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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Three Jewels Buddhism: Seeking the Heart of the Dharma Traditions


As it’s the start of the Order weekend and we’re celebrating our fortieth birthday, I’ll start with a joke. And as it’s a Saturday morning it seems fitting to make it a Jewish joke.

Benjamin is lying in bed on the Sabbath. His mother comes into his room, pulls back the curtains and says, “Benny, you’ve got to get up and go to the synagogue!”

“I don’t want to,” says Benjamin.

“Well, you have to,” says his mother.

“I don’t have to,” he says.

“Oh, yes you do,” she replies.


“Because you’re forty years old and you’re the rabbi!”

It feels like that sometimes, doesn’t it. Forty! It's so old — nearly as old as that joke! When the Order had its sixteenth birthday, Sangharakshita gave a talk and made much of the Order’s coming of age. At forty, the analogy seems a little less attractive. But lets not dwell on that — for a Buddhist sangha, forty years is a blink in eternity. All the same, a birthday prompts reflections on who you really are, and what’s most important to you.

For myself, I’ve been reflecting on the Buddha in recent months while writing a book on his life. There he is, sitting on our shrines and perching on a flower in the middle of our refuge tree; but there are so many, sometimes competing, perspectives on the Buddha’s life — historical, canonical, archetypal and transcendental. When I was first asked to write the book, I wondered if here was anything new I could add, and I threw myself into some of the many volumes that already exist. Eventually, I sensed what I wanted to say. I wanted to approach the Buddha as a human being who was grounded in his society, but not to reduce him to that. I wanted to maintain a sense of the mystery of awakening at the heart of his identity. I wanted to see him as a forest renunciate who was also at home speaking with kings — a man of wit, intelligence and kindness, as well as the grander-sounding qualities of wisdom and compassion. I was pleased with myself. I did have something fresh to say about the Buddha! Then I reread the sections on the Buddha in The Survey and The Three Jewels, and realised that all my wonderful insights were there in Sangharakshita’s writing fifty years earlier.

That realisation made me think about my desire to be original, which doubtless contains some vanity, and to think for myself, which seems important. I was thinking for myself, but I saw that my thought were deeply molded by Sangharakshita’s — they arose in dependence upon them. This discovery seems relevant to a birthday reflection on the Order, perhaps especially at a time when our shared sense of our identity is changing. I want to reflect on a key part of that identity: our relationship to the Buddhist tradition, which also means reflecting on Sangharakshita and, eventually, on the Buddha himself.

One of Sangharakshita’s key teachings is his acceptance of the whole Buddhist tradition. The great figures of the major schools surround the Buddha on the Refuge tree, and from them we draw our practices and liturgies. Yet in my early years in the FWBO I was schooled in the belief that we alone possessed a key to the future of Buddhism. Others might practice ‘Buddhism in the West,’ but we practiced ‘western Buddhism’. We had stripped the tradition of Asian culture and revivified its essential teachings within the culture of the modern world. Along with that went criticism of other Buddhist teachers and a degree of isolation, sometimes backed by explicit discouragement from studying or developing close contacts with other Buddhists. I found that personally constricting and I thought it was unhealthy for us as a movement.

Things have changed among us. We are much less secluded, and it is not uncommon for Order members to attend non-FWBO retreats, and even study with other teachers. We are more aware of others’ virtues and our limitations. In some ways I think this is a positive development — there is much we can learn from others, we can’t do it all ourselves, and there is really no reason why we should try to but it’s unsettling. Losing an undue sense of your uniqueness is a sign of maturity, but it can also knock your confidence. If we aren’t unique, who are we? It also brings risks. We might maintain, or even extend, the open, inclusive aspect of Sangharakshita’s teaching, but lose the critical edge that is so central to his thought. In my view, the more we engage, individually and collectively, with other parts of the Buddhist world, the more important it is to retain that critical perspective. Our relationship to the Buddhist tradition is a familiar topic, but I hope you agree that in the present context it is worth revisiting.

Let me start by offering a simple map of Buddhism in the West, which is of my own devising. Firstly there is transplanted Buddhism: the schools that have transplanted Theravada, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism and so on, from the soil of Asia, and set it down here. Secondly there are the Harvesters, who regard Buddhism as a resource from which westerners may harvest insights and practices. Those following this approach may meditate, practice mindfulness or engage with Buddhist art or symbols without being Buddhists or considering Buddhist teachings as a whole.

I am using a broad brush, and these descriptions are not intended as criticisms. Transplanted Buddhism has not stayed still, and westerners who follow Buddhist traditions with roots in Asia have also found ways to practice effectively and make their own cultural connections. Harvesting Buddhism for non-Buddhist ends is proving to be a dynamic and attractive way of opening up at least some of what it has to offer the modern world. As a Breathworks mindfulness trainer myself, I’m involved in doing just that. But while I appreciate the virtues of these approaches, it’s important to be clear what distinguishes Sangharakshita’s. Let us call it the seeding approach. He has wanted to take a seed of the great tree of the Buddhist tradition as a whole, and replant it in the soil of the West or India where it will grow in the soil of that culture, creating a new form that is suited to it.

As this talk is about the importance of preserving distinctions while remaining open to other Buddhists, in the limited time I have, I won’t consider our relationship with transplanted Buddhism. The differences are usually quite apparent. Less straightforward is our relationship to the Harvesters, and I want to explore this by discussing a book, which expresses this approach at its strongest. This is by Joseph Goldstein the well-known American ‘vipassana’ teacher and it is entitled One Dharma. In other words, this is a book about the unity of Buddhism, and no less significant is its sub-title: The Emerging Western Buddhism.[i] It might not be apparent why I should consider this is an example of harvesting, so let me explain.

The book grows from Goldstein’s personal spiritual journey. He trained in Theravada meditation and co-founded the Insight Meditation Society, but since 1992 he has also practised dzogchen with Tibetan teachers. This leads him to wonder if he can now really call himself a Theravadin, and what he should make of his Zen-trained friends whose practice now includes vipassana. He concludes that the categories of Asian Buddhism are collapsing as westerners’ practice cross-fertilises.

This mingling of traditions echoes the FWBO’s approach, but is it the same? The obvious danger in mixing traditions is superficiality. You take what suits you, leave aside what challenges you, and pay no attention to whether it all makes sense. Goldstein believes that the key to avoiding this lies in the experience of western practitioners like himself, who bring together in their own practice what he calls ‘the diversity and depth of the ancient Buddhist culture … [and] the openness and pragmatism of our contemporary western culture.’ The Dharma is a raft and Goldstein says that in bringing together Buddhist pragmatism and its western counterpart, ‘we are giving birth to a skilful form for our times.’ It’s defining characteristic is asking, ‘What works?’ What works to free the mind from suffering? What works to engender a heart of compassion? What works to awaken?’ Goldstein’s approach, favours experience over doctrine and intuition over clarity, and it fits the zeitgeist as most people who turn to Buddhism are interested in changing themselves, not in belief or philosophy. What could possibly be wrong with that?

Goldstein’s approach harvests Buddhism as a resource for addressing personal, pragmatically experienced spiritual needs, rather than relating to it as a coherent tradition. Sangharakshita is all for experience and intuition, but he also believes that there is an underlying coherence to the Dharma, and he finds this in the basic teachings that underpin the tradition as a whole. This is the seed he wishes to replant in new cultural conditions. However simple such teachings appear he believes that they possess incalculable depths and can lead us to awakening. Goldstein would probably agree, but for Sangharakshita this implies a critique of Buddhist schools — a transcendental critique. We can ask whether their doctrines and practices conflict not just with one another, but also with the values at the heart of the tradition. Words like ‘clarity’, ‘critique’ — and even ‘tradition’ — aren’t really part of the zeitgeist, but if you don’t have them, you don’t have Sangharakshita.

What difference does this make? Goldstein identifies as the goals of Buddhist practice the qualities of wisdom, compassion and mindfulness because these are what speak to him pragmatically as the heart of his practice. He leaves out ethics, faith, energy and samadhi in the sense of developing concentration, presumably because he has not, so far, felt them to be relevant. There is much to value in Goldstein’s approach, but I have learned from Sangharakshita to value these other faculties and practices, and without them much of my inner and outer life would be untouched by the Dharma. Being clear and valuing coherence forces you to you take account of important realities you would otherwise avoid, and escape misunderstandings. In the sutta that includes the parable of the raft the Buddha also compares his teaching to a water snake. Unless you take care in how you grasp the snake, he says, it will bite you. So you should hold its head down with a cleft stick and then grasp its neck![ii]

There’s another difference between Sangharakshita and Joseph Goldstein. If Goldstein’s reference point is his own experience as an aspiring practitioner, Sangharakshita’s introduces something else, which he sometimes calls ‘the vertical dimension’. As a way of approaching the large question of Sangharakshita’s relationship to the Transcendental, I turn to the third volume of his memoirs where, picking up an image from Gnosticism, Sangharakshita tells us that in his forties he felt like ‘the alien whose true home is Elsewhere, and who sojourns on earth as in a foreign land.’[iii] His ‘true home’, he says, is the transcendental reality he had touched aged sixteen when he read The Diamond Sutra.

It can’t be easy to feel you are an alien without feeling alienated, and no doubt this has brought difficulties. But since he was sixteen, I think that Sangharakshita has tried to stay true to his connection with this transcendental reality. He believed this to be not only his true home, but also the source of the transcendental unity of the Buddhist tradition. He draws on many branches of that tradition, and while he doesn’t claim to have mastered them all he does say that he has explored them in the light of that insight. He ranges freely through western culture to make connections, but he always resists reducing the Dharma to any other system of thought.

As I see it, the hallmark of Sangharakshita’s teaching is that he brings together the pragmatic perspective of the individual who struggles to live a kind, aware, authentic life of conflicted humanity, with the dimension that is represented by the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This is why he emphasises so strongly the centrality of going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. This most basic of Buddhist formulae brings together the individual and the ideal; for us it means bringing the Three Jewels into our lives and into the world.

I offer three reflections at this point, on the bearing of these thoughts on our current practice. The first concerns Sangharakshita stress that going for Refuge is not just a teaching or a practice, but an act. Notwithstanding the current vogue for talking about meditation as ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’, early Buddhism is clear that all experience is action. The word translated as action is karma, and the defining characteristic of karma is intention. So every moment of conscious experience is a significant action in which we make moral choices between the skilful and the unskillful. To live is to act; and to act is to choose. No wonder Sangharakshita is wary of the language of ‘choiceless’ or — dare I say it — ‘pure’ awareness, which comes from later Buddhist discourse. His own teaching often stresses the importance of making choices — moral choices —that necessarily spring from our impure awareness, and acting from them. Going for Refuge is the intentional act of coming into relationship with the boundless, liberating energy of wisdom and compassion that is represented by Buddhahood; of sensing the challenges that offers our habitual ways of being; and of choosing a skillful response.

My second reflection is to wonder if it might help to give Sangharakshita’s approach a name. Having been involved in instigating two unsuccessful attempts to change the Order’s name, I’m not suggesting that we try again. But I’ve been starting to think of the FWBO’s approach as Three Jewels Buddhism — or Triratna Buddhism, if you prefer. Try it out. See what you think.

My third reflection returns us to the start of this talk — not to the joke about the Rabbi, but to the Buddha. One of Sangharakshita’s teachings, which is important to me but is also, perhaps, a little neglected among us, concerns the centrality of the figure, Shakyamuni Buddha and the man, Siddhartha Gotama, to our practice. His biography is the paradigm of Buddhist spiritual path; he combines the human and the transcendental; he is the source of the tradition and the scriptures that take us closest to him also offer the clearest version of Buddhist teachings. As Sangharakshita repeatedly insists to us, we should study them. This is not to disparage the teachings or texts of later schools; but if we are to combine these with the vision of the earliest texts without lapsing into incoherence, we will need the help of Sangharakshita and the combination of clarity and inspiration with which he has drawn on the tradition.

In my own search for the Buddha, I recently went on a pilgrimage to the holy places in India. When I arrived in Bodh Gaya with a group of fellow pilgrims it rained torrentially — thick rain that seeped into the huts where we slept the first night and buffeted us as we scurried from the Om Café to the Mahabodhi temple, whose precincts include the Vajrasana, the Bodhi tree and an array of ancient stupas. As much for shelter as for inspiration, I sat all morning in the temple’s main shrine room, and a stream of pilgrims passed through. Sri Lankan laypeople chanting Pali verses shuffled behind their bhikkhus; Tibetan monks murmured sadhanas and counted their malas; and watchful Taiwanese nuns sat erect in their neat grey robes.

On both this and my second visit a couple of weeks later, when the rain had stopped, it seemed that in the precincts of the Mahabodhi temple we entered a space made sacred by the constant multi-vocal, multilingual multi-denominational chanting, and by the meditation, prostrations and pujas of pilgrims from across the Buddhist world. We weren’t practicing together; at best we were practicing in parallel. But as I sat in the temple and meditated on the mind of the Buddha I felt that we were peering together through a crack in the earth that opened into unending space.

Such glimpses are not uncommon among us. Catching them and sustaining them is the point of sadhana and insight practice and puja, and something like them is at the heart of our ordination. Then comes the lifelong task of fleshing out those glimpses in the wholeness of our lives. The encouragement and guidance of Sangharakshita’s teaching means enables us to draw on the wealth of Dharma traditions as we engage with this task. The clarity and profundity with which he expounds the historical, doctrinal and transcendental unity of the Dharma traditions is a distinctive contribution, one we should cherish, maintain and pass on.

This is Three Jewels Buddhism. For me it means staying true, among the perplexities of my life, to the commitment I made at ordination when I went for Refuge to the Buddha Dharma and Sangha and to the mystery of awakening. It means remaining true, while thinking for myself, to what I have learned from my teacher, Dharma Master Urgyen Sangharakshita.

[i] Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism, Rider; London, 2002

[ii] Majjhima Nikaya 22, Alagaddupama Sutta

[iii] Sangharakshita, Moving Against the Stream, Windhorse Publications, Birmingham, 2003, p. 97

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