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.”