Monday, 30 November 2015

The Greater Mandala of the Spiritual Community

This talk was given on 28th November 2015 (Sangha Day) at Cambridge Buddhist Centre

As many of you will know the CBC has been taking part in the international urban retreat for the past week. The theme of the international urban retreat has been the greater Mandala of aesthetic appreciation. This is a teaching from Bhante which can be found in his book Wisdom beyond Words.

The phrase “aesthetic appreciation” was how the German scholar Herbert Guenther translated the Sanskrit term Vidya. Vidya is the opposite of Avidya – avidya is the term for ignorance – spiritual ignorance, so Vidya is the opposite of spiritual ignorance which you would expect to be knowledge or wisdom and indeed Vidya is often translated as wisdom. However, Bhante thinks this translation by Mr Guenther – ‘aesthetic appreciation’ is much closer to the real meaning of the term. So this should give us something to think about – the opposite of ignorance is aesthetic appreciation – appreciation of beauty is being equated with wisdom.

The contrast that Bhante is making is the contrast between seeing things, people, seeing the world in terms of usefulness and seeing it in terms of beauty. What is being said is that an enlightened person would see the world, things, people, everything as beautiful, as aesthetically valuable rather than as useful, or in terms of their usefulness. The implication is that we who are not enlightened tend to regard the world in a utilitarian way, in terms of usefulness. And another implication is that in order to awake to Buddhahood, to attain enlightenment we need to move in the direction of aesthetic appreciation. We need to move from an attitude of ‘what’s in it for me’? to one of simple appreciation.

Enlightened consciousness has gone beyond all sense of a permanent, fixed and separate self – it has transcended all sense of self and other and therefore there is no craving to protect, defend, secure or build up a self, an identity, a me – so there is no tendency to regard things or people or the environment or anything in terms of how it can be used to enhance self.

This is not to say that an enlightened person doesn’t use things – of course, some basic needs are still to be fulfilled – food, clothing, shelter, medicine – but all is within a much larger perspective, the perspective of aesthetic appreciation.

Our state of mind influences how we experience the world. We could even say that when we think we are experiencing the world we are really experiencing our own mind.When we are in a state of depression everything around us takes on a particular flavour and is unsatisfactory. When we are in a state of anger everything around us takes on a different aspect. When we are in state of restless craving everything takes on yet another feeling. And if we are in love, or have just been on retreat or have passed an exam – everything takes on a more rosy hue.

Our state of mind affects how we see the world, how we experience to world. An Enlightened mind experiences the world as beautiful –a  pure land. In the Vimalakirti Nirdesa, a text of Mahayana Buddhism, Sariputra asks the question  – “If the buddha-field is pure only to the extent that the mind of the bodhisattva is pure, then, when Shakyamuni was engaged in the career of the bodhisattva, his mind must have been impure. Otherwise how could this buddha-field appear to be so impure? “ The Buddha replies “ Sariputra, the fact that some living beings do not behold the splendid display of virtues of the buddha-field of the Tathagata is due to their own ignorance. It is not the fault of the Tathagata.  Shariputra, the buddha-field of the Tathagata is pure, but you do not see it.” (Thurman, The Holy Teaching of Vimlakirti, p.18)  The text goes on to talk about the work of a Buddha or a bodhisattva as being to build a Buddhaland. A Buddhaland it says is built of living beings all co-operating together. In other words a Buddhaland is a spiritual community and the work of every Buddha and bodhisattva is to build a spiritual community. The spiritual community is a Buddhaland, which is a pure land, which is Mandala of aesthetic appreciation. Enlightened consciousness manifests in this Mandala of aesthetic appreciation, the Buddhaland, the pure land, the spiritual community.

A Mandala is a symbol of wholeness, completeness. The spiritual community is a Mandala of beauty, at its best. A mandala with commitment to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha at it’s centre. It radiates the beauty of love, Metta, friendship, of generosity, of wisdom, of aesthetic appreciation.  A simple definition of a spiritual community might be that a spiritual community is a harmonious community of mutual helpfulness with a common objective. I want to talk now about spiritual community in terms of harmony, mutual helpfulness and common objective.

I will start at the end of this definition of spiritual community and work back to the beginning – so I’ll talk first about the common objective of spiritual community, then about mutual helpfulness and then about harmony and finish by coming back to the mandala.

The common objective of the spiritual community is to create a spiritual community – to create, develop and maintain vigourous, vibrant, effective spiritual community. The purpose of Sangha is Sangha. This is not to say that spiritual community is an end in itself, but that it is a necessary condition for the spiritual development of individuals on the Path.

Everything arises in dependence upon conditions and one of the most crucial and indispensable conditions for the arising of awakened consciousness is spiritual community. An Awakened or Enlightened mind, a Buddha, transcends all sense of self and other and the context in which we practice towards this transcendence is Sangha. As Bhante and Subhuti put it in their paper on a Supra-personal force : “When people come together who deeply share a common vision and purpose, their efforts combine in a momentum that draws them all onward, beyond themselves. This is Sangha. If they are able to join in real harmony, with openness and mutual trust, then the weaknesses of each are obviated and their strengths contribute selflessly to their shared Dharma service. Between them they set up a powerful current, by which they are all simultaneously carried along.” (Sangharakshita and Subhuti, Seven Papers, p. 185)

We may start our spiritual life by thinking in terms of improving ourselves – becoming happier, more relaxed, more confident and to that end we practice meditation, we try to keep the precepts, we study the Dharma and we engage in Puja. And it works – we do  become happier and so on. But very quickly we also see the importance of other people – the support of meditating with others is quite obvious from the beginning, then studying the Dharma with others means we can benefit from hearing different viewpoints and from the greater experience of our teachers. We begin to develop friendships and enjoy the support and encouragement of a positive and friendly group of people.

As we progress on the path we gradually realise that there is much more to the spiritual path then becoming happier, more relaxed and confident. We realise that it is not in fact all about me and my practice, my meditation, my spiritual life, my friends – no, we realise that the whole point of spiritual life is much more expansive, more altruistic. When we see this, we also begin to see the real significance of the spiritual community. The spiritual community provides the framework, the context, the institutions and the opportunities for us to give full expression to the altruistic dimension of spiritual practice. It is where our generosity and kindness and all our other regarding impulses can be given full expression.

By engaging and participating in the spiritual community – by befriending others, by helping out, by giving time, giving energy, giving money, giving ourselves – we help ourselves to grow and develop, we become bigger people, more expansive and alive and begin to experience, to taste, the bodhisattva life – the life of compassionate activity based in awareness. This practice of spiritual community is a practice of kusala karma, skilful action, at ever higher levels – increasing our capacity to give and then giving more and more. And this is how we come to realise the joy of egolessness, the happiness of serving the Dharma wholeheartedly, the fulfilment of allowing ourselves to be used for the sake of living beings. Spiritual Community can give rise to what Bhante has called the ‘third order of consciousness’. Page 121 A New Voice in the Buddhist Tradition.

When this ‘coincidence of wills’ happens, when something akin to a ‘third order of consciousness’ arises it manifests as an atmosphere of co-operation and friendliness, a spirit of generosity and goodwill, even something quite mysterious and indefinable that we can experience, but can’t quite pin down. Bhante mentioned this at the end of an interview he gave six years ago about the nature of the Order. He said : P 36, Seven Papers …

And all this is made possible by the existence of a spiritual community that we can immerse ourselves in. A spiritual community is a harmonious community of mutual helpfulness with a common objective. When I say the common objective of all of us in the spiritual community is to create spiritual community, I don’t mean that we are somehow turned in on ourselves and obsessed with our little group. Creating spiritual community is an expansive, outgoing activity. We create spiritual community by being welcoming, friendly and helpful to all who wish to be part of it. This is mutual helpfulness. Those who can teach the Dharma,  teach. Those whose talents lie in other directions will do other things or support those who teach. Teaching the Dharma is in any case, not just a matter of talking about the Dharma, it’s not just a matter of giving talks and leading groups and classes. It is primarily about exemplification and about sharing our experience. I think Vimalabandhu is a very good example of an Order Member who teaches the Dharma by exemplification. He is consistently generous and good humoured and really gives of himself wholeheartedly – cooking and in many other ways, as well as befriending all and sundry. So yes, teaching the Dharma is also about listening to and befriending those who need guidance on the path. Those who are not yet ready to give talks and lead groups can do all of this. We can all co-operate together to create and develop the Sangha, sharing our experience, being friendly and giving generously. We can all be examples of a life well lived.

Mutual helpfulness is a practical thing, an activity. For instance, this building is a focal point for our local Sangha – it has many needs. If it could speak it would say – I need your love and attention, I need to be cleaned and made beautiful; I am old and sometimes I don’t function so well – help me. If this building could speak it would also give 1000 thanks to all the volunteers and the centre team who do strive to keep it clean and beautify it.

The centre team, the class leaders and retreat leaders and our volunteer receptionists and school visit leaders and other volunteers are all working at the coal face of providing the conditions for the spiritual community to flourish. They all need support, they need encouragement, they need to be rejoiced in, they need to be thanked and praised. People like Nene, Kenny, Steve (reception), Jan and Anne, Mij and Richard, Ann Blyth, Eileen, Tim, Nick, Ian, Alison, Mary and many more. But I think Taradasa should get a special mention and be given a medal of honour for the huge amount he puts into keeping everything running smoothly – too often he is on the receiving end of grumbles and complaints. Before Aryajaya and Amalasiddhi came to work at the Centre Taradasa was stretched to his limits and beyond and he could have collapsed I think if we hadn’t been able to get some help. Do feel free to praise him and express gratitude to him. Tejasiddhi and Abhayamati are also key to keeping the engines running, so to speak. It is easy to fall into an attitude of thinking of the Buddhist Centre as a service provider – like the library, post office, town hall or Citizens Advice Bureau. But the Centre is not really about providing a service – it is about facilitating the development of Spiritual Community.

You can support those working at the coal face of creating the conditions for spiritual community by giving money, time and energy. Money helps support the people who keep the show on the road and it helps to keep this creaking old building in good repair. Giving time to volunteer helps the centre team enormously – manning reception, cleaning, replacing flowers, working on the allotment, painting and decorating, looking after shrines and shrine cloths, cleaning candleholders, school visits, supporting classes. There are a whole host of ways in which people do give time and if more people come forward we can do more – clean the places we never get to,  get all our shrine gear spick and span and so on. But also if volunteers work together they can have a tangible experience of spiritual community. From January Tejasiddhi will be starting a Friday morning Sangha event to keep the Centre clean,  which will also involve meditation and the possibility of staying on for a study session at lunch time.

By giving energy to the situation we create an atmosphere of aliveness that everyone can enjoy. The primary way to give energy is simply to turn up to events. Last year in a talk I said Sangha needed participation, participation, participation and that is still the case. If I am giving a talk and only 5 people turn up that is  demoralising for me and for everyone else and it’s harder to generate energy. If 50 people turn up there is a buzz and I’ll probably give a better talk and everyone will enjoy the positive atmosphere even if the talk is average. You can also give energy by getting involved with special events like Buddhist action month, open days, the winter fair, the opera, Festival days and so on. Or get involved with the choir. And of course we give energy to the situation simply by doing things together – whether it’s meditating together, going on retreat together, studying together, working together on a project or just hanging out together – going to the cinema or an art gallery or going for a walk – all of this gives energy to the spiritual community – all helps to create Sangha. It is all helping to build the Buddhaland. And of course in relation to those who are new we can give hospitality – welcoming them and making them feel comfortable – even if you’ve only been here twice yourself, you can still welcome someone who is completely new. I have been to quite a number of Triratna centres and have experienced a lot of friendliness and hospitality. I don’t think Cambridge is at the top of the league when it comes to hospitality – I think we could do more. It can be quite daunting for some people to come into the foyer and encounter lots of people who already know each other chatting away. So it’s good for all of us to be aware of new people coming into the centre and make an effort to make them feel welcome and comfortable.So I have been speaking about giving money, giving time and giving energy under the heading of mutual helpfulness. All giving is good. Generosity is the basic Buddhist virtue – generosity of any kind foreshadows the great compassion of a Buddha. In generosity are the seeds of the bodhisattva ideal – the aspiration to attain awakening for the sake of all beings.

Generosity is not listed as a mental event or mental state in the 51 mental events of the Abhidharma. Generosity is an activity and the mental state is one of non-attachment. Non-attachment to our money allows us to give money. Non-attachment to our possessions allows us to give things. Non-attachment to our time (my weekend, my evening, my space) allows us to give time. Non-attachment to our energy allows us to give energy. Non-attachment to our ego identity eventually allows us to give ourselves fully without even thinking or noticing that we are giving. Attachment to an ego identity, to a sense of separate and permanent selfhood, is the key delusion which the Dharma is designed to undermine. We can help the process by working on becoming less attached to those things which are extensions of our ego identity; money, possessions, time and personal space. Or putting it more positively we can help the process of dismantling the delusion of a fixed and separate self by training ourselves in egolessness through the practice of generosity.

The spiritual community is a harmonious community of mutual helpfulness united by a common objective. So I’ve talked about the common objective of the spiritual community being the creation, development and maintenance of the spiritual community, building a Buddhaland, a pure land, a Mandala of aesthetic appreciation. I have spoken about mutual helpfulness in terms of giving money, time and energy. So that leaves harmony – the spiritual community is a harmonious community. What is harmony? According to the dictionary to be harmonious means to form a pleasing are consistent whole. This is more or less the definition of a Mandala. Bhante has said that “To make a Mandala is to take any prominent aspect of reality and surround it with beauty – so as to make a harmonious and pleasing configuration.” A spiritual community if it is in harmony is a pleasing and consistent whole – it is a Mandala with the three jewels at its centre and those who practice the Dharma or aspire to be awakened are the beauty arranged around it.

But how do we achieve harmony? How do we take our discordant notes and gradually harmonise them into a beautiful Mandala?

Perhaps we can learn from the choir – how does a group of people with different voices, different ranges, different capacities, different temperaments, different tastes – how does this group gradually become a harmonious singing unit – a choir- able to produce beautiful sounds.

Well the first thing is that they have to want to be a choir – they have to want to come into musical harmony. Then they need a choirmaster, a teacher, a guide. Then they need to be willing to listen to the guide and practice as he or she asks. Then there may be some instances where particular people need individual mentoring to give them confidence. Assuming that we all want to be in harmony as a spiritual community then we need to be willing to listen to our guide – Sangharakshita – and put into practice what he teaches us –Generosity, ethics( especially the 4 speech precepts, which anyone can practice – truthful, kindly, helpful and harmonising speech), meditation, study, going on retreat and friendship. If we do that we will largely be in harmony – doing the same practices, having the same language to talk about practice and progressing on the path together.

Personalities are very different from each other – like voices – but unlike voices they can’t be moulded so easily and sometimes personalities clash, they are discordant and that can be painful and even unpleasant. In that case for harmony to be restored, both parties will need to recognise, become aware, that this is a clash of personalities and not necessarily about right and wrong. If there is that recognition then some sort of truce or modus operandi can usually be agreed. If the discordance is not about personalities but about ideas – then that may be much more serious. If the ideas are of great importance to spiritual life and practice then at some point the teacher may have to adjudicate. If the ideas are not so significant for spiritual life then one or the other of the parties just has to back down or both have to see that the argument has little significance.

When we have a harmonious spiritual community that is vibrantly alive and effective, then to use Bhante’s  words “we can think of ourselves as living within a greater Mandala of aesthetic appreciation, in which all our practical mundane affairs, and the fulfilment of all our non-neurotic needs and wants, occupy just a tiny corner. The real values are aesthetic, not utilitarian.” Or to put it another way, in the spiritual community we are in the world of our highest values and to the extent that we really fully engage in spiritual community then the worry and stress of mundane affairs loses its potency and has less and less of a hold on our imagination. We have the bigger and wiser perspective of the greater Mandala of aesthetic appreciation.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Bhante Sangharakshita as Teacher

This the text of a talk given at Cambridge Buddhist Centre in August 2015 - the month of Sangharakshita's 90th birthday.

One of Sangharakshita’s teachers was the Indian Buddhist monk and Pali scholar, Jagdish Kashyap. He was critical of the Buddhist establishment – the monks. He once said that the relationship of Sri Lankan monks to the Pali Canon was like that of a group of monkeys sitting on a treasure – they had no idea of its true value.

I hope nobody will be able to accuse us in Triratna of not knowing the true value of the Buddhist scriptures. Sangharakshita, Bhante to me and his disciples, has gone to great lengths to decipher and interpret these scriptures for us, so that we can appreciate them and learn how to explore them for ourselves.

However the story of Kashyapji’s monkeys did come to mind when I was thinking about this talk. Some years ago ,Jnanasiddhi, who was then the chairwoman at Windhorse Publications contacted me about helping to launch a new book. But she said she wasn’t concerned so much about publicising that particular book – but what she was concerned about was that fewer people in Triratna were reading Bhante’s work and she asked me whether I could talk about this and about why it is important for us to be familiar with Bhante’s teaching. So I did wonder whether we in Triratna are not indeed becoming a bit like Kashyapji’s monkeys – sitting on a treasure that we don’t know the real value of. I don’t know – perhaps there are degrees of monkeyhood in this respect and some of us are more monkeyish than others. Whatever the case I hope to be able to express something of the importance of Bhante’s books and perhaps inspire one or two of you to look again.

I became a Buddhist about a year before I came across Triratna. Becoming a Buddhist was, for me, something quite sudden, a moment of intuitive faith, in response to the personality and teaching of an elderly Sri Lankan monk. I met that monk only once. So for a year I was trying to figure out how to be a Buddhist. I learned to meditate from books and that had a very bad effect on my meditation practice. But really I was floundering and eventually came to the conclusion that I would have to become a monk if I want to be a Buddhist. Then I discovered a book by Subhuti called Buddhism for Today which is both a history of Triratna and an outline of the principles on which it was founded. That book was just what I needed. It brought clarity into my life and now I knew how to be a Buddhist – how to live a Buddhist life. I was thrilled by this. I could hardly believe what I was reading – that there were Buddhists in London, living in communities, working together in right livelihood cooperatives, meditating together, exploring the precepts and so on. This was like an oasis in a desert to me. I felt inspired and uplifted by what Subhuti had outlined and I decided there and then that I was going to get involved. I do remember quite clearly that I told myself I was going to get involved no matter what the people were like. I had been involved with idealistic ventures before and knew only too well how people’s actual behaviour often deviated 100% from their ideals. This was so much what I wanted to do with my life, it had so much meaning for me, that I made a definite decision to get involved – whatever kind of people I might encounter. Having that little caveat – that little warning – in my mind has been helpful over the years. One does meet some strange, eccentric and even unskilful people in Triratna and it is worth remembering that being a Buddhist is no guarantee that anyone is an exemplar of Buddhism. So Subhuti’s book was a very important factor in my spiritual life. That particular book is somewhat dated now – but interesting in its own way.

Although Bhante is of course mentioned in that book, I didn’t really have any sense of his significance until later. I met Bhante for the first time in 1984, not long after I’d got involved and he made no particular impression on me. It was only when I began to read his books that I began to get a sense of him as a teacher of Buddhism and a great interpreter of ancient scriptures for the modern world. One of the first books I read, however, was the volume of memoirs which was then published under the title of “The Thousand Petalled Lotus” (now The Rainbow Road). This was about Bhante’s early days in India, his search for spiritual teachers and companions, his decision to become a monk and his life as a wandering mendicant, following exactly the example of the Buddha. This book introduces a single-minded, precociously intelligent young man in his early 20s, who has had some profound spiritual insights and is trying to understand how to deepen those insights and live them out in his life. This quest for depth of understanding and the urge to live the Dharma has informed all of Bhante’s reflections and teaching and still does. In “The Thousand Petalled Lotus” I recognised a kindred spirit in that deep need to live the spiritual life day-to-day. I also recognised someone who had much more spiritual insight and much more disciplined practice than I had and therefore someone I could learn from. I have been learning from Bhante ever since and I continue to learn from him. He is a very great Buddhist teacher and exemplar. When I read Bhante’s books and the unedited transcripts of his seminars, I feel as though he is speaking to me personally – I experience him as a spiritual friend and teacher – even though I have had very little personal contact with him over the years.

There are two particular books which I have found very helpful and which have given me a lot of food for thought, a lot to reflect on. These books are The 10 Pillars of Buddhism and Wisdom beyond Words. The 10 Pillars of Buddhism is an outstanding piece of work on Buddhist ethics, of great profundity and significance. There is enough material in the 10 pillars of Buddhism to last your whole life – you could have a very successful spiritual life just using that one book is your instruction manual. Like all of Bhante’s books it is not really a book in the ordinary sense – not something you read once and then leave. It has to be reflected on, studied and referred to again and again so that the principles pervading it can become part of your mind, part of who you are and how you function. We could say that The 10 Pillars of Buddhism is only a book on Buddhist ethics, but that is to understand it only superficially, indeed that is to understand ethics superficially – it is about ethics, meditation, wisdom and compassion. It is a study of the whole spiritual path and an exhortation to practice wholeheartedly. If you are not familiar with it, I recommend it, but don’t just read it once – read it slowly and several times. If you are familiar with it – I recommended to you again – read it slowly and read it often – become it. The other book which I find very stimulating and thought-provoking is Wisdom beyond Words. This consists of commentaries on three wisdom texts – three texts from the Perfection of Wisdom tradition – The Heart Sutra, which you are probably all familiar with it, the Diamond Sutra, and the Sutra on the accumulation of precious qualities – better known by its Sanskrit title Ratnaguna Samcayagata. These three sutras are among the most difficult of Buddhist texts. It is not just that the content is difficult to understand – the way they are constructed using paradox and contradiction and non-rational argument means that it is even difficult to know what the content is. It is difficult to know what is being said at all because often as soon as a definite statement is made, it is immediately contradicted. So most of us would have difficulty even reading the sutras – they are extremely frustrating. I was once frustrated to the point of tears by a similar text, the Sutra of Hui Neng.

However Bhante takes up these texts and expounds them in a masterly and very illuminating way. The reason why he is able to do this goes right back to when he was 16 and first read these texts. In his memoirs he says “at John Watkins, which thereafter I visited frequently, I bought the two books by which I have been most profoundly influenced. These were the diamond Sutra and Sutra of Hui Neng. When I read the diamond Sutra I knew that I was a Buddhist. Though this book epitomises a teaching of such rarefied sublimity that even Arahants, saints who have attained individual Nirvana, are said to become confused and afraid when they hear it for the first time, I at once joyfully embraced it with an unqualified acceptance and assent. To me the Diamond Sutra was not new. I had known it and believed it and realised it ages before and the reading of the Sutra as it were awoke me to the existence of something I had forgotten. Once I realised that I was a Buddhist it seemed that I had always been one, that it was the most natural thing in the world to be, and that I had never been anything else.” The Rainbow Road.

That insight combined with his constant desire to clarify principles and make explicit the practice of Buddhism permeates this book. Wisdom beyond Words was not originally a book – it is an edited version of the recorded transcripts of 3 or 4 different seminars. So originally it was an oral teaching, addressed to a specific group of people, and the result is very much a taste of Bhante as a Dharma teacher, always exploding wrong views, always clarifying concepts, always demystifying and always inspiring his disciples to practice wholeheartedly. Here are a few of the gems to be found in Wisdom beyond Words. What do you need in order to be able to help others? This is what Bhante says: “there is in fact only one need of one’s own that has to be fulfilled before one can preoccupy oneself effectively with the needs of others, and it is not a physical and material need, but simply a matter of emotional positivity and security. We need to appreciate our own worth and feel that it is appreciated by others, to love ourselves and feel that we are loved by others. On this basis we can begin to develop the sensitivity and awareness to appreciate the real needs of others – not only their material needs, or even their educational needs, but their need for an ideal to which they can devote themselves, a spiritual path they can follow.” There is a wealth of material for reflection in these three sentences. If you were to look deeply into what is being said here and understand it and put it into practice you would be making very great progress indeed.

Here is another nugget of wisdom that would bear a lot of reflection: “things may start going badly for us not as a result of unskilful behaviour, but in consequence of our exposing ourselves to a higher vision. We may even find ourselves thinking that everything was going rather well for us until we took up the spiritual life. We tend to expect that adopting the spiritual life should make everything go much more smoothly for us, but that certainly does not always happen. The spiritual life may be a happy one, but it is by no means necessarily easy or free from difficulties and suffering. A properly functioning spiritual community will help to carry us over these hurdles. It is as well not to study the Diamond Sutra in isolation, at least not without knowing who and where our spiritual friends are.”

And later in the same chapter he says this “you need to take risks. If you don’t ever face the possibility of failure, then you don’t ever faced the possibility of humiliation, and therefore of growth. Failure will only have meaning for you if you have made a tremendous effort to succeed. The terrible temptation is to venture nothing. But in fact, the less you risk, the greater your fear of failure, and the greater the potential humiliation. So much becomes invested in the imperative of success that you cannot even give a lecture in case it should not be an astounding success. You become paralysed. You haven’t gone beyond success and failure; you are beneath them. If you’re not careful, you become someone with a great future behind them.”

These teachings are very practical and pertinent to all of us and they come out of the contemplation of the Diamond Sutra – probably one of the most obscure and difficult of Buddhist texts.

One reason I think that people don’t like to read Bhante’s books is that they are not easy to read. In fact you could say that it is best not to approach them as books to be read. It is better to think of them as a reference works that you come back to again and again. Or think of them as being like works of art – like a painting or a symphony or a Shakespeare play – something you come back to again and again and gain fresh insight from each time. Bhante’s books are teachings – they are profound Dharma teachings which are meant to be reflected on, understood, practised and embodied and this is a process that has to go on for many years.

Each time you return to a teaching you are a different person and you will see and understand different aspects of the teaching, you will penetrate more deeply into the teachings.

This is why I think it is essential that anyone who is seriously practising within the context of Triratna, which means seriously practising within the context of Bhante’s teachings, anyone seriously practising within this context should have their own little library of Sangharakshita’s teachings to refer to again and again. Since I became involved with Triratna I have bought myself a copy of every one of Sangharakshita’s books that has been published. There are three reasons for this; one as I said is so that they are to hand for me to refer to again and again – giving me the experience of a personal teacher at my side, secondly I know that books go out of print and out of fashion so I make sure I’m not dependent on fashion and thirdly I see it as an act of generosity to future generations to keep in circulation as many copies of these priceless Dharma teachings as possible. I cannot think of anything more worthwhile to spend my money on. Even with the advent of ebooks and the internet I think it is still important to have hard copies of books around.

So reading and reflecting on Bhante’s teachings is a Wisdom practice. This doesn’t apply just to Wisdom beyond Words, but to any of Bhante’s books. All of these books, all of these teachings are the result of years of reflection-based in the experience of spiritual insight, and any one of these books, if thoroughly understood and practiced will yield up treasures.

For instance there is “The Guide to the Buddhist Path” with its excellent chapters on archetypal symbolism, the meaning of Sangha and its unusual approach to Nirvana. There is “The Meaning of Conversion in Buddhism” with its a very clear exposition of stream entry, going for refuge, the arising of the Bodhicitta and turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness. And of course there are Bhante’s major works – The Survey Buddhism and The Three Jewels – written before the founding of Triratna and full of the passion and scholarship of the young Sangharakshita.

There are so many books now – three books on the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, a book on ritual and devotion in Buddhism, an excellent book on the Abhidharma called Know Your Mind, books on the Mahayana sutras, and volumes of memoirs, a reference work on the Buddhist Scriptures – The Eternal Legacy, a volume of poetry and the very important little book titled The Religion of Art. Those I’ve mentioned are only a small part of Bhante’s output – he has been giving Dharma teachings since 1944 and continues to give expression to his great love of the Dharma whenever he can.

As well as older books there is still a large number of unedited seminars and tapes of talks given on various occasions. So there are several lifetimes’ worth of material for study and reflection. The more you read and reflect on Bhante’s work the more you see the breathtaking scope of his vision and the depth of his insight.

There is a saying that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” and I’ve seen how this applies to Bhante’s teachings. Some people read a few books or do a Mitra study course or listen to some talks and they think they have understood the whole of Bhante’s message. Then they feel able to make pronouncements about what has been taught by Bhante and what is good about it and what is lacking in it and so on and not surprisingly sometimes they are talking nonsense.

So it is very helpful to read, reflect on and study Bhante’s teaching as broadly and steeply as you can so that you know for yourself what the founder of this Buddhist movement actually does teach and what he doesn’t say. That way you can avoid error and avoid passing on errors. Also in that way you come to understand and appreciate more fully the context in which you are practising – which as I said is the context of Bhante’s teaching of the Dharma. All of Triratna, its practices, it’s institutions, its Mitra ceremony, it’s ordination processes, its emphasis on friendship, on the centrality of going for refuge, on team-based right livelihood, on the arts and so on – all of this comes directly from the teaching of Bhante – it is all based on his interpretation and elucidation of the Buddhist scriptures and to really understand how it all fits together and what its purpose and meaning is we need to be very familiar with Bhante’s teachings. Fortunately for us he is an excellent teacher and explains everything very clearly and from many different perspectives.

But perhaps all of Bhante’s teachings could be summed up in the two words awareness and kindness. Awareness and kindness are the beginning, middle and end of the spiritual life. All spiritual practice is about awareness and kindness. From the beginning we try to cultivate awareness and kindness in our two meditation practices, mindfulness of breathing and the Metta Bhavana. Then as time goes by we applied the principles of awareness and kindness to all our actions, to our speech and to our thoughts and with sincere and persistent effort we transform ourselves completely, body, speech and mind. As we transform ourselves in this way we become less and less selfish, less ego-based and our awareness grows into the wisdom of transcendence – the wisdom that sees through self – sees beyond self – and intuitively understands and experiences the interconnectedness of all human beings and all life. With this wisdom our kindness becomes a great universal compassion that results in a constant flow of creative energy for the benefit of all living beings. So awareness and kindness are the goal of spiritual practice and awareness and kindness are the path of spiritual practice too.

Two of Bhante’s books are explicitly about awareness and kindness – Living with Awareness and Living with Kindness. Living with Awareness is a study of and commentary on the Satipatthana sutta from the Pali Canon. It takes a very detailed look at the whole topic of mindfulness or awareness. Here are a few quotes to give you a flavour: “the dawning of awareness is usually the result of becoming aware that one has been unaware – all too often as a result of the painful consequences of that lack of awareness. For instance you might be walking unmindfully along the pavement with the result that you bump into a lamp post: this is the moment at which you become aware that you have been unaware. Awareness is often forced on us in this way. A less painful way of becoming mindful is to trust the judgement of our spiritual friends, who, if we let them, would perhaps be able to nudge us into mindfulness before we bump into a metaphorical lamp post.” Another quote is “a lot of Buddhist practice can seem very self-absorbed and in a way it is, especially at this stage of the path (samadhi means one pointed concentration). But there is no healthy alternative, if one is to be effective in the world. Buddhist meditation is a clearing of the decks for action, a transforming of unskilful and unexamined mental states into integrated and refined energy, for a purpose beyond self absorption.”

Living with Kindness is a study of and commentary on the Metta sutta. I found this book especially interesting and useful. It is broken down into very readable short sections, a format that makes it easy to reflect on the teachings as you read. There is a helpful section on the connection between ethical practice and Metta. There are many gems in this book. I felt uplifted by it and found a lot to reflect on in it. Here is one little jewel of a teaching for you from the section on Metta and insight “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 realising 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 realise the ultimate emptiness of the self, the solution is to try to be a little less selfish. The understanding comes after the experience, not before.”

There is a very interesting little section entitled Why do we hate? – Which as well as analysing why we are prone to hatred, also leads us towards sympathy with other human beings, since all of us are liable to experience and practice these kind of destructive feelings and thoughts. Our attitude to happiness is another topic touched upon which could give us food for thought. He says “if you are in a happy, upbeat mood and you mix with people who are not, they may want to share your happiness, but it is also possible that they will prefer to see you as being no less unhappy that they are themselves. They may resent your happiness and feel they have to resist it, even destroy it, as if it were an affront a challenge to them. Perhaps they want you to show their misery a little respect, or suspect that you’re feeling superior and smug. Humans are contradictory beings. How strange it is that we do not quite naturally and wholeheartedly wish others the deepest happiness and bliss! It’s as if we feel that there is only so much happiness to go round and that if others are happy there is less happiness left over for us. Certainly people often feel they have a limited quantity of love, to be preserved for close friends and family. But of course the happiness of others cannot do us or them anything but good.” There are many more very interesting observations in this book and I recommend it to you.

I began by referring to Kashyapji’s monkeys and his, perhaps, caustic remark about Sri Lankan monks. I hope that none of us are monkeys in this sense – sitting on a treasure that we have no comprehension of – however if there is even a slight hint of monkeyish attitude among us I hope this talk has helped to dispel it and inspired at least one two of you to look more closely at Bhante’s teachings and to build up your own reference library of his work. If you only have time for one or two books I would recommend Subhuti’s book “Sangharakshita: A New Voice in the Buddhist Tradition” and The Essential Sangharakshita.

I have been reading Bhante’s books for over 30 years now and I continue to find material for contemplation and perspectives on the Dharma and on life which are uplifting, challenging and thought-provoking. Bhante is to me a true teacher of the Dharma, who guides me and challenges me every step of the way. May we all recognise the great treasure that has been bestowed upon us by this truly remarkable man.

Saturday, 13 June 2015

He Knew He Was Right - The Meghiya Sutta

This talk was given at Sangha Night in the Cambridge Buddhist Centre June 2015                   

The Meghiya Sutta appears in part of the Pali Canon known as the Udana, which is one of the oldest or earliest parts of the Pali canon. Meghiya was the Buddha’s companion at the time so presumably the story occurs at a time in the Buddha’s life before Ananda became his constant companion. Ananda was the Buddha’s companion for about 30 years until he died. So it could be reckoned that the Buddha was in his 40s when this incident took place. The events of the sutta happened at a place called Chalika, on Chalika Hill. Here is the first part of the Sutta:
 Thus have I heard. At one time the Lord was staying at Calika on Calika Hill. At that time the Venerable Meghiya was the Lord's attendant. Then the Venerable Meghiya approached the Lord, prostrated himself, stood to one side, and said: "I wish to go into Jantu village for almsfood, revered sir."
"Do now, Meghiya, what you think it is time to do."
Then the Venerable Meghiya, having put on his robe in the forenoon and taken his bowl and outer cloak, entered Jantu village for almsfood. Having walked in Jantu village for almsfood, after the meal, on returning from collecting almsfood, he approached the bank of the river Kimikala. As he was walking and wandering up and down beside the river for exercise, he saw a pleasant and charming mango grove. On seeing it he thought: "This mango grove is very pleasant and charming. It is eminently suitable for the endeavor (in meditation) of a young man of good family who is intent on the endeavor. If the Lord were to give me permission, I would come and endeavor in this mango grove."
Then the Venerable Meghiya approached the Lord, prostrated himself, sat down to one side, and said: "Revered sir, having put on my robe in the forenoon... I approached the bank of the river Kimikala and saw a pleasant and charming mango grove. On seeing it I thought: 'This mango grove is very pleasant and charming. It is eminently suitable for the endeavor (in meditation) of a young man of good family who is intent on the endeavor. If the Lord were to give me permission, I would come and endeavor in this mango grove.' If, revered sir, the Lord gives me permission, I would go to that mango grove to endeavor (in meditation)."
When this was said the Lord replied to the Venerable Meghiya: "As we are alone, Meghiya, wait a while until some other bhikkhu comes."
A second time the Venerable Meghiya said to the Lord: "Revered sir, the Lord has nothing further that should be done and nothing to add to what has been done. But for me, revered sir, there is something further that should be done and something to add to what has been done. If, revered sir, the Lord gives me permission, I would go to that mango grove to endeavor (in meditation)."
A second time the Lord replied to the Venerable Meghiya: "As we are alone, Meghiya, wait a while until some other bhikkhu comes."
A third time the Venerable Meghiya said to the Lord: "Revered sir, the Lord has nothing further that should be done... I would go to that mango grove to endeavor (in meditation)."
"As you are talking of endeavoring, Meghiya, what can I say? Do now, Meghiya, what you think it is time to do."

There are a few things we can say about this. Meghiya is obviously very keen to go to this mango grove. It’s the ideal spot to sit and meditate, cool and shady and quiet. What more do you want? And he feels that if he can only get down to meditation under these ideal conditions he will progress on the path very quickly. But he has responsibilities and he can’t just walk away from them, so he must get the Buddha to agree to release him from his responsibilities and let him go to the beautiful mango grove.

The Buddha is very reluctant and at first sight it is hard to see why. He says ‘wait a little Meghiya. I am alone until some other monk arrives.’ This doesn’t sound like a very good reason for holding Meghiya back from his meditation practice. After all why shouldn’t the Buddha be alone. He should be able to cope, he is not an old man and he is not ill. So why does he want to hold Meghiya back? On the face of it, it seems a bit selfish and Meghiya almost says as much. He says “Sir, the Exalted One has nothing further to be done, has nothing more to add to what he has done. But for me, sir, there is more yet to be done, there is more to be added to what I have done. If the exalted one gives me leave, I would go to that mango grove to strive for concentration.” In other words Meghiya is saying – it’s all right for you, you’ve attained enlightenment, you can afford to sit about, but I’ve got a long way to go, I need to get on with it. And the Buddha says in effect – well when you put it like that Meghiya, what can I say – I can’t say meditation is a bad thing – when you talk of striving for concentration, what can I say? Do what you think it is time for Meghiya.

So Meghiya has won the argument. He has got what he wanted and now he can go off to the mango grove and meditate. So why did the Buddha want him to stay? Why did the Buddha not want to be alone? Was he afraid of the dark or what? I suppose it could be that the Buddha didn’t think it was a good idea for Meghiya to go off on his own to meditate. Perhaps he thought Meghiya was not yet ready for that level of practice. Or it could be that the Buddha needed a sort of secretary, to deal with and welcome all the people who might come to visit him. Or he might have been just reminding Meghiya of his responsibility and the fact that he shouldn’t just drop his commitment without having someone to take over from him. Or it might have been a simple question of safety. After all there are wild animals, tigers and so on, on the prowl in the jungles of northern India, so meditating alone could have been a dangerous business.

However it would appear, that apart from straightforward human companionship, what the Buddha needed was someone to communicate his insights and teachings to, so that they could be disseminated for the welfare of the many. The Buddha needed the equivalent of a recording device. This was the function fulfilled by Ananda later. It wasn’t that the Buddha just saw his companions as functional, he was a friend to Meghiya and to Ananda. But part of the reason for having a companion, a large part of the reason it would seem, was so that he could pass on his insights. The Buddha was Enlightened, which means that he was in a state of constant creativity. His mind was constantly creative and also he was supremely compassionate. This means that he had to give expression to his creativity for the benefit of others. Within an oral tradition this meant verbally passing on his teaching and understanding. If the Buddha was without a companion he was in effect denied the means of expressing his creativity and insights and therefore was rendered ineffective to some degree. So that was Meghiya’s responsibility but it would appear that Meghiya didn’t fully appreciate that and was very concerned with his own development, what was best for him and he felt he knew what was best for him, i.e. to go and meditate in that very attractive mango grove.

So off he went to the mango grove, of course, he respectfully saluted the Buddha first. He may not have respected the Buddha’s opinion, but he kept up the formalities of respect anyway. Perhaps he still wanted the Buddha’s approval. It does seem that to some degree Meghiya saw the Buddha as an authority figure whose approval he wanted but who stood between him and what he wanted to do, what he needed to do even. The Buddha stood between Meghiya and his spiritual development as far as Meghiya was concerned. Perhaps there is a lesson for us here. Do we always know what is best for us in spiritual terms? Who do we respect as a spiritual guide? Do we treat them as an authority in the power sense? So perhaps this incident between Meghiya and the Buddha could remind us to reflect on receptivity to spiritual guidance and what it means to us.

Anyway let’s see what happens next. So the text says:
“Then the Venerable Meghiya rose from his seat, prostrated himself before the Lord, and keeping his right side towards him, went to that mango grove. On entering that mango grove he sat down at the foot of a certain tree for the rest period during the middle of the day.
Now while the Venerable Meghiya was staying in that mango grove, there kept occurring to him three bad, unwholesome kinds of thoughts: sensual thought, malevolent thought, and cruel thought. The Venerable Meghiya then reflected: "It is indeed strange! It is indeed remarkable! Although I have gone forth out of faith from home to the homeless state, yet I am overwhelmed by these three bad, unwholesome kinds of thoughts: sensual thought, malevolent thought, and cruel thought."
Then the Venerable Meghiya, on emerging from seclusion in the late afternoon, approached the Lord, prostrated himself, sat down to one side, and said: "Revered sir, while I was staying in that mango grove there kept occurring to me three bad, unwholesome kinds of thoughts... and I thought: 'It is indeed strange!... I am overwhelmed by these three bad, unwholesome kinds of thoughts: sensual thought, malevolent thought, and cruel thought.'"

Poor Meghiya has had a surprise. The beautiful, cool, shady mango grove which was obviously an ideal place in which to meditate was not enough to purify the mind of Meghiya. And so he has spent his time in states of distraction rather than the positive blissful states he hoped for. It is of course to Meghiya’s credit that he doesn’t blame the mango grove for his mental states. He doesn’t say it was too hot or too cold or too shady are not shady enough. He just seems a bit bemused, that even under such ideal conditions, he still isn’t free from the hindrances. It would appear that Meghiya is a bit naive. Perhaps he has heard about the importance of having conditions which are conducive to practice, and he has misunderstood that and placed all his faith in conditions. Conditions are of course of supreme importance but they are simply the context in which we can make an effort. This shrine room provides good conditions for meditation, but that is just the beginning – when we sit here we have to make an effort to work with the hindrances and develop positive mental states. Also there may be other conditions that we need to put into place in our lives, outside the shrine room, before we can make much progress. We will come onto those later.

It would seem that Meghiya didn’t expect to have to make an effort. It would also seem that Meghiya had a wrong idea about meditation anyway. He seems to have been a bit overly goal orientated in his approach. He wanted to have a big experience but meditation is not about big experiences. Meditation, as Bhante puts it, is a continuous flow of positive mental states and when we sit to meditate what is important is the effort we make not the experience we have. We may have an uncomfortable experience but if we are making an effort to overcome the hindrances and transform unskilful mental states into skilful mental states then we are having a good meditation. We may have a very pleasant experience but if we are not making an effort to take things further then it is not a good meditation. A good meditation is one in which we make an effort to change our habitual negative mental states or make an effort to maintain our positive mantal states and use them as a basis for penetrating deeper into the nature of reality.. Effort has to be appropriate and balanced of course. We need to know and acknowledge where we are starting from and be patient and persistent in our efforts to change. Meghiya has not had a very good meditation by any standards, so he goes back to the Buddha, tells him what happened. Now the Buddha doesn’t give him a hard time as we might be tempted to do. The Buddha sees that the time is ripe to give a teaching and what follows is an important Buddhist teaching which we need to return to again and again and reflect on and practice.

The Buddha says:
 "When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, five things lead to its maturity. What five?
"Here, Meghiya, a bhikkhu has good friends, good associates, good companions. When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, this is the first thing that leads to its maturity.
"Furthermore, Meghiya, a bhikkhu is virtuous, he lives restrained by the restraint of the Patimokkha, endowed with conduct and resort; seeing danger in the smallest faults, he trains in the training rules he has accepted. When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, this is the second thing that leads to its maturity.
"Furthermore, Meghiya, a bhikkhu obtains at will, with no trouble or difficulty, talk that is effacing, a help in opening up the mind, and which conduces to complete turning away, dispassion, cessation, peace, direct knowledge, enlightenment, and Nibbana — that is, talk about fewness of wishes, talk about contentment, talk about seclusion, talk about being non-gregarious, talk about putting forth energy, talk about virtue, talk about concentration, talk about wisdom, talk about deliverance, talk about the knowledge and vision of deliverance. When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, this is the third thing that leads to its maturity.
"Furthermore, Meghiya, a bhikkhu lives with energy instigated for the abandoning of unwholesome states and the acquiring of wholesome states; he is vigorous, energetic, and persevering with regard to wholesome states. When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, this is the fourth thing that leads to its maturity.
"Furthermore, Meghiya, a bhikkhu is wise, endowed with the noble ones' penetrative understanding of rise and disappearance leading to the complete ending of suffering. When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, this is the fifth thing that leads to its maturity. When mind-deliverance is as yet immature, Meghiya, these five things lead to its maturity.

So here is another Buddhist list and as I said a very important one. Put succinctly the list is:
1.  spiritual friendship
2.  ethics,
3.  study and discussion,
4.  effort and energy,
5.  insight or wisdom.

This is a progressive list, one thing growing out of another – spiritual friendship leading on to ethics, ethics to discussion and study, discussion and study to effort and energy and effort and energy to insight and wisdom. The first three things on this list are especially important. The real significance of spiritual friendship, the precepts and study of the Dharma is that they provide objectivity outside of our own subjective experience and our subjective interpretation of our experience. We can sometimes give too much credence to our individual experience and even more likely is that we may give too much weight, too much credence to our own interpretation of our experience. This is not a new issue. In the Brahmajala sutta at the beginning of the Pali Canon the Buddha outlines a list of 64 wrong views. A large number of these wrong views are based on the wrong interpretation of meditation experiences. If we give too much credence to our own interpretation of our experience then that interpretation is likely to solidify into a view, even a philosophy of life and we may find ourselves contradicting our teachers and the Buddha. So friendship, the ethical precepts and study of the Dharma provide an objective expression of reality which keeps us anchored in the world of self and other, rather than getting submerged in the world of self. Meghiya knew he was right and knew what he needed and he wanted to do what he wanted to do. And it was not conducive to his spiritual welfare. I have seen this with people who are wealthy – they have the freedom to do what they want, go where they like, buy what they fancy – but this freedom, which is much coveted and highly prized in our society, is not necessarily conducive to spiritual growth, it may even be a hindrance. That is why Christian monastics often take vows of obedience.  Sometimes perhaps often, what we need is not what we want and what we want is not what we need. That is why we cannot rely on our own subjective experience and our own interpretation of our experience – we need friends, guides, guidelines and precepts and the challenge of Dharma study. So let’s look at the Buddha’s teaching to Meghiya, bearing in mind that we are probably closer to Meghiya’s level of understanding and practice that we might like to think. So the Buddha says – “a lovely intimacy, a lovely friendship, a lovely comradeship. When the hearts release is immature this is the first thing that conduces to its maturity”. The term translated as lovely friendship is Kalyana Mittata in Pali Kalyana Mitrata in Sanskrit. In his notes to the translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, Bhikkhu Bodhi tells us that that this term used to be translated as ‘friend of righteousness’ or ‘friend of what is lovely’ or ‘ friend of the good’. He goes on to say “ these renderings all rest on a misunderstanding of the grammatical form of the expression. As an independent substantive, Kalyanamittata means a good friend i.e., a spiritual friend who gives advice , guidance, and encouragement.”

It is very clear then that what the Buddha is saying is that the first condition that conduces to the hearts release is spiritual friendship. The heart is released from the prison cage of its own self obsession by spiritual friendship. The heart is released from the delusion of its own separateness into the Freedom of realising interconnectedness, by engaging in spiritual friendship. To engage in spiritual friendship with those who are more experienced means being receptive and at least reflecting on what they say. Which Meghiya didn’t do initially. To engage in spiritual friendship with peers, those at the same level of experience, means to actively befriend others. As Bhante put it – if you want to have a friend, be a friend. Our tendency is to put ourselves first, to be the centre of the universe. Here is how Paul Durcan the Irish poet puts it:
The Centre of the Universe 
by Paul Durcan
Pushing my trolley about in the supermarket;
I am the centre of the universe;
Up and down the aisles of beans and juices,
I am the centre of the universe;
It does not matter that I live alone;
It does not matter that I am a jilted lover;
It does not matter that I am a misfit in my job;
I am the centre of the universe.
But I’m always here, if you want me -
For I am the centre of the universe.
I enjoy being the centre of the universe.
It is not easy being the centre of the universe
But I enjoy it.
I take pleasure in,
I delight in,
Being the centre of the universe.

By engaging in friendship, by giving thought to someone else, taking an interest in them for their own sake, we shift the emphasis slightly and it’s a first step towards loosening our attachment to our self. The first step toward spiritual friendship is adopting an attitude and practice of generosity towards somebody else. Then we need to listen and take an interest. After that we need to move towards greater openness of communication, a willingness to let go of our defences and reveal our fears and inspirations, our cherished hopes and dreams and our weaknesses and foibles. Gradually in friendship we become more transparent to each other and in that experience of our naked humanity, we can respond with kindness and understanding. Spiritual friendship can be of the nature of an intimate personal friendship or it can be more like a teacher/pupil relationship. In both cases there will of course be warmth of feeling if it is a genuine spiritual friendship, but the relationship between teacher and pupil could be somewhat more distant. For example Sangharakshita sees himself as Kalyana Mitra or spiritual friend to all order members. He has a warmth of feeling for order members and is very concerned for our spiritual welfare, but he doesn’t have close personal relationships with all order members. The spiritual friendship is communicated through his talks, tapes, videos and books and our receptivity manifests in our willingness to run Buddhist centres, set up communities and strive to practice what he teaches us. Sangharakshita is not just a spiritual friend to order members but to all who respond to his presentation of the Buddha’s teachings. And those who respond to order members are indirectly responding to Sangharakshita.

So we have what is known in Triratna as horizontal spiritual friendship between peers and vertical spiritual friendship between those more experienced and those less experienced. When you first come along to the centre there may be particular order members that you admire and respect and as a result you want to emulate them. You’re impressed by their confidence or friendliness their kindness or clarity and feel that you want to develop those qualities or be more like them.

This is how spiritual friendship leads on to ethics, the second thing the Buddha says conduce as to the hearts release. To be in spiritual comradeship, spiritual friendship, necessitates behaving ethically in body, speech and thought or at least trying to or wanting to be ethical. The principles of Metta, generosity, contentment, truthfulness and clarity of mind are the principles that govern the relationships between people for Buddhists. And in spiritual friendship those principles will be even more manifest so that the endeavour to be ethical and the practices of confession, forgiveness and apology will be hallmarks of a true spiritual friendship. So being inspired by spiritual friends we practice ethical behaviour, we follow their example and teaching.

Then later we want to know more. We want to understand what lies behind this ethical behaviour. We want to understand the bigger picture. And that leads us on to the third thing that the Buddha mentions as leading to the hearts release. This is discussion or study or as the text puts it “talk that is serious and suitable for opening up the heart”. For some people it comes as a great relief to be able to engage in discussion around what is meaningful. Your days may be filled with talking but so much of it may be functional or frivolous or cynical, that it comes as a relief and a great satisfaction to be able to engage in talk that is serious, talk that touches on what matters, what is meaningful, talk that brings clarity and inspiration. This is why we have study groups and discussion groups and courses and so on. Just so that people have a chance to talk and go deeper into the question of what life is all about. Of course discussion or study isn’t just about talk. Like spiritual friendship, it is equally, if not more, about listening, about taking in, turning over, reflecting on. It is this that makes discussion or study really meaningful. As we listen and reflect, as we turn things over in our minds, we make them our own, we start to emotionally engage with what was perhaps previously just an idea. And when we engage emotionally we are moved to act, we are moved to make an effort. So this leads us to the fourth thing that the Buddha spoke about as being conducive to the hearts release, namely effort or energy. We need to make an effort all the time if we are to make spiritual progress. The basic effort a Buddhist has to make is the effort to transform negative mental states into positive mental states or in other words to transform unskilful mental states into skilful mental states. The emphasis here should be on transform. It is not a matter of denying the existence of negative mental states. It is not a matter of repressing them. It is not a matter of pretending to be positive. It is a matter of change, of transformation. This means that we have to begin by becoming aware of what mental state we are in. We have to introduce pauses into our lives. Which is where meditation comes in of course. Here is how Bhante puts it in a talk he gave in 1966 on the topic of Nirvana, which is to be found in The Guide to the Buddhist Path:

“We should not try to escape from ourselves. We should begin by accepting ourselves just as we are. We should try to understand, much more deeply than just intellectually, why we are what we are. If we are suffering, accept suffering, and understand why we are suffering. Or, as the case may be, if we are happy, accept the happiness (don’t feel guilty about it), and understand why we are happy. This understanding is not something merely intellectual; it is something which has to go very deep down indeed. For some people this penetration, insight, will come in the course of meditation. Meditation is not just fixing the mind on an object, not just revolving a certain idea in the mind. Meditation involves, among other things, getting down to the bottom of one’s own mind and illuminating one’s mind from the bottom upwards. In other words, it involves exposing one’s motives, the deep-seated causes of one’s mental states, the causes of both one’s joy and one’s sorrow. In this way, in awareness, real growth will take place.”

So we need to become aware of our own mental states and acknowledge them to ourselves, acknowledge rather than justify if it is a negative mental state. Our unskilful mental states will be based in greed or illwill or perhaps more subtly in spiritual ignorance and the natural tendency of all these states and their various variations is to seek to justify themselves. Our anger seems to be justified because of what someone else has said or done. Our greed or craving is justified because it doesn’t do anyone any harm and we’re only enjoying ourselves anyway. And our doubts or indecisiveness seem justified because – well, because they are in our minds. The effort we have to make is to move beyond justifying our unskilful mental states, to just identifying them and acknowledging their existence. But we don’t move into condemning ourselves because that is yet another unskilful mental state. The extremes are self justification at all costs on the one hand and self condemnation on the other. The middle way where we exert our effort is identifying, acknowledging and transforming our mental states. If we are already in a positive mental state then we need to exert our effort to maintain that positivity and prevent negative states arising. In this case it may be that we have to pay careful attention to the input we expose ourselves to. We need to be mindful that what we read, look at, engage in has an effect on us and moderate our input  accordingly. So this effort we need to make is what is traditionally known as the four right efforts – the effort to get rid of and prevent unskilful mental states and to develop and maintain the skilful. The four efforts apply both within meditation practice and outside it. Talking about viriya in terms of effort is perhaps not so attractive, thinking in terms of energy or engagement may be more useful; what we are aiming at is free-flowing energy channelled in a positive direction- engaging with our mental states, being interested in transforming ourselves.

Usually the difficulties we experience in relation to energy are to do with energy being blocked, dammed up inside us, or energy being wasted, dissipated in all directions by distraction. If our energy is not available to us, if it is dammed up within us, blocked, then our task is to loosen it up, release it, allow it to flow more freely. Blocked energy often takes the form of bodily tension and bad posture, so a good way to begin to get energy moving is through physical exercise. – Yoga, Tai Chi, Chi Kung, going to the gym, karate, or dancing. In the past I’ve done both Tai Chi and yoga and both are effective in getting energy flowing. If you are younger it’s worth considering something more strenuous like karate. Physical exercise can help to free up energy. Communication with friends can help too. Honest, open communication; communication which is even a bit fiery at times, can help to get energy aroused and moving. So this is another important aspect of friendship. Energy can be freed up in meditation too. Sometimes people have that experience, it can even be a physical experience that shakes your body. If that is happening a lot, you will need to find ways of working with energy outside the meditation too. So these are some of the ways to unblock energy; physical exercise, communication and meditation. If energy is being wasted which can be the case frequently, especially with anxious, restless types of people, then we need to pay attention to what we are reading, what we are watching on TV and the Internet etc, what we do, what sort of conversations we engage in and even how we spend our money. Because energy is wasted through unmindful distracted activity and speech. And energy is wasted through filling our heads with the avalanche of useless information that is now constantly available to us. To really stop wasting energy – especially for restless types – we need to just slow down – reduce the amount of input, and be more selective about what we are doing and saying – maintaining continuity of purpose. Doing nothing and just sitting with boredom are also practices that may be beneficial to those who are restless. If we are to develop the sort of energy we need to progress on the spiritual path, we need to be able to distinguish between restlessness and anxiety, which looks energetic, but is neurotic and viriya – energy in pursuit of the good which is more mindful and channelled and therefore more effective. If we unblock blocked energies and conserve rather than waste energy, then we will be able to undertake the spiritual life with zest and enthusiasm and engage in the process of refining our energy.

So that was the fourth point the Buddha made to Meghiya – that effort and energy are necessary for the hearts release. The fifth thing which conduces to the hearts release is insight. When we are able to gather our energies together and then focus on the essential, existential questions we can break through into insight. Insight here refers to insight into impermanence. Insight into impermanence is more than just knowing about impermanence. We know that things come to an end, we know that people die and things get broken. That’s not insight. Insight is more than even the experience of impermanence. We can experience people dying. We can experience the ending of relationship. We can experience our computer breaking down. But that is not insight. Insight into impermanence goes beyond knowing that all things are impermanent, it goes beyond our experiences of impermanence. When we experience impermanence at work in our lives and when we acknowledge the impermanent nature of all things to ourselves, there is still a sense in which we don’t fully take it on board. There is still an inability to let this knowledge and experience really permeate our lives fully.

We can carry on thinking that impermanence means that all things come to an end sometime. But it doesn’t mean that. All things are impermanent all the time. It is the nature of things to change and keep on changing all the time, always. There is no non-change. There is no non-impermanence. There is only impermanence always. If we can let this truth really sink into our being, to the very depths, then it transforms our whole view of ourselves and the world. It takes us outside time. It takes away all fear. Fear is fear of change, fear of death. When we know that we are really impermanent, thoroughly impermanent, 100% impermanent and not just in death, but all the time, every moment, every infinititismal fraction of a moment, we are a process physically, emotionally and mentally. Nothing stands still, nothing is fixed. There is nothing to hold onto. There are no moments even. When we know this, when this is constantly before our vision, permeating our vision, then we have a completely different experience of the world; liberated from fear, joyful, completely in unity with the universal flow of energy that is life. This is what is meant in the heart Sutra when it says:

So know that the Bodhisattva
 Holding to nothing whatever,
 But dwelling in Prajna wisdom,
 Is freed of delusive hindrance,
 Rid of the fear bred by it,
And reaches clearest Nirvana.

So that is the culmination of the Buddha’s teaching to Meghiya. It begins with Kalyana Mitrata, lovely intimacy, spiritual friendship and everything else flows from that right down to insight and Nirvana. So this brings us right back to this Centre and this class and it’s purpose. This lovely intimacy or lovely comradeship that the Buddha talks about is the main reason for coming together here on Tuesday evening and the main reason for having a Buddhist centre. If we are developing friendship with others based on our common aspiration, then everything else will follow from that. This is what we have to put our energy into, this is what we have to give attention to, otherwise even our time at the centre could be wasted. So I will leave you with the words of the Buddha as he gives this very important teaching on the stages of the path to Meghiya:

 "It is to be expected of a bhikkhu who has good friends, good associates, good companions, that he will be virtuous, that he will live restrained by the restraint of the Patimokkha, endowed with conduct and resort, and that seeing danger in the smallest faults, he will train in the training rules he has accepted. It is to be expected of a bhikkhu who has good friends... that he will obtain at will, with no trouble or difficulty, talk that is effacing, a help in opening up the mind... talk about the knowledge and vision of deliverance. It is to be expected of a bhikkhu who has good friends... that he will live with energy instigated... vigorous, energetic, and persevering with regard to wholesome states. It is to be expected of a bhikkhu who has good friends... that he will be wise, endowed with the noble ones' penetrative understanding of rise and disappearance leading to the complete ending of suffering.”