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”.