Do We Practise our Sadhanas, and If Not Why Is That?

I’d like to share some thoughts with you from mulling over this statement in Reimagining the Buddha:

Many have simply stopped doing the sādhana they were given and have concentrated on more basic practices (p.34).

To be sure of our ground, we first need to ask: what evidence is there for this? The most reliable information we have generally available is the Order Survey 2007. From my rough reading of the pie charts (p. 21 of the tabulated results), around 5% of those who responded to the question about visualization said that they ‘never’ do it. So the number of those who have ‘simply stopped’ is perhaps not that great. However, the chart also shows that only around 65% of respondents were doing their sadhana ‘daily’ or at least ‘weekly’, leaving around 30% doing it ‘monthly’ or ‘rarely’.

So it seems clear that many Order members in the West have stopped regularly practising their sadhana. Why is this? The paper doesn’t explore the reasons in depth, but it implies that they are too culturally distant for our imaginations easily to catch light. This may be true, I don’t know – perhaps we can ask people about it next time we have an Order Survey. However, there are several other reasons that might explain why the sadhanas aren’t universally popular:

1) In recent years we have deepened our understanding of other forms of practice. The Mindfulness of Breathing has been opened out, through exploring the Anapanasati Sutta. Just Sitting has been enriched by understandings from the Mahamudra and Dzogchen traditions. (In 2007 around 40% of respondents said they practised ‘Pure Awareness’ regularly. There was a separate question about Just Sitting.) So Order members have more meditation resources to draw on now, and in many cases less time for practice than in the old days. It isn’t surprising if some of them have reduced the time they spend on sadhana to explore these other methods.

2) I still often hear, directly or indirectly, of Order members who feel they were not given a clear and inspiring introduction to their sadhana, so that they didn’t get off to a good start with it. There are also people who did connect with it originally, but who haven’t kept up contact with anyone more experienced who could keep guiding them into the heart of the practice. As a consequence they have first ‘gone off the boil’ and then lost faith in either the sadhana or their ability to practise it.

3) In my experience, often Order members who struggle with sadhana are practising with a rather formulaic, literal-minded approach. One reason for this is that people often don’t have enough of a foundation in our basic insight practices (Contemplation of the Six Elements, etc.). Without the loosening of your conceptual structure that these practices bring about, you will experience the sadhana through limiting mental filters, so it won’t feel very fulfilling, and at some point you may give up on it.

For example, materialism is so all-pervasive these days that it is hard to avoid being affected by it to some extent. As Subhuti mentions (Reimagining€¦ p.41), if you have a materialist view, inevitably you will see the world of imagination as fantasy. Even subtle materialist assumptions undermine your practice, so that you never give the visualization its full weight. The paper, with its powerful argument for the imagination, will probably help many people to connect with their traditional sadhanas better,  at the same time as offering the possibility of moving away from them.

4) I know some Order members who feel that they need good conditions in order to practise sadhana. The world of visualization feels too distant in the middle of their busy urban lives. So they rely on more basic practices in everyday life: using their morning meditation to rustle up some metta before difficult meetings at work, or Just Sitting in order to contact their bodies and feelings after a buffeting day, etc. They haven’t given up on their sadhana, but they only focus on it on retreat or other occasions when they have more time to spare. It will be interesting to see how things develop if these people explore their own imaginative responses more. Will it be easier to connect with more personal images in the middle of the hurly-burly of modern life, or will the world of imagination still be too much of a leap from everyday experience?

5) As Subhuti suggests, for some Order members, the Indo-Tibetan imagery of their sadhana just doesn’t seem to speak at all to who they are. For them his paper may well come as a relief, and offer new ways forward. However, a few people who appear to fall into this category could perhaps connect with the traditional sadhanas. By holding tightly onto a view of themselves as ‘westerners’ and the traditional figures as ‘foreign’, they prevent themselves from ever discovering if they could work with them.

So there are several reasons why Order members don’t practise their sadhanas regularly. I’ve outlined some here because I wouldn’t like us to jump to the conclusion that our sadhanas are an experiment that has failed because they just aren’t appropriate for us now in the West. Over the last forty years many Order members have connected deeply with them, benefited greatly from them, and relied on them in testing times, even on their deathbeds.

None of this is an argument against Bhante’s (Sangharakshita’s) call to us to experiment and find new imaginative expressions of Awakening. It is interesting, though, to look at what occurred as Buddhism spread across Asia and entered new cultures. Often there was resistance at first to the ‘culturally alien’ figures that Buddhism introduced, but usually some of them were eventually assimilated into the new surroundings. For instance, Manjushri travelled with his sword from India to Tibet, China and Japan virtually unchanged. Sometimes traditional figures were absorbed, but only after undergoing a transformation, such as Avalokiteshvara metamorphosing into Guanyin in China. Then also figures from the existing cultural environment were incorporated into Buddhism, such as some of the Tibetan protector figures.

So I believe it is far too early to say how the western imagination will respond to the Dharma. It may well be that our ‘illumined images’ will take completely new forms. But if the last 2,000 years are anything to go by, then probably some of the Indo-Tibetan imagery will take root in the West.

I’m very excited by the prospect of the Order as a ‘mixed economy’: experimenting radically and creatively with new expressions of Awakening, while some people continue to practise with the traditional figures that Bhante gave us, with the possibility that some of those figures may take root in the West as they are, or transform in some way that then works well. It would be great to see the products of all these possible ways of working being brewed together in the alchemical cauldron of the Order’s imagination, while preserving our harmony by testing everything that goes into the pot against the historical Buddha’s experience.

Incidentally, in discussions about what is culturally appropriate for us, we need to take into account that modern means of communication are increasingly breaking down the old paradigm of eastern versus western culture. These days people are brought up from childhood with the Internet, which leads to a much more shared culture across the world. For instance, you may have three people in one apartment: one watching a Hollywood or Bollywood movie, another listening to Mozart, while the third is following up their interest in Japanese manga comics on the Net. Where is the apartment? You can’t tell any more.

It is going to be fascinating to see what images and ways of practising emerge in the Order over the years and decades to come. At this stage only one thing is certain: we will never find any practice that all Order members happily agree to do regularly!


14 February 2011