Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa

The Angel in the Rock

Talk one of four on generosity or dana

Some people ask questions such as, “What do Buddhists believe in?”, “Do you believe in God?” or “What do you have to believe in to be a Buddhist?” or “You believe in Karma and rebirth, don’t you?” These are fairly common questions, they may even be questions for some of you here so I will touch on them during the course of this talk. But before that I want to say something about what Faith is from a Buddhist perspective and indeed what it is not. Then I will talk about what Buddhists have Faith in, touching on the questions mentioned. I will also say something about the necessity of Faith and about what you have to believe in to be a Buddhist and I will finish off by talking about how to cultivate or develop Faith. First of all, what is Faith? When I was growing up in Ireland I was given a thorough indoctrination in Catholicism. Sometimes Catholicism is referred to simply as ‘The Faith’ and indeed Faith played a big part in the Catholicism that I was immersed in (almost drowned in I might say). Whenever there was a particularly tricky bit of doctrine that could not be explained it was called a Mystery, the teacher would say, “That’s a mystery, you just have to believe it”. So in this instance Faith was a substitute for knowledge; where knowledge failed, Faith stepped in. This is not what Faith is in Buddhism. There are three elements to Faith according to Buddhism – in fact three stages. These are intuition, reason and experience. Faith based on intuition has to be tested by Faith based on reason and Faith based on reason has to be tested by Faith based on experience. So that a full rounded Faith is in the end based on experience, which is where true knowledge resides. True knowledge is also based on experience not merely on having an intellectual grasp of something. Imagine you are in a strange city, you want to get to somewhere but you do not know the way. Your intuition tells you to ask a particular person and after speaking to them your reason confirms what your intuition had surmised i.e. that they were familiar with the city and after following their directions your experience of arriving at the correct destination confirms what your intuition and your reason told you. So the first level of Faith in Buddhism is based on intuition. At this stage there is a response in us to something which embodies meaning and the possibility of fulfilment and perfection. At this level our Faith may be confused and unfocused. We are looking for something but we do not know what it is that we are looking for. We have our experience of dissatisfaction perhaps and an intuition, a feeling, that there is something better, that there is more to life and we start searching, we start looking. It is this kind of intuitive faith that gets us to attend retreats and to start meditating. I remember about eighteen years ago, (I was twenty-one at the time) I was working in London as an accountant and I just could not believe that this was what life was about. My imagination was not satisfied with a projected future of house and car and family and golf and happiness measured in money and material success. No, I just was not satisfied with that. There had to be more to life; my intuition told me there was and my imagination gave me clues as to what it might be. So intuition and imagination are closely allied. You are looking for something and you do not know what it is you are looking for but your imagination has some inkling. There is a story about Michelangelo. Apparently he was just outside the city walls working on a sculpture, chipping away at a huge rock, and a small boy came and sat down nearby watching and eventually the boy piped up and asked a question. Children sometimes ask very good questions. Children can possess that freshness of approach which is known as ‘beginner’s mind’. So this little boy asked a very obvious question, but I think nevertheless, a profoundly important one. He said, “Mister, Signor, why are you hitting that big rock?”. Not, “What does it mean?”, or, “How do you do it?”, but “Why are you hitting that rock?” Just as an aside, I was thinking that this is a very good question, a fundamental question, it seems to go right to the heart of the matter. Perhaps in the realm of the arts this is the best sort of question: not, “What does your painting or sculpture mean?”, or, “How do you do it?”, but, “Why? Why are you putting paint on canvas, why are you hitting that rock?” So Michelangelo, in the story anyway, took this question very seriously and gave a serious answer, he gave a very poetic answer, which just like the simple question of the little boy, goes to the heart of the matter. Michelangelo replied, “To set an angel free”. Our imagination supplies the angels that our reason and experience cannot as yet grasp. Many people have within them a vague imagining of what life could be, even what life should be. Some people dismiss this seed of the spiritual life as nonsense, as fantasy, and proceed to live according to what passes for reality. For others their imagining of a better world takes them into politics, into social work, into the caring professions, into environmental campaigning or even into all of these, and then for some it leads to the arts and for a few it leads to the spiritual life. Many people when they come across Buddhism or come across the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, experience a feeling of coming home. That is how people often describe it, coming home. It is as if at last they have found something quite concrete that corresponds to what they had imagined. This was my own experience. First in West Berlin when I encountered Buddhism finally, in the form of a practising Buddhist; I was uplifted by the experience, here was a whole universe of possibility opening up for me and I was over-joyed and eager to get started. Then a year later in London I came across the FWBO in a book called, Buddhism for Today and immediately I had this feeling of coming home. Thoughts and imaginings that I had had and had even tried to put into effect were being practised by people right there in London. I had found the ‘jewel in the dung heap’, as one Buddhist parable puts it, and somehow intuitively I knew this was it, this was what I was looking for. The clearer I became about Buddhism, the clearer I could see what the FWBO was aiming at. The clearer I became the more my intelligence, my reason was able to confirm what my intuition had glimpsed. So the first level of Faith is the level of intuition and imagination when as Sangharakshita puts it, “What is ultimate in us responds to what is ultimate in the universe”.(1) The dull grey rock of the everyday world begins to yield up angels to the inner vision of our heart. The next level of Faith then is the level of intelligence or reason. The first thing to be noted here is that whether in religion or in life generally you have to take some things on trust. It is a condition of life that we have to take some things on trust. In order to get here to Sibford you may have had to take on trust that the trains would run. You could not be absolutely sure, strikes happen, breakdowns happen, accidents happen, but you set out anyway, trusting that you would get a train and so on. If you did not have some trust in this way you would not be able to do anything. If you insisted on having a one hundred percent guarantee that the train would run, there would be no breakdowns, no accidents, well you would have to stay at home. The point here is that if we have an over sceptical attitude, if we want reasons for everything and want certainty before we act, then we are likely to remain inactive. At this level of Faith, the level of reason and intelligence, you can gather evidence, observe, think things through, ask questions and satisfy yourself that your beliefs are sensible, but until you have experience you cannot be absolutely sure. For instance I might say to you “if you act generously, you will be happier and you will grow spiritually”. If you were very cynical you might think,” he is after my money”, and not listen any further or think about it any more. On the other hand you might have quite a receptive attitude and ask “why is that the case?” “Why would generosity make me happier?” “What do you mean by generosity anyway?” and, “What is the connection between generosity and spiritual growth?” You might ask all these questions and ponder the answers and come to the conclusion that it was perhaps worth a try anyway, or if you knew me and knew something of my life you might think, “well, maybe I can trust what he says.” We need to ask questions, we need to seek clarification, but we need to realise that we cannot have complete intellectual certainty before we act. Something has to be taken on trust. It is said that one way to recognise genuine spiritual teachers is that they will always encourage you to ask questions, to seek clarification and to verify things for yourself. Whereas non-genuine teachers will make claims for themselves and expect you to accept what they say just because they say it. It is a distinct and distinguishing feature of Buddhism that there is nothing worth knowing that you cannot verify in your own experience. If it is worth knowing you can verify it in your own experience. It may take time and effort but it is possible. There is no mystery that has to be covered by a blanket of blind faith. In Buddhism it is legitimate and essential to look for a congruency between what people teach and how they live their lives. You can expect ethical behaviour from those who teach the benefits of ethics, you can expect people to practise what they preach or as I believe the Americans say, “To walk the talk”. This means of course that if some guru or other tries to explain away lapses into unethical behaviour as being a means of testing the faith of his disciples, it should be taken with a very large pinch of salt indeed. I am not saying, by the way, that a spiritual teacher would never do anything wrong, what I am saying is that a genuine teacher would acknowledge it as such rather than try to polish it up to look like an esoteric teaching. So at the level of reason you try to find clarity and make sense of what you intuited, but you do not expect to have a one hundred percent certainty before acting. To be really certain you have to practise, you have to gain your own experience. Buddhism is quite pragmatic. You practise and then you can see for yourself the results. But the main thing is you have to practise. You have to act. The theme is try it and see for yourself. When you try meditation for instance you will have some experience to base your faith on. If you had been meditating regularly for a year say, then you could very confidently say what the benefits were and you could extrapolate from that what the benefits of carrying on for another year would be or ten years or twenty years. These then are the elements of Faith in Buddhism; Intuition, Intelligence, and Experience. A reliance on blind belief is not only not required, but is considered harmful. A reliance on blind belief is an abdication of personal responsibility and according to Buddhism you are responsible for your own life and your own mind. Having said a bit about what Faith is in Buddhism, let us now look at the objects of Faith. What do Buddhists have faith in, what do Buddhists believe in? The simple answer is Buddhists believe in the Buddha, Buddhists have faith in the Buddha. So what does this mean? For Buddhists the Buddha represents the greatest, the highest, human ideal, the Ideal of Human Enlightenment, the Ideal of Human Perfection. The Buddha represents the pinnacle, the peak, of human achievement, the perfection of Wisdom and Compassion. The ultimate meaning of existence is embodied in the Buddha and this is what all humanity is capable of, this is what all men and women are capable of. All men and women are capable of gaining Enlightenment, of gaining Insight into the nature of existence. All men and women are capable of attaining to the pinnacle of Wisdom and Compassion. This means you and I. You and I are capable of attaining this ideal, perfected state of boundless Wisdom and Compassion, this state of constant creativity and unceasing altruistic activity. Faith in the Buddha means faith in yourself too. Faith that you as a human being can grow and develop beyond anything we may even be able to imagine at this stage. So this faith in the Buddha, as actually Enlightened and yourself as potentially Enlightened is the first thing that Buddhists believe in. Following on from this is belief in the practices which create the conditions for the unenlightened to become Enlightened. These are ethics and meditation. If we lead an ethical life we will have a clear conscience and a clear conscience is a basic condition for making progress in meditation. According to Buddhism ethics are a description of the intelligent way to behave. Buddhism speaks of skilful and unskilful actions rather than in terms of right and wrong. To be ethical then is to be skilful, to be intelligent. There are five ethical principles, five modes of skilful behaviour. Each one is formulated negatively, in terms of what one refrains from doing and positively in terms of what one does. They are principles as I said, not rules. They are sometimes referred to as training principles. This is how you train yourself to become a better person, this is how you would spontaneously behave if you were Enlightened. The training principles are: I undertake to refrain from harming living beings. The positive counterpart of this is deeds of loving kindness. Secondly, I undertake to refrain from taking the not given. The positive counterpart is open-handed generosity. Thirdly, I undertake to refrain from sexual misconduct. The positive counterpart is stillness, simplicity and contentment. Then fourthly, I undertake to refrain from false speech. The positive counterpart is truthful communication. The fifth and last is I undertake to refrain from taking intoxicants that cloud the mind. The positive counterpart of that is mindfulness clear and radiant. These are the five training principles that form the basis of Buddhist ethics and by endeavouring to train ourselves to behave skilfully in line with these we will be helping ourselves to grow and develop, helping ourselves to turn our faith in the Buddha and in our own potential into an experience of spiritual change. It is worth noting in particular that each precept is preceded by “I undertake”. It is not, “Thou shalt not”, it is, “I undertake”. As I said before we are responsible for our own lives. Faith in our potential and wanting to change leads us to skilful action and to meditation. Through meditation, we can by degrees integrate our energies so that more of us is moving in the same direction and we can develop Metta or loving kindness which is what underlies all the training principles. Our integrated and concentrated energies will create the conditions for Wisdom and our expansion into the realms of Metta will form the basis for Compassion. Wisdom and Compassion perfected to their highest is another way of describing Enlightenment. As Buddhists we believe in the Buddha and by extension in our own potential Buddhahood and that by undertaking certain practices recommended by the Buddha we too can attain to Buddhahood. All the practices which conduce to the attainment of Buddhahood or Enlightenment are called the Dharma. So Buddhists have faith in the Buddha and the Dharma. And in answer to the question, “What do you have to believe to be Buddhist?” the answer is, “You have to believe that you can grow, that you can change”. That is it, that is what you have to believe to be a Buddhist. If you have got that as the foundation then you can start to see all the implications and embark on the practices at your own pace. But if you do not believe that you can grow and change and become a better person, then there is no point. There were two other questions I mentioned at the beginning, “Do Buddhists believe in God?” and “Do Buddhists believe in Karma and Rebirth?” Firstly, “Do Buddhists believe in God?” No! For Buddhists, Human Enlightenment is the highest Ideal and Enlightenment is a process, a process of constant creativity and increasing altruistic activity. The universe is a process, there is no first beginning that is perceivable. Belief in a Creator God who rewards the good and punishes the wicked is a hindrance to human growth and in Buddhism considered to be a state of spiritual ignorance. It is considered to be an abdication of personal responsibility and therefore quite likely to lead to unskilful behaviour, and indeed history has shown this to be the case. So, Buddhists do not believe in God, quite the contrary. According to Sangharakshita “It is best not to believe in God. If one does believe in him one should at least disobey him.”(2) “Do Buddhists believe in Karma and rebirth?” Well, a bit of explanation is necessary here before giving an answer. What is Karma? Karma means “action”. The term Karma is often misused to mean the fruits of action, but that is not correct, the fruits of actions are called Karma-vipaka. So Karma means action and Karma-vipaka means consequences of actions. Therefore the question “Do Buddhists believe in Karma?” is probably better phrased as “Do Buddhists believe that actions have consequences?” and the answer is yes. But more than that, Buddhists believe that skilful actions have beneficial consequences and unskilful actions have bad consequences. So Karma is an important theme in Buddhism. Because actions have consequences and because the consequences of action are not random but connected to the action, it is possible to make use of Karma or the law of Karma as it is sometimes called and by engaging in skilful actions, skilful Karma, you can be sure of creating beneficial consequences for yourself and others. Buddhists do believe in Karma, Buddhists do believe that actions have consequences and that it is possible to make use of this fact in order to grow and develop. Karma is a friend. What about rebirth? Do Buddhists believe in rebirth? The traditional Buddhist view is that consciousness is a continuum. Consciousness is not extinguished at death but rather forms a new body for itself in accordance with its tendencies and actions. This continuum of consciousness is like a stream of volitional energy that constantly changes and modifies in accordance with each new act of body, speech and mind. There is no scientific evidence for rebirth. There is also no scientific evidence that consciousness ends with death. The Buddhist belief in rebirth or in a continuum of consciousness passing through many lives, is not based on scientific evidence. Ultimately this doctrine is based on the Buddha’s experience. According to Buddhism one by-product of attaining higher states of consciousness is that one can remember previous lives and when the Buddha gained Enlightenment he saw all his previous lives. This is a bit similar to the notion that when someone is approaching death their whole life passes before them. So on attaining Enlightenment lifetimes pass before us. As Subhuti says in The Buddhist Vision; Limitless time and immeasurable space are the background to the Buddhist vision of human existence. Self-consciousness flows in a powerful stream of willing, building for itself bodies and worlds which most appropriately express its own nature. If it is unwholesome in character it forms lives of pain and frustration. If it is wholesome it climbs the ladder of the Higher Evolution. It may traverse the Path in the course of countless aeons, rising slowly, life by life, or it may, with exceptional gifts and prodigious effort, pass from self-consciousness to Transcendental consciousness in a single life. Those who call themselves Buddhists but who do not believe that they will be reborn will have to make sure that they gain enlightenment in this life!(3) We have looked at what Faith is from a Buddhist perspective and saw that it was based on Intuition, Intelligence and Experience. We saw that Buddhists believe in the Buddha, the Ideal of Human Enlightenment and in their own potential to grow and develop and ultimately to gain Enlightenment. We saw that what Buddhists have to believe in is that it is possible to grow and change. We saw that Buddhists believe that actions have consequences and that skilful actions have beneficial consequences and unskilful actions have bad consequences. This is the Law of Karma. We saw that Buddhists do not believe in God and in fact consider such belief to be an obstacle to spiritual growth. Finally we saw that the Buddhist perspective takes in many lifetimes, as the stream of volitional energy that is consciousness continually manifests in pursuit of its tendencies. Faith is an openness to something outside our present experience. Without faith in new possibilities and greater potential, we are stuck. So Faith provides the energy, the emotional engagement for us to move on, to chip away at the stony shell of our pride and selfishness until we release the angel of our aspirations. Faith is an extremely emotionally-positive state. One Buddhist writer, Dr. Edward Conze put it this way; Faith is an attitude of serenity and lucidity. Its opposite here is worry, the state of being troubled by many things. It is said that someone that has faith loses the ‘five terrors’, i.e. he ceases to worry about the necessities of life, about loss of reputation, death, unhappy rebirth and the impression he may make on an audience.(4) So you see I am testing my faith by standing up here talking to you. Faith is a state of positive emotion because with faith you are no longer overly concerned with yourself, you are imbued with the Ideal, you are not dependent on others for approval because you have faith in the potential of yourself and all humanity to attain to the Ideal of Perfection. We live these days in a world that places very high value on the rational and a world that often confuses cynicism with intelligence. Faith has come to be identified as irrational and therefore suspect. Belief in anything beyond the evidence of the senses can be cynically dismissed. This is a very one-sided and stultifying attitude. An atmosphere of cynicism makes growth impossible and fosters distrust, selfishness and isolation. Faith is an openness to new experience, an openness to possibilities and potentials beyond what we already know. Faith fosters an attitude of expansiveness, trust and generosity and creates an atmosphere in which growth is encouraged. Cynicism inhibits our potential. Faith gives us potency, it empowers us to act, to step out of the known and to taste the freedom of the unknown. Faith gives more credence to the great unexplored world of our imagination and refuses to be confined by the limitations of our reasoning. It has been said that, “Faith is innate and Doubt is acquired”.(5) In other words, the urge to grow, to expand is an innate tendency of all life, it is life. Although it is innate, it has to be nurtured. Positive emotion has to be nurtured and cultivated. There are specific practices for encouraging positive emotion. There is the Metta Bhavana meditation, there are Communication Exercises and there is Ritual. The main ritual we perform is the Sevenfold Puja. The Sevenfold Puja is a ritual in which we recite verse and chant mantras. The purpose of the Sevenfold Puja is to transform our intellectual understanding into an emotional experience. The seven verses express different moods ; they are seven stages outlining the journey from recognition of the existence of the Ideal in the first verse, to a wholehearted expression of our aspiration to be of service to all beings everywhere in the final verse. These devotional and aspirational verses together with the ritual of making offerings to the Ideal as symbolised by the shrine, and chanting mantras to invoke Compassion and energy, all help us to transform our emotions and to cultivate faith and openness to that which is outside our present experience. We say with open hearts, “May I become that which maintains all beings situated throughout space, so long as all have not attained to peace.” The puja is the poetry of devotion. Poetry reaches into the inner recesses of our hearts and bids us to look up and out and to start to embrace life without fear. Here is something, from the American poet Walt Whitman, that expresses something of this; Each man and each woman of you I lead upon an knoll, My left hand hooks you round the waist, My right hand points to landscapes of continents and a plain public road. Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you, You must travel it for yourself. It is not far… it is within reach. Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know, Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land. Shoulder your duds, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth; Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go. If you tire, give me both burdens, and rest the chuff of your hand on my hip, And in due time you shall repay the same service to me; For after we start we never lie by again.(6) Elsewhere he writes; Henceforth I ask not good fortune, I myself am good fortune, Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing, Done with indoor complaints, libraries, querulous criticisms Strong and content, I travel the open road.(7) For Walt Whitman the Open Road turned out to be the American Civil War, which gave him the opportunity to give his love and compassion on a grand scale to the sick and wounded soldiers in the makeshift hospitals of Washington. He found an outlet for his expansive love and experienced the freedom of being able to give unstintingly. Each of us will find our own open road where the meaning of our lives lies before us. Each of us can free the angel of Faith from the rock of our fears.

The Angel in the Rock - References (1) Sangharakshita, Lecture 41, The Psychology of Spiritual Development. (2) Sangharakshita, Peace is a Fire, page 30. (3) Subhuti, The Buddhist Vision, page 76. (4) Sangharakshita, Way to Wisdom seminar, page 30. (5) Sangharakshita, Peace is a Fire, page 85. (6) Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Penguin 1986, page 80. (7) Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Bantam 1983, page 119.