Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa

Wider Horizons

Talk four of six on the Buddhist Wisdom teachings

The Buddha said that all ordinary people are mad. The reason we are considered to be mad, from an enlightened point of view, is because we behave as if changing things were permanent, as if unreal things were real, as if painful things were pleasant and as if ugly things were beautiful. These are known as the four ‘perversities’ or the four topsy-turvy views (viparyasas). Buddhism makes a distinction, at least provisionally, between Samsara and Nirvana. Samsara is the unenlightened state, it is cyclic existence, it is the constant round of birth and death that we fall into because of our spiritual ignorance. Nirvana is the Enlightened state; it transcends the cycle of birth and death. This distinction between Samsara and Nirvana is, as I said, provisional. It is how we have to approach things because of our unawakened, dualistic perceptions. There is, of course, only one Reality. Those who Awake to the true nature of Reality do not pass into some parallel Universe or some other dimension. The distinction is really that they are Awake and we are asleep. They can see Reality as it is, we see Reality in a topsy-turvy, perverse way. For instance, we see what is changing as permanent. This does not mean that we think nothing ever changes – that would be perverse indeed – but we behave and live our lives as if we and the transient things of the world were permanent. Perhaps we see this most clearly when we suffer a loss. If our partner or lover decides to leave us, we get upset because having believed in eternal romance, we can’t cope with the inevitable transience. If we lose our favourite pen, or our bicycle is stolen or our TV breaks down, we get upset and annoyed and rail against the injustice because we are attached to things and want them always to remain the same and remain with us. And especially perhaps when someone close to us dies, we are shocked by the unfairness of it. Why did they have to die? And perhaps they weren’t even old. Because we identify ourselves and other people with our bodies we see what is simply part of a process as something final and fatal. But we are not our bodies, other people are not their bodies and when the body ceases to function, nothing final has happened really. That body and those senses have always been in a process of change and gradual dissolution. That is the reality of physical existence. Things come into being, flourish for a while, then decay and die. If we could relate to others in a more real way, rather than becoming attached to their form and senses, we would have a totally different experience of death. But to relate to others differently we would have to relate to ourselves differently. We would have to realise that we are simply a constantly changing process, a mind/body continuum. However, we usually behave as if we are fixed, unchanging, and substantial. We have a sense of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ that seems quite real and solid. We may even come to accept our essential impermanence but we think ‘I’ am changing. These changes are happening to ‘me’. So we cling to an ‘I’, an ‘ego’ which is ultimately unreal. This does not mean we don’t have a personality, it simply means that there is nothing ultimately real about our personality, it is change, it is process. But we are subject to the topsy-turvy view that we are a fixed self and this means that we try to take some things in to enhance this self and keep some things out to protect the self. Like a walled city, with gates to allow in what is needed and wanted and defences to attack and keep out what is not wanted, we proceed through life giving vent to craving and ill will. And, of course, this perversity lived out in the lives of individuals is also lived out collectively between nations and tribes and groups of all kinds. This can lead to such horrors as war and extermination camps and torture chambers. No wonder the Buddha said ordinary people are mad! We also hold to the topsy-turvy view that satisfaction is to be gained where satisfaction cannot be gained. In the last chapter we mentioned this in terms of false refuges. For instance, many people are convinced that life would be a real bed of roses if only they had enough money. With money they could do whatever they wanted, go on holiday whenever they liked, they wouldn’t have to work and so on. But it is also well known that very wealthy people are not necessarily happy and, in fact, are frequently unhappy. Money cannot buy existential wholeness, or even love for that matter. That bed of roses still has thorns in it. Many people also think they will be really happy if only they find the right partner – Mr. Right or Ms. Right. And sometimes people will go through many relationships before it dawns on them that the perfect person of their dreams is just a dream, is just a projection of their own mind and will not be found outside them. Some people, of course, never realise this. Others realise it enough to know that their real happiness will not be found in that direction and others half realise it, so that they learn to put up with less than they want, sometimes contentedly, sometimes grumpily. Some people stake their happiness on security in old age. They decide to work hard and put by enough savings and earn a good pension so that when they retire they will be able to do all those things they enjoy; travelling and golf and gardening and going to the theatre and so on. It is a big gamble. They may not be able to do those things when they are older, due to ill health or even loss of interest. Or the whole financial and political order that savings and pensions depend upon may not be quite as stable as it seems. It is only as stable as the human beings who operate it and that is not very stable at all. This does not mean that you should not try to provide for your old age, just that that it is unwise to postpone your life. As E.M. Forster put it “ We can spend our whole life preparing to live” We could probably multiply examples of how people expect to gain some sort of permanent satisfaction from the transient processes of life. But lets look at the fourth topsy-turvy view. This is the feeling that what is ugly is really beautiful. It is easy to misunderstand this. It is not saying that there is no beauty in the world. What it is saying is that what we normally consider to be beautiful is relatively ugly compared to the greater beauty of Nirvana. So these four viparyasas (topsy-turvies) are how the unenlightened experience the world and themselves. The Enlightened see the world of the unenlightened completely differently. To the Enlightened the world of the unenlightened is characterised by impermanence, insubstantiality and suffering. To move from the world of the unenlightened to the world of the Enlightened we need to experience Insight into the true nature of unenlightened existence. By penetrating deeply into the true nature of unenlightened existence (Samsara) we arrive at the doors of liberation and pass through it into Nirvana, the world of Awakened existence which is permanent, blissful but still insubstantial. Gaining Insight (Vipassana) then is first of all having a direct realisation of the true nature of unenlightened existence. It is seeing or experiencing the world as we know it as being characterised by impermanence, insubstantiality and unsatisfactoriness. These are the 3 Lakshanas or ‘marks’ of unenlightened existence and if we penetrate deeply enough into any one of them we will see the other two. So let us look at each one in turn. Firstly, Impermanence (Pali, annicca, Sanskrit, anitya). From the point of view of someone with Insight, someone who is Awakened or irreversibly on the path to Awakening, this whole Universe and everything in it is impermanent, transient. This is not just a point of view, this is an experience. Our own bodies are changing all the time, however imperceptibly, our minds are changing very rapidly and our emotions are in constant flux. The world of nature, from the tiniest plant or insect to the biggest mountain, is changing too. And the stars and planets are changing, indeed, some of the stars we see in the night sky are already extinct. And from the perspective of Buddhist cosmology, Universes too come into being, continue for a time and then pass away. Science tells us that there is no such thing as matter, only various forms of energy. This should make it easier for us to see the truth of impermanence. Perhaps it does. However, what really needs to change is not our ideas about the world and ourselves but our emotional responses which drive our behaviour. This is much more difficult to accomplish but it can be accomplished as the records of the Buddhist scriptures and commentaries for over two and a half thousand years can testify. The second ‘mark’ of unenlightened existence we will look at is insubstantiality (Pali, annatta, Sanskrit, anatman). As I said earlier, we may accept, at least intellectually, that all things are transient including ourselves but we may still retain the sense that change happens to ‘me’, that ‘I’ am changing. So this Lakshana is realised by turning our concentrated awareness inwards and investigating our experience. We look at the five skandhas, the five constituents of personality and see that there is nothing fixed or permanent in any of them, there is no ‘self’ to be found in them. The five skandhas, which we will be familiar with from the ‘Heart Sutra’, are form, feeling, perception, volitions and consciousness. There is no ‘I’ which changes, there is only change, only process, only transience. And turning our attention to others we see that the same applies to them. They are also devoid of any fixed self. They too are change. Even on superficial reflection we can see how this sort of realisation would radically alter our relationship to ourself and to others. Another practice which helps to loosen our clinging to a self or ego is the Six Element practice. In this practice we systematically go through body and mind and see that all the elements are transitory and therefore not ‘me’ or ‘mine’. This practice is taken up by people about to be ordained into the Western Buddhist Order. Ordination represents a spiritual death and rebirth and, therefore, it is best to loosen the attachment to a fixed self as much as possible at that time. An interesting point about this characteristic of unenlightened existence is that it is also a characteristic of Enlightened existence. Nirvana is also insubstantial. This is because nothing can be said of Nirvana, it is ineffable. It cannot be defined in any way, whether as existent or non-existent. It cannot even be defined as Nirvana because that imposes limits on it. It suggests that it is something other than Samsara, whereas really the Enlightened state transcends all distinctions including the distinction between Samsara and Nirvana. This can remind us not to take concepts too literally and to remember that language is limited in how far it can go to express the Transcendental. The next characteristic or ‘mark’ of unenlightened existence is that it is unsatisfactory (Pali, dukkha, Sanskrit, duhkha). Dukkha covers the entire spectrum of experience from grossest physical pain to the most subtle forms of psychological or existential unease. The Buddha usually outlines seven different kinds of unsatisfactoriness. These are birth, old age, sickness, death, contact with what one dislikes, separation from what one likes and not getting what one wants. In addition to these the Buddhist scholar, Dr. Edward Conze, has pointed out four kinds of hidden unsatisfactoriness. Let’s just briefly go through all of these. Birth is physical suffering for the mother, emotionally stressful for the father and probably very disruptive, not to say traumatic for the baby. Old age is characterised by physical deterioration, loss of memory, dependence on others and, in some cases, senility and other unpleasant discomforts. Sickness is not pleasant. It is physically uncomfortable, at times painful and it is distressing and the cause of fear and anxiety. And apart from physical illness there are all sorts of stress and neuroses which are also a cause of suffering. Death is suffering for those who are bereaved. It is also unsatisfactory to know that all our loved ones will die and that we too will die. And the approach of death can cause great distress for those who have regrets. Contact with what one dislikes is unsatisfactory. This could be our work, it could be other people, it could simply be the weather but often we can find ourselves in situations or with people we don’t like which is stressful and upsetting. Being separated from what we do like is unsatisfactory. We’ve mentioned bereavement already. Then people are separated from friends and family by war and famine and natural disasters. This sort of thing can have a life shattering effect from which people never recover. This separation from what we like can happen on a smaller scale when something is lost or stolen. And finally, it is unsatisfactory not to get what we want. This is the pain of disappointment and frustration. You can see it very clearly in young children who stamp their feet and scream when denied what they want. And this stamping and screaming carries on into adulthood, except it is internalised and perhaps only emerges as bitterness or swearing or anger on particularly frustrating occasions. So those are the seven kinds of unsatisfactoriness mentioned by the Buddha. As well as these fairly obvious forms of suffering, there is concealed suffering and Dr. Conze points out four aspects to this. Firstly, there are pleasant experiences which cause suffering to others. Two examples of this are the enjoyment of eating meat which causes obvious suffering to animals. This could be extended to dairy products too. The other example is being very wealthy. The reason these are cited as examples of concealed suffering is because usually in these cases we are dimly aware that our pleasure is another’s pain and this dim awareness taints the pleasure for us and gives us an uneasy conscience. We feel guilty even though we may not be quite sure why. This is a form of dukkha. The second form of concealed suffering is when we experience something as pleasant but we are afraid of losing it. An example given here is power. Those who have power find it hard to trust anybody out of the fear of losing their power. An image from the Pali Canon for this kind of thing is that of the hawk flying off with a piece of meat in its claws and the other hawks fly after it. But they don’t peck at the meat, they peck at the hawk until it loosens its grip. The world of politics and business can be like this. The third kind of hidden dukkha is the experience of something pleasant that binds us to something unpleasant. The example given is the body. We experience all sorts of pleasant sensations through the body but because we have a body we also experience all sorts of unpleasant sensations. We can’t have the one without the other. The last kind of hidden unsatisfactoriness is that the deepest yearnings of the heart are never fulfilled by worldly pleasures. We are always left with a feeling of lacking something, of feeling empty even. This is because there is something in us that only responds to the spiritual, to the Transcendental even. There is something in us that yearns for Nirvana, that ultimate peace. This is what gives rise to shraddha and sets us on the spiritual path. You could say this is our Buddha nature. So those are the three Lakshanas, the three characteristics of unenlightened existence: impermanence, insubstantiality and unsatisfactoriness. When Insight arises in us this is how we see unenlightened existence. And we can help to bring about Insight by penetrating deeply into one or all of these Lakshanas. The experience of one with Insight is permanent, insubstantial and blissful. It is permanent in the sense that the Awake can never fall back into being unawake. It is insubstantial in that it is indefinable, as we’ve already said and it is blissful because there is no longer any craving or aversion. We don’t want anything and we don’t not want anything. As David Smith puts it in his Record of Awakening, “It became clearer and clearer that everything in this great, big beautiful world of trees, rivers and mountains is only a creation of mind.” Seeing that all is mind created we are no longer attached or afraid. The three Lakshanas are gateways to liberation and when we investigate them deeply, thoroughly and effectively we emerge into the three Liberations or three Vimokshas. The three Vimokshas are the Imageless, the Unbiased and the Void. The Imageless (animitta) is the freedom we experience when we penetrate deeply into impermanence. It means that we will no longer feel the need to label things with words or thoughts. We have transcended the level of concepts and have a direct experience of Reality of which nothing can be said or even thought. The Unbiased (apranihita) is the liberation experienced when the lakshana of unsatisfactoriness is probed into deeply. Unbiased means there is no leaning in any direction, no tendency towards this or that. There is just complete calm and equanimity. Utter peace. The Void (Shunyata) is the freedom attained when insubstantiality is penetrated to its depths. The Void translates Shunyata. Shunyata is the term employed by Mahayana Buddhism to counteract any tendency to dualism, such as the tendency to see Samsara and Nirvana as separate. Shunyata is the experience of realising the emptiness or voidness of the distinction between Samsara and Nirvana. These three doors of liberation, the Lakshanas and Vimokshas, are also sometimes related to three Bodhisattvas, Avolokitesvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani. Avolokitesvara is the embodiment of Compassion and those who meditate on his form and chant his mantra are developing that compassion within themselves. Compassion is the response of a truly loving heart to suffering. Compassion is not horrified by suffering nor is it sentimental about those who suffer. The suffering which Avolokitesvara is responding to is the suffering of the unenlightened, which they cause themselves through their craving, ill will and delusion. Sometimes this compassion will come as an unpleasant shock because it is a wake up call, a call to wake up from the slumber of spiritual ignorance and make the effort to see things as they really are, not as we want them to be. Those who are compassionate may not always be nice to us. The Buddha, for instance, wasn’t nice. Sometimes in the Pali Canon he is depicted as quite fierce. For instance, in the story of Saccaka (Culasaccakasutta, Majjhima Nikaya, 35), he completely humiliates Saccaka. Clearly, for someone so inflated and egotistic as Saccaka, a complete humiliation was all that was going to break through and allow his better nature a chance to come to the fore. Avolokitesvara appears in many forms. One of the most evocative is the eleven-headed, thousand-armed form. He has eleven heads so that he can see in every direction and know where his compassionate activity is needed. He has a thousand hands each holding different implements to symbolise the variety of responses needed when dealing with the suffering of the world. And each hand has an eye in the palm. This is the eye of Wisdom because Compassion is never divorced from Wisdom. At his heart he holds a jewel, the wish-fulfilling jewel, which is the jewel of full and perfect Enlightenment. Meditating on Avolokitesvara and chanting his mantra – om mani padme hum – is another way to open up the door to liberation and free ourselves from suffering. Vajrapani is the embodiment of liberated Energy. When we enter liberation through the doorway of Insight into impermanence, tremendous energy is released. We are not limited by words, concepts, and thoughts. We are able to flow with the energy of the universe. Vajrapani is Energy. He is the energy that breaks through all obstacles. The energy that takes risks, that is not held back by fears. Those who meditate on Vajrapani and chant his mantra develop the heroic qualities of the warrior, who is fearless and undaunted by forces ranged against him. Vajrapani is often depicted in wrathful form looking very fierce, wielding a vajra and trampling under his feet figures representing greed, hatred and delusion. There is something unstoppable about Vajrapani and contemplating his form and chanting his mantra can put us in touch with that determination and courage which is needed to break through our fears and doubts. Manjushri is the embodiment of Wisdom. His name means ‘gently auspicious’. He is also known as Manjughosa, ‘the gentle voiced one’. He is depicted as a beautiful youth, a prince, richly adorned and sitting on a blue lotus throne. With his left hand he holds a book to his heart and with his right hand he very delicately holds a large, sharp sword with flames coming off the end. The book is the ‘Perfection of Wisdom’ with its profound paradoxical teachings on Shunyata and the sword is the sword of Wisdom which cuts off all ignorance. We meditate on the figure of Manjushri and chant his mantra – om a ra pa cha na dhih – to help us to develop clarity and see through all the mental obscurations that cloud our minds. These three archetypal Bodhisattvas are known as the Family Protectors. This has nothing to do with ordinary families and home and hearth. The families referred to here are the families of the Buddhas Amitabha, Akshobhya and Vairocana. These were the original three Buddhas that formed the beginning of what later developed into the Mandala of the five Dhyana Buddhas, or the Mandala of the five Jinas. In the next chapter we will look at the five Jinas and their respective Wisdoms.