This thread is a kind of appendix to my paper The Unexamined Self that appeared in the May 2012 Articles Shabda (and which you can read here). As I mentioned there, of the three insight practices that Sangharakshita introduced in 1975, it was the Six Element Practice that he found most ‘concrete and practical’ for the majority of Order members, and that he has most encouraged since. This isn’t surprising, as it is the one into which it is hardest to smuggle a self-view. It combines the two approaches to insight – dynamic and analytic – that he talks about in Chapter One of A Survey of Buddhism. The analytic aspect is the microcosmic aspect, so to speak, breaking down what we think of as ‘me’, to see that it just comprises the six elements. The dynamic aspect is the wider view of dependent arising, seeing that those six elements came from and are influenced by the world around us, so there is nothing inherently existent in them. To these two approaches, the practice adds reflection on death – that at some point you will have to give up the six elements. This ought to add up to a pretty potent practice.
However, like any Dharma practice, for contemplating the six elements to work at any depth you need to connect with it emotionally. There are some useful materials produced by Order members that can help you do this. Subhuti’s transcribed talks on the practice from Guhyaloka are very good. Kamalashila has useful material in his newly-revised book on meditation, and on his website. In addition, there is now Bodhipaksa’s book Living as a River, which offers plenty of food for reflection, querying the notion of self from many different angles, although I have some reservations about his rationalist approach. These are three sources that spring to mind; I’m sure there are others that I’m unaware of.
Assuming you do connect emotionally with the Six Element Practice, there is still an issue that can prevent it from having its full effect. You can still avoid its main thrust if you misunderstand the level of insight to which it aims to take you. You may just see the insight that it offers as the recognition that the six elements are empty. (I have come across Order members who relate to the practice in those terms.) That’s not a bad achievement in itself – a degree of understanding or even realization of the emptiness of the self. However, it isn’t the fullness of what the practice has to give.
I have had the good fortune to be led through the practice by Sangharakshita on several occasions, and one of the phrases that he always used in guiding the last stage was that we give up ‘limited consciousness for unlimited consciousness’. This goes far beyond simply seeing that limited consciousness is empty of any inherently-existing selfhood. Seeing that the six elements are empty of a self doesn’t necessarily lead you to allow the subject/object duality to fall away, so that you are left with an open, panoramic awareness without any central reference point. It is this centreless awareness, beyond any identification with the six elements, internal or external, that is the wish-fulfilling jewel at the heart of the practice.
It can be helpful to see the Six Element Practice as a path of deepening insights. In the early stages it offers a vision of interconnectedness. ‘You’ are connected to nature, to everyone and everything, as everything is made up of the elements, and they are in a process of constant interchange. Next comes deep acceptance of the reality of death, recognising that one day the elements will be given back. As you explore deeper still, you come to the realization of non-self. What you thought of as ‘you’ is actually just the six elements, nothing more, with nothing fixed or unchanging ‘standing behind’ them, with no core to them. In that sense, there is no-one to die. But then there is a further much more fulfilling realization to be had if, seeing that the mundane personality is just the impermanent, selfless combination of the six elements, you give up identifying with it and relax into non-dual awareness.
So contemplating the six elements can have profound benefits. None the less the practice doesn’t suit everyone. Within the Order, whilst safeguarding a common practice of our core meditations, we shall need to use different insight themes – the six elements, the nidana chain, the bardo verses, contemplation of the lakshanas, and other meditations on emptiness – depending on temperament and other factors. The essential point is that, just as Sangharakshita is encouraging us to make our own living imaginative connection with the Buddha, we each need to find an effective way of working, steadily over many years, to dismantle our deep belief in, and clinging to, the idea of a fixed, inherently-existing self.