Friday, 23 January 2015

The Four Sights

This talk was given at the launch of a new Sangha night in Cambridge Buddhist Centre on Jan 20th 2015

The Four Sights come from a story in the Buddhacharita a long poem by Asvaghosha from the second century of the common era. In the Pali Canon the story appears in a sutta but there it is a story told by Gotama about a previous Buddha. That is the DN 14 Mahapadana Sutta. So this story is not meant to be taken literally. Indeed in the Buddhacharita it says explicitly that the Four Sights were put in front of Siddhartha by the gods and others couldn’t see them at all.

This is a story and stories are important – they are an aid to memory and they have an emotional impact that a bunch of concepts or ideas may not have. The danger with stories is that people too often take what is symbolic as literal. History and indeed current affairs show that people are willing to die and kill to uphold literal interpretations of their religious and national stories. But nevertheless stories and storytelling are of fundamental importance to humanity. The current edition of Urthona is all about storytelling. In the editorial Philip Pullman is quoted as saying “after nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world”. Ratnagarbha the editor adds “stories are the primary way in which the imagination orientates the sum total of our available psychic energy towards one goal or another. The motifs of myths and stories are found to have great significance for the difficult task of forging an individual destiny in relationship with the deepest dimensions of consciousness”.

So here is the story of the Four Sights. Siddhartha is a prince. His father Suddhodana is the king or Chieftain. At the birth of Siddhartha a prediction is made that he will be either a great King or a great holy man. His father naturally wants him to follow in the family business and become a great King. Siddhartha leads a very sheltered and privileged life. There is a palace for the winter, a summer Palace and so on and he’s always surrounded by entertainments and diversions of one kind or another; dancing girls, music the best of food, clothing, everything. But he gets bored and has a vague feeling of unease. He wants to go out and see the world. He persuades his charioteer Chanda to take him out into the city. King Suddhodana hears about this and makes sure that everything is tidied up and that the people line up and cheer dutifully when Siddhartha goes out into the city – just like any royalty going for a walk among the crowds. However the gods put an old man in the path of the Prince – Bent, decrepit, leaning on a stick – an archetypal old man. The Prince is shocked – he has never seen anything like this before – he asks Chanda the charioteer, his chauffeur, what has happened to the man – Chanda explains – old age is ubiquitous. And Prince Siddhartha realises that he too will grow old. The same thing happens on subsequent occasions with a sick person and a corpse. So Siddhartha becomes suddenly hyper-aware of old age, sickness and death and all the entertainments and fun and games lose their appeal for him. On a fourth trip out he sees a wandering mendicant, a holy man and the tranquillity and contentment of this man make a huge impression on him. Not long after he resolves to leave the palace and go off on a quest to discover the meaning of life and what can be done to alleviate the suffering of old age sickness and death.

There are many more embellishments on the story and some people have, for instance, criticised Siddhartha for leaving his wife and child and heading off on his quest – pure selfishness they say and others have tried to justify his decision saying he did it out of compassion for humanity. However, as I said, it is unlikely it ever happened literally as the story/legend has it so these arguments are beside the point. They fail to understand the symbolism of the story.
In the Pali Canon the Buddha says simply: “before my Enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, I thought: house life is crowded and dusty; life gone forth is wide open. It is not easy, living in a household, to lead a holy life as utterly perfect and pure as a polished shell. Suppose I shaved off my hair and beard, put on the yellow cloth, and went forth from the house life into homelessness?“
”Later, 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.” (Majjhima Nikaya, 26)

The point here is that the story is not important as a piece of biography or history – but it is very important. It is important because it has spiritual significance for all human beings. It’s about the impetus to undertake the only work that is truly worthy of human consciousness. The work of becoming more aware. In a similar way the Christian story of the virgin birth, the flight into Egypt, death and resurrection and so on, has spiritual significance if one understands the symbolism. Taking stories like these literally only feeds fanaticism and religious fanaticism of whatever variety is a noxious poison.

The first three sights obviously represent Dukkha, the unsatisfactoriness of the existential situation. The fourth sight represents the antidote to this unsatisfactoriness. Two of the sights represent something inevitable – sickness and death and the other two are not inevitable – not everyone reaches old age and to embark on a spiritual journey is a choice that only relatively few make. The story of Siddhartha is telling us that power is not a source of security, great wealth is not a source of security, having children is not a source of security as Siddhartha’s parents discover, pleading with the gods is not a source of security. None of these save us from the unsatisfactoriness of sickness and death in fact they all make the facts of sickness and death more monstrous and unbearable – because there is so much to lose.

Old age, sickness and death represent Dukkha – they are symbols for Dukkha – graphic physical events and images that everyone can relate to. But we mustn’t be too literal minded about it. It is not that Dukkha equals old age, sickness and death. They represent the unsatisfactoriness of life. Impermanence, nothing lasts – you don’t last, health doesn’t last, life doesn’t last. But even that is not Dukkha – what makes it unsatisfactory, what makes it painful, what makes it Dukkha is that we don’t want it to happen. We don’t want impermanence, we don’t want ageing, illness and death. We don’t want insecurity. We want things to turn out well and to stay that way. Often we want what we want and not what we get. And that is Dukkha.

But perhaps the most important of the Four Sights is the fourth one – the wandering mendicant. What does he symbolise? What is the universal significance of this is an image? The wandering mendicant represents the fact that there is an alternative to the life of unsatisfactoriness, an alternative to Dukkha.

We become aware of our suffering – whether as suffering of loss or insecurity, or the suffering of lack of meaning or just some vague unease with the life around us and the life we live. That uneasiness, that suffering, that niggling lack of something can motivate us to go in search of something better. That was certainly what happened in my own case – I felt the dissatisfaction,  the unease, the Dukkha, but I had no idea of an alternative – nevertheless, I felt an imperative to look for an alternative – I felt as if I had no choice, life seemed absurd to me and I had to find a meaning to it all or I couldn’t see how I could carry on. Not everyone is as extreme as I was a young man – but the principle is there – suffering, unease, lack of meaning, loss, insecurity – something like this can be what motivates us to search for truth and beauty, this is one reason why we should not always try to alleviate the existential suffering of others or ourselves too quickly. We can as Rilke puts it ‘squander our pain’. Our uneasiness might simply be a feeling of there has to be more.

BUT THERE HAS TO BE MORE - arseny tarkovsky
Now summer is gone
And might never have been.
In the sunshine it's warm.
But there has to be more.

It all came to pass,
All fell into my hands
Like a five-petalled leaf,
But there has to be more.

Nothing evil was lost,
Nothing good was in vain,
All ablaze with clear light
But there has to be more.

Life gathered me up
Safe under its wing,
My luck always held,
But there has to be more.

Not a leaf was burnt up
Not a twig ever snapped...
Clean as glass is the day,
But there has to be more.
Not everyone is motivated by Dukkha in this way – some people are motivated by a vision of truth or beauty or goodness, a vision of a better world. And even if we are given a kick start by Dukkha, for most of us it will be necessary at some point to have something to inspire us, to lead us forward. Backing away from suffering can take us so far but eventually we need a sight of an alternative. The Four Sights work together – the awareness of suffering represented by the first three sights and the inspirational vision represented by the fourth sight together provide the impetus and energy to keep us on the spiritual path.

The awareness of Dukkha is relatively straightforward, at least in its grosser manifestations. Perhaps the Dukkha of attachment to a fixed self identity and the Dukkha of maintaining a sense of ego separateness is less easy to see and experience, but the Dukkha of loss and insecurity is quite palpable for anyone who pauses to think and feel.

Inspiration, vision and the faith to pursue a spiritual life is perhaps less straightforward, less obvious. When I say a spiritual life – what I mean is a life dedicated primarily to the growth and development of consciousness, beyond craving, beyond hatred, beyond ignorance, beyond fear. It’s about consciously evolving a consciousness that requires no security, and that expands into a flowering of compassion. And this means going beyond attachment to self – a fixed and separate self identity. To do this we need to be inspired by the vision of a higher life, a higher self even. Or to change metaphors – a vision of a more expansive self and more expansive life.

What inspires us? What inspires you? It may well be that there are as many inspirations as there are people – inspired people that is. Different things inspire different people and different things inspire us at different times in our life and at different stages in our development. I was inspired by the idea, the vision of a new society.

Quote from Buddhism For Today page 129. “The experience of a retreat is a taste of a whole new way of life lived in the midst of a whole new society, and economic and social network built up in order to provide the best possible conditions for human growth. The creation of a new society is the purpose of Triratna. It is unlikely that in any part of the world such a society could ever become coextensive with society as a whole. However a number of such ideal societies – in – miniature existing in the midst of the wider social context can help those who are in contact with them to grow as human beings and can provide a model for others. The work which order members and others undertake to bring about these ideal conditions is, it might be said, the political aspect of Triratna. The foundation and dissemination of the social environment in which many people are free to develop is, in the last analysis, the only solution to the problems of the crisis laden world. To work at one’s own development and to seek to help others by creating the institutions and conditions in which as many people as possible can grow is the social and political platform of Triratna.”

This was something I had already been inspired by before I came across Buddhism or Triratna – but in Triratna I found it articulated and more importantly practised in a way that I hadn’t encountered before. I lived in Berlin in the early 80s. At that time Berlin had lots of alternative communities and communes and I was very much involved with that, but I could also see that people were very individualistic and had all sorts of different motivations and that tended to hold back projects. The difference I noticed in Triratna was the overarching idea of spiritual growth and development. This made all the difference and meant that in spite of individualism and all kinds of cantankerousness , there was continuity and because individuals were developing, the projects they were working in could also develop and grow. I feel fortunate that I came to Triratna at a time when we were still in the first flush of excitement in building up residential communities and team-based right livelihood businesses or co-op’s as we called them then. I was idealistic and energetic and there was plenty for me to throw myself into and the Movement needed me. By the way, we often talked about the Movement then and I like that term. We are a Movement, a Movement of idealistic energy endeavouring to create ourselves anew and create a new world.

Our Movement, the Triratna community, needs a new generation of people who are willing and able to wholeheartedly throw themselves into building new Co-op’s, new team-based right livelihood businesses, new residential communities of all kinds and new Dharma centres. Our movement needs people who can take initiative, make mistakes, fall over, pick themselves up and learn and laugh and enjoy the adventure of a life lived on the edge without a safety harness. Our movement needs people who are willing to take risks for the sake of their own growth and development and for the sake of trying to create and model a better way of living, a better world. I deliberately don’t say young people, because I know now that is not just young people who can be idealistic and energetic and take risks. In fact sometimes those with more experience are more capable of taking those risks and initiatives. So that’s one kind of inspiration – being inspired to create a better world – that is a compassionate vision.

Other people may be inspired more by the pursuit of truth – a vision of wisdom. They may be led to study and meditate deeply. They may sacrifice wealth or other kinds of security in the pursuit of knowledge and deeper realisations. I am reminded here of William Herschel and his sister Caroline. William Herschel was a musician from a family of musicians but in his 30s he developed a keen interest in astronomy. And to quote Richard Holmes, “their passion for observational astronomy came absolutely to rule both their lives. At its height, in the 1780s, brother and sister spent night after night, month after month, summer and especially winter, alone but together in the open air, under a changing canopy of stars and planets. Their minutely recorded telescope observations, published in over 100 papers by the Royal Society, would have changed not only the public conception of the solar system, but of the whole Milky Way Galaxy and the structure and meaning of the universe itself.” (The Age of Wonder) That is the kind of passion and energy that is required in the pursuit of wisdom – not an easy path. Some people are inspired by this single-minded pursuit of knowledge and wisdom – the thirst to know the truth about the universe and the nature of reality. Triratna needs people like this to.
Then there are those whose inspiration lies in the pursuit of beauty. Those with an artistic bent – poets, painters, composers, meditators may want to capture the beauty of reality, the ecstasy of higher states of consciousness. The famous example from the Pali Canon is Nanda who was reputed to be living the holy life for the sake of going to a heaven where he would be with five hundred dove-footed nymphs. That was his motivation but he did become Enlightened.
Bhante has talked about the arts as a path to higher states of consciousness. He said “the spiritual aspirant is like Shelley’s Skylark: while his understanding soars, his emotions sing. It is in this singing and soaring, in the simultaneous expansion of the understanding and emotions, that we find the meaning of Buddhism and the value of art, and, in fact the secret of spiritual life.”(Peace is a Fire, page 55)

In our Movement we also need artists and we need to educate ourselves in the arts. This is an aspect of the Centre that needs to be developed I think.

We are often motivated to seek a spiritual path and to take up spiritual practice because of suffering. As Bhante puts it “if one is unhappy, one wants to know the reason why. But it never occurs to one to ask why one is happy. It is therefore unhappiness, rather than happiness, that causes us to reflect upon our condition. It is unhappiness that makes us think.” (Peace Is a Fire,page 24)

And having thought, and searched we find a path of practice that works and we are inspired to practise. We are inspired by other people – those a little further along the path – who embody to some degree the fruits of practice. This leads us into communication and friendship, which provides further inspiration. The spiritual community is a source of inspiration, mutual inspiration. I was talking to Subhadramati recently and she asked me what inspires me – I said “the Order inspires me, Order Members inspire me –“ I said “you inspire me Subhadramati, I remember you as a newcomer and now I see you as a Mitra convener, author of a book on ethics, private preceptor, ordaining people who look to you for spiritual guidance” what a journey of growth that inspires. And not just Subhadramati, many many others, So many people whose lives have been transformed by the Dharma and by the Triratna community – people blossoming and flowering with an array of beautiful positive qualities. That is very inspiring. May we continue to inspire each other!

We are inspired by the Sangha – another fourth sight and we are inspired by the Dharma. When we encounter the Dharma we enter a palace of many rooms, all connected and each new room opening out to larger vistas, new perspectives. The Dharma enlarges our view of life, it sheds light on areas of unclarity, it elevates us and gives us a bigger perspective on who we are and why we are alive. The Dharma is very inspiring, even awe-inspiring – with its inexhaustible treasures to be discovered by study, by meditation and reflection and by discussion and exploration. The Dharma consists of teachings and those teachings are a reflection of reality. We can come to know the Dharma, we can come to embody the Dharma, we can come to be the Dharma. That is inspiring and the Dharma is another fourth sight.

It was the teaching of the five precepts that first converted me to Buddhism – I found those precepts so attractive. And over the years I have focused on the ten precepts as my main practice. Another teaching I always find moving and beautiful is the parable of the rain cloud from the White Lotus Sutra. I’m sure you all have your favourite teachings that inspire and delight. In the Pali Canon many of the Suttas end by saying that those hearing the teaching were satisfied and delighted; aroused, satisfied and delighted – in other words they were inspired.

We can be inspired by the Dharma, inspired by others in the Sangha, inspired by beauty, inspired by wisdom, inspired by compassion and the building of a better world. We can be inspired in many ways – perhaps as many as there are people. Overall we are inspired by a vision of the higher life – a vision of ourselves transformed into an embodiment of wisdom and compassion. We are inspired by a vision of the whole of humanity fulfilling its potential by being transformed – a vision of humanity without greed and hatred, filled with love and generosity. A vision of a world in which people embody lovingkindness. This is a vision of curing the world’s sickness by treating the causes rather than the symptoms.

Every journey begins with a first step and when we respond to the call of this vision – when inspiration lights us up – our first step is to work on ourselves – to know ourselves, to honestly and with kindness acknowledge our faults and our strengths, our needs and our gifts.

Firstly we need to take responsibility for our own minds, for all our mental states good and bad, greedy and generous, happy and sad, angry and kind, confident and fearful. Then secondly we need to work with honesty to cultivate better mental states and dissolve our egotism – this is where ethics, meditation, Puja, study, friendships and reflection come in. Thirdly, we need to create the best possible conditions for our own spiritual development, by being in communication and cooperation with the Sangha and befriending others. Fourthly – we need to stay in touch with our sources of inspiration and have faith that a life well lived is a powerful influence for good in the world and being part of the spiritual community makes it an even stronger influence for good.

So this is what it means to respond to the Four Sights and especially to the fourth sight.

As Bhante puts it in his lecture Breaking Through Into Buddhahood – “Buddhism has to transform every aspect of our lives and be not just something that we theoretically understand, not just a little hobby with which we occupy ourselves once twice a week, but the transforming agent, the transforming influence – the catalyst, if you like, of our lives.”

Responding to the Four Sights means going forth from attachment to worldly success and security and putting faith and confidence in spiritual potential, spiritual practice and spiritual community. 

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