Wednesday, 27 July 2016

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!

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