Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Getting Out of The Way

This is the sixth and final talk in the series given at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre in the summer of 2016.

In this final talk on the five stages of spiritual life I want to touch on the topics of Dharmic  Receptivity or Dharmic  Responsiveness and Spontaneous Compassionate Activity. Viewed as a path of practice this stage is Dharmic  Responsiveness or Receptivity, viewed as a goal it is Spontaneous Compassionate Activity. Dharmic  Responsiveness is Shraddha – usually translated as faith. Shraddha has the elements of intuition, reason and experience and Dharmic  Responsiveness is in the first instance an intuition – it might simply be the feeling and idea that there must be more to life. The intuition or feeling that there must be more to life than survival, procreation, distraction, old age, sickness and death. At this stage our faith is not faith in anything but when we connect with the Buddha and Dharma and when we begin to practice meditation, ethics, reflection and so on, then our intuition becomes, what Subhuti calls “a harmonic resonance” between the element of Buddhahood in us and the Buddha or as Bhante puts it – “the response of what is highest in us to what is highest in the universe”. This intuition is confirmed by reason and experience as we practice meditation, ethics and contemplation more and more fully.

Traditionally faith (shraddha) is spoken of as having the three aspects of deep conviction, lucidity and longing. Deep conviction or deep faith is the intuitive response to Dharma teachings and a conviction that the teachings are true. I remember that when I first encounter Buddhist teachings, the five precepts and the Metta Bhavana, I had this kind of response; there was the conviction of the truth of what I was hearing, together with a heart response; a deep intuition that I had found what I was looking for, the holy Grail.

Lucidity refers to the clarity that this deep faith brings to your mind. There is no longer confusion and vagueness, but a clearer idea of the goal and the methods for attaining it. Lucidity gives a strong sense of purpose and meaning. The longing aspect of faith refers to the aspiration to fulfil our potential. The aspiration to have the vision of the Dharma unfold in our own being and in our own life. Longing includes the confidence that Enlightenment is possible, not just in theory, but is possible for us. I am a human being and therefore I have the potential to be a Buddha – that is the confidence of shraddha under this aspect of longing.

“What the Buddha overcame, we too can overcome;
what the Buddha attained we too can attain.”

Shraddha is a Dharmic  Responsiveness that is intuition supported by reason and experience. It is deep conviction, clarity and confidence. Above all it is a heart response; it is placing the heart upon our highest aspirations. It is falling in love with the Dharma. It leads us to put our trust in the law of karma and in the whole process of dependent arising – pratitya samutpada. We know that if we create the right conditions, internally and externally, then the results will follow.

If we endeavour to observe the precepts – the spirit as well as the letter; if we meditate; if we take responsibility for our own mental states – not justifying or rationalising unskilfulness as the fault of circumstances or other people; not rejecting our skilful mental states through lack of self-esteem or fear of awareness; if we study the Dharma and try to understand the basic principles involved, rather than getting sidetracked into fruitless arguments and discussions about particular teachings or methods; if we try to simplify our lives and give ourselves fully to the practice of spiritual community; if we take time out to go on retreat; if we perform Puja and ritual, which is an enactment of deep faith lucidity and longing – if we do all of this – we will be setting up the best possible conditions for our own happiness and fulfilment and we can be confident that a process of transformation will take place that will be of benefit to others as well.

This is the nature of Reality. There are natural laws in the realm of physics and chemistry. There are natural laws of biology and botany and there are natural laws of zoology and basic psychology. These natural laws such as gravity, photosynthesis, procreation instincts and other instincts, are known in Buddhism as the niyamas. Niyama means law. These three levels of natural law are known respectively as the niyamas, Utu Niyama, Bija Niyama, and Mano Niyama. But in terms of the spiritual life, the life of awareness and love, there are two further levels of natural law – these are Karma niyama and Dharma niyama.

Karma niyama, the law of action, is the natural Law we rely upon as spiritual practitioners. The law of action – karma niyama – is the natural law which means that skilfulness of action, speech or of thought has beneficial consequences and unskilfulness has negative consequences. If this were not the case then there would be no point in any spiritual practice because the consequences would be random. But because Buddhist ethics is based on a natural law, then we can rely on our practice of skilfulness to bring about beneficial results. This is a key understanding for us. If we understand karma niyama and if we feel we can rely on the natural law of action, then we have a solid foundation for all spiritual practice, we have indeed a solid foundation on which to base our whole life. We can be confident that our generosity or kindness, our meditations and pujas, retreats and study all have a beneficial effect and are modifying and transforming us. Perhaps gradually and imperceptibly but nevertheless inevitably we are being transformed.

In the Anguttara Nikaya there is a section with five reflections for all Buddhists and another section with ten reflections for monks. Some of these reflections are the same for everyone and one of these reflections which is the same for everyone is a reflection on karma. It says: “A woman or man, a householder or one gone forth, should often reflect thus, I am the owner of my karma, the heir of my karma; I have karma is my origin, karma as my relative, karma as my protector; I will be the heir of whatever karma, good or bad, that I do.” Dasadhamma Sutta, AN 10.48.

So this is a reflection or contemplation that the Buddha is recommending to us. You could see it as a meditation practice – you sit down and get as concentrated as possible and then reflect on these five or ten reflections or perhaps just reflect on karma or one of the other reflections. You could reflect by asking yourself what does it mean to be the owner of your karma or the heir of your karma? What does it mean to say that karma is my origin, karma is my relative, karma is my protection? The purpose of reflecting on karma in this way is not to enable you to write a dissertation on karma. The purpose of these reflections is to make your so fully and immediately aware of the law of karma that all your actions of body, speech and mind are thoroughly influenced by that awareness. Awareness of karma niyama becomes the flavour of your mind. The law of action – karma niyama – paves the way for Dharma niyama.

If we really act in accordance with the law of karma, we create conditions which transform us. The nature of that transformation is that we become less and less egotistic, less and less self willed. When we become less self-centred and less self willed, something else begins to happen. Karma is willed action and therefore it needs a degree of self orientation. There has to be a sense of ‘me’ or ‘I’ as the one acting. A sense of ‘me’ or ‘I’ as the agent of all the action and a sense of ‘me’ are ‘I’ who takes responsibility for actions and who receives the consequences. I act and I reap the rewards or suffer the consequences. This sense of ‘I’ and ‘me’ is essential to the working of the law of karma. It is because we have evolved beyond the mano niyama of instinct and have developed self-awareness that it is possible for the law of karma to come into play.

But if we act skilfully in accordance with the law of karma then something happens; if we are persistent and consistent over years something happens, we are transformed and the nature of that transformation is that we transcend self. We don’t stop being self-aware, but we transcend self will. We are no longer motivated only by self advantage, we are no longer motivated by self interest and the whole separation between self and other starts to break down. The division between self and other becomes diluted and begins to fizzle out, to wither away. When that happens the motivation for our actions is no longer a matter of self will, it becomes much more a matter of Spontaneous Compassionate Activity. This Spontaneous Compassionate Activity is Dharma niyama. It can be experienced as if something is working through you, rather than as your own willed action.

Sometimes it is like a call – a call to which you quite easily and naturally respond. We are familiar with the idea of a vocation or calling. We may say that someone’s vocation is to be a doctor or an artist – it is their calling. The word vocation is rooted in the Latin ‘vocare’ meaning to call. If someone has a vocation or calling to be a Christian priest they naturally think of being called by God. In the Bible there are many instances of God calling in this way – to Moses, Abraham, Joshua – those old Testament prophets were very familiar with being called upon to do something and responding. Of course when we speak about a doctor or an artist or musician, their vocation or calling is not usually thought of as being a call from God. Nevertheless it is a calling, it is something different from a decision to take up a particular professional career based on weighing up the prospects for salary and promotion and so on.

We could say the call comes from within. Whether we say a call comes from within or from outside, that is probably just a matter of belief structure or how our imagination works or metaphor and really it doesn’t matter. What matters is that when the call comes we are ready to respond. It is generally acknowledged that a vocation calling is something higher and better than a mere career choice. Those of us who have felt called to the life of spiritual practice know what this is like. We could say it’s the call of a higher self, that aspect of us that longs for a meaningful life and intuitively knows that status and salary are not the best response to the fact of our death.

From the very beginning of our spiritual life we have a sense of what Dharma niyama means; a sense of what it’s like to respond to the call of a higher self, even though it won’t bring  material advantage or fame. And as we continue to practice we may experience to call in many different ways. We might experience a call to honesty – honesty with ourselves and others. We might experience a call to generosity – impulses of generosity rising up. We might experience a call to change our lifestyle, to change priorities. We might experience a call to take responsibility.

So long as we are not fully in the flow of Dharma niyama we will probably experience some discomfort from these calls to go beyond our current familiar self. We may find ourselves resisting the call to go deeper, the call to go further, the call to take the plunge in some way. It is quite natural that we should experience resistance, but if we keep on practising ethics, meditation, and wisdom then gradually the law of karma will ensure that our resistance fades away and eventually when the Dharma niyama predominates there will be no more resistance to the calls of our higher self. We will be our higher self. There will be no resistance to the calls of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas because we will embody what they represent.

This language of vocation and calling might give the impression that only some people, a small few ever hear the call to something higher. I can’t be sure, but I doubt very much that this is the case. I think that what happens is that more or less everyone is aware of the call to something higher. People will interpret this differently and for some it will mean politics, for others social work or charitable activity. For many it will simply get buried beneath the demands of ordinary life. For some there will be a deliberate turning away from the call to something higher because of fear, fear of disappointing others, fear of isolation or just fear of not being good enough. Once when I was Chair of the London Buddhist Centre I met someone who was a member of the House of Lords and also on the board of a large well known international company. He was interested in meditation and spiritual matters and was highly intelligent. He could understand things very quickly and deeply. And having heard something of my life story is said to me that he had not been courageous enough to pursue the sort of life I had lived. I was struck by that – that he highlighted courage as a key factor. I had never considered myself to be courageous, but when I thought about it I could see what he meant. I had knowingly embarked on a path of life that was materially precarious, with no knowledge of where it would lead and all I had to guide me was the call to something higher. From the perspective of any normal rational person concerned with security and material well-being my course of action was either courageous or foolhardy.

In his lecture on Perfect Vision, Bhante talks about all the different ways in which the Path of Vision may arise here he is using the metaphor of seeing where I have been using the metaphor of hearing. A vision or a calling amount to the same thing. He says that the Path of Vision may arise due to personal tragedy, bereavement or loss, or it may be the result of some unexpected mystical experience, or it could be from engaging with the arts – a painting or a piece of music, or the Path of Vision might be the result of deep and prolonged thought or it could happen through meditation or from engagement in some altruistic activity or it might just happen as a result of the whole experience of life as we grow older or it might even emerge in a dream. Bhante goes on to say that this vision is fragile he says: “however it does arise we should be very careful not to lose it, not to forget it. This happens very easily, for as the poet says “the world is too much with us”. We may have an experience so wonderful that we might think we will never forget it. But after a short time, after a few days or weeks, it is no longer there. It is as though it had never been.” Vision and Transformation, p. 21. Many people may hear the call but for some it is soon forgotten, for others it is experienced as a fearful demand, for others it will find an outlet in the arts or altruistic activity or some other vocation.

Even if we hear the call of a higher self and respond to that call by embarking on the path of transformation, the path of spiritual practice, even then we can be drawn away from that path by pulls in other directions. In an early lecture on Stream Entry, Bhante talks about the gravitational pull of the mundane. He imagines Buddhahood as one celestial body or planet and the mundane world of ordinary concerns as another celestial body and they each have their own gravitational pull and these fields of gravity overlap to some degree. When we are on the spiritual path we are in the area where the gravitational pull of mundane ordinary life overlaps with the gravitational pull of the higher life of Buddhahood. So we are being pulled in two directions at the same time. If we stop practising ethics, meditation et cetera we will be pulled back into the mundane, ordinary life, but if we keep going the gravitational pull of the mundane will get weaker and the gravitational pull of the Transcendental, Buddhahood will get stronger. And eventually the pull of the higher life is so strong that we can no longer be pulled backwards and we will no longer feel any resistance to the pull of the spiritual. This is when our whole life becomes a response to the call of Spontaneous Compassionate Activity – we have reached the stage of no more effort.

Dharmic  Responsiveness is not really a practice, apart from the practice of being aware of the Path of Vision, being aware of the call to something, whether that call is the small voice of an impulse to do something generous or a loud call to change the whole direction of your life. Dharmic  Responsiveness needs space. Mozart is reputed to have said “the music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them.” Commenting on this Bhante wrote: “as music is born of silence, and derives it’s significance and therefrom; and as a painting is born of empty space, and derives it’s significance therefrom; so are our lives born of silence, of stillness, of quietude of spirit, and derive their significance, their distinctive flavour and individual quality, therefrom. The deeper and more frequent are those moments of interior silence and stillness the more rich in significance, the more truly meaningful, will our lives be. It is the pauses which make beautiful the music of our lives. It is the empty spaces which give richness and significance to them. And it is stillness which makes them truly useful.” Crossing the Stream, page95.

The pauses and empty spaces are the times when we reflect or meditate or do nothing. They are the opposite of “a life that consists of a frantic a stream of activities” without any time for inward awareness and reflection. So if there is a practice that enables Dharmic  responsiveness it is probably the practice of doing nothing. This could be the practice of just sitting at the end of a meditation or Puja or it could be just a time we put aside each day to do nothing. In his book The Art of Reflection, Ratnaguna recommends this as a preliminary to any reflection. He says: “if we want to learn how to reflect, we first need to learn how to do nothing, because it’s out of the spaciousness of doing nothing that our minds can open out. This spaciousness allows our mind to range freely and unhurriedly around and through whatever it is that we’ve chosen to consider. We need to have a sense of timelessness. I don’t mean that we enter into the infinite, but that we feel that we have all the time in the world, that there is nothing for us to do, that it’s okay to do nothing, to achieve nothing. You might think that you don’t have the time for this, and if that’s the case it might be a good thing to take a look at your life to see if there is anything you can cut out, because having time to do nothing is important. However entering into the timeless realm doesn’t necessarily require a lot of time. We enter the timeless realm when we give up looking for results, when we stop trying to meet targets and deadlines, when we cease to think of time as a commodity. If we’ve only got 10 minutes to spare we can enter into the timeless realm, as long as we don’t try to fill that time up with something useful. Reflection is not useful. To reflect we need to feel free – we need to feel that it’s okay to be totally useless.”p. 36.

In his seminar on the Mangala Sutta, Bhante talks about what we could call Boredom Practice. He says: “if you feel discontented, say if you feel bored, what should you do? Not start trying to fill that emptiness and to remove that boredom: just stop and experience it; but remain with it, remain in the present: at least you’re in the present. If you can remain with it, and stop trying to remove the boredom by filling the void with something or other, then the boredom – the discontent – will slowly dissolve and you’ll feel more at peace with yourself, more at ease.” Auspicious Signs, page 52. So there is Just Sitting Practice, Doing Nothing Practice and Boredom Practice – these are all about leaving space in your life so that you can become receptive, so that you can receive.

But what do we receive? We could say that what we receive is the love of the Buddha – we receive the influence of the Buddha, we receive the grace waves of the Buddha – what is called His Adhisthana – also translated as ‘blessing’. If we are open to the call of the higher life, the call of the Buddha – we are blessed, we receive the blessing of wisdom and compassion. When we do devotional practices such as Puja, we are adopting an attitude of openness and receptivity to the blessings of the Buddha – we are opening our eyes to the vision and our ears to the call of the Buddha. This attitude of openness if it is practised again and again in Puja and Sadhana, gives rise to an openness in our whole life. Our whole life becomes open to responding to the call of Buddhahood, responding to the call of higher values. Puja is a declaration of receptivity and it is also a celebration of Spontaneous Compassionate Activity that arises when we are fully responsive to the call of the Dharma. In the sevenfold Puja we declare our openness and responsiveness when we say:
Saluting them with folded hands
I entreat the Buddhas in all the quarters:
May They make shine the lamp of the Dharma
for those wandering in the suffering of delusion!
With hands folded in reverence
I implore conquerors desiring to enter Nirvana:
May They remain here for endless ages,
So that life in this world does not grow dark.

And in the Transference of Merits and Self Surrender we celebrate Spontaneous Compassionate Activity. In the threefold Puja we express reverence for the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Nine times we express reverence and it is this ability to revere which indicates our openness to something higher. By reciting this again and again with a wholehearted intention to be open to the call of the Buddha, we are training ourselves in Dharmic  Responsiveness, and eventually that will become who and what we are.

We are coming to the end of this series of talks on the five stages of the spiritual life. We could also call them five aspects or five facets of spiritual life. Like a jewel different facets turn to the light at different times, but all are part of the one jewel. Spiritual life is one, it is not really broken up into stages or aspects, because we are one and our spiritual life is simply a way of talking about or describing our response to the existential facts of life. However, just as a river is the same river from source to estuary but changes and widens as it progresses, so we broaden as we progress. Just as a tree grows from seed to sapling, to a huge shady oak or beech, we can grow from a vague intuition and meaning to someone whose spread of awareness and compassion has a positive influence on the lives of many people.

This is what this series of talks has been about and I hope they will be of benefit to others so that more and more of us grow and broaden and become spiritually influential, like the offering of incense in the Puja “whose fragrance pervades the air”. May we all become spiritually mature so that our positive influence “spreads in all directions throughout the world”.

A Buddha Like No Other

This is the fifth talk in the series given in the summer of 2016.

From childhood right up until my early 30s I was something of a shrinking violet. There are probably many complex reasons for this; I wasn’t socialised early in life due to living in a very rural area, I was very shy and I am a natural introvert. And as far back as I can remember I lived with some uneasy fear of the world around me. I was a reflective and observant child and therefore often confused by people, religion, history etc. Whatever the reasons, I was a shrinking violet and that was internalised and became my habitual way of being in the world for at least the first three decades of my life.

I would not characterise myself as a shrinking violet now, perhaps more a sunflower or a hollyhock. Maybe I was never really a shrinking violet, just a sunflower in unfavourable conditions. In the Parable of the Rain Cloud from The White Lotus Sutra the Buddha compares the Dharma to rain, monsoon rain, and he compares people – us – to the plants which grow and flourish as a result of the rain:
“all the various trees,
lofty, medium, low,
each according to its size,
grows and develops
roots, stalks, branches, leaves,
blossoms and fruits in their brilliant colours;
wherever the one rain reaches,
all become fresh and glossy.
According as their bodies, forms
and natures are great or small,
so the enriching rain,
though it is one and the same,
makes each of them flourish.”
“Ever to all beings
I preach the Dharma equally;
as I preach to one person
so I preach to all.
Ever I proclaim the Dharma,
engaged in naught else;
going, coming, sitting, standing,
never am I weary of
pouring it copious on the world,
like the all enriching rain.
On honoured and humbled, high and low,
Law-keepers and law-breakers,
those of perfect character,
and those of imperfect,
orthodox and heterodox,
quick witted and dull-witted,
equally I rain the Dharma- rain
All the flowers, shrubs, bushes and trees grow in their own unique way and similarly all the people hearing and practising the Dharma grow and develop in their own unique way according to their character, temperament, abilities and capacities.

At this stage, the Stage of Spiritual Rebirth, which we are exploring this week, we begin to see what kind of plant we are, what kind of flower or tree we are. We begin to realise at this stage what kind of Buddhist we are and what kind of Buddha and Bodhisattva we are becoming. Bhante Sangharakshita has referred to this stage as the Stage of Transformation, reminding us not to get too attached to any one metaphor. Transformation is symbolised by the flames and the Lotus on the kesa. He says: “this is when the vision that you have seen or experienced starts, as it were, descending and transforming every aspect of your being.” Seminar

We can see that although we are speaking in terms of stages, this is really a process that begins when we first respond to the Dharma and continues until it bears fruit in Insight and Enlightenment. Right from when we first hear and respond to the Dharma we have this experience of being transformed. Earlier in the year we had four mitras speaking on the topic “why I asked for ordination?” And the answer in a nutshell was that the Dharma had transformed them – how they lived their lives and how they thought about their lives had been transformed by their engagement with the Dharma. Like flowers nourished by the rain and opening to the sun their hearts had opened. This is Spiritual Rebirth beginning to happen. Or even earlier, people ask to become mitras because they have experienced the transforming power of the Dharma. As we continue to hear the Dharma, respond to the Dharma, practice the Dharma and be transformed by the Dharma – we become more and more the individual we really are. The protective armour and defensive strategies of our egotism slowly dissolves and the many faces we show the world give way to our true face, the face of the Bodhisattva or Buddha that we are becoming. Qualities begin to shine through, our gifts and abilities are more and more in the service of the Dharma. We are being reborn, shedding the chrysalis of self concern and emerging in all our splendour. As time goes by we become the answer to the request in Bhante’s poem Secret Wings:

Oh cry no more that you are weak
but stir and spread your secret wings
and say “the world is bright, because
we glimpse the starriness of the things”

Soar with your rainbow plumes and reach
that near – far land where all are one
where beauty’s face is aye unveiled
and every star shall be a sun.

Every star shall be a sun – every Buddhist shall be a Buddha. Buddhism has a positive goal, it is not just about the negation of egotism or the absence of greed, hatred and delusion. There is positive content to the Enlightenment experience that manifests in the actions, words, thoughts and imagination of the Buddha mind. As the great 18th century Japanese master Hakuin said: “apart from water, no ice, outside living beings, no Buddhas.”

The ideal of Buddhism can seem abstract, but the Buddha was not an abstraction. We aim to emulate the Buddha, to become Buddhas not to become abstractions. But emulating the Buddha and becoming a Buddha, is not about becoming just like a man who lived in India two and a half thousand years ago. That would be an absurd undertaking. We have to use our awareness to discern and experience what kind of Buddha we can be and we need to develop our imaginal ability, our imaginal power, to get a sense of who the Buddha really was and what being a Buddha really means.

There are a number of traditional practices which help us to awaken our awareness and imagination of the Buddha. The great Indian sage Vasubandhu taught four practices – known as Vasubandhu’s four factors. The last two of these are Recollection of the Buddhas and Contemplation of the Virtues of the Tathagathas. Here is how Bhante describes these practices in his book The Meaning of Conversion in Buddhism: “in Recollecting the Buddhas, one brings to mind the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, who lived in India about 2500 years ago, and the lineage of his great predecessors of which the Buddhist tradition speaks. In particular, one reflects that these Buddhas started their spiritual careers as human beings, with their weaknesses and limitations, just as we do. Just as they managed to transcend all limitations to become enlightened, so can we, if only we make the effort. There are several ways of approaching the fourth practice, the Contemplation of the Virtues of the Tathagathas. One can dwell on the life of an Enlightened One – the spiritual biography of the Buddha or Milarepa for example. One can perform pujas in front of a shrine, or perhaps just sit and look at a Buddha image, really trying to get a feeling for what the image represents. Then again, one can do a visualisation practice in which – to be very brief indeed – one conjures up a vivid mental picture of a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva, an embodiment of an aspect of Enlightenment such as wisdom, compassion, energy or purity.” The practice of Recollection of the Buddha is echoed in our Threefold Puja when we say:
“the Buddha was born as we are born
what the Buddha overcame we too can overcome.
What the Buddha attained, we too can attain.”

Reading a life of the Buddha such as Gautama by Vishvapani, is a good way to get a feeling for the Buddha as a person with a spiritual practice. Going on pilgrimage to the Buddhist holy places in India is another way.

The contemplation of the qualities of Enlightenment is reflected in our study, our longer pujas, our shrines and images, and the Sadhana practices of Order Members. The many and diverse images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas – the archetypal figures such as Amitabha, Avolokiteshvara and Green Tara – all these images produced from the depths of meditation experience can speak to us, speak to our depths, in a way that words and ideas may never do. These images emerged from the meditations of unique people, unique minds, unique experiences and we, in our uniqueness, may respond to some and not to others. There are so many figures, so many colours, and gestures, qualities and associations. There are many many different archetypes of Enlightenment symbolising and emphasising different qualities. They are like the different plants of The Rain Cloud Parable, the different unique individuals we can grow into or, of course, we may become a kind of Buddha as yet unimagined.

All of these different Buddhas and Bodhisattvas symbolise Enlightened or Awakened consciousness in its fullness and they each emphasise particular qualities of the Awakened individual. These figures and their qualities also indicate ways to practice – a path of wisdom, a path of compassion, a path of beauty, a path of energy, a path of generosity, a path of meditation and so on. Spiritual Rebirth manifests in even greater faith – shraddha – unshakeable faith in The Three Jewels, because now, at this stage, one is embodying the three jewels more and more and one is experiencing the fruits of practice – so faith has a very firm basis.

Spiritual Rebirth also manifests in altruistic activity – spontaneous altruistic activity – because there is less ego to get in the way; less worry, fear, anxiety, less self concern, less need for praise, less fear of blame. By this stage positive emotion is more established and present all the time. By this stage integration is manifesting as the unique kind of plant you are. By this stage, the victory over self-centredness is the norm and so altruistic, generous and kindly activity is becoming the natural unpremeditated way to be and behave.

As well as manifesting in great faith and altruism, Spiritual Rebirth also manifests as greater appreciation of beauty and less desire to possess. Possessiveness and pride and fear and status – they all kill beauty. When they decrease, beauty is more present all the time. This is what Bhante has referred to as the Greater Mandala of Aesthetic Appreciation – an attitude towards the world and people that is not wanting to use or own everything, but an attitude that is content with little and appreciates everything.

Spiritual Rebirth is not really something that can be practised – it is the result of practice. However, Spiritual Rebirth cannot really be divorced from Spiritual death or Spiritual Victory. Spiritual death is a way of talking about the deeper understanding and clear vision that brings about transformation in our lives and Spiritual Rebirth is a way of talking about how that transformation unfolds in our lives and manifests in the world. These are two ways of looking at spiritual practice – there is practice as discipline, as a means to bring about growth and development – practice as a path to transformation and there is practice as the expression of transformation, practice as the expression of deeper understanding and clear vision. The practice of ethics can be a discipline or training we undertake in order to enable us to experience higher states of consciousness or ethical practice can be the expression of a higher state of consciousness. The same applies to meditation or devotional ritual or contemplation.

At this Stage of Spiritual Rebirth, the Stage of Transformation, ethical practice will be more natural and spontaneous and engagement in devotional ritual will be an enactment of the nature of Reality. Buddhahood is the highest expression of humanity and to orientate ourselves in the direction of Buddhahood in all our activities is both a practice and an expression of realisation. To ritually orientate ourselves in the direction of Buddhahood through Puja is a necessity for those who aspire to realisation and the natural expression of realisation for those who have been transformed through practice. At this Stage of Spiritual Rebirth, Puja, devotion and even prayer are the practices most likely to engender the attitude and spirit of transcendent consciousness and give a flavour of the Buddha mind. Acting on kind and generous impulses is also a practice that can both lead in the direction of transformation and give a flavour of those higher states of mind.

Many people get a hint of Spiritual Rebirth through developing a connection with an archetypal Buddha or Bodhisattva – through contemplating images of particular Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, chanting their mantras, meditating on their qualities, even talking to them or acting as if you were that particular figure- acting as if you were Tara or Amoghasiddhi and so on – this intense imaginative interaction leads to a relationship with Reality via symbol and image. Imagination is essential to Insight. Imagination is essential to Spiritual Death and Rebirth. As Sangharakshita puts it in his essay Journey to Il Convento: “when one truly perceives an image one perceives it with the whole of oneself, with ones whole being. When one truly perceives an image, therefore, one is transported to the world to which that image belongs and becomes, if only for the time being, an inhabitant of that world. In other words, truly to perceive an image means to become an image, so that when one speaks of the imagination, or the imaginal faculty, what one is really speaking of is image perceiving image. That is to say in perceiving an image what one really perceives is, in a sense, oneself.”  The Priceless Jewel, p.57. Enlightenment is not conceptual, not a rational ideas-based experience. It is much more akin to the experience of being moved and transformed by great art or by the natural world, which speaks to us on deeper levels that involve the whole of us, heart and head, emotions and thoughts, all united in an imaginative identification with the nature of Reality.

In Ratnaguna’s book Great Faith, Great Wisdom (page2) there is a quote from Aaron Hughes which defines imagination, It says : “Imagination is the faculty that experiences and expresses in sensible form that which is essentially inexpressible”. So that is what archetypal Buddhas  and Boddhisattvas are doing. They are expressing through the senses , ‘in sensible form that which is essentially inexpressible’.

Spiritual Rebirth is the arena of imagination and inspiration. Inspired by the Buddha we make an imaginative leap out of our mundane concerns into the great expansive, cosmic, reaches of Reality. It is very important that we allow for inspiration in our lives. We need to become aware of what inspires us and as much as possible stay close to our sources of inspiration. Being inspired motivates us to practice and practice is the training that eventually leads to the imaginative breakthrough we call Insight, or Spiritual death or Spiritual Victory or Vision. That is the transformation which allows the qualities of Awakened consciousness to manifest more and more through our uniqueness.

The great Tibetan yogi Milarepa is a supreme example of the stages of the spiritual path and in his songs we can hear the expression of inspiration, imagination, kindness and compassion and realisation. One of those songs that many of us are familiar with it is the Song of Meeting and Parting. The first verse goes like this:
“in the immense blue sky above
roll on the sun and moon.
Their courses mark the change of time.
Blue sky, I wish you health and fortune,
for I, the-moon-and-sun, am leaving
to visit the four continents for pleasure.”

So here you have the poet Milarepa giving a personality to the sun and moon and that personality expresses Metta towards the blue sky, also perceived as a living being. Milarepa has a close, intimate connection with the natural world and this is where he finds his images. You also have a reminder of impermanence. Bhante says that what is here translated as ‘for pleasure’ might be better rendered as ‘out of sheer bliss’.So the whole verse is an exuberant outpouring of joy, an exulting in the nature of Reality. In the second verse the poet envisages a vulture speaking to a rock – there is again the reminder of impermanence and the expression of Metta is even more detailed, an imaginative identification of the vulture with the rock and it finishes with the refrain –
“inspired by the Dharma
May we soon meet again
in prosperity and boon.”

Milarepa’s song is a hymn to impermanence, symbolising the wisdom aspect of awakening and to Metta, symbolising the compassion aspect of awakening. It is also a hymn to the inspiration derived from the Dharma. The whole song is framed in highly imaginative terms that lift us into a realm of beauty and richness. It seems to me an appropriate way to end this talk on Spiritual Rebirth and as a special treat Arthasiddhi will now sing  Milarepa’s Song of Meeting and Parting to help us all soar into the exalted realms of the yogi Milarepa and his highly imaginative evocation of the nature of Reality.

In the immense blue sky above
Roll on the sun and moon.
Their courses mark the change of time.
Blue sky, I wish you health and fortune,
For I, the moon-and-sun, am leaving
To visit the Four Continents for pleasure.

On the mountain peak is a great rock
Round which circles oft the vulture,
The King of birds.
Their meeting
And their parting mark the change of time.
Dear rock, be well and healthy, for I,
The vulture, now will fly away
Into the vast space for pleasure.
May lightnings never strike you,
May I not be caught by snares.
Inspired by the Dharma,
May we soon meet again,
In prosperity and boon.

Below in the Tsang River,
Swim fish with golden eyes;
Their meeting and their parting
Mark the change of time.
Dear stream, be well and healthy, for I,
The fish am going to the Ganges for diversion.
May irrigators never drain you,
May fishermen ne'er net me
Inspired by the Dharma,
May we soon meet again
In prosperity and boon.

In the fair garden blooms the flower, Halo;
Circling round it is the Persian bee.
Their meeting and their parting,
Mark the change of time.
Dear flower, be well and healthy, for I
Will see the Ganges' blooms for pleasure.
May hail not beat down upon you,
May winds blow me not away.
Inspired by the Dharma,
May we soon meet again
In prosperity and boon.

Circling round the Yogi Milarepa
Are the faithful patrons from Nya Non;
Their meeting and their parting
Mark the change of time.
Be well and healthy, dear patrons, as I
Leave for the far mountains for diversion.
May I, the yogi, make good progress,
And you, my patrons, all live long.
Inspired by the Dharma,
May we soon meet again
In prosperity and boon!

The Victorious One

This is the fourth talk in a series of six given in the summer 2016.

This is the fourth talk in this series of six talks. The first talk was an overview of the Five Stages of Spiritual Life. The second talk explored the topic of integration and the third talk was about positive emotion or skilfulness.

In this talk I will be exploring the topic of Spiritual Death. The phrase “Spiritual Death” is obviously a metaphor. Subhuti has said he doesn’t like to use the word ‘spiritual’, because he teaches a lot in India and there the word ‘spiritual’ can have Hindu connotations. So he speaks of Dharmic  Death instead.

Actually I am not too keen on the word “death”, because although we are speaking metaphorically of a kind of death of egotism, the word death implies something sudden and also the word itself doesn’t have many positive connotations. But what we are talking about here can be very gradual and is highly positive – we are talking about seeing through our delusion of having a fixed and separate self. This seeing through manifests as a movement away from self-centredness to greater and greater selflessness. The wisdom of seeing through our delusion of ego identity manifests as the compassion of selfless activity.

So we could use other metaphors for this process, this vision, as well as the metaphor of death. We could talk about Spiritual Victory for instance. In the Dhammapada the Buddha says: “though one should conquer in battle thousands upon thousands of men, yet he who conquers himself is truly the greatest in battle. It is indeed better to conquer oneself than to conquer other people.” Verse 104. We could talk about  ‘freedom of mind’ (cetovimutti), the term the Buddha uses in the Meghiya Sutta, also translated as ‘the hearts release’. When Bhante talked about Spiritual Death in a seminar back in the 1970s he began by referring to it as the Stage of Vision.

Whichever images or metaphors we use the important thing is to understand what is being expressed and sometimes it’s best that we have a number of expressions to guard against literalism and a descent into jargon, where every little expression of generosity is referred to as a Spiritual Death. What we are talking about here is a victory over all kinds of self-centredness and selfishness and pettiness. We are talking about the death of the delusion that we have some kind of fixed permanent essence, a self, which needs to be defended and nourished. We are talking about a release from the prison of isolation that is egotism. We are talking about a vision of complete selflessness known in the Mahayana as the bodhisattva ideal. Although we are talking about Spiritual Death separate from spiritual rebirth, really there is no separation. When you are released from delusion you are released into a vision. When you let go of selfishness you let go into selflessness. When you are victorious over ignorance you gain the kingdom of wisdom and compassion.

This whole business of “self” is very central to Buddhist thought and practice but it is very easy to become quite abstract and alienated  from concrete experience when we talk about it. It doesn’t have to be complicated or abstract. It is really quite simple. It is innate to our experience to perceive ourselves as separate from the rest of the world. We are ‘subject’, the rest of the world is ‘object’. This is deeply ingrained in us, it is how we have evolved. What the Buddha is telling us is that this is not Reality. In Reality there is no separation into subject and object. Because we have this experience, this perception of ‘me’ or ‘I’ as subject and the rest of the world as object, we also tend to fix both subject and object. We give substance to subject and object, self and other, me and you.

But Buddhist practice shows us quite clearly that everything is impermanent and everything is insubstantial; this includes whatever we think of as ‘me’. Everything about us is changing all the time – body thoughts and emotions – we are change. We are change and everything else is change. Reality is one mass of change, of movement, of energy. Everything is constantly arising and passing away, arising and passing away. Everything is arising because of certain conditions and passing away because of other conditions. All of those conditions are constantly arising and passing away. Reality is a constant interplay of constantly changing conditions arising and passing away. Everything about us is part of this constant interplay of Reality, everything about others is part of this constant interplay of Reality. In Wisdom Beyond Words, Bhante says: “for an illustration of this idea we may turn to the Gandhavyuha  Sutra, in which the Reality of things is compared to the intersecting of beams of light. If you have rays of light of all different colours, flashing in all directions, crossing and criss-crossing, what you find, obviously, is that one beam of light does not obstruct any of the others. They all shine through one another,  they are not lost or merged in one great light – they all maintain what you might call their separate individualities – but they offer no obstruction to the penetration by other individualities. They are all mutually interpenetrating. In Reality things can be perceived neither is being chopped up into mutually exclusive bits, nor as being absorbed into a unity. When we see into Reality we see all things as interfusing and interpenetrating one another. There is both individuality and unity – neither obstructing the other – at the same time”. p. 78. But our attachment to self is part of how we have evolved as self-aware beings and it takes effort and time to go beyond it.

The first step is to just recognise that we do have an attachment to self. It is quite healthy and wise to simply recognise this. If we recognise and acknowledge our attachment to self then we can enter into the game of noticing how that attachment manifests in the world. We can be quite light about noticing.  One of the unfortunate consequences of attachment to self is that it leads to suffering. Because of attachment to self, which the tradition calls ignorance – avidya – we try to avoid what we don’t like and grasp what we like. Aversion and a grasping becomes the constant activity of our whole psycho-physical being. Aversion manifests in illwill, anger, aggression, preferences and hatred and grasping manifests in greed, envy, addiction, obsession and comfort seeking. Because all of this can never be successful there is always an undertow of fear and anxiety.

When we transcend attachment to self, which means attachment to aversion and grasping, then we begin to manifest in the world as a flow of wisdom and compassion, which is expressed as mindfulness, kindness and energy for the good.

The practices which lead us beyond self, which lead us to transcend all self-centredness, can be seen as wisdom practices and compassion practices. In other words we can approach the task of going beyond self via the path of wisdom or via the path of compassion or preferably via both paths. The path of wisdom practice will involve clarifying our views and getting a thorough understanding of teachings such as pratitya samutpada (dependent arising) and the three Lakshanas. As well as understanding the concepts, it means reflecting on and deeply contemplating these teachings.Bhante says somewhere that the ‘spiritual life is an interrogation of Reality’. It may involve going deeply into teachings like the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Sutra. It will include meditations on the six elements, the five Skandhas, the three Lakshanas. Other elements of the way of wisdom are silent retreats and solitary retreats where you can see more clearly the workings of your own mind, the contortions and subtle tricks it delights in; the grasping and aversion in their undiluted state.

In meditation practices such as the Mindfulness of Breathing and Just Sitting, your mind will reveal itself – we sometimes use the phrase “things coming up”. This is an image of something that was hitherto hidden or buried being brought into the light of awareness. This is all part of getting to know ourselves in our fullness and learning to accept ourselves in our wholeness, so that we know what we are trying to transform and transcend. Other meditations such as meditations on six elements, the three Lakshanass, the five Skandhas and the Nidana chain are all about going deeper and challenging our existential assumptions. In his essay on Conditionality, Kulananda talks about the need to challenge all our assumptions. He says: “the principle of conditionality shows the impermanent and insubstantial nature of all phenomena. A consequence of this is that they cannot, of themselves, provide us with any lasting satisfaction. And yet we constantly treat the world as if it were permanent, substantial and ultimately satisfying. Thus deluded, we are wedded to a nexus of suffering. Not recognising the impermanent and insubstantial nature of phenomena, we cycle between the twin poles of attraction and repulsion: endlessly unsatisfied, grabbing onto this, pushing away from that. And so it will go until we replace wrong view with right view, until we cease to behave as if phenomena are permanent, substantial and satisfying and start to behave as if they are impermanent, insubstantial and incapable of providing ultimate satisfaction.” Western Buddhist Review 1, p. 99.

We need to build a strong basis of positive emotion and the context of spiritual friendship before embarking on these practices, because they can be deeply unsettling and disturbing. As Bhante Sangharakshita says in Wisdom Beyond Words: “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.”  P. XX  What applies to studying the Diamond Sutra applies to all of these wisdom practices.

In this path of practice – the way of wisdom – I want to especially highlight the practice of reflection and the practice of retreats. It is important to develop the habit of reflecting; both reflecting on the ideas of the Dharma and reflecting on the events of our own daily lives. We need to study and reflect on the Dharma so that we understand what the Buddha is recommending to us. Fortunately, Bhante Sangharakshita has done a huge amount of work to elucidate, clarify and contextualise the teachings of the Buddha. That doesn’t mean we have nothing to do. We need to listen to Bhante’s talks, read his books and go back and look at his seminars. We need to read and reread and reflect on what we read. I would like to recommend four books in particular – which are a series – they are: Living with Awareness, Living with Kindness, Living Ethically and Living Wisely. If you read and study and reflect on and practice these teachings you will be propelled forward on the spiritual path.

Reflecting on the Dharma gives us a rich array of tools with which to reflect on our own lives. We can reflect on our lives from the perspective of the ethical precepts and the law of karma. We can ask ourselves questions about our observance of individual precepts, we can question our understanding and application of the law of karma. Or we can look at our lives from the perspective of impermanence and the context of the impermanence of life. We can reflect on how egotism manifests in gross and subtle ways in our lives; our fears, our animosities, our greed, grasping after security and so on. Nothing is too trivial for reflection and nothing is too great. If we feel grumpy because it’s raining or somebody has forgotten a meeting, we can reflect on the nature of our grumpiness and on our expectations and look for other perspectives. Or if we are worried about sickness or death, whether our own or somebody else’s, we can reflect on that – what are we really concerned about? Why? Are there are other ways of looking at a situation? What would be a more creative and helpful response? Reflection is an important Buddhist practice, which you can use at any time wherever you are, whatever the situation. Some people find that writing about some topic is the easiest way to reflect and go deeper.

Retreats are a very specific practice and the kind of retreat which I think of as part of the way of wisdom are those where you are alone with your own mind, your own habits and responses. These are silent retreats and solitary retreats. Silent retreats are usually meditation retreats and you gradually move into deeper levels of experience, below or beyond the usual level of everyday consciousness. This can be difficult at times. One may encounter resistances or unpleasant states of mind, but it can also be blissful and Insightful. If you don’t get on so well with formal meditation then solitary retreats are indispensable. On solitary retreat you can create your own program and have as much time as you want for reflection. Whatever you do, the mere fact of being alone and silent, means that you have to experience yourself very directly. This can be uncomfortable; you may experience boredom, fear, craving of all kinds, but if you stay with it you will get beyond these choppy waters of emotional turbulence and enter into more tranquil and creative states of mind. If we can’t get away on retreat, we can introduce shorter periods of doing nothing into our daily life. In his book The Art of Reflection, Ratnaguna suggests this as a practice. He says: “first of all, you have to learn how to do nothing! This is absolutely essential. By doing nothing I don’t mean watching the TV, listening to the radio, or reading a newspaper. I don’t even mean reading a good book, not even a Buddhist one. I mean literally doing nothing. And turn off your mobile phone and computer. Make time to do nothing everyday – perhaps start with 10 minutes a day, then, once you get used to that, extended to 20, 30 minutes, even an hour! Make time or it probably won’t happen. Put it in your diary.” p. XX

So that is something about practices on the path of wisdom that lead us to transcend self. The path of compassion leads us to the same place. And the tradition recommends that we follow both paths, wisdom and compassion, simultaneously. That is a balanced approach which prevents us from falling into lopsided errors.

Practices on the path of compassion will include generosity, Metta, rejoicing, communication, friendship, and Sangha. It will include retreats that involve communication, reflections on teachings like the Bodhisattva Ideal, the Metta Bhavana, Building the Buddhaland, Puja and mantra chanting and taking responsibility within the spiritual community. I mentioned generosity briefly in the last talk on positive emotion. Perhaps we can go into it a bit more here. I think we often relegate the practice of generosity to a fairly low level among practices. This may be because it often gets entwined with fundraising campaigns or requests for volunteers. But really the practice of generosity is much more demanding than that. The practice of generosity is not about giving money to charity or volunteering your services, it is about giving everything, giving your whole life. Now that may sound extreme, but actually most people give their whole lives to something; they may give their lives to the pursuit of wealth or security or the pursuit of power. They may give their lives to the project of raising a family. Some people give their lives to crime or to a political ideology. Some people give their lives to sport or the arts or adventure. Many many people are incredibly wholehearted in the pursuit of their goals. There is a presidential election campaign going on in the United States at the moment and we can see how people – even in their 60s and 70s – give huge amounts of money, time and energy to it. They are giving themselves fully and completely to their pursuit.

The practice of generosity in Buddhism, Dana Paramita – the perfection of giving – is really about giving ourselves wholeheartedly to the Dharma. There may be all kinds of obstacles, our own doubt and indecision, life circumstances and so on, but we carry on nevertheless, we give ourselves wholeheartedly. All the different kinds of giving, whether giving money, possessions, giving time and energy, giving culture, giving education, giving confidence, giving the Dharma – all the different ways of giving are expressions of the giving of ourselves wholeheartedly to the path. This giving could be talked about as Going for Refuge to the three jewels of the Buddha, the Dharma and Sangha.

Going for Refuge is a wholehearted giving of ourselves to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The more wholehearted and generous we are the more we will encounter our egotism and the more we encounter our egotism the more opportunity we will have to directly experience going beyond self. We will see clearly that going beyond self is not an abstract idea it is an experience and a liberating experience. The practice of generosity directly confronts our deeply felt sense of “I”, “me” and “mine”. We encounter our egotism in the form of attachment and resistance. Have you ever had the experience of having a generous impulse but not acting on it? And as time goes by you discover all sorts of reasons why it would not be such a good idea to act? This is resistance born of attachment. Attachment is the tendency to grasp and hold on to something or someone to bolster our sense of security and our sense of self. Nonattachment is the opposite, it is an openhearted letting go of wants and preferences. It is an expansive feeling of equanimity. According to Bhante Sangharakshita “the traditional image for the condition of nonattachment is that of thistledown blown on the wind. One is serene, confident, balanced in oneself. One doesn’t settle on or stick to things, because one is self-contained. One doesn’t feel the need to reach out for something to make one feel better, to make one feel whole and complete. One doesn’t need to be appropriating things or people so as to feel fulfilled.” Know Your Mind, p. 130. So generosity is one of the most important practices on the way of compassion. Generosity has no limits and is an Insight inducing practice.

The other practices I’d like to concentrate on, under the heading of compassion practices, are the practice of communication and the practice of taking responsibility within the spiritual community. Communication is a crucial Buddhist practice in many ways. There are the five kinds of skilful speech outlined by the Buddha. There is the importance of hearing and listening in the teaching of the three wisdoms and there is the practice of Kalyana Mitrata, spiritual friendship, which the Buddha declares to be the whole of the spiritual life in a couple of discourses to be found in the Samyuta Nikaya – the Collection of Connected Discourses of the Buddha.

The five kinds of skilful speech are outlined in the Anguttara Nikaya like this: “Bhikkhus, possessing five factors, speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise. What five? It is spoken at the proper time; what is said is true; it is spoken gently; what is said is beneficial; it is spoken with the mind of lovingkindness. Possessing these five factors, speech is well spoken, not badly spoken; it is blameless and beyond reproach by the wise.” AN, p 816.This is what ethical speech is – it is speaking the truth – which means not exaggerating and not understating, not omitting things that are important. But it is much more than speaking the truth – speaking the truth has to be in the service of Metta, kindness. Our speech needs to be kindly and helpful and we should use speech to create harmony. This use of skilful speech is a very powerful practice; words create worlds.

As the poet William Wordsworth put it: “words are too awful an instrument for good and evil to be trifled with: they hold above all other external powers  a dominion over thoughts.” Essay on Epitaph III, P85. Words hold a dominion over thoughts. When we think of Buddhist ethics, we often say that the state of mind is primary – but here Wordsworth is saying words have a dominion over thoughts – in other words, words can change our state of mind. This is our experience too. If someone praises us we feel good, if someone condemns us we feel bad. There is an interplay between states of mind, words and actions; they all influence each other. So one of the ways of generating positive mental states is to act positively and speak positively and to mix with people who are trying to do the same. And as the Buddha says this means being truthful, kindly, helpful and harmonising in what we say and how we say it. The Buddha also mentions speaking at the right time, the appropriate time, timely speech. It is very hard to give a rule for what timely means. But if we ask the question – is this going to be helpful? Would it cause harmony or disharmony? Is it going to be helpful to the person on the receiving end? Is it going to be helpful to the wider situation? These questions may indicate whether something is timely or appropriate from the standpoint of Buddhist ethics. In the Bhaddali Sutta, Bhaddali asks the Buddha: “venerable sire, what is the cause, what is the reason, why they take action against some Bhikkhu here by repeatedly admonishing him? What is the cause, what is the reason, why they do not take action against some Bhikkhu here by repeatedly admonishing him?” Bhaddali is asking is why are some monks immediately admonished when they commit a transgression and other monks are treated differently and not immediately admonished. The Buddha’s answer, which is quite long amounts to saying that people are very different, with such differing characters and temperaments, that it is not appropriate to say the same thing to everyone, in the same way and at the same time. He says that some people can be told quite quickly if they have done something wrong, but with other people, those who are more defensive, it is best to take it very slowly.

The point is that speech needs to be timely and appropriate, as well as true, kindly, helpful and harmonising. These are the five ways to communicate skilfully. There is another important element to communication and that is listening. Listening is probably the most crucial element of communication – it is where awareness and empathy grow. Without listening there is no dialogue – just competing monologues. On a number of occasions I have mediated between people who are in some kind of conflict and most of those conflicts happened because of people not really listening to each other – interpreting what someone is saying is not the same as actually listening to what they are saying. The only time when the mediation didn’t work was when somebody was unwilling to listen. Listening is also crucial to the whole spiritual endeavour. It is only by listening carefully and repeatedly to those who are more experienced than us that we learn. This is the first stage of wisdom – i.e. sruta mayi prajna. Listening in this case also includes reading and in our case this means especially reading and listening to the works of Sangharakshita.

The whole practice of communication finds fruition in spiritual friendship, especially friendship between someone of greater experience and someone of less experience. This is what we sometimes call vertical spiritual friendship or vertical Kalyana Mitrata – spiritual friendship which involves an element of guidance and exemplification by the more experienced person. Spiritual friendship is one of the practices that is particularly emphasised in Triratna and it is a very beautiful and life enhancing practice. It is recommended by the Buddha in a very wholeheartedly way – in the Mahavagga of the Samyutta Nikaya there are two particularly striking conversations about spiritual friendship– one conversation with Ananda and another conversation with Sariputta. Here is the conversation with Sariputta: “then the venerable Sariputta approached the blessed one and said to him: venerable sire, this is the entire holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. Good, good Sariputta! This is the entire holy life, Sariputta that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a Bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the noble eightfold path.” SN II, p. 1525.

Spiritual friendship is also praised in the Meghiya Sutta where the Buddha says to Meghiya: “Meghiya when the hearts release is immature, five things conduce to its maturity. What five? Here in, Meghiya, a monk has 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.” Woodward trans, 1935.

Spiritual friendship and communication are important at every stage of the path. It progresses from being a practice and an aid to growth to being an expression of Insight – a compassionate activity. Intimate communication is an essential part of the spiritual path for everyone whether beginner or a Buddha. In friendship we can experience a victory over self-centredness. Friendship makes it easier to be other regarding. Friendship forms the experiential basis for expanding Metta – the expansion of Metta is the road to Insight. As Bhante Sangharakshita puts it in Living with Kindness: “forgetting the self as a reference point, no longer asking what any given situation means for you alone, you can go on indefinitely and happily expanding the breadth and depth of your interest and positivity. This is the essence of the spiritual life: to bring about a state in which the whole movement and tendency of our being is expansive, spiralling creatively outwards and upwards.” Page136.

The other area I want to talk about as an element of the way of compassion leading to Insight, is the area of taking responsibility within the spiritual community. There are different aspects to the practice of taking responsibility. Firstly, there is taking responsibility for ourselves. This means taking responsibility for our actions and taking responsibility for our states of mind. It also means taking responsibility for creating and using the conditions which conduce to spiritual progress. Although it is essential that we have guidance and spiritual friends, we must not expect that our spiritual friends do everything for us. We have to act, we have to make our own conditions, we have to examine our own hearts and minds.

The next aspect of taking responsibility is understanding that the spiritual community is not something external to you that you dip into now and then. It can’t be a hobby. It is only a spiritual community for you to the extent that you are part of it. So it’s important to feel yourself as part of the community – not as a customer or passenger or client. This means engaging in whatever way you can, being involved in classes and study groups, helping out in one way or another, listening and responding, learning and sharing. Sometimes I see people very excited and inspired becoming mitras and everyone is uplifted and happy, but then some people just fade away. Without contact there is no community – just the idea of a community. So taking responsibility here means seeing and understanding that your participation is important to the existence of the spiritual community and acting accordingly.

Another aspect of taking responsibility is sharing whatever understanding, inspiration, happiness or perspectives we have gained with other people; that is, with other people who are interested. Taking responsibility is another way of talking about compassionate activity and it is worth noting that there isn’t really any other kind of compassion than active compassion. Buddhist compassion – karuna – is an activity rather than a special feeling or emotion. So practice in the way of compassion is active whereas practice in the way of wisdom is more inclined to be contemplative. We need both the way of wisdom and the way of compassion, contemplation and action.

These are the two broad paths of practice that lead to Spiritual Death and Rebirth and they also give expression to Spiritual Death and Rebirth. So this aspect of spiritual life is called the Stage of Spiritual Death or Spiritual Vision or Bhante has also referred to it as a Stage of Openness and the Stage of Reality. Whatever words we use, whatever images come to mind, the important thing is to have a sense of this expanding consciousness that is less and less concerned with self and with personal preference and personal security and more and more consumed by the activity of compassion. I believe it is better to understand this as a direction and a tendency that is continuously clarifying and strengthening in your life and which over time opens up new perspectives, new vistas of spiritual understanding and new levels of letting go of self concern. These new perspectives, new understanding and vision, manifest in greater clarity, greater commitment and a greater creativity.

 Commitment is a wholehearted engagement with the spiritual path, spiritual practice and spiritual friends because we have seen and experienced enough to know that if we continue it will bear fruit in a meaningful life of wisdom and compassion. Creativity is the expansive, other regarding activity of someone who has some Insight into the nature of Reality. Bhante contrasts it with habit and reactivity which is how we behave when we are still concerned to protect and defend and enhance our ego identity, our sense of a separate, vulnerable and fixed self. Creativity is about breaking the habit of being a particular kind of person. It is about creating yourself afresh. As we become more committed and creative this will manifest in our lifestyle and in our relationship to Dharma practice and to the spiritual community. Our lifestyle will become simpler, less complex and frenetic and more integrated with our deepest values. It will become more an expression of what we truly understand to be meaningful and worthwhile in life. Sometimes this means making quite big changes, perhaps for ethical reasons or simply in order to bring more sanity and tranquillity into our lives. This is not necessarily a painful, disruptive eruption in one’s life; it can be more like growing up and leaving behind the things of childhood, which in this case might be things like status and instant gratification.

As we become more committed and creative we are also likely to find that Dharma practice has much more of the flavour of positive emotion and expansiveness, and is less and less about our problems or emotional upsets. And as that happens we will find ourselves wanting to serve the spiritual community in whatever way we can, by giving ourselves wholeheartedly and supporting the institutions of the spiritual community in all sorts of ways.

When we reach the Stage of Spiritual Death or Spiritual Victory we will naturally want to devote our lives to the service of something greater than ourselves. We will find that we can say the Transference of Merits and Self Surrender at the end of the sevenfold puja and really mean it: “my personality throughout my existences, my possessions and my merit in all three ways I give up without regard to myself. May I become that which maintains all beings so long as all have not attained to peace.”

All Things Great and Small

This is the second talk in a series of six given at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre in the summer of 2016.

Integration is about wholeness and completeness, it’s about bringing together all aspects of our psyche,our life, our values, all aspects of ourselves great and small. Each one of us is like a bunch of different people with conflicting desires, conflicting drives, conflicting behaviour, even pulling in different directions. Spiritual practice can accentuate our experience of this – but it also helps to bring it all together – in awareness. Awareness is the key to integration.

When we embark on the journey of spiritual life we want and need to take all of us on the journey or as much as possible. This means becoming aware of the different pulls, the different desires in us, how we conflict with ourselves. Knowing what is best for us and actually doing what is best for us  is not quite the same thing and doing what we want is not the same as doing what is best. Sometimes we are too weak, or too unintegrated, to fully pursue our highest values, our spiritual goals. So we need to become more aware of ourselves aware of those different tendencies in ourselves, aware of our character and temperament, aware of our habits, and aware of how we have been conditioned by our upbringing, our family, our schooling, and the society around us. When we get to know ourselves, when we know what we’re like, then we know the raw material that we’re working with on the spiritual path. We know what we are trying to transform.

So the question arises how can we become more integrated. I tend to think of integration as broadly covering three areas. These three areas are simply a way of approaching the topic of integration. The three areas are psychological integration, life integration, and spiritual integration. Psychological integration is about knowing yourself, life integration is about being yourself, and spiritual integration is about challenging yourself. So first of all psychological integration.

Psychological integration, as I said, is about knowing yourself – having no secrets from yourself. In order to know yourself you have to look closely at your conditioning. You have to look at how you were conditioned by your family. This can reveal our attitudes to such things as money, sex, religion, career, politics, race, nationality and all sorts of other areas of life. So becoming aware of this conditioning and becoming aware of our attitudes gives us the choice to retain or change our attitudes. These attitudes will have been conditioned not just by our family but also by our education, our religious training, if any, and the whole tone of the society around us and what is accepted as normal and what is rejected. For instance our society is very much a consumer culture and children are trained in consumerism from a very early age. According to the Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood,  “Children ages 2-11 see more than 25,000 advertisements a year on TV alone, a figure that does not include product placement. They are also targeted with advertising on the Internet, cell phones, mp3 players, video games, school buses, and in school.”
This may seem quite normal to us but future generations may view it as a form of child abuse, in the same way that we view the 19th century practice of sending children up chimneys. There are many things which our ancestors took as a matter of course which we find rather strange today In the same way there are many things which we take to be acceptable which other nations or future generations will consider to be ridiculous or appalling. . In some countries this kind of conditioning of children is outlawed. For example in Sweden it is prohibited to advertise to children under 12. In order to become free of our conditioning we need to try to have a bigger perspective on what is considered normal in our families and in our societies. It is possible to be parochial in our attitudes to the times we live in as well as in our attitudes to the place where we live. Scientific and technological advances may have led us into the arrogance of thinking we know and understand more than we actually do. Of course conditioning continues all the time, it is not just something that happens in childhood. We are being conditioned every day, we are conditioning ourselves every day. The shops you visit, the news you hear or read, the attitudes prevalent in society, in our workplaces, on TV, in films – all of this is having a conditioning effect on us and we need to bring awareness to this and try to exercise some choice in our conditioning. I have noticed particularly how people pick up ideas and behaviours from workplaces, which they then assume to be a standard for life.  Of course many workplace norms may be just a bureaucratic over-reaction to particular events and may even have the opposite of the desired effect when applied in a blanket fashion.

As well as exploring and understanding our conditioning, we need to learn about our personality, our temperament. What kind of person are we – are we an extrovert or introvert, do our interests lean more towards the arts or towards the sciences, are we very practical  or are we more of a dreamer, are we decisive or indecisive, are we someone who is only interested in the big picture or are we concerned with the details, do we plan or do we prefer to be very spontaneous and impulsive, are we lazy, are we always busy, are  we an active or a passive person? In Buddhism traditionally there are three types; greed type, hate type and deluded type. We could ask which predominates in us. We could also try to become aware of our habits; our habitual ways of thinking, our habitual ways of seeing the world, our habitual ways of seeing ourselves, our habitual behaviour, our good habits and bad habits. Sangharakshita has said we are essentially a bundle of habits loosely tied together, more often than not bad habits.

We also need to become aware of any inner conflict. Are we being pulled in different directions – e.g. wanting to concentrate on accumulating wealth in order to be happy and secure and at the same time wanting to lead a spiritual life in order to be happy and secure or perhaps less conscious conflicts around the whole area of wanting to make an effort to change and not wanting to make an effort to change. Bhante talks about two aspects of himself that were in conflict in his younger days – the monk and the poet. One part of him wanted to be very disciplined and just meditate and study the Dharma and another side of him wanted to laze about dreaming and writing poetry. I have experienced these kinds of conflict in myself too – an aspect of me that was very strict and disciplinarian and another which was lazy and rebellious. Firstly it is necessary to become aware of these kinds of polarity in ourselves and then that awareness helps to resolve the conflict – usually with some sort of internal compromise that allows for different kinds of expression.

Integration is not about a forcible denial of some aspect of yourself. It’s not about getting rid of aspects of yourself; it is about creating a large field of awareness which can contain or hold all aspects of yourself. It’s about being big. I coined an aphorism some years ago – don’t be good, be big – which perhaps captures some of the spirit of what we are trying to achieve with integration. There is a Zen image which talks about controlling an animal by giving it a large field and similarly we don’t control our minds by restricting them but by allowing them a large field in which to roam. The task of our awareness is to watch, to notice.
The next area of integration is what I have called life integration. This is about integrating the external with the internal. How are our higher values, the values which we hold most dear, lived out in our work lives, in our home lives, as well as in the privacy of our own hearts and minds?
Here's what the Sangiti Sutta says about the practice of spiritual community, for instance:

“ Six things are conducive to communal living. As long as monks both in public and in private show loving kindness to their fellows in acts of body, speech and thought,…. share with their virtuous fellows what ever they receive as a rightful gift, including the contents of their alms bowls, which they do not keep to themselves,… keep consistently, unbroken and unaltered those rules of conduct that are spotless, leading to liberation, praised by the wise, unstained and conducive to concentration, and persist therein with their fellows both in public and in private,… continue in that noble view that leads to liberation, to the utter destruction of suffering, remaining in such awareness with their fellows both in public and in private.” Digha Nikaya 33.

There is this interesting repetition of the phrase "in public and in private" which reinforces the idea that spiritual community is a practice. In this case it is a practice of loving kindness, generosity, ethics and right view.

So this area of life integration is about being the same person in private and in public; the same values, the same behaviour. And it is also about bringing our external life into line with our internal life. For instance we may need to ask ourselves does our work or living situation support our values and suit our character. For example Siddhartha before he became the Buddha lived a life of luxury which he found did not support his aspirations. It is said that he lived in a Palace or a number of palaces, but to him they were like prisons. What are our palaces? What in our lives supports our aspirations? What doesn’t? Many of you will have created personal mandalas at one time or another. You draw a circle on a piece of paper; one side of the circle is what is important to you, the other half is how you spend your time, money and energy, what you put closest to the centre of the circle is what is most important to you on one side and on the other side is what you spend most time and energy and money on. This simple exercise tends to show us if there is a discrepancy between what we aspire to do with our lives and what we are actually doing with our lives. So the question for us then in terms of integration, is how to bring the two closer together. How to integrate the external and internal, how to integrate the public and private, how to integrate our lives at work, at home and at leisure with our values and our temperament. Or to put it more simply how can we be ourselves as well as knowing ourselves? We could also talk about this kind of integration in terms of taking the iniative to create the conditions which will be most conducive to making spiritual progress, most supportive of living a spiritual life.

 The third area of integration is what I’ve called spiritual integration. Spiritual integration is about integrating around spiritual ideals, spiritual practices and spiritual qualities. We sometimes speak of spiritual integration in terms of putting something at the centre of your life and arranging or aligning everything else in your life in relation to what is central. Going for Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha means having the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha at the centre of our lives and everything else is arranged in relation to those ideals. So your ethical practice, meditation, study, going on retreat, spiritual friendship etc would become the priorities and other things would be more or less important depending on whether they supported the central ideals and practices. This is challenging. It might mean going on retreat instead of on holiday. Or studying or attending a study group instead of going to the cinema, or spending time with friends instead of with a partner, or meditating rather than watching the TV or surfing the Internet.

We also speak of spiritual integration in terms of commitment. Making a commitment can be very challenging for some people. It can be seen or sensed as a restriction of freedom. Making a commitment is basically about making a choice, making a decision. It’s about deciding to do one thing rather than something else, it’s about choosing one direction rather than another. As the poet Robert Frost says: “two roads diverged in the wood and I – I took the one less travelled by, and that has made all the difference.” The spiritual path is the road less travelled, the path less trodden. Although commitment can be conceived of as a restriction of freedom – in practice it is the opposite. Let’s take a very mundane example – you want to buy a new pair of shoes, you need new shoes. Now you can go online and spend several hours researching to find just what you want. Then you could visit several shoe shops and department stores and in each place you could try on several shoes. There is no restriction on your freedom here – and you could keep on expanding your choices for a long time. But when you decide, choose a pair of shoes and pay your money then you have restricted yourself, you have chosen, you have made a commitment. But although you have restricted the freedom to keep on looking, to keep on expanding your choices, you have created another freedom for yourself. Firstly you have freed up all the time and energy you were wasting on endless indecision and secondly, you now have the freedom to wear the new shoes – which was the whole point in the first place.

In our world you could also keep your spiritual options open indefinitely. There are different religions to choose from. When you have settled for one of these – there are many different varieties within each religion. In Buddhism you have Hinayana, Mahayana, Vajrayana,. You have Theravada, Tibetan, Zen, Pure Land and so on. Within Theravada you have Sri Lankan, Burmese, Thai. Within Tibetan there are Gelug, Nyingma , etc. Within Zen there are Soto and Rinzai. And of course there are new Western variations on these and many different teachers to follow; Ole Nydale, Pema Chodron, Joseph Goldstein, Daniel Ingrams, Sharon Salzburg, Rob Burbea and many many more. Just as with shoes, you could keep on expanding your choices, visiting places, trying out new things. We all have that freedom. It is really the freedom to waste our time and run around in circles. Making a commitment liberates us from that dubious freedom and sets us on the path of spiritual integration.

When you decide, when you commit, your time and energy is freed up to actually practice wholeheartedly (to wear the shoes), you can now give your time and energy more fully to the practices which give rise to the qualities which will lead in the direction of the ideal.

In our case in Triratna these practices are ethics – the Five or Ten Precepts, meditation – mindfulness of breathing, the Metta Bhavana and just sitting, study – Bhante’s elucidation of the Dharma, reflection, friendship and Sangha, ritual and devotion, retreats – both collective and solitary.

In his exposition of the first three fetters – the fetters which hold us back from stream entry, from entering fully and wholeheartedly into the stream of the Dharma, the stream of spiritual vision and spiritual Awakening, Bhante Sangharakshita talks about clarity and commitment as the antidote to indecision and superficiality. Clarity is what helps us to decide what direction we want to travel in, commitment is actually undertaking the journey. As Bhante says: “Growth and development is often a painful process – even though it is enjoyable! Therefore we tend to shrink back. We tend not to commit ourselves. We keep our options open, as we say. We keep a number of different interests, or a number of different aims, on which we can fall back, and we allow ourselves to oscillate between them: even drift between them.” Taste of Freedom, p. 32.

Spiritual integration is about challenging yourself to make a choice and following through on that choice with commitment. You have to ask yourself; “Am I serious about this – do I really mean it? If so – what holds me back? Why do I hold back? That leads to an exploration of fears, resistances and conditions and a growing awareness of the way forward.

I’ve talked about integration in terms of psychological integration – knowing yourself, life integration – being yourself and spiritual integration – challenging yourself.

How do we go about becoming more integrated? Well as I said at the outset awareness is key. Sometimes we equate the practice of the mindfulness of breathing meditation with integration but that is just part of the practice. The mindfulness of breathing is an important practice in the process of becoming integrated, but it is not the only practice and probably not enough on its own. We need to work on integrating ourselves all the time. It can be like a game we play – a game of noticing, a game of awareness – a kind of “I spy with my little eye game”. We need to notice our responses to situations, and to people and reflect on them, ask ourselves questions. We need to notice when we blame people, situations and events for our state of mind. We can ask ourselves – what if I didn’t blame? How does blaming feel? What purpose is served by blaming? And so on. We can notice when we are complaining – we can ask is it habitual? We can notice when we are content – and ask ourselves – what gives rise to contentment, happiness? We can notice our energy and aliveness. We can notice what our preferences are – what we like and what we don’t like. We can notice what really interests us and where our energy goes. We can notice what moves us. We can try to be aware of how our conditioning is at work in our lives all the time – in our responses, in our likes and dislikes, in what we approve of and don’t approve of, and so on. We can also bring awareness to our body, because body and mind are not divorced and our body carries our conditioning too.

And in all cases – positive or negative – we can ask ourselves – what gives rise to do this? In dependence on what conditions is this arisen? When we have clarity about the conditions that give rise to contentment, energy, aliveness, creativity etc, we can put energy into creating those conditions or strengthening those conditions in our lives. There are conditions for a healthy happy mind and there are conditions for a healthy happy body. Proper food, exercise and rest is good for your body. By noticing and being aware you will discover what conditions affect your mind most – what gives rise to happiness and contentment and what gives rise to grumpiness, blaming and complaining. There are external conditions that you can try to be objective about – for instance which is better for me – Facebook or fresh air, the Internet or exercise?

Integration is about knowing yourself, being yourself and challenging yourself. The two key practices I would like to highlight as the most effective practices for becoming more integrated and whole are friendship and going on retreat. They can of course be combined – go on retreat with friends.

Integration is not a solitary affair. We need other people to help and encourage us and they need us. We can get to know ourselves via our friends. We need to be open to how they see us – especially the positive qualities they see in us. If we have people we can confide in, confess to and be open with – it will be an enormous help to us. Friendship can free people from the burden of secrets and shame and provide a context of warmth and understanding which we all need as a basis for progress on the spiritual path. I have often encountered people who experience a lot of guilt and shame but usually it is not a shame that is of any spiritual value. We need only be ashamed of unskilfulness.

Some people blush a lot and feel embarrassed easily – but often this is just a matter of early conditioning and has no spiritual significance or importance. I was like that when I first came to Triratna. I used to even get embarrassed on behalf of other people. My friend Atula told me once that I’d have to follow the path of embarrassment. In other words, not allow a response of embarrassment to get in the way of communication and friendship. It’s the same with fear or insecurity or feeling inadequate – don’t let them get in the way of friendship. Friendship is crucial to spiritual life, and communication and listening are crucial to friendship. You develop a friendship by being a friend to others: think of others, listen to them, try to see their point of view, stand in their are shoes, be helpful, be encouraging, take an interest in people. Friendship is a mirror, a mutual mirror, in which you can see both sameness and uniqueness.

Going on retreat is important because it is in retreat conditions that we go deeper and become more aware. We become more aware of ourselves at deeper levels while on retreat and this greater self knowledge enables more integration to happen. Going on retreat is really an indispensable practice for anyone who is serious about making progress on the spiritual path. For the first four or five years it is most important to go on retreat with others to build friendships and share experiences. This kind of mutual support is the foundation of spiritual community. Later we can add to this by going on more silent and meditative retreats and eventually some solitary retreat time will be very helpful. Of all these kinds of retreat the most important are the retreats where we build friendships and are mutually supportive with our peers – whatever level we perceive ourselves to be at.

If we practise consistently and persistently our awareness will grow and we will gradually become more and more integrated and whole. Then, integration will naturally give rise to positive emotion and skilful action and that is what I will look at in the next talk.