College Meeting November 2017

10 Reflections on Spiritual Death by Satyaraja

Posted by Saccanama on Thu, 25 August, 2016 - 11:33
Saccanama's picture

These reflections are obviously not comprehensive, but more like threads for future discussion. They were prompted by an article that Rijumati wrote about the importance of introducing spiritual death practices earlier in our training.

1. We need to look at how to introduce spiritual death and rebirth practices from the beginning and at all levels.

At the same time it is important that this is done responsibly and that we are in a position to follow-up through personal communication as these practices can turn peoples lives upside down, especially if they are not well prepared. It is important that they have a context.

We already do quite a lot to introduce spiritual death practices before people ask for Ordination. If I look at Padmaloka, for a start there is the 5 Reflections for Everyone (from the Upajjhatthana Sutta in the Anguttara Nikaya) and this is very effective. Sometimes people find all 5 reflections too strong and it is enough just to take one of the reflections, usually the reflection on karma. Conze spoke of Insight practices being like salt; a little goes a long way and you would never think of eating a whole block of salt! Then there is the experience of impermanence of the breath in the mindfulness of breathing and the more expanded anapanasati practices and reflections on the 3 lakshanas. The Brahamaviharas, especially the karuna and upekkha bhavana are also Insight practices.

Then there is Dharma study, the cultivation of Right View. When I lived at Vajraloka, I remember Priyadarsin asking Bhante if he should study while living there, (since retreatants were asked not to read), and he said, ‘oh yes, if you are doing a lot of meditation you need to study more!’ In the Brahmajala Sutta (the first sutta of the Pali Sutta Pitaka), most of the wrong views stem from wrong interpretations of meditation experience.

Listening to Dharma teachings is also a traditional context in which Insight can arise. I know that at the LBC when giving talks the Order members make no concessions for who they are talking to, in terms of experience. They just try to talk from what is truest and deepest in their practice. Listening to Subhuti’s talks on consciousness at a general class at the LBC, I feel I am being taken deeply into the heart of the Dharma.

So there is more to do in introducing Spiritual Death and Rebirth at all levels and this needs looking at, but it is also important that we go more deeply into what we already have.

2. Need to Work More on Samatha.

On a recent meditation retreat, I realized that many of the retreatants were reluctant to decide to abandon the hindrances, especially mental sense desire. Some did not want to ‘judge’ their experience, others wanted to be ‘authentic.’ But without deciding to abandon the hindrances, we limit our experience to the kamaloka and there is no basis for dhyana and no stability or penetration to act as a basis for Insight practice. It is all too diffuse. As teachers, we need to inculcate confidence that in making a clear choice to abandon the hindrances we are setting up the conditions for a richer, freer, more satisfying state of mind to arise. We also need to encourage people to create more stillness, simplicity and contentment in the rest of their lives. And we need to make sure that people are getting a proper training in the art of working in meditation and developing dhyana, which is the basis for Insight. There seems less emphasis on this in recent years.

3. Every Meditation Practice is Both Samatha and Vipassana.

Every meditation practice makes you more sensitive to the inherent reality of things. Just doing the mindfulness of breathing to any depth makes you aware of the fragility of life and its impermanence. When you practice the 5 stages of our system of meditation together, the practices permeate each other, so that all the stages become both samatha and vipassana practices. In a sense they are different inter-related aspects of the same meditation practice. It is important to go on retreats where you can practice them all daily and get a sense of the system of meditation as a whole.

4. Create a Full Context for Insight.

That includes ethics, friendship and communication, Dharma study and reflection, spreading the Dharma, working together, living together. These are not separate from the development of Insight, they are all part of the same tendency, the same movement towards living more in accord with the way things really are. They all lead to the same growth and expansion of consciousness. I remember sometimes people coming to Sangharakshita to talk to him about their strong experiences and he might say something like, ‘yes, and are you still going to your mitra study group? Are you keeping up your friendships?…’ What I think he was getting at was the importance of context. And our context determines to a great extent how we interpret these experiences.

A friend of mine had been doing a lot of Insight practice in quite a forced way and had had some sort of breakthrough, but it had disrupted his sleep to the extent that he had to take time off work and he was in a bit of a state. He went to see Sangharakshita to talk about this. Bhante gave the analogy of two rams locking horns. He said that the rams couldn’t just keep going at each other, sometimes they needed to draw back and gather their energies. In the same way, when some Insight has arisen, taking it deeper may not be a question of piling on the meditation, but more of stepping back, bringing those realizations to the rest of our lives and using them to help others. The Path is one of vision and transformation, vision and transformation over and over again. We need a strong and full context to give expression to our Insights into the Dharma and transform all aspects of our lives. Analayo, in his book on Satipatthana, makes the point that the step of Right Meditation is only Right Meditation if all other aspects of the 8 Fold Path are in play.

5. Wisdom is Inseparable from Compassion.

The ‘self’ is illusory in two ways. Firstly, there is no fixed and unchanging ‘essence’ ‘behind’ the 5 skandhas. Secondly, we are not the centre of the universe nor can we make absolute demands on it. So if we see through the ‘self’, after things have settled down, we could expect the distinction between self and other to become more fluid, in other words we could expect to become less self-obsessed, less selfish. To the extent that we see through the ‘self’, we could expect to make less of a distinction between our own happiness and welfare and that of others. So I would like to see Compassion and the effect of Insight on our relations with others to enter more into our discourse on Insight.

6. Insight Will Be Seen In Our Behaviour.

In the Anguttara Nikaya (4.192) the Buddha says that a person’s Wisdom can only be known through conversing with them and this only through knowing them for a long time, by close attention and by one who is wise. Sangharakshita concluded that Dhardo Rimpoche was a Bodhisattva by watching him closely over many years and never, as far as he knew, seeing him in a negative state of mind. Insight is going to show in behaviour. There is really no other way to know it. It is going to make a difference; it will show in the observance of the precepts and engagement in the needs of others, and we need to see this over a long time.

7. We Need to Make More of the 6 Element Practice.

We need to make more of the 6-element practice, and for that matter, the nidana practice and the reflection on the root verses. These are our core Insight meditations. The 6-element practice is particularly effective. We need to introduce it earlier, with care, on going for refuge retreats and make it a focus on the Guhyaloka Ordination retreat, making sure that people understand correctly what they are trying to do through the practice. We need people to take it up as a daily practice, going deeper into it. This is already the case with some Order members. We need to make it an integral part of our Order gatherings and retreats. It is only if we practice it more regularly and intensively that we will experience the full benefits and build a body of experience that we can pass on to others.

8. Spiritual Death and Spiritual Rebirth are Inseparable.

And in a sense, spiritual rebirth proceeds spiritual death! If there is no faith in the Buddha or anything beyond the senses then our spiritual death practices can lead to nihilism. On the other hand, without spiritual death the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas we meditate on become merely devas. The open state of consciousness that we may glimpse in the last stage of the 6-element practice, becomes the clear blue sky, sometimes spoken of as the mind of the Buddha, out of which the Buddha or Bodhisattva emerges.

Incidentally, I heard that Sangharakshita was dissatisfied with the term ‘spiritual death’ and wondered if ‘ego-death might be a better term! I will leave you to puzzle on that!

9. Spiritual Death and Rebirth Need Drawing Out in Sadhanas

Sadhana means ‘leading straight to the Goal.’ Sadhana is our whole spiritual practice, but encapsulated in our daily meditation practice, in the form that it is received from the private preceptor at Ordination. When, as private preceptors, we introduce the sadhanas, it is important that they are introduced to the ordinand in a way that is both sustainable in post-ordination retreat daily life and which engages their inspiration and imagination. At the same time it is crucial that the elements of spiritual death and rebirth are strong and clear in the form that the sadhana is passed on. These aspects need drawing out more fully.

10. There Is Already Insight In the Order.

Insight probably occurs much more than we realize, we just need to learn to recognize it. It can be sudden or gradual, accumulating over many years of steady practice. It can arise in any situation - through meditation, study and reflection; through selflessly helping others; or through devotion.

It seems that there is some controversy over what characterizes Stream Entry. Usually, however, the Stream Entrant is characterized as possessing unshakable faith in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and unblemished ethics, so that if he were to act unskilfully he would immediately confess it. Sometimes unfailing generosity is added. So it might be interesting to ask ourselves; could we ever imagine giving up the 3 Jewels? If we behaved unskilfully, would we always confess it?

Humiliation, receiving criticism, things not going your own way can also be opportunities for Insight. And also, of course, there are other people, who won’t bend to your will and yet are co-creating the Order together with you, and neither of you is going to go away! The Order itself is a great practice for the development of Insight. Sangharakshita goes into all this in the Windhorse Trading seminar, where he talks about the possibility of Insight arising outside of meditation in crucial situations, if one is able to stay equanimous and apply the Dharma to that situation. Insight practice is vipassana bhavana. It is something to be cultivated through bringing your Insights and reflections on the Dharma to all aspects of your life. And of course Insight is more likely to arise in those life situations if you are regularly meditating on the 6 Elements or other spiritual death meditations. 

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Satyadhana's picture

Hello Satyaraja - thank you for posting these.  I think it’s very positive that the topic of Insight and spiritual death is such a current area of conversation.  Your ten reflections are indeed good threads for further discussion. 

In reading them, a general question I would have for you is: why did you use, either explicitly or implicitly, the language of “we need to…”?   Rather than reflections, these struck me more as being foregone conclusions, thus it would be helpful to understand your intent in using such language.  Are you saying that such things are needed for irreversible Insight to arise, or are you saying that we need to renew certain emphases in order that they not be lost or to affirm where emphasis has been placed previously?  My sense is that it is the latter, given that irreversible Insight is otherwise arising without these 10 items necessarily being where you suggest they need to be. 

If it is the latter, a possible concern with using “need” language is that it may pre-suppose that such things are as inherently necessary or effective as we presume they are, and that we simply haven’t taken full advantage of them, whereas I would offer that our 50-ish years of history, and the the Buddhist tradition itself, offers a balancing perspective.  This of course isn’t to say that where emphasis has been placed hasn’t been positive or should be changed or discarded; rather, I suggest we would benefit from looking at all the information we have, and not pre-determine our conclusions. 

Much love - Satyadhana