It could be said that there is really no such thing as a spiritual life separate from life. There is just life. When we talk about spiritual life we are talking about a life lived in full awareness of the existential realities of impermanence and death, interdependence and interrelatedness, and a sense of the true sources of satisfaction. Even if we live life escaping from reality or ignoring reality, we will eventually be faced with reality and then our life will have a spiritual dimension whether we want it or not. What we usually mean when we talk about the spiritual life is a life lived with awareness of the existential reality and in which we act on the implications of that reality.
Spiritual community is an essential context for living the spiritual life. Spiritual community is the community of those who live life in full awareness of the existential reality and act accordingly.
Earlier this year I gave a talk entitled “15 reflections on death” and today I want to give “15 reflections on life”. I hope the importance and significance of spiritual community will come through even though I’m not approaching it directly.
So here are my 15 reflections on life:
1. Existential reality
Death is the only certainty and is the most obvious and stark reminder of the impermanent nature of all things. I was in my early forties before I had a full realisation that I was going to die. Bhante says somewhere that he was in his 30s when this realisation dawned on him. It is possible to know that you are going to die without fully realising it. I happened to be reading a Shakespeare play at the time and I had a sudden realisation which struck me with the force of a shock, that death applied to me to. When I was much younger I had a sense of impermanence too – that I would grow old and die– and it was that which prompted me to seek a spiritual path. In the light of these existential truths – most of what passed for normal life seemed absurd to me at the tender age of 21. As a result I gave up my career and all thoughts of wealth or worldly success when I was 22 and I literally set out to find the meaning of life. I have never regretted that radical idealistic decision, which seemed foolhardy to others at the time. It still seems obvious to me that for a human being life needs to be more meaningful than something akin to the accumulation of nuts by a squirrel.
I have heard many stories of people who have had near death experiences or who have been clinically dead for a brief period. In all of these stories when the people return to life they say that what is most important is love. By this they don’t mean falling in love – which is just a form of temporary insanity. What they mean is loving kindness, compassion and empathy, sympathetic joy, generosity, thoughtfulness – a concern for the welfare of others. A realisation of our inter-dependence. A brief encounter with death has the effect of showing what is of utmost importance and what is insignificant. And what is important is love.
Love is not an abstraction it finds its outlet and satisfaction in friendship and friendliness. Love is not necessarily a warm feeling – it is an intention and an activity. The activity of friendship and friendliness. This is what spiritual community is and this is what our Buddhist centre is trying to promote and give to the world. We are trying to promote and give a context for the practice of friendship and friendliness – expressions of the love that gives meaning to life in the face of death.
Everyone wants to be happy. According to all the research, what makes people most happy is their connections with other people. To have a sense of belonging to a loving family or loving community is what makes us happy and apparently adds as much as 10 years to life expectancy. Before I became a Buddhist I was very self-sufficient and cultivated independence and self-sufficiency. This was not a bad thing, but it did take me many years of practising Buddhism in Triratna before I realised experientially, that I did need other people – that my spiritual practice was nothing without other people and that the family of Sangha really was a blessing and a boon in my life. I can say now that I am happy most of the time and I believe this is largely due to being part of this alive spiritual community of Triratna. Bhante says in Wisdom beyond Words that there is only one thing we need in order to be able to give to others. We need “to love ourselves and know that we are loved by others. Appreciate ourselves and know that we are appreciated by others”. This is also what we need in order to be happy.
What about money? And all that it can buy? Personally I like money and what it can do. However I have never considered the accumulation of money to be a worthwhile pursuit – it’s not something I ever wanted to give my life to. Most people acquire money by expending energy and selling their time. So money is like time and energy and when we spend money we are spending our time and energy to purchase the time and energy of other people. For instance you have to work a certain amount of hours or days or weeks to accumulate enough money to buy a new pair of shoes. Other people have given their time and energy to making shoes and making them available to you. So this is an exchange of time and energy and notes and coins are the medium. When we are considering the topic of money, we are considering the topic of time and energy, our own and that of others. Our time and energy are really our life. We have a period of time to live and energy to do things in that time. So we should consider carefully how we earn money and how we spend money because we are expending our life force in earning and that of others in our spending. Money is not just money. Money is not just a means of exchange. Money is the flow of energy through the human community – for good and ill. Money and where it goes is an indicator of the state of human consciousness and of the consciousness of individuals. What you are doing with money – in earning and spending – is what you are doing with your life.
After money the next big topic is sex. What to say about sex. To stay within the bounds of experience I’ll stick with the topic of heterosexual sex so to speak. Well it’s the work of nature. Nature is primarily concerned with procreation. Living things procreate and die and procreate and die and procreate, that is the process of the natural world and since we are part of the natural world we too procreate and die and procreate. So nature endows us with procreative instincts which are satisfied in sexual union. Nature is not sentimental. But we are. We endow our sexual urges with a romantic veneer and take falling in love to be a spiritual experience rather than a trick of nature. Don’t get me wrong. Falling in love is not a problem – it too is the way of nature. The problem, when there is a problem, is that we create a whole ideology and a story around the whole business of sex and romantic love, which can give rise to unrealistic expectations. And of course unrealistic expectations can lead to disappointment. And people who are disappointed can turn nasty on each other. Nature is not concerned with our expectations and disappointments. But we can bring more consciousness to the whole business of sex and try to be conscious of our expectations and the expectations of our partners, so that disappointments – if they come – will be cushioned by awareness. People can become very unaware when it comes to sex – even ethical considerations can be forgotten. I think this probably applies to homosexual sex as well as heterosexual sex. Before getting involved in a new relationship, as a minimum we need to ask ourselves : Does the other person already have a partner? If not how long is it since they ended their last relationship? Is there a clear understanding between them and their previous partner that the relationship is over? Are you in a relationship already? If you think not, does your previous partner agree? It’s surprising how often people put their own sexual gratification before ethical considerations. It is especially surprising if they are Buddhists practising the five or ten precepts. Unfortunately it happens. I would like to encourage anybody involved with the Sangha here in Cambridge to really try to bring ethical considerations into your sexual relations. It’s obvious that we should not coerce or manipulate others for the sake of sex and that includes any kind of emotional blackmail. It is also obvious that we shouldn’t cause physical harm to ourselves and others for the sake of sex. But we can take ethical sensitivity further than that. If someone has ended a long term relationship, we should allow them a period of time, say four or five months before trying to involve them in another relationship. We should also be considerate of their previous partner. If their previous partner is someone involved in the local Triratna Sangha – perhaps we should even talk to them about our intentions before acting.
A life of spiritual aspiration and spiritual endeavour is not unpleasant. There is the pleasure of having a sense of meaning in one’s life. There is the pleasure of having the company of like-minded people and being able to communicate openly and honestly about things that matter. There is the pleasure of meditative states. There is the pleasure of a clear conscience. But of course we tend to associate pleasure with sense experiences like eating good food or going to the cinema or engaging with sport and so on. It is important that we make a bridge between the more mundane pleasures and the higher pleasures or between pleasures of the body and pleasures of the mind.
Physical disciplines such as yoga, Tai Chi, chi Kung, Aikido, karate are one bridge. They involve both physical exertion and mental absorption and the pleasures of mindfulness and health. With regard to food, mindfulness is the key to bridging the gap between the greedy animal pleasure and a more refined pleasure. Being aware of different flavours and subtleties of taste can make the eating of a carrot or a gourmet meal more pleasurable and, as it happens, more healthy.
When it comes to the senses of seeing and hearing any engagement with arts and crafts gives more refined pleasure and prepares our minds for higher pleasures. The attempt to make art or engage in craftwork – whether painting, pottery or knitting – these attempts will enhance our enjoyment of great art – we will appreciate the greatness even more. Then if we can educate ourselves about the arts by visiting galleries or going to concerts or the theatre, our pleasure will become even greater and our spiritual practice will be greatly enhanced. It would be good to see more groups of people in the Sangha engaging with the arts in some way or other – either making art and sharing it or going to galleries and concerts together or forming writing groups or poetry reading groups, music groups, choir practice etc. These are just a few examples of bridging the gap between mundane and higher pleasure. A key factor in all of them is awareness and mindfulness. Mindfulness is a key to pleasure.
There is no life without pain. But there is some pain that can be avoided. The pain that can be avoided is the pain that we create for ourselves. According to Buddhism we have a choice about how we respond to the circumstances of life. We can respond with grasping after the pleasant and trying to rid ourselves of the unpleasant or we can respond with equanimity to both the pleasant and the unpleasant. The Buddhist analysis says that we have a false idea about ourselves – the false idea that we are a fixed and separate personality or self, whereas the opposite is true.
Because we are deluded in this way we feel we have to protect and defend and enhance this fixed and separate self. To protect and defend we must reject what is unsatisfactory and to enhance ourselves we must grasp and draw in what is pleasant. But since this self is constantly changing and since everything is constantly changing there can be no grasping and defending. Life is change. We are change. Nothing is constant and trying to make life constant, trying to fix ourselves or our circumstances is not possible and ultimately painful. We can avoid a lot of this pain by awaking from our delusion and seeing and accepting that all is changing and everything is interdependent. To make anything fixed and constant would mean to make everything fixed and constant. By seeing and accepting that everything is flowing – fluid and changing – we can let go of expectations of security and permanence and learn to enjoy the abundant flourishing nature of life and learn to surf on the possibilities and potentialities that are in us and around us all the time. This means taking responsibility for our own minds and not blaming others or blaming circumstances for our failure to achieve the impossible security of fixedness, an impossible dream of a security that is unassailed by external factors. We are not a fixed personality but a flowing river of conditions constantly changing. We are not separate from others from the life and world around us; we are all interdependent – great streams of consciousness flowing through each other – intermingling – not discrete entities that never touch and have no effect on each other. A large part of our pain and suffering comes from not recognising this. When we do recognise this, deeply and thoroughly we become open and pliable and loving and less prone to the suffering of needing to be right, needing to be secure, needing to be seen to be a success.
Does life have meaning? Is it possible to live a meaningful life? What is a meaningful life? These are the kind of questions which people ask from childhood to old age and the answers they intuit often shape their lives. When Leo Tolstoy – the great Russian writer and thinker – was 50 years old he had a major crisis. Life suddenly felt meaningless and he was suicidal – he wrote: “my question – that which at the age of 50 brought me to the verge of suicide – was the simplest of questions, lying in the soul of every man from the foolish child to the wisest elder: it was a question without an answer to which one cannot live, as I had found by experience. It was: why should I live, why wish for anything, or do anything? It can also be expressed thus: is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?”
When in Buddhism we talk about Going for Refuge what we are talking about is what gives meaning to your life. For some people what gives meaning to their life is their career, for others it may be family, for others it may be money or power, for some its social justice, for some its environmental politics and for some its religious conviction of one kind or another. In what sense can Buddhism give meaning to our lives? It can only give meaning to our lives to the extent that we understand it and practice it wholeheartedly. Buddhism is about the expansion beyond self concern, beyond even the sense of a separate enduring self. Buddhism is about the energy of consciousness expanding outwards in ever increasing ripples of compassion. Life is energy and living is growth. Buddhism seeks to awaken and liberate the expansive energy of life in the heart and mind of every individual.
We can treat Buddhism and Buddhist practice as a palliative or a therapy to help us cope with the stresses and strains of ordinary life – and we can benefit from it – but really Buddhism is about going well beyond coping or being happy. Perhaps it could be summed up as: what makes life meaningful from a Buddhist perspective is taking on the task of consciously changing and growing and on the basis of that bigger, expanded consciousness going beyond self concern to a deep and authentic concern for others that manifests in concrete actions. As Sarvananda puts it in his book (Meaning in Life) – “meaning in life, for a Buddhist is found by moving towards egolessness.”
One of the ways we have to work on ourselves in order to grow is we have to try to become aware of our conditioning and how it manifests in our behaviour, thought processes and communication. We are broadly speaking conditioned by our family background and by the society in which we grow up and live. Our family background can condition our attitudes to work, money, family, religion, children, manners, the arts and so on. Sometimes school reinforces family conditioning and sometimes it counteracts it.
A huge conditioning factor in the lives of most of us for the last five or six decades is TV and more recently the Internet. The mass media generally reflects and reinforces conventional norms via an approach to what is newsworthy and also through soap operas, game shows, talent shows and so-called reality TV and of course via advertisements. However we get our news about world affairs or national affairs you may be sure there is a bias. If we use only one source than the bias will be more pronounced. And of course we form our opinions and convictions about the world we live in on the basis of that bias. Sometimes we even delude ourselves that we have first-hand information about news items – when actually it is usually all either second or third hand or even based on other people’s speculations.
So part of becoming aware of our conditioning is looking more closely at where we get our views opinions and convictions from. This is not about establishing whether our opinions are right or wrong but it is about growing in awareness of how we come to have our views in the first place. This is an aspect of self-knowledge, self-awareness.
The other big conditioning factor which we are exposed to from childhood is advertising. Our whole way of life depends on advertising. We live with an economic model of growth. An economy grows by producing and selling things. The production and selling of more and more things depends on the consumption of things and the consumption of more and more things depends on advertising awakening in us the appetite to buy more and more things. Advertising has to show us that buying things will benefit us in some way. It has to show that buying things will make us happier or give us status or give us security. In other words advertising has to promote a set of values. Values like frugality or simplicity are antithetical to a growth economy. If you need economic growth and consumption then you don’t want people repairing their clothes or shoes or vacuum cleaners. You don’t want people sharing the use of things and you don’t want things lasting a long time. You want people to adopt values such as new is best, shopping is therapeutic, my status depends on what I own, my security depends on what I own, buying a new gadget or item of clothing will make me happy etc. All of this has very wide implications for society, politics and economic affairs. We need to be aware of what we are being influenced by and try to be conscious of our values and the consequences of our values. There are no easy or facile answers to questions posed by our economic model of growth. We may easily be critical of something without having a clue as to an alternative and without even having the will or appetite to live an alternative. It could be argued for instance that if we really want to live simple and ecological lifestyles, we would all live communally, sharing resources such as heat and light, and equipment like washing machines and refrigeration. We would also be content with less ownership and less buying power. We might even be vegan. These are big steps to take and would seem to involve sacrifices that we might find a bit too daunting.
The point here is to become more deeply aware of our conditioning and how we come to have certain views and values and then to reflect deeply on the consequences for our lives. You may find, as I do sometimes, that my values and how I actually live don’t coincide. What I am saying here is that it is better to be aware of this and acknowledge it rather than delude ourselves.
It is quite natural for many people to be idealistic when they are young and even to act on that idealism. If you then get involved with the usual things of career and family the idealism may have to take a back seat or for some people it may disappear completely. This is a great shame. It is like losing your heart, losing your soul. Because often it is that idealistic urge in us that is our spiritual aspiration trying to find expression. And if that gets drowned our life can become dull and depressing, because an important flow of energy has been dammed up.
For Buddhists the ideal is of course represented by the Buddha and is conceptualised as Awakening, Enlightenment, Nirvana or Buddhahood. This is seen as an attainable ideal – as we say in the short Puja – “the Buddha was born as we are born, what the Buddha overcame we too can overcome, what the Buddha attained we too can attain.”
What the Buddha overcame was greed, hatred and spiritual ignorance and what the Buddha attained was the perfection of wisdom and compassion. This is our ideal as Buddhists, Wisdom and Compassion and that is represented symbolically in the images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas such as Avolokiteshvara, Manjughosha, Tara, Amitabha, Ratnasambhava and so on. The big problem with idealism is that we either use it as a stick to beat ourselves and others, because we and they are not perfect or we use it as an excuse for laziness, because it’s too remote.
So we have to recognise that an ideal is meant to inspire us and arouse us to action. It is not a judgement on us, nor is it unattainable. In order to make ideals more real we need to see how the ideal is present in the path – the means and methods to attaining the ideal include the ideal.
The first precept asks us to refrain from harming living beings and to practice deeds of lovingkindness. That is compassion and the road to compassion. The fifth precept asks us to refrain from clouding our minds and to practice awareness. That is wisdom and the road to wisdom. Idealism without a path is useless. A path without ideals is pointless. We have an ideal and we have a path – we can trust that if we follow the path then our ideals will be realised.
12. Going forth
In the life of the Buddha before he became the Buddha – when he was still Siddhartha – there is the well-known episode of the going forth. In early scriptures the Buddha is depicted as saying simply: “while still young, a black haired boy blessed with youth, in the first phase of life I shaved off my hair and beard – though my mother and father wished otherwise and grieved with tearful faces –, and I put on the yellow cloth and went forth from the house life into homelessness”
Later on this incident becomes embellished into a full dramatic story of leaving stealthily in the middle of the night, leaving a sleeping wife and child and riding off on the back of a white steed whose hooves are muffled by the gods and then exchanging clothes with a poor man and heading off into the jungle. Whatever happened it is clearly a key moment in his life, a turning point. The point where he turns away from mundane, worldly concerns and activities and decides to pursue a spiritual path. And from the description it seems to be the result of a long period of reflection and dissatisfaction.
Going forth, whether as a sudden event or a long drawn out process, would seem to be a part of any spiritual life. When we decide we want to embark on the journey of consciously growing and developing, the journey of expanding and elevating our consciousness, the journey of purifying our mind – when we embark on this journey, then inevitably there is an element of leaving behind or turning away from other values and other activities. This can cause a big upheaval in your life and it is therefore important to be around others who are doing the same and who understand what you are about.
Our friends and relatives, who are still immersed in worldly values and activities , like Siddhartha’s parents, may think we are becoming strange, but our friends in the Sangha will share our values. If we want to reorientate our life in a spiritual direction, the direction of skilfulness and egolessness, then we need a mutually supportive spiritual community to support and encourage our decision and our efforts.
Awakening is the best translation of bodhi, which is often translated as Enlightenment. And Buddha is probably best translated as ‘the awakened one’. Awakening is also good because it gives a sense of process rather than an endpoint. Bodhi or awakening is a process without end. And it’s a process that begins with the tiny seeds of spiritual aspiration. Those tiny seeds of aspiration are sown when we become sharply aware of the existential facts of life, or when we encounter higher states of consciousness in ourselves, in another person or even in a book.
We embark on a spiritual path because at some point and in some way the seeds of awakening have been planted in us. Our spiritual aspiration – shraddha – has begun to grow. Awakening is a direction rather than an endpoint. The opposite of awakening is sleep and the direction of greater sleep, stupor, unconsciousness, ignorance. The direction of awakening is towards greater awareness, an expansive consciousness, compassion, egolessness, creativity, abundance, living. So we can put ourselves on the path of awakening by acting and speaking and thinking skilfully and if we do we can be certain that the process of awakening will carry on unfolding in our lives and will even gain momentum in time. If we travel together on the path of awakening we can help and support each other and enjoy the journey all the more. As Walt Whitman says in his great poem Song Of Myself:
“each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
my left hand hooks you round the waist,
my right hand points to landscapes of continents, and a plain public road.
Not I, not anyone else can travel that road for you,
you must travel it for yourself.
It is not far… It is within reach,
perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know, perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
Shoulder your duds,dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth;
wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.
If you tire give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip,
and in due time you shall repay the same service to me;
for after we start we never lie by again.”
Epicurus – the ancient Greek philosopher – is quoted as saying “of all the things that wisdom provides to help one live one’s entire life and happiness, the greatest by far is friendship”.
The most essential ingredient of friendship is trust. Where there is no trust there is no friendship. Friendship in turn is the essential ingredient of the spiritual community. Spiritual community is a network of friendship – or to put it another way – a spiritual community is a network of trust. But what is it that we trust? According to the Short Puja – the
Threefold Puja – the spiritual community is “the Fellowship of those who tread the way” and the community grows “as one by one, we make our own commitment”. So the spiritual community consists of those who have individually made a choice, a decision, a commitment – and that decision is “to tread the way”. In other words the spiritual community consists of those who have made a commitment, a choice to follow the teaching of the Buddha – to observe the ethical principles of Buddhism, to cultivate positive mental states through meditation, to study the Dharma with those more experienced.
To come back to the question of trust –in the spiritual community what we are placing our trust in is the commitment of others to actually practice the Dharma. If someone says they are going to practice the Dharma but are unwilling or unable to do so then, by definition, they are not really part of the spiritual community. Or if someone is practising the Dharma, but not as a free individual choice and decision, but to obtain approval or out of fear of disapproval – then they aren’t really part of the spiritual community either, again by definition.
The spiritual community is not a club you join, it is the result of the individual decision to practice and the actual practice of the Dharma. Those who find themselves on the path together in this way are a spiritual community. If the practice is under the guidance of a particular teacher then they belong to a particular Sangha. There is the Maha Sangha of all practising Buddhists and the specific Sangha of those following a particular set of teachings. Our spiritual community is defined by our individual commitment to practice and by the elucidation of the Dharma by Sangharakshita. The Triratna community is the community of those who trust each other’s practice of the Dharma as elucidated by Bhante Sangharakshita. To be part of the spiritual community is a source of support in our practice, a source of happiness in our lives and a piece of strange good fortune to be rejoiced in. Human beings are deeply social and therefore community and a sense of belonging is very important to us. To belong to a community which also has a higher purpose is a bonus and if we can recognise this – recognise our good fortune, we will be happier and quite likely to make others happy to.
Life is abundant. Life is like a tropical rainforest or a Niagara falls – it rolls on relentlessly and is a flourishing abundant cornucopia –producing and reproducing endlessly. Life cannot be stopped, it cannot be contained and restrained. But we want to control life. Our fears and insecurities lead us to want to control life as much as possible. We even want to control the future.
EM Forster –the English writer – said: “ We can spend our whole life preparing to live” . And John Lennon said “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans” . In other words the urge to control life and make it secure and comfortable can lead us to miss out on actually living our lives. We can spend a lot of time and energy trying to create an imagined future or trying to protect ourselves from a feared future and in the meantime our life is almost on hold.
But as Bhante puts it in his poem of the same name – Life is King.
Hour after hour, day
After day we try
To grasp the Ungraspable, pinpoint
The Unpredictable. Flowers
Wither when touched, ice
Suddenly cracks beneath or feet. Vainly
We try to track birdflight through the sky trace
Dumb fish through deep water. Try
To anticipate the earned smile the soft
Try to grasp our own lives. But life
Slips through our fingers
Like snow. Life cannot belong to us. We belong to Life. Life
The great Albert Einstein is quoted as saying:
“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
Mindfulness is the Buddhist way of living your life as though everything is a miracle. For Buddhists it is not the walking on water that is a miracle, it is the simple fact of walking. When we have mindfulness and when we have love, we have everything and without needing to control, we are able to connect to the pulsing heart of life.