Q. How can we go for refuge to the sangha, when the sangha is (presumably) full of unenlightened people like me? How can we go to refuge to something which is not (yet) a manifestation of ultimate truth? Is it not rather that we are going for refuge to the ariya sangha, meaning the sangha of the Buddha's disciples who have reached the path in full? Or is it that we go for refuge to each other's Buddha nature, its potential, rather than its reality?
A. To go for refuge to the ariya sangha is an important and necessary aspect of taking refuge, for it is the ariya sangha that helps teach, guide and inspire us. We study their enlightened understanding of the Dharma, and through that knowledge and the inspiration that we experience we put our understanding into practice, hopefully not falling into the trap of practising the way we think we should (or would like to) practise. So, we put our understanding into practice, but where? Of course, we have the opportunity in our daily sitting and throughout our daily activities. But we can also extend our engagement with practice to include the sangha that we belong to. We can look upon our sangha as the vehicle for our own enlightenment and use it as a support as we open up to ourselves more and more. To be with like-minded people is such an important feature of our practice. Of course, involvement with sangha is a two-way process. We need also to contribute to sangha in order for others to benefit. See your sangha as your work area within practice - to give and to take. You would like to have the best possible support, even if those who support you are not enlightened. You would like to draw on a consistent commitment from people, people who give you strength, support and encouragement. If you appreciate these qualities that your friends aspire to, then you too need to aspire to these same qualities so that you may help them - thus recognising the qualities of Buddha nature. If we only take refuge in the Ariya sangha, we run the risk of living in our heads. If we only take refuge in the unenlightened sangha, we run the risk of losing direction. Combining the two should give us a well-rounded and skilful framework for the third refuge.
Q. From time to time one experiences inspiration and joy in the practice. How can one best keep that from becoming a hindrance later on, when the inspiration fades, but the memory of it (and attachment to the memory) does not? How can we come down gracefully?
A. I'm not quite sure from your question if you are looking at an insightful experience or simple joy that can arise from concentrated practice and a happy heart. Maybe we can review them both, as mara in his lust for attachment isn't at all bothered what your experiences may be. As time goes by we are quite likely to have experiences that are insightful, joyous and inspiring. These experiences can be very powerful and evoke strong emotions, but once they have passed we must then be very careful how we move forward. Try to see such experiences as fruit of right practice and confirmation that your faith in the Dharma is well founded, and use each experience as an inspiration and support to let go of even more cherished attachments, moving ever deeper into practice. I have spoken to several people over these past three or four years who have had strong insightful moments, and many then get so emotionally attached that they then become obsessed by the experience. There are no special rules to use at these times. If your experience is genuine, then you have already learnt that Dharma practice is grounded in letting go of emotional attachments to experiences. Experiencing insightful, joyful and inspiring situations is no different from experiencing painful ones, even though on the face of it we may think so. We normally work on attachments to what we would consider unwholesome and unskilful, and may think attachment to insight, etc. is okay because these are not defilements.But attachment is attachment is attachment, and therefore should be seen as the same. Practise in the usual way, and be very aware that attachment to the fruits of practice are especially powerful, and if you are not careful will stop the practice in its tracks as well as inflate the ego.
Q. You have a very 'Buddhist' approach to awakening. This can be seen in the structure of your retreats, your use of Pali terminology and your association with the FWBO. Do you feel that it is necessary to be so respectful of tradition and conditioning? I have a particular problem with the use of historical language - why do so many teachers stick to ancient languages in expressing the truth of the present moment? Not only do I not know what people are talking about sometimes, but it creates a kind of 'in the mists of time" feel to the teaching. The English language is a hugely flexible and expressive tongue, so why is Pali and Sanskrit still used? It all feels a bit romantic to me, and I think it puts others off too. Surely the 'Dharma' (there we go again!) is nothing if not alive, fresh and accessible to all in the present context.
A. You have made a very interesting and very important observation that many in the West struggle with. Why indeed use ancient and obscure language to express the happenings of the present moment? Let me give you three important examples why I think we need to use these terms, for which there are often no English equivalents. Dukkha has many meanings. You could use it in its extreme interpretation of suffering. But it could also be said to mean unsatisfactoriness. This has a much broader base in that it incorporates the whole of conscious experience - even happy experience.Because happy experiences are transitory, they too will soon go into change, and not being aware of this we try to hold on to such experiences, leading always to disappointment. This is a good teaching, and something to ponder regularly to help nurture our training in letting go. Dukkha can also mean a kind of continual "vibration" on the metaphysical level of our being. This creates perpetual movement, and reveals dukkha as the permanent companion of impermanence. Here are three different interpretations of the same word, all having important ramifications for our understanding and practice of the Dharma. Dharma is another example. There is dharma with a small dto denote "things" that fill the mind and universe. Then there is Dharma with a large D, which is the second refuge for those who practise the teachings along with the other two refuges of Buddha and Sangha, the framework of practice. Dharma interpreted here has a very wide meaning. It is the teachings learned, which then help to orientate us to the real Dharma, which is the living truth of what is. When this living truth is discovered in our own mind and body, we realise that it is the Dharma that supports and carries us, and that it has been waiting to be re-discovered since time began. Dharma is the mysterious movement of the living Buddha, and something we should learn to open up to and become intimate with. From the very beginning we have never been separate from the Dharma. Indeed, we are the Dharma. Find me an English word that could convey all of these meanings! We need to know the subtlety of this word in order to mature our direct understanding of it. The last example I would like to give is shunyata. For me shunyata is the most important of all the "ancient" words to get some sort of a grasp of. It conveys the ultimate fruit of Buddhist practice and endeavour, yet it is the most misunderstood word in Buddhism. When shunyata was first encountered by Western scholars it was given the quite dreadful translation of "nothingness" and "void". We have at least now progressed to "emptiness". However, whilst not nearly as inaccurate as the first attempts to translate shunyata, because of its negative connotations "emptiness" is still a misleading word. Shunyata refers to levels of wisdom following the progressive dissolution of the notion of self, with the ultimate level synonymous with the body of reality (Dharmakaya) and interpenetration that characterises Buddha nature. Shunyata expresses the deep mystery and wonder of life that we, trapped in the duality created by the delusion of self, cannot even begin to imagine. Shunyata, properly understood in terms of its deepest meaning, is not at all negative, as implied by words such as voidness, nothingness and emptiness, but actually expresses reality being devoid of any self-nature. But so many (especially those who wish to put Buddhism down) understand this important Buddhist word (through translation) as being negative and therefore state that Buddhism is life denying - how wrong can they be! By insisting on translating every Pali and Sanskrit word we are in grave danger of losing the subtlety of Dharma teaching and experience. The concepts of reality as expressed in Buddhism have no real parallel in our culture and therefore our language will always miss the target. Rather than charging headlong into making Buddhism "Western", we need to take a much more measured approach. Rather than translating these strange words, learn to understand and feel their subtle meaning until they become familiar, thus allowing them to become a part of the landscape of Western Buddhism. The same could be said of much of Buddhist ceremony, rejected by many these past few years as being unnecessary for us Westerners. Bowing has been rejected by many, as has the display of Buddha rupas, clearly showing, in my view, the lack of wisdom of those individuals. In insisting on stripping down centuries of practice to its bare bones in this way we are running the risk of 'throwing the baby out with the bath water'. Rather, let"s take our time and let inevitable change take place naturally. Let us not be too keen on severing our Dharmic ties to the East. Changes to external form should be guided by the wise, who have at least broken the fetter of attachment to "rights and rituals" and therefore have the clarity to know the difference in a ceremonial situation between cultural expressions and expressions of the Dharma, and be capable of retaining that which needs to be retained. Only by proceeding in this enlightened way will we protect the Dharma from irreversible damage and decline.