Q . I wonder if you have anything at all to say about the importance, within the context of Dharma practice, of overcoming the tendency to either control or manipulate situations and/or people?
A. For me your question hits right to the heart of what Dharma practice reveals, which is our will to power. It's what makes the world go around and is the reason for all the suffering that exists. The will to power manifests most clearly in our normal everyday life when we try to control and even (sometimes very subtly) manipulate people or situations (or both) for our own ends. This is the fundamental characteristic of the sense of self. In practising the Dharma we are encouraged to look very closely at ourselves to see who we really are, how we are put together as a person. Thus we slowly come to understand why we act in the way that we do. When we open honestly to ourselves, we see there is nothing we do that doesn't have something in it for ourselves. More often than not, we come to see that we do things so that they give us a sense of control over our experience. It is as though we are always trying to be on top and in control, for when we find ourselves not in control we feel vulnerable and fearful. With this sense of self we create our sense of separateness. Me here and the world out there. When we feel separate we feel lonely and frightened, and as a result we need to take control of life so as to avoid still more loneliness and fear. We try to manipulate and control life, which in truth can never be controlled and can never be the possession we crave it to be. Because your question hits right to the heart of our makeup, your query cannot be regarded as pointing at an aspect of our personality that we can target specifically and do something about. Rather, we need to see it as something that is addressed through the whole practice of Buddha-Dharma, whether it's ethics, mindfulness, understanding, or the complete opening up and giving of ourself to the refuges. Like any aspect of our makeup, if you feel that it gets out of control sometimes, bring forth the ethical side of practice through restraint with containment. But to satisfactorily transform our desire to control and manipulate, we need to practise the whole of the path with complete commitment and whole-heartedness.
Q. Some spiritual paths emphasise practitioners receiving assistance (i.e., teachings, blessings, energy, etc.) from non-physical spiritual beings to help their meditation practice, for example, in the Taoist and Tibetan Buddhist paths, deities, bodhisattvas and yidams are utilised and are believed to exist (relatively speaking). What's your angle on this? As I understand the Dharma, one is generally encouraged to be independent and not rely on these external beings at all.
A. The practice of the Dharma is full of skilful means on offer from the various traditions and schools that help us to engage in practice, which can often be very difficult to put into effect. Calling on the assistance of a deity is one example. Several traditions use them, with the Tibetan tradition the most prolific. We all need help and support, usually quite a lot of the time, in practice, and this highlights the importance of a teacher. The deities can be taken as teachers and have other functions as well when engaged with skilfully. They also have many of the qualities that we need to aspire to in order to break the delusion of self. All skilful means are a means to an end, not the end itself, and the use of deities can be a very potent one. In the context of Buddhism, to me 'independence' means not to attach to the world and the unwise, but provisionally attach to the skilful means (wisdom) of Buddhism. It would be impossible to go beyond suffering without doing this to some degree.
Q. There are spiritual paths which believe it is important to receive 'transmission' from a guru or spiritual guide (i.e., blessings, energy, etc.) to help their meditation practice. For example in some Hindu, Tibetan and Sufi paths, as I understand the situation, the student 'surrenders' and allows the teacher to 'open them up' spiritually using their psychic powers so they can have spiritual experiences. Again, what's your angle on this and do you think it's a safe and effective method of practice? Is this part of the Theravada tradition?
A. I can only talk from my own experience, and that was to have trust and faith in my teacher and, to the extent that I could, muster up courage to let go of my defences, opening myself to the Dharma that was offered. This I found had immense benefits. I would suggest that so called 'psychic-power' is simply the clear vision of a teacher who, no longer blinded by ignorance, can see what is the right teaching for you at any given time. They cannot prise you open like a can opener. It's only when you open and surrender your entire being with trust that transmission can take place. If you can find someone who you can trust in this profound way, then you would surely discover this to be the best way to practise the Dharma. You empower your teacher by your surrender, but there is always the danger that the teacher will misuse this power. This is the risk you take. It is your decision. This type of spiritual relationship is accepted in all traditions, but not, from my knowledge, particularly emphasised in Theravada.