Forest SanghaNewsletterJuly 1993

Devotion and Gnosis; Ajahn Sumedho
Metta and the English Problem; John Aske
An Open Letter from Dharamsala
On Returning to Ladakh; Ven. Sanghasena
Indian Summer; Ven. Asabho
The Highest Tantra; Ajahn Sucitto


The Highest Tantra

At a symposium of Western teachers of Buddhism that met at Dharamsala in March, one of the questions that was posed to H.H. the Dalai Lama was: "What are the signs that indicate that the Dhamma is properly established in a country?" To this, His Holiness responded with the traditional reply that when someone born of that country Goes Forth into the Sangha then one can say that the Dhamma is truly established. This could sound condescending to lay practitioners, who may have a profound degree of experience and skill; but the comment may help us to consider what it is that supports the transmission of the teachings. The preservation of the teachings is one thing, which can be done by people or even by scriptures: but what is it that actually generates and sustains the aspiration to transcendence? That is a magical, or better, a sacred process.

The Dalai Lama visited Britain this year to give some talks, and demonstrated some of the magic of the monastic form. His words were clear, but as teachings perhaps deliberately unremarkable. One felt that what he had in mind was to reach a wide range of people with broad Dhamma teachings that appeared as straightforward common sense. The main "teaching" was unspoken: a human presence that expressed understanding and compassion in a totally matter-of-fact and unassuming way. You were caused to wonder why everybody isn't like that; let alone someone who had every reason to feel embittered and care-worn. One was led to believe, not that Buddhist wisdom was special, but that you already had it and it was just a question of integrating that into daily life. The freedom to be fully human was the message; not just for Tibetans, but for everyone. What was also interesting was how that arose in the mind.

Bearing the "Buddha's skull" (the alms bowl) and wrapped in his "skin" (the robes), what powerful Tantra is present there at the very entrance to the Holy Life!
It has been calculated (by those who calculate) that in spoken communication, only 7% of the message is conveyed by the words: the rest is done by the tone of the voice, and by the language of bodily appearance, posture and gesture. These elements are deliberately attended to by monastic training and environment to increase mindfulness. The Dalai Lama had a shaven head and was wearing monastic robes - which make a statement about the relinquishment of self-image that can't be verbalised. (Try saying how selfless you are, and notice the reactions you get.) Then the gentle demeanour, and upright ease brought about by the samana's friendly and spacious relationships, speak persuasively of the value and naturalness of such a way. What we should and could be is presented as obvious and apparent, if we were only to let go of our personal world. This is the teaching on which all realisation of Dhamma rests.

Tantra is commonly regarded as a rarefied and even suspect offshoot of the Middle Way. If you look into it, the principles of Tantra are that one transforms one's body and speech into a sacred space through, for example, visualising oneself as a Buddha. Of course it could go horribly wrong without a teacher and a discipline to eliminate self-view. It smacks of magic. Yet, when you compare this idea with the ordination ceremonies and the Vinaya training, there are striking similarities. Anyone who has contemplated the ordination ceremonies can't help but feel a certain shock of recognition: one may not hear or understand the words (which are not so magical anyway) but the body language of the candidates in the Dhamma theatre of the ordination precinct speaks unambiguously. This is a human sacrifice. At that time they are offering themselves totally to the Triple Gem as represented by the present assembly. Bearing the "Buddha's skull" (the alms bowl) and wrapped in his "skin" (the robes), what powerful Tantra is present there at the very entrance to the Holy Life! If only that vision could be sustained.

To sacrifice is to make sacred, to transfigure not to destroy, and like Tantra, that doesn't happen in a moment. Ordination is a symbol of that process and the presentation of the means, not a recipe for enlightenment. The transfiguration has to be wrought over years of walking like a son or daughter of a Buddha, eating like one, talking and lying down and serving others like one. That supreme Tantra is the foundation of what will transmit the Dhamma naturally without resource to rhetoric or personal claims (and the ghastly mess of "who is more enlightened than who?"); it is called the Vinaya.

Vinaya takes the consecrated space out of the ordination precinct and impresses its boundaries onto the heart of the practitioner. Within that sacred space one can indeed contemplate the processes of thought and feeling, of wilfulness and letting go, of the known and of the inconceivable - as not-self. Yet it hurts; and it can only be sustained through one's own sense of honour. Wisdom helps! And also the moral support of others - and a timeless good humour.

The transmission of the Dhamma requires pragmatic love for the heart that Goes Forth in ourselves or others, near or far, past, present or yet to come. When we give it, it awakens and supports our own life. This is the giving and receiving of the fourfold assembly (monastic and lay) that gives rise to the Sangha Gem. When we support it, it uplifts us. More reason for all of us, lay or ordained, to support this; more auspicious the opportunity to witness this enacted in an ordination wherein the treacherous energies of body and speech assume a form that is a vehicle of Dhamma.

Ajahn Sucitto



What is this?
Birth life on earth
and to see
with a pure clarity
the birds riding a gale
across the blue cloudless
winging space into space
with a soundless intensity
the leaves from trees
rustling along stone walls,
along and over and away,
playing their colours
greetings Venus, silver harmony
rising in the sky, nights descent
and the old gate blows shut,
that familiar sound of the catch,
screwed, on to the rotting post,
made of a dead mans hands
wordless the wet creeping of the flesh
cold bites
and blues notes, once again, the wind
carries on the breeze,
angels no doubt, cup the air, gorgeous,
is the deep rainbow, that out curves
the minds of men - look on stranger -
blissful, the consent of pure unknowing
that cracks the bone of our hearts
a flutter
with the delight of a falling vastness ...

Mahesi Bhikkhu
Ratanagiri December '92