Four Talks on the Path

This talk was presented to the members of the Buddha Center, Second Life on Saturday, August 23, 2014.

Four Talks on the Path

I

Taking Refuge

A Buddhist accepts the Three Jewels, by taking “refuge” (sarana) in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. The first word to think about here is this word “refuge.” What does it mean? What is “taking refuge”? To take refuge is to seek the protection of good as a defense against evil. It can be a physical cave, or a city, or it can be a relationship with a person or authority. In all cases, there must be actual protection in order for a thing to be a refuge. Otherwise, it is simply a lie. So what does it mean then to take refuge in this sense in the Buddha? For one thing, the Buddha died long ago, and made it clear he wasn’t coming back. Remember, the protection must be actual. Two possibilities present themselves: either the Buddha continues to exist in some transcendent sense and is able to confer actual protection (cf. the Third Jewel), or the Buddha was referring to something else. Possibly, it is meant that we should study his example, as a spiritual hero who has attained realization. Studying his example may include seeking to understand him personally, or getting to know his mind, insofar as it can be known from the writings passed down to us. This can be taken very far. It is easy to see this in the worship of the charisma of a teacher. This can range from “spiritual friendship” (the etymological and historical meaning of “lama”) to regarding the teacher as the actual Buddha. One may also worship the Buddha nature in oneself, and identify oneself with the Buddha, including visualization during meditation. Buddha, as the quality of fully realized sentience in itself, is also the fundamental nature of reality and the self. All of this is implied in the First Jewel.

The Second Jewel is taking refuge in the Dharma. The Buddha also said that after his death the Dharma is to be regarded as the Buddha. Some scholars opine that the original formula consisted of taking refuge in the Dharma only. The Dharma is the teaching of the Buddha, but the Buddha made it clear that it is also primeval, the original and true spiritual way that is ultimately coterminous with the nature of reality itself (like Vedic rta). Taking refuge in the Dharma means that we redress the ignorance that is the ultimate cause of suffering, more fundamental even than desire, and we take refuge in the Dharma by eschewing lying, striving ever towards the truth, not evading or avoiding truth, eschewing authorities, and discovering the truth for oneself primarily by the study of Dharma books and listening to Dharma teachers, and independent reading and reflection, but also by a personal commitment to view reality objectively, rationally, and scientifically and without attachment. All of this is implied in the Second Jewel.

The Third Jewel is taking refuge in the Sangha. The Sangha is formally the community of monks, but it is also the community of all beings, the community of all Buddhists, and the community of all superior beings, including the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arahants, and perhaps some god-beings who have converted to Buddhism. We take refuge in each of these in different ways, primarily by following the precepts, but the ultimate refuge can only be taken in the community of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Arahants. All of this is implied in the Third Jewel.

From the foregoing, we conclude that the following represent the highest vibration of the Three Jewels:

  • I take my refuge in the universal and innate Buddha sentience that is the fundamental reality of mind.
  • I take my refuge in the power of truth of the primeval way.
  • I take my refuge in the community of ultimately enlightened beings.

He who takes refuge is a refugee. A refugee is always in a state of flight, escaping from the evil that threatens him. The evil that threatens the Buddhist refugee is desirous attachment, the evil itself being karmic bondage and rebirth. Existence can never be redeemed. However deep one look into existence, one finds ever self-proliferating violence, chaos, conflict, and suffering. There is no world, the Buddha says, in which the preconditions of suffering are not fundamental, for what world is devoid of change? This flux or continuous change frustrates attachment and creates suffering. On the other hand, attachment creates these worlds for where there is perfect detachment, there is no desire for rebirth, and therefore rebirth itself ends, once all existing karma is expiated. In this way, existence is an illusion or a delusion. Existence is created by the mind, and can be destroyed by the mind. This is the answer to the question why we cannot create a perfect society of perfectly enlightened beings, and so redeem existence? If this were possible, it cannot be on the plane of change.

Still, human beings continue to labour and to build. The scriptures teach that we humans are in a unique situation to appreciate dharma, neither too distressed nor too blessed to be too involved in other, positive or negative actions respectively with no time or intention to develop the thirst for transcendence. However, human beings themselves have large groups that are either too poor or too rich to appreciate dharma, paralleling the greater condition of higher and lower beings.

When sangha and society are the same, such a society can be said to be relatively dharmic, i.e., as enlightened as possible within the human state. Shambhala is a city like this, and like Shambhala such a society will spontaneously produce many enlightened beings, as well as spiritual culture and a proliferation of the high arts and the best qualities in people generally. Creating such a society may be the next step in human evolution, as the present stage draws close to its conclusion. Ironically, Buddhism, with its long history of poverty, may become the true religion of technocracy, as prophesied in the Kalachakra.

Some people long for the end of samsara, whereas others who criticize Buddhism say that Buddhism is nihilism because once all beings are enlightened, existence will cease. However, where the scriptures refer to the end of samsara they are referring to the end of desirous attachment and rebirth, for samsara is beginningless and therefore must be endless as well. Samsara is none other than the principle of temporal differentiation itself, the originating principle that is one polarity of the whole and therefore essential. Samsara is therefore beginingless in time and infinitely differentiated. Since the ultimate principle of differentiation is the karmic agency itself, there are an infinity of beings caught in an endless cycle of transmigration, illusory may be, but experienced for all that.

II

The Four Noble Truths

The only thing more fundamental to formal Buddhist belief than the Four Noble Truths is Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels. All Buddhists accept the Four Noble Truths. However, what do the Four Noble Truths mean? We can address this using the method of questioning.

The popular formulation of the Four Noble Truths goes something like:

  1. Life is suffering.
  2. Suffering is caused by desire.
  3. The end of of desire is the end of suffering.
  4. The way to end desire is the Noble Eightfold Path.

I will restate them as follows in more exacting language, to clarify what we are really talking about:

  1. The nature of rebirth is to suffer.
  2. The root cause of suffering is the attachment of desire.
  3. Through the extinction of the attachment of desire, suffering ceases.
  4. The way to extinguish the attachment of desire is to follow the noble eightfold path in accordance with the middle way between all extremes. The eight steps are an elaboration of the perfections of the body (word, deed, and livelihood); heart (effort, mindfulness, and meditation); and mind (understanding and intention).

Much is made of the psychological implications of the Buddha’s teachings, and his apparent reticence with respect to questions concerning metaphysics. Nevertheless, a metaphysical construct underlies and implies them, as they too are implicit in reality. Therefore the question arises, What is the reality implied by the Four Noble Truths? Alternatively, what is their essential nature?

Rebirth is the fundamental characteristic of samsara, the differentiated phenomenology that human beings as sentient subjects experience in and through the body as “lived reality,” governed by karma, the law of cause and effect on all levels – mental, verbal, and physical. It is rebirth, driven by karma, and characterized by suffering, that is the fundamental problem of the Buddha. The Buddha does not accept any mode of existence that implies change (or flux) as a solution to this problem, since desire posits stasis and all lived realities are impermanent and transitory by nature. This is the very definition of samsara. Therefore, the Buddha posits transcendence as an absolute goal that necessarily implies the cessation of lived reality. This may or may not imply the cessation of the ontological substrate itself, since there are indefinite numbers of suffering beings besides oneself. Salvation only applies to the individual who achieves the goal of absolute transcendence on his or her own. The salvation of one does not imply the salvation of all. Therefore, to end samsara itself one would have to contrive it so that everyone in a single human generation achieves transcendence together. Although possible in theory, given what we know now about the extent of the universe it does not seem even remotely plausible. Therefore, we take the view that samsara, understood metaphysically or ontologically, is eternal and infinitely differentiated, rather than finite and limited. There are other good arguments for this view as well, especially all of the same problems that are associated with theism, including theism itself. This in turn leads us further, to the ultimate view that samsara is actually the natural antipode of nirvana and that reality itself must be trans-dual. This view is called the “clear light.” This leads to the realization that samsara and nirvana are one, and further to the realization that pain and suffering themselves are illusions, swallowed up in the natural perfection that must be the true ground. Nevertheless, the experience of suffering exists, even if only as the illusion of an omniscient and perfect Buddha nature. This is the trans-dual view.

The infinity of samsara implies an infinity of individually differentiated mind streams (santanas). This also corresponds to what we experience in the world. These mind streams are not attas (Sanskrit atmans) because their continuity is temporal, not spatial. They are the fundamental reality of samsara and their interaction creates perception that in turn creates lived reality, characterized by desire, suffering, and ignorance. However, as we have shown desire and suffering to be illusions, so too is ignorance an illusion of the underlying Buddha nature that is the subtle essence of the mind streams themselves. The mind streams themselves are essentially information, i.e., karmic propensities or tendencies. Thus, lived reality itself is information. “Matter” is a delusion of the senses.

The Buddha never states that transcendence implies cessation in the ontological sense. In fact, he continuously implies that the individual who achieves transcendence is immortal. What is rejected is not even samsara, which, as I have shown, is ontologically essential and therefore indestructible, but illusory attachments that create the illusion of suffering, concealing the fundamental Buddha nature from its own realization. The cessation implied by nirvana is the cessation of an illusion resulting from the delusion that lived reality presents a complete and self-sufficient explanation of existence, especially the belief in the self that underlies the illusions of permanence, satisfactoriness, attachment, etc. The attachment to desire is therefore ultimately extinguished by the realization that there are no selves, no permanent things that can be possessed and held in stasis forever, and that therefore to desire these things in a fixed way or “with attachment” inherently causes pain. That this view has social and political implications is apparent.

Theoretically, one can enjoy existence from moment to moment, without attachment, as a Buddha does, but such a solution is short-lived, for the price of the enjoyment of existence is the end of rebirth. If I were not attached then why would I create the karma of rebirth? It is a Catch-22.  This karma itself is created by desirous attachment. This is why vitalistic mysticism or mystical hedonism so-called (of the type associated with Aleister Crowley, for example; see J.F.C. Fuller, The Star in the West) is self-contradictory and often self-destructive. One can only enjoy the world when and to the extent that one renounces it. Only the real renunciate dare practise Tantra, the rarest jewel of all. “The world only gives herself up to those who do not desire her.”

Since desirous attachment is caused, i.e., by ignorance, it is not essential and can be extinguished through karmic means on the levels of body, heart, and mind in accordance with the middle way between extremes. The middle way has two aspects. Horizontally, it is the energy of peace, balance, and equilibrium. Vertically, it is the power of truth achieved by the pursuit of the trans-dual. The perfection of the body implies control of speech, action, and livelihood, both negative (i.e., self-restraint) and positive (i.e., good speech, good deeds, and good livelihood). This latter is for the bodhisattva, who seeks rebirth in the service of the future. The Arahant who seeks to transcend rebirth as soon as possible and for himself alone avoids good speech, action, and livelihood, in order to avoid creating merit that may lead to rebirth.

I have written elsewhere on the perfections of the body and how too literal understanding here is self-contradictory. The Buddha himself refers to these perfections as elementary and inferior, which is not to say that they are not necessary. The core perfections here are not killing, not stealing, no wrongful sex, not drinking, and not lying.

The perfection of the heart includes effort, mindfulness, and meditation. The perfection of effort implies enthusiasm. The perfection of mindfulness implies the realization of the essential emptiness of awareness. The perfection of meditation implies mental control.

Finally, the perfection of mind includes understanding and intention. Understanding implies the complete and perfect comprehension of dharma as the fundamental law of life. He who has right view knows through questioning that the dharma is true. He knows. Intention implies the will to achieve enlightenment for the benefit of all beings, the ultimate altruistic aspiration.

The perfection of the body is the perfection of action.

The perfection of the heart is the perfection of energy.

The perfection of the mind is the perfection of reason.

III

The Noble Eightfold Path

The Noble Eightfold Path (ariyo atthangiko maggo) is the conventional English translation of the Fourth Noble Truth (ariyyasaccani) of the Buddha, which exposes the spiritual praxis by which the Third Noble Truth, i.e., the cessation of existential suffering (dukkha), articulated in the first three noble truths, is realized. The Noble Eightfold Path consists of eight “limbs” (anga) and is conventionally translated as:

  1. Right View (samma ditthi)
  2. Right Intention (samma sankappa)
  3. Right Speech (samma vaca)
  4. Right Action (samma kammanta)
  5. Right Livelihood (samma ajiva)
  6. Right Effort (samma vayama)
  7. Right Mindfulness (samma sati)
  8. Right Concentration (samma samadhi)

Later in His career, the Buddha reformulated the Noble Eightfold Path in terms of three primary attainments: Wisdom (panna), Morality (sila), and Meditation (samadhi). Dr. Peter Masefield has severely criticized the conventional translation of ariya as “noble,” but in fact almost every word of the conventional English translation is inadequate and misleading, both intrinsically and in terms of their connotations in English. The conventional English translations are too general and too vague to express what the eight critical constituents of the Buddhist praxis are in fact. In particular, the translations do not express the sequential nature of the path, a point made emphatically by Dr. Masefield in his Ph.D. thesis and subsequent publication, Divine Revelation in the Pali Canon. Thus, the impression that is left on the English reader is that this is a set of injunctions, not unlike the injunctions of ethical and belief-based religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, rather than a yoga. This vagueness has been taken up by religious Buddhists, both Western and Asian, so that the Noble Eightfold Path becomes little more than a belief system and an ethical system culminating in a vague notion of “meditation,” which in popular thinking connotes little more than relaxation therapy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consequently, many Westerners practice “meditation” based on little more than an intellectual assent to a system of doctrines and the following of basic ethical rules as not killing, not stealing, chastity, not lying, and not drinking or taking drugs. As I have shown elsewhere, the Buddha Himself disparaged both religion (Brahmanism) and ordinary ethics, which He designated as “elementary matters of mere morality.” This way of thinking is based on a misunderstanding of the word samma, which does not mean “right” or even “righteous,” but rather connotes “completeness” and even “perfection.” Similarly, the word ariya does not primarily mean “noble,” with its English racialist and classist connotations, but rather “high,” “ideal,” “pure,” “perfect,” and “sublime” – qualities that are attainable by all races and classes. Even these words do not properly connote the meaning of the word “ariyan,” which refers specifically to the ancient Indian or Vedic way of the rishis that the Buddha sought to restore to its primordial purity. Thus, it also connotes “spiritual” as distinct from “religious” (in the bad or superficial sense, i.e., a system of mere observances), except that the connotation of the English word “spiritual” is too weak. “Exalted” is better.

The following translation is my attempt to find an English version of the Noble Eightfold Path based on these and additional considerations based on a profound re-examination of the literal and etymological meaning of the Pali, for which I have relied heavily on the Pali-English Dictionary of the Pali Text Society, rooted in the primary understanding of the path as a system of yoga based on a universalist understanding of spiritual aspiration and experience.

The Fourth Sublime Fact

The Sublime Eight-Part Method

Gnosis (Wisdom)

Perfect Understanding

Perfect Intention

Self-Discipline

Perfect Speaking

Perfect Acting

Perfect Living

Mental Concentration

Perfect Striving

Perfect Realization

Perfect Transcendence

When one looks at the Sublime Eight-Part Method in this way, the structure of the way as a reflection of the anatomy of the person becomes self-evident. Thus, the first two parts correspond to the faculty of thinking; the following three parts correspond to speaking and action, thus completing the triad of thought, word, and deed. The concluding, supermundane parts correspond to will, consciousness, and transcendent or trans-dual consciousness respectively. Students of anatta (the doctrine of “no-self”) may also be disconcerted to discover that sati also means “self-possession,” “self-consciousness,” i.e., the sentience of sentience in itself, as distinct from the sentience of phenomena.

The most disconcerting element of this exegesis, which also forms a critical aspect of Dr. Masefield’s analysis, is that the first part of this method does not refer merely to intellectual or philosophical belief, but rather to the perfection of the salvific knowledge of dharma – a detail that is almost entirely neglected in the West, and thus (according to this interpretation) vitiating or at best diminishing the nearly exclusive Western emphasis on meditation.  The anti-intellectual prejudice is so ingrained in certain circles of Western Buddhism that anyone who actually thinks about the teachings is disparaged as a mere academic. Some Buddhist groups regard questioners as potential trouble-makers.  This merely mirrors the modern Western prejudice against philosophical speculation and the widespread ignorance that characterizes North American society in particular. On the other hand, certain religionists would also have it that ethics or morality constitute the basis of the method, followed by meditation, with wisdom as the culmination of the path. This interpretation is precisely opposite to the exposition of the Buddha Himself.

IV

The Arrows of the Path

Soon after one begins to study religion phenomenologically as the exploration of actual experiences, one discovers that experiential spirituality includes both active and passive approaches. The passive approach studies those experiences that occur to others and indirectly through whatever monuments they bequeath to us, their successors. This is the orthodox approach that has become the religious establishment of the new world order, the organization of the great religious monuments of humankind. Their names are familiar to us: the Bible and the Qur’an are the two great Western examples. In Asia, the Vedas, the Pali Canon, and the Tibetan and Chinese canons, including the Taoist canon, fall into this category, along with many others in both the West and Asia. These traditions have been codified through long discussion over centuries, and are all deeply influenced by the feudal period of history. For most of them, feudalism came later than the period of their inception and is now in its senescence, especially the belief in authority, the tendency to fundamentalism, and a hierarchical collectivist totalitarianism that would not be tolerated in ordinary society today. A notable exception to the foregoing generalization is Islam.

The active approach to the phenomenological exploration of spiritual experience entails the deliberate induction of experiences that may be described as “spiritual,” “religious,” or “mystical.” Experiences of this type are not merely experienced; they are also sought and have been for tens of thousands of years. It is certainly true that the religious monuments referred to above are amongst the greatest works of human genius and  true wonders of the world, if by “greatness” we mean beauty, sublimity, profundity, humanity, depth, splendour, grandeur, and ultimate righteousness, as well as the capacity to induce these qualities in others. The traditions associated with these icons receive the utmost veneration of billions of humans, and have since very early in their inception. All tend to various degrees of mutual animosity and hostility.

Orthodoxy, as noted above, tends to preserve traditional modes of thought and moral and ethical systems that affect the societies with which they co-exist. However, the growing power of science, technology, and industry has led to a new world order, a secular society that tolerates tradition because of its stability but is fundamentally hostile to it.

Both orthodoxy and the new world order are inherently interested in their own beliefs, values and systems of organization and all therefore are collectivist and conformist in principle. Active experiential spirituality, on the other hand, is inherently individual, experimental, challenging, and even dysfunctional (a common characteristic of all creative states). Thus, orthodoxy and the new world order both dislike it. Yet the authentic phenomenological exploration of experience leads inevitably to it, for no one can truly understand what one has not experienced and the direct experience of being demands the daring to demand a personal and direct relationship with it. Without this direct and personal relationship to being, there is no authenticity and no truth. In the words of Heidegger, science does not think. This judgment stands inscribed above all of the portals of academe today, which collaborates with the new world order in the service of tradition, whilst bantering or bickering over footnotes.

All of the foregoing is crystallized around the whole social hysteria and authoritarian collectivist conformism surrounding the legal status of LSD and other psychedelics, the ultimate Arrows of the Path. It is only when we imagine a world that is truly free that we realize just how truly unfree we are, as we enter the era of scientific totalitarianism foretold by Huxley. Huxley also supported the hypothesis, subsequently developed by Terence McKenna, of the origin of the rapid evolution of the human neocortex in the ingestion of hallucinogenic mushrooms by early primates. Any discussion of active spiritual phenomenology therefore carries with it an aura of danger and risk.

When one studies spiritual and religious experience in this way one begins to recognize the recurrence of methods and techniques that parallel Jung’s doctrine of the archetypes, which, either alone or in combination with psychedelics, have the capacity to induce authentic and transformative personal spiritual and religious crises in suitably prepared individuals in appropriate and supportive settings. These methods and techniques are complex, incorporating many different elements, conditioned by psychology, symbology, metaphysics, historical tradition, time, culture, place, etc. However, when one analyzes these one does not find increasing complexity. Instead, one discovers a finite set of active methods and techniques that in turn correspond to the methods and techniques used by archaic peoples whose origins in prehistory presumably reflect universal dynamics that underlie the historical traditions that survive today. These methods and techniques appear to operate in conjunction with inherent characteristics of human psychology to induce altered states of consciousness, including alterations in physical sensing, emoting, thinking, and changes in energy and behaviour. Although difficult and dysfunctional changes do occur, the overwhelming preponderance of judgment of those who have had these experiences, including highly educated and trained observers, is that they are positive, blissful, truthful, energizing and ennobling experiences, and that they lead to real, long-lasting and beneficial psychological changes and social behaviours. Similarly, Mircea Eliade found that the shamans were the psychologically healthiest and most integrated members of society. The religious monuments of tradition originate and produce experiences of just this type, much of their art, literature and oral traditions originating in just this type of experience. The scientific totalitarianism of the new world order, however, places a negative construction upon these experiences as well as tradition itself, the influence of which is being progressively eroded by the influence of the former, including judgments that these experiences are bizarre, dysfunctional, delusional, disorienting, false and individually and socially dangerous aberrations. Communism is the logical resultant of radical secularism in which religion is actively persecuted and criminalized. Today we see the convergence of communism and capitalism as capitalism itself becomes increasingly scientistic, materialistic, totalitarian, and authoritarian. Under the current dominant system of scientific totalitarianism and global corporatism, spiritual experience is medicalized and suppressed with drug treatments if necessary to induce a return to consensual conformity. It is barely tolerated in the form of the creative fringe.

Coda

Seven Errors of the Religionist

the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.

HH the Dalai Lama

The religionist holds the following to be the precepts of the true way:

  1. Truth proceeds from the particular, the external, and the past and is a function of language.
  2. Reason is either unnecessary or sufficient.
  3. The external guru is the authority.
  4. Discussion is non-virtuous.
  5. Obedience is the root of truth.
  6. Rituals and rules are ultimately efficacious.
  7. Blame is worthy.

However, in fact these are the precepts of the true way:

  1. Truth proceeds from the universal, the internal, and the momentary and is a function of realization.
  2. Reason is necessary and insufficient.
  3. The absolute guru is the authority.
  4. Discussion is virtuous.
  5. Obedience is the root of error.
  6. Rituals and rules are relatively efficacious.
  7. Blame is unworthy.
Advertisements