Monday, 17 December 2018

The power: to bless or abuse

(sīma stone at Wat Pah Nanachat, N.E. Thailand)
Spiritual power carries an effective potential for good or for bad. First the good: the work and example of spiritual masters, great teachers and leaders who often single handedly went against the tide is a beacon of light in the human ocean. In this case, I think of Ajahn Chah and Ajahn Sumedho because I associated with them, but I hope you have your own, because the world is a tough place without that light.
But it can get even tougher when the guiding light has been seen to cast deep shadows: witness the recent upheavals at Shambhala and Rigpa where the holders of truth for their global communities have been removed on account of their abusive sexual and physical activities. Grim and very sad – but not unusual. Gurus, prelates and even presidents are seen, rightly or not, as bearers of qualities that enable them to support the collective. How they are seen depends not just on a rational assessment but on the energy of their presence, verbal delivery or deportment – an immaterial 'substance' called 'charisma' - ‘grace’. On account of this, followers grant effective power to the leader. It’s quite a transference; human collectives orient themselves around it. In fact it's difficult for a collective to arise, as a body that can move beyond individual self-interest, without the charismatic embodiment of the greater good. And although the source of that goodness may be couched in terms of a national myth, or a god, or a god-given destiny, the terrestrial agent of that good embodies that through their personal charisma: kings and queens are sacred. Yet, given the fallible nature of all human beings, and considering the damage caused by charismatic leaders of spiritual communities (let alone of political institutions), along with the resultant loss of faith, meaning and orientation for millions of people, this is a major issue. Its ramifications extend beyond the flaws of particular individuals.
The Buddha was evidently richly endowed, and thus a source of charisma and authority. His five former ascetic associates, having just made a pact to not acknowledge him, found themselves involuntarily rising up and offering him a seat and homage as soon as he, then newly-awakened, came into their presence. 'Bhagava' they and multitudes of disciples called him - 'the Blessed One, the one rich in grace' – and the honorific had been passed down to seers and sages in India ever since. The Buddha lived up to that on account of his authentic realization and through passing on a wealth of teachings. But, sidestepping a purely personal attainment, he referred to himself in the third person, as Tathāgatā - 'the One who has gone into Truth', the Transcendent One. His insistence was that he had rightly seen the Dhamma, the Way leading to liberation, and that Way was the proper focus to attend to. However the teacher-disciple relationship was a vital part of that Way. So for those who had committed to his Dhamma and yet were deviating from it, his instructions took on the qualities of command:
... for a faithful disciple ... it is proper that he conduct himself thus: 'The Blessed One in the Teacher, I am a disciple; the Blessed One knows, I do not know.'... 'Willingly, let only my skin, sinews, and bones remain, and let the flesh and blood dry up on my body, but my energy shall not be relaxed so long as I have not attained what can be attained ...' (M.70:27)
It's a different tune from the 'trust your own wisdom' trope that gets spun out of the Kālāma sutta. In the teaching quoted above the innate wisdom that the listeners were missing out on was the understanding that they hadn't completed the Way, and hence should listen to someone who had – and through whom they had taken up discipleship.
Yet although the Buddha was authoritarian at times, he never abused his power. Wanting no part of material gain, he is also recollected as 'vijjācaranasampanno'– perfected in understanding and conduct. Creating codes of moral and relational integrity –'Vinaya'– was a major part of his life's work. Vinaya covers protocols around gaining, possessing and sharing material requisites, around topics such as relationships between householders and samanas (especially with reference to sexuality) and between teachers and disciples. Accordingly, the Sangha still sees the Buddha and the teachings he laid down as the highest authority, followed in descending order by the entire Sangha as a spiritual entity, then by a group of elders, and for local and circumstantial matters, a single elder. In practical terms, this arrangement weighs against the abuse of charismatic power – the highest levels of authority are either dead or absent, and thus incapable of abusing anyone. And every genuine Buddhist teacher shoulddefer to the Buddha's ethical standards.
They should also understand power. To summarize: power as authority is based on the past, on being the bearer of the knowledge or grace that has issued from the source; power as influence is based on personal charisma in the present; and the power to command is the use of any of these to influence the future. A wise follower should therefore check the validity of the authority, internalize the charismatic effect, and thereby take personal responsibility with regard to following the command. The hinge point then is how charisma is referred to and used. Because in spiritual matters, when faced with either scripture or legal structure on one hand, and relationship to someone's radiant presence on the other, most people will follow the living being.
For sure. Dead texts aren't going to respond, sympathize, cheer or advise. And the nature of the heart-mind is such that spiritual practice brings forth its potency in terms of 'indriya' - spiritual faculties that open as faith (saddhā), application energy (viriya), mindfulness (sati) unification (samādhi) and discernment (paññā), until they ripen into bala, strengths. The effect is palpable: one feature of his awakened disciples of the Buddha that was remarked upon was that their faculties were clear and bright, and they conducted themselves as if rejoicing, with minds as sensitive and agile as the wild deer. When such people spoke words that went to the heart and resonated with truth, the effect was bound to be awesome. Just as they did, all teachers and exemplars need to cultivate personal restraint, modesty and awareness of influence.
Vinaya helps with this in ethical and judicial ways. As an obvious example, a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni can only speak a few words of Dhamma to a member of the opposite sex unless they are in a public place or accompanied by another male or female respectively. But still, minor inclinations, such as around choice of food can get translated into imperatives by devotees. ('Bhante has to have marmalade on his toast!') More important is to put boundaries around what a teacher can influence – which means that others have to grow into responsibility. Thus any abbot or senior nun in our monasteries has to work within the structures supervised by the Wat Pah Pong sangha, by the local group of elders and by the lay trusts and committees that manage the monasteries, as well as in accordance with their community. Hardly free-license. But still, occupying a leadership position is one factor through which charisma can arise – whether one wishes for it or is even aware of this happening. Personally speaking, since I resigned from abbotship, I incline to taking a back seat. But still, as a teacher, although from my point of view, I muddle along with a wish to serve and the energy of commitment, from another's viewpoint I may seem to be intruding and taking over. Some people are grateful and express that; while to others, these followers seem to be attached and jockeying for access to the Master.
Living with Ajahn Sumedho for over a decade gave me a precious view of how these forms of influence and power arise and with what care they need to be managed. He effortlessly carried a huge sense of presence, just by sitting still. It was a natural result of his own mental depth and stillness. When addressing people, he spoke from his own conviction a Dhamma that went to the heart; this, coupled with the authority that any speaker is given had profound effects. He manifested concern for people's welfare along with good humour and an accessible manner. Especially in the bleak pioneering days when the community was young and fragile, his ease and unstoppable vitality held things together. All these have been priceless blessings – made even more remarkable given the apparent austerity of the monastic background and the dry approach of Theravada scriptures that are his source. (It's not a jubilant or bhakti- soaked lineage.) In brief, I don't think that it would be an over-estimation to say that at least nine monastic communities, and thousands of lay people's practice, have been largely founded on Luang Por Sumedho's teaching, example and sheer presence.
But then there's the management. In terms of the daily life of the community, Luang Por never concerned himself with the details of work, but focused on the meditations, the pujas and the protocols. Working out details was never his forte. Consequently, over a couple of decades, there was a careful, slow and at times faltering separation between him as director of 'spiritual' affairs and overseer of management; faltering because some decisions – such as who enters the community, and how to train newcomers; or whether to create a new monastery and who was to be its senior incumbent – cross these boundaries. And at times people found it easier to circumvent the management and go directly to the spiritual director – who would give a go-ahead without considering all the details. So the development of a painstaking and non-charismatic power base, out of necessity, through discussions, trials and a range of views was at times a taxing matter. To question and even disagree with the spiritual director's opinion, and with those of one's fellow samanas, without losing faith or harmony is a delicate and educational process. It was a matter of basing decision-making on Vinaya principles of consensus, respect for elders and for the tradition – even when neither the business at hand, nor the opinions of others, nor the actions of some elders nor even aspects of the tradition were interesting or agreeable. But this is what makes management a spiritual practice. To work with the tedious, the opinionated, the quirky and the antiquated brings forth skills and strengths that few people get to realize. And it is through such patience, dispassion and relinquishment that there is growth in terms of liberation and a cooperative community. It's a process that brings deep and resilient awareness into how we operate; and that's more precious than having a fixed management plan, or even one talented individual. This Dhamma-Vinaya is the Refuge, the resource and the guide when the Teacher passes away; properly lived, it is capable of handling the world of success and failure, acclaim and disrepute.
Yes, success and accomplishment need to be managed; otherwise there is the grandiosity and inflation of unbridled charisma. That energy arises out of what happens between people anyway: when heart-minds are in resonance, energy transfers and there is a corresponding glow – the 'love' effect. It's an energy that can arise at the sight of gone-forth people living a life focused on liberation; the sight of samanas is heart-warming. We also naturally feel grateful to those who help us. And when Dhamma is shared, the heart-mind can light up with a steady radiance – for good reason.
When … a noble disciple listens to the Dhamma with eager ears, attending to it as a matter of vital concern, directing his whole mind to it, on that occasion the five hindrances are not present...[and] the seven factors of enlightenment go to fulfilment...(S.46:38)
All the more reason then, to internalize the potency that has been thus aroused. Accordingly the Buddha questioned Visākhā, the devout matriarch of Savatthi, when she asked to make offerings to the Sangha: 'What benefits do you see for yourself ...?' Notice her impeccable reply:
'When I remember it, I shall be glad. When I am glad, I shall be happy. When my mind is happy, my body will be tranquil. When my body is tranquil, I shall feel pleasure. When I feel pleasure, my mind will become concentrated. That will maintain the spiritual faculties in me and also the strengths and also the enlightenment factors.' (Vinaya, Mahavagga, 8)
Wisely managed, inspiration and gratitude result in liberation.
But don't take any of it personally. So the duty of the teacher, lay or in robes, is to recognize that their position and Dhamma will give them power – whether they wish for it or not. Thus my advice to disciples: check as to whether a teacher is in touch with a source outside his/her own mind; whether they operate within conventions that are widely held to be virtuous; and whether they are accountable to a group of peers or elders. And to teachers: ward off titles and empowerments; while occupying the teacher's seat, pay homage to the source of those teachings; and finally when one has completed a teaching, get off that sacred seat and walk away.

Monday, 22 October 2018

Right speech builds a responsible world

Have you noticed what has happened to speech? And the written word? The instant soundbite, the tabloid headline, the advertising slogan, the attention-grabbing phrase beloved of demagogues, and the cloudy waffle of the political speech are all now moving or even forming the human world. 'In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God', still has a truth to it; it still creates worlds that we are immersed in – but as subjects of what god? The word valued in terms of impact rather than veracity or meaning, the word launched into cyberspace willy-nilly, issues from a god that only attends to its own interests. This is a god that doesn’t listen to others, and has no regard for long-term consequences. The deification of irresponsibility.
How after centuries of development, education and knowledge could we have find ourselves in a situation where human enterprise is destroying the planet on which we depend? How could it be that after centuries of struggle to fashion political systems to support people and steward our national resources, we are experiencing dictatorships, oligarchy, increasing inequity and a gross imbalance of wealth and opportunity? We can blame individuals, but the fact that humans create a system where personal advantage trumps collective responsibility points to something systemic, even embedded in the human mind. 'Me and mine is the guiding light' puts it in a nutshell. In an age of mass-communication and mass-media, words that issue from that perspective have a huge effect.
To breathe out: yes there are many noble acts, many people taking a stand against the exploitation of our commonwealth - our fecund earth, our air, our water, and our right to stand as beings with access to values and mutually- acknowledged dignity. Things get better even as they get worse. But at the current estimate, self-view is ruling the cosmos.
Cosmos? What's that? No, I'm not referring to stars and nebulae, at least not exclusively. By 'cosmos' I'm referring to the totality of what you're experiencing, the 'field' within which you are affected and operating. The heart of the matter is that the smallest unit in the cosmos is two, not one. To the average person this is 'me and you/her/it.' But this duality includes not just the physical world that you're part of, but also thoughts, emotions, impressions and the sense-data that trigger all that. You and it affect each other. This may not seem to be the case, because most of the 'it' of the cosmos may seem to be the unresponsive stuff of what you taste, what touches you physically and psychologically, what you hear and what you hear about. Note that last term: much of what effects you is unresponsive because it's abstract; you read about, you hear about, you look at a screen and it tells you about somewhere other than where your feet are – as someone you can't talk to addresses you. In this complex and wide human field, we are guided by reports that have a direct and even dominant effect on what you know, how you feel, what you do, and who you belong to. With this 'belonging' sense, the 'mine' co-ordinate swells into a sub-field – but still excludes the 'others': so we get liberal against conservative, pro-choice against pro-life, secular against religious, urban against rural, citizens against migrants; exclusivity (=keep us pure) against inclusivity (= keep things open). This reportage is the god of words and in fact of all representation – nāmain Buddhist terms. Let's flag that:
Nāma['name'] has weighed down everything
Nothing is more extensive than 'name'.
'Name' is the one thing that has
All under its control (S.1:61)
The crux, and the liberating hinge, of this is that what our minds receive is a report, a representation not an objective reality. Although we get used to either rejecting or accepting, but not responding to this fact, on the level of existence in this dualistic world, there has to be a response to the fact that all we have is a report. Both internal assessment and interpersonal dialogue are needed to arrive at a harmonious result. That is a return to full exploration. In this process words, although slippery if taken as final truths, are crucial. Because exploration must begin at home: directing awareness towards one's mood and subjective bias, capturing that in one word or phrase ('defensive, 'hungry', one listens to the heart for a response to that sense. When one has found an internal resolution, or at least an acknowledgement of one's angle, there is an opening to a balanced recognition of the truth of the matter. 
As everything arises out of a synthesis of dependently conjoining factors, the factor of one's mind state has to be recognized and dealt with. As well as how it meets ‘the other’ when things aren’t going my way. The samanas' training standard on this is quite clear; accepting that diversity, dissonance and even dispute were inevitable facts, the Buddha set up the process of inner resolution that each party should undertake before discussing the point of contention. In outline, each should consider whether they practise purity in body and speech; whether they have an inclination of goodwill; whether they are well and fully informed; and whether they are speaking 'at the right time, of facts, gently, words that are profitable, with kindly heart.' (A 5:44) Whereas ... if in any dispute the offending bhikkhu and the one who admonishes him do not practise strict self-examination, it may be expected that it will lead to protracted, bitter and contentious quarrelling...(A.2:15)
Have you noticed that? This lack of wise reflection brings dire consequences when the writer/speaker addresses people as a mass. Then their unresolved biases and self-interest manipulate and divide the listeners for the speaker's personal advantage. Personal advantage is enjoyable, no doubt: power over others, the lust for control and moral (or immoral) supremacy stimulates a pleasure neuro-chemical that gets addictive. The question is: ‘Can I shelve that short-term high for the greater long-term good?’ Because there is gladness that comes with serving others, in witnessing their well-being, and in having a clean and open mind. And it has long-term effects. One rejoices in peace, delights in peace and speaks words that make for peace ... at a suitable time [one] will speak words that are worth remembering, well-grounded, purposeful and profitable.(A.5:99) All the more reason then for right speech to be a training standard that is more important than any other science. It should be obligatory for those moved to serve in public office.
Right time? When we're not distracted or busy. Fact? Have I seen this for myself when I was clearly focused? Or did I get it from someone else? Do I present what I know as just what I’ve seen or what I've heard from others just as what I’ve heard? Gently? Can I place my words calmly, with little rhetoric and in a way that supports a clear response? Can we create an opportunity to mutually check for the ‘facts’?
The clarity and balance of this practice pays off in any meditation or introspection, when inner speech, thought, has to be mastered. The added twist is that the average person can’t always determine what thoughts will pop into their head at any moment. This is because many thoughts, and the emotions and viewpoints that condition them, are picked up from other people, or through the media. So your thoughts are not entirely your own. Hence knowing the effects of passing on whatever comes into your mind, the first training is to be circumspect in terms of giving them attention and from uttering them.
I … do not say that all that one has seen/heard/sense and understood should be spoken of. …Now… to the extent that speaking what one has seen/heard/sensed and understood causes harmful states to arise and useful ones to decline ... harmful states to decline and useful ones to arise ... one should not or should speak what one has seen, heard, sensed or understood. (A.4:183)
(For more on 'internal speech see: Monkeys, Parrots and Contemplative Thought )
Many thoughts are just reactions, so you'd best decide what has to be felt and let pass, what has to be pondered internally, what has to be brought out for inquiry at a suitable time, and what can be categorically stated. As for the last category, you’ll probably find that nothing in that is reactive or carries emotional pressure. You speak for yourself, clearly and simply. Even if you're expressing yourself strongly – ‘I refuse to tolerate being addressed in this way!' – such speech is not chaotic, nor does it attack or demand anything of the other person. But any statement of truth must allow for clarification and interaction. It should allow the other to enter into dialogue – as: 'Excuse me. I must have caused offence. Can you help me with this?' This is unlike the assertion of righteousness or the dismissal that erase that option. So the advice is: ‘Don't bounce the other. Check the mood. If it’s impassioned, the information or opinion may be valuable, but how about the delivery? If you start threatening or judging the other, is he or she going to be able to receive this or block and counter it?’ Can you pause and find balance first? Can you ask the other to respond or comment?
Right speech means giving some focus to speaking; that is how you speak, why you speak and what you talk about. And to that add awareness of who you’re talking to and whether they are ready and interested in receiving your words. So for a start: how conscious are you of your speech? Have you decided what to say, and how best to bring that across? Have you checked in as to whether this is the right time to speak to her or him? Even more important, have you reviewed why you’re talking? In the above example you might try: 'I'm annoyed right now, and I'd like to address this with you.' Find the occasion: make an overall assessment: ‘I’m in a pretty intense state right now, better not talk about that … yet.‘ Or, ‘He’s pre-occupied at this time, maybe I’ll just let him know that sometime, when it’s convenient…’ Or, create some time, and negotiate contact, beginning with a sketchy check-in concerning how the other person is right now, and then suggesting what you’d like to talk about. Disturbing matters may well need to be addressed, so: ‘Is now a good time?’ Of course it might not be! But that’s the deal – and if you’re willing to respect the other’s boundaries, the chances are that they’ll be more willing to enter dialogue at some other occasion. It works both ways: you can also say: ‘That seems like a lot to deal with right now, but…’ or, ‘I’m feeling like I need some space this morning, but ...’
Furthermore, when you do speak more fully, keep negotiation in mind. Rather than present a monologue, pause from time to time to allow the other to comment or respond; and even inquire: ‘How does that sound to you?’ ‘ Do you get what I mean?’ If you entered the dialogue as listener, wait for that pause; avoid interrupting unless the speaker is really rambling on – in which case you wait for a mini-pause such as a shift of tone or speed, and then interject: ‘Can we take this a little at a time, I’m finding it hard to take all this in,’ and so on. In this way, you’re learning two valuable things: firstly, that the other person has their own life and isn’t just a character in your mind, and secondly, that you can manage the rush of thinking. You can even learn from it as to what stirs you up. More deeply, you can learn to let the first stream of immediate (reactive) thought pass, listen to what is happening in your heart and respond to that from a place of clarity. This is not about self-interest, but about an alignment to truth. Of course it's not gratifying to acknowledge that one is defensive, pushy or confused, but to respond to that in oneself is going to be an effective first step. It also means that you're more capable of responding usefully to these qualities in another person. When it comes down to it, without doing this, inner and outer speech is going to amount to blurting, rambling and dumping.
Above all, skilful thought in meditation and in dialogue comes down to learning to think short and listen long. Make just one point and attend to the response in yourself and in the other. Find out where to go from there. Apart from settling any dispute, and experiencing pleasure in an exchange that leads to mutual agreement, you are in this way helping to rebuild the cosmos. Because the more we can shift our source of success and pleasure from supremacy to mutuality, the less destruction and abuse we're going to create. A planet of a few billion cooperative humans sounds good. The opposite is a mega-disaster.

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Include it - ALL?

A decade or so ago, I came up with a four-line synopsis of what meditation meant to me. It was ‘Pay attention; widen and soften; meet what arises; include it all.’ It was handy and portable, but it needed fleshing out. In terms of silent meditation, this came down to: 

‘Pay attention': heighten your awareness of the immediate present experience without attempting to change it. Tune into how the steadying effect of that absence of reactivity. Feel how your body is when that quality helps you to settle; and when that feels adequate and comfortable, and as it feels suitable, sense how your breathing feels. Above all, hold your attention on the aspect of the body that allows you to feel more comfortably settled. (This includes the space immediatley around your body.) In this way, through careful attention, mindfulness has been established. 

‘Widen and soften’: relax the intensity of the focus, and also any ideas of getting somewhere, or searching for an experience, or trying to change anything. Let yourself be fully receptive to how it actually is. If the experience is pleasant, absorb into it. If it is difficult, step back and rest in the wider field of awareness. Get a feel for the awareness that your experience of your body/ breathing arises within – and let things change in their own time.

‘Meet what arises’: you may notice irregularities your breathing, or discordant experiences in your body. Alternatively, subtle pleasure may arise. Have an attitude of meeting these phenomena, rather than pushing through them, hanging onto them, or wondering what to do next. You may detect qualities such as hesitancy, fascination or forcefulness in terms of your attitude. Acknowledge any of these, and rather than thinking about them, notice them as qualities in the mind's field, of a similar nature to those in the bodily domain. Meeting these, as they are, you may notice dispassion – a realization that none of these can be held as mine, or as inherent. They are ‘there’ rather than ‘here’; they don't constitute a self. Take your time and sense how that realization feels.

‘Include it all’ refers to continuing this process as other phenomena arise. As they will – all is changing, and your embodied mind, as awareness deepens into it, will unfold in the way that a crumpled rubber sheet does when it comes out of compression. In this process, it will present both the nature of the forces that caused it to contract (such as fear, hurt or desire) and the factors such as gladness, rapture and ease that are sign of the beauty of that unfolding.

Like all models, this one is simplistic and subject to misinterpretations. The first one being to assume that a later part of the instruction supersedes an earlier one: in which case we lose the quality of careful attention as we widen and soften. Then the focus collapses, the mind gets flooded and attention gets drawn into narratives or sidetracked by daydreams. In brief, mindfulness has been lost. So no wisdom or release can occur; and to 'include it all' from that basis merely opens the floodgates of memory, fears and fantasies with no way of learning from what has arisen. But when careful attention does give rise to strong mindfulness, we can linger in that very quality and learn about mindfulness, and what ‘mind’ actually is. Mindfulness is more like a loop than a thumbtack: it can narrow to sit on a small location (such as the nosetip) or it can widen to cover the experience of the body as a whole unit. And mind isn’t an entity, it’s a  permeable field of changing qualities. And it’s sensitive, a ‘heart’.  Hence the value of mindfulness is that it holds the boundary of attention, and shields the mind from useless, damaging or irrelevant phenomena. Then, as it gathers energy and strength, it can be directed without its loop being broken.

The theme of widening and softening can consequently enable the steadying effect of mindfulness to be felt through a wider field (such as in terms of the bodily effect). As that effect can be referred to the central focus of mindfulness. So: what’s happening in the next room? The song I heard on the radio two days ago that is throbbing in my head? It's probably not useful to focus on these.  But tension in my body, or impatience in my heart-mind, or other embodied effects of the sounds around or within me, yes, if mindfulness is fit, these may be usefully addressed. As long as mindfulness can keep tethering effects to its central theme: so – how does restlessness or irritation feel in my body?  Embodiment is the key, because it opens the potential to meet phenomena as energies and sensations, rather then think about them, obsess or fight with them. Properly met, they can find release.

Hence meeting what arises. And the gift of that is that in the simplicity of just being with phenomena, and letting go of the ‘normal’ responses – strategies that come from the socially conditioned self – a response can arise by itself from the embodied mind. This embodied mind is a natural condition – it arises as we did at birth from the awareness of being in, or sensitive to, a body. It has no Buddhist jargon, but is empathically responsive. Its response arises somatically – as a shift of energy – and carries a heart resonance.  This resonant response is the ‘feel’ of realization. It may or may not bring a word or phrase to mind; you can’t predict it or strategize it, but it is in the moment (and only in this moment) accurate – and conducive to release. As the sticking point of a mind-state opens with that response, the lock falls away and the spell of attachment is broken. The mind-state can then pass.

So how do you get that release going? At the place of meeting, you pause, and invite – offering an attitude of ‘Can this speak?’ ‘What is needed now?’ Note, it’s  ‘What does this need’ - not ‘What do I want.’ But you don’t reply, or make a suggestion: the response does not arise from the conceptual mind, but from mindfulness and inquiry in the embodied domain.  They offer an invitation for phenomena to reveal their nature. 

What is revealed is that phenomena - dhammā  – are not things, people, events in the past, or scenarios in the future, but energetic qualia of ‘becoming’ that arise and pass and are not self. Well you may have known that ... in your head, but your heart-mind didn’t. It was still holding on, resisting, agitating, blaming, indulging, complicating ...

‘Include it all’ means what it says. It has at times felt naively optimistic. But it’s an aspiration; perhaps better expressed as ‘include what your mindfulness can manage’. Much of what I was referring to in this meditation instruction was to spread awareness over the whole body, when physical pain, emotion and blocked energy arise that cause a restriction. These are phenomena that one could call one’s own, or one’s kammic inheritance.  In meditation practice the skill is to locate the stuck place, then without losing awareness of that, to widen the loop of mindfulness into a broad focus on the whole embodied state. When this process comes to rest it accesses the response of Dhamma.

For instance: ‘I have a pain in my right shoulder, it's been there for years; I've tried shifting my arm, doing stretches etc. but after twenty minutes of sitting in meditation, it becomes acute. If I could only get into jhāna, then I wouldn't feel it ... but the pain gets to me first and stops me doing that. I've tried being patient, and sending it metta, but still the thing persists.’ Well, the practice I outline means that first you pay careful attention to the pain as a phenomenon: how does it move? If it we're visible, what would it look like? Then you soften your attitude and widen your focus: how far does the pain extend? Where in your body does it go? Can you get the whole of it, and connect it from its tail-end to the adjacent area that is not in pain. (Maybe in the above instance that's halfway down my back.) Widen to include the tail-end of the pain where it meets the non-pain – and settle awareness at that transition point. This will open a 'drainage channel' through which the body can gradually discharge the tense defensive energy that has accumulated around the pain. In its own time, the body will open more fully and the pain will soften or even vanish. 

Ah yes: ‘in it's own time’ - because 'include it all' also means including two interrelated pieces – the mind's attitude and the quality of awareness. Can your attitude soften out of 'this is getting in my way' to one of meeting the phenomenon with something like respect? Furthermore, can you meet psychological stuff in the same way, and widen to include the awareness of all that? Either of these pathways will take you to an awareness that is void of strategies, expectations, or identification – where a cool and unplanned response can arise. So if you can meet, widen and include, you will have learnt something that is worth having pain for. Because this is where the inevitable dukkha of life becomes a teacher and guide rather than an obstacle. Here is the wisdom that knows nothing, expects nothing, and rather than control phenomena, allows them to be felt and released. 

The skills of this process become increasingly relevant as the full realm of experience is allowed into focus. What becomes clear is that, even as what can be called ‘my stuff’ gets less, the domain of experience widens to include the socio-cultural domain and the kammic field that we arise within. Because the mind is an affect-response experience, not a distinct entity; it is affected by the ‘all’. So just because one doesn’t identify with or feel responsible for environmental destruction, social injustice and the rest of it doesn’t mean that the mind isn’t involved. If you've seen it or heard it, your mind has registered it. And probably felt shocked–  and then gone about its daily business. ‘Other people ... After all, what can I do?’ Well, you could widen soften and include the resonance of that. No, it won't fix things, at least immediately, but it will change your attitudes and actions. You might for example meet people who feel the same way. That's where right action begins: to meet what arises internally - and widen to associate with people of integrity. So one fruition is that you realize that we have access to another field, that of goodness, of Dhamma. 

When this becomes apparent, it’s possible to include the potential of what other people see you as. Because you don’t measure yourself so personally. For instance, finding myself as a white Anglo-Saxon male, and by default thinking along those lines, can make me overlook the amount of damage people who look like me have caused. Sure, I personally have led a harmless life and I experience generosity, kindness and compassion towards other beings. So from my point of view, I am not a threat. But on getting more acquainted with the history, I can now understand more easily why non-white people may see this ‘me’ phenomenon as a threat, or be triggered by a casual remark. And if I attune to the potential in another to feel that wavering unsettledness, I also sense that in myself, and am aware of the need to pause, listen and open to what may arise at our meeting. But I don’t expect another to see me ‘as I really am’. Because a true meeting is not of two solid and distinctly-boundaried entities bumping into and measuring each other anyway; it is an interaction of inherited sensitivities in a relational field. From this field, a deep and accurate response can arise. That is, if we can put aside what we identify ourselves as being (well-intentioned monk, etc.) and what we identify ourselves as NOT being (authority figure etc.), we simply meet what arises. A phrase in the Sutta-Nipata comes to mind in which the sage is described:
…a  person of nothing, who has nothing that they hold as theirs, and nothing that they reject as not theirs.

Inclusivity then doesn’t imply that we as individuals are all equal: some are stronger, more quick-witted or have access to deeper domains of concentration than others. There are gifts and talents, as well as disabilities and limitations. But there is a unity that includes all. It is one of respectful awareness within the relational field. If we acknowledge being changeable configurations within that (rather than fixed entities), we can attune to the mutuality of existence and the responsibility that this entails. To meet what arises, and include. Then come what may, we live with integrity and balance, because awareness isn't biased or shutting things out. 

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Dhamma and Psychedelics

It was in Goa, in January 1975, that I had a major insight into using psychedelic drugs, one that was to change my life. I was living on the beach then, among many end-of-an-era hippies, spiritual seekers looking for a guru, and wanderers of no particular inclination other than to ‘drop out’ of conventional society with its nine-to-five job, marriage, two kids and a semi-detached house. Such a niche seemed like a living death to me at that time. And a new way beckoned: in the late 60s Peace and Love had wafted in on a breeze; the Beatles were popularising Transcendental Meditation; and Tim Leary was encouraging us to ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’. The expansion of consciousness through ingesting a small dose of a drug seemed to offer a groove that was more vibrant than the tedious ruts of the mainstream. I’d also read of the use of LSD in psychotherapy as an aid to unlocking the mysteries of the psyche ... then there was Aldous Huxley, John Lily M.D., and a host of tie-dyed rock bands indicating that life could be mystical, free from violence, loving, cooperative and joyful.  Consequently I had availed myself of psychedelics – principally LSD, but also mescaline, DMT and a few organic others – as and when they became available. It turned into quite a flow.
But by the mid-seventies, the joy was evaporating. The potential for an alternative culture had been hi-jacked by moneyed interests: youthful energy got sidetracked into music and fashion. Psychedelics were becoming a commodity rather than a freely distributed sacrament, and dealers were taking over. They’d also push a number of other drugs, so the border between using drugs for spiritual awakening and just getting stoned melted. Meanwhile very little had been established as a basis for an engaged social life. A few communes had been set up, but by and large the interest in an alternative, more mystically-inspired way of life hadn’t produced any workable structures. In our mid-twenties now, the would-be mystics of my generation were drifting around, getting high and producing children (whose needs brought them back to the mainstream). A few moved on to hard drugs – and they didn’t all survive.
India seemed to offer a refuge from all that, a place to tap into authentic spirituality. This is where the acid-guru Richard Alpert had met his teacher, ‘Maharaji’ (Neem Karoli Baba) and had progressed towards a Way that entailed self-discipline and service. ‘Ram Das’ –‘Servant of God’– was his new name, and he taught meditation and wisdom, in fact set up the Hanuman Foundation specifically to help the needy. Not that there was access to that in Goa in 1975. Nor were there gurus sitting under trees – India was mostly made up of people getting by, many of whom would probably have jumped at the chance to have a steady nine-to-five job, a marriage, a few kids and a semi-detached. Or even one room. The people sitting under trees in Goa were like me. And I was getting disenchanted with the whole thing. The highs were there, but there was also an unspoken sense of ‘Well so what?’ You go up, the senses merge into a flow of synesthetic effects, (for example one would see music), there is a sense of vastness, wonder and euphoria (along with whatever you do or conceive on based on such a mind-state) ... and then you come down. It was a lot better than using alcohol, and mostly harmless. People on acid would often just sit around goggling at Nature (or even at blank walls across which vivid hallucinations were unfurling); it was normal to spend the hours of the trip enthralled by music, and deriving deep meaning from the ragged lyrics. Occasionally someone would see, or even be, God; and on relatively few occasions, someone would have a bad trip and get shaken by paranoia. I don’t recall that taking LSD encouraged sexual licence: often trippers would get entranced by the beauty unfolding from a small detail and just sit there ‘digging’ it. So one was just as likely to engrossed in the pattern on someone’s clothing, or euphoric about the lines of their (or one’s own) palms, as to proceed on to more engaged sexual behaviour. Particularly as perceptions of the body and even of being in one, kept changing throughout the session.
Of course, sex was available, but for me that was producing the same ‘So what?’ – as I hadn’t a clue as to how to engage in the psychologies of a fruitful relationship. That, like mystical revelation, was supposed to come naturally. No effort, just tune in and go with the flow. But although the psychedelic sessions were warm and easeful, because the drug ramped up one’s own psyche, turned up its volume so to speak, mutuality and the negotiations it requires got drowned out. Other people were features in the psychic landscape; the relationships tended towards genial bemusement spangled with semi-coherent revelations and non-sequiturs.
Not that I found the psychedelic experience toxic or useless. It made it clear that the reality that we perceive through the senses is a constructed and biased representation. Not so much a view seen through a glass darkly but an activity of programmed consciousness. That insight supported a disengaged perspective, whereby many of the snap judgements and fixed attitudes around identity, meaning and purpose were suspended. When what presents itself in consciousness is something like the reflection on a lake when the sky is full of passing clouds and the fish and waterfowl are rippling the surface, it’s hard to get a fixed attitude about any of it. ‘May all be well’ just about sums it up.
That’s not a bad place to start from – but as for the ensuing and necessary details ... So this may be why my big insight in Goa was something like: ‘This isn’t taking me where I need to go.’ Or ‘I’ve got to the end of this one. What now?’
Well, ‘What now’ for me turned out to be entering a monastery in Thailand, taking up a disciplined meditation technique and training in the customary behaviour of a Theravada Buddhist monk, Thai-style. Quite an about-turn: to a practice of teasing apart the weave of thought, memory, and mental proliferation. My disengagement got engaged with a deconstruction of that woven reality.
In the contemporary Western Dhamma environment, a deconstruction of the apparent reality can be interpreted as indifference or even disapproval. ( And following on from that, a lack of meaningful engagement with the world that it presents.) And as we are still following on from the Romantic tendency to give supreme validity to what is subjectively felt – especially if it seems uniquely one’s own, or esoteric – disapproval is not allowed. That was one of the unspoken tenets of the hippies, and the Beats before them. But disapproval itself is a construction, and a view that lacks depth; it generally produces a counter-effect. Hence youthful rebellion. Instead, Dhamma-practice encourages a penetration of the world rather than a rejection of it. And for that we have to engage with the basis of the world as we experience it. That begins with handling the emotional craving, happiness, despair and anxiety that go along with the world. 

In essence this entails exercising wisdom with regard to the emotions and views that arise from agreeable and disagreeable impressions, most of them mentally based. That is, for example a taste isn’t delicious, my psyche finds it so.  What makes a shape 'beautiful'? On the other hand, blue could well be the ‘wrong’ colour for you to dress in. And: ‘That so-called music of yours is a raucous din!’ And then the big issues: other people.  Our emotions are interpretations, and they press our buttons with ‘like-dislike’; and our interpretations surge up: 'power-mad', 'ineffective', 'untrustworthy'.  In Buddhist parlance this escalating activity is called ‘the arising of the world.’
In Dhamma-practice, the entry point is certainly subjective feeling: ‘All dhammas(= qualia of experience) converge on feeling... are mastered with mindfulness ... supervised with wisdom ...culminate in the Deathless‘ (A.10:58) But note the mastery: that’s the vital hinge whereby the world subsides and the doors of the Deathless swing open. That takes an authentic, fully conscious, and cool activity with regard to the arising and continuation of one’s world.  So maybe, maybe... it may be the case that with a skilled guide, one can steer through the unravelling that psychedelics offer – but even given a disciplined approach, I personally remain sceptical about blending psychedelics with Dhamma practice. For a few reasons.
Firstly psychedelics don’t get the mind to bring forth its strengths, virtues, warmth or discernment to rightly engage with the world. Instead, the mind’s response is rendered passive in the face of transrational energies. As is reasoned analysis – the aspect of Dhamma that serves to question and to integrate what has been revealed into a new way of being. Having understood unsatisfactoriness, and not-self, and having cultivated restraint, goodwill and patience: what is your livelihood, how do you serve? The ‘translation’ of the mystic or insightful experience into the mundane, an integration into the relative world – that’s what the eightfold Path is about. Certainly the Buddha modeled this path as selfless service. And with that the accept Dhamma as an authority and guide, rather than the operate according to personal inclination or view. This authority is a precious pearl that should not, and cannot, be handed over to another person, let alone to a drug that can only absorb you into perceptions and feelings.
This is where another stumbling block occurs with psychedelics: they tend to highlight what the mind ‘sees’, its perceptions and consciousness, rather than what it ‘does’ – its hanging on to and fondling of these aggregates. Buddha-Dhamma is about letting go of these, through realising their constructed, fallible and changeable nature. To this end, it presents a developmental line of ‘disengagement, dispassion, ceasing and relinquishment’ with reference to consciousness and perception (and the rest of the aggregates). Does this seem abstract or nihilistic? Well, you practise it through entering and abiding in your own embodied presence – and within that you find a centred energy that stands back from mental creations, not because it disapproves, but because it already is of another domain. And yet it can sense, receive and moderate the mind and its world by its  steady presence and innate empathy. The results are earthed and affirmative. Hence one gets to realise that there is a ‘place’ of letting go, or of non-belonging to the sense-world. 
And this is where another dissonance with psychedelics crops up: the expansion of consciousness expands the world; it magnifies all that consciousness brings with it – which includes perception/impression, feeling and impulse to act. The most striking shift that pyschedelics bring around is in the case of perception (Hence Huxley’s ‘The Doors of Perception’): colours sing and vibrate; sounds issue forth flowing patterns – and all this is emotionally moving. The effect is mostly delightful, although waves of terror or grief are possible. This emotional effect, as in the above case of blue being the ‘wrong’ colour, intensifies the mind’s hold on that perception. Or it equates the perceptual conjuring trick with a revelation of the true nature of reality. But a cooler realization will tell you that perception changes, is subjectively biased, and is emotionally and psychologically captivating. It inspires belief – and is not a true reality. Waves of euphoria on the other hand, and the fixation of attention associated with the psychedelic experience, lean against that very realization. In which case there is no release from the conjuring trick, nor even the understanding that such a release is needed or valid. 
In this fathom-long body with its perceptions and mind is the world, the origin of the world and the way leading to the ceasing of the world’(S.2:26) is another lead on the rationale of awakening. If what we perceive is an experience that is dependent on our unconscious activities, holding onto it is equivalent to engaging with a multi-dimensional mirage. An engagement that is based on truth has to come from dispassion towards that mirage. But you relinquish the mirage from being coolly right here with it. In this body, where consciousness and perception (and the rest of the aggregates) naturally arise. Here the mind’s innate strengths and virtues lie, along with its shadowy tangles and conjuring tricks. So rather than changing the balls, we learn how to juggle and dissolve them, in the workshop of our birthed form. That’s in it’s own right is quite a trip! Better keep the place clean and clear.

Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Service builds community

(Working on the chedi/stupa at the Wat)

I am explaining, as best I can with my limited Thai and hand gestures, the difference between 'beneath' and 'behind'. The young Thai monk is watching intently and listening, then there's a flash in his eyes – he's got it! We both light up and laugh: 'kaang-laang'- 'beneath', 'kaang-lang' - 'behind'. When written the difference seems minimal, but 'laang' is pronounced long with a falling tone, and 'lang' is more clipped with a rising tone. I recite the Thai words a few times and now it's his turn to see me 'get it.' Impromptu schooling: less a matter of passing an exam and more a way of learning through contact. I realize that I will never manage more than a score of handy Thai phrases and a vocabulary of about a hundred words; so I will miss a lot of the richness of Thai culture – but I'll also be put into situations where engagement has to be more emphatic, patient and good-humoured; and such contact has its own riches. I fumble my phrases, my listener attempts some English, a situation of receiving and offering back, of mutuality arises.

Mutuality is at the heart of Buddhist monastic culture – and perhaps it is, or should be, the heart of any culture. Before we can grow ('culture' comes from the fertility of the soil - right?) there has to be a common ground to grow from; we have to form bonds with others and live in accord to keep culture alive. In Thailand, this need for common ground means that the immediate response to a newcomer is to find out how to include them (rather than how to ward them off). This is done through invitation to a shared meal, making a gift, joining in some social ritual and chatting – while staying on the lookout for any signs of discomfort (or the opposite). It is a very group-oriented culture, and for that people have to be 'placed' in the group in a way that will minimize embarrassment and allow each individual to find their own space. This placing, mutual respect, also supports a sense of service: people know what their responsibility is in the overall order of things. Monks have their duties - to set a moral examples, to give teachings, to  offer counsel, to steward the 'wat' (= 'ashram' or, less usefully, 'monastery') and above all to maintain the Triple Gem as a guide to the culture of the nation. The wat itself acts as a community centre that is open to all and to which people can go for refuge, to shelter, and to share in the company of wise and reliable people. The link is mutual service: lay people bring food and make donations, monks and nuns make sure that these requisites are shared out and put to good use. People do chores together. And like the act of mutual learning that began this article, it is joyful, so it lifts the heart.

The place I'm staying at right now I'll call 'Wat Jaya' to respect its quietude. It's in northern Thailand in a region where the last fighting of the Thai civil war (communist versus government, 1980s) took place. It's fairly backwoods. The handful of resident monks go for alms to a village of about sixty people. The villagers are very pleased: the presence of the wat gives them a place to meditate, pray, listen to talks and above all to drink in the ambience of peace and mystic depth. In more mundane terms, the everyday contact with the monks has improved the moral standards of the village: formerly 'backwoods justice' would mean that someone cheating by selling the same piece of land to two or three parties would end up shot; now through the example and advice of the monks, the crime rate has dropped. Property prices have risen dramatically; donations from wealthier people in the cities means that the monastery has also been able to build a road and hire locals for building projects. The villagers can't offer money, so offer service instead: the men ferry the monks' in their pickups, the women help arrange the shared alms-food onto tables from which people will help themselves. Stuff goes round. And the spirits are also attended to: at a central point in the wat, a stupa/chedi is being constructed whose avowed aim is to accumulate and transmit blessings throughout the region, specifically to calm the many ghosts that are a hangover from the warring era. This also is a monastic duty.

Other than that, the wat has planted 25,000 trees to improve water retention and    preserve the soil and the wildlife. This is a very common practice in forest monasteries: the record for planting is at Wat Ratanawan, where the army joined in on a tree-planting and managed to get 40,000 saplings in the ground in a day. Great fun. Probably less amusing, but also an earthy inclusion of communal resources, was the use of excrement and waste vegetable matter to improve the fertility of the soil at Wat Pah Pong. The depleted soil is now thickly wooded. Accommodation for guests (free of charge) – predominantly lay women – is always a requirement; when he set up his monastery, Luang Por Gunha built accommodation for 4,000. Of all kinds: when I dropped in for a visit he was seated holding satsang (open to whoever wants to stop by) to a gathering of monks of various lineages, some Korean bhikshunis, a group of lay women from a range of countries and a German samaneri. He also goes into the local national park daily and sees that the wildlife is provided with waterholes and food. 

Nobody's doing any of this as a job. One of the disappointing features of modern life is how everything becomes a commodity, to be produced promptly, to a prescribed standard – and to be paid for. You want education? You pay. The more you pay, the better the education. You want health? You pay. The more you pay, the better the treatment. You want justice? You want to be elected? You pay. The more you pay, the better the... Etcetera.  If you can't afford it, you won't get education, health, justice or the possibility of serving the country. In fact 'serving' isn't the right term, because serving means that you care for the other. Serving is a matter of heart: I offer, and whatever the offering is, I am also offering my attention and care for you. So the act of service depends on a fundamental bond in which we touch the common human ground. Sometimes I can give, sometimes I receive. In giving, I receive you and offer to you. In receiving, I receive you and am affected by you. I touch a reality that's not just my view. So that is both grounding and enriching. When payment obscures that, those qualities aren't there.

When a relationship founded on mutual respect and service is there, there is the brilliant human thing called 'community' – and what that brings with it. For example, at Wat Pah Pong, the monastery has an annual commemoration of Luang Por Chah. The monastery erects 500 temporary toilets, pumps water from the local pond – and lets things happen. Thousands of people come and camp out in the monastery grounds for three or four days: there can't be more than thirty centimeters of space between the tents, the mosquito nets, and the mats that people lodge themselves on. Free food kitchens appear. Some stalls are giving away books, some are handing out garlands.There is a tent providing medical attention. All at no charge. People are wearing the same white clothing, you can't gauge anyone's wealth or status. Police are outside the monastery directing the stream of traffic - but inside, there are no police supervisors, no ushers, no stewards. There is no hubbub, no conflict, no shoving. People know what to do; they respect each others' space and cooperate. Everyone looks happy, and there are ripples of laughter along with the 'sadhus' that accompany the Dhamma talks. That's community.

But when a relationship based on respect and sharing is replaced by that of mere transactions, there is no community. Hence social dysfunction, delinquency and loneliness. If you run out of money, you're lost, period. In fact it's held to be your fault, 'because you didn't work hard enough.' What gets overlooked in this conclusion is that the capitalist system depends on there being a proportion of people who are out of work ('the labour pool') and that its competitive nature means that it will always seek to minimize expenditure (i.e. pay the least wages as possible). If a process can be done by an unpaid machine, fine – fire the human being. What kind of community can that logic bring around? Furthermore: what kind of money created kindness, intelligence, moral conscience or leadership skills? Who made them? How much did our mothers charge us for giving us birth? And where's the bill from the Earth for the air we breathe and the water we drink. (Or does water come in plastic bottles at around a dollar a bottle...) Where then is the fine web of the joy of sharing and the gratitude of being given to... and the sense of belonging that both gives us inner security and makes our lives an offering to others?

Granted, we have material needs that have to be met.  But there's no shortage of stuff. The world in general is suffering from over-production – we buy stuff we don't really need, and surpluses are thrown away. And things are produced with built-in obsolescence. At least a third of all food produced isn't consumed (by humans). Wealth is unequally distributed: those who create statistics mention that between eight and sixty people have access to the same amount of material wealth as the poorer half of the global population – but you don't have to look too far to make your own deductions. To a large degree, everything from rocks to trees to people's bodies and minds gets reduced to a commodity. And real needs – for safety, meaning, love and dignity – don't get met by money at all. Because money isn't a person, can't feel and can't respond. And anyway, offering money is only one way of caring for others: the Buddhist understanding of dāna (generosity) includes offering hospitality, medicines and Dhamma, with the latter being the 'highest' kind of offering. Here Dhamma means more than 'verbal teachings'; it includes keeping precepts (offering the gifts of freedom from fear, mistrust and abuse) and sharing any degree of understanding with another that is aimed purely for their welfare (and not for one's own status.)

Although interesting ideas such as the 'universal basic income' – a scheme whereby people are provided with their basic material needs, free of charge – are being put into practice (in Finland for example), this isn't the total solution. The return of the commons ideally happens through the commons being empowered rather than just catered for. The agreeable sense of 'commons' grows wherever people snap out of the myth that makes them zombies in a faceless system, and instead start to share time, care, food, space with other people. What then grows is community – not just through being provided for, but through making a contribution and having that gratefully accepted. 

Monasteries can be part of that, but community is not an exclusively monastic thing. Agreed-upon moral standards and living simply certainly help, but sadly, there are corrupt monasteries as well as upright ones. On another front, I was recently inspired by the Bandar Utama Buddhist Society, a centre set up in Petaling Jaya (near Kuala Lumpur). Founded by a group of lay people in year 2000, the society has managed to build a three-story Dhamma centre for talks, retreats, schooling, and creating prosthetic limbs. The latter caught my attention: each artificial limb has to be made individually to fit a specific limb. And it's offered at no charge to the amputee. So ... a person of low income regains their mobility and dignity, and the donors experience the joy of service. And around that a community grows that can support the welfare and awakening of others. It doesn't take genius or even massive acts of philanthropy. It's just the simple truth that the human being, in correct alignment is already a system that works. And we're only truly ourselves when we're related to others.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Right Ritual

As I travel again in India and Thailand, I am reminded of how large a part of spiritual practice is devotional. Common themes include making offerings at shrines and chanting in the midst of gatherings of like-minded people (often led by a sub-group or individual). In Buddhism, such acts are called ‘puja’: formal reverence as directed towards an image of an Awakened One or a great teacher. In this exalted atmosphere, formulaic expressions of aspiration and commitment and wishes for good fortune or forgiveness gain an appropriate channel.

Ritual: how do you relate to this? Excepting that Islam and Judaism (and some forms of Protestant Christianity) don’t use images, and instead centre their devotional focus on script and icon, this kind of presentation runs across all religious activities. In fact ritual is one of the clearest indications that an activity is ‘religious’, because of what that term implies. Unpicked, ‘religion’ means ‘bound, connected’, and refers to the understanding and practices that link the ordinary mortal world that humans experience through their senses to something beyond that sphere, something timeless and undying. 

Religion presents some big challenges: it’s a faith experience, and that implies that our thinking mind isn’t the highest kind of intelligence. Religion operates around a different hierarchy: there is a sacred that is greater than, but includes, our daily concerns, thoughts and feelings, and also renders them subject to assessment. Moreover, although truth or blessings are to be experienced by the individual, the practice of aligning oneself to them entails self-relinquishment, or the surrender of personal selfhood to something greater.  This hierarchy of the sacred gets mirrored on the mundane human plane by the elevation of a select sub-group of priests, adepts or ministers to a position of spiritual authority or plenitude.  The devotee can receive blessings from them, or via them, and in turn relinquishes personal pleasure, opinions or aims in favour of the sacred or the group.   It’s a hierarchy of heart that goes radically wrong if it is interpreted too literally.

The benefit of such actions is that they give living structure to the world of experience, the life-world or cosmos. They vitalise and refresh a cosmos that includes other creatures, rivers, mountains, harvests, death, family and the supernatural world – everything.  They are heart-based, and the nature of good heart is to embrace and include.  In this way, the interconnectedness extends to include family bonding, loyalties and obligations and hierarchies that place the elders (often, but not exclusively, the males) at the top of one’s social group; an arrangement which is presided over by the local headsman, the priests and the chief or king. The correct performance of the ritual, and fulfilment of the social obligations that this world-view prescribes is dharma (to use the Indian term). 

Although no one can claim to see, let alone understand, the origins or the entirety of the cosmos, all humans have a responsible part to play: through performing ritual correctly, they transfer living vitality to the cosmos as a whole. Consequently they are part of it and help to keep it in order through the purity of their actions; and their individuality returns to it either on the break-up of the body at death, or in the mystical experience of the adept.  So proper observance of dharma binds the human to the immortal, and keeps the cosmos unified and in balance. And the special ‘language’ of dharma, the medium by which humans address and align to the cosmos as a whole – is ritual. 

So, there are plenty of challenges and even choking points in that view for the secular, egalitarian Westerner – whose understanding of dharma generally supports inquiry rather than faith, ‘this-world’ aims and results rather than those that include an after-death scenario. Consequently the concerns of a contemporary dharma practitioner are well-reasoned and may include personal clarity, social equality, and other just causes. However, if one inquires deeply into these different views of spiritual practice, they amount to the same thing: to support the cosmos that the practitioner experiences himself or herself as living within with commitment, self-sacrifice and vigour. It’s just that the cosmos has changed. Or has it? 

In the West, the old world-view, along with much of its social structure and religious practice, was (apparently) swept away from the fifteenth century onwards. The Renaissance and Galileo shifted the centre of the cosmos to the human and manifest plane; the Reformation and its consequent Puritanism attacked the power and ritual of the divinely-ordained Church; mechanist science and rational philosophy (Newton and Descartes) made rationality the supreme agent of creation; Hobbes and Paine and Rousseau argued persuasively against hierarchical government and promoted what came to be called the social contract and liberalism … and the Romantics, in search of a new vision of the sacred, abandoned the Church and society in favour of individual and intuitive communion with Nature. But rather than abandon hierarchy, this world-view shifted its constituents to grant supremacy to the individual human and the rational mind.  Apparently. We acquired the right to operate within a world that was no longer a unified cosmos, but a measurable object that we were to some degree separate from. We could investigate it, comprehend its workings, figure out how we could benefit from it, and use it as we saw fit, with no responsibility to any Supreme Being. 

This sounds like a relief – and it was in some respects: humans became more self-reliant and were free from the caprices of an inscrutable Other (or at least the God or gods as mediated through fallible priests). For some members and aspects of the cosmos, well-being increased. The qualifying factor was that if you were human, (preferably white and European) then your share of the pie increased. In other words hierarchy remained: non-humans and ‘primitive’ humans were and are exploited, domesticated – or died out. The notion of a superior ‘race’, and of human ‘progress’ replaced ritually ordained sub-groups and the aim to maintain a cosmic order that included the dead, the supernatural and the soul. Life in a materially definable world was now definitely where it was at; and that created a new hierarchy: in economic terms alone we now have a massive inequality of wealth and privilege whereby eight people have access to the same amount of wealth as the poorest fifty per cent of the global population. The inscrutable Others of global corporations and financial institutions now govern the society, with the aim to convert as much of the cosmos (including sand, minerals, water, trees, animals and humans –with their intelligence, votes and beliefs) into money as possible – even if it destroys the planet. So equality, the individual and reason are definitely not the supreme; instead a religious hierarchy has been replaced by a secular material one.  Since the material aspect of the cosmos now trumps the immaterial, whether there even is an immaterial, unoriginated, unborn is a matter of opinion, one that is denied by many.  And without that sacred unnameable, the focus and value of our actions gets determined the measurements of the measurable worldand those who determine what everything is worth.  

As we can see, despite a shift in terms of female participation in society, a decrease in infant mortality and the installation of better sewage systems, there are a few flaws in the brave new world. The basis of the average life-world, the mind, is restless and unbalanced. And so we attempt to improve or adjust it through education, analysis, therapy, or meditation.  The final step is to suppress it with chemicals, dumb it down with media and propaganda, or silence its public manifestation by means of law and order. This is because humans remain as prone to ignorance, aggression, selfishness, and mental dysfunction as ever; in fact leaders of nations clearly manifest such traits. And now the fear of exclusion from the tribe, or of God, or of a hellish after-life no longer prevail.  Meanwhile ritual still goes on to solemnise events in the public domain: the inauguration of a president (a quasi-coronation); the opening of a new bridge or the launching of a ship (over which a public figure presides to give a speech and a cut ribbon); while instead of an immaterial deity to be consulted and appeased, we have money and its soothsayers to determine our significance and role in the great order of things. In the individual domain we celebrate birthdays, dress up and go to weddings and funerals, and structure our identity around work and recreational pursuits (thereby rendering homage to the ancient gods of wealth and pleasure). 

So although the forms and expressions change, ritual remains part of the way we structure our reality.  The question is: what is the cosmos that these rituals enmesh us in? Put more simply: what is meaningful to you, and how much of the rest of creation forms part of your sphere of conscience and concern?  What counts in your world – and what doesn’t?  Valid devotional practices are a way of bringing that sphere of meaning and connection into the heart, and addressing it in symbolic and embodied ways. You don’t just think it; you praise and salute it. I read of an American Vietnam veteran who would turn up at the Veterans’ Memorial in D.C. with a six-pack of beer, sit in front of the memorial and salute his dead comrades with a hit of beer and a cigarette.  Personally I incline towards honouring Awakening, but I can also relate to a puja that honours courage, self-sacrifice and loyalty.  Those qualities too are timeless, undying and transpersonal.

Ritual carries on, because it connects the individual to meaning. It’s not just about whether one lights incense or makes offerings to Kwan Yin.  If you set a knife and fork on either side of a plate when you ‘lay the table’; if you decide that Sunday is your ‘day off’; if you wear a suit and tie when you go to work, or evening dress for formal occasions; if you adorn your body with tattoos or your lips with red paste; if you cross your fingers when you hope for success, have a meal every day at the same prescribed time – you are performing rituals.  And you do so because they are ‘proper’ and going against them is personally disorienting, socially inappropriate, unhealthy or just ‘bad luck.’ Although our rituals may be as irrational as throwing a coin into a pool and making a wish, yet the need to create structure through systems and customs overrides all reason. We feel lost without our formal reference points. They give us a sense of what our personal cosmos is bounded by and how we might meet others and share in it.  It’s a need, one that only disappears when a greater and more enduring sense of reality is revealed: namely, in Buddhist terms, the Deathless.

So how do I get that one?  Well, the door to the Deathless opens as one recognizes that one’s personally centred world-view is something to be investigated rather than followed.  And ritual forms such an intrinsic part of our world-view ‘attachment to rites and rituals’ (silavattaparamasa) comes up for investigation.  Perhaps what I’ve written has made it clear that ‘rituals’ aren’t simply the worship of a deity. Instead it is a matter of systems and customs; and what is required for Awakening is an inquiry into them. In other words, to question any behaviour that imposes an automatic structure on our living reality. Then we can recognize that if nationality, political or religious belief, social conventions, or meditation systems result in making us feel that we are right, true, solid and better, we’ve fallen asleep in systems and customs.  That feeling of self as firmly bounded, convinced and set apart from others is the wake-up call.  And the path to the Deathless requires that we relinquish that feeling and view – because the solid self is an illusion. 

Accordingly waking up entails experiencing the relativity of our personal experience for what it is, and not being ashamed or fascinated by it.  As Ajahn Sumedho advises: ‘Don’t take your life personally.’  That sounds disorienting, and it is: but what replaces the solid isolated self is respect for the sensitivity and clarity with respect to the boundless heart – that we all can have access to. This sense, this awakening to citta, can widen one’s cosmos and give it balance: my feelings, my rights, my time, and my opinions have to be felt through the heart, but they don’t have to be such an exclusive concern. 

‘As to that matter called “the peace within,” how is it proclaimed by the wise?’ 

‘Not by view, nor by learning, nor by knowledge, (Māgandiya,” said the Blessed One),
nor do I speak of purity through good behavior and observances; 
but neither without view, without learning, without knowledge, 
without good behavior, without observances – not in that way. 
But having relinquished these, not grasping any of them, 
peaceful, not dependent, one should not hanker for existence.’

‘One who thinks himself equal, superior, or inferior 
might engage in disputes because of this.
Not shaking among these three discriminations,
he does not think “equal, superior.”’  

(From Suttanipāta 839-842; trans Bhikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2017)

We have to operate through systems and customs, but using them to convey the good the honest and the loving is our responsibility to the cosmos as a whole. And to understand this and celebrate it: that’s right ritual, that’s religious practice, that’s how we highlight actions that involve us in a reality that can be shared. That’s how we return from our isolated world to good heart. Then, when a heart of moral integrity, goodwill and compassion, can offer us the reference point that we seek, the inquiry is: how much can you include in that heart? How wide can your cosmos be?  Puja and recollection is the occasion for adjusting your life-world … and so begin.