The text of a talk given at the European Order Weekend, Wymondham College, 25th August 2012.
As you’ve just heard, nine months ago I returned from a retreat lasting over three years in an old wooden circus wagon in the Auvergne in France. It was a wonderful opportunity to focus intensively on the Dharma and meditation and I feel very fortunate to have had that time. In particular, it was a wonderful opportunity to let go of identity, to let go of the stories I tell myself, the pasts and futures that I create for myself. It was an opportunity to let go of self-reference, to some extent at least, and to enjoy the simple awareness of the present.
In order to facilitate this letting go of identity, early on in our retreat, our retreat guide, Lama Tilmann Lhundrup, recommended to the little group of four of us whom he was guiding, that we should let go of doing projects. Even on an intensive meditation retreat you can always find little projects to busy yourself with: in my case it was often little study projects, but for others it might be making some improvements to the garden, or something else. Lama Lhundrup really emphasised his advice, but still all four of us found it difficult to follow; we each kept finding little projects to sneak into our programme.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with projects per se. They’re a necessary and helpful part of life. But in the special circumstances of retreat, being asked to let go of projects made us aware of our compulsion to engage in them. As we did our best to work against this tendency to fill our time with little projects, it became clear to all of us that the basic project that we were constantly wanting to pick up and do was the Ego Project, the project of maintaining a sense of ourselves as inherently existent.
A project, big or small, always gives a sense of direction, of someone sustaining themselves through time – the doer of the project, the project manager. The projects didn’t just give us something to look forward to; they gave us someone to look forward to: good old familiar me. They filled the space of ‘just being’ with doing and business, and helped us avoid any uncomfortable encounters with the open dimension of being, in which we might find ourselves, in Ayya Khema’s phrase, ‘being nobody, going nowhere’.
During this weekend we’re focusing on spiritual receptivity. There are different ways in which we could explain what that is about, but for me it all comes down to an awareness that is receptive to what is beyond the Ego Project, beyond constant reference back to a fixed sense of self and all its concerns and demands.
As you’ll know, our system of practice in Triratna can be looked at in two different ways, either as a path (from integration to positive emotion and so on), or as a mandala. In the mandala approach, spiritual receptivity is in the centre. This means that at the heart of the spiritual life is this open, receptive awareness that is not seeing everything in terms of its use value for the self, but values, appreciates and enjoys things, people and qualities for their own sake.
When this open, receptive, appreciative awareness turns toward experience, it opens to life in all its richness, gradually recognizing that, as someone we all know puts it:
Life/ Cannot belong to us. We/ Belong to Life. Life/ Is King.
Being at the centre of the mandala, this open, receptive awareness is then supported by the four sides, the aspects of integration, positive emotion, spiritual death and spiritual rebirth. However, the metaphor of ‘support’ isn’t quite right, as spiritual receptivity isn’t separate from them, it pervades them all. They are the areas in which spiritual receptivity functions. Without it, there would be no path and no mandala.
After all, integration requires openness to our actual experience rather than our concepts about it. It requires us to move into our experience of ourselves as embodied, into our feelings, and so on. Integration also requires openness to the ethical dimension of life, and response to spiritual qualities.
Positive emotion entails receptive, open awareness to ourselves and others. It especially involves empathy, being receptive to others as living beings like ourselves, becoming aware of how, just like us, all living beings are subject to illness, are growing older, and will die one day (perhaps today), and how we all long for happiness and try to avoid suffering.
Spiritual death – insight into reality – involves an open receptivity to how things really are, which also involves curiosity and questioning the assumptions that we bring to our experience – including all our assumptions about the ‘me’ that is seemingly ‘having’ the experience. (This is something that I wrote about recently in an article called The Unexamined Self, in May Shabda.)
And spiritual rebirth requires deep receptivity, profound openness to what goes completely beyond our everyday experience – receptivity to the teaching and example of Buddha Shakyamuni, to the spiritual influence of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, to the Dharmakaya, the nature of reality itself. It involves throwing open the shuttered windows of our little ego hut and allowing the light, and also the rain of blessings, of the Dharma to pour in.
So spiritual receptivity is central to all aspects and all stages of spiritual life, and the main practice to enable it to unfold and flower in our lives is Just Sitting. So I want to spend most of the rest of my talk on Just Sitting, before ending with a couple of more general points about spiritual receptivity. Just Sitting, as we know, is a practice in which there is no particular focus of concentration. We allow the mind to open and relax, and we just sit, turning towards whatever arises in our experience in each moment with an open heart.
Just Sitting is the simplest of spiritual practices. All spiritual practice involves creating a gap in the nidana chain between feeling and craving, vedana and trishna. In that gap you may cultivate an antidote, or do various other things. But the simplest way to practice, the way of Just Sitting, is simply to relax and stay aware. This relaxed awareness allows the gap to grow, so that the mind becomes more and more spacious and clear, and that relaxed spacious awareness is then no longer identified with its contents. In that gap thoughts may arise, but thoughts aren’t a problem in themselves; being identified, taking them as real, is the problem. This relaxed awareness, open-hearted and patient, creates the conditions for all other spiritual qualities to arise.
Although in essence Just Sitting is as simple as can be, there is a whole spectrum of things that people do when they say they are practising it. Just Sitting proper is just completely open to whatever experiences arise in the moment. However, often as a way in to that open mode of functioning, people use some degree of focus, as an anchor for the attention so that it doesn’t become lost in the flow of experience. So for instance they may keep some of their awareness on the breath in the abdomen, or they may pay attention to sounds around them. We could call these practices a partial Just Sitting.
Whether you use some kind of focus as a support, or you simply open your awareness to your experience, the practice tends to unfold through different levels, different degrees of depth so to speak. In a recent talk that you can find on Free Buddhist Audio, Subhuti distinguishes five levels of Just Sitting, the ‘five justs’: just settling, just waiting, just watching, just enjoying, and finally just sitting proper.
Just Sitting proper is the practice, or non-practice, to which all others lead, and in which they culminate. For instance, in the Six Element Practice, after you have given up identifying with the physical body and its territory, in the last stage you go on to relinquish all the contents of consciousness: the memories, thoughts, feelings and so on – all the reference points of a fixed self – and what is left is Just Sitting; open awareness, with no centre to experience, vivid and clear.
On a less profound, more everyday level, Just Sitting is a necessary counterbalance to focused practice. All meditation in which you are asking the mind to function within a structure, all practice where you are trying to move from point A to point B – even if point A is first dhyana and point B is second dhyana – involves some degree of tension for the mind. So it is essential to have time in your practice where you are not making any effort to do something, or to become anyone, however spiritual. This open awareness, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, is deeply relaxing, healing and refreshing for the mind.
I sometimes come across people who have been doing focused, structured practice over many years, even decades, who at some point have encountered increasing resistance to meditation. Sometimes they’ve even more or less abandoned their practice because of it. Talking to them, it seems to me that in some cases they are suffering from a kind of mental fatigue. They have been trying to force themselves to meditate in structured ways that are no longer appropriate for them. Often these problems could have been avoided if they had been practising Just Sitting as a counterpart to their other structured practices.
In the Heart Sutra we recite ‘Not even wisdom to attain, attainment too is emptiness’. Sooner or later that has to mean something in practice, and in our practice. Just Sitting and spiritual receptivity are the arena in which this comes in.
As we know from the Order Survey, many Order members these days are at the other end of the spectrum. They are doing almost entirely unstructured practice. For them, Just Sitting isn’t just a way of savouring the result of their focused practice, nor a counterbalance to it. Just Sitting is the practice. That’s fine, as concentrating on Just Sitting may be a very beneficial phase in your spiritual development or, done in the right overall context, it may actually be pretty much all that some people need in terms of meditation.
My one concern is that Just Sitting is subtle, and as there are no special landmarks, as there are with say the Mindfulness of Breathing, it is possible to go down lengthy cul-de-sacs with it. It’s interesting that in Tibetan Buddhism only a very few advanced practitioners only practice Just Sitting. It is virtually always counterbalanced with periods of more active, structured practice. Also, those schools that put most emphasis on Just Sitting also tend to be the ones that are most hands-on in terms of mentoring and making sure that people have guidance with meditation. Teachers who are unable to supervise their students’ meditation so closely often prefer to see them largely doing structured practice. This is because if you do structured practice, even unsupervised, usually you at least produce some positive karma, whereas unsupervised practice of Just Sitting can sometimes end up being largely a waste of time.
So let’s look a little at three broad categories of pitfall in Just Sitting.
The first pitfall is falling into what Lama Lhundrup on our retreat called ‘klesha soup’. In Just Sitting, you’re simply receptive to your experience as it is. However, there always has to be that gap of awareness between feeling and craving. Otherwise, if there isn’t enough awareness, enough clarity about what is going on, when you give your mind no structure it simply does what it has been doing since beginningless time. It follows its habitual tendency to produce the kleshas and, without enough awareness, they simply carry you along with them. That isn’t meditation. If you’re identified with a negative tendency then you’re producing negative karma, and that can only end in tears.
This tendency to falling into ‘klesha soup’ is why I would never teach Just Sitting to beginners, except as a short period of ‘just settling’. Without some degree of integration and positive emotion, any prolonged Just Sitting is just a recipe for klesha soup.
So, on one side, there is the mistake of not intervening where necessary to avoid drowning in klesha soup. On the other hand, the second common pitfall is of intervening too much in Just Sitting, because you feel that there is ‘nothing happening’, or it is not producing the results that you want or expect.
Sometimes this is just a manifestation of boredom and impatience, not being prepared to go through the level of Just Sitting that Subhuti calls ‘just waiting’. Sometimes it’s because we have a too prescriptive, fixed idea of spiritual life: our map of the spiritual path involves going up the spiral from joy to rapture and so on, and so we wrongly feel that ‘nothing special’ states of mind in Just Sitting must be signs that we are off track.
However, mostly we intervene inappropriately because of a tendency to willed effort or wilfulness. For me, wilfulness is the immediate, outward manifestation of a deeper issue that I like to call ‘spiritual ambition’. Here we need to distinguish between genuine spiritual aspiration and its ‘near enemy’, spiritual ambition, which looks like spiritual aspiration but isn’t. Genuine spiritual aspiration is the longing to be Enlightened or Awakened in order to be free of suffering, for your own sake and that of others. Spiritual ambition speaks the same language, but although it looks the part, spiritual ambition is actually ego-based, it’s the Ego Project transferred to the spiritual realm. It’s closely related to what Trungpa Rinpoche used to call ‘spiritual materialism’, and amongst other difficulties it often causes ‘spiritual bypassing’, in which you use spiritual beliefs to avoid dealing with painful feelings, unresolved wounds, and developmental needs.
As it is ego-based, spiritual ambition is still focused on and concerned about ‘me’. The tell-tale signs of spiritual ambition are that it’s full of hopes and fears about the success or failure of your Dharma practice. When you’re suffering from spiritual ambition you set up ideas about how fast you should be developing, how far you should have got, after three days of retreat, or three years of retreat€¦or after eight years of Dharma practice, or twenty-eight years. (Sometimes on group retreats, I’ve thought it would be a good idea on the first day to ask people to write down everything that they hope to gain from the retreat. Then in the evening puja, we could treat them as confessions and burn them…)
Spiritual ambition sees things in terms of dhyanas and insights achieved, as if they were money in the bank, or like trophies and medals, forgetting that any insight or spiritual experience, however wonderful, is at best a helpful memory unless it is happening in the present moment. Spiritual ambition also covets spiritual experiences that it hasn’t yet achieved, and it does so in a way that stirs up and excites the mind and makes their attainment much less likely.
The tendency to spiritual ambition can be very subtle indeed, as I discovered repeatedly on my long retreat. Again and again, when I came up against difficulties in my practice, Lama Lhundrup would point out to me the aspects of spiritual ambition that were producing them. He did this so often over three years that it became totally humiliating, which perhaps was the point!
As I mentioned, spiritual ambition produces wilfulness as a by-product. This willed effort is confounded and frustrated by Just Sitting, which is a present-moment experience, with no aim or goal, in which there is nothing to do. Just Sitting leaves spiritual ambition squirming on its cushion. So it keeps interfering – ostensibly to make things better, but actually because with no future goal to aim for, no target to hit, spiritual ambition feels lost and under threat.
I often think that the real difficulty with spiritual experience is that it is too simple for us. After all, if we look at the formula of the Four Noble Truths, Enlightenment is just life without craving. And life without ego’s stories and dramas, without even subject and object, is as simple and straightforward as can be. But the ego thrives on complexity, and often cannot countenance Just Sitting, which gives it nothing to work with, nothing to build on; so it has to interfere in some way, to assert its own existence, even if that interference is very subtle. I find a good question to ask myself when I’m wanting to change my experience in Just Sitting is: ‘What’s your objection to your present experience?’
So it is very important to be able to distinguish between genuine spiritual aspiration, which is a beautiful manifestation of spiritual receptivity, and spiritual ambition. They may use the same language, but they feel very different physically and emotionally. One is open and expansive; the other is increasingly tense, frustrated and driven.
Drivenness is the real, polar opposite of spiritual receptivity. The cock, the snake and the pig at the heart of the Wheel of Life are driven, rushing onwards, on the surface of experience, never really going anywhere different. Whilst open-hearted Just Sitting relaxes ever deeper into experience, into the flow of life, and becomes increasingly fulfilled by this ever-changing present moment.
I find it interesting that the Buddha in the Majjhima Nikaya is represented as being totally motivated and committed. His spiritual aspiration is such that he can say: ‘Flesh may wither, blood may dry up, but I shall not leave this spot until Enlightenment is attained.’
But then, in response to that total commitment, what comes up is a memory of something natural, easy and expansive. He finds himself back under the rose-apple tree as a young boy, watching his father ploughing.
Sometimes I’ve pondered on what was new for Siddhartha about that, why that memory was such a key for him. After all, also in the Majjhima Nikaya is an account of him attaining the formless nikayas after he went forth from home, practising under Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta.
So it seems to me that what was different was that in those earlier experiences there was an element of spiritual ambition. The Buddha compared himself to those teachers, thinking ‘they have energy and so forth, so do I’. Then he set himself the goal of attaining what they had achieved.
What was different, and so helpful, about his rose-apple tree memory wasn’t that his experience was dhyanic – he’d experienced that before – but that it was relaxed, open and totally unforced. There was no spiritual ambition in it. That way of practising was the key he discovered.
There is a third pitfall of Just Sitting, which also needs taking into account. As we’ve seen the practice is to turn towards and be receptive to our experience as it is, moment by moment. However, we are always seeing our experience through a filter of views and assumptions. We’re aware of this when teaching Mindfulness of Breathing – that we need to help people to find their direct experience of the physical breath rather than their idea of it. In a way the whole point of Just Sitting is to relax more and more into direct experience. And to do that we will have to keep noticing and questioning assumptions we are making about our experience. If we don’t manage to do this, then the practice will tend to reach a plateau. So the third pitfall is failing to peel back layers of assumptions that we are bringing to our experience, either because we don’t notice them, or if we do notice them because we just take them for granted.
For example, earlier I mentioned that as your experience in Just Sitting goes beyond what Subhuti calls ‘just settling’, you may find yourself in a phase of what he calls ‘just waiting’ – patiently attending to your experience until something deeper or more creative comes into play. However, to have an experience of ‘just waiting’ there have to be all kinds of underlying assumptions and concepts. You need concepts about time, and a future in which something better could happen, as well as concepts about the depth or lack of it of a spiritual experience (which involves making comparisons). Without all those assumptions, all that conceptual superstructure, you wouldn’t have any sense of waiting, and your experience, just as it is now, would be fulfilling.
So to summarise, Just Sitting is a central meditation (or non-meditation) in our Triratna system, and needs to be included in our personal practice to some degree. For newer practitioners its place will mainly be as a way of ‘just settling’, and as a way of savouring and absorbing the positive effects of structured practice. For more experienced people, it forms a necessary counterbalance to structured practice. And for certain more experienced people it will be their meditation of choice, their sadhana. However, I believe that if you’re going to focus on Just Sitting as a major practice, it is best done within a mentoring, kalyana mitrata relationship. (And I hope that we can develop these meditation mentoring relationships more and more as the Order develops.) A meditation mentor can help to identify and avoid the pitfalls of: (1) losing awareness and being carried along on the stream of habitual thinking and emotions; (2) interfering and tinkering inappropriately with the practice; and (3) unexamined views and assumptions that prevent us from getting closer to direct experience.
Obviously, I’ve hardly skimmed the surface of Just Sitting and there’s far more I could say, but I want to end with a couple of points about spiritual receptivity more generally. Firstly, a little reminder. I find a particularly helpful context for thinking about spiritual receptivity is Bhante’s teaching on the ‘greater mandala’. In discussing the Ratnagunasamcayagatha Perfection of Wisdom text in Wisdom Beyond Words, he distinguishes between the appropriative and appreciative ways of functioning. The former is seeing things in terms of their use value – i.e. their use value for ourselves, referring back to a sense of ‘me’ to decide whether an experience will benefit or threaten the Ego Project, or just be irrelevant to it. The alternative to this is a way of functioning in which we see things and people aesthetically, valuing them in and for themselves, appreciating them without self-reference. Living in this appreciative way he calls living in the ‘greater mandala of complete uselessness’, in which you are like some great tree, too big to be used. Your various activities, (all those projects!), then comprise a small corner of this spacious and expansive aesthetic mandala. That ‘greater mandala’ is the mandala of spiritual receptivity.
People I know who hear this teaching are usually very drawn to the idea of the greater mandala, but they often relate to it in quantitative terms. ‘My life is so busy and demanding, how can I make time to spend ages looking at nature, or doing absolutely nothing?’
But that misses the point. Sure, if we really valued the greater mandala, we would probably manage to find some more time to do nothing, to just appreciate our experience. But fundamentally, entering the greater mandala isn’t about time, or any other quantity. It’s about quality. It’s about letting go of our small hopes and fears and opening our hearts, letting mind and body relax, and appreciating life. You can do that sitting in a business meeting; you can do it in a traffic jam; you can do it listening to a talk on a busy Order Weekend.
Let’s do it for a moment right now. As we’re sitting here, let’s take a few seconds to do nothing at all: nothing to do, nowhere to go, not having to be anyone special, just sitting appreciating the breath, the colours of the room, the presence of the other human beings around us. It can help to call to mind a traditional image, which is that you let your mind be like a sheaf of hay. All the hay is stacked together and tied into a bundle. When at a cetain point you cut the knot, the hay just falls open. Similarly you can just let your mind fall open for a few seconds, completely relaxed€¦
I’m going to end my talk by making a suggestion that I believe can help us to live more in the greater mandala. I want to suggest a change of emphasis in our discourse, a shift in the way some of us think about perhaps the most central concept we use in Triratna: going for refuge to the Three Jewels. Usually we talk of going for refuge as ‘commitment’ to the Three Jewels. That emphasis of Bhante’s on commitment has been tremendously helpful in bringing out certain aspects and implications of the act of Going for Refuge. It emphasises that a sangha isn’t just a group of people interested in Buddhism, but a collection of individuals who are dedicated to practising it. It also emphasises the importance of the karma niyama in spiritual life, that in order to transform ourselves we need to act, to work with body, speech and mind.
However, taking nothing away from that, I believe we need to make more explicit a complementary emphasis, one that gives full expression to spiritual receptivity, one that better encapsulates our openness to another way of being, to a non-egoic Dharma niyama way of functioning. These days, as well as thinking of going for refuge as commitment, I increasingly think of it as entrusting myself to the Three Jewels. I don’t just entrust myself, but all my Dharma work, all the situations in which I find myself, everything is entrusted to the Three Jewels. This has the effect of taking the emphasis off myself, and it’s especially good as an antidote to spiritual ambition and wilfulness.
Seeing things in terms of entrusting oneself to the Three Jewels is also very helpful for counteracting anxiety (which seems to be my mental poison of choice€¦). I’ve held a number of very responsible positions in Triratna over the years. Sometimes, with hindsight, I can see that I took responsibility in a way that put too much weight on my own shoulders. I really cared about the Dharma, and so I wanted to do everything I could to help the centre, or the Order, or whatever the situation was, to be successful. But often I didn’t manage to find much equanimity because I felt that the success or failure of the situation was down to me. So I went up and down with the ups and downs of the situation, which didn’t help me or it.
However, let’s say that in a position of responsibility, as well as committing myself to make my best efforts to help the situation, I entrust the whole situation to the Three Jewels. Now the weight has gone from my shoulders. I trust that whatever is for the best, within the possibilities of the law of karma, will happen. My focus is on the Three Jewels rather than on myself and how much I have to do. There is far more spiritual receptivity there, and it is much easier for me to live within the greater mandala.
So, just as we need structured practice and Just Sitting; just as we need both to be active with the karma niyama and receptive to a Dharma niyama way of functioning; in the same way I think it’s helpful in our Dharma lives to emphasise that going for refuge involves both committing ourselves as individuals and also entrusting ourselves to the Three Jewels.
So I hope it’s clear what spiritual receptivity essentially is, that it is living, or aspiring to live, in the greater mandala, beyond the Ego Project, of constant reference back to a self and its stories and demands. It is appreciating and enjoying life on its own terms, knowing that we belong to life, it doesn’t belong to us.
There’s a short poem that Kamalashila wrote on our Total Immersion retreat at couple of months ago that I feel it captures something of the sense of the relaxed open qualities of life in the greater mandala. It’s called Holiday:
Take a holiday.
Take a holiday from being someone.
Take a holiday from being somewhere.
Take a holiday from it being a time.
Take a holiday from it being now.
Take a break from wanting things
A holiday from hopes.
Let things not happen after all.
Take a break from fearing things
Let the universe do what it pleases.
It will anyway.
The universe is having a holiday.
Why not you?
So I hope we can enjoy spending this weekend together in the greater mandala. Even if we have people to see and things to organise, even if our weekend is very full, we can still do things in an open, appreciative way. We can notice what is happening as we go through the different situations of the weekend: the times when we are more driven, and the times when we are more open. We can feel the difference between the two, in our bodies, in our hearts, in our minds. We can practise Just Sitting, in the shrine room or just on a bench or under a tree somewhere, letting our experience be as it is, just turning towards our life with a kindly awareness, moment by moment, seeing it clearly, letting it arise and pass away. And we can take time, at odd moments, standing in a dinner queue, or cleaning our teeth, to let go of ourselves completely, like a sheaf of hay whose binding has been cut, to let all the thoughts and ideas, the hopes and fears, of the Ego Project drop away, and for those moments at least, to feel the deep peace and fulfilment of being nobody, going nowhere, just experiencing in that simple but profound way.