The Unexamined Self


In this article I want to welcome and highlight some of Sangharakshita’s latest thoughts about our system of spiritual practice, as explained in Subhuti’s paper Initiation into a New Life. As usual, this latest paper covers a lot of ground, but here I shall focus on just a couple of important quotations. The first is:

All one’s practice should include an aspect of Spiritual Death. One’s daily meditation practice, to which one should be committed as a principal focus of one’s endeavours, should especially include a strong dose of Spiritual Death. The Contemplation of the Six Elements, Recollection of the Nidana Chain, and Reflection on the Six Bardos are all practices recommended by Sangharakshita to deepen the experience of Spiritual Death and these, especially the former, should be engaged with from time to time on more intensive retreats. However, in principle, any practice can have this dimension.     (p.13)    

 ‘Spiritual Death’ here is a term that Sangharakshita uses to describe the stage of the spiritual path that is particularly concerned with insight (vipashyana).  I have mixed feelings about this term. It can make what you experience at this stage of the Path sound too concrete, as if someone is really going to die, and that can build up unnecessary anxiety and resistance. (This is particularly likely because so many people these days are affected by materialist assumptions that make them prone to falling into nihilism.) Whereas, as Subhuti makes clear in his paper (p. 6), all that dies is a deeply-held wrong view, a conceptual veil, thickened by self-referential emotional patterns, through which you have been relating to your experience. On the plus side, the term ‘spiritual death’ underlines the fact that this stage of the path entails a radical change, a deep letting go (or ‘giving up’ as Sangharakshita would have it), of attachment to the five skandhas or six elements as ‘me’ or ‘mine’.

The History of our Meditations for the Stage of Spiritual Death

This paragraph very strongly underlines the need for insight meditation to be a central part of our practice as Order members. That might seem self-evident, but a consideration of the history of our meditation practice in the Order can help us see why there has been a need for renewed emphasis on insight practice in the Order.

Sangharakshita ascribes to the ‘spiritual death’ stage of practice what he has sometimes called the ‘Order insight practices’ – the Six Element Practice, impermanence (in the form of contemplation of the Root Verses of the Six Bardos), Contemplation of the Nidanas, and other shunyata meditations (although he found some traditional shunyata meditations too conceptual to be really effective). Of the main three, having tried them out on us in the mid-1970s, he concluded in his lecture on A System of Meditation in 1978 that the Six-Element Practice was: …the most concrete and practical way of practising at this stage. This is the key practice for breaking up our sense of relative individuality.

 Someone listening to that lecture on our Order Convention at Vinehall School might have thought that Order members now had a clear way forward in terms of meditation practice, a programme to follow over the years. Done in regular steps, it would be: first develop shamatha and positive emotion, then spend time focusing on one of the insight practices – probably the Six Element Practice – and then on contemplation of a Buddha or Bodhisattva.

However, except in a few individual cases that didn’t happen. Some people practised the whole system of meditation when they went on retreat, and a few with time to spare did it on a daily basis. But most of us were too busy building up the infrastructure of the FWBO to do so many practices regularly. So for many years, most of us hardly did these insight practices. When the ordination courses started (the first one was a three-month course for men in 1981), those coming up to ordination were usually only introduced to the Six Element Practice a week or two before their ordinations. Once ordained, the emphasis was on the contemplation and mantra recitation of a Buddha or Bodhisattva (from now on I’ll call this ‘visualization’ for short, although I acknowledge that the term is unsatisfactory as it overemphasises the visual element in the experience), which in the earlier years of the Order Sangharakshita encouraged us to do every day if possible. Thus many Order members’ only strong experience of the Six-Element Practice was in a short period leading up to their ordination.

As a result of this, as far as I can tell, over the years the majority of Order members have never practised that much Six Element Practice, or the other ‘Order insight practices’. I acknowledge that for a long time there have been ‘insight retreats’ for both dharmacharis and dharmacharinis, and there has been some use made of the practices in other contexts. However, those retreats were not part of our ordination training, and many Order members will not have attended many, if any, of them. It is very clear that historically these insight practices have been the poor relations in our system of practice, receiving little time and attention compared to how much we have invested, individually and systemically, in mindfulness of breathing, metta bhavana and visualization.

Coming closer to the present, the picture doesn’t seem to be very different. For evidence to back this up I looked at the 2007 Order Survey. Of the large number of people who responded to the questions about their Dharma practice, many answered by referring to particular meditation methods that they used (visualization, Just Sitting, etc). However, of all the respondents, only three mentioned the Six Element Practice. (Four, if you count someone who said they did ‘the System of Meditation’.) None mentioned the Contemplation of the Nidanas, or the Bardo Verses.

So it seems we have not made that much of these practices either individually or systemically. By only definitely focusing them on them for a short time on our ordination courses, I think that in the past our system of training has given the message that:

1) Six Element Practice and our other ‘insight practices’ aren’t that important compared to the other practices in our system; and/or

2) They need special, supportive conditions; and/or

3) We as Order members weren’t ready to engage with them intensively.

Why did things develop in this way? I suspect that in the early days of the Order it was because there were quite a lot of rather spaced-out ex-hippies like me, who simply didn’t have enough of what Sangharakshita termed ‘a reservoir of positive emotion’ to handle a lot of insight meditation without getting depressed or retreating into their heads. The visualizations were more effective, because they worked on a number of different levels. Yes, there was an element of shunyata meditation as the insight aspect, but also a strong devotional and aesthetic element, that had a refining effect and led us into our hearts.

 Consequences of the Underuse of the ‘Order Insight Practices’

This systemic lack of emphasis on the Six Element Practice and the other ‘Order insight practices’ has naturally had its consequences. In theory, we as Order members have always had these tools available to us, and Sangharakshita has encouraged us to use them, and to work on gaining insight. However, their low profile in the ordination process and subsequently means that in practice it has been possible to be ordained and to practise within our Order without ever taking the kind of close, sustained look at the mechanism of self-view that will allow you to see right through it. First you can go through the stages of Integration and Positive Emotion without any deep questioning of their underlying assumptions. Then you come to the Six Element Practice, which you might only practise for a little while on an ordination course. For most of us our ego-clinging is far too savvy to let itself be dismantled, or seen right through, in such a short period. It finds ways of avoiding the thrust of the practice and preventing it from having its full effect – such as by finding it irritating or boring, or by picking on logical inconsistencies in it that allow us to dismiss it, or by never quite getting clear what the last stage is really about. (Subhuti’s transcribed talks on the practice from Guhyaloka are good at spelling out these resistance tactics.)

Thus you may emerge from a period of supposed Spiritual Death with your ego virtually unscathed, and then quickly move on to the greater excitement of visualization practice. As we know, our visualizations also have a strong insight element. However, as we shall see later, unless you keep your eye on the ball of seeing through ego-clinging, you can even do a visualization in a way that leaves plenty of space for ‘little old me’ to come to the party.

Of course, it is possible to dissolve away the subject/object duality without doing these insight practices. For instance, the sheer force of your metta, your devotion to the Buddha or your yidam, or your compassionate longing for beings not to suffer could draw you out of conditioned existence like a hot-air balloon lifting off the ground. However, in order to take off you will need a lot of fire to your metta, your devotion, your bodhicitta, if you are still anchored to the earth with the ropes of unexamined self-view. It is much easier to leave the ground of dualistic experience if, along with building the fire of faith and so forth, you have been regularly sawing away at the fetter of belief in separate selfhood that ties you down, by practising forms of study, reflection and meditation that engage with it directly.

If, as a Tibetan Mind Training text succinctly says: All Dharmas come down to abandoning ego-clinging, we need to keep that in the forefront of our practice of study, reflection and meditation, regularly and strongly.  In my view, this lack of systemic encouragement of the meditations that are most specifically about demolishing self-view has been a shortcoming of our practice as an Order. Perhaps in the early days not many of us were really ready to make a serious effort to develop vipashyana. But nowadays the situation is different. Now most Order members can make good use of insight practices if they have the time and the inclination, as well as the encouragement, to do so.

Firstly, we have matured spiritually as an Order. We have people who have been practising for 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years. Many of us have done quite enough to lay the groundwork for a full-on confrontation with reality. Secondly we are an ageing Order (and unless we make considerable effort to pass the Dharma on to younger people we shall soon be an aged Order). An ageing Order is one for whom death has become a very live issue! In the face of death, you want to have some deep understanding of the nature of things; you want your Dharma practice to focus on what is essential. That is why I believe we have felt the lack of this kind of insight practice particularly over the last 10 or 15 years. So the emphasis on it in Subhuti’s paper is certainly timely, if not long overdue.

Compensating for the Lack of Use of our Insight Practices

Whenever something in a human system is out of balance, more or less consciously there will be attempts to restore it. So, as they came to feel the effects of our lack of engagement with the practices specifically designed to target self-view, some Order members (especially those who had been practising for decades) made attempts to fill in this missing element in their practice. I see two ways in which this has happened in the Order.

The first response has been to find ways of deepening other aspects of our system of meditation, to take them further, and strengthen the vipashyana elements in them. So for the Mindfulness of Breathing, some Order members have practised and taught from the Anapanasati Sutta in which the breath becomes a support for a whole practice of the Path, not just a shamatha practice, the antidote to restlessness and anxiety. The Metta Bhavana has been supplemented by teaching from the Tibetan Mind Training (Lo Jong), which also has strong elements of shunyata meditation, and in other ways. Similarly our practice of Just Sitting has gained depth through Order members exploring teaching from the Mahamudra and Dzogchen traditions. In this way, practices whose orientation in the earlier days of the Order was mainly towards the stages of Integration and Positive Emotion have now become ways of entering the stage of Spiritual Death in our system. This has been one of the most positive developments in the Order’s practice in recent years.

Amplifying our shamatha practices so that they gave easier access to vipashyana was one response to the lack of use of the practices Sangharakshita assigns to the stage of Spiritual Death. Another response, I believe, was Order members going outside the Order to other teachers. Here we needn’t concern ourselves with the pros and cons, let alone the rights and wrongs, of doing so. We only need to consider what it was those Order members were looking for, the perceived need they felt, that caused them to look beyond Triratna.

Of course, Order members have turned to teachers and spiritual settings outside our community for a mixture of reasons. However, it seems to me that the majority of Order members going outside were drawn to more teaching and guidance on insight meditation. Some Order members have gone to teachers in the Vipassana movement within Theravada Buddhism (e.g. Jack Kornfield and other IMS teachers); others have gone to people with a background in Zen (Thich Nhat Hanh, David Smith); others to Tibetan Mahamudra and Dzogchen teachers (Namkhai Norbu, Shenpen Hookham, etc.), whilst a few have been drawn to Neo-Vedanta (Tony Parsons, etc.). All these teachers focus on insight meditation, on assisting people through our stage of Spiritual Death.

I find it interesting that very few Order members have turned to Tibetan Buddhism because they were attracted to tantric goodies. Hardly anyone has been drawn to some lama because they wanted to receive, say, the Black Manjughosa initiation, or practise the Six Yogas of Niguma. In my estimation they have been drawn mainly to teachers who offered help with understanding the nature of mind or, to put it more simply, whose main emphasis is on insight meditation.

The picture with regard to these Tibetan teachers has been clouded because some of them teach from a Buddha Nature perspective – although what they mean by this can differ a great deal. However, I don’t believe that most of the Order members approaching those teachers have been drawn by tathagatagarbha, but rather by the promise of understanding the nature of mind, i.e. of gaining deeper insight into non-self and non-duality.

So, to summarize, our lack of engagement with the Order insight practices has impacted on us as an Order, and individuals have attempted to remedy the negative effects either by extending the range of our so-called shamatha practices or by going to other teachers for instruction and guidance.

Insight and Visualization Practice

The second quotation I want to highlight is:

The contemplation of a Buddha or Bodhisattva is, very clearly, a practice of spiritual rebirth, which itself implies spiritual death. However, that latter dimension needs to be more explicitly drawn out and reflected on within the context of the practice, whether through a stress on the shunya nature of the imagined presence or any other application of the lakshanas to the experience.   (pp. 18-19)

 As we’ve seen, most of us passed very quickly through the practices associated with the stage of Spiritual Death, and were then introduced to a visualization practice. This means, in effect, that the visualization was being asked to perform two functions: to take us through the stage of Spiritual Death that we missed out on by skipping over the insight practices, as well as to usher us into the stage of Spiritual Rebirth.

As the paper makes clear, visualization practice is certainly capable of achieving both those aims – provided that you practise it in a way that gives weight to the insight element. At the start of the practice you can put emphasis on letting go of the 5 skandhas/6 elements into the blue sky of emptiness / the open dimension / the ungraspable / the Mystery (take your pick of the terms you find most evocative and helpful). You can do this via a short review of the Six Element Practice, or by using the Om svabhava… mantra, and letting its meaning – one translation could be ‘all phenomena are pure (empty) of self-nature; I too am pure (empty) of self-nature’  –  resonate in your awareness. Then, as the images of the sadhana arise out of emptiness and finally dissolve again, you can reflect on conditionality, emptiness and impermanence. In doing this, you need to ensure that you apply these reflections to everything you think of as ‘you’, not just to your experience of the world around you.

However, it is perfectly possible to do a visualization practice without making much of the insight element, or at least not applying that insight to yourself. In my experience visualization practice often fails to have its full impact because of deadening approaches based on unhelpful, unexamined underlying assumptions. People are often very literal-minded about visualization, as well as being affected by the materialist assumptions of western society. However, the most all-pervasive assumption, and the one that squeezes the life-energy from the practice most, is the unexamined ‘me’ that sits in the control tower directing the whole practice from take-off to landing. Without having done that examination of self-view, one can do a visualization practice as follows: First I dissolve everything around me into the blue sky of emptiness. Then I visualize the yidam in front of me. Next I recite the mantra and receive the blessings. Finally I dissolve the figure back into the blue sky and dedicate the merits.

In this way you can keep a sense of a real ‘me’ that is in control of the practice all the way through. Not only that, a ‘real me’ doing the visualization has to see everything else in dualistic terms. For a ‘real me’, the yidam that appears out of the blue sky has to be either real or unreal too. If it is unreal, it is just a figment of my imagination (as those materialists suggest) – I created it. Alternatively, if it is ‘real’, then it is ‘other’, truly existing out there somewhere. Either way isn’t the Middle Way.

These unexamined views can cause us to end up practising what almost becomes the ‘near enemy’ of true visualization: devotional, beautiful, focused on spiritual qualities, but lacking the cutting edge of insight that would tear samsara asunder.

Of course, focusing on a refined visualized figure as ‘object’ will have a refining effect on ‘you the subject’. The force of your imagination and devotion may even carry ‘you’ away completely, so that the subject/object duality dissolves altogether. But it will be much easier for the visualization to bring you to that point if you have done preliminary insight work on examining the nature of the ‘you’ that is doing the practice. That work can be done with the insight practices and/or within the visualization itself.


I hope that, without taking up too many Shabda pages, I have shown why the quotations I have picked out are important. To those unacquainted with the history of the Order and its practice, it might be surprising that Sangharakshita still finds it necessary to state that our practice needs to include an aspect of spiritual death, and that that especially applies to our daily meditation practice. After all, from a certain point of view, insight is the essential concern of Buddhism. It is what really liberates us from suffering, and sets us firmly on the path to Buddhahood. Clear, explicit and systematic teaching about insight is what distinguishes Buddhism from virtually all other spiritual teachings. So it might seem strange that after over 40 years of the Order’s existence we should need to be reminded to practise what, from a certain point of view, Buddhism is all about.

However, as we all know, Buddhism, ideally at least, is a path of regular steps, of ethics, meditation and wisdom. So I prefer to see the emphasis on insight in this paper as an affirmation of the maturity of our Order. I like to read it as Sangharakshita showing his confidence that a critical mass of Order members have laid down enough of a foundation of integration and positive emotion for him to feel able to encourage us to take a ‘daily strong dose of Spiritual Death’.

Sometimes when you are ill you need to work on a regimen of diet, exercise, etc. before you are strong enough to withstand the medicine that will actually cure you. I like to interpret this paper as Sangharakshita, our leading physician, saying that many Order members have followed that regimen of ethics and meditation enough (although obviously there is still much more to do), to be ready now to put much more emphasis on that liberating insight which is the true cure of suffering.