Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Goal

This talk was given at the convention for male Order Members in Europe in August 2014.

In the Dhammapada it say's" Nirvana is the Supreme Happiness."
Here is a quote from a very unlikely source and I don't expect you to guess where it's from - the fact it's a bit of a trick.

"Nirvana is the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness"

I didn't expect anyone to recognise that. I have changed one word – nirvana should read heaven. So the quote is "heaven is the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness". It's from section 1024 of the catechism of the Roman Catholic Church. Perhaps it just demonstrates how words and descriptions cannot fully encapsulate transcendental experience. We have to be careful with words.

In the shepherds search for mind Milarepa says "without arrival, he reaches the place of Buddha. Without seeing, he visions the Dharmakaya."

These quotes from Milarepa are in the mode of paradox. The paradoxical method is only one way to talk about the goal of Buddhism.   In the Three Jewels Bhante tells us there are four ways to speak about the goal of Buddhism – negatively, positively, poetically and paradoxically.

By negatively he means speaking about nirvana as the absence of something. It's the absence of craving, the absence of ignorance, the absence of suffering, the absence of the poisons, the stopping of the wheel.
Positively, nirvana or enlightenment is the fullness of compassion and wisdom, energy, peace, bliss, the Supreme Happiness etc.
Poetically nirvana is spoken about as the cool cave, the holy city or the other shore or perhaps the Pureland.
In terms of paradox, we have this quote from Milarepa -  "without arrival, he reaches the place of Buddha. Without seeing, he visions the Dharmakaya.". We have the whole perfection of wisdom literature and we have the Rinzai Zen tradition of koans.

I have been thinking that there are perhaps another couple of ways of talking about the Goal of Buddhism.
Firstly we could speak of the Goal in terms of how it manifest in peoples lives : Bhante does this in Living with Kindness  where he says " A common misapprehension is to think of Insight and egolessness in abstract, even metaphysical, terms rather than as comprising concretely-lived attitudes and behaviour. But realizing the truth of egolessness simply means being truly and deeply unselfish. To contemplate the principle of egolessness as some special principle that is somehow separate from our actual behaviour will leave it as far away as ever. If we find it difficult to realize the ultimate emptiness of the self, the solution is to be a little less selfish. The understanding comes after the experience, not before." Page 134.

When we look into the Pali Canon we see that the Buddha  says to the first 61 Arahants " You are free from all shackles whether human or divine. Go now and wander for the welfare and happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit, welfare and happiness of gods and men."  (Nanamoli, Life of the Buddha, Page 52 )and of course that is what the Buddha did and what those Arahants did. It's what Milarepa did with his songs and what Bhante has done for 70 years.
As Bhante puts it again in Living with Kindness " Forgetting the self as a reference point, no longer asking what any given situation means for you alone, you can go on indefinitely expanding the breadth and depth of your interest and positivity. This is the essence of the spiritual life: to bring about a state in which the whole movement and tendency of our being is expansive, spiralling creatively outwards and upwards." Page 136.

So that is a sense of what the Goal looks like when it manifests in the life of an individual - It looks unselfish, expansive, and alive to the welfare and happiness of the many. It's a matter of concretely lived attitudes and behaviours.

We could also talk about the Goal in terms of the Path. As Gandhi put it " The clearest possible definition of the goal and its appreciation would fail
to take us there if we do not know and utilize the means of achieving it. I
have, therefore, concerned myself principally with the conservation of the
means and their progressive use. I know that if we can take care of them,
attainment of the goal is assured. I feel too that our progress towards the
goal will be in exact proportion to the purity of our means." M.K. Gandhi, “‘Letter to Jawaharlal Nehru (14-9-1933),” CWMG, 61, 393.

In other words the end is included in the means; the Goal is included in the means to the Goal.

Speaking about the Goal is difficult because of the nature of language, which presupposes a subject and an object. When we talk about the Goal, we inevitably end up at some point talking about a subject - me, you him or her - moving towards and arriving at a goal - Enlightenment. But of course the Dharma is all about breaking through the illusion of a separate, fixed self - or breaking through the illusion of subject and object. Speaking about the Goal is also hampered by the human obsession with measuring and categorising. This an obsession that has served humanity well in many areas of life from Astronomy to Zoology, from Music to Transportation, but is not all that helpful when it comes to the spiritual dimension of life. It leads us to want to measure and categorise what cannot really be measured and categorised . If we speak of transformation we want to measure the degree of transformation and categorise the type of transformation. If we speak of freedom we want to measure and categorise freedom. Even when we move into metaphor and speak of entering a stream we want to know how deep the stream is and how far into it we have progressed. I guess there may be those who want to know the depth of the Cool Cave and it's cubic capacity or where the Lost City is to be found on Google maps.  This is why Bhante talks about Nirvana as non-experience in his lecture Enlightenment as Experience and as Non-experience. If we think and speak in terms of experience we want to categorise the type and intensity of the experience. This can lead to a craving for particular kinds of experience - so anything exciting and new will draw our interest - a new teaching or a new teacher or a new meditation technique that seems to promise quick results. New and exotic things have the promise of new experience and in our society, which is deeply deeply conditioned by consumerism it is difficult for us not to think of egolessness as yet another exciting new experience - even the experience to trump all experiences. Just as an aside here - the most commonly used adjective in advertising is the word 'new' and it is used because it works. There is an ad for an Apple iphone which has the word 'new' twice in one sentence'. That is what we have been conditioned by since childhood and it goes deep. We have been conditioned to crave the new and the implied promise is that the new will give new experience and satisfaction.

But in the Sutta Nipata the Buddha says :
" There is no measuring of man
 won to the Goal, whereby they'd say
His measure's so: that's not for him;
When all conditions are removed,
All ways of telling are removed."
quoted in Guide to the Buddhist Path, Page 205.

If we can try to see Enlightenment from the perspective of Enlightenment, from the perspective of the Goal, we then have to say that there is no person who attains the Goal and no Goal to attain - neither the person on the path nor the Goal is fixed. Everything is dynamic, everything is energy. There are no ultimate distinctions to be made between the person treading the Path and the Path and no distinction to be made between the  Path and the Goal. The individual is the Path and the Path is the Goal. The Goal is dynamic, not static and therefore the language of Goals is not very helpful.

We have to break through the idea of me (in isolation) progressing on the Path (external to me) and arriving at a goal (somewhere over the horizon) like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. This sort of spatial and linear language can lead to delusions about the nature of spiritual life and practice.

What we need is a more dynamic vision, something that cannot be measured and categorised so easily. Pratitya Samutpada could perhaps be that vision, but it can still be understood as something external to the person. Perhaps it would be best to think that we are pratitya samutpada, rather than thinking that we are subject to the law of pratitya samutpada. Everything arise in dependence upon conditions - we are the conditions in dependence upon which we arise. It's not that the conditions are simply or only external factors acting upon us. We are our thoughts, emotions, words and actions and our thoughts, emotions, words and actions are constantly moment to moment creating us and re-creating us. we are what we input into our minds.

Perhaps plant and flower imagery are a good way of getting a sense of this. The plant or flower is an image of organic growth and an image of transformation. The acorn grows organically into an oak tree or the acorn is transformed by various conditions into an oak tree. Whichever language we use there is a dynamic, constant process - a process of dependent arising - pratitya samutpada. The acorn is a dynamic, constant process. The oak tree is a dynamic, constant process. The person on the path is a dynamic, constant process as is the path and the Goal. The Goal - Nirvana, Enlightenment - call it what we will, is a dynamic, constant process. There is in the end no end point and no point at which the acorn stops being an acorn and becomes an oak tree.

Buddhahood is a process and breaking through into Buddhahood is a process. In his lecture entitled Breaking Through into Buddhahood, one of his classics -Bhante mentions four areas in which we need to break through - negative emotions, Psychological conditioning, rational thinking and our sense of time.
Once we start working in these areas of our lives it is like putting the acorn into the soil  and providing the nutrients for it to grow.

Some of the conditions that help us to break through negative emotions are things like healthy food, exercise, time spent in the natural environment and engagement with cultural activities.  There is also of course focussing on what is positive in our lives and thinking positively. In the Order, sometimes, negative emotion seems to take the form of clinging to opinions or points of view at the expense of spiritual communion or even at the expense of simple fellow feeling. It is where the positive quality of confidence dips into being the negative quality of arrogance. How do we break through that?  It's a question that  demands self knowledge and a willingness to own up to our own egotism. Not an easy task. Owning up to our egotism is not easy but it is essential.

When Bhante talked about breaking through psychological conditioning - he talked in terms of becoming aware of our conditioning both through feedback from others and through noticing and reflecting on our responses to unfamiliar situations or places. I think there are other forms of psychological conditioning that are more collective and therefore harder for us to see. I spoke earlier about advertisers using the word 'new' to grab our attention and activate our craving. But advertisers have been doing more than that to us for generations. Our whole consumer society could be seen as a social engineering experiment and we are the guinea pigs in the experiment. Especially since the end of the 2nd World War we have been systematically conditioned to want to buy more and more things and continually upgrade our possessions. Our whole economic system depends on this behaviour. But this began back in the 1920's. In "America: a narrative history" the author tells us that when increases in efficiency meant that more goods became available, people had to be persuaded to give up their values of frugality and plain living. He writes " The public had to be taught the joys of carefree consumerism and the new industry of mass advertising obliged. By portraying impulse buying as a therapeutic measure to bolster self-esteem, advertisers shrewdly helped undermine notions of frugality"
There have been many improvements in the techniques of advertisers since then and we are the products of a society whose consciousness has been programmed for generations to buy happiness, freedom, security, love and everything desirable in the form of goods and gadgets. This is a deep and powerful psychological conditioning that reaches into every corner of our lives and minds and we cannot afford to ignore it. So breaking through psychological conditioning is not just about your relationship with your parents or your religious background. It is also very much about our consumerist conditioning and it's opposition to the values of simplicity and contentment. I remember some years back reading that the government in Thailand had suppressed Buddhist teachings about living simply because it was impeding economic progress. And of course they were right - if your valuation of progress is in economic terms then the Buddhist values of simplicity and contentment are at best a nuisance.

The third area Bhante talked about is breaking through rational thinking. This is a matter of trying to constantly bear in mind the metaphorical nature of all descriptions, the metaphorical nature of language. Using imagination and lateral thinking help with this. In the Buddhist tradition paradox is used to transcend conceptual thought. The rational mind, rational thinking, is very important for human survival and progress, however it is not adequate to realising the true nature of reality. Our abilities to analyse and measure and categorise are not sufficient for the attainment of the Goal of Enlightenment - or maybe better to say our rational thinking is not sufficient for the non-attainment of the non-Goal of Enlightenment.

Bhante also talked about our need to break through our time sense, that is our sense of mechanical, linear time in which our life is planned and  measured out. Buddhahood is beyond time, eternal, outside time. This is why breaking through the time sense is important. If Awakened consciousness is beyond time, then to get a glimpse of that we have to begin by trying to liberate ourselves from mechanical time, which is a form of measurement. If we are to approach the state that cannot be measured - the state of the Trackless One - then we need to go beyond the rational, measuring, mind and beyond our time sense. Natural or organic time is pure duration and doesn't have a past, present and future. It is what we mean when we talk about mindfulness or being present in our experience.

The metaphor of breaking through could give the impression of a sudden, dramatic happening, but it is a process. We can break through all the time by being aware, contemplative and skilful. This constant breaking through is the Goal of spiritual practice. To switch metaphors, it is a constant evolving of consciousness that we are aiming at. Of course our rational and materialistic ways of thinking will want to measure and categorise and label every millimetre of progress we make, but we need to breakthrough or evolve beyond our human obsession with labelling and measuring and categorising and simply surrender to the process of growth and consciously evolve.
There is a paradox here too. In the image of the rain cloud from the White Lotus Sutra, the rain of the Dharma falls on all beings and each grows according to his or her own nature. The process of growth, the process of evolving is unlimited but the nature of beings is limited. The acorn cannot become a sunflower and the sunflower seed cannot become an oak tree.
A second paradox is that we have to make a conscious effort to become capable of surrendering to the Dharma. We have to use our individual will to go beyond or transcend our individual will.
The spiritual path, which is not a path but a metaphor, is strewn with contradictions, which are not contradictions but simply paradoxes.

I am speaking about the Goal and about the non-difference between the means and the end, between the path and the Goal. If we practise study, meditation and reflection, if we practise skilfulness, if we practise spiritual friendship, etc., we will become the Path and in doing so we will also become the Goal - all in good time.

In my own life and practice I have never been very concerned with or interested in the Goal - it always seemed too much of an abstraction -just so many labels hanging in a void with tantalising words on them - Enlightenment, Nirvana, Buddhahood.

I have tended to think of the goal in terms of the Path and in terms of lived attitudes and behaviours, rather than in terms of some big experience that I want to have. For me the Goal is the Path and the Path is the Goal. The Buddha is the Dharma and the Dharma is the Buddha. Because we have separate words for things does not mean that things are separate.

There is a little practice I have been doing for many years which encapsulates what the whole point of being a Buddhist is for me. When I bow in front of a shrine I say to myself - With body, speech and mind I go for refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. May I be a worthy disciple of the Buddha, May I be a worthy disciple of Bhante. May I be purified, may I be mindful, may my understanding deepen, may I be of benefit to others. So these last four things constitute the Path and Goal for me :
Purification or skilfulness. The realm of Vajrasattva.
Mindfulness or awareness.
Deep understanding or realisation of the Truth.
Benefiting others or compassion.

All four of these things contain within them Wisdom, Compassion and Energy, the seeds and fruits of spiritual practice.

However I have noticed that spiritual life and practice is not linear and straightforward and there are surprises and mysteries along the way.

How we experience time can change, how we make decisions can change and even our sense of who we are can be transformed.

In my own experience, when I was 21 my whole life changed as a result of a dream I had. I gave up my career in accountancy and most of my possessions and literally set out to find the meaning of life. That was about six years before I discovered Buddhism.
About 15 years ago I was at a stage where my spiritual practice felt a bit flat and dull and going nowhere. I was on holiday in Florence and went to the Uffizi Gallery. When I encountered the Madonna of the Magnificat by Botecelli I was suddenly filled with inspiration and my spiritual practice came alive again. I can't explain how that happened. About 3 years ago I was in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and my attention was arrested by a painting of the Madonna and Child by Van Dyck.  I was irresistibly drawn to this painting for a few months and when I went on solitary retreat, I had a dream that seemed somehow related to the painting and as a result of that dream my whole approach to spiritual practice was changed.

These things surprised me and although I have some explanations, the explanations seem to be inadequate to the experience. Life can be surprising and even mysterious.

Perhaps another way to think about the Goal of the spiritual life is to accept that we just need to stay open to the mystery of life. Forget our measuring, forget our categories and labels and just accept that life is bigger than us - accept that what we don't know greatly outweighs what we do know. There are mysteries and surprises in store for us if we simply practis ethe Dharma as it has come to us from Bhante.

As Bhante puts it in one of his poems
Above me broods
A world of mysteries and magnitudes.
I see, I hear,
More than what strikes the eye or meets the ear.
Within me sleep
Potencies deep, unfathomably deep,
Which, when awake,
The bonds of life, death, time and space will break.
Above me like the blue sky do I see.
Below, in me,
Lies the reflection of infinity.

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