Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa

Perspectives on Realisation

Talk three of six on the Buddhist Wisdom teachings

We began by looking at Right View, which is the conceptual expression of a direct apprehension of Reality. When that Right View becomes a direct realisation, it is Perfect Vision. We then looked at the Path that leads us towards a direct experience of Reality. Now we are going to look at various ways in which that experience of Reality, that direct Realisation, has been described. Like Cortez and his men in Keat’s famous poem, we have come to the mountain top and now standing, “Silent, upon a peak in Darien”, we can survey the surrounding terrain. All those who have reached that peak have had different ways of explaining what they saw; they have used different metaphors and emphasised different aspects. We are going to explore some of these different metaphors and emphases. There are, of course, many ways of conveying spiritual Insight or Realisation and not all of them are conceptual. There are the beautiful, rich images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas with their gestures, colours and emblems. We will look at some of them later in this series of talks. There was the famous occasion when the Buddha simply held up a flower and one of the monks achieved Awakening on the spot. This is sometimes said to be the beginning of the Zen tradition. There are also mantras, sound symbols, which convey the essence of Enlightenment. There is also the record that simply seeing the Buddha was enough to convey to the first five disciples that he had realised the Truth. His physical presence communicated his Realisation. There are all these different ways in which Insight can be communicated as well as the more conceptual formulations. But even the conceptual formulations are largely poetic – metaphorical, so we must be careful not to take them too literally. We are going to look at Entering the Stream, Turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness, the arising of the Bodhicitta and Real Going For Refuge. Firstly, Entering the Stream. The Stream is the Stream of irreversible Insight into the true nature of Reality. When one Enters the Stream then one can never fall back from the spiritual path. One has seen or experienced something on such a deep level, in such a real way, that one can never again see things in the old, unawakened way. Traditionally, it is said that someone becomes a Stream Entrant when they break through the first three of what are known as the Ten Fetters. The Ten Fetters are self-view, sceptical doubt, dependence on moral rules and rituals as ends in themselves, sense desire, ill will, craving for existence in the realm of form, craving for existence in the realm of no-form, conceit, agitation and delusion. The first three have to be broken through in order to Enter the Stream which flows to Enlightenment. To break these fetters means to be no longer affected by them in any way. The first fetter is self-view. This means the belief that we have a fixed, unchanging self. This belief affects how we relate to others, how we view our own abilities and capacities, how we think about the future, even how we view the past. If we break through this fetter then we are no longer limited by the sense of being ‘me’, a fixed entity. We begin to have a more fluid, flexible sense of ourselves and our capacities and abilities and we also have more flowing relationships with others. We no longer fix ourselves with regard to the future. We refuse to predict how we will respond in any particular situation. How could an unfixed, changing stream of thoughts, perceptions, feelings and so on, predict its future responses. And we have a less fixed perception of our past and what actually happened. This fetter has been called the fetter of habit by Sangharakshita (The Taste of Freedom). Our normal way of being is habitual. We consist of habits, especially habitual ways of thinking, responding and perceiving. These habits are what we identify with. For instance, we might have a habit of self-hatred and this leads us on to the habit of perceiving and construing what other people say and do as an expression of dislike for us and this leads us to a habit of responding to other people with anger and this, of course, leads them to dislike us which, of course, proves to us that nobody likes us and that we are, in fact, unlovable. So, a habit like this can be like a closed circle, perpetuating itself. This is the Wheel of Life in action and this is fixed self-view. We break habits through creativity. In other words, with awareness we can learn to respond differently. We can develop the ability to choose how to respond to any situation and then respond in a creative rather than habitual manner. In this way, we break out of the circular trap – we break the fetter of habit. The second fetter is the fetter of sceptical doubt. This could, perhaps, also be called the fetter of rationalisation as Tejananda refers to it in his excellent book The Buddhist Path to Awakening. We rationalise in order to get what we want and avoid what we don’t want. So our rationalisations are an expression of our habitual self-view. With this fetter, the tendency is to remain vague, even deliberately vague, about what the Dharma really says. We would rather preserve our own version of reality intact, so we come up with rationalisations to show that the Dharma couldn’t possibly be saying anything different or shouldn’t be saying anything different. As Tejananda puts it in The Buddhist Path to Awakening, “we are determined to do what we want to do – and if this happens not to be in accord with the way things really are, well, so much the worse for the way things really are. In reality, of course, it is so much the worse for us.” This kind of sceptical doubt is to be distinguished from the sort of questioning that is determined to get to the truth whether it is palatable or not. The sceptical doubt of the second fetter wants to avoid the truth or by-pass it somehow. In order to combat this tendency we need to develop our faith in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Our aspiration needs to be strengthened so that what we want becomes more and more what the Three Jewels have to offer. We looked at ways of developing and strengthening shraddha in the previous chapter, when we spoke about Right Emotion. Perhaps we could just add here that contact with spiritual friends, especially those with more faith than us, can be a major help in overcoming the fetter of doubt or rationalisation. It is said that one of the seven characteristics of a Stream Entrant is that he or she is endowed with unshakeable faith in the Three Jewels. That is as you would expect, since the fetter of doubt is broken. The third fetter is reliance on moral rules and religious observances as ends in themselves. This is sometimes referred to as ‘going through the motions’. All Buddhist practices are means to an end, not ends in themselves. If we find ourselves getting overly attached to a practice and even defensive about it, then we are probably starting to relate to it as an end in itself. This can be the case whether it is the five precepts or tantric ritual. The Dharma has one flavour, the Buddha said, the flavour of freedom. All Dharma practice conduces to freedom from greed, hatred and delusion. When we get attached to practices in an egotistic way and start to relate to them as ends rather than means, then they are no longer Dharma practices and will probably just enhance our ill will, ignorance and craving. To counteract this tendency we need to constantly try to go deeper with our practice. We need to constantly try to bring a fresh approach and fresh enthusiasm to our practice. If we are content with a superficial meditation practice or a superficial practice of ethics or a superficial relationship to Puja, we are likely to fall into ‘going through the motions’ and even a defensive attachment to our lack of initiative. Breaking the third fetter requires an effort to maintain ‘beginner’s mind’, that enthusiastic engagement which often characterises our initial meeting with the Dharma. Those are the three fetters which we need to break through in order to Enter the Stream that flows irreversibly to Enlightenment. This stage of spiritual Insight is sometimes also referred to as the attainment of ‘Knowledge and Vision of things as they really are’ (yathabhutajnanadarshan). This is the eighth stage on the spiritual path of the 12 positive nidanas or links. The first of these nidanas is an awareness of suffering, especially an awareness that our greed and ill will causes us suffering. In dependence upon this awareness arises faith in the Ideal of Enlightenment. This faith leads us to practise ethics. In dependence upon faith, therefore, the joy of a clear conscience arises. In dependence upon the joy of a clear conscience we are able to engage in tranquillity meditation and in dependence upon that we can undertake insight meditation. This, in turn, is the condition for the arising of ‘Knowledge and Vision of things as they really are’. And this stage represents the point of no-return, the point of irreversibility, in other words, Stream Entry. Another way of giving expression to the experience of Insight into the nature of Reality is called, “turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness” (Paravritti). The “Turning About” is a teaching of the Yogachara School of Buddhism and it is quite complex, so I’m not going to go into it in detail here. Perhaps the most important factor that this teaching is pointing to is the profundity and radical nature of the experience of Awakening. There is a complete “turning about” in the depths of our being. We are, as it were, turned upside down and inside out when we see into the true nature of Reality. This emphasises the fact that spiritual insight is not a matter of gaining knowledge or mastering obscure philosophical points but, rather, a matter of profound and far-reaching change to the heart and mind of the individual. When the paravritti, the turning about, takes place, all distinction between subject and object disappear, all distinction between ‘I’ in here and the world outside is left behind and there is an experience of what is called One Mind (cittamatra) or Mind Only. As Sangharakshita puts it, “The experience of one mind is like a great expanse of water, absolutely pure, absolutely transparent, with nothing in it, not a speck, other than the water itself”. According to the Yogachara teaching, everything we say or do or think or experience leaves a trace in our mind or consciousness. This trace or impression left in our consciousness is conceived of as a seed, a seed that will eventually bear fruit. There are pure seeds and impure seeds. The impure seeds are deposited in consciousness as a result of our unskilfulness – our greed, ill will and delusion. The pure seeds are deposited in our consciousness as a result of our more skilful and spiritual thoughts, words and actions. The more we dedicate ourselves to spiritual practice and dedicate our lives to spiritual goals, the more pure seeds we deposit in what is called the ‘storehouse consciousness’ (alaya vijnana). When the pure seeds outweigh the impure seeds, eventually the impure seeds get pushed right out of the way and this constitutes the experience of “turning about in the deepest seat of consciousness”. To put it another way, eventually our spiritual practice purifies us of all past unskilfulness and our purified consciousness can have a direct experience of Reality. The heartening thing about this teaching is that it assures us that our practice is having an effect even though we may not be able to see the effect and it also reminds us that even the smallest of skilful thoughts or words or deeds makes a difference. Spiritual practice is cumulative and if we ‘stay with it’, it eventually brings results. Another way of speaking about spiritual Insight is in terms of the Arising of the Will to Enlightenment (Bodhicitta utpada). The teaching of the Bodhicitta, the Will to Enlightenment, very strongly emphasises the compassionate aspect of spiritual Awakening. Anyone who embarks on the spiritual path is likely, at some point, to experience the wish to withdraw from the world, to have nothing more to do with its madness and trivia. Also, any spiritual practitioner is likely to experience a wish to involve himself or herself with the world out of compassion for the mass of suffering. These two tendencies – the tendency towards withdrawal from the world and the tendency towards compassionate involvement with the world – set up a conflict. If we withdraw completely, we may set up a tendency in our own psyche which will prove to be an obstacle to the attainment of Supreme Enlightenment, because Supreme Enlightenment is definitely compassionate. If we involve ourselves too much with the world we may lose touch with our spiritual Ideals and become swamped in the unending demands of the world. We need to do both and allow the conflict to intensify even. The eventual resolution of this conflict is what is known as the arising of the Bodhicitta. At this point, one experiences being involved in the world and withdrawn from it at the same time. Here is how Sangharakshita describes it, “At that point something happens. It is very difficult to describe exactly what does happen, but we can think of it provisionally as an explosion. The tension which has been generated through following simultaneously these two contradictory trends results in a breakthrough into a higher dimension of spiritual consciousness. Withdrawal and involvement are no longer two separate trends, not because they have been artificially amalgamated into one, but because the plane or level on which their duality existed, or on which it was possible for them to be two things, has been transcended. When that explosion occurs, one has the experience of being simultaneously withdrawn and involved, simultaneously out of the world and in the world.” (The Meaning of Conversion in Buddhism, pp60/61) So Wisdom and Compassion coalesce and there is no longer any conflict. There are two practices which are specifically undertaken in order to bring about the Arising of the Bodhicitta. These are the Sevenfold Puja and Vasubandhu’s four factors. The Sevenfold Puja culminates in the Transference of Merits and Self Surrender and the aim of the Puja is to engender this attitude in us. This is the attitude of not practising just for our own sake but for the sake of all sentient beings. The Sevenfold Puja can be seen not just as a ritual but also as a series of practices which we can perform all the time. Or we could see it as a series of attitudes which we need to bring to all our practice. And, chiefly, in relation to the Arising of the Bodhicitta we need to encourage the attitude and practice of dedicating all our efforts to Enlightenment for the sake of all. After every meditation, after every generous act, after every confession or forgiveness, after any skilfulness of body, speech or mind, we should transfer the merits by reciting the Transference of Merits verse or something similar, such as, “What ever merit accrues from my skilfulness, I dedicate it to Enlightenment, not just for my own benefit but for the benefit of all.” If we practise in this way, we will be engendering the spirit of the Bodhicitta right from the start of our spiritual journey and, therefore, preparing ourselves for the attainment of Supreme Enlightenment. Vasubandhu’s four factors are a series of four practices which encourage the arising of the Bodhicitta. They are, firstly recollection of the Buddhas, secondly, reflecting on the faults of conditioned existence, thirdly, reflecting on the suffering of sentient beings and, fourthly, contemplation of the virtues of the Enlightened Ones. Recollecting the Buddhas is a practice for developing faith and the conviction that we too can become Awakened or Enlightened. Reflecting on the faults of conditioned existence enables us to loosen our attachments and withdraw from mundane involvement. Reflecting on the sufferings of sentient beings is to give rise to compassion and help us to open our hearts. Contemplating the virtues of the Enlightened Ones enables us to develop those virtues ourselves so that eventually the heart of compassion opens in us and the Arising of the Bodhicitta is accomplished. So the Arising of the Bodhicitta emphasises the altruistic aspect of the spiritual life and reminds us that Wisdom and Compassion are not really two separate things. The Energy of the Awakened Ones pours forth spontaneously in a flow of Wise Compassion, Compassionate Wisdom, which invites the world to the feast of the Dharma where true satisfaction is to be found. Now we come to the last of our different perspectives on the Realisation of the Truth. This is Real Going For Refuge. The Three Refuges are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. They are refuges from suffering. Because of the Buddha’s experience of Enlightenment, because of his communication of that experience and because others down the ages have received that communication and had their own Realisation – because of all this, there is a way out of suffering, there is a refuge from suffering. We are always taking refuge in something; we are always seeking security from the trials and tribulations of life. Our refuge may be our career, our sexual relationship, drugs, possessions and so on. This is natural enough. We don’t want to suffer. We want to be happy. The only problem with these refuges is that they don’t work, they are not dependable. From the Buddhist perspective the only dependable refuges are the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, also known as the Three Jewels because of their preciousness. How do we Go For Refuge to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha? And it is worth noting that we do need to go for refuge, it is not something passive, it is something we do, it is an activity. We Go For Refuge to the Buddha by being devoted to the Buddha. Going For Refuge to the Buddha is essentially an act of faith. It is a deep conviction of the possibility of Enlightenment for all, including ourselves. As we’ve mentioned already, one way to develop this faith is to reflect on the life of the Buddha and also on the lives of other great Buddhist teachers including, of course, our own teacher, Sangharakshita. We could also reflect on the effect that the Dharma has had on our lives so far and generate a sense of gratitude to the Buddha and others for making this possible. Going For Refuge to the Dharma involves knowing the Dharma and practising it. We get to know the Dharma by studying it, discussing it and reflecting on it. We cannot really Go For Refuge to the Dharma if we don’t know what the Dharma is with some degree of clarity. The Buddha, and other Enlightened teachers since, have endeavoured to express the Truth in many ways for our benefit. We need to make the effort to actively receive this teaching and allow it to have an effect in our lives. We practise the Dharma, of course, by practising ethics, meditation, contemplation, puja and friendship. Going For Refuge to the Dharma is a constant pursuit of the Truth. The truth about ourselves and the Truth of existence. This pursuit is at times a difficult struggle but there isn’t really anything else meaningful that one can do with one’s life. Going For Refuge to the Sangha can be understood in two main ways. Firstly, there is the Sangha of all those who have gained Enlightenment or are irreversible on the path to Enlightenment. This is the Arya Sangha. This is the Sangha which is completely dependable. And we Go For Refuge to the Sangha by accepting guidance and by becoming Awakened ourselves. Secondly, there is the Sangha of all practising Buddhists and especially those practising within the same context as us. We Go For Refuge to (or perhaps better to say ‘with’) this Sangha by being in friendly and meaningful communication. The Sangha is a network of harmonious relationships based on the common Going For Refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Arya Sangha. It is essential and immensely helpful to be in contact with like-minded people as we practise the spiritual life in the midst of a world which tries to seduce and drag us in the opposite direction. There are four levels to Going For Refuge. There is the level of ethnic going for refuge which means that someone is born into a Buddhist culture and reveres the Three Jewels as part of their culture but doesn’t necessarily do any practice. Then there is provisional Going For Refuge. This is when someone has a strong heartfelt response to the Dharma and begins to practise but they are not yet ready or able to dedicate their life to Dharma practice. It may be that there are lingering doubts or fears, or it may be that they have some psychological difficulty such as lack of confidence in themselves or an uncontrollable temper. If they carry on practising, in time, they will be able to make a stronger commitment to the Three Jewels. That is when we arrive at the level of effective Going For Refuge. When one is effectively Going For Refuge one commits one’s life to practising the Dharma and sharing it with others. One vows to practise for the sake of all beings. Real Going For Refuge is when one’s commitment to the Three Jewels is characterised by unshakeable faith and unblemished morality. Unblemished morality means that any ethical lapses will be confessed immediately. At this level of Going For Refuge one has begun to embody the Refuges and one is now irreversibly on the Path. So we have looked at some different ways of expressing the experience of Awakening to the true nature of Reality. We have explored briefly Stream Entry, The Turning about in the Deepest Seat of Consciousness, The Arising of the Bodhicitta and Real Going For Refuge. These perspectives on Realisation are by no means an exhaustive list but they are perhaps sufficient to show us that Buddhism is united by spiritual experience, even though there are many different ways of conveying that experience. We have been standing on the mountain peak surveying the scene and describing some of the sights. In the next chapter we will take a closer look at the experience of Awakening and open out to a more cosmic perspective.