Insight in Triratna
approaching genuine depth in relation to the breadth of the Buddhist Path. How does insight come alive in the wholeness of life?
Back in 1985 it was something of a revelation to some of us when on a seminar at Padmaloka, I think it was Subhuti asked Sangharakshita why he didn't meditate regularly. It felt rude to ask. But Bhante said, that's right, he didn't meditate regularly; at least he didn't feel a need to do deep śamatha meditation any more. He said “If you develop any degree of genuine vipaśyanā you can't lose that, and it's simply a question of developing it after that..." He'd go back to śamatha from time to time if circumstances required, but it ceased to be necessary as a support.
At that point, most of us present had been around the movement for getting on for fifteen years, we were all Chairs of centres or with similar responsibilities, were all grown men, 35 at least, ordained at least ten years, and we felt as though we were pretty experienced as Buddhists. But that made us realise how much we still didn't understand about the Dharma.
Something very significant had happened. We had heard Bhante make a clear statement that he had attained some degree of insight. For some reason, it made me feel a little uncomfortable that he could be so straightforward about it. I think we all felt challenged. It was of course encouraging that he should say he'd realised - a bit like the line in the short puja: 'What the Buddha attained, We too can attain'. But I felt uncomfortable because I could not really follow him, could not go there myself, could not fully relate to what he was saying. I could not personally verify it. Because of the nature of insight it was obvious that all Bhante could say was 'this is my experience'. But it meant we either had to believe it or not. So I was thrown into that conflict so familiar to a western mind - that I never want to accept something on faith alone. I felt forced, by my inborn western Enlightenment principles, to doubt the integrity of my own teacher, and that was really difficult.
Clearly there was a constructive way out of the dilemma: all of us simply needed to achieve insight for ourselves. But if we were ever asked about insight, we were going to be in the same position. We could only say 'this is my experience', and be seen to make some kind of unverifyable claim, and throw others into that same conflict. Luckily, Bhante checked out in so many other respects. He definitely looked like someone who'd realised the deep significance of the dharma, and that's why we'd been following him for fifteen odd years.
So in the context of our Order gathering today, this little moment in our collective history struck me as something of a landmark. Back then, in 1985 it had started to feel like things on the dharma practice front were hotting up, the movement was really taking shape. Vajraloka had been going for five years as a semi monastic retreat. I had just become the first UK based anagarika. There was a new sense that we were established, we could all start developing a deeper dharma practice. Not long before, Vessantara had written an article for the FWBO Newletter based on Bhante's talk to the Order ‘A system of meditation’. Alongside the article was a picture of the slate roofs and hills of Vajraloka.
We were both living there at the time. It's worth recalling that the meditative lifestyle at Vajraloka has been a constant influence on our common dharma practice, as it was set up by Bhante to do in 1980. And Vajraloka is still our most longstanding community dedicated to exploring deeper spiritual practice. Many issues of principle were clarified here, especially in those formative years of the eighties and early nineties. And our Haynes manual, the basis for all our teaching work, has been Bhante's talk 'A System of Meditation' which much more recently of course has also been the basis for Subhuti's deeper and more extensive elaboration called Initiation into a New Life. So this continues as a clarification of how the principles of the Buddhist Path to awakening apply in every aspect of the dharma life. How does insight, how does spiritual death and rebirth, come alive in the wholeness of our life?
Bhante's original talk focused on the familiar four stages of Psychic Integration, Positive emotion, Spiritual death, and Spiritual rebirth, defined mainly in terms of four specific meditation methods. Mindfulness of Breathing was the primary practice for Psychic Integration. He also saw Mindfulness of Breathing as a way into a more general practice of mindfulness, which could, he said, eventually become a fully fledged insight practice. Positive Emotion was cultivated through the four Brahmaviharas and faith, Śraddhā. These practices, he said, gave temporary enthusiasm and inspiration for the spiritual path until the point where insight or perfect vision could provide the motivation. Bhante explained his term Spiritual Death: one needs to 'see right through ones sense of relative individuality' and indeed, break it down; to feel the touch of sunyata, which feels like death, but from a spiritual point of view is good to feel. The key to feeling, and accepting, the touch of sunyata was the six element practice, but he also recommended other vipasyana methods like the recollection of impermanence, the recollection of death, and what he called the śūnyatā meditations, which included the meditation on the nidāna chain. Finally Spiritual rebirth was to be achieved through identifying with our deeper nature through mantra recitation and visualisation of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. These four stages Bhante then placed in an overall context of Ordination, the arising of Bodhicitta, and the Just Sitting practice.
If I can risk a generalisation here, it seems to me that our collective understanding of meditation in the Triratna Order has mostly been characterised by a very clear sense of purpose and a very clear sense of context. That is a generalisation, but the practical detail of how actually to cultivate the path Bhante has largely left up to us. He has spent his energies clarifying what the territory is, where we are going in it, and what we need to support us on the way. His great contribution has been in terms of principle.
And in terms of principle, Bhante has been most concerned with basics. He has been keen to teach a path of regular steps. Even though he has also pointed out that it is normal in practice to follow a path of irregular steps, and to make constant adjustments to those irregularities, still the way we express things is in terms of a path of regular steps. ANd though he has stressed the crucial importance of insight, he has also been at pains to show that insight can arise in different ways and in different fields of spiritual practice. For example as well as the more classical route to insight through śamatha vipaśyanā meditation, he has also schooled us in the benefits of a keen ethical practice in exposing our tendency to ego identification and in offering opportunities to go beyond self. This kind of approach is also supported by Shantideva in his Bodhicaryavatara in that whole Mind Training approach of the late Mayahana, and the Bodhisattva Ideal which has a prominent place in our dharma teaching. In the west where people dwell so much more in a world of ideas, and where mental illness is so common, he has been keen to show how insight practice must be something embodied and lived, rather than alienated from experience. He has talked quite a bit about the dangers of onesided, disconnected insight.
And at times in the past the potential pitfalls and dangers of insight meditation seemed to be made far more prominent than its benefits, and in the movement now, populated largely by mature men and women with plenty of life experience, that can seem rather strange. But when those warnings were given, the great majority of Order members and mitras were under 30. Young minds are a lot faster, but because they lack actual experience of all the information they take in, the understanding tends to be literal sometimes. Experienced minds see the diversity and the fuzzy edges of the world. They have learned that there are many sides to things, that things are often not that clear cut. To younger minds the insistence on relativity and diversity can come across as vague and indecisive. To older minds the youthful draw to clarity and action can come across as uninformed and impulsive. And so we start to fit our stereotypes: the young tend to be bold and rash, the old become timid and conservative. Buddhist practitioners are less easily stereotyped, but on the whole, that's how the world goes. One day maybe someone will do an accurate analysis of the complex of factors that have governed the way Bhante's teachings have landed on the different generations since the 1960s.
I just make these rough generalisations as a reminder that as ever, we are experiencing the end point of a complex social process that is unfolding against the backdrop of human history. We are a community, we are a tradition, and so we have a history. I'm happy to assume that the way we said things in the 70s and 80s and 90s was appropriate enough for the time.
What is more important is now. How are we to approach vipaśyanā, insight cultivation, in 2014 and into the next period? Bhante has always emphasised the importance of śamatha as a basis for vipaśyanā practice, as the tradition does generally. The reason is that we need to experience reality directly and sustainedly if we are to see into its nature. The impermanent, empty and unsatisfactory reality of our body, mind, and world need to be directly experienced - it is not enough just to know about it. And obviously a sustained concentrated experience will give a deeper and more convincing experience than one that is scattered and momentary. However perhaps our more youthful idea of how this works in practice has been a bit black and white. We've tended to think that you either have perfect śamatha or you don't, and if you don't then vipashyana is pointless, or dangerous, or self delusive. In other words there's been a tendency for us to feel that we cannot start insight practice at all before we have perfected first dhyana.
But we have all practised meditation, we have all had some taste of deeper concentration. Even if we have hardly ever had that, we have enough concentration and integrity of mind to go for refuge and to practice effectively. We are not alienated from our emotions and feelings.
And it is not neccessary to be in dhyana to experience reality directly. This is quite traditional: any degree of access concentration is enough. A sustained experience is better, but for a committed practitioner who understands the context, who understands the Dharma, a momentary glimpse will do as a start. This is because experience is experience. To a very great extent we can trust our experience; of course we should question how we interpret it sometimes, but we do know what it is to have a feeling, to notice a thought or experience a physical sensation. We have all trained in mindfulness. We all have some degree of residual śamatha available. That's all that is needed for vipaśyanā to be transformative.
And another side of this is that although śamatha is conducive to vipaśyanā, it also works the other way: experiences of vipaśyanā also bring about śamatha. When you get some taste of insight, you naturally become focused. You feel 'wow this is it'. There's a sense of conviction, of authentic experience, and that can take you into access and even dhyana.
Insight experience is where you touch the truth, and you feel, 'this is real'. This immediately dissolves doubt which is usually the strongest hindrance to being able to commit to the concentration. When you are convinced by your direct experience of the actual nature of, for example, your thoughts being insubstantial rather than solid realities you should believe in — confidence arises like the sun and dissolves the darkness of doubt, and it takes with it all the other hindrances.
Bhante has always strongly recommended to OMs that they practice vipaśyanā. In the Manjusri Sadhana seminar in the 70s he insisted that Order members should have a real experience of śūñyatā if sadhana meditation was to have much benefit. An actual experience, he said, not just a visualisation or an imagination of some blue sky. He really meant that Order members should regularly practice, and make time to practice vipaśyanā at least from time to time, so that they understand and experience what the word sunyata refers to.
How are we to do this? What needs to change and what approaches might be useful for us?
I think what needs to change is that we all need to engage with insight, which means no longer just practising the minimum of śamathā meditation we need to get by, and having a vague idea that wisdom will come naturally when we're ready, but actively reflecting on the nature of wisdom as we have learned from our training, looking directly into all our experience on that basis, and integrating our growing perspective on wisdom into the way we live our lives. That is how we will develop an ethical and social expression of Buddhist insight. It is not enough merely to be socially engaged and think of that as sufficient to achieve some kind of natural transcendence of self. If we want insight to genuinely freshen our personal relationships and help us let go clinging to fixed ideas of who we and others are, it is not enough merely to be socially engaged. There needs to be some more direct engagement with the whole business of self clinging. In other words not only trying to be less selfish in the usual sense, in the way Christians or Muslims might be for example, but to be increasingly guided by a living realisation that self is illusory in the first place, and illusory for everyone. That self is what we all suffer from; it is what actually causes the world's suffering. And not only that it is illusory, but how in actual experience it is so. We need to move from theory to experience. The more we actually understand the nature of reality from personal experience the more helpful we can be to others. It is not enough to be kind and helpful, even though that is very very important. We can be a lot more effective as Bodhisattvas with insight into why people actually suffer. So we need to think and reflect on this Dharma, but the real need is to go deeper, and see directly, in focused experience, the actual way that self and other are illusory, exactly how they are created by our samskaras, how our samsaric and karmic processes work.
The methods of achieving this more focused experience and learning so much from it are the ones we already know. They are meditations and reflections that are central in our system of dharma life. They are unfortunately little explored, little practised. A few of us do them now and again. But many Order members find them hard to get into, hard to sustain, and little support seems available for them anyway. However, with intelligence and experienced guidance I feel sure we could bring our system of dharma life - well, to life.
And actually I see quite a resurgence in this kind of practice over the last ten years, as many senior Order members are getting into their mature years. There seems to be some kind of snowball effect here, for now it's not confined to the senior Order: more and more Order members have been exploring vipaśyanā and also getting good results. A decade or so ago, I think from the mid eighties actually, quite a lot of this exploration was in relation to teachers other than Bhante. At first this wasn't seen as a problem. Bhante himself often used other teachers' writings as a comparison, a jumping off point to see what our approach could be. Many of the seminars in the 70s and 80s are critiques of teachers like Trungpa, of Theravada or Japanese or Vajrayana Buddhism, etc. So a bit later on a lot of us felt fine about making our own comparisons, to get some kind of perspective on what we'd learned. Because as I said, a lot of what Bhante has taught has been clarity of principle rather than experiential, hands on training. But now of course we have realised that unrestrained exploration is not sustainable for our Order long term - if we are going to learn from other approaches, we have to do it as a community. I think that is really a good thing, that we seek out ways of legitimising as it were what approaches can be legitimised, so that we can be fully confident in both practice and teaching. The sense now is that we are building a tradition, so we have to consider the collective dimension much more. So the approach most of us are taking now is to look again at what Bhante has taught, to consult more and share more.
The methods that Bhante has always recommended for insight meditation, for realising spiritual death and rebirth, are as follows. There is first the traditional Dharma we all inherit from the Pali tradition. Secondly there are the special teachings on śūnyatā from the Mahayana, the Perfection of Wisdom. Thirdly there is the special method of subtle body visualisation, or imagination, that derives from the later Vajrayana tradition.
We start with the Buddha's core teaching of the Three Lakshanas: that is anicca, dukkha and anatta — impermanence, unsatisfactoriness and insubstantiality — which lead to the great realisation of spiritual death, the collapse of self clinging. As when, in the Buddha's own words, the house-builder of self clinging is seen and the house collapses, never to be built again. The three laksanas need to be explored through every aspect of our dharma lives, all the time, in both meditation and action.
This will in time become a tangible realisation - that what we call self is something ungraspable, not solid, not ultimately real; just another energy to be understood.
Then as insight begins to be something real and tangible, we start opening the three dharma doors of the wishless, the signless and the great emptiness, secret portals that open to let in the light of the dharmaniyama, the previously unimagined light that brings about the great transformation of spiritual rebirth.
All this can come about through the quite simple vipaśyanā meditations we know, through reflection and direct experience of impermanence; and also through a more intensive practice of mindfulness. But we also have methods that encapsulate these processes in a rich way. I mean of course the Buddhas and Bodhisattva visualisations with their visionary focus on the Buddha rupa, his imagined body, on the Buddha's nature of sunyata, and the subtle body imagination that brings together as though in a crucible the sunyata and the rupa not only of the Buddha but also the śūñyatā and rupa of ourselves and all phenomena. These visualisation practices are more complex, but by incorporating aesthetic imaginative and mythic elements they can engage us very deeply and have powerful effects on all aspects of our lives — if we see them doing so, if we expect them to do so.
All this is helped by kalyanamitrata. We have had Bhante's personal guidance on vipaśyanā in the past, or at least there are those among us who have been close enough to him to do so., or who have seen Bhante's insight at work in seminars and over the dinner table. The personal advice of the teacher, the spiritual friend, on this is invaluable and perhaps indispensible. There is the famous story of Bahiya who had practised deeply and sincerely for most of his life but was still not awakened. He could not do it on his own and he knew it. He needed a spiritual friend, the Buddha to point out those very simple key points that Bahiya might have thought of himself, but did not have the confidence and conviction of experience to fully follow them through to the end. All it took was for the Buddha to point out the present moment - simply to look what is happening right now in your seeing, in your hearing, in your perception - it was his conviction that this is all, that there is no 'thereby' in any of experience, that there is no substance, no real solidity anywhere - this was what allowed him, after all these years, to relax his unseen assumption that there is substance somewhere, let go self clinging, to finally and completely realise the truth.
We need to cultivate this skill for ourselves more. As I reminded you at the beginning of my talk, the time will soon be upon us when as a community we are completely thrown back on our own experience. We need to find ways to trust one another as kalyanamitras, spiritual friends who can point out the way. The way may be ethical, or spiritual, or transcendental at different times. It may pertain to going for refuge at the provisional, the effective or the real levels. It may be advice as to the best way to overcome our anger, the best way to meditate, or the best way to see the emptiness of self clinging. But we all need spiritual friendship and guidance. That is what Sangha is for. Trusting one another is a community endeavour, it is a tradition to build.
In one of his earlier teachings following Mr. Chen, Bhante taught the five Dharmas or basic meditation methods for countering the five poisons. The mental poisons of distraction and hatred are counteracted by the mindfulness of breathing and the brahmavihara meditations. Then he taught three Order Insight practices for counteracting the mental poisons of self view or conceit, craving and ignorance. These are the six element practice, meditation on impermanence which can be direct seeing or indirect reflection as in the context of the bardo verses, and the meditation on conditionality, pratityasamutpada. These actually provide the bones of the whole Buddhist insight tradition and the śūñyatā meditations and the special visualisations which Bhante also recommends derive directly from them. The three laksanas contain it all.
So well, we know these, and sometimes some of us do the six elements practice. A few individuals do much more that that, I know, but they do it more or less alone, or perhaps if they are lucky, in dialogue with a few like minded friends. So as a community I feel these need life breathed into them, and I hope those who can make them live and who can communicate how to make them live will come forward and be welcomed in doing so. Quite a bit of work has been done over the years by various Order members on these. Some of it happened at Vajraloka, and some on the men's Guhyaloka courses. Subhuti gave some interesting lectures on the six element practice there for example, and I think even more of his work on the Yogachara, where he's not just describing but really experientially looking into the nature of awareness, and more recently he has done workshops on Pali suttas like the Madhupindaka, the Honey Ball, using sitting exercises to look directly into our experience and see their conditioned nature. Vessantara has also done a lot of this work, right from the early days of Vajraloka and later on when he led so many ordination retreats at Guhaloka, and worked on that visualisation manual that Subhuti later brought out. In recent years this has started coming of age with many teachers now including teachings on how to cultivate insight. I think of Viveka, I think of Vajradevi, I think of all the mindfulness teachers like Ruchiraketu, Kulananda and Maitreyebandhu - for there is a large component of insight practice even in the most elementary MBCT courses. I think too of Vidyamala, I think of Prakasha, I think of Tejananda and many many others. But all of us need to join up a lot. There is a real problem that as you get more senior you get more busy and you no longer have time to read anyone else's books, and maybe you secretly don't have the patience either... you don't have time any more to go on anyone else's retreats, and you don't really know what others are doing... but you might suspect that what they are doing is not exactly what you would like. Well, we know about this now, we are sharing platforms more now, we are joining up, we are developing more trust. That's good! Because it looks so poor to others when they see us disparaging one another without actually understanding one another's points of view. I am hoping that tendency is now in the past, now we have our wonderful project of building a high commonality of practice in our community.