Q. How important is chastity for practice and going for refuge in general?
A. I don't understand how you can make a distinction between practice and going for refuge. A major characteristic of the practice of the Buddha-Dharma is restraint, so that we may cultivate the ability to walk the middle way. When we truly alight and stay on the middle way – which is the perfection of the fourth noble truth – samsara will fall away to reveal our true nature. Restraint applies to all our attachments to views and opinions, desire and aversion, etc. Restraint means to keep in control, not deny or suppress. If we suppress, we may not only get ourselves into emotional trouble but also deny ourselves the opportunity to get to know ourselves and work and make friends with what we are. Of all our attachments it has to be said for most of us the desire for sexual fulfilment is the most powerful and difficult to control. For this reason it could be justified to break the rule of restraint and contain to the extent of suppression, in the full knowledge that this act is only a temporary expedient. Yes, it can help, because of the massive emotional involvement that this aspect of our being seems to demand, and if you are successful with using this temporary expedient it probably is something useful to bring to the practice when seen to be needed. But it is not necessary by any means to go down this route in our pursuit of insight. To contain and find the balance that is the middle way applies to the sex drive in exactly the same way as to any other part of our makeup. Try celibacy if you so wish, but if you find it too difficult to maintain, better to give it up than maybe do yourself some psychological damage, consider yourself a failure, and even give up the practice as well. To practice the middle way is the way to nirvana, and if your sexual drive is a part of your mandala of practice, then so be it.
Q. In your book 'A Record of Awakening' you make the following observation: " It is now impossible under any circumstances to enter into mental conflict with myself. " p55.Question: Would you agree that if we come to a place of honesty in ourselves we discover a characteristic that seems to manifest endlessly; which is that when challenged, we invariably justify our actions, our feelings, our opinions (especially our opinions) 'I am always in the right' seems to sum up this unspoken attitude of mind . To compound the problem, this cast of mind is obscured by a 'noble' response (when the heat is off) that I am not always in the right which I offer condescendingly so to say. But come again the challenge and my reaction to it I revert, as night follows day, to the former defensive position. It is as much as to say 'There is nothing wrong with me!" Can you say further how you reconcile these seeming opposites?
A. Here is a classic example of the ceaseless mental dialogue and conflict that we seem to find ourselves in. Our embattled mind split down the middle, engaging in this ceaseless dualistic dialogue and conflict. And despite our awareness of it and the obvious experience of dukkha that it brings there seems precious little we can do about it. It stems from an ingrained mental habit born of the non-understanding of reality; in other words, we are trapped in a dualistic world that is created by our own ignorance. We create a world of opposites not just on the outside but on the inside as well. This dualistic world, at play with itself, is where the phenomenon of a self arises. With the inclusion of the self it then becomes a game of self-defence, self-promotion and justification – the self is always reaffirming itself, as its basic characteristic is one of insecurity and fear. How it reaffirms itself is of no consequence to the self, as feeling alive is all that matters to it. So, for example, hypocrisy, and the obvious conflict that comes from that, is a good platform for its survival. How we deal with this very basis of suffering is what complete Dharma practice is about. The reason we see the problem but we can't do anything about it is because it is a powerful ingrained habit cultivated possibly over many lifetimes. So, rather than try to cure our problems by endless mental investigation, we undertake this practice to focus on the life-force and emotion that gives these experiences life and momentum in the first place. This focus brings the practice almost exclusively into the body, as it is here that the life-force and emotions are. If we practice correctly, that habitual emotional volition (grounded in the sense of 'me') transforms, returning to its original nature. Our mental habits and attachments die as a consequence, and we return to the peace and spaciousness of an unfettered mind.
Q. You seem to speak in terms of there being something divine in all of us and life and that opening up to this divine is an important part of practice. This seems to be a different orientation to just seeing into the emptiness of self, coming to see oneself as no more than an ever changing stream of conditions etc. I wonder if as ex-Christians practicing the dharma we are in danger of dumping this openness to the divine along with our dumping of God, and how damaging this is to our understanding of practice and going for refuge.
A. Seeing oneself as a stream of conditions is the smashing of the blinding barrier of self-view. With this done the ultimate human birthright of returning to inconceivable Buddha nature awaits. But for the return to our original nature to reach fulfilment, we need first to have nurtured a practice that goes beyond just discovering the illusion of self. Whilst practising over the years we need to nurture an opening up to our true nature by acknowledging that there is 'something' beyond the conscious sense of 'me'. Learning to open up and to hand that sense of self, with all its views and opinions and self-interest, into that mysterious unknown. Bowing, for example, is a wonderful and profound opportunity to practice going for refuge by coming together, familiarizing and communing with that warmth and mystery beyond 'me', and learning to trust and be carried by that 'which isn't me'. If you are not prepared to acknowledge 'that which you will never know', your understanding and release from suffering will not be complete. There can be just the understanding of emptiness of self, but realizing true emptiness goes way beyond that small 'victory'. True emptiness expresses itself through the warmth of the human heart, which when truly liberated is all that is. It is infinite compassion and love, it is wisdom, beyond birth and death, and eternal. If we do not learn to open up to this mystery and nurture this truth in our everyday commitment to practice, then we will surely miss out on the inconceivable liberation.