|Forest Sangha Newsletter||October 1993|
Turning the Wheel in the West
Question: What were the aims of the Conference, and why was it held?
Most people were very self-effacing about their own traditions and there wasn't even a hint of 'My path is better than yours.'
|Q: Did you find that all the teachers were experiencing similar problems in teaching in the West, and did this make the differences between them less obvious?|
A: There was so much accord between us all that the differences were hardly remarked on. Discord or disparity was not created with regard to the traditional patterns in which the teachings are expressed, but more associated with the vehemence with which one believed in one's own particular pattern. The real differences were not to do with whether you were a Theravadin, Tibetan or Zen, but how prone you were to being self-righteous. The only polarity was to do with attachment to views.
We had all come up through the same cultural milieu: we all went to the same movies and we all did the same things through the sixties and seventies. I was the youngest of the delegates there, at thirty-six. Most of the others had been practising for fifteen to thirty years or more. We were all very much practice-oriented rather than academics or 'Traditional Buddhists' - none of us had grown up in Buddhist cultures. Our practice centered around our own cultural conditioning - too much conceptualisation, too much self-obsession, too much drink and drugs, too much self-hatred. All of us have grown up and worked with this stuff. So whether you're dealing with it as Nirmanakaya-Sambhogakaya-Dharmakaya, or whether you're using a koan, or anicca-dukkha-anatta - the particular formulation seemed to be secondary.
One area of distinction, however, was between those who were still living as monastics and those who weren't. Naturally, there are particular problems, questions and attributes shared in living as a monastic. I noticed that during meal times and free time together, often there would be a separate monastic cluster - a little group of shaven-headed ones would form itself. Most people were very self-effacing about their own traditions and there wasn't even a hint of 'My path is better than yours.'
So it was remarkably free of the historical distinctions and stratifications that have been given to the Buddhist world. His Holiness helped with this and made it very clear that he regarded kindness and compassion as primary and Buddhism as secondary: that we had to base our understanding around ordinary human values and tangible human qualities, not around ideological principles.
Q: Can you talk about the perspectives on Sangha that were expressed there?
|There seemed to be a variety of relationships between the monastics and the lay teachers. With some you could see that there was a sincere respect and admiration for the monastic life and its discipline. Others were obviously indifferent or, having been monastics, felt that they were now living more truly to the teachings outside of that form. And sometimes amongst the monastics there appeared to be a tacit assumption that if you're not a monk or a nun you don't really mean business, that having left the Sangha you somehow fell back in the training. However, if you hang on to those views then you find yourself taking on monasticism as an identity - which is precisely what it's not for. On the other hand, lay teachers can be friendly and polite but within themselves be dismissive of the monastic life, perhaps from a need to justify their decision to leave monasticism for lay life. Sometimes this can be coming from a bias to defend an individual's choice - which is okay; but it can colour the relationships between the monastics and the lay community. Because those attending had been selected in view of their common commitment towards Buddhist practice, I didn't experience this very strongly at the Conference. There was generally a wonderful mutual respect not born out of tradition but coming from a sincere, friendly attitude of, 'You choose to do it your way, I choose to do it mine.'|
His Holiness expressed support for all forms of practice, but what I interpreted from his words was that the Vinaya and monastic form is a sine qua non of the health of the dispensation of the Buddha's teaching; that the representation of the Teaching revolves around the presence of those committed to renunciation as exemplified by the Buddha himself. That's our reference point.
Once when asked: 'How can you tell if the Buddha-Dharma is truly established in a country?' His initial response was: 'When there is the presence of the Four-Fold Assembly - monks, nuns, lay women and laymen'. Expanding on this he said that as the more essential teachings of compassion, dependent origination and emptiness were established this would lead to a greater understanding of the process of rebirth, and the more that you understand rebirth the more you see the possibility of the realisation of Nirvana and this, in turn, leads to an inclination towards the renunciant life of a monk or a nun. Q.E.D.
|Q: How did the Dalai Lama reflect upon Western lay and ordained teachers who claim to have insight and yet are unwilling to practice by the Five Precepts, as we have seen of late in the West?|
A: He pointed out that if there is a true realisation of emptiness, it has to include getting beyond afflictive emotions or kilesas. The two are intrinsically connected through understanding the relationship between desire and suffering - the realisation of emptiness and of causality has to affect your behaviour. For instance, realising that action born out of ignorance and desire leads to suffering; from this we see that the response to understanding emptiness can only be compassionate action, and well-ordered moral behaviour. His Holiness suggested that perhaps the insights of these people weren't as profound or complete as they thought, otherwise they would not be capable of acting in the way that they do - being alcoholic, or using the bodies of their disciples in a very gratuitous way.
Many examples were raised of various characters from the Tibetan and Zen traditions that behaved in these ways whilst also apparently being great 'Maha Siddhas' or realised yogis who had made the final breakthrough. (People love these stories - they're far more spicy than stories about the virtuous monk who sits on a cushion all day meditating). His Holiness, however, pointed out that in the Tibetan tradition, anyone who had developed to the level where those were really valid activities would make a drastic display of psychic power. For instance, they would float up into the air and transform themselves into a cosmic Buddha as a sign to indicate that they were not just an old lecher but to point out, 'I am a master of the Path and I know what I'm doing.'
He also commented on those who wish to practise a certain Tantric practice which entails engaging in sexual intercourse as a means of potentiating the mind for enlightenment. He said that the traditional way of finding out whether someone is ready for such a practice is to see if they can drink alcohol, eat human flesh, drink urine and eat faeces - and experience all the tastes as identical. If you can do that then you're ready! Later, when he was pressed on the point and asked if he knew anyone who was capable of Tantric practice at this level, he couldn't name a single person. That was a powerful moment in the Conference because although these things are often spoken about in a theoretical sense, the Dalai Lama - who knows some extraordinary yogis and meditators - didn't know anyone who can get beyond conventional morality. When he said this, the room went very quiet. As the conversation carried on he suggested that it is probably best to avoid the whole thing.
Q: With so many representatives of the different traditions in the West who are obviously having to adapt in their own way to the situations they find themselves in, did you find that the examples that you heard from the Dalai Lama's comments confirmed things that we had been experimenting with here in England, or did it seem as though we were going off on the wrong track?
Q: Perhaps less formalised?
Q: And with the adaptations of traditional forms that they used, were there also similar experiences in that field?
To be continued...