our normal mundane mind experience. Our mundane experience is fundamentally flavoured by our ego identity. According to the Buddha this means that normal mundane consciousness is characterised by greed, which is a grasping after whatever will enhance our sense of self – possessions, people, comfort, security and so on. Normal mundane consciousness is also characterised by aversion – pushing away anything that appears to threaten our sense of self – people, events, demands, and so on. Normal mundane consciousness is also characterised by lack of wisdom about the true nature of reality even a wilful turning away from the fact of impermanence, the fact that actions have consequences, the fact of our own delusion.

Transcending this mundane mind means moving towards becoming generous, abundant, non-grasping, non-attached, instead of greedy and a grasping. It means becoming loving, kind, open and receptive, rather than averse and hateful. Transcending our mundane mind means becoming wise and fully accepting of the impermanence of our self and all things is, and fully accepting of the need to change and grow and develop into a more mature and expansive human being.

The essence of practice is repetition. To practice is to repeat something again and again. Just as a musician or an athlete practises. So spiritual practice is the repeated activity of body, speech and mind which enables us to attain the spiritual – spiritual practice is the repeated activity of body speech and mind which enables us to transcend our egotism and grow into embodiments of compassion and wisdom.

Spiritual friendship is the friendship between people who are committed to and engaged in spiritual practice. The repeated activities which together make up a spiritual practice are: Acts of giving, Acts of kindness, words of kindness, truthful helpful and harmonising words, and thoughts of kindness and generosity. And all of this is in a context of a growing awareness. As our awareness grows our activities of body speech and mind can become more sensitive to others and more subtle. Awareness is developed through meditation in conjunction with and in interaction with other people who share our aspirations and practices. Meditation if it is isolated from the context of interaction with others who share our aspirations of practice, can in the worst case lead to greater delusion rather than a greater awareness. This is why spiritual friendship is so important, a spiritual friend in the form of a teacher or guide can help us to understand our own experience better and prevent us from interpretations that don't lead to spiritual growth. Spiritual friends who are on the same level of experience support us through difficult times and also help with the mutual exploration of experience. And spiritual friends who are less spiritually developed provide a context in which the truth of our spiritual insights are tested; are we really more aware, more honest and open, kinder and more generous than we were before? This is tested when we begin to share our experience with others.

The big test of our growing spiritual maturity is not whether we can focus on the tip of our nose for half an hour, it's not whether we have peak experiences of bliss when we meditate, it's not whether we can sit in meditation for 10 hours a day – these things may all be very valuable and a great boost to our spiritual practice, but the real test, what is of real significance, is what happens in our interactions with other people . When our actions, words and mental states become more kusala, skilful, and others are able to experience that our actions, words and mental states are kusala – then we are truly making progress in the direction of higher states of consciousness. We are beginning to embody the spiritual and are becoming spiritual beings.

Ethics is the word we often use in place of kusala or sila or sikkhapada. Kusala means skilful. Sikkhapada is the training principle. Kusala is how a spiritual being behaves. Someone who has realised the true nature of reality, whether a Stream Entrant or a Buddha is kusala, skilful. What they do is kusala, what they say is kusala and what they think and feel is kusala. Kusala describes the world of a Buddha.

When we decided that we want to grow and develop and move in the direction of Buddhahood – we start by trying to make our actions kusala, our words kusala and our minds kusala. The most fundamental act that moves towards Buddhahood is the act of giving because it transcends self-centredness giving is the basis of kusala.

In terms of words it is honesty that is most basic and in terms of thoughts and feelings it is Metta, loving kindness, which is most basic.

So the foundations of our spiritual life are giving, honesty and Metta – and these are practised towards ourselves and towards others.

Spiritual friends are an essential ingredient in any life dedicated to spiritual practice and the attainment of Buddhahood. They are essential because we can learn from them. Without the Buddha there would be no Dharma, without Bhante Sangharakshita there would be no Triratna community and Triratna Order, without the Triratna Order there would be no Cambridge Buddhist Centre, without the creation of the Cambridge Buddhist Centre you would not be listening to me here tonight. The flow of spiritual friendship from the Buddha down the generations has found expression in this event that is happening right now. Many, many people have led up to this moment.

A second reason why spiritual friends are essential to our spiritual practice is that it is only through communication that we can really gain self-awareness. By communication I mean confiding in others so that we are not burdened by secrets, I mean confessing our unskilfulness so that we are not burdened by a bad conscience; I mean giving expression to our experience and understandings so that we don't fall into false interpretations and by communication I also mean listening, so that our awareness and sensitivity grows stronger

A third reason why spiritual friends are essential to our spiritual practice is that they are aware of us. We are trying to realise, to penetrate into the true nature of reality and we do this by reflecting on concepts such as impermanence or karma, by meditating, by engaging our imagination with the qualities and lives of the Buddha's, by training ourselves in ethics. All of these help us to see into reality. But other people have the unique quality of being able to return our awareness. What we are, who we are is more surely reflected back to us by others than by any concept, image for experience. We can control to some extent our reflections, experiences and interpretations but we cannot control another person's awareness. So if we are open to it and willing to explore it in the spirit of the spiritual adventure, we can gain a huge amount from hearing and seeing and experiencing how other people respond to us. With close friends we can invite them to tell us how they experience us and then reflect on that as an aspect of reality.

So spiritual friends are essential to spiritual practice because we learn from them, we can communicate with them and they are aware of us.

I first became a Buddhist through a brief encounter with a Buddhist monk and what impressed me most was not what he said to me, but the congruency between what he was saying and how he was living his life. It was the fact that he was actually putting into practice what he was talking about that really touched me and drew a deep response from me which has shaped my life ever since – for the last 30 years. That is the power of the person.

It was reading Subhuti's book – Buddhism for Today, that got me involved with the Triratna community. In this case it was the ideas, but it was also the fact that people were living out the ideas. I had no illusions at that time about idealistic people. I knew that people can be very idealistic and very nasty at the same time. That was my experience. But the fact that they were idealistic and trying to put their ideas into practice by creating Buddhist centres, communities and right livelihood businesses – I was deeply impressed by that and I still am. When I see the work being done here by Vajradevi, Sagaraghosha and Tejasvini to provide these facilities these events, I am impressed and inspired. When I reflect on how many other people are doing selfless things in a similar way throughout the Triratna community around the world, I am even more inspired and impressed.

When I got involved with the Triratna community the first Order Member I met was Danavira and he was so kind to me. He found me a place to live in his small community and he looked out for me and befriended me. Through him I saw generosity in action and learned some of the fundamentals of spiritual life I also learned that I shouldn't take people for granted. I had a habit at that time of making decisions without telling anybody. I decided to ask to become a Mitra without telling Danavira even though I was living and working with him at that time. I think he found this bit strange not upsetting. So I learned from that that friendship is not just something you can be a passive recipient of, you have to engage and reveal your thoughts and feelings. Not to do so was not kusala, not skilful. It was not being sensitive and taking into account another person's feelings .

Another friend I learned from early on was Atula. The main things I learned from Atula were, the importance of being aware of people, the importance of listening and not just with your ears, and the importance of being aware of your own emotions and motivations. Atula was another exemplar of kindness and generosity and I was a direct recipient of that. I found that being on the receiving end of kindness, help, generosity and friendship made me question my view of myself, which at that time was quite a negative. Other people treated me better than I treated myself. Other people thought more highly of me than I thought of myself. Other people could see the good and the valuable in me that I couldn't see in myself. In this way other people contributed very directly and tangibly to the whole process of development. Atula was one of those people, perhaps the one who had the biggest impact on me. And for that I am extremely grateful.

I was learning from others, from what they said and from how they acted, they exemplified something for me and they also explained many things to me. This was kusala Karma. I was learning about what kusala means through experiencing it from others. Spiritual friendship conveyed ethics in the most direct way.

At the same time that I was learning from people who were more spiritually experienced than I was, I was also exploring and discussing things, practising alongside other friends who were at the same or similar level to me. Friends like Sumangala, Aryaguna, Satyabandhu, Vimalabandhu and many more. Being young men we no doubt sometimes competed with each other, but we were also very open and honest with each other and from that I learned that I shared a lot in common with others. My struggles were not unique to me, my idealism was not unique to me, my confusion was not unique to me. I found it immensely helpful to be able to share all of me with at least some other people and to know them deeply enough to see what was universal experience. I also learned from these friends that we all have different strengths and weaknesses and therefore can support each other. Although we all had struggles and confusions and doubts they were not the same struggles or the same confusions. One of us might struggle to understand and another might struggle with faith and yet another with concentration and through friendship we were able to help each other along the path and provide a context in which we could all explore what was kusala and what was not kusala, and confide and confess when we were clearly falling short or when we were just unsure.

After I was ordained in 1988, I increasingly found myself in the position where others were looking to me to explain and exemplify kusala. This is challenging and if you engage with it, it encourages you to become a bigger and a better person just to be able to give guidance to others. I trust that many friends have benefited from my explanations and my example. I trust it because it's what they have told me many times. But I have gained a great deal from these friends too, the people to whom I am a Kalyana Mitra and those I have ordained and those who have studied with me. They have inspired me and heartened me. Seeing them make progress on the spiritual path has been the source of profound joy to me and has enhanced my faith in the Buddha dharma. Friends like Priyavajra, Danapriya, Satyadasa and Maitrighosha , among many others, people I have seen growing and changing from their early tentative steps on the path to now when they have become substantial guides and exemplars themselves. This is such a delight to see it is hard to explain. Perhaps it is similar to being a parent. Together with these friends I have also explored and continue to explore what is kusala and that keeps my own ethical sensitivity alive – keeps me on my toes so to speak.

And now there are others who have asked me to ordain them and before my eyes I see them growing and because of previous experience I have a good sense of what they can and will become. Friends like Dougie Fraser, Pedro Vidal, Pete Cox – all very different, but all sincerely energetically on the path and all thoroughly engaged with trying to practice and explore what is kusala. Encouraging and guiding these men is a big part of my spiritual practice and it's also a big inspiration and encouragement to me.

Traditionally the relationship between spiritual friendship and ethics is spoken about in terms of appatrapya (ottapa in Pali). Usually this is envisaged as what happens in spiritual friendship between someone who is more spiritually experienced and someone who is less spiritually experienced. Appatrapya is the emotion that arises for the less experienced person when they are unskilful and they bring to mind the person who is their guide and teacher. You could say it's a feeling of having let themselves down or of having let down their friend and guide. It is a pang of conscience that is heightened by the thought of the teacher or friend. Sometimes it's translated as ' shame', but I don't think that quite gets it. In my experience it's more like a sense of regret accompanied by a resolve to do better next time. So it's a kind of strengthening emotion – it is building the muscles of kusala behaviour – and the example of the teacher – of what's possible – assists that process.

So far in this talk I tried to clarify what spiritual friendship is and how it relates to spiritual practice and how that connects with ethics – kusala Karma. And I've used examples from my own life to try to describe the process of spiritual friendship giving rise to actions, words, and mental states which are kusala. I've also tried to make clear the fundamental importance to spiritual progress of actions words and thoughts which are kusala.

Before I finish I will just go into a little more detail, using the five precepts as a framework.

The first precept is about refraining from harming living beings and put positively it is about engaging in acts of loving-kindness. The first recipient of your loving-kindness needs to be yourself. As the form of the Metta Bhavana indicates – loving-kindness overflows out to others. However sometimes it is easier and more practical to start by developing loving-kindness towards friends. Many people find it easier to get in touch with goodwill towards friends and then, as it were, treat themselves as a friend. Also by acting in ways that are kind and helpful – even though we are not experiencing the mental state of kindness – by being kindly and helpful in our actions we can cause kindness to arise. We tend to think that mental states are primary and our actions emerge from our thoughts and emotions. However, in our experience it can easily be seen that the opposite is also true. If we act as if we were experiencing kindness, love or generosity, the action will influence our minds and lead to states of mind that can then flow out into more acts of kindness and thus create a positive spiral of spiritual momentum. So if we actively befriend people by being kind to them we will benefit from that in many ways.

The second precept is about not taking what is not freely given and more positively it is about giving. The connection between spiritual friendship and giving is clear. Spiritual friendship is all about giving – giving material things, giving help and assistance, giving encouragement, giving praise, giving criticism, giving our experience, talents and gifts. Generosity is almost always kusala. If it's not skilful, it probably doesn't deserve name of generosity. Sometimes people may give money or property or time but without stating it they are expecting something in return. In their own mind that giving is part of a bargain. But this is not really giving – this is making a down payment or a deposit and expecting to earn interest or a reward. Friendship is not a transaction, it is not a bargain and it only really works well when you're not expecting or demanding a return. Paradoxically the less you want from friendship the more you can get and the more you want the less you get.

The third precept is about refraining from sexual misconduct and more positively it is about contentment. Sexual misconduct is about the whole sorry business whereby human beings use violence, coercion, emotional blackmail, exploitation and manipulative behaviour to satisfy sexual desire. Contentment is about dealing with the dissatisfactions that underlie our overemphasis on sexual relations. There are two levels to our fascination with sex. There is the level of the basic animal drive and much of civilisation is about bringing a measure of control and discipline to that. Every human society has its rules and norms to regulate this basic drive. The rules and norms can vary enormously, what is or is not acceptable can vary enormously. These rules of society are often tied in with questions of property ownership and peaceful relations between clans, tribes or nations. So that to breach the rules is not just a personal matter but something that affects the stability of the society.

The second level to our fascination with sex is more emotional and psychological. In order to have sex you have to be physically intimate with another person and this physical intimacy becomes a way into emotional intimacy. However physical intimacy is not emotional intimacy and all sorts of problems can arise when a society accepts and encourages the view that physical intimacy is emotional intimacy or aligned with this, the view that there cannot really be emotional intimacy without physical intimacy. This is the view that has grown up in many societies over the last couple of hundred years. So sex has become, to some extent, divorced from questions of property and alliances and has become more a question of a search for emotional fulfilment. This is the romantic ideal. The positive side of this is that people are not forced into unsuitable relationships or relationships that are repulsive to them. The downside is that it can overload one relationship with too many expectations – especially a relationship that is sometimes built on the shaky foundations of a physical attraction and physical intimacy. The spiritual community can help by being a further source of emotional fulfilment. When we have friends with whom we are emotionally intimate, it can take some weight off the relationship where we are also physically intimate. It helps us to lower the expectations we have of our sexual partner, which can also help us to become more content. Contentment is a state of feeling rich and fulfilled, so that there isn't a constant aching yearning for something more or someone more. If we are content and feeling emotionally rich there is less temptation for us to try to manipulate others for our satisfaction..

The fourth precept is about avoiding falsehood and being truthful. Being truthful is not so easy and probably all of us have at some time in our lives told lies – either large or small. Sometimes we lie to gain some advantage, sometimes we lie to avoid conflict, sometimes we lie to be polite, sometimes we lie for no discernible reason at all, perhaps it just gives us a sense of power. But at some time or other we have all probably done it. And sometimes we lie most to our nearest and dearest – husband, wife, parents, children, partner, lover, siblings – we lie to keep the peace, to avoid upsetting people and so on. So what's the problem with being untruthful? If telling lies can help to keep the peace, avoid conflict, avoid upsetting people – what's so wrong with that? Well it removes the basis for a relationship – it removes trust. If we have been on the receiving end of lies and deception we probably all know what it feels like and how it changes our view of the person who has lied to us or deceived us. It leaves us unsure of what is or is not true – we are unsure what to trust – we start to think, if that bit of the picture is not true could it be that there is more that's false – what can we trust? We find that what we thought was solid ground is actually quite shaky. Being deceived can be much more upsetting than whatever the deception was trying to hide. For instance, sometimes in families – the parents don't want to upset the children by telling them about a diagnosis of cancer, or something of that nature. But of course that deprives them of the opportunity to give their love and support and also the opportunity to come to terms with the probable loss of a mother or father. It can be very heartbreaking to be deceived in this way. Or sometimes the children insist to the parent that they will get better when it is obvious that they won't. This can make the process of dying more difficult than it needs to be. So even lies that are told with good intentions can have very unfavourable consequences.

By definition spiritual friendship has to be based on truthful communication. There can be no spiritual friendship if what is communicated is false or meant to deceive in some way. Deceiving a spiritual friend is in the end self deception. Spiritual friendship can be a context in which we learn to be more and more honest – including honest with ourselves.

The fifth precept is about avoiding things that cloud the mind and developing more mindfulness. When we are practising kusala karma in the context of spiritual friendships we are developing awareness of others through observing and listening to them and we are developing awareness of ourselves by being reflected back. Intoxication with alcohol or other drugs is a method of becoming less aware and avoiding our inner life and is not compatible with spiritual friendship.

All the precepts together and kusala karma – skilful action – and they enhance spiritual friendship and are enhanced by spiritual friendship.

In this talk which is on the theme of spiritual friendship and ethics I have tried to avoid the word ' ethics' as much as possible. I have also avoided the word 'morality' and I avoided the phrase 'training principles'. I don't find any of these terms satisfactory – 'ethics' sounds like an academic discipline, ' morality' conjures images of a disapproving deity, ' training principles' could be about weightlifting or business management. So I have opted instead for kusala karma – skilful action or simply kusala – skilful. Kusala is a word that is easy to say, it has a pleasant sound and as Buddhists we are free to clothe it in positive connotations just as we have done with the word Metta. Perhaps it will catch on, so that we can speak of our practice of kusala karma or even trying to be kusala and it will carry connotations of positive emotion, friendliness, awareness, honesty, kindness and generosity. It could become for us a word so rich in meaning that just to hear it would be uplifting. A word like friendship, which is also uplifting just to hear because it carries so many positive associations – friendliness, friend, friendship are all very positive words and what they stand for is even more positive. Spiritual friendship is wholly positive and a source of great joy. Kusala karma is wholly positive and a source of great joy. It's important to understand spiritual friendship and kusala, are completely intertwined and that both are the fertile soil out of which spiritual insights grow. If we understand this and act upon it, spiritual progress is inevitable and all our other insights and understandings will have a stable basis in the reality of human interaction and the reality of actions having consequences.