Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa

The View from the Top

Talk one of six on the Buddhist Wisdom teachings

“Have you not seen, O have you not seen, that billions have lived in China, in Japan None have been immortal, from time immemorial: Ancient sage kings or tyrants, good subjects or bad. Fair ladies and homely – who could enjoy eternal youth? Noble men and lowly alike without exception, die away; They have all died, reduced to dust and ashes; The singing halls and dancing stages have become the abodes of foxes. Transient as dreams, bubbles or lightening all are perpetual travellers. Have you not seen, O have you not seen, This has been man’s fate, how can you alone live forever?” (To a Nobleman in Kyoto – Kukai. From ‘Major Works’)

Everybody dies. This is one thing all human beings have in common. It is the one great momentous fact of life. Death is quite an amazing thing; so amazing that we cannot really believe it. We cannot really take in the fact of death – our own death, the death of our good friends, the death of our families, the death of our children. It is too enormous to comprehend. And yet it is a fact – indeed the only fact of life is death. I sometimes ponder as I am out and about in London that not one single person I see in the street will be alive in, say, 100 years time. Not a single person on the Tube is going to live forever. I imagine all the people passing by as dying or dead – and it does seem truly astonishing, hard to believe. We live life in the shadow of Death. We could say that our lives are a response to death. How we live our lives is our answer to the problem of death. Some people respond by ignoring death and hiding from it. They proceed as if they will live forever. This, strange to say, is probably the majority response to death. Priority is given to creating a secure future, materially secure at least. Others respond to the fact of death with despair, despondency. This can lead to addiction, suicide, depression, even insanity. In some ways, this is a more reasonable response. At least it recognises that there is a problem. Because the problem of death is the problem of life. It poses the question, what is life for? or, what is the meaning of life? Some of us turn to religion or philosophy for answers to this dilemma – if life culminates in death, what is the point of life? Some religions point to an afterlife state of either bliss or torment. The answer to the problem is to live a good life, obedient to the commandments of the deity and after death you will be rewarded and sent to a place of happiness for all eternity – no more worries. This is obviously a very attractive option and many people adopt this belief very sincerely and wholeheartedly. Depending on the degree of their sincerity and wholeheartedness, the emphasis will not be on security and wealth and happiness in this life but on doing what’s necessary to attain eternal bliss in the next life. Some philosophies deny the existence of a deity or an afterlife and suggest that this life is all we have. Progress and happiness will be measured in scientific and material terms. Marxism is an example of this. Or on a more everyday level the credo is ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’. The first of these views of existence is known as eternalism and the second as nihilism. Buddhism is neither eternalist nor nihilist. Buddhism says that when we die, when the body ceases to function, consciousness continues. The momentum of habits and tendencies – the volition, the willing, that has taken us through life carries on and finds rebirth in another body, assuming we have not obtained Enlightenment. The Enlightened have more choice. The unenlightened are at the mercy of habitual forces that take them round and round in circles over and over again. The Enlightened can be creative and move from better to best – from life to more life – from Wisdom to greater Wisdom. According to Buddhism, what we experience at death is the result of our actions. This is true during our lifetime, it is true at death and it is true for future lifetimes. How we behave, how we speak and how we think determines the whole tendency and momentum of our consciousness and we experience consequences in the form of suffering or happiness, ignorance or wisdom. Everything arises in dependence upon conditions. What we experience upon the dissolution of the body, when we breathe our last breath, depends upon the conditions we have established in our lifetime and in previous lifetimes. Buddhism says that it is possible for consciousness to evolve and to keep on evolving to the point of Enlightenment, which is not a point at all but a word to indicate a state of continuous evolving creativity in Wisdom and Compassion. When consciousness evolves, when we make the effort to evolve, then eventually we experience an Insight into the true nature of Reality. The nature of this Insight is such that we are no longer attached to self, no longer attached to our ego-identity. There is no longer the strong sense of ‘I’ and ‘mine’. This means that there is no longer death for us. Death is death for us because of our attachment to self and because we associate our self so strongly with the physical. Enlightenment is known as the deathless state because when there is no attachment to self there is no death for us. For Buddhism, both eternalism and nihilism are wrong views ( micchaditthi). They are wrong ways of seeing life and death and they lead to wrong ways of thinking and behaving. Eternalism is a wrong view because it posits an eternal, unchanging self that persists whether under conditions of torment or bliss. There is in some theistic religions the notion of the soul being cleansed or purged, which might be seen as change, but strictly speaking the soul doesn’t change, it is simply either more or less blemished. The main problem with eternalism is that change isn’t possible. Buddhism specifically denies the existence of a fixed, unchanging soul – this is the doctrine of annatta (or anatman in Sanskrit). This is usually rendered into English as the doctrine of Insubstantiality or No-Self. It states that there is no fixed, unchanging substance whether physical or mental, that could be called a soul or a self. This applies also to any notions of God as creator. One thing that can follow from an eternalist view that relies on obedience to God, is that people don’t take enough responsibility for themselves – too much is left to or seen as the ‘will of God’. Another outcome that has often manifested is intolerance. Because so much is at stake, it is more than a matter of life or death – it’s a matter of eternal happiness and security, a huge amount of fear can ensue, fear of incurring the displeasure of the supreme authority and so nobody can be allowed to rock the boat and, if necessary, people must be forced into line. This is perfectly understandable really – if your security and comfort for all eternity is at stake, you don’t want to end up with a raw deal because of someone else’s wrong-doing or disobedience. So the main practice for a sincere eternalist must be obedience to the instructions and demands of the supreme Power. Many people, of course, are nominally eternalist, in that they think of themselves as followers of a theistic religion, but by practice they are nihilist. A nihilist does not believe in any afterlife. Death is the end. We are simply sophisticated machines and there are no higher states to attain to, whether in heaven after death or in terms of evolving consciousness. You are very unlikely to come across many people who subscribe to a strictly nihilist view, although there were certainly plenty about at the time of the Buddha. Most people these days seem to have a mish-mash of beliefs and views which vaguely affect how they live. Although I think it is safe to say that whatever people believe, in terms of practice, what people actually do, then in this country, materialism is the majority view and materialism is a form of nihilism. Of course, there are degrees of materialism and the majority of people probably hold eternalist views but practice nihilism which is a confused state of affairs to say the least. But this is nothing new and at the time of the Buddha there were also people who held all sorts of views, with varying degrees of clarity and confusion. As it says in the Brahmajala Sutta ( Digha Nikaya): “ There are some ascetics and Brahmins who are Eternalists, who proclaim the eternity of the self and the world….” “ There are, monks, some ascetics and Brahmins who are partly Eternalists and Partly Non-Eternalists, who proclaim the partial eternity and the partial non-eternity of the self and the world……” “ There are, monks, some ascetics and Brahmins who are Finitists and Infinitists, and who proclaim the finitude and infinitude of the world…..” “ There are, monks, some ascetics and Brahmins who are Eel-Wrigglers. When asked about this or that matter, they resort to evasive statements, and they wriggle like eels…..” “ There are, monks, some ascetics and Brahmins who are Chance-Originationists, and who proclaim the chance origin of the self and the world…..” These are just a few of the views that were prevalent then. The Buddha enumerates sixty four. Wrong views can be broadly classified under two headings – eternalist and nihilist. How are we affected by these views? To what degree are we still under the influence of wrong views (micchaditthi)? Well, for most of us, most of the time, we are very strongly under the influence of wrong views. This is because views are not just a matter of ideas in any purely intellectual sense (if there is such a thing) but rather, views have a large emotional content, so that we may hold an idea that tends in one direction but act as if we believed the opposite. This, as I said, is probably the case for the majority of people and it is also true for Buddhists. We may subscribe to the notion that we have no fixed self but, nevertheless, we act as though we had. If I have no fixed self then I cannot predict how I will respond in any given situation and I won’t be worried about possible failure of humiliation. But most of us think we know exactly how we will respond – we say, ‘I can’t do that’, ‘I won’t be able to cope’ or ‘So and so is always late or tired or good humoured’. We predict that we will in the future be as we were in the past or others will in the future be as they have been in the past – in other words, that we or they are fixed and unchanging. Or we may admire the simplicity and calmness of the lives of the great sages – we may even recite the precept - “with stillness, simplicity and contentment I purify my body” – but our actual lives are neither still, simple nor content and perhaps not even tending in that direction. We may actually be more into spending our time shopping, watching television or surfing the net. These discrepancies occur. We are all to some degree or other split, even in conflict with ourselves. In fact, often as we proceed on the spiritual Path the internal conflict can become worse before it gets better. As Sangharakshita puts it – “the central problem of the spiritual life is finding emotional equivalents for our intellectual understanding”. But perhaps we need to get our intellectual understandings clear first. We need to know what Right View is. The Pali term for Right View is Samma ditthi (Sanskrit Samyag Drsti). Ditthi is a view and Samma is ‘right’ or ‘correct’ or even ‘perfect’. Wrong view is Miccha ditthi. Right view is based upon the Buddha’s Enlightenment experience. It is not an idea or an opinion. It is a vision. The Buddha saw how things really are and then later he communicated what he saw. This communication of the Buddha’s vision or the Buddha’s experience is Right View. The first thing the Buddha realised is that he had gained Enlightenment. In the Ariyapariyesana Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya it says: “ Then, bhikkhus, being myself subject to birth, having understood the danger in what is subject to birth, seeking the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbana, I attained the unborn supreme security from bondage, Nibbana; being myself subject to ageing, having understood the danger in what is subject to ageing, seeking the unageing supreme security from bondage, Nibbana, I attained the unageing supreme security from bondage, Nibbana;” Similarly for sickness, death, sorrow and defilement. “ The knowledge and vision arose in me: ‘My deliverance is unshakeable; this is my last birth; now there is no renewal of being.” From this it follows that it is possible for a human being to gain Enlightenment. From that it follows that human beings can evolve, can change, can grow and develop spiritually. There are higher states of consciousness; it is possible to attain to higher states and to see things as they really are. It is possible to become Enlightened. From a Buddhist perspective this is a Right View and as such it is essential to the practice of the spiritual Path. If Buddhism could be said to have an ‘article of Faith’, then this is it; it is possible for any human being to attain to higher states of consciousness and knowledge and vision of Reality. From this it follows that there is no fixed, unchanging soul or self. The Buddha expressed his experience of Enlightenment in terms of what is known as the Law of Conditionality (Pali, paticca samuppada, Sanskrit, pratitya samutpada). It goes as follows: “This being, that becomes, from the arising of this, that arises. This not being, that does not become. From the ceasing of this, that ceases.” These two sentences contain the essence of Buddhism and are an expression of Perfect View. Everything that happens, everything that exists, arises in dependence upon conditions, when those conditions are no longer present, then that event or thing will cease to be. All of Buddhist doctrine and practice flows from this. Perhaps the most important practical implication is the law of karma and the ethical precepts. Karma means ‘action’ and the law of karma is an application of conditionality to the sphere of ethics. Basically, it means that actions have consequences. Skilful actions have benign consequences and unskilful actions have bad consequences. Skilful actions are any deeds or speech or thoughts based in mental states of loving kindness, generosity and spiritual wisdom. Unskilful actions are any deeds, speech or thought arising from mental states of ill will, greed and spiritual ignorance. Wrong views (Micchaditthi) arise out of unskilful mental states. It is important that we make efforts to transform our unskilful mental states into skilful mental states because that is how we can move from Wrong View to Right View. We bring about that transformation with the practice of meditation and the training precepts, as well as through study of Dharma texts and commentaries. Sometimes people don’t like to hear the terms Right View and Wrong View, because they feel that nobody is in a position to say what is right or wrong or they feel that nobody should be told that they are wrong. There are so many views, they say, and who can say which are right and which are wrong. Some people may even feel that it is intolerant to speak in terms of Right View and Wrong View. There are three points I would like to make with regard to this. Firstly, the terms Right View and Wrong View are only one possible translation of the Pali terms Sammaditthi and Micchaditthi respectively. However, I don’t think we should shy away from using the terms ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in this respect because I think the impact and precision they carry gives exactly the correct or right sense of what is meant. Secondly, there is a difference between a view in the sense of ‘ditthi’ as in Sammaditthi and an opinion. A view in this sense is the result of a realisation, an experience, a result of seeing something, whereas an opinion is the result of speculation or thinking or more frequently the result of someone else’s thinking, which we have read or heard. Thirdly, Right View is the conceptual expression of the Buddha’s experience and, therefore, the acceptance of Right View is initially an act of faith or Shraddha on our part. Shraddha includes the 3 elements of intuition, reason and experience. We intuit that what the Buddha said is true and our thinking confirms our intuition and in time our experience confirms both. Because, of course, if Right View is true, if it does accurately correspond with how things really are, then it must be possible to demonstrate that, it must be testable. By practising, by living in accordance with Right View we will be able to see for ourselves the truth. In fact, if we are open-minded enough, we will be able to see the truth of the Dharma even if we don’t practise. Observing the precepts has consequences for us and not observing the precepts also has consequences. Meditating has consequences and not meditating has consequences. Although in the second case our consciousness may be too clouded for us to be able to judge the consequences. Before Siddhartha Gautama left home he is said to have seen four sights which, as it were, woke him up. We can take this to mean that he saw these sights as if for the first time rather than literally for the first time. Or we can see this as an analogy for the spiritual blindness that afflicts most of humanity. However, we take it, the story is that he saw a sick person, an old person and a corpse and these awakened him to the suffering inherent in life and to the existential question – what is life for? what does it mean? The fourth sight was a wandering mendicant and this gave him a glimpse of other possibilities. You could see this as his first intuition of Right View or Perfect View. He took this very seriously, acted upon it and the rest is history, as we say. Although it is actually much more than history, it is timeless Wisdom. There is a distinction to be made between mundane Right View and Transcendental Right View. The Mahacattarisaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya puts it like this: “ Right View, I say, is twofold: there is right view that is affected by taints, partaking of merit, ripening on the side of attachment; and there is right view that is noble, taintless, supramundane, a factor of the path.” Bhante Sangharakshita distinguishes these two by referring to the Transcendental view as Perfect Vision. Right View is the conceptual expression of the Buddha’s experience and to the extent that we hold that view, we have Right View. On a very basic level this means, as I said earlier, holding the view that there are higher states of consciousness and that we can by our own efforts attain to those states. It also implies accepting the practices of meditation and the ethical precepts. Perfect Vision is the vision of one who has had an experience of Insight into the true nature of Reality for himself or herself. This is not just a glimpse but also an experience that transforms how we see and experience ourselves and others. This is not the same as Enlightenment because although at this stage we have had our vision of existence completely transformed, there is still work to do to completely transform ourselves in accordance with that vision. But this experience is known as the ‘point of no return’, from now on we are irreversibly on the spiritual Path. Right View is necessary if we are to attain Perfect Vision and Perfect Vision sets us firmly on the road to Nirvana, Enlightenment. Here is how Sangharakshita explains Perfect Vision with the help of a simile: “ Imagine we want to make a journey to climb some lofty mountain peak. What do we do? First we study a map of the terrain, of the surrounding foothills, and of the mountain itself. This study of the map corresponds to the theoretical study of Buddhist doctrine, to knowing all about the Madhyamikas, the Yogacarins, the Sarvastivadins, and so on. But we have to actually start our journey, we have to get going – we have at least to get to base camp. This corresponds to our preliminary practice of the Buddha’s teaching. Eventually, after several days, weeks, or months of travelling, we catch a glimpse of the distant mountain peak which is the object of our journey. We have come only a little way, and are still far from the foot of the mountain, but there in the distance we see the shining snow peak. We have a direct perception – a vision – of it, although from a very great distance. This glimpse of the peak corresponds to Perfect Vision and it gives us inspiration and encouragement to continue our journey. “ (Vision and Transformation, p.32) According to the Buddha, the Dharma is a finger pointing at the moon. In other words, the teachings of the Buddha point us in the right direction, the direction of Wisdom, the direction of Perfect Vision. What we have to do is look at the moon, see the moon for ourselves, face-to-face, so to speak. We need to have a direct experience of Reality, a vision of how things really are.