Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa

Lifting the Veil

Talk two of six on the Buddhist Wisdom teachings

Many of us prefer to spend our time looking in any direction other than the direction pointed out by the finger of the Dharma. We may be content to ignore the finger and keep our gaze fixed on the ground of mundane concerns or we may become fascinated by the finger rather than what it’s pointing to, so that we become overly concerned with a sort of self-centred quest for happiness or strong experiences. But the moon of Reality shines on and sometimes we glimpse it out of the corner of our eye or when prostrated by the events of life. People get a glimpse of the true nature of Reality in all sorts of ways. Sometimes it’s on experience such as a bereavement that stops us in our tracks and reveals to us a different vision of life and our relation to the rest of humanity. For some it may be a drug induced experience or others may have an intellectual breakthrough when reading or discussing. Great art can confront us with a new way of seeing or it could be meeting a person who has stopped playing the usual games of human interaction that shifts our viewpoint. There are many ways in which we may have a first glimpse of an alternative Reality to the mundane life of school, work, retirement and death. A Reality that puts everything we do into a much bigger perspective. Usually this glimpse does not have any lasting effect and indeed many people put it out of their minds completely and just get on with the business of living in the accepted and expected fashion. But some people cannot rest easy with an ordinary life. They want to know more, they want to grasp the meaning. They are not satisfied. This was my own experience. At the age of eighteen I started work as an accountant and was training in that profession, but I became increasingly dissatisfied by the limited vision of a life that centred around possessions and procreation and I just could not continue. At the age of twenty two I gave up my career and most of my possessions and went wandering in search of the meaning of life. That may seem hopelessly idealistic, but I have never regretted that step and I do feel that I have found a larger vision. I have meaning and the perspective of the Dharma. Fortunately for people like me, there are ways of preparing oneself to have a more permanent and far-reaching vision of Reality. There is a finger pointing at the moon. There is the teaching of the Buddha, the Dharma, which enables us to set up the conditions that allow Insight to arise. One of the earliest and most popular teachings of the Buddha is what is known as the Noble Eight Fold Path. It is also a very comprehensive teaching. In fact, you don’t really need to look any further. If you practice the Noble Eight Fold Path and penetrate deeply enough into it, it will take you all the way to Enlightenment. The first step of the Eight Fold Path is Right View. Briefly, Right View is the acceptance that the Buddha was enlightened and that we too can gain Enlightenment. It is the acceptance that higher states of consciousness exist and are possible to attain. It is also the acceptance that all things are impermanent including every aspect of ourselves and that everything arises in dependence upon conditions. Right View is an acceptance and understanding of these things; it is even a belief in them. It has an intellectual element, which is the understanding and an emotional aspect, which we could call shraddha, or faith. This first stage of the Eight Fold Path is the stage of vision; we see, we understand something of what life could be and we want to follow the path to greater understanding and vision. The rest of the Eight Fold Path is all concerned with transformation. We have to transform ourselves until we are refined and aware and receptive enough to have a direct experience or realisation of Reality. The steps of the Path are not linear. It is more a case of practising all the elements simultaneously. The path of transformation involves Right Emotion, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Samadhi or Meditation. I am going to say something about each of these because they are all necessary to lifting the veil of ignorance and opening ourselves up to Insight into the true nature of Reality. The first stage is Right Emotion. This is pointing to the fact that our emotional orientation is very fundamental to our progress on the Path. This stage is sometimes called Right Motivation. The spiritual path of its very nature requires an altruistic motivation right from the start. A narrow self-obsessed emotional bias is a great hindrance. This stage of Right Emotion encourages us to develop positive emotions towards ourselves and others. It is, of course, necessary to feel positive towards ourselves, to appreciate and value and care for ourselves, because otherwise it will be impossible to value, appreciate and care for others. The main positive emotions we need to encourage in ourselves are the emotion of Metta, loving kindness and the emotion of Shraddha, faith and devotion. Metta is the emotion we want to feel towards ourselves and others and all living things. Shraddha is the emotion we want to feel towards the ideal and its embodiments – the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There are four main practices for developing these emotions which I want to mention briefly. Firstly, there is the Metta Bhavana, which could be described as the most beautiful and profound of all practices. In this practice, we encourage ourselves to form an intention and heartfelt wish for the well-being of ourselves, our friends, our enemies and all humans and non-humans throughout the universe. If we take this practice for enough and deep enough it can lead us to Insight into the interpenetration of all life. But initially, it is enough to wish ourselves well and wish others well as wholeheartedly as we can. Then there is the practice of friendship, which takes the Metta Bhavana into the realm of actual human relations. This is one of the most powerful and effective practices we can engage with. We are trying to relate from the best in us to the best in others, while maintaining an awareness of all that needs to be transformed. The practise of friendship is really the practise of befriending; it is active rather than passive. Thirdly, there is the practice of inspirational reading and study. The Buddhist scriptures and some commentaries are the product of minds that have attained Insight and, therefore, they can lift us up into that realm and give us a glimpse of that vision of existence. There are many texts to read; a couple of popular ones are the Dhammapada and the Bodhicaryavatara, both of which are full of treasures to be cherished and revisited often. A favourite book of mine is The Ten Pillars of Buddhism by Sangharakshita, which I find inspiring and encouraging. It is better to have one or two texts to return to repeatedly than to have something different every week. A mind permeated by Insight is subtle and deep and it requires careful attention for us to really come into contact with that subtlety and depth. Fourthly, there is the practice of Puja and especially the Sevenfold Puja, which is of course based on the Bodhicaryavatara. The practice of Puja has a refining and uplifting effect on us and helps us to develop an emotional connection to a more expansive and even cosmic perspective on the spiritual life. It helps to bring the more imaginative and non-rational aspects of us into the work and play of spiritual transformation. The practices of the Metta Bhavana and friendship help us to develop Metta, which is a heartfelt wish for the wellbeing of ourselves and others and the practices of inspirational reading and study and Puja help us to develop and strengthen Shraddha – our aspiration to awake to Reality. The next stage of the Eight Fold Path is Right Speech. There are five elements to Right Speech. These are seasonable speech, truthful speech, kindly speech, meaningful speech and harmonising speech. Perhaps, to be a bit paradoxical, we could say that silence is another element of Right Speech. Seasonable speech means being appropriate in our speech, speaking at the right time and not just blurting out whatever is on our minds, whenever we want to or wherever we happen to be. This demands awareness of the situation, awareness of other people and a certain amount of patience. Truthful communication is essential to Right Speech, because there is no real communication without truthfulness. The reason we are tempted to deviate from truth is because we usually want to get our own way. We are tempted to exaggerate or diminish the facts or to omit some things altogether in order to get what we want. Being honest with others depends on us being honest with ourselves, and noticing when we are deliberately obfuscating the truth for selfish ends. Most of us do not tell outright lies but can be given to omission and inaccuracy in our communication and this is what we have to watch out for and try to correct. Another point about truthful speech is that we need to remember to be appropriate. It may not be the time or place to say something even if it is the truth. The positive emotion of loving kindness needs to inform our speech too. That brings us to kindly speech. Kindly speech is the opposite of harsh speech. Speech is harsh which is crude and/or based in negative mental states such as anger, hatred, greed, resentment and so on. Swearing is harsh because it invariably expresses a negative mental state such as cynicism or ill-will. Sometimes humour is harsh because people can mix malice with their humour and use it to undermine others. Kindly speech is the expression of kindness. If we cannot be kindly in our speech then perhaps it is time for us to be silent. Kindness treats other people as people; harshness treats other people as objects. Kindness is more in tune with the vision of the Buddha, the vision of a completely inter-related universe. The next part of Right Speech is meaningful speech. Meaningful speech is speech which relates either directly or indirectly to the life of spiritual endeavour. This does not mean that it is talk about Buddhism. Rather, it is the communication of a meaningful person with a meaningful life. Frivolous, banal and meaningless talk is the product of meaningless, frivolous and banal lives. If we are in pursuit of meaning and depth, our speech will naturally become meaningful without any overtly, self-conscious effort on our part to be ‘deep’. However, there will always be a tendency for conversation to veer towards the trivial and even the unskilful when a group of people get together. So there is a need for awareness and a need to endeavour to change course if a conversation is veering too far into the fog of meaningless chatter. Harmonising speech is probably the highest form of speech. This is deliberately using speech to create harmony between people. Two ways to practise harmonising speech are, firstly, to rejoice in people’s merits when they are not present, speaking well of people behind their backs and, secondly, to pass on any praise you have heard. Harmonising speech is vitally important to the life of the Sangha and is one of the skilful means used by the Bodhisattva to bring about the unification of the Sangha. Now we come to the stage of Right Action. With the stage of Right Emotion there is a transformation of the emotions and a development of positivity. Then, that positivity passes into our speech and here it passes into our actions. Now, usually one would speak of Right Action in terms of the precepts, especially the five precepts and that is as it should be. Right Action is all kinds of skilful action. But I want to simplify it somewhat and say that if you practice generosity of body, speech and mind, then you will be practising Right Action. Generosity is the basic Right Action. For many Buddhists this is their main practice, perhaps even their only practice and it is a practice that everyone can do. There is nothing complicated or esoteric about giving. You just give. It’s as simple as that. You give and you carry on giving. Simple as it is, however, if it is done in the right spirit, generosity can be a transforming practice, leading us to insights into the law of karma and the interconnectedness of life. The right spirit is to not expect anything in return for what we give. Ideally, we shouldn’t even expect acknowledgement. Just to give for the sake of giving is the practice. We don’t have to make it known that we are being generous, neither do we have to keep it secret. We simply give and let the consequences take care of themselves. So Right Action can be seen in terms of generosity and generosity is a practice open to everyone, all the time. Next we come to Right Livelihood. Traditionally, Right Livelihood is seen in terms of ethical livelihood. It is livelihood that does not involve trading in living beings, trading in poisons, weapons or intoxicants or engaging in gambling or astrology. Basically, a Right Livelihood is one that causes no harm to other living beings and does not encourage spiritual ignorance. In the FWBO we have developed team-based right livelihood projects, which take the practice of right livelihood further. Rather than simply being a matter of abstaining from certain things, two new positive elements have been added. These are the practices of friendship and generosity. The project itself will be ethical in the traditional sense and the people forming the team will also be engaged in the practice of Sangha. They will be developing spiritual friendship and helping to create spiritual community. In addition, the project will be concerned to generate funds for the propagation of the Dharma, not just for the people working there. It is seen as important that people work in a context where they are serving something higher. By giving away profits for the sake of the Dharma the workers in a team are able to make a direct connection between their relatively mundane tasks and the bigger vision of making the Dharma available to as many people as possible. Most people spend a lot of their time engaged in earning a livelihood and, therefore, it is important that their livelihood is helpful to their spiritual practice and not only helpful but even part of their spiritual practice. Whether one works in team-based right livelihood or some other form of right livelihood, it is necessary that the work itself be part of one’s Dharma practice. One can work mindfully, with kindness, in a spirit of generosity, endeavouring to practise Right Speech and of course, one can donate ones surplus income to Dharma projects. In this way, our whole life gradually becomes Dharma practice and we progress on the Path. This takes us to the next stage which is Right Effort. Usually, Right Effort is spoken of in terms of the four right efforts. These are the effort to develop positive mental states, the effort to transform unskilful mental states, the effort to prevent the arising of unskilful states and the effort to maintain skilful mental states. I would like to leave those to you to follow up for yourself and speak instead about Right Effort in terms of the advice given by David Smith in his book A Record of Awakening. He says, “I would say from my experience and observation that the great challenge we in the West face … is to develop the ability to stay with the practice. It is not difficult to observe people wandering around changing teachers and traditions, avoiding practice when they are not getting what they think they should be getting from their efforts, or just avoiding themselves with their restless wanderings. This willingness to stick with things is the most difficult aspect of practice that we face, because it is going against the current that has been carrying us along all our lives.” The effort we have to make is the effort to endure, the effort to stick with our practice through all the ups and downs. We live in a culture of instant gratification and that influences every aspect of our lives including our approach to spiritual practice. However there is no short-cut to Insight and as we tread the Path there will be happy times, even blissful times and also difficult and desolate times. This is the terrain of spiritual practice and if we stay with it we will eventually win through to Insight. The Indian poet Tagore says, “no hurried Path of success, forcibly cut by the greed of result, can be the true path”. That is one way of looking at Right Effort. Now we come to Right Mindfulness. There are two main aspects to mindfulness. These are called sati and sampajana. Sati is mindfulness of the present moment, being totally present to our experience. Sampajana is awareness of our purpose and direction, being aware of where we have come from and where we are going. Mindfulness is perhaps the most important of all the spiritual qualities. The practice of mindfulness or awareness is what eventually takes us to Enlightenment. Awareness taken to the nth degree is Enlightenment. There are four dimensions to awareness. These involve awareness of self, things, other people and Reality. Awareness of oneself includes awareness of the body, of thoughts and of emotions. It is easier to maintain awareness of our thoughts and emotions if we reduce input. If we read a lot of newspapers and magazines and watch lots of TV, it will be very difficult for us to be aware of our thoughts and emotions. Our minds will be too busy digesting other people’s, often not very savoury, thoughts and emotions. We need to saturate our awareness of ourselves with kindness. When we become aware of the nastier aspects of our psyche, we don’t try to push them away nor do we need to berate ourselves for having faults. We just need to maintain awareness, accepting with kindness that that is an aspect of how we are at present. This sort of acceptance of our present state is not the same as indulging negative emotions. Indulgence is when we think or say, “that’s how I am, it can’t be helped, you’ll just have to like it or lump it”. Indulgence doesn’t want to change and has lost sight of the bigger picture, which includes all the positive emotions and aspirations. Positive acceptance of our unskilful thoughts and emotions maintains the bigger perspective that includes the skilful and is intent on allowing the light of awareness to transform us. Awareness of things includes awareness of the environment in an ecological sense, as well as in an aesthetic sense. Awareness of others is primarily concerned with an awareness of the effect that we have on others. In other words, it’s an ethical awareness. Awareness of Reality involves staying connected with our spiritual Ideal, whether through reflection, mantra chanting, puja, meditation, study or whatever methods that work for us. Mindfulness is very comprehensive and extremely important. You can never have too much mindfulness. The final stage of the Noble Eight Fold Path is Right Meditation or Right Samadhi. Samadhi is often translated as ‘concentration’ but that might give the wrong impression, because Samadhi is really “an experience of wholeness at a very high level of awareness”. To give a better idea of what this final stage of the Eight Fold Path is about I’ll quote Sangharakshita, “In the first place Samadhi is not something that can be acquired forcibly or artificially by means of exercises or techniques. They may be of incidental help but fundamentally Samadhi represents a spiritual growth or evolution of the whole being. It is not enough just to concentrate your mind on an object for half an hour at a time if the rest of your life is pulling in the opposite direction. If ninety nine percent of your life is oriented in the direction of the mundane, it is no use spending just half an hour a day trying to orient it in a spiritual direction. … Meditation proper represents the spearhead of a basic re-orientation of one’s whole being. … Knowledge and vision of things as they really are arises when, in the state of Samadhi, we get our first glimpse of Reality itself, free from all veils and observations. It’s like the moment when you get to the top of a high mountain and the clouds roll aside to reveal the vast expanse of the horizon. Samadhi represents getting to the peak, the vantage point from which you can see Reality itself”. (The Meaning of Conversion in Buddhism, pp 44-45) Right Samadhi is not just concentration or meditation in a narrow sense, it is the “transformation and integration of the whole psyche in all its sublimest heights and most abysmal depths”. That then is the Noble Eight Fold Path. That is the finger pointing at the moon. That is what we need to do to start to lift the veil of ignorance from the face of the moon of Reality. But that is, of course, not the only approach to our realisation of the Wisdom of the Buddha. Another traditional method, which focuses especially on Wisdom, is what is known as the three levels of Wisdom or the three Wisdoms. These three are sruta-maya prajna, cinta-maya prajna and bhavana-maya prajna; listening, reflecting and meditating. These can be seen as a progression from listening through reflection to meditation or each one can be seen as a path in itself. In his lecture entitled ‘Standing on Holy Ground’, Sangharakshita speaks of these three as three separate paths for the three types of individual. The three types of individual are the faith follower, the Dharma follower and the body witness. The faith follower is predominantly devotional, the doctrine follower is predominantly scholarly or intellectual and the body witness is predominantly meditative or mystical. These types indicate that temperament plays a part in spiritual life and must be taken into account. As the parable of the Rain Cloud in the White Lotus Sutra indicates, the rain of the Dharma falls equally on all but everybody grows according to their own nature. The listening wisdom (sruta-maya prajna) is the practice best suited to the faith follower. Listening involves an active receptivity to the Dharma, whether in the Sutras or in talks and lectures and someone who is predominantly devotional is likely to be very receptive and able to respond creatively to the guidance received. The wisdom of reflection (cinta-maya prajna) is suited to the doctrine follower who will be able to emotionally engage with the analysis of concepts and the intricacies of the different formulations of the path and goal. Reflection involves turning over the concepts of the Dharma in one’s mind, until one has reached a level of understanding where one has made the teachings one own. One knows what it means for oneself. The meditative wisdom (bhavana-maya prajna) is best suited to the meditative type, the body witness. This wisdom involves a direct realisation of the Truth unmediated by concepts and demands an ability to sustain concentration and plumb depths of the psyche until Reality is revealed like a vision. Although the three wisdoms can be seen in this way as pertaining to different types of individual, it is probably best for most of us to think of them as a progression. Most of us will not be so clearly of one definite temperament and, therefore, it is best for us to practice these as three levels of wisdom. We start by listening to the Dharma, reading scriptures and commentaries, taking part in discussion and study and in this way familiarising ourselves with many different teachings. Then we begin to reflect on perhaps just one teaching which particularly appeals to us and we keep coming back to it for months and years, remembering David Smith’s exhortation to ‘stay with it’. In this way we go deeper into the Dharma and gain greater understanding. Then, when on retreat, we can bring our contemplation into our more concentrated mind and gradually we will begin to have little flashes of realisation, glimpses of what the Dharma is really saying, until eventually the flashes get brighter and our glimpses become a clearer vision, even a Perfect Vision and we move from treading the mundane path to treading the Transcendental Path. The veil of ignorance will have lifted and we will have united all the teachings and perspectives in our own being.