The story of Dharma Day: The Buddha starts to teach

Lotus pond

Sugawara Mitsushige (1257) (Metropolitan Museum of Art), via Wikimedia Commons

The Buddha’s decision to teach

THE BUDDHA:

[After my enlightenment,] I thought, ‘This Dharma that I have attained is deep, hard to see or realize, it is the highest, most peaceful goal of all. It’s beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment and indulges in attachment. It’s hard for the people of this generation to see the truth of dependent arising. It’s hard for people to see the truth of stopping the karma formations, letting go, finishing craving, the fading of addictions, nirvana itself. If I taught, they would not understand me.

Just then these verses … occurred to me:

Enough now with teaching
what, only with difficulty,
I reached.

This Dharma is not easily realised
by those overcome
with aversion & craving.

What is abstruse, subtle,
deep,
hard to see,
going against the flow —
those delighting in craving,
cloaked in darkness —
they won’t [be able to] see it.’

As I reflected like this, my mind inclined to dwelling in comfort, and not to teaching the Dharma.

Then Sahampati, [a dweller in the sublime Brahma heavens] … thought to himself:

SAHAMPATI

‘The world is lost! The world is utterly lost! The mind of the fully awakened one inclines to [his own comfort], not to teaching the Dharma!’

THE BUDDHA

Then, just as a strong man might extend his arm …, Sahampati disappeared from his Brahma-world and reappeared in front of me. He … saluted me with his hands before his heart:

SAHAMPATI

‘Sir, let the abundant one teach the Dharma! Let the One-well-gone teach the Dharma! There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are wasting away because they cannot hear the Dharma. There will be those who will understand the Dharma!’ …

‘Throw open the door to the Deathless!
Let them hear the Dharma
realized by the Stainless One!

Just as one standing on a rocky crag
might see people
all around below,

So, O wise one, with panoramic vision,
ascend the tower
fashioned of truth.

Free from sorrow, look at the people
submerged in sorrow,
oppressed by birth & aging.

Rise up, hero, victor in battle!
O Teacher, travel without debt in the world.

Teach the Dharma, O Abundant one:
There will be those who will understand!’

THE BUDDHA

Then, having listened to Sahampati’s invitation, out of compassion for beings, I surveyed the world with an enlightened eye. As I did so, I saw beings with little dust in their eyes and those with much, those with keen faculties and those with dull, those with good qualities and those with bad, those easy to teach and those hard…. Just as in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses, some lotuses — born and growing in the water — might flourish while immersed in the water, without rising up from the water; some might stand at the surface of the water; while some might rise up from the water and stand without being wetted by the water — so too, surveying the world with an enlightened eye, I saw [the range of beings].

Having seen this, I answered Sahampati:

‘Open are the doors of the Deathless
To those who can hear.

Let them show their confidence.

O Sahampati,
If I [had thought I would not tell people]
the refined,
sublime Dharma,
It was because it seemed too troublesome to me.’

Then Sahampati realised,

SAHAMPATI

‘The Abundant one has decided to teach the Dharma.’

THE BUDDHA

He bowed to me, and disappeared.

The Buddha’s attempts to teach

THE BUDDHA

Then I thought, ‘To whom should I teach the Dharma first? Who will quickly understand this Dharma?’

I thought of [my former teachers], but they had passed away…

Then I thought: ‘The group of five [friends] who attended to me when I was practising fasting and self-denial, they were very helpful to me. [Now they are] staying near Benares, in the Game Park at Isipatana. What if I were to teach them the Dharma first?’

Then, having stayed at Bodhgaya as long as I wished, I set out to walk [the long road] to Benares.

Upaka the sectarian met me on the road between the (place of) awakening and Gaya village, and he said to me,

UPAKA

‘Clear, my friend, are your faculties. Pure your complexion, and bright.

What made you go forth? Who’s your teacher? In whose Dharma do you delight?’

THE BUDDHA

‘All-vanquishing,
all-knowing am I,
with regard to all things,
unattached.

All-abandoning,
freed by ending craving:
having fully known this on my own,
whom should I regard as my teacher?

I have no teacher,
and one like me can’t be found.
I have no counterpart in the world with its gods.

For I am a worthy one in the world;
an unexcelled teacher.

I, alone, am fully awakened.
Cooled am I,             unbound.

I’m going to Benares
To set rolling the wheel of the Dharma.

In a blindfolded world,
I’ll beat the drum of the Deathless.’

UPAKA

‘From your claims, my friend, you must be a Jina, a universal conqueror.’

THE BUDDHA

‘Conquerors are those like me
who have reached fermentations’ end.
I’ve conquered evil qualities,
and so, [yes], Upaka, I’m a conqueror.’

UPAKA

‘May it be so, my friend,’

THE BUDDHA

And — shaking his head and taking a side-road — he left.

Then, walking in stages, I arrived at Benares, at the Game Park in Isipatana, where the group of five friends were staying. They saw me coming from some way off, and made a pact with one another.

THE FIVE

‘Friends, here comes Gotama the contemplative. [He has given up] our struggle [of self-denial], living luxuriously, straying from his exertion, backsliding into abundance. He doesn’t deserve our bows, or even for us to stand up to greet him. Still, if he wants to, he can sit down with us.’

THE BUDDHA

But as I approached, they were unable to keep to their pact. One stood up to greet me, another got me a seat. Another got some water for washing my feet. However, they [still] addressed me as ‘Gotama’ and as ‘friend.’

So I said to them, ‘Please don’t address the Tathagata, the Thus-gone one, by name and as ‘friend.’ The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, fully awakened. Lend ear, friends: the Deathless has been attained. I will instruct you. I will teach you the Dharma. Practising as instructed, you will in no long time reach & remain in the supreme goal of the spiritual life, … knowing & realizing it for yourselves in the here & now.’

THE FIVE

‘You did not attain any superior human states by practising hardship and deprivation, nor any special knowledge & vision worthy of a noble one. So how can you have done so now — living luxuriously, straying from your exertion, backsliding into abundance?’

THE BUDDHA

‘The Tathagata is not living luxuriously, has not strayed from his exertion, has not slid back into abundance. The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, fully awakened. [And twice more I repeated my offer to teach them.]’

[They still doubted, so] I said to the group of five, ‘Do you recall my ever having spoken in this way before?’

THE FIVE

‘No, sir.’

THE BUDDHA

‘The Tathagata, monks, is not living luxuriously, has not strayed from his exertion, has not slid back into abundance. The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, fully awakened. Listen, friends: the Deathless has been attained. I will instruct you. I will teach you the Dharma. If you practice as instructed, before long you will reach the supreme goal of the spiritual life and remain there…, knowing & realizing it for yourselves in the here & now.’

And so I was able to convince them. I would teach two while three went to get food, and we six lived off what the three brought back from their alms round. Then I would teach three of them while two went for food, and we six lived off what the two brought back from their alms round. Then the group of five — thus exhorted and instructed by me — being themselves subject to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, seeking the unborn, unexcelled security from oppression, nirvana, reached nirvana. Being subject themselves to aging, illness, death, sorrow and defilement, seeing the drawbacks of aging, illness, death, sorrow and defilement, seeking the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, undefiled, unexcelled security from oppression, nirvana, they reached nirvana. Complete knowledge & vision arose in them, their liberation was unshakeable, and from the rounds of rebirth they were completely free.

From the Noble Quest Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya number 26.

(Edited and adapted for reading aloud by Ratnaprabha from the translation by Thanissaro (1), referring to translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2) and Nanamoli (3).)

Sources

  1. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.026.than.html .
  2. http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/middle-length-discourses-buddha/selections/middle-length-discourses-26-ariyapariyesana-sutta
  3. Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu, The Life of the Buddha (Buddhist Publication Society, 1972)
Advertisements

Lotus Sutra: the Image of the Plants

The Image of the Plants

Monsoon over Biligirirangans, India. (Shyamal – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

From the White Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma Sutra, Chapter 5.
Abridged and adapted by Ratnaprabha for reading aloud.
Based on the translations by Kato et al and Reeves, sub-headings not in the original.

The Buddha adapts the Dharma according to his listeners

The Buddha, the Dharma-king,
Smashing ideas of being,
Appears in this world.

According to the needs of all beings,
He teaches the Dharma in varied ways.

The Buddha teaches people
According to their strengths,
With various explanations
To bring them to helpful views.

The Buddha is like a thunder cloud

The Buddha is like a great cloud
Rising above the [parched] world,
Covering everything everywhere.

A beneficent cloud full of moisture,
Bringing gladness and ease to all,
Where flashes of lightning shine and glint,
And the voice of thunder vibrates afar.

The [hot] sun’s rays are veiled,
And the earth is cooled;
The cloud lowers and spreads
As if it might be caught and gathered.

[Then] its rain everywhere equally
Descends on all sides,
Streaming and pouring without stint,
Enriching all the land.

His hearers are like plants in need of the rain

On mountains, by rivers, in steep valleys,
In hidden places, there grow
The plants, trees, and herbs.

Trees, big or small,
The shoots of all the ripening grain,
Sugar cane and grapevine,

All these are fertilised by the rain,
And abundantly enriched.
The dry ground is all soaked,
And herbs and trees flourish together.

From the same water which issued from that cloud,
Plants, trees, thickets and forests,
According to their need, receive moisture.

All the [plants],
Each according to its scale,
Can grow and develop.

Roots, stalks, branches, and leaves,
Blossoms and fruits in their brilliant colours,
By the pouring of the one rain,
All become fresh and glossy.

Just as their forms and capacities
Are some great and some small,
So the enriching [rain], though one and the same,
Enables each to flourish.

The Buddha proclaims his impartial intent

The Buddha is like this.
He appears in the world,
Like a great [monsoon]-cloud
Universally covering all things;

And having appeared in the world,
He, for the sake of all living beings,
Teaches in varying ways
The reality of all things.

The great World-honoured One
To human and heavenly beings,
And to all the other beings,
Declares this:

“I am the Tathagata,
Honoured by people;
I appear in the world
Just like a great rain cloud,
To pour enrichment on all parched living beings,

“To free them all from suffering
And so attain the joy of peace,
Joy in this world,
And the joy of nirvana.

“Humans and heavenly beings and all!
Give me your full attention,
Gather around
And behold the Buddha.

“For the hosts of the living
I teach the Dharma, pure as sweet dew:
The Dharma with one taste
Of freedom and nirvana.

“With one wonderful voice
I explain this meaning,
Constantly taking the great way
As my subject.

“I look upon all [living beings]
Everywhere [with] equal [eyes],
Without favouring anyone,
With no mind of love or hate.

“I have no preferences
Nor limitations [or partiality];
At all times to all [beings]
I teach the Dharma equally;

“As I would to one person,
So [I teach] to all.
Constantly I proclaim the Dharma,
Never occupied with anything else.

“Going or coming, sitting or standing,
I never weary or get downhearted,
Pouring it abundantly upon the world,
Like the rain, enriching everywhere.

“Eminent and humble, high and low,
Those who keep the precepts and those who break them,
Those of admirable character
And those of imperfect character,

“With right views or wrong views,
Quick-witted and dull-witted,
[With] equal [mind] I rain the rain of the Dharma,
Neglecting no one.”

Summing up

So the Buddha’s unbiased teaching
Is like the one rain.

[But] beings, according to their capacities,
Receive it differently,
Just as the plants and trees
Each take a varying supply.

The Buddha by this [image]
Skilfully reveals [his methods],
And with various expressions
He proclaims the one single Dharma,

The one essential Dharma,
To be practised according to ability,
Just as those thickets, forests, herbs, and trees,
True to their type, grow lush and beautiful.

Just so,
Practising it step-by-step,
All can gain the fruit of the way.

The Dharma taught by the Buddha is like this.
It is just like a great cloud
Which with the same kind of rain
Enriches humans like blossoms,
So that each will bear fruit.

The way in which you all walk
Is the Bodhisattva-way;
By gradually practising and learning,
You will all become Buddhas.

TURNING THE WHEEL OF DHARMA

The Buddha’s first teaching

Image: John Hill

Today, 8 June 2017,  is the full moon of Dharma Day, the anniversary of the Buddha’s first teaching, known as Turning the Wheel of Dharma.

Here is my Re-rendering of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Ratnaprabha, June 2017)

This is what I heard. (After his awakening), the Buddha arrived at the game reserve near Varanasi, (and was reunited with his five former comrades).

He taught the group of five. He said to them: “Going forth (to seek awakening), you must avoid two extremes.

“Looking for gratification in sense pleasures is demeaning, crude and ignoble. It’s what people always go for, but it’s pointless, and it takes you nowhere near the goal.

“Yet self-torment is also ignoble and pointless, and (it commits you to needless) suffering.

“Instead of veering towards one of these extremes, (if you’re) attuned to reality, you will wake up to the middle path. It yields vision so that you truly know. It leads to peace, to complete awareness, to quenching (the flames) and waking yourself up fully.

“Speaking simply, the middle path has eight aspects. These are complete vision, complete emotion, complete communication, complete action, complete livelihood, complete effort, complete mindfulness, and complete unification (of the mind). When I attuned myself to reality, I woke up to this path.

“Furthermore, (I woke up to four noble truths). Firstly, this is the noble truth, the grand reality, of pain. Birth, ageing and illness are painful. Death is horrible. (Then you’ll encounter) depression, grief and physical agony; unhappiness and despair as well, and losing what you love, and not getting what you want. In fact all the aspects of life that we cling to are painful.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality (that explains) where pain comes from. It comes from thirst, from craving. It is craving that impels us to remake ourselves so that we are still conjoined with gratification and clinging, indulging in one thing after another. (More specifically), it is craving for sense-gratification, craving for continuing (as we are), or craving for oblivion.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality, of the finish of pain. It is the fading and finishing of that same craving, giving it up, letting it go, not depending on it any more, so that we are completely free from craving.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality of the way that finishes pain. It is the same middle path (that avoids the extremes) – complete vision and so on.

“When I fully woke up, I saw this for the first time. A fresh insight, wisdom and awareness, indeed a complete illumination, dawned on me. I truly saw pain as a grand reality, I saw I had to understand it, and (eventually) I did.

“Similarly, I truly saw, as a grand reality, how pain comes from craving. I saw I had to let go of that craving, and I managed to do that.

“And I truly saw the grand reality of (the possibility of) pain finishing (for good). I knew I had to realise that finish directly, and I did realise it.

And I truly saw the grand reality of the middle way that frees one from pain, I saw that I had to journey on that way, and I travelled it to the end.

“It was these crucial insights that enabled me to perfect my full and complete awakening. This is an awakening that completes the journey, (a journey open to) all forms of life in the universe. I saw, and I realised: unshakeable is the liberation of my mind, I’m no longer compelled to re-make myself, this is it.”

The group of five listened enraptured to the Buddha. And as he listened, one of them, Kondañña, saw the truth clearly and lucidly, and realised that all that comes into being must also finish. “Kondañña knows!” Exclaimed the Buddha, “Kondañña knows!”

This, in the game reserve near Varanasi, was the (first) rolling of the Wheel of Dharma by the Buddha. The earth spirits yelled with all their might: “THE SUPREME WHEEL OF THE BUDDHA’S DHARMA IS NOW TURNING, AND NO ONE CAN STOP IT!” And the cheer went up through the ranks of invisible beings up to the (formless) world of pure spirit, so that the whole world trembled, and an incandescent light spread from horizon to horizon.

Brackets signify words added for clarification. Some repetitions have been removed. This re-rendering is interpretive, and other interpretations are possible; it is well worth looking through several translations.

Is Ken Wilber mistaken? Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

ken wilber

Ken Wilber

This is a rather critical book review I wrote for the Buddhist magazine Golden Drum in the 90s. Fans of Wilber, please forgive me!

Review of SEX, ECOLOGY, SPIRITUALITY. THE SPIRIT OF EVOLUTION.

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. The Spirit of Evolution, by Ken Wilber, published by Shambhala (Boston and London, 1995).

‘I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s,’ wrote William Blake. Ken Wilber has created a grand system of evolutionary connections. Here is yet another book, his fattest yet, expounding it.

There is an X-shaped diagram of Wilber’s system on the end-papers. Levels of consciousness, their individual and collective physical structures, and cultures or shared world-views each have an arm of the X, and evolve in correlation with each other. For example, as conceptual thought became possible in consciousness, new brain mechanisms supported it, and it was reflected in village societies, with magical world-views.

Wilber’s synthesis, with its wealth of fascinating details, is extremely well thought out. If you are a believer in the idea that all spiritual schemes reflect intuitions of the same Great Chain of Being, then you will forgive his long-windedness, repetitiveness, jargon, surfeit of long supporting quotations, and his obsession with reducing every other analysis to its spot on the great X. But what I appreciated most was Wilber’s uncompromising evolutionary vision. We can indeed evolve as individuals and as a human world, and there are pioneers of consciousness who can show us the way.

What I think is Wilber’s biggest mistake stems from the rigidity of his X diagram. To fit the model, evolution must continue in the collective sphere, after the arising of self-awareness. So in general, a later society is likely to reflect a higher average form of consciousness than an earlier society. In recent centuries, he claims, the mental and biological parts of human experience have been differentiated on a large scale for the first time, a step forward allowing rationality to produce all its benefits. (Wilber’s mission is to encourage the next development: the re-integration of mind and nature on a higher level, in a global awareness and a global culture.) But is it really true that most people of today are more rational and independent-minded than most people in India or Greece (say), 2500 years ago? Is it easier to make spiritual progress now, and are we all starting from a higher base?

It would seem that with self-awareness, further evolution focused on the individual. Societies and world-views now only evolve if they are reformed by self-aware individuals, the number of which does not necessarily grow steadily. Cultures are not caught up in Wilber’s grand current of evolution. It is true that science is genuinely cumulative in its discoveries, and this fact may have misled Wilber. The progress that science makes, in extending the scope of models of the physical universe and making more sophisticated technologies possible, cannot be ranked in alignment with advances in consciousness.

Wilber’s method leads him to judge Buddhism on the basis of the type of language used in its writings, though he comes to mistaken conclusions through relying on modern commentators rather than the original sources. His image of evolution is still a Hindu one of consciousness emerging from a Ground of Being (or World Spirit, or Emptiness: terms from diverse traditions are bunched as ‘identical’ by Wilber), and passing through an arc of development until it can reunite with this Ground (from which it has never separated). Statements couched in ‘non-dual’ terms must, Wilber seems to believe, have come from this ultimate state of being, and he implies that he can recognise their authenticity because he has been there himself. Actually, blarney is all you need to pen don-dual paradoxes.

Blarney or not, this language is what he seeks in Buddhism, so he approves of Nagarjuna and Zen, and disapproves of early Buddhism. The Buddha encouraged a radical renunciation of the deluded, cyclical habits of life, because the ‘ground of being’ for Buddhism is ignorance, something to be transcended, and it is frustration that emerges from ignorance, something to be eradicated. So Buddhists have used the ‘dualistic’ language of transcending and developing (‘follow this path to this goal’) more than the language of paradox or of immanence (‘uncover your existing Buddha-Nature’), something that Wilber sees as a limitation.

Similarly, Wilber dismisses the teaching of no-Self, incorrectly seeing it as a dualistic denial of the ‘stable cohesive self’ that one should strengthen to progress psychologically. No, the Buddha was concerned to identify ‘wrong views’ – attitudes which impede the evolution of one’s consciousness by tying one to a limited sense of one’s own identity. ‘No-Self’ is no more, or less, dualistic than ‘no-duality’ (or indeed ‘no-World-Spirit’). The Buddha wasn’t bothered about fitting into a grand system or abiding by a metaphysical taboo against dualism. He was concerned to promote provisional right views which helped people to transcend themselves until they could dwell in ‘no-view’. Later, the increasing sophistications of the deluded mind called for more sophisticated countervailing right views, such as Nagarjuna’s.

Buddhism can be presented in many formats. Wilber’s system may lead you to believe that the later ones must supersede the earlier, and the linguistically non-dual ones must be higher than those that teach a path. On the contrary, an effective path of practice is essential, I would say, and the best way to choose a system of spiritual discipline is not to collect from a warehouse of words teachings that fit our preconceptions, but to meet the people who tread a coherent path. Are they kind? Are they deeply sensible?

Reading Ken Wilber is rather like being drawn to listen to a brilliant, manic and rather tipsy monologue at a party. As we imbibe the system of another man, I think it is worth taking care. Is it liberating, or is it enslaving?

Grabbing a firebrand

Grabbing a firebrand: aphorisms and Sangharakshita

Whenever we’re presented with a statement, it’s so tempting to take it literally, not to look through it for truth, but to think it is the truth.

The aphorism

The world will be different only if we live differently.[1] This quotation is an aphorism.

Aphorisms are short, pithy statements containing a truth of general import. The etymology is from Gk. aphorismos ‘a definition, a pithy sentence,’ from aphorīzein ‘to mark off, divide’ apo- ‘from’ + horīzein ‘to bound.’ Synonyms are the words ‘maxim’ and ‘saying’. An ‘axiom’ is different, a statement of self-evident truth; and an ‘epigram’ is like an aphorism, but lacking in general import.[2]

So an aphorism is ‘from a horizon’. An aphorism is a statement which defines a perspective by illustrating or describing the horizon of that perspective. Instead of standing outside a viewpoint and describing the viewpoint, an aphorism adopts a viewpoint and identifies the things which are only visible from that perspective.[3]

But an aphorism is like a firebrand — you can easily get burnt if you grab the wrong end.

Caspar David Friedrich, 'Wanderer above the sea of fog'

Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Wanderer above the sea of fog’

Nietzsche was one of the great aphorists. He wrote, in his Zarathustra: In the mountains the shortest route is from peak to peak, but for that you must have long legs. Aphorisms should be peaks: and those to whom they are spoken should be big and tall of stature.[4]

Aphorisms are inevitably ambiguous, because they are short and striking. And to work, they should really hit you, so it’s best if they sound rather controversial, against the run of normal opinion. Sangharakshita does this as an aphorist. But before I move on to his sayings, here are a couple of warnings. An aphorism is never exactly true. It is either a half-truth or a truth and a half.[5] And from Dr Johnson: In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.[6] Lapidary inscriptions are the short sayings carved into tombstones and the like.

Whenever we’re presented with a statement, it’s so tempting to take it literally, not to look through it for truth, but to think it is the truth. But aphorisms say that so much more forcefully:

Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.[7]

Words, like eyeglasses, blur everything that they do not make more clear.[8]

Encountering Sangharakshita’s sayings

When I was a student in 1976, I used to go along to the little Brighton Buddhist Centre in the backstreets not far from the sea. One of the first things I picked up by Sangharakshita was a yellow coloured booklet called Sangharakshita: Sayings, Poems, Reflections. The very first quotation from Sangharakshita was:

One cannot be what one should be merely by closing one’s eyes to what one is. That sort of thing really grabbed me. Wow, I thought! It worked. I was very struck. I had to think about it.

But you can’t get Sangharakshita’s teachings just from aphorisms. Sometimes, you are bound to get the wrong end of the firebrand.

I remember quite a while ago when a lot of people wanted to argue with Sangharakshita (which some have always have wanted to do, at least ever since I started first heard of him in 1976), I remember him saying: ‘before you decide you disagree with me, clarify your understanding of what I’ve said.’ It’s so easy to assume that one disagrees — or indeed that one agrees. But what does it actually mean?

A powerful example was a very controversial little booklet written by Subhuti, Women Men and Angels.[9] Its title comes from a strange saying by Sangharakshita. Angels are to men as men are to women — because they are more human and, therefore, more divine.[10] What on earth does that mean? It sounds like it’s saying that men are superior to women in some sense. If so, in what sense? But what is this angel? What is an angel? Is it good to be more divine? What about the Buddhist idea of the god realms where the devas (angels) live being a dead end? In any case, what is the background to this weird little saying — how does it fit in with traditional Buddhist teachings? How does it fit in with other ideas of Sangharakshita’s, and his life and behaviour? How does it fit in with your experience? There are so many questions. If possible, ask questions, get clarification before you get indignant.

Here’s another one: ‘One should not waste time helping the weak. Nowadays it is the strong who need help.’[11] If you’re like me sometimes, the kind of person that bristles at an outrageous thing, you might go ‘hey, what’s this about ignoring suffering and defenceless people, and only nurturing some master race?’ (For my thoughts on that saying, see note 11.)

Here’s some advice from Sangharakshita himself on how you might regard teachings or dharmic ideas that you come across. It is not enough to sympathise with something to such an extent that one agrees with it. If necessary, one must sympathise to such an extent that one disagrees.[12]

Attitudes to dharma teachings

Can you look at traditional Buddhist teachings in this critical, non-literal way? Sangharakshita writes: Many years ago, I constantly asked myself: ‘How does this teaching relate to one’s actual spiritual experience, spiritual life and spiritual development? Why did the Buddha say this? Why was the Buddha concerned with this? Where does it connect up with the spiritual life?’ And I found that very, very few scholars ever thought in those terms. In many cases it didn’t even seem to occur to them to do so — even to Buddhists themselves, very often. As though it was just a sort of game, you know, that had no relevance to life and no bearing on the spiritual life or on spiritual development as an individual.[13]

So is Buddhism, the Dharma, true? The Dharma is the Buddha’s Enlightenment objectified, and therefore falsified.[14]

One can only speak the truth to one person. The larger the number of people to whom you are speaking, the more will what you say become an approximation to the truth.[15]

Religion cannot be taught; it can only be caught. You have to catch the spirit of religion, and you do that through the influence of other people.[16]

The Buddha taught and influenced people by what he was, far more than by what he said.[17]

My personal view about Sangharakshita, having lived in the same community as him for five years, having read his stuff, having argued and disagreed with him sometimes, becoming his pupil and disciple by being ordained by him, my personal conclusion is that he is not stupid, and he is not malicious. I could say much more positive things about him than that, but I just want to try to assert those relatively uncontroversial characteristics. He is not stupid, he is not malicious.

I have sometimes heard people, including people in the Triratna Order, taking issue with what they think Sangharakshita believes, either as if he has not thought it through at all, i.e. he is stupid, or as if he’s actually trying to cause trouble. If you start from the view that he basically has a kind intention, and that he does have a reasonable knowledge and intelligence, then you can take what he says rather more subtly, rather more seriously. You might conclude that if your first response to it was ‘that’s puerile’ (to quote a commentator on some of his stuff that I saw recently), or ‘that’s nasty’, then you might pause in your response and say, ‘hang on a minute, perhaps I didn’t quite get it the first time’.

Having a project

I’d like to help his readers to see that Sangharakshita encourages them to make a difference in the world, to make the Dharma more available to people who might enormously benefit from it, if only they could encounter it in the right way. I feel quite strongly about this, though I’m not much good at it myself in most respects.

It seems to me that just about all the Triratna Order members I meet have a lot to congratulate themselves for. They are very impressive people. They have achieved something wonderful. They have found a real meaning in life. They have arrived at a sort of maturity, they’re confident, they have a lot of positivity, they are really alive. Even more importantly, pretty much all the Order members I know, as well as many other Triratna and other Buddhists, are genuinely working on themselves. They are putting into effect the first half of a saying by Sangharakshita: (1) Man can change. (2) He can change himself

It’s such an achievement to have a healthy life worked out, with a real sense of working on oneself, such an admirable and rare achievement. It’s wonderful to see it happening so much, so genuinely. I think it’s there much more now than it was amongst the practitioners that I knew forty years ago when I started coming along to Triratna activities. Much more maturity, confidence, and indeed kindness towards each other, happiness with the lifestyle each has chosen, people thinking for themselves, and making their own decisions. It’s impressive; it is to be rejoiced in.

I’m a bit scared though. I’m scared that because it is so satisfying to have reached that position, that we will stop there. Now we can be happy, now we can be fulfilled and integrated people, we can be comfortable, we can have our achievements on an ordinary human level — perhaps find a profession that helps others to some extent or is creative; perhaps find a loving partner and a good, aesthetic living situation; perhaps find financial security for our futures; perhaps raise a family. In itself, that’s not scary, it’s lovely; it’s a great relief that it is indeed possible!

But what about this poor world? What about human beings, what even about our own future selves, our long-term future selves, ourselves as we die, as we move on into the bewildering unknown.

Let’s finish Sangharakshita’s saying: (1) Man can change. (2) He can change himself. (3) He can help others to change. (4) Together they can change the world.[18]

My own feeling and hope is that a lot of people, to be truly fulfilled, need something else. We need our own projects. Projects for making a difference in the world, but projects that are genuinely our own, that we care about, not just things we have joined in with that looked nice when we were young. Have we got a project? I’ll end this post with some more sayings of Sangharakshita’s.

Need for vision

If one does not dream, one becomes a monster.[19]

Working on a project

If one is healthy, one has energy, and if one     has energy, one naturally wants to put it into something — that is, one wants to work, whether the work consists in digging the soil or painting a picture.[20]

Sometimes I think work — real work, work in which one believes — is the greatest enjoyment in life.[21]

You learn what it is that you are trying to do in the process of trying to do it.[22]

People who have no real work of their own to do will always interfere with that of others. They may even make their ‘work’ to interfere.[23]

Not underestimating oneself

We are usually able to bear much more than we — and others — think we can.[24]

Altruistic projects

You can’t help helping others when you are truly helping yourself… one can help others even simply by providing facilities whereby they can help themselves. The importance of being able to help others in a supportive way is also very great. In a way, even people in the forefront of our activities are only supporting the whole activity of the Sangha. This is developing the faculty of rejoicing in merit.[25]

The deeper the internal realisation, the broader and stronger should be the outflow of energy. A spirituality that is sterile in respect of ‘good works’ is highly suspect. Of course there is such a thing as purely spiritual action on higher levels of consciousness, and this is far more effective than ordinary action, but for most treaders of the spiritual path it is many, many years before this stage is reached, and meanwhile we have to busy ourselves with humble, everyday tasks of service on the mundane level.[26]

Duty

From a Buddhist point of view, your duty is what you see as incumbent upon yourself in view of the principles on which you believe, and the situation in which you find yourself.[27]

It is not a sign of spirituality to allow oneself to be exploited. Sooner or later you begin to start resenting it.[28]

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.[29]

[1] Maturana, H R and F J Varela, The Tree of Knowledge (Shambhala, 1992).

[2] Online etymological dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=aphorism

[3] Wikipedia

[4] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pt. 1, ‘Of Reading and Writing,’ 1883-92, trans. 1961

[5] Karl Kraus, Sprüche und Widersprüche, 1909

[6] Johnson, Samuel, in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Vol. vi. Chap. i., 1775

[7] Picasso, quoted in Dore Ashton, Picasso on Art (1972)

[8] Joubert, quoted in Auden and Kronenberger, Faber Book of Aphorisms (1962), 357.

[9] Windhorse Publications, 1995

[10] Peace Is a Fire (Windhorse Publications, 1979), 64

[11] Peace Is a Fire, 75. When I thought about this aphorism, years ago, I decided that it was suggesting that the most effective way of making a difference in the world is to band together with others who seem to be capable of making a difference in the world, referred to here as ‘the strong’ because of that capability. Help the strong in order that the world — which includes everybody, weak or strong — can be genuinely transformed in a radical and lasting way. It could also be hinting that it is a waste of time helping the weak in the sense that you need a certain amount of strength to be able to accept help. But don’t be cowed by this idea. In my opinion, your project must be your own project. Your heart, your vision, is so important. If that vision is to be involved intimately with people who are weak in the sense of being dependent on illegal drugs in extreme ways, for example, than that is admirable. You have found something very hard but very rewarding to do. Wouldn’t it be appalling if somebody was put off from a project like that by some silly little saying in Peace Is a Fire!

[12] Peace Is a Fire, 60

[13] Peace Is a Fire, 99

[14] Peace Is a Fire, 102

[15] Peace Is a Fire, 105

[16] Buddhism and education lecture, A Stream of Stars (Windhorse Publications, 1998), 15

[17] Peace Is a Fire, 106

[18] A Stream of Stars, 18

[19] Peace Is a Fire, 32

[20] Correspondence, A Stream of Stars, 69

[21] Correspondence, A Stream of Stars, 70

[22] ‘A Method of Personal Development’ Lecture, Peace Is a Fire, 30

[23] Peace Is a Fire, 30

[24] Correspondence, Peace Is a Fire, 105

[25] Door of Liberation seminar, Peace Is a Fire, 31

[26] Correspondence, Peace Is a Fire, 31

[27] Tuscany 1982 Question and Answers, A Stream of Stars, 72

[28] Door of Liberation seminar, Peace Is a Fire, 30

[29] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, May 1849

Are scientific laws permanent?

‘All things are impermanent’: what about scientific laws?

IDL TIFF file

Saturn

Impermanence is fundamental to Buddhism. It is even “Buddhism in One Word” (Sangharakshita).  The locus classicus for this particular doctrine could be seen as being a verse of the Dhammapada (a collection of sayings ascribed to the Buddha, which are very likely to be very close to his original teachings), which runs:

277  sabbe sankhaaraa anichchaa ti yadaa paññaaya passati
atha nibbindati dukkhe esa maggo visuddhiyaa.

All processes are impermanent. When one sees this with understanding, then one is disillusioned with the things of suffering. This is the Path of Purification. (John Richards translation)

So what is being stated as being impermanent is all processes — the Pali word being sankhara (the transliteration doubles the a’s to show they are the long form), or Sanskrit samskara.  It pointedly does not say, “all dharmas are impermanent”, but two verses later, it does say, “all dharmas are insubstantial (anatta)”.  Dharmas here probably means anything that can be an object of cognition, whether it is what we see as a physical thing, or an idea, or an attribute etc. I think it would be best to see a physical law as a dharma, but not a samskara (though a philologist friend who read an earlier draft disputes this).

Verse 5 of the Dhammapada says:

Occasions of hatred are certainly never settled by hatred. They are settled by freedom from hatred. This is the eternal law

So here a psychological law is being stated as not being impermanent.  (Eternal law translates dhammo sanantano – ‘an eternal or age-old dharma’.)  Why should the same not be the case with the physical laws of the universe? However, it is possible that they are contingent in some way: the cosmologist Lee Smolin speculates that new universes are constantly being spawned within black holes, each new universe having slightly different physical laws from its parent universe. (The Life of the Cosmos.)

But Buddhists might differ from many scientists, in particular those who think that there will eventually be a final theory of everything, in that they would count physical laws as dharmas, and so would assert that they are insubstantial.  In other words, a law has no independent existence of its own.  It is simply an ordered description of the way phenomena behave — how they influence each other, how they arise and pass away etc. and another type of intelligence might use a different set of laws to describe the same phenomena, though it would in principle be possible to cross-reference the two sets, and show how they are consistent with each other.  It is an object of the conscious mind.

I wonder whether the regularity of scientific experimentation allows one to suspect that some physical laws would always be conceptually patterned in the same way, if different observers at perhaps very different times in very different parts of the universe set up their observations in the same way? In that sense, the law could be unchanging.

What is impermanent?  In the Buddhist tradition, very little is left out of the rather loose term ‘samskara’.  It is most importantly used for people’s mental states, habits, characters etc — in other words, it is encouraging you to feel that you are not stuck in any form of life, or any personal tendency.

This doctrine would assert that there can be no entity in the universe that was free from influence and thus change, similarly, no form of existence or realm, no physical object etc.  ( I am taking it as read that such entities are mind objects, though in this context they are mind objects within scientific discourse, which is very careful to specify them in ways that ensures they can be investigated coherently by many people using a variety of well defined observation methods.) But how would this apply to certain subatomic particles which are regarded as being completely stable?  Could one say that a proton(1) is a permanent entity?

It may be that it is illegitimate to apply Buddhist insights to the scientific sphere. I hope not, I suspect that the meeting of the two ways of looking at human life could be stimulating and fruitful. Scientific findings are very robust, and could clarify the worldview of Buddhists in many ways. Buddhists could also help scientists, for example by offering cogent alternatives to the view that it is primarily the human brain that gives rise to human awareness, and that there is an absolutely real, dead universe, lacking in awareness, which is ultimately separate from the processes of awareness. More importantly, it can suggest a non-religious ethical framework for scientists, some of whom have little in the way of ethics apart from the pressure of public opinion.

_______________

(1) I had originally written ‘neutron’, a bit of a howler as a free neutron has a half life of less than 15 minutes. Free protons have never been seen decaying so far, so may be very long lasting, perhaps ‘permanent’, though protons within nuclei can transform to neutrons by beta decay, and a proton would lose its identity if it fell into a black hole.

Karma in Buddhism: why stop acting from preference?

kindnessKarma: acting by skill instead of likes and dislikes

A karma means a deed: anything we initiate, whether a deliberate thought, a few casual words to someone, or a physical action. All actions have their effects, and the intentional ones change our character and thus our future most powerfully of all.

There is a choice between what the Buddha called dark deeds and bright deeds. With mindfulness you can put energy into certain mental impulses and withdraw it from others; you can let some impulses express themselves in action, and restrain yourself from acting on others. This is Buddhist ethics, an ethics based in your knowledge of mental states, which offers the choice between skilful actions, the bright deeds, which genuinely benefit one’s self and others, and unskilful, dark deeds, which cause harm and distress.

The consequence of the basic negative impulses of craving and aversion is that things go wrong, and life becomes unsatisfactory because the world does not match your wants. This is how unskilfulness is defined in Buddhism: it comes from craving or aversion, and it leads to frustration and misery. By definition, unskilful actions harm yourself and others. Skilful actions in contrast come from open and loving states, and lead to benefit and happiness.

The first stage of a Buddhist life is to move the seat of government from the likes-and-dislikes polarity to that of skilful and unskilful, the criteria of Buddhist ethics. You restrain the craving, the clinging, and the other self-protective responses, and you see whether you can stop yourself turning those mental responses into harmful words and deeds. Instead, you practise friendliness, compassion, stillness, awareness and so on.

This does not mean a swap to not doing what you want to do and doing what you dislike. Skilful/unskilful are categories of a different nature from like/dislike. You are choosing on the basis of skilfulness instead of giving in to the habits of protecting a precarious identity, and a skilful choice can be tough, but it is often delightful. It can be very skilful to do what you like, and pleasant experiences are often the consequences of previous skilfulness. Ruling your life by always choosing what you like, hedonism, leads to disappointment and selfishness. But ruling your life by what you don’t like is religious asceticism, a practice the Buddha tried before his awakening, and emphatically found did not help. He reflected: ‘Why am I afraid of such pleasure?’ Then he explored the delights to be found in a clarified human mind – a skilful mind.

Karma, action, has tangible consequences, according to Buddhism. Why is it that one notices some things and not others? And why is it that some things are liked and some disliked? The reason is said to be past karma: the decisions we have made, the habits we have entrenched, perhaps in previous lives, in short all our seeds of ethical and unethical actions; these give significance to our current world, and determine what we notice and what we do about it.

Extracted from Finding the Mind by Robin Cooper (Ratnaprabha), Windhorse Publications, 2012.