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.