This talk was given at the Cambridge Buddhist Centre on Buddha Day 2017
Today is about celebrating the Buddha’s Enlightenment. It’s about celebrating the actual Enlightenment or Awakening of Siddhartha Gotama and the possibility of Awakening that that opens up for all of us and for all humanity. Because this man – Siddhartha Gotama – awoke to the true nature of reality – because of his Realisation, his discovery of the path to Awakening – that Awakening is a possibility for all human beings. It is the hidden, unrealised potential of all. Because one human being was able to perfect wisdom and compassion that shows that human beings have the potential to perfect wisdom and compassion. The Buddha is both an historical person, a man who experienced a deep spiritual Awakening and also a symbol of that deep spiritual Awakening for all of us.
We can come into relationship with Enlightenment, Awakening, Nirvana, Bodhi – whatever word we use – we can come into relationship with that Realisation by coming into relationship with the Buddha.
But how do we come into relationship with the Buddha? And what was the Buddha’s realisation? Of course it is not possible to fully convey what the Buddha’s experience was. But he did teach and we can use some of those teachings to hint at his experience. But we have to use our imagination to give us some sense of the profundity and far reaching consequences of his Awakening.
The Buddha saw that everything that exists, everything that comes into being for however short or long time – everything from a thought or emotion to a mountain or an ocean – absolutely everything is dependent on a whole multitude of conditions and all of those conditions are also dependent on a multitude of conditions and so on, and all those conditions and all those conditions for conditions are interrelated.
One consequence of this is that nothing is fixed or permanent – everything is in process, including every aspect of you and every aspect of me – everything about us is changing all the time – nothing is fixed. Everything about the whole universe is changing all the time, nothing is fixed.
These facts of constant change and total interdependence – when we see deeply into them – when we realise their truth with our hearts and minds, when they penetrate to the core of our being, have profound consequences for how we see ourselves and how we relate to the rest of the world. This deep realisation is wisdom and it manifests in the world as compassion. Out of this realisation about constant change and total interdependence grows other teachings around the law of karma, ethics and meditation. So one way we come into relationship with the Buddha is through his teaching, the Dharma. By studying the Dharma, reflecting on it, putting it into practice in our lives – we come into contact with the Buddha – we begin to understand more and more deeply the significance of the Buddha and of his Awakening as we ourselves gradually start to awaken to reality. As our awareness grows and our Metta begins to flow, we have a better sense of who the Buddha was and what his experience signifies.
In the Pali Canon – the Buddha says to his disciple Vakkhali – “he who sees the Dharma sees me, he who sees me, sees the Dharma. Truly seeing Dharma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dharma”.SN 22.87 However this is not the only way we can come into deeper contact with the Buddha.
We can come into relationship with the Buddha by reading or hearing about his life. We could read the excellent book Gautama by Vishavapani or the Life of the Buddha by Nanamoli or we could read stories from the Buddha’s life in the Pali Canon – stories that bring out his qualities and his mysteriousness. We can come into relationship with the historical Buddha and see him walking the dusty tracks of Northern India, encountering all sorts of people – Kings, farmers, priests, prostitutes, aristocracy and peasants – the whole range of humanity. Encountering the Buddha in this way can give us a strong sense of his humanity and at the same time – as we see again and again the impact it had on others, we get a sense of how extraordinary he was.
We can also come into relationship with the Buddha through meditation and reflection. We can meditate and reflect on the qualities of the Buddha and in that way deepen our understanding of him. We could meditate on his compassion or his wisdom or his energy. We could reflect on his generosity, his simplicity, his contentment. There is the traditional practice of Buddhanussati – recollection of the Buddha. There are also meditations that involve visualising the Buddha sitting beneath the bodhi tree or visualising the archetypal Buddhas which give emphasis to an aspect of Awakening. All of these are ways of coming into closer relationship with the Buddha and with the Buddha’s experience of Awakening to the true nature of reality.
Today I want to concentrate on another aspect of the Buddha and another way of coming into relationship with the Buddha. That is ritual and devotion. In the Garava sutta the Buddha says: “one suffers if dwelling without reverence or deference. Now on what Brahman or contemplative can I dwell in dependence, honouring and respecting him?” The Buddha wanted to revere, honour and respect somebody. The Buddha was a worshipping Buddha. According to him having no one to reverence is suffering.
The Buddha is not just recommending reverence as practice. He is saying that it is essential to a fully human life, without it we suffer. He is saying reverence is a natural human need and the natural human response to something higher. When we encounter someone more spiritually developed, reverence is a natural response. It’s natural, but we are not very natural – our attitudes and ideas and conditioning all go together to build up artificial responses in us. So we may respond with resentment or feelings of inadequacy or cynicism or childishness or gullibility or fear. We may have all sorts of responses when we encounter someone more spiritually developed – we may not experience any reverence at all. Reverence may be very alien to us. The mere idea of reverence may seem weird. But nevertheless according to the Buddha, reverence is an essential ingredient in a fulfilling life. If we have nothing or nobody to look up to, to revere – that implies that we consider ourselves to be at the pinnacle of existence – and that may be a very uncomfortable place to find ourselves.
Another possibility is that for some people their natural sense of reverence finds other channels – the adulation of movie stars, singers, TV stars and so on.
So whether reverence comes naturally to us or not, as Buddhists we have in the figure of the Buddha the object of veneration. And we have in Buddhism many practices which give ritual form to the practice of reverence or devotion. By practising Puja and other forms of reverence, such as bowing before the shrine, making offerings and so on we strengthen our ability to experience reverence and to give expression to our devotional feelings. We come into contact with our natural human responses to that which is greater than us.
And we use the power of ritual to access these feelings of reverence and devotion. Ritual is an important part of human life that has been taken up by Buddhism to harness the deepest energies of the mind, energies that are not accessible by intellect alone but require the activation of imagination.
According to Eric Fromm, the well-known Jungian psychologist, there are two kinds of ritual – rational and irrational. He says “we not only have the need for a frame of orientation which makes some sense of our existence in which we can share with our fellow men; we also have a need to express our devotion to dominant values by actions shared with others. Ritual broadly speaking, is shared action, expressive of common strivings, rooted in common values. The rational differs from the irrational ritual primarily in its function; it does not ward off repressed impulses but expresses strivings which are recognised as valuable by the individual. Consequently it does not have the obsessional – compulsive quality so characteristic of the irrational ritual. In fact, one can always recognise the irrational ritual by the degree of fear produced by its violation in any manner.”
So irrational ritual is of the nature of obsessive compulsion – like washing your hands every ten minutes. Irrational ritual tends to isolate people.
And I’d like to make a further distinction between ritual and ceremony. Ritual is collective, ceremony is more individual. For instance in our own context we have Mitra ceremonies in the context of ritual. Puja is a ritual – “a shared action, expressive of common strivings, rooted in common values.” The Mitra ceremony is marking an individual’s decision to publicly declare that they are a Buddhist and intend to practice in this Triratna context. We also have the ordination ceremony – which similarly marks an individual decision and commitment. And in ordinary life there are funeral ceremonies and wedding ceremonies. There are elements of rational ritual here but Eric Fromm’s definition is a very good way of thinking about ritual - “Shared action, expressive of common strivings, rooted in common values.”
In the Buddhist spiritual context the common values that any ritual is aiming to express is the aspiration to wisdom and compassion or the aspiration to grow and develop in the direction of wisdom and compassion.
Ritual is “shared action”. It is done with others and this collective aspect is very important. Karma means action in the ethical sense and karma is about individual action of body speech and mind. The word for ritual is Kriya which also means action. In the case of ritual the action is also of body, speech and mind and it is done together with other people, and in fact tends to bring people together, to harmonise people. As Bhante puts it – “the performance of ritual action in company with others should celebrate a common spiritual attitude. For this reason a feeling of Fellowship is essential, which means that ritual implies a spirit of Metta and solidarity. If this is present, a very powerful spiritual atmosphere can be created.”
I’m sure many of us have experienced this at the end of Pujas or other rituals.
As well as being shared action ritual is also, according to Eric Fromm’s definition, “expressive of common strivings.” Fromm also speaks of ritual as “a symbolic expression of thoughts and feelings”.
Bhante talks about this in his book Ritual and Devotion in Buddhism. He says “essentially expression means bringing something out from within, even from the depths within. It is in order to express our depths that symbolic expression is necessary. Conceptual expression isn’t enough. Conceptual expression brings something out only from the conscious level of our minds – and we have got to do more than that. We’ve got to plumb the depths beneath the conscious level, to contact the parts of our being to which myth and symbols speak. We could say, in fact, that ritual is like an acting out of symbol or myth. By expressing what is deep within our being, we externalise it, see it, make it something we can know. We can then begin to understand it and incorporate into our conscious attitude. In this way our whole being will be enriched and integrated.”
So this draws out the purpose of ritual as a spiritual practice very well it is “to plumb the depths beneath the conscious level to contact the parts of our being to which myth and symbols speak”. Of course ritual in Buddhism is not isolated from all the other aspects of Buddhism. It is intimately connected with the goal of Awakening, the striving towards wisdom and compassion. It is supportive of meditation. It draws us into cooperation with other people in a way that can give us glimpses of ego transcendence. It helps to release the unconscious energies that may otherwise be blocked or unavailable.
Because ritual is a way of giving wholehearted expression to our spiritual aspirations and because our spiritual aspirations are embodied and symbolised by the Buddha and all the great awakened ones down the ages – ritual is also an expression of reverence and devotion.
We express our aspiration to wisdom and compassion by revering those who have realised and embodied these spiritual qualities. And by expressing reverence we are coming into contact with the Buddha, who also expressed reverence – the worshipping Buddha, who said that it is a source of suffering to be unable to reverence.
In Triratna our main rituals are the Sevenfold Puja, the Threefold Puja, the Dedication Ceremony and the Ti-Ratana vandanā. The Sevenfold Puja is a particularly full and effective ritual. It is based on the long poem – the Bodhicaryavatara – which is about the path of the Bodhisattva, the Bodhisattva being the Buddhist practitioner who emphasises compassion particularly. The Sevenfold Puja is a ritual that evokes seven different moods, all leading up to a kind of outburst of compassion. This outburst of compassion is the arising of the Bodhicitta, the awakening heart. You could say this is the affective and altruistic dimension of what is often referred to as insight. This explosion of compassion in the heart leads to a fervent practice of the six perfections – generosity, ethics, patience, vigour, meditation and wisdom.
So the ritual is evoking in the practitioners the attitudes and moods which lead up to this enhanced aspiration and motivation. The different stages are also practices in themselves, each of which needs to be carried on outside of the context of the ritual. So the ritual is also a kind of poetic reminder of the path of practice.
As well as being a ritual the Sevenfold Puja can also be a meditation practice. As Bhante puts it “you can practice a mental Puja, going through the Puja silently as a form of meditation, visualising the Buddha, the offerings, and so on. This is regarded as a higher level of practice which is possible only for those who have the necessary power of concentration and experience.” We will try this later.
So the Sevenfold Puja is a ritual evoking a common spiritual striving and aspiration. It is also a devotional exercise, giving expression to our receptivity to and reverence for those further ahead on the path.
In the Mahayana sutras, especially the Pure Land sutras, there is a very imaginative evocation of a vast eternally ongoing Puja with hundreds of thousands of Bodhisattvas continuously singing hymns and chanting mantras in praise of Amitabha and all the Buddhas. This is a kind of cosmic Puja and is a symbol for Enlightened consciousness. Our Sevenfold Puja is a reflection of this state of being – an imaginative expression of the reverence and aspiration that is inherent in human consciousness and finds its fulfilment in Buddhahood.
Puja works best when we engage with it fully. We engage our minds by having an understanding of the purpose of the practice before we do it and by bringing that purpose to mind just before we practice Puja – as a preparation. We also engage our minds by imagining the offerings and the Buddha’s and Bodhisattvas as vividly as possible and imagining ourselves in the midst of those Buddha’s and bodhisattvas.
We engage our speech by saying the words consciously, with feeling and in harmony with everyone else. We engage our bodies by adopting the Anjali mudra – the gesture of reverence, by bowing before the shrine, by making offerings to the shrine.
Devotional ritual is important because it enables us to access our deeper, less conscious energies and it brings more of us on to the spiritual path – not just our head, but also our heart, not just our thoughts, but also our emotions, not just our rational mind, but also our imagination.
As Jacob Bronowski said, speaking of imagination: "of all the distinctions between man and animal, the characteristic gift, which makes us human is the power to work with symbolic images: the gift of imagination. The power man has over nature and himself lies in his command of imaginal experience. Almost everything we do, that is worth doing is done first in the mind's eye. The richness of human life is that we have many lives. We live the events that do not happen (and some that cannot) as vividly as those that do. If thereby we die a thousand deaths, that is the price we pay for living a thousand lives. To imagine is the characteristic act not of the poet's mind, or the painters or the scientists, but the mind of man. Imagination is a specifically human gift."
Aloka in his talk, The Life and Death of Imagination, speaks about imagination as follows: "by definition the imagination is a liberating faculty, it liberates you from the moment. Without it we would be stuck with whatever our present experience was in this particular moment, we would be stuck with that, we would have no way of projecting into the future and no way of really assimilating the past."
Outside of spiritual practice these deeper, more emotional and imaginative aspects of our being can be accessed and activated through engagement with the arts.
Great art, whether painting, poetry, music or whatever, is expressive of states of consciousness not usually accessible to us – even not usually accessible to the artist. By engaging with the art we come into contact with that bigger awareness and we are moved by it, even perhaps changed by it.
For art to have this kind of affect on us we have to engage with it wholeheartedly. If it’s a visual art we have to look at it and look at it for some considerable time. Sometimes in art galleries you see people walk around glancing at all the paintings or even just looking at the labels or photographing the paintings. To get something out of looking at paintings it’s probably best to settle in front of one painting for half an hour or 40 minutes. I often bring a notebook with me and write down any thoughts and feelings evoked by the painting as I look. Sometimes a painting will only divulge it’s secrets very gradually. You have to make friends with it. I’m sure something similar applies to music, literature, photography, dance and drama – the more you engage, the more attention you pay – the more you are repaid. Sometimes people feel inadequate in the face of the arts and the conceptual Dharma, but really there is no need to – we are not trying become experts who can answer all the questions – we are just trying to make use of whatever helps us to go deeper – “to plumb the depths beneath the conscious level, to contact the parts of our being to which myth and symbols speak.”
A combination of engagement with the fine arts and participating in devotional ritual will gradually give you access to the depths and the heights of your own being and enable you to practice the Buddha’s teachings more and more fully.
The Buddhist tradition down the generations has given birth to an abundance of ways of engaging imaginatively with the ideal of Buddhism, symbolised in the figure of the Buddha. More and more Buddha figures have emerged – like Amitabha the red Buddha – the Buddha of love, Ratnasambhava, the Golden Buddha of generosity, Amoghasiddhi, the green Buddha of fearlessness and Akshobya ,the blue Buddha of stability.
There are bodhisattva figures like Manjughosha, bodhisattva of wisdom; Avalokiteshvara, bodhisattva of compassion; Vajrapani, bodhisattva of vigour and many many more.
All of these Buddhas and bodhisattvas symbolise aspects of the Awakened mind and they also represent the totality of Enlightenment. They are extensions of or imaginative emanations of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Because we are all so different and respond so differently, we have different spiritual needs from each other and different spiritual needs at different times in our lives. This pantheon of imaginative emanations of the Buddha allows us to connect with the Buddha through symbols that attract our attention.
The Threefold Puja is perhaps one of the simplest devotional rituals – but although it is very simple and straightforward, it is also profound – going straight to the heart of Buddhism with a passionate fervour.
In the first section we are recollecting the Three Jewels, bringing them to mind and reminding ourselves of their importance to us. We express reverence, because that is the appropriate relationship with something so sublime. The Buddha as Guide. The Dharma as Wisdom. The Sangha as Inspiration and guide.
In the second section we express confidence in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. We are saying we have faith that there is the possibility of Awakening, Enlightenment, Buddhahood. We are saying we have faith in the Dharma and want to practice it. We affirm that we will study and practice. This affirmation of faith in the Three Jewels is very important. This is our sense of commitment and emotional engagement. Here we speak of aspiring, aspiration is this emotional element of faith that moves us to act and in the third part of the second section we talk about making our own commitment, a decisive action. This is a channelling of energy in the direction of our spiritual goals, a channelling of energy into our life as a Dharma practitioner and follower of the Buddha. Commitment is of course something we have to do over and over, it is not a one off event.
In the third section we are opening up the channels of energy between ourselves and our ideals even more. The offerings of flowers, lights and incense symbolise a receptivity and openness to whatever the Three Jewels, the spiritual Path asks of us. With the flowers we are recognising our impermanence, the Reality of constant change, which we need to respond to, the existential facts of life as represented by the four sights in the story of Siddhartha. The offerings signify our need for help and our aspiration to be of benefit to all beings. This is the Bodhisattva path in a very condensed form. We make our own individual commitment to the perfect life and that has an influence on others – it spreads in all directions. The incense offering is like the fourth sight in the story of Siddhartha.
Throughout the whole puja we express reverence again and again – this is a deep recognition that there is something higher, more sublime than our ordinary mundane consciousness. We are not the pinnacle of existence. And expressing reverence is a recognition of our relationship to what is highest and best in the universe and an expression of a heartfelt gratitude and love for those highest ideals.
I said at the beginning that there are many ways of connecting with Enlightenment or Awakening, which is symbolised by the image of the Buddha and all the archetypal Buddhas and Boddhisattvas. One way of coming into relationship with the Buddha is through ritual and devotion.
Here in Cambridge there is a rich intellectual and academic tradition and of course our Sangha, our spiritual community is influenced by that wonderful rich intellectual tradition. I’m often struck by the number of people who are doing a Masters degree or a Ph.D. or similar when I am conducting Mitra ceremonies – it is not like that at every Triratna centre – here there is this great intellectual and academic tradition which we benefit from and are influenced by.
In order to balance that bias in our community we may need to place more of an emphasis on the poetic, on the imaginative and on ritual and devotion. This is how our local Sangha here is going to touch depth. This is how we can become the collective manifestation of the Boddhisattvas of compassion and wisdom.
We have had lots of Dharma talks over the last few years, with lots of great speakers and those talks are very uplifting and inspiring but we need something more. Listening to a talk is relatively passive and it stimulates our thinking, our conceptualising. We need to go further than that and deeper than that.
We need to be engaging our energies, engaging our imagination, engaging the deeper energies of the unconscious mind and engaging all of that in the quest for Awakening. We do that through the poetic, the imaginative and the mythic and through ritual.
The arts are an important, perhaps essential bridge to these deeper energies and ritual is the spiritual practice which leads us into these depths – sometimes kicking and screaming. The rational mind, the intellectual pursuit, is often resistant to ritual and devotion and in the spiritual life we need to bring awareness and kindness to our tendency to resist the unfamiliar, to resist going deeper.
I think our Sangha needs to engage more frequently and thoroughly in ritual and devotion, we need more pujas, more chanting, more encounters with the world of the imaginative – more collective practice. When we have a talk at the centre we get a good turnout – people like to hear talks. It is my dream that when we have a Puja we also have a big turnout. It is my dream that even more people come to Pujas than to talks.
And we can make more of pujas. We can prepare for Puja’s. We can even prepare physically by having a bath or shower, putting on our best clothing, choosing the colours associated with the Buddha or Bodhisattva the Puja is dedicated.
I hope some order members will be inspired to organise and lead special pujas and get more and more people engaged in ritual and devotion. This year at Sangha night we are focusing on the theme of Sangha. Earlier in the year we had some talks, but it is time for us to act collectively, to practice collectively and to collectively grow and develop and become the great Bodhisattva of compassion that thousand armed, eleven headed Avalokiteshvara seeing the suffering of the unawakened in every direction and reaching out appropriately to everyone. We cannot do much alone, together we can be a real force for good in the world.
During the coming months we will have a series of devotional rituals at Sangha night’s. We will introduce these different facets of the jewel of Buddha and explore how to relate to them and how to fully engage our emotions and imagination in our spiritual lives. I hope that many of you will be able to engage with this new phase of deepening our imaginative connection with enlightenment, with the Buddha.
Today we will experiment by meditating on the Sevenfold Puja next and then after lunch we will experiment by exploring the cosmic vision of one of the Pure Land Sutras, by listening to a slow reading and allowing the expansive images of vastness to permeate our minds. Then in the late afternoon, Aryajaya will lead us in the Sevenfold Puja and we can experiment with experiencing it as if you were doing it for the first time, as come to it, freshly inspired by what has gone before. I hope you are willing to give the experiment of thoroughly engaging with ritual and devotion a chance to work it’s magic.