practising within a Sangha: Ordination & Awakening
We often talk about sangha as though it was defined by the practice of kalyanamitrata, spiritual friendship. But I'd say that that is its characteristic atmosphere rather than what actually defines sangha. Kalyanamitrata is how we do sangha. Sangha itself is our community of practitioners of the buddhist path of ethics, meditation and wisdom. True spiritual friendship is reminding one another of that path when we can, collectively exemplifying and clarifying the practice of ethics, meditation and wisdom.
Practising the path is what actually defines sangha, and is what I'm talking about tonight - a revisioning of our practice that includes the deeper, darker more mysterious perspectives of insight and wisdom. Up until now it seems we haven't had the language to discuss those things very usefully. We also needed to shrug off some attitudes that weren't helping such discussions. For example the attitude that if you were to share an experience of insight or wisdom, it was in bad taste. It was inappropriate because you'd be making some kind of claim to some kind of transcendental attainment. Well, I think that it's better to try to talk about all our spiritual experience, and if any problems arise, meet them. Then there used to be that confusing perception that only Order members could be ready to practice deeply - or even that only an Order member could have deeper spiritual experiences. Maybe once upon a time, as a generalisation, that was true to an extent - say in the 1970s when Buddhism was virtually unknown in society. But it couldn’t be more different nowadays, when those coming along are mostly mature people with lots of life experience - quite likely meditation experience as well - indeed with possibly more dharma experience than the newly ordained Dharmacharini or dharmachari leading the class. We really live in such a different world now.
Yet I feel he tradition of ordination is under appreciated. In these circumstances, people can find it hard to see the point . But there is a big point in the training for ordination, when you really enter into that wholeheartedly and come up against your deeper, subtler views – that’s what is going to put you in a position where your practice can deepen, usually far more effectively than before. And then there’s initiation. When it comes, the initiation is an extremely powerful positive condition for spiritual progress, there is nothing like it. So that’s why ordination, for men and women, is how we promote dharma practice in our movement. And of course ordination gives you a tremendous spur to practice, because after ordination you still have to put in the work. If you don’t practice, you'll have the white kesa, you’ll have the connections and the opportunities, you’ll have this strange and wonderful dharma name, but that's not going to be impressive, and its not going to feel good either, without some sense that you are working on yourself.
Anyway, though ordination is a great thing, still – ordained or not – everyone is practising the same dharma. We all participate in that Sangha and we can all practise as intensively as we like. We can appreciate and be inspired by others' dharma practice whether they are ordained or not. We appreciate that because we understand what they are doing. Because it’s being a practitioner that defines Sangha. And in our particular Sangha in the Triratna community, in addition to the more general practice of ethics, meditation and wisdom that we share with all Buddhists, is a shared understanding of spiritual life - in all its various degrees, stages and dynamics. We all have that understanding to some extent. That understanding is what we educate ourselves in here at the centre, on retreat, and in all our dharma activities. We used to call it the System of Meditation, but of course it's not just meditation, it applies to the whole Dharma life. So tonight I’d like to contemplate this understanding that is shared within in our sangha, I’d like us all to enter into that mandala, and get into our experience of that territory.
I present it as a mandala because we need to be able to enter into it imaginatively. A mandala is a way of imagining something. A mandala arrangement allows something to be viewed in the round, with all its aspects shown. It’s a bit like the way we draw mind maps. You have your central issue, whatever it is, and around it you draw all its associated aspects and conditions. Like a mind map any object or idea can be imagined as a mandala in three dimensional space. So it has its sides, its top and its bottom. A northern side, a southern side, an easterly side, a westerly side; an upside, and a downside. But it’s spatial orientation isn’t the only thing; much more important, probably, is its nature, its meaning for us, its relevance, its use, its connection with all other things in our world. So you end up decorating it with all these aspects, putting them in the north, or the south, and so on. So this way, you create a mandala, and this gets you get intimately involved with your issue, you focus your energy upon it, and that way you bring it more alive in your mind. A mandala manages to express what everyone does in their mind with every object they experience. It’s a spacial model of memory. Like mind mapping, which can feel a lot closer to our actual mental processes than when things are set out in a linear way.
Tonight I invite you to explore a mandala that is our shared understanding of what we do when we practise the dharma. Just imagine that you are entering something like a temple. Or maybe it’s outdoors, maybe it’s something grand like Stonehenge. So if you like you can even close your eyes and go in. There are four entrances, you’re going in at the blue door in the east. You’re following the sun. The east is where the sun first rises and it’s first pale beam sends light into that doorway. You’re waking up, it’s the chilly dawn, time to start your dharma practice. I don’t know if you’ve noticed but often at that time of day there’s a pale blue sky. Often it’s a little later that the clouds gather in the sky, as the sun starts warming the cool earth and the overnight condensation of water, or maybe it’s rainfall, starts vapourising and rising in the air. Anyway this first quarter of the mandala is where you start. Here’s where the practice gets its first focus, it’s where you touch base, get your act together, become an individual. It’s the phase of basic Integration. You come back here again and again. Here’s where you do anapanasati, the mindfulness of breathing meditation. The cool fresh breath that begins waking you up. If you stay awhile in that quarter, you eventually become very tranquil, you become imperturbable, you become like a perfectly still lake that reflects the surrounding mountains in its blue surface. In the ancient tradition of Indo Tibetan Buddhism, you approach the mirror-like wisdom of Aksobhya, whose element is water.
Why water? Water’s distinctive quality is its cohesion. The fact that liquids hold together, they integrate. I know we generally think of water's quality as flow, but actually that’s not what distinguishes water from the other elements. I mean air flows too. And so does fire – it flows from the match to the candle flame. Water is a quieter element. Its quality is the way its material always sticks together, always holds together, like a drop of dew or a great unified body of water; it is a body that is sensitive everywhere within itself, yet is one, it's unified, it's integrated. That's why water is the elemental symbol for the quarter of our practice mandala that is concerned with the issue of Integration.
We spend as much time there as we like, it would be hard to have too much integration. But actually it is possible to become very integrated at a low level of development, in other words stuck. So as the day unfolds and warms up we naturally find ourselves moving round inside the great circle, with the sun, towards the south. And entering the southern quarter we find it's like a south facing garden that traps all the warmth of the sunshine, even in the winter. It is the place where growth and maturation happen, where the roots of your experience go down into the warm earth, the green leaves unfold to receive the sunshine, and the whole organism, the whole body and mind of practice, grows and develops.
Something you do in this southern quarter is to explore meditation in more depth, explore the dhyanas. Also to explore the Brahmaviharas, that is to develop your capacity for love, empathy and compassion. For skilful behaviour, skilful relations with the world. You eventually start to radiate warmth and love yourself, you yourself become a sun. And in that process of love, there is a little insight coming in all that, there is a little breaking through self and other, because finding empathy and compassion in your heart involves change, a change in your self view. So in this way there naturally arises in this quarter of the mandala quite a lot of dharma reflection. You think about things. Your understanding of the dharma matures here, through studying, through listening and reflecting on the core insights of the Dharma. You start to look into impermanence and insubstantiality. This is the initial phase of insight practice, that is, the phase of reflection. Reflection matures us alongside our development of warmth, empathy and compassion, and eventually both of these qualities merge in Ratnasambhava's wisdom of equality, even mindedness, equanimity.
We spend a lot of time in these two parts of our practice mandala, the east and the south. Morning and midday, into the afternoon. It’s the workaday aspect of our practice, our general practice routine. A general practice of mindfulness is tying all this together in our lives, integrating the concentration, the positive emotion, the skilful action, the Dharma reflection. The process of integration and maturation is ongoing, but after a while, for some reason we’re dissatisfied. Actually there is a sense of lack within all this growth and development, there’s a certain irritating sense of complacency – and this draws us towards the western quarter. Like teenagers who get interested in dangerous lifestyles and everything their parents disapprove of, our interest is drawn towards the evening and the night. The western sky is supremely attractive. It turns pink and orange, and the sun starts sinking in the sky. We arrive at the awe inspiring place of nightfall where the red sun is dipping down, down, it’s right at the horizon. And then it finally slips down into darkness and totally disappears. The sky then becomes sublime, becomes glorious with golds and peachy orange and deep reds. But at the same time this is unsettling, because then it all goes. It just becomes dark, and you can’t see anything.
In the western quarter of the mandala the vipashyana aspect, the insight aspect, really comes into its own. That's where you look at the bits and pieces that make up your world and see more and more, that you do not own them as you assumed, you have never done so, reality is totally other than you expected. Here Amitabha’s wisdom of discrimination starts to really kick in and insist that it really is so, everything truly is impermanent, and there is no escape – and then, there is the little death. There is the collapse of any confidence in the mundane world. It was a false confidence, because samsara will always let you down. Nonetheless samsara is what you are used to, so it is a difficult, conflicted, transition. There is resistance. There is a struggle. The sun goes down and for a while everything is rather strange. Something has happened but it’s not possible to say what has happened.
It’s the quarter of the mandala associated with spiritual death. In terms of our tradition of spiritual practice it is linked to the vipashyana meditations, like the six element practice and the reflections on impermanence and conditionality. But this is a stage on from active reflection in the sense of ruminating and pondering, that’s what you do in the southern quarter when you study and reflect on the Dharma. This is the experience of directly seeing it, where you look deeply and actually see the impermanence and the insubstantial nature of everything. Not just think about it, but look right at it as it is in your experience. Look repeatedly and persistently, with faith in the Buddha's insight into reality. Faith, sraddha, confidence, is what’s essential at this western horizon. Confidence that what the Buddha realised really does go beyond conditioned existence, that there really is a positive reality beyond your idea of what your existence is about, beyond your idea of life conditioned by worldly preoccupations. In this quarter of the mandala you are clear that all that needs to go, but you need a lot of faith because you are going towards where you radically don't know and radically don't understand. Hence the emphasis with Amitabha on faith.
As I say, the sun goes down and for a while everything is very strange. You fall unconscious. Then later, when you awaken, the darkness of the northern sky is profound. Hanging everywhere throughout its depths are countless stars, pinpoint bright and twinkly. It is the living light of all the Buddhas, those masters who have realised the nature of existence, the way things really are; it is the light of wisdom and compassion, and you can tune in and align with it. In a mysterious way that can only be experienced, you can connect with all the Buddhas in a personal way and receive the Buddha’s adhisthana, the blessing that flows out of his realisation. The mandala’s northern realm is that of the dark green Buddha Amoghasiddhi. It is where you undergo the phase of spiritual experience known as spiritual rebirth, a process that grows eventually to fill the empty space opened up by the collapse of the self view in the previous phase.
Looking at the mandala overall, the dark half is characterised by the ‘resultant’ aspect of spiritual experience, where the path manifests in a way beyond your personal efforts to make things happen. Subhuti calls this the Dharmaniyama, the conditioning process of transcendental Dharma. The bright, daytime half is the Karmaniyama, it’s characterised by personal effort, striving and active cultivation. It is about creating the causes for transformation, making the path happen, whereas now, post insight, the growing mood is one of receptivity. The path happens to you, or, better, it arises within what has been seen as not-you.
Experiences associated with this resultant phase cannot be cultivated directly but come as a natural result of insight, whatever method or situation originally sparked it off. However one meditation method is especially associated with that phase’s culmination in spiritual rebirth. This is sādhana or imagination of the Buddha. In this kind of practice the Buddha is imagined before you (or above you, or even as you) and, along with mantras and flowing sonant light, bestows the blessings of his or her realisation. This is how spiritual rebirth feels. Adhiśthāna is a bestowal of the entire lineage or culture of dharma coming down from a timeless realm. Arising originally from your own trust in the dharma, the light now makes you feel as though you are trusted yourself, even that you can be trusted with the dharma.
Spiritual rebirth has degrees, of course, and can be partial or complete: a complete experience would be equivalent to the Buddha’s own awakening. The particular experience that comes in this area of the practice mandala isn’t easy to express well, partly because it will differ for everyone. You have quite likely experienced various kinds of insight into the nature of reality (or you wouldn’t have been interested in coming along in the first place), and some of that happened, I imagine, before you even knew about Buddhism. Such experiences almost certainly contributed to your interest in the Dharma, and to recognising it when you saw it. The quality I am talking about is a post insight experience. Spiritual rebirth, to give it a name, is what members of the Sangha value most of all, and what, in their heart of hearts, they live by. It is a deeply felt quality that connects them, personally, to the Buddha, to the awakened mind – however that appears to them and however they connect with it. Hence the association with meditating on particular Buddha forms, that is, sādhana meditation.
If this is you, you've probably been inside this mandala of spiritual life for years without knowing it: walking around, reflecting, sitting and meditating, building up good qualities, gradually dissolving that false sense of fixed self, and opening to the influence of Awakening that pervades the whole mandala, and which comes from the Buddha at the centre.
Ah yes, I’ve not mentioned the centre of the mandala – that’s always occupied by what is of central importance, something that really is crucial to the whole thing. And the whole of Buddhist practice stems from the timeless influence of the Buddha’s original awakening. The centre of the mandala of Five Buddhas, upon which I have superimposed this mandala of spiritual life, is presided over by the white Buddha Vairocana ‘the Illuminator,’ who is associated with the sun – the sun that lights up the practices we are engaged in. And the practice associated with the centre, which is also like the sun, the single sole source of the Dharma’s light, is the crucial practice of mindfulness. The Buddha taught mindfulness the famous Satipatthana Sutta as ‘the one way’. It is the central Dharma practice. Mindfulness is also, in its most essential form, the Just Sitting meditation, in which you simply sit and experience what is. Just Sitting is the very essence of mindfulness, it is that basic receptivity to reality. Fresh, immediate awareness itself is the crucial point of practice. And so we call this central aspect of the mandala – which is not a phase but spiritual life’s ongoing, ever beating heart – Spiritual Receptivity.
We have associated mindfulness of breathing with Integration in the east, metta bhavana, ethics and reflection with Positive emotion in the south, insight or vipashyana with Spiritual death in the west, sadhana meditation with Spiritual rebirth in the north, and mindfulness and Just Sitting with Spiritual Receptivity at the heart of the Mandala.
This mandala of our practice, looked at in the round, shows us what we have in common with other practitioners. So much of our understanding and confidence in the dharma depends on sharing and comparing with others – not just with anyone, of course, but with peers and trusted teachers. To do that we need some kind of common understanding and language. This mandala, with its emphasis on principles and stages of spiritual life rather than practices, offers the beginnings of that kind of language. Essentially a mandala of spiritual life is about people and their experience; its principles are applied, not abstract. All spiritually minded people are looking for integration, positive emotion and skilful intention, and all the rest of it. We all experience spiritual death and rebirth, and we all need to make sense of that kind of experience. You don’t have to be a Buddhist or any kind of avowed practitioner to have experiences of this kind. And to need to make sense of them by sharing them.
You don’t even need to be an adult. When I was ten years old I came out of school in my short trousers, violin case under my arm, peaked cap and hated school uniform, and stood, shivering, at the bus stop. Shivering because it was freezing cold and it was pouring down with rain. It was a bus stop, not a bus shelter, and the rain was really driving down: clearly, I was going to get soaked right through my clothes to the skin. I felt intensely the reality that this was actually happening and I couldn’t do a thing. In fact I wasn’t just shivering, I was rigid with resistance and anger. My whole body was trying to not be present. I was twisting this way and that, with my mind in desparate knots as well, cursing the bus for not being there. It was so unfair! I felt trapped in a state of total aversion by the painful physical reality of my body having to be there, lashings of rain also being there, and the bus not being there.
I was also standing there completely on my own. In terms of this being an experience of spiritual death, that probably helped. Because there were no witnesses to my confusion, I was free to experience my confusion far more intensely, and I also to think more clearly. It was a more concentrated experience. And all of a sudden I really, truly, saw my situation. And saw that I was totally creating this situation myself. It was a moment of pure Eureka – I saw that it wasn’t the rain, or the bus, or even my body that was causing my suffering. It was my attitude that was causing it, just my attitude. I saw that my suffering was based entirely on the way I was interpreting these experiences of cold and wet. I felt them as bad, terrible, unbearably humiliating. But for a healthy ten year old, getting wet isn’t life-threatening; it’s just another kind of experience. And I suddenly saw I could just let the interpretations go. I could relax, and let the rain do what it liked, even take a kind of pleasure in it soaking through my coat and trousers and hair, in other words allow my mind to stop being so rigid and let in some new thoughts, instead of so painfully fixating on not wanting this ghastly thing to happen.
I actually did that, and it was a profound experience. I was amazed at what just stopping could achieve. I felt so liberated. I was on a high when the bus finally arrived, and I was elated all that evening. For a while I realised that I never have to feel trapped by circumstances. This I had never experienced so clearly before. After that, it was always possible to ask, "Could there be some other approach to this unsupportable situation?” – whatever it was. Am I just reacting blindly and getting tense, instead of simply being here in the present and allowing my experience to unfold more naturally?"
That really was an experience of spiritual death. What died, at least for a while, was my rigid view of who I was and what kind of world I live in. It was painful, there was a really difficult inner conflict, and it was letting go my rigid self view that released that conflict. It was also an experience of emptiness, of the teaching of conditioned arising, even though it was some time before I encountered any Buddhist teachings. It was an intense experience in which I saw that I was in ‘a situation’ – a situation where there was a very strong sense of ‘me’ and a very strong sense of something happening to me. Isn’t every moment of our unawakened lives a situation in that sense? It might not always be intense in that way, but the strong sense of me and my world, that view of things, is what always determines our experience and, generally, makes it a mundane, samsaric experience. Sometimes, we get a glimpse like that – that life can be different. Because in truth it is always empty of self, empty of all we are putting on to it. Let that reality in, and the same situation can become full of rich potential, full of awakened awareness.
Before ending this talk I want to mention the Perfection of Wisdom or Prajna Paramita, the teaching of insight or spiritual death through seeing emptiness. This teaching came just a little later than the written down Pali Canon, where most teachings on spiritual death are focused on impermanence and conditionality. The Prajnaparamita message is encapsulated in the Heart Sutra we recite in the Sevenfold Puja. You know, when we say, ‘The Bodhisattva of Compassion, When he meditated deeply, saw the emptiness of all five skandhas’. So if you learn that, and reflect on it, it becomes an easy way to develop spiritual death in your own experience. Emptiness is never something abstract. It is everything. And this is very important for us all. We all need to find ways to make vipashyana, insight, something that is very real and concrete. It’s important that we don’t water this down. Now that we are now encouraged to think in terms of spiritual death and spiritual rebirth I am already hearing watered down versions of what that means. Spiritual death does mean experiences where we are a bit challenged, where for example we have to accept that we have been unskilful, or arrogant, or wrong. But there is far more to it than that, and we are all very capable of entering into the full depth of it.
This is the territory of the great mother, Prajnaparamita, the female bodhisattva of wisdom. This idea of 'The great mother bodhisattva' can be a helpful one only if we ask why. Well, she is the great mother because without this perfection of wisdom, there is no realisation, and so there’s no Buddha. So metaphorically, Prajnaparamita gives birth to all the Buddhas. And of course she also gives birth to our own insights into impermanence, into non self, into the great emptiness of things that removes the suffering that comes from our substantialist views. Our wrong views that there are things that exist as such. She gives birth at that moment when we open to the fact that this thing we are seeing is actually not like that. And that’s enough as a start: we may not be able to see what this apparent thing actually is, in the fulness of its real nature, but just to open a bit and recognise a bit that this is not anything substantial, that there's just a mass of conditions here, that the situation is live and dynamic, that it’s not fixed and solid as it appears to be - that moment is the birth of wisdom. The wisdom is incomplete, perhaps, at the moment, but it’s still the real thing. As I stood at the bus stop, my view was, I am getting wet and the rain is doing this to me, the bus not appearing is doing this to me. And then I saw that I was an idea. Me getting wet was also an idea. The bus not appearing, the suffering of being wet and cold, the delay, the sense of subjection, the sense of being trapped, these were also all ideas. Not realities, because when the great mother gave birth to a new way of seeing, those so called realities, those apparent things, all changed. I was not what I assumed. The wet sensation, the being trapped - all of it totally changed. I was free, I was not trapped. I was not being subjected. I was not even wet, in terms of my previous idea of what wetness was. It was all something else. I was someone else.
We all have such moments, though we might have forgotten them. I only remembered my bus stop moment about ten years ago, meditating on my long retreat. In the Triratna Community we practice to bring about such moments from time to time – I don’t mean just to bring them about, but also to understand them and assimilate them into our lives. Sharing them, too, because through sharing experience we understand better. We need to find people who are likely to understand us, people we can trust with our deep experiences, otherwise it will get confusing, but there are people we can trust, and we are a community whose practice is deepening. It’s important we are grounded in the eastern and southern parts of the practice mandala – have good, deep experience of integration, empathy, positive emotion and reflection. Along with improving our connections within the sangha. But the real sangha arises out of familiarity with spiritual death and the spiritual rebirth that comes out of the collapse of spiritual death.
If these kinds of meditation and reflection seem abstract, anti intuitive, or even intellectual, it is a result of not looking into what it is really about. Actually the issue is really deeply emotional, and it affects us all the time. The image of me writhing around at my bus stop, trying not to be there, is emblematic of so much of our lives. We all need to stop and relax our resistance to reality, and let it in. Let in the blessing influence of the enlightened reality that all the Buddhas have realised, and which is there all the time. In the words of Red Pine's translation of the Heart Sutra, we need to go for refuge to the Perfection of Wisdom and start living without walls in the mind. Without walls of the mind and thus without fears, we’ll see though delusions and finally enter nirvana. Just as have all buddhas – past, present, and future – also taken refuge in Prajnaparamita and realized unexcelled, perfect enlightenment.