Triratna

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

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Sex in Buddhism

Celibacy

The Buddha seems to have seen sex and sexuality as being a big issue, even a problem.  He offered one solution to it for thos41 WLBC Nidanas WofL (5)e who are prepared to renounce family life — to join a celibate order of men or women.  Then you spend most of your time in single sex situations, and when you are with members of the opposite sex, you are very careful because you have taken a vow not to get sexually involved, and if you break that vow you will be thrown out of the monastic order.  Of course this does not work so well if you are sexually attracted to members of your own gender, and I will come back to that later.

Some people say that the main reason that the Buddha asked his monks and nuns to be celibate was simply because he wanted them to be free to wander, to practise meditation, to teach the Dharma, without any family responsibilities.  In those days, men and women having sex meant almost certainly having children.  So for the monks and nuns, sex is not an ethical issue, but it is one of defining the institution of the monastic Sangha.  It is a legal point, and even if the sex involves no craving, it is still banned.  This is a point made by Janet Gyatso in a survey of sex in Buddhism  [in Lopez, Critical Terms in Buddhism, 2005].

If you are not a monk or nun, it would be assumed that you would eventually find a partner and have children, and there is plenty of advice for people in that situation, which I will come on to below.  But it is interesting that the Buddha strongly encouraged people, if they could, not to have a family, and devote all their energies to practising and spreading the Dharma.  This may be unique amongst the world religions, most of which encourage family life; the Buddhist attitude is called ‘anti-natalism’.  People are often shocked when they hear of the Buddha himself leaving home when his son was still a tiny baby.

Nowadays, contraception means that you can be sexually active and still probably not have children, if you want to.  So is monastic celibacy a thing of the past?  There is a new kind of Buddhist, who David Loy describes as “less than monastic in lifestyle…  More devoted to practise than the laity have usually been” [Money, Sex, War, Karma, 2008].  David Loy is an American scholar, and he says that monasticism is not attractive to most Buddhists in America, but many are practising very sincerely.  In fact this is the model adopted in the Triratna Buddhist Order, which is described as “neither monastic nor lay”.  For example, I am trying my best to be a full-time practitioner and teacher of Buddhism, and yet I do have a partner: and I’m glad to say that she is also very dedicated to her Buddhist practice.

Nevertheless, maybe we should not write off monasticism too quickly.  Because I am not celibate, I definitely do feel a tension.  Bonding together as a couple is such a strong pull.  And in some ways that pull can compete with one’s attempts to have an open network of connections in the Sangha, and to be with one’s own gender.  At the moment I’m living alone.  But part of me would love to set up a home with my partner, and if we had been younger I expect we would have considered children.  Yet I would love even more to set up a men’s community, since we don’t have one in West London where I live.

This is a tension, and of course if you gave up sex altogether, you would have to face other tensions.  But as well as tensions there are potential negative difficulties in the Sangha if there are a lot of sexual relationships.  Most Sanghas have been affected by this.  In the Triratna Order, the founder of the order gave up being a celibate Buddhist monk and started being sexually active.  Perhaps inevitably, his love affairs happened mainly with his own disciples, and this has caused some quite serious problems in the order, because it seems quite dangerous for a teacher to be sexually and romantically involved with his own disciples.

Can sex be spiritual?

On the other hand, Miranda Shaw, in her book Passionate Enlightenment says that Tantric Buddhism does not take this view of relationships in the Sangha. Even in the early days of Tantric Buddhism, which started in India about 1500 years ago, most practitioners found a sexual partner, lived a simple village life, made pilgrimages, and meditated intensively. “The seekers pursued a distinctive religious path that finds its most characteristic and nuanced expression in an intimate and sexual relationship.”  So a woman alongside a man is (writes Shaw) the ideal Tantric pattern.  Tantric practice could only get into the Tibetan monastic system by sublimating the imagery and practices, so that for Tibetan monks and nuns, the sexual themes of Tantric practice are regarded as symbolic.

But for some branches of tantra, sexual activity became a carefully regulated spiritual practice.  Before you get too excited about this, I should say that usually it was very important not to come to a climax, and the man had to ensure he did not ejaculate.  The intense pleasure had to be let go of, as one saw that like everything else it dissolves into complete openness.  The sexual energy was thus supposed to be sublimated into a spiritual energy which brings alive the subtle visionary body of the practitioner.  You arouse intense sexual desire, and then try to emulate the spacious calm of Nirvana by not acting on that desire.

Incidentally, Miranda Shaw says that the crucial role of women in the rise of Tantric Buddhism has not been recognized because “the study of other cultures continues to be undertaken from the perspective of providing documentation of the universality of oppression against women”  — to legitimate current male dominance.  Tantric Buddhism shows a society in which women were not necessarily being oppressed. (Passionate Enlightenment, 195-6.)  I will try to publish something on gender in Buddhism soon.

Sexual ethics for those who are sexually active?

Celibacy for monks and nuns is a rule, even a law, to preserve the institution. But if you are not a monastic, is it unskilful to have sex?  Skilfulness is the word that applies to ethics in Buddhism.  It says that ethics itself is not a matter of rules and regulations, it is a matter of the mental state that your behaviour comes from, and what effects your behaviour has on others.  You try to make sure that you act from mental states of love, clarity, stillness of mind, generosity, awareness and so on.  And you try to make sure that you bring benefit rather than harm to other people through your actions.

How does sex fit with this?  Does sex benefit other people or is it entirely selfish?  Can it come from these skilful mental states or can it only come from longing, inner emptiness, frustration and craving?  Well, traditional Buddhism definitely sees that sex is a normal part of life, and it tells you about skilful and unskilful sex.  The third precept says: “I undertake as a part of my training to abstain from sexual misconduct”.  Any sex involving violence or coercion is obviously extreme sexual misconduct.  But the most widespread kind is to endanger an existing relationship through your sexual behaviour.

There is no condemnation of sex outside marriage, it’s sex inside marriage when you’re not the married person that is the problem!  I mean coming between a committed couple by having sex with one of them.  Also being unfaithful to your own partner breaks the third precept.  And marriage doesn’t mean having gone through a particular ceremony; it means having made some kind of a commitment to another person, even if it’s only for one night.  So it would be sexual misconduct to sleep with someone else who you know had made even the briefest commitment to another partner, because of the hurt and confusion you cause.

The great Buddhist teacher Nargarjuna says: “the pleasure of husband and wife is to be two bodies but one flesh; to take away one who another loves and destroy this deep sentiment is a crime.”  (Peter Harvey, Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, 71.) Anyway, it seems quite reasonable to look carefully at your sexual life, and to see whether you can make it less self-centred, and more considerate of your effect on others.

Sex and negative mental states

For myself, I still do come back to this rather uncomfortable question, as to whether it is possible to have sex without unskilful mental states being involved, even if you are being very careful not to hurt the other person.  Is sex primarily a selfish activity?  That is an excellent introductory book on Buddhism by Roger Corless called The Vision of Buddhism, and he says: “Sex is an all-consuming passion.  When we are involved in it our minds become muddy and confused. This precept warns us to watch out for the mental turbulence which often attends sex and, when in doubt, to refrain from it.” He goes on to suggest that ordinary life, with all its wants and fears, which is known as Samsara in Buddhism, is a drug we are addicted to.  We can easily mistake a samsaric phenomenon for a means of escaping Samsara, and hence bind ourselves to the decay, disappearance and repetitive meaninglessness of that phenomenon.  Perhaps sex can be rather like this. In fact traditionally it is seen as potentially strongly addictive.  The middle way is to ask how liable one is to becoming addicted to sex if one indulges in it; remembering that a part of the addiction is denying that we are addicted (delusion, avidya).  So strong self-interest, and overpowering craving are things to look out for in sex.

I think even Roger Corless’s view does not go far enough, because sex is not just about the slightly messy and potentially addictive things that go on under the bed covers.  It is also about bonding together with another person in a romantic couple relationship.  Nowadays we see sex as necessary for happiness, and we expect personal fulfilment through romance and sexual intimacy.  Buddhism questions this expectation.  It is quite hard to consider the possibility that sex is mainly an appetite driven by biology, not a marvellous and sacred thing!  Because my bond with my partner feels unique, it floats me above my isolation, or so it seems.  But then very often eventually the relationship is not as satisfying and fulfilling as we expect, and when it goes wrong we become very bitter and disillusioned.  In fact, nobody else can make us feel complete.  David Loy calls romance a “delusive cycle of infatuation and disappointment followed by a different infatuation” — when we look again for the right person.  Of course committed relationships can be a great joy, but it’s important not to expect what they cannot give: they cannot fill our sense of lack. But I do believe that the Buddhist path shows how it is possible to fill that sense of lack in a far more effective way.

Exactly the same points about unskilful sex and the dangers of romantic entanglements apply to homosexual sex.  As far as I can see, early Buddhism doesn’t see anything wrong with sexual attraction within one’s own gender.  Highly sexed gay men sometimes tried to join the order of monks for the wrong reasons, and there were rules to try to stop that.  Later on, different Buddhist schools took different approaches.  The Dalai Lama’s school of Tibetan Buddhism, at least in theory, was rather intolerant, but he is very open-minded about talking things through with other people, and gay men and women have talked to him about it, and he feels that his school should relax its position.

I will give the last word to Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a Western Tibetan nun, who has no regrets about giving up sex. She loves being a celibate, saying that it avoids the cycle of “clinging, unfulfilled expectation, the pain of separation… [in relationships, where] often, the longing for a companion is a wish to complement one’s missing or undeveloped qualities… Celibacy, on the other hand, represents the decision to rely on one’s own inner authority.  It is an attempt to achieve a balance and wholeness within, independent of the feedback of another person…. [and enables one to go beyond sexual attachment,] the major force that propels beings from one rebirth to the next ”  (Tsomo, 1988, in Sakhayaditha, 55-6).