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.

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