The Jewel Mandala


All life is a kind of Spiritual Vision. So says Plotinus, echoing the view that in their own way all things long for the divine, because they are essentially already of the divine.

I like such a way of seeing life. It endorses some fundamental hope, even intuition; a feeling for life. Almost as long back as I can remember, whenever I’ve been aware enough to stop and to sense it, my very existence and all things in it have been imbued with a sense of mystery. It is the contemplation and moving towards this mystery that constitutes the heart of life. At least, it is how I think of what is at the heart of my own spiritual endeavours.

A few years back I took a sabbatical. After nearly ten years of living in Spain, and working to help establish the FWBO there, I’d had enough. I felt worn out and tired, uninspired and a little resentful. Fortunately I had almost no money, so rather than going off travelling I took myself up to Guhyaloka, our retreat centre in the mountains near to Alicante, and lived in a tent in the woods. And there I asked myself once again what I was doing with my life. I questioned what I was about, threw my life into the air and waited to see what came down. I tried to see whether it was based on what, as far as I could tell, I really did most deeply want. That meant questioning whether I wanted to continue being a member of the Western Buddhist Order, whether I wanted to continue trying to practice Buddhism.

It was not an easy time, but it was exciting. It felt liberating and real and an important step in developing a little more individuality. And it was joyful. To be able to see more clearly what it is you most want in life, and to see that you have a way of getting it, would make anybody happy.

Two things became clear to me: two desires. Firstly, I realised that what I deeply wanted to do with my life was to enter fully into that sense of mystery. I cannot say that it was the only thing I wanted to do, but I did realise that perhaps my deepest longing was to live out a kind of mythical quest for understanding, a quest for the heart of life, to saturate myself with this simple mystery. Secondly, I realised that with my life I wanted to keep alive in the world the spirit of that quest, that I wanted to take up the torch of the spiritual life, to carry it through my own life and to pass it on to others after me. I did not want to do this because I especially wanted to help others, but rather I wanted to do it for the sake of that sense of mystery itself and because it was this that some how most deeply connected me to others. I felt a strange loyalty to and love for the myth, for the spirit of the quest in itself, and I wanted to keep it alive in the world.

In a Puja sometimes recited within the Order and known as the Jewel Mandala Puja there is a line that says:

May I continue urging that the Unsurpassable Wheel
Of the Quest for Life’s Meaning be kept rolling
For the deliverance of all living beings without any exception.

To urge that the wheel be kept rolling expresses well a part of my aspiration, but I cannot say that I am motivated to do it for the deliverance of all beings. Such a motivation, while I share something of its sentiment, is not uppermost in my heart. I could even say that to some extent the idea of leading the spiritual life for the deliverance of all living beings rather turns me off. I tend to be suspicious of the views, metaphysical and psychological, that often lie behind the adoption of such an attitude. Perhaps I cannot see that others really do need deliverance.

Don’t get me wrong, I do think that leading a spiritual life is what would make most people generally happier, and I do want others to be happy too, but the desire to make others happy is somehow secondary. It is a natural consequence of going more deeply into the heart of the incomprehensible fact that I and others exist. It is not what most deeply motivates me. The desire to act for the well being of others has grown in me as a consequence of practising Buddhism, but it has not been a primary motivation.

While in my tent in the woods I saw that I was at an important crossroads in relation to the Order and to Buddhism. I had inevitably led my life as a Buddhist to some extent in a group-like fashion. This had had, amongst other things, one important consequence — I had fallen into the habit of getting it all the wrong way round. I was in the habit of losing contact with those primary aspirations that had led me to practise Buddhism, that had led me to do the things that I did within the movement. I had got into the habit of doing those things as ends in themselves.

My most fundamental experience is just one of being alive. As I have said, I generally experience this as something mysterious, something fathomless, yet in response to it I feel a strong urge to understand, to enter more deeply into it. For that reason I have committed myself to this quest. Buddhism talks of going for Refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Such terminology, in its most universal sense, describes a fundamental human spiritual aspiration. That aspiration is not Buddhist, in the sense of belonging to Buddhism, but rather it is inherent to all life. It is Buddhism that belongs to it. In an attempt to make that aspiration a reality, I have made my commitment in a quite specific sense, having taken the Buddhist tradition as the context in which to undertake my quest. I have taken the Buddha as my teacher, I follow his Dharma and with other Buddhists I attempt to create Sangha. Even more specifically, I have gone for Refuge within the context of the Western Buddhist Order and within that particular context I have taken on certain projects and a life style. But this more specific context only has meaning if vitally connected to those more primary and universal aspirations. Being a Buddhist, being a member of the Order, working for the FWBO, only has meaning if vitally connected to my basic experience of being a human being faced with the raw experience of being alive. Yet, again and again, that connection has been lost and I have got it all the wrong way round. What becomes primary is not the acting upon my deepest aspirations as a human being, but rather my work for the FWBO, the being an Order member. The means becomes the end.

There is an inherent danger in trying to lead a spiritual life, in making our spiritual aspirations conscious and central. The danger is that the spiritual becomes mundane without us ever realising it. So our practices can become subtle forms of carrying on our ignorance and craving and the Sangha that we attempt to create can become another group; perhaps the worst of all groups because it deals in the human soul. Yet if we recognise the need for Dharma and the need for Sangha then it is a danger we must risk. The alternative is not to even try for awakening — unless we think it possible without putting ethics, meditation or wisdom into practice, without developing that friendship in which our shared spiritual aspiration as human beings is rejoiced in.

Despite such reflections during that time in the woods of Guhyaloka, I realised that I did nonetheless have a way of realising my deepest aspirations. Though I might get it the wrong way round, Buddhism was indeed a great tradition of questing. It resonated deeply with that primary aspiration and more so than any other tradition that I knew. Though I might get it wrong, the Order and the movement were actually viable, real and in very many ways extraordinarily effective contexts in which to live out that tradition and hence my aspiration. Yes, knowing what you want and having a way of getting it makes you happy.

The trap of getting it all the wrong way round is a trap that awaits all of us in the spiritual life. But it is perhaps particularly a trap awaiting those that are prepared to make specific commitments. It awaits any that become members of the Order, and especially those that take on official responsibilities within the FWBO, be it being a Chairman or working in a right-livelihood business. Though many Order members flourish under such conditions, considerably deepening their inspiration and their commitment to the Three Jewels, it is not uncommon to find others handing on their responsibilities worn out and tired, uninspired and a little resentful. I think one of the main reasons is that we fall into this trap, this habit of getting it round the wrong way, of doing it all for its own sake rather than as a vital expression of what is most deeply important to us. The real challenge lies in keeping the connection alive.

But there are other reasons too: perhaps lack of appreciation by those in the situation in which we work or by others in the Order; personal limitations having been exposed publicly through our work; not being able to maintain the spiritual discipline necessary to stay inspired and creative; more selfish and narrower motivations feeding into our work and being frustrated; a scarcity of direct and tangible kalyana mitrata with those we look up to and depend on for encouragement and a greater perspective.

The fact that we inevitably lead much of our lives as Buddhists in a group-like fashion means that we tend to relate to others within the FWBO at times in a group-like way. While in my tent in the woods, it became clear to me that the crossroads I found myself at came down to a choice. I could continue to be in the Order in a group-like way, I could leave, or I could become more of an individual within the context of the Order. The most comfortable option was to stay, but in a group-like way. What this would have meant in my case was to drift to the periphery of the Order and just sort of nominally be a part of it, harbouring my doubts and resentment, putting all the blame on to them. Yet I knew that that would only be painful. I did not want to arrive at my death bed, to look back on my life and to realise that Id blown it, that Id not managed to live the way, never really developed the art of the spiritual life, of the quest. I knew what I wanted to do, and I knew that in order to do it I needed something like the context of the Western Buddhist Order. I didn’t want to leave. I had, therefore, to make the most difficult of choices, to reengage more as an individual.

This re-engagement means in part giving voice to my thoughts and reflections, but it also means confessing. It means acknowledging humiliations and faults and, as fully as possible, my own part in difficulties, as well as aspects of myself that are by no stretch of the imagination spiritual; motivations that feed on all kinds of unskilful and selfish desires and insecurities. It means overcoming the desire to conceal my weaknesses and failings from others, to stop making a show of it. As that same Mahayana text puts it:

Let me confess all the evil I have done,
Through karmic actions and negative emotions,
That since beginningless time have tended to drive me
To actions that have become the cause of fictitious being.

Though this term fictitious being refers to the ultimately illusory nature of being, it is a term that also describes well a way of being. It is, perhaps, conterminous with a lack of true individuality. It is the way of being of the group, even or perhaps especially of the religious group. It is a way of being in which we can all get caught and even stuck. To really confess — to my friends, to my Kalyana Mitras though unavoidably humiliating is nonetheless liberating and to the degree that I am able to do it, to that degree I experience the joy of opening up the thatch and letting the rain pour in. Only on such a basis am I able to engage, not only with others in the Order but with life. Only on such a basis am I able to free myself at all from this fictitious being.

I have been asked to write something for Madhyamavani as one of those new to the Preceptors College Council, by way of introducing myself. The fact that the College Council has opened up to new members encourages me greatly. I am glad not just because I have become a member of it and it allows me to more fully realise my own aspirations, but also because it is a sign of health in the Order. To put it frankly, I think that the Council needs new blood. Not because there is something wrong with it as it has stood for some time, but rather because the nature of true spiritual community is that it is dynamic and fluid, responding to changing situations and conditions. The fact that the College Council has new members does not of course mean in itself that true spiritual community is alive amongst us but it is a good sign that it may be. I would like to see many other Order members, from my generation and others, engaging with the Order in this way.

Plotinus envisages an unbroken chain of beings from the highest order of creation to the lowest. In Buddhism we have not a chain but a net, or perhaps a mandala, at the centre of which sits the Buddha. It is of course the net of kalyana mitrata, a net that stretches out to infinity and within which each of us is in some way connected to the whole. It is the mandala of which all beings are a part. This net is universal; it is what it means in the deepest sense to be a living being; it reflects the true nature of our relation to others. Really we are a part of it whether we truly realise it or not. But surely the great satisfaction of human life is to know that we are a part of it to know deeply and experientially.

By being a part of a community that tries to realise this truth, that is by being a part of a spiritual community, we have the chance in a real and down to earth way of knowing, knowing deeply with our whole being, that we are a part of this Mandala, a part of this universal net of connectedness. Each of us has our place in that net and there are many ways of playing our part. Kalyana mitrata cannot be confined by official structures. The important things is to live from the aspirations inherent to our humanity and to create. It is through the breath of our own lives that we keep this spirit of the quest, this sense of mystery, the understanding of our own and others innate divinity — the spirit of Enlightenment, the spirit of Dharma, the spirit of kalyana mitrata — alive in the world.

For our own sake, for its sake who knows, maybe even for the deliverance of all living beings?

I pray that the Buddha and his spiritual heirs
Stay forever and do not pass into Nirvana
Until this ocean of fictitious being
Has been entirely emptied.

Originally published in Madhyamavani: Spring 2000 Issue 3 (Birmingham: Madhyamaloka, 2000).