Breaking new ground, starting afresh, turning over a new leaf, beginning all over again at the beginning…
There are so many ways to say the same thing: that I have returned to the place I started from and am finally beginning to know myself for the first time. And to begin to know others too for the first time. Beyond the trauma of defeat, failure, and betrayal, beyond all the anguish and fear, there is the new dawn of hope, the new sense of freedom as I step into new dimensions of experience or look at old ones with fresh eyes, free of the illusions so roughly stripped away from me. And new friendships too, with those whose friendship was tried and tested through the sufferings we have shared and supported each other through. It is so true that suffering has great meaning, although it is such a painful, bittersweet truth. Out of that suffering comes a letting-go of what has been found to be false and unreliable and a discovery of what is true and trustworthy. The death of my old life immediately gave birth to a new one that I never dreamt would already be so much better than the old. As Henrik Ibsen says, “Mind is the Masterbuilder” and Mind, despite my best attempts to sabotage it, has built anew amidst the ruins of my old life, built the Pure Land that now calls me to fresh endeavours on the bodhisattva path. Not for nothing did Buddha call someone stepping onto the Path a “stream-enterer”. Now, with this new “beginner’s mind”, I can go with the flow, go down towards that boundless ocean of wisdom. As T.S.Eliot would say “in my beginning is my end…in my end is my beginning”.
Do not believe just because wise men say so.
Do not believe just because it has always been that way.
Do not believe just because others may believe so.
Examine and experience yourself.
Once upon a time I was told that my Spiritual Guide had engaged in a three year retreat at a cottage somewhere in the wilds of Scotland and had achieved great things there. As a result that place had become so blessed that it would be an especially sacred place to visit and that one’s meditation would be particularly effective there. Since then I have heard that many of my Spiritual Guide’s disciples have been to that place to do retreat, especially extended retreats, making the place even more blessed in the same way we know that any place becomes more blessed the more frequently meditation and spiritual practice goes on there. The place had become holy, and holier over the years, so I was told. Consequently it had become an essential , and ever more important, part of the tradition that I belonged to. Then the tradition, many years later, betrayed and abandoned me, in spectacular fashion. Then I learnt that the tradition had already betrayed all the disciples of my Spiritual Guide by selling the very place where he had been in retreat for so long. Such was the scale of the betrayal that the tradition could not bring itself to explain honestly why it had sold its holiest place; all kinds of bizarre and patently untrue excuses were made for the sale.
Why do I say all this? Because now I know that my betrayal was just a small part, just one instance, of the myriad wider, and bigger, betrayals within the tradition, itself betrayed by those who hijacked it. And my Spiritual Guide has therefore himself been betrayed. All his good works, all his meritorious deeds, apparently undone by the betrayal of those he trusted to carry on his legacy. Bittersweet moment indeed for me: my betrayal was not uniquely directed against me but was part of the betrayal of all my fellow disciples, and there is some bitter comfort in knowing that we were all in it together, but there is also the tragic realisation that something precious has been lost for so many and that one more Spiritual Guide has been undermined. But perhaps he knew, like so many Spiritual Guides before him did, that it would always come to this, that traditions inevitably end up betraying their own founding principles. Yet maybe such betrayals don’t matter in the end because what is taught by the Spiritual Guide is a direct mind-to-mind, heart-to-heart transmission from him to the disciple, unmediated by the tradition itself, which merely sets the stage, the background, for this existential relationship between the Spiritual Guide and the disciple, who are, in the end, the only two people in the room, the only couple who know what is really going on, who are in love with each other even if nobody else in the world is in love with them, who are in union within the silence of the viaticum. As a mystic poet once said: “I have drunk the lord’s sherbert, glory to the lord…”
Following on from my last post in which I featured an article written by Ken Jones, one of the more articulate and profound commentators upon modern Buddhism, I would like to recommend a very erudite and informative book of his, called The new social face of Buddhism: a call to action (Wisdom Publications, 2003). There is much in this book that not only shows insight into Buddhism in general but also into the difficulties and dilemmas that Buddhism – especially the traditional forms of it coming from the East – faces in it attempt to not only integrate itself within Western societies but also deal with the challenges of modernity. But there are some issues within Buddhism that show up in any age and in any society, and one of them is the issue of ‘Buddhism as ideology’ and under this section Jones comments upon the phenomenon, that:
…virtually every Buddhist starts out as something of a Buddhist ideologue, for whom Buddhism is an idea that makes self and world more understandable, and that provides assurance, consolation, and self-identity. This helps to get started! However, there are plenty of warnings in the scriptures about getting stuck there for the rest of one’s life, such as this admonition from the Vimalakirti Sutra:
He who is attached to anything, even to liberation, is not interested in the Dharma but in the taint of desire… The Dharma is not a secure refuge. He who enjoys a secure refuge is not interested in the Dharma but is interested in a secure refuge…. The Dharma is not a society. He who seeks to associate through the Dharma is not interested in the Dharma, but is interested in association.
Similarly the Zen master Sengchen warned: “Do not search after the truth; only cease to cherish opinions.” Buddhism is a religion of ehi-passika, come and see, come and experiment for yourself.
What amazes me when I contemplate passages such as these is how much I suppressed my intuitive understanding of the need for creative experimentation in my search for inner truth in order to conform to the organisational needs of the Buddhist tradition I ‘belonged’ to, despite the increasing frustration I felt over the years about how those organisational needs were increasingly going in strange, and non-Buddhist directions without any open or transparent explanations of why that was happening. The mystery and the wonder is that I remained loyal to that tradition for so long despite my misgivings. Perhaps the simple answer is that I was attached to the ideological baggage that the tradition so amply provided by the truckload. The secondary gratification I was getting from just belonging to the tradition was greater than the unsatisfied but deeper, more primary need I had for Dharma wisdom, which is always a double-edged sword that cannot be defined and controlled by any organisation, even a Buddhist one, and certainly in the long-term undercuts any ideological underpinnings such an organisation may have. Anyway, whatever the answer, it is fascinating that I have, over the last nine months, found the freedom of Dharma study and practice outside of the organisation, outside of any Buddhist organisation, to be liberating and profoundly creative, even though it has been a sometimes lonely, and emotionally uncomfortable process. But I suspect that you can’t have your cake and eat it: the freedom to be a true Dharma seeker perhaps often comes at the cost of being an outsider, unable to accept, or be accepted by, any formal Buddhist organisation – and being an outsider, any kind of outsider, is often an emotionally or psychologically uncomfortable place to be. Crazy yogis in Himalayan caves and Dharma-nerds in suburbia perhaps have that in common…
I recently re-read an article from some years ago that was written by Ken Jones, (available here), a founder of the UK Network of Engaged Buddhists, and was fascinated by the following passage which, considering that the article was written in 2006, makes the article quite prophetic and perceptive for its time given how things have moved on since 2006:
Many Buddhist organisations do sustain quite ambitious projects (like Samye-Ling’s Holy Island initiative) but none can equal the ambitiousness of the three movements [SGI-UK, FWBO, and NKT] — busy making new members, servicing the existing membership with professionally managed programmes to suit each grade, training teachers and middle managers, maintaining impressive publishing programmes, handling PR and promotion, mounting cultural and charitable projects, and even running “Right Livelihood” businesses (in the case of the FWBO). All this busyness arguably implies an imbalance between the traditional Buddhist virtues of virya (energy, forcefulness) and ksanti (spiritually creative humility and acceptance) — and, in the case of the FWBO, between “True Individuality” and anatta (no-self). Contemporary society already suffers from too much unreflective virya, and Buddhists-with-attitude sell it short in moving too far from the religion’s contemplative tradition. Surely the Fast Lane and the Middle Way are ultimately incompatible?
A more tangible cause of unease is that even if they were not as exclusivist as they are, the dominance of three such movements would be unhealthy for UK Buddhism. In the spirit of the Kalama Sutta free, personal, experiential search lies at the heart of Buddhism. Teacher and sangha exist to provide support and guidance, but that is all, and the ultimate guidance of the best teachers is to throw searchers back upon themselves, undercutting every successive clinging attachment — even to Buddhism or the teacher — or the movement… This is inner path religion. There is always the danger that the supportive institutional framework of community, doctrine and teacher will seduce searchers and become the end rather than the means, in this case filling their existential sense of “lack” with all the exhilarating righteousness of a missionary movement. That is the outer path, so easily confused with the other path. To make ideological movements out of Buddhist organisations is thus ultimately adhammic.
Seems like some mainstream Buddhists knew all along what was going to happen…