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.