Sprititual Rebirth


This article was originally one of a series of talks on the 2003 International Order Convention. It is about the stage of Sangharakshita�’s ’system�’ of meditation called ’spiritual rebirth�’, which he discusses with particular reference to visualisation meditation. Some content may be unfamiliar; addressing Order members I could assume a high degree of knowledge and experience of visualisation. Nevertheless, I am sure most readers will find what I have to say relevant to their practice in some way.

In the Western Buddhist Order we have many meditation practices. With so much choice, it is important that we understand the essence of what we are trying to do. If we do that, we find that all practice really boils down to one practice — the practice of realisation. But if we don�’t, we will just be lost in the supermarket of endless choices. We therefore need to recall our spiritual purpose as strongly and as continuously as we possibly can. This is the essential practice, which holds together all the others.

In the system of meditation formulated by Sangharakshita, we first integrate our self. This is particularly associated with the Mindfulness of Breathing. Secondly, we make that self emotionally positive, and our main practice here is the Metta Bhavana. Thirdly, there is the stage of spiritual death. Here we see through the very concept of self — see through the illusory world we've been creating around that illusory idea. Sangharakshita discusses this in the context of the Six Element Practice.

The fourth stage involves letting this realisation of non-self permeate our whole life, so that ’we�’ no longer get in the way. This fourth stage — the stage of spiritual rebirth — is particularly associated with visualisation practices, although it cannot be exclusively identified with any one kind of meditation. I�’ve said a lot about visualisation on other occasions, but here I want to range more widely. Let me start with a disclaimer: whatever I say will be quite exploratory. After all, we are here discussing the more advanced stages of spiritual experience. It seems to me that the waters are not well charted and can never be described or understood definitively.

To begin with, spiritual rebirth must be distinguished from ordinary rebirth. We are all subject to unpredictable changes, which just go on and on forever — the world of impermanence and the endless varieties of suffering. That is the ordinary, familiar kind of rebirth. But spiritual rebirth takes place when we start seeing beyond such karmically conditioned change: when we poke our heads through the shell of ignorance, and actually see the boundless spaces of nirvana; when, perhaps, we even start to step out into those spaces.

There is no real difference between spiritual death and spiritual rebirth. There�’s just a back and a front end of the same experience. On the one hand, spiritual death is the essential experience that makes spiritual rebirth happen; on the other, spiritual rebirth is what makes sense of the experience of spiritual death.

Nevertheless, I feel it’s very important that we make more use of this idea of spiritual rebirth. I don't know why, but it seems to me that in our presentations of vipashyana in the FWBO, we've tended to place the stress on spiritual death. The term is accurate enough, but our associations with the word death can be… let’s say, a little discouraging. When we teach the Dharma, we often find ourselves telling people that what’s at the end of this long, demanding spiritual journey is spiritual death. And perhaps the notion of death — with its inevitably unpleasant connotations — is the main impression that they take away.

We are probably all familiar with Bhante’s words on this: ’What is the next step? … The next step is death! The happy, healthy individual, which you are now… must die!’ When I was in my twenties, this radical talk greatly appealed to me. I too used to give talks in this vein, and impressed my listeners with devilish Bhantoid chuckles. But I was really just showing my ignorance. It was not even a proper reflection of Bhante’s teaching, because he used also to speak in terms of spiritual rebirth. I just didn’t understand the notion of spiritual rebirth, so I couldn't include it in my picture of Buddhist liberation.

Since what stuck in my mind was death, and since death is something one fears, I tended to see vipashyana as something to be afraid of. This made it rather unlikely that I would try very seriously to develop any vipashyana.

Fear of death is not the only obstacle to spiritual rebirth. We may also fear the life on the other side of insight. We may imagine it to be a no-fun place: dull, worthy, cooped up perhaps, without outlet for our colourful passions and interests. Maybe this feeling is natural enough, considering how passionate and interested we are in so many things, but as an attitude to spiritual transformation it is not reasonable or useful.

It’s worth looking more deeply at the relationship between our passions and the Dharma. I have recently been on a long solitary retreat, and during the months that I spent in my little hut, I became very aware of my interests and passions. I was made very aware of my samskaras — aware (to put it in the most general terms) of my greed, hatred and delusion. In a situation like that, one’s mind can become very fresh and ready to learn, and we may uncover unseen threads of interest, and certain obsessions that we have not noticed before.

On the day I left my retreat, I got into my car and drove from Tipi Valley in South-West Wales to Tunbridge Wells. It’s quite a long drive, and I took it fairly slowly (as you can imagine, since it had been eighteen months since I’d driven — or even walked — on any kind of road, let alone a motorway). I made several stops at roadside cafes. It was a hot, sunny day, and I found myself standing by my car, drinking tea out of my big plastic bowl, and gazing wide-eyed at people and the strange ways they were behaving. I remember in particular watching maybe a dozen policemen and women, joshing around and tucking into a lunch of baguettes and sandwiches. Somehow, the sight of them touched me. They looked unhealthy — pasty faced and ugly. Their physical movements were jarring: they seemed to jerk around as though they were in plaster. At the same time, I could see they were basically good people. I always feel a bit sad about the police because they are often hated and distrusted (sometimes no doubt for a reason), but a lot of them must originally have joined up for altruistic motives. I wonder how long that typically lasts: it must be a difficult life.

As these thoughts floated around in my mind, I became aware of myself standing there. I realised what an oddball I too must have looked, with my plastic bowl of tea, my unshaven face, and my soiled clothes. I had holes in my trousers, and knew I was a bit dirty. (I’d just seen myself in the mirror in the Gents.) I looked down at my hands: there was dirt under my fingernails. Then I realised, ’No, that’s not dirt. It’s the earth; it’s the earth.’ And suddenly I started weeping. It was the thought of the elements, who had been like close friends to me on my retreat. Tears started up at the memory of where I’d been for so long, of all the depth I’d been in touch with, and at the contrast with this life ’out here’, which was so completely out of harmony with that life.

Now I’d like to think that I wouldn’t confuse being overwhelmed by emotional experience with insight into Dharma, but clearly this was some kind of reminder about an important dimension of things. I really had felt that the elements had somehow been my friends — the idea means something very tangible to me. Anyway, whatever its significance, this little incident seems to illustrate how our interest — our passion, if you like — is always there; it is always strong, and it is that which we channel and experience more deeply through our Buddhist practice.

When we look at Bhante’s ’system’, we see two great stages. The first is preliminary to transcendental insight and the second comes out of insight. Integration and positive emotion are necessary as a foundation. After the illumination of spiritual death, there is a fundamental change, and life is never as it was before. This is what Bhante calls spiritual rebirth. I think this spiritual rebirth is what we all really want, in our heart of hearts. I think our passion, our deepest longings, have more to do with that than with the substitutes we generally pursue. The problem is that we’re so often out of touch with what we really want.

Spiritual death is when we have a glimpse of non-dual reality. We see, if only for a moment, the insubstantiality and the vastness of everything. We see that we know nothing at all about what is happening, that all our ideas are just empty. Even what we suppose to be our actual experience is in fact just a set of ideas that we superimpose on an indescribable reality. We might look, for example, at the elements and see that even basic things like earth and water do not really exist like that: they are just experiences that cannot fully be described.

On the one hand, any experience includes a subject that we assume is real, but when we look we find it has no substance at all. On the other, it includes an object that we assume is some kind of thing — some form — but if we actually try to find it, the form is empty. There is no actual thing. So all the little judgements and conclusions and feelings and emotions that take place in between this empty subject and empty object have no substantial meaning, because they are based on a fundamental mistake. When we see sunyata — emptiness — both subject and object drop away, and there is just peace, space and depth of understanding.

Spiritual death may be frightening. It may be blissful. It may be awe-inspiring. It may be anything, but the main thing about it is that it leads to a profound change. This change isn’t easy to understand unless you have actually had experience of it, because even though what has changed is fundamental, it is also subtle. It’s not as though there is something new; it’s just that something has been revealed as not being there. In that sense, nothing changes. Everything in your world carries on pretty much as before. It’s simply that you have seen, for a moment, that it is insubstantial and not anything. You just know that it’s not really there in the way that you used to assume it was (and still, most of the time, go on assuming that it is).

This kind of talk can sound abstract, but on the contrary it is very much a direct experience. It may seem to remove all significance from life, but in fact it gives it a tremendous charge of significance, which at once becomes the centre of your mandala. This centre is what is radically different. You are guided by it, even though you don’t understand it. You are guided by the Dharma, because you have seen the Dharma. And this guidance leads you on a new path, the path of transformation. Some of your life, at least, now takes place there, on this path of spiritual rebirth. (In Bhante’s ’system’, it’s called the stage of spiritual rebirth, but it is also a path.)

It is this experience that gives meaning and confidence to our Buddhist life. It is something we all have a spark of: it’s a case of using that spark to light a fire. We have to want to look and try to see what is really happening. And we need to apply that perspective to our everyday experience, so that it can work its magic. It’s a question of remembering the vision that nothing substantially exists, and letting ourselves feel it more deeply.

I try to do this as much as I can. I dedicated my whole retreat to Prajnaparamita, the Perfection of Wisdom. And doing that, I noticed that pretty much all the time my mind is obsessed with some idea or other, so that I cannot fully relax, cannot fully experience reality as it is. There is always some nub, some sticking point — and I stop short there. It may be some conclusion I come to, such as ’I’m cold’ or ’I’m tired.’ Or else there'll be something I want, and that will dominate my mood. But if I take the time to be mindful and relax into awareness of this, I see that I’m sticking to some assumption or desire that is central to every other thought. I realise I am not even aware of this centre, let alone applying the realisation of emptiness to it. That’s why it’s a sticking point. But if I can bring myself to see this central idea, I can remember that it doesn’t exist — I mean, that it doesn’t exist as such. Nothing exists as such. Everything is always a mixture of perceptions, which themselves are empty, too. To say ’I’m cold’ is a distortion of the actual complex reality, in which there is no substantial ’me’ to be ’cold’. Of course, something is going on, but it is certainly not a thing — the reality is far more mysterious and far more interesting.

We come to these conclusions, these full-stops, about reality, under the influence of craving and hatred, and the mechanisms we have built up to protect our craving and our hatred. We are ruled by them. So to notice is to begin to undo them, to undo the habitual view that they are concrete things. We can see these sticking points especially when we have strong negative emotions — say of fear or panic or disgust.

Disgust is quite a good example. One thing that happened to me on my retreat was falling into my toilet. It was just a trench dug in the ground, and at the time of this incident it had been happily fulfilling its function for about nine months. One day it was a bit wet on the plank; my foot slipped and in I went, up to my knees.

You should have heard me shout. It was something I deeply did not want to happen. I did not want my clothing, my shoes, my socks, to be covered with poo. For some minutes I found myself flipping through an interesting range of emotions. I first tried to deny that it had happened at all; I just could not believe it. Then I tried to laugh it off, to pretend that I was a great yogi and it didn’t matter and I didn’t really mind. Then for a while I felt hurt and depressed at how foolish I felt, and how unfair it all seemed.

After a while I began to notice how none of these emotions was getting to the real spot. They didn’t do justice to the situation. It was absurd to feel hurt, as though I had no power to act. It was also absurd to deny anything had happened… but actually, what had happened? I wasn’t looking at that. Yes, it was funny, but not because I didn’t mind. I did mind. But why did I mind? What was it I actually minded? I wasn’t looking at that. Eventually I saw that my basic feeling was simply that this hadn’t been what I wanted. But what exactly was it that I did not want?

Well, you might say simply that I didn’t want to be covered in excrement. But to me, that didn’t seem enough… because why didn’t I?

I had time to go into such things: I wasn’t expecting to see another human being for a whole year, so I could sit there in my pit for days, if I wanted, asking these crazy questions. And the answers are not really so obvious, if one is prepared to address them seriously. What is it about excrement that makes us resist having contact with it? The sight of it? The idea? If you say, ’No, it’s the smell!’ I will reply, ’OK, but what is it about the smell?’

Our typical response to such analysis is to throw up our hands and say ’Enough! This is way over the top.’ But we only say that because what we really want is to change the subject. But the notion of ’I’ (who cannot stand the subject and wants to change it) is just that — a notion. It does not exist. It can clearly be seen not to exist. Shouldn’t this fact change the situation rather radically?

You may think that I have chosen rather an extreme example to illustrate how to apply the perfection of wisdom. But such extreme instances happen — and worse ones, actually. The point is that wherever we find a situation extreme, our ego and our passions step in and say, ’OK, hold it right there, I’m taking over!’ and they take complete control of our mandala, so that we lose interest in awareness of reality, until the crisis is over.

Our ego, our passionate involvement in self-serving interests, is like a controlling, over-protective mother that wants to conceal the real world from the child. The perfection of wisdom is like the happy mother that wants to introduce the child to the real world. And in that way, all moments are like our mothers — of either one or the other sort. Every moment — this side of spiritual illumination — is dominated by our clinging to an illusion of our self, and protecting it. That clinging is right at the centre of everything. Spiritual death exposes the clinging. Then, with spiritual rebirth, comes an increase in the times when we are able to relax clinging, because we have seen how this basic illusion is what causes all our suffering.

From the moment of spiritual rebirth, we start to see that so many of the things we get upset about really don’t matter. For example, it really didn’t matter that I was covered in shit. From the point of view of Dharma, it doesn’t matter even if we’re dying. It doesn’t really matter at all. Embarrassing or disgusting situations, the life and death situations that we are all afraid of, are all just samsara. Things like that are going to keep happening forever. The only thing that really does matter is going for Refuge. Samsara can get better and it can get worse, like your investments, but there can be no real satisfaction, even when you’re winning.

If we are going for refuge at the time, the more extreme situations can help us to see through samsara. When I fell into my toilet I couldn’t ignore it, or pretend it wasn’t happening. I had to try to see what I was actually doing. And what I was actually doing was based on a very strong, outraged, sense of self. I saw that clearly, and through seeing it I could let it go, and see how feelings such as ’that is dirty’ and ’this is clean’ are just our concepts. Such feelings are so strong and immediate that we don't notice the underlying wrong idea that there is a real ’clean’, a real ’dirty’, a real ’pleasant’, and a real ’disgusting’. But really things just don't exist like that.

In visualisation practices, the revelation that everything is empty is expressed by the blue sky within which the visualised form — the Buddha or Bodhisattva form - appears. A visualisation sadhana rehearses again and again how that realisation permeates the whole of material existence. Of course, we don’t have to use visualisation to achieve this; we can simply meditate on emptiness — perhaps using the six-element practice — applying the awareness to everything we do. But what visualisation does is to connect realisation with our imagination of the world. It works rather like breath awareness in the anapanasati. Giving attention to a process connects us to that process. So when we start visualisation, we notice how all the time we’re looking at things. When seeing another person, for example — and of course I have seen hundreds of thousands of people over the years — I now start to appreciate that what is going on is really quite mysterious. This happens especially if I am also reflecting on insubstantiality. (’There’s no one here doing this… so what is happening?’) How mysterious it is that our entire experience rests upon our perception — that everything is awareness, that there isn't anything else outside awareness, that even our sense of being ’someone’ takes place in awareness. How amazing, yet how very simple, this is.

So that’s one aspect of visualisation sadhana — a way into the ultimate view of Dharma. This aspect is developed further in the pure awareness practice, in which we learn to sit and simply appreciate the true nature of awareness. I can’t really go into that kind of practice in detail here, and I don’t want to give it a superficial treatment, but I want to say something about it, even if only briefly. Pure awareness practice seems to me to belong in particular to the stage of spiritual rebirth because the essential practice — if one could do it — is simply to sit in pure awareness — that is, awareness of the nature of awareness, awareness of the unrestricted, empty nature of things. That nature of things is there all the time. Indeed, there isn’t anything else going on. So if we can learn to see it, by undergoing spiritual death in the fires of sunyata, we will eventually find a way to rest in that pure awareness. Most of the time, to say the least, we can’t do the pure awareness practice at that level, but we can at least learn to understand what we are trying to do, and gain confidence in simply experiencing the mind as best we can — simply being mindful and aware, even if we have little or no awareness of the real nature of the mind. Perhaps we could call this the impure awareness practice.

At each level of Bhante’s system there is the opportunity simply to sit in awareness, simply to absorb what has happened, and I think this way of meditating is extremely important. Meditation is not just about making an effort; it is also about awareness, and sometimes it is very helpful just to stop doing anything. Sometimes, when you stop, you also see. So there’s a bit of a process here — effort, stopping, seeing; effort, stopping, seeing. Anyway, that’s my superficial treatment of the pure awareness practice.

But another aspect of visualisation that has interested me over the last couple of years is our connection with the sambhogakaya. This is usually explained as the archetypal or visionary experience, in deep meditation, of enlightened beings. There is an imaginal world that all the visualisation sadhanas connect us with. That world reflects our existential situation. Each of us is literally surrounded by the multitudes of beings in the six realms of samsara. Perceiving this, we are reminded that we are practitioners of the Mahayana: samsara is displayed as something that needs to be transcended, not only for our own sake, but also for the sake of those multitudes of beings.

That sounds impossibly heroic, until we remember that we haven’t just placed ourselves in relationship with all living beings: we have also placed ourselves in relation to all the Buddhas. And this resolves the whole problem. It is possible to become a Buddha; it is therefore possible to resolve the issue of samsara.

So in visualisation practices, we sit in the centre of a double mandala: we are not only in the midst of endless samsara, but we also have the influences of all the Buddhas continually focused upon us. I suspect we don’t appreciate this second mandala so much.

I think this is a crucial issue in relation to sadhana. Where are the Buddhas? Even if your sadhana does not involve imagining the form of a Buddha, it seems to me that there must come a stage, sooner or later, in the life of any committed Buddhist, when a doubt arises. One asks oneself, ’If so many men and women have progressed along the path and gained Enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, where are they all now? If they really wanted so much to benefit all beings, and that aspiration was really fulfilled, where is that benefit now? What form does it take? How can I get some of it?’

It seems to me that if we ourselves are ever going to become real, to any degree at all, we have to engage — somehow — with the nature of reality, with its emptiness, with its complete insubstantiality and complete timelessness, its complete transcendence of any idea we might have about it. And if I accept that reality is as extraordinary as that, well, I might as well be open to the possibility that the Buddhas are not just abstract potentialities, but present in some more magical way — even though I cannot expect to understand, with my ordinary mind, how that is.

To me it makes a certain sense that Buddhas exercise compassion after their parinirvana, even though my logic may be a little shaky. And it makes complete sense that I have a connection with particular Buddhas, in particular with Sakyamuni, since I have actually heard his teaching. Those felt connections help me to make more sense of the double mandala.

The present moment in which we sit isn’t just a piece of time. Time is only an idea that we impose upon the present moment. The present moment, you could say, is the point where influences of every kind come together, and we think of this momentary coming-together as ’me’. There isn’t really anything else but these influences going on — a shifting web of connections with others, and the shifting influences of those connections upon whatever we ourselves are.

Just consider all the connections with others that you have made over your life so far, however fleeting they were. First, all those thousands of people you have actually met; then all the many thousands that you have heard or read about; and then all the many, many thousands — millions perhaps — that you have simply seen for a moment in a crowd. These events, however ephemeral they were, all actually happened. They are historic facts that cannot be undone. And they happened to ’you’ — not, in quite the same way, to anyone else. Each one has made some kind of impression. If you want, you can pick just one out, and draw out with it a whole world of memories. You can place your finger just for an instant on the surface of the ocean, and when you withdraw it you draw up from the depths an enormous net. All the events of your life are connected. Each event has added its own unique colouring to this ’thing’ that we call ’our life’, though we have no idea what it really is.

We are thus the meeting point of a shifting web of influences. To put the same idea in terms of another traditional Buddhist image, we are in the centre of a cremation ground. Our world and our ’self’ are constantly going up in smoke — presenting an ongoing opportunity for spiritual transformation. We must learn to take it, instead of trying to hide. This is the basic Buddhist viewpoint: we are sitting in the midst of samsara, trying to put into practice what the Buddhas are teaching. It is also the viewpoint of sadhana meditation. A visualisation sadhana uses imagery to bring to life the reality view of the Dharma.

This is the case, for example, in the Chöd, a practice from the Tibetan yogic tradition. There it isn't just implicit: we actively visualise ourselves within a cremation ground. All around us we see the vicious, self-destructive aspect of vast samsara: that everything that is born must inevitably pass into the hands of death; that there is no real satisfaction to be had anywhere; that no one has ever experienced complete happiness.

And the recollection that that is where we must always sit brings about a kind of integration of the mind. This is both a horizontal and a vertical integration: horizontally we integrate with samsara; vertically we integrate with our potential nirvana. Bhante’s ’system’ of meditation is a spiral path, and here, in the sadhana practice, our integration is not only something that happens within our ordinary mind. It’s not simply our ordinary faculty of attention coming together, nor even just our mind coming together in the concentrated and emotionally positive state of dhyana. In sadhana, we can integrate with our deepest realisation: whatever, over the years, we have realised of the Dharma — for example, our conviction that samsara is a vicious circle, or our confidence that we really do aspire to nirvana.

Sadhana, perhaps we can say, is practice that brings together all the elements that Bhante has systematised into one single body. It is simply ’our practice’. But it takes place at this level of commitment, that of both the effective and the real going for Refuge. However out of touch we get with the Dharma, however much an Order member thinks he or she has lost it, the commitment is still there in their heart. They can tell it’s there, because when they’ve lost it they really feel the loss; and in their heart of hearts, what they want more than anything else is to be back in touch with that awareness. That feeling reflects the degree to which we have actually realised the Dharma. It is this realisation that should define us as Order members. Indeed, this is what defines any authentic spiritual practitioner in any tradition.

If the heart is involved in this Bodhicitta-like way, we are getting in touch, again on a higher level, with Bhante’s second level of practice, that of positive emotion. When we really become aware that all around us are the denizens of the six realms, who are suffering, we spontaneously feel metta and compassion for them.

It’s at the next stage that the real magic starts to happen. When on the basis of seeing, even just for a moment, that our very existence is totally insubstantial — just an infinite network of influences shared with others and inseparable from others — then, there is that first moment of real magic. That precious notion of existence — which has always been so central to our sense of validity and confidence, and into which we have invested so many powerful emotions — we see that things have actually never been like that at all. Not at all! At this point, we might just laugh out loud and embarrass everyone! It is incredible that we made such a mistake! No, the truth is something indescribable, something magical, and far more interesting and enjoyable. In that moment, the old self ceases, and something new comes into being. The snake sheds its old, worn-out skin and emerges as a bright, shiny new beast. This is spiritual death, as Bhante calls it; this is also our spiritual renaissance, or at least a bit of it. There are infinitely many levels of this process.

In the Chöd, you express this by making an offering of your old body. You imagine yourself as having died and as having become shiny and new, spiritually reborn. You are now in a magnificent dakini form, and in front of you is the corpse of your old body, looking rather grey and crumpled and forlorn, as bodies do. So you think to yourself, ’Well, don't just stare at it — do something with it. What is this thing anyway, essentially? It’s my energy. It’s my activity. And not just in the past: the body also represents all my future existences, in which I aspire to be a Bodhisattva. My body is willingly dedicated to others. So the obvious thing to do, in this essential moment, is to express this aspiration to the whole world.’

So we make our offering. We think, ’May I be nourishment for all beings.’ The nourishment that we can offer is obviously our example and what we can do. But we know there is a danger of taking all this very literally, and that we really cannot conceive the vast scope of what we are really doing. We don’t want our ignorance to limit what we offer. So we make it unlimited: we say, ’Well, I’ll include myself as literal food if that will help anyone in the six realms. Let the animals eat the flesh and suck the bones. It’d be good for them, and it’s good for me too, spiritually. It’s win-win. And for the ghosts, let my energy become nectar satisfying their unwholesome desires in a wholesome way. For the denizens of hell, may I relieve their sufferings so that their minds can quickly turn to the Dharma. For the devas, or gods, may my example communicate the limitation even of heavenly happiness. May it cool the speedy obsessions of the asuras, or titans. And may my example benefit, somehow, the complex needs of this troubled human race.’

So it’s in this kind of spirit that we offer our body in the Chöd practice. It isn’t some kind of masochistic, self-destructive, suicidal thing. It is joyful. We don’t think, ’Oh my god, now I’m cutting off my LEG; this is my arm … and now I’m decapitating myself!’ No, none of this was ever mine, so the spirit of the offering can be happy and relaxed: it’s like preparing a meal, or decorating a shrine with flowers. So we cut it all up nicely, and arrange it — like a salad — so that it’s quite obvious that we are, in fact, offering it up (and not secretly hoping that it won’t be noticed).

Of course we are so attached to samsara that we’re likely to resist even giving away a dead body. But the effect, we’ll find, is quite delightfully liberating. The Chöd offering is like a prayer for the benefit of all beings. It is incredibly meaningful. If we are in touch with the meaning of the sadhana, we shall be in touch with the reality of every life situation, in touch with the fact that we are quite literally always surrounded by all beings. We shall be aware that those beings really are all suffering from their craving for nourishment that never satisfies; that the Buddhas have transcended this suffering; and that all the Buddhas are right here, helping us all the time with their example. If we are in touch with this vast reality, then the offering of our life and future lives will be deeply meaningful, and we will have no difficulty making our offering with the whole of our heart. In our heart, it is what we have always wanted to do.

’My life’ is of course a mega-concept, powerfully coloured by habitual, ego-based concerns. But there is a second kind of offering in the Chöd. This is our offering to the Buddhas infinitely ranged in the sky above. The Buddhas don’t actually need anything, so this is a subtler offering. It is therefore more powerful, and even more important as an offering. This offering, essentially, is our going for Refuge, and it has its own very special effect on us, both now and in our future. By going for Refuge in relation to the Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, by offering our Bodhisattva aspiration, we feel they encourage us in our practice.

We can’t do without the encouragement of those we look up to; we can’t live without it. If our parents don’t encourage us when we’re young, we will lack confidence. We really need their support and encouragement, and it is the same with our Dharma teachers, with our kalyana mitras, and with anyone we learn from. It doesn’t matter if we don’t get any encouragement from those we don't look up to. We don’t care two hoots about that, but the blessing of the Buddhas, and the encouragement of our teachers, makes a tremendous difference to our ability to put their advice into practice. This is why it is important to practice in relation to the Buddhas. This may well be part of the reason why someone might want to practise visualisation meditation, though you can get this same feeling of encouragement and authenticity simply by recalling that you are part of the living Dharma tradition.

The living tradition is an emphasis at this stage of spiritual rebirth. Whether it’s the Chöd practitioner visualising the line of teachers above, or the sadhana practitioner imagining Mañjughosa in front of him, or the anapanasati practitioner simply feeling the link with tradition — the practice is done, somehow, in relation to the Buddhas. How we do it depends on how we see the Buddhas, but they are inevitably involved. We can’t ignore them. Development in Dharma isn’t just an increase in good qualities, but an increase in Buddha qualities. It’s an increase in awareness of sunyata, of the unrestricted, unbounded, unlimited nature of all things.

It is important for our spiritual renaissance that we accept that as Buddhists we live in relation to Buddhas, and that we recognise that relationship as quite crucial. It is as fundamental as that of a parent to a child. If our father and mother hadn’t come together, we simply wouldn’t exist. If Buddhas hadn't gained Enlightenment, none of our Buddhism would exist. It is the same with our teachers. We really are here because of them. And since we are here, since we have put ourselves in this interesting position, then our visualisation of the Buddhas being ’up there’ in the boundless sky is a true reflection of our essential mind.

What I wanted to do in using the Chöd as a model for sadhana as a whole was to try and illustrate how sadhana is a kind of puja, and how puja itself is a model for the whole spiritual life. I believe this model, which we already know very well, could be more useful than we may think. It seems to me that Bhante’s ’system’ of integration, positive emotion, spiritual death, and spiritual rebirth follows essentially the same stages as we have in the puja. In the Buddhist path, the stages turn up in different forms, and at different levels, but the sequence always seems to be the same.

To be willing to honour and decorate what we love; to make a conscious commitment to full Enlightenment; to seek out and acknowledge our evil and our imperfection; to appreciate all the goodness and extraordinary potential that there is in the world; to wish to receive dharma teaching, with the intention of benefiting others — these things, in particular, are what set us up for realisation.

If what we really want is to get something just for ourselves; if we hold reservations about giving; if we aren't ready to make a commitment; if we don’t want to be open about how we really are; if we take no delight in goodness; and if we aren't prepared to ask for teaching — then there’s no possibility that anything can be received; there can be no vision of emptiness, no realisation, no compassion.

It is precisely these attitudes that make realisation possible, these virtues that help us to do a very difficult thing — to actually practice the Dharma. This is the real art, the real discipline that we need to cultivate. To actually practice is so difficult. To break through from going through the motions to doing actual practice is hard. It’s hard to get through our fear of diving into real practice. Above all, it’s very hard to see through our self-view. For these reasons, real practice occupies only a tiny percentage of our time. The gravitational pull of samsara is so strong and our discipline is so weak.

Discipline is the art. It isn’t just a matter of making an effort. It’s something more intelligent, and at the same time more emotional. We can all ’psych ourselves up’ now and again, but when we do we may just provoke a reaction in ourselves. We need to find a way to a sustainable practice whose aim is real liberation rather than just being in a good state. To do that we need to nourish these sadhana qualities: generosity, commitment, self-disclosure, appreciation and receptivity. We need again and again to recall their crucial value for us and for all beings.

It is a serious matter. When we neglect these things, when we do not really practice, others do not get the benefit, and they suffer to that extent. We get no benefit either, and we also feel that — we suffer too.

These qualities are not something different from the precepts. They are our training ground in the art of getting ourselves really to practice. Real practice is what makes us ready to receive the real teaching. Nor are the precepts any different from our sadhana. It’s all the same really. If we really do it, it’s all essentially the same practice, all the same purification of self and purification of the world we have created.

I find it helpful when I do my practice to rehearse all these virtues. I start by clearing up my meditation space. That’s part of my offering — tidying up. Tidying up becomes a prayer for integration. Offerings encourage positive emotion. Then I chant the refuges and precepts, and when I do this on my own I’m more aware of the meaning. I’m able to consider how I’m practising each precept, and that is a preparation for confession. Then before chanting the confession and the rejoicing in merits, and before asking for the teaching, I recite, in English, just the three mind precepts. I like the way the three mind precepts summarise everything in one concise teaching that points directly into the purpose of the meditation.

So let me finish by briefly explaining how these mind precepts accomplish the purpose of our sadhana and the whole system of meditation.

Abandoning covetousness for tranquillity, I purify my mind.

This is Bhante’s stage of Integration. What we are doing when we do the mindfulness of breathing is tranquillising the mind and relaxing our craving, our tendency to fasten on to thoughts, our lust for thinking and planning and doing things. All this is covetousness. Living in the so-called real world involves a great deal of covetousness. We feel we have to do things all the time, fill our time and get something out of everything. I’m not talking about someone else here: it applies to pretty much everyone I know in the Order. Seeing this covetousness, and starting at least to want to let it go — to give it away, give it up, and go for refuge to something better. This is the stage of integration.


Changing hatred into compassion, I purify my mind.

Or I would purify it if I could: that’s my desire. I confess that I do not. Yet I wish to appreciate what I still do not appreciate. If only I could relax my tendency to ignore, sideline, and disrespect others, give up my thoughtless deprecations and criticisms. It’s the subtle forms of hatred and covetousness that are the problem. Gross hatred and covetousness we can’t easily ignore, but we easily allow subtle hatred and craving to flourish unchecked, with the result that they quietly accumulate and eventually manifest in some way. So here we come to Bhante’s second level — that of positive emotion. Here the aim is to melt with compassion even the subtlest unease that we might have with others, and also our self-unease. Firstly, we impress on ourselves what existence is like for people. Secondly, we remember that people don’t really exist in the way they think they do: we see the unavoidable tension in the illusion we are so worked up about. We relax any dislike, distaste or disgust because we know that somewhere it must be wrong. The pain we’re feeling must be about something else. So we look deeper, relaxing our aversion, trying to understand what is really going on. In this way, we purify our minds.

And finally,

Transforming ignorance into wisdom, I purify my mind.

If we can enter into this precept, we can traverse the entire path in one single moment, and it won’t even be a moment that anyone experiences. Our entry into that non-moment will be our spiritual death and the start of our real spiritual life.