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The Meaning of Spiritual Community

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by Sangharakshita

Tape 122: the Meaning of Spiritual Community - Edited Version In the first of these three lectures I dealt with a very lofty subject, with nothing less than the Ideal of Human Enlightenment itself. In the second lecture I dealt, in part at least, with quite advanced, quite sublime, spiritual experiences, such as might not come to everybody - at least not for a while. But in this lecture I'm going to deal with something very down to earth, something that could be of personal and practical significance for anyone: The Meaning of Spiritual Community. I shall deal with the subject under three main headings: Who are the members of the Spiritual Community? Where is the Spiritual Community to be found? And, What do the members of the Spiritual Community do - for themselves, for one another, and even for the world? However, before taking up the first of these questions, I would like to resolve a possible misunderstanding about the word `spiritual'. We speak of the spiritual community, the spiritual life, the spiritual ideal, and spiritual practice; but the question arises, what do we mean by the word `spiritual'? It is a word that we very often use, perhaps in quite a number of different senses. Sometimes people use the word rather loosely, and sometimes, I am afraid, people use it in no sense at all, but rather to disguise general poverty of thought, or to convey a vague sense of uplift. It is therefore important that we clarify the meaning of this word.

In my own usage of the term, as you will have seen from these lectures, the `spiritual' is to be contrasted with the `psychological', as well as with what I call the `worldly'. By `psychological' I mean consisting of, or pertaining to, mental states, including mental processes or functions, in general; and by `spiritual' I mean consisting of, or pertaining to, what are called skilful mental states.

Now this in turn raises the question of what is meant by the word skilful. After all, this is a term that we come across again and again in Buddhist literature. In fact, this word `skilful', with its antonym `unskilful', is one of the most important terms in the whole range of Buddhist psychology and ethics. Unskilful means consisting of, or associated with, craving, aversion, and delusion, while skilful, on the contrary, means consisting of, or associated with, the absence of these states, that is to say, with the absence of craving, aversion, and delusion. Putting it more positively, skilful mental states are those associated with content (one might almost say peace of mind), friendliness, and knowledge - in the sense of wisdom.

You may have noticed that Buddhist literature does not speak in terms of good and evil. It does not use terms like sin, or vice, or virtue - at least not in their Christian sense. When it is speaking precisely and accurately - speaking as it were philosophically - in its own distinctive language, it speaks in terms of what is skilful and what is unskilful. Such usage suggests quite a number of things. It suggests, for instance, that good intentions or good feelings are not enough. It suggests that what we call the `good' life must include an element of knowledge, of understanding. We therefore find that, in Buddhist literature, there is no such thing as the `holy fool', which is to say, someone who is good, even very good, but stupid. For Buddhism this would be a contradiction in terms. The Buddhist usage of the term skilful also suggests that by being unskilful we get ourselves into difficulties - even incur inconvenience, not to say suffering - just as if we handle a knife or chisel clumsily, then sooner or later we are bound to cut ourselves.

The three English words craving, aversion, and delusion, do render quite faithfully and accurately, indeed almost literally, the three corresponding terms in the original languages, Sanskrit and Pali, but perhaps they do not give us much real insight into the meaning of those terms. A Tibetan source, however, gives a more extended and detailed account. According to this source, craving is `longing desire to possess objects of sensuous cognition which you like, and to include them in your ego-identity, in the hope of getting a sense of security from ``having them as part of you''.' Aversion is defined as `fearful and angered repulsion to get rid of objects of sensuous cognition which you dislike, and to exclude them from your ego-identity, in the hope of getting a sense of security from ``not having them as part of you''.' As you can see from these definitions, one is the opposite of the other. Finally, delusion, which is defined as `a stubborn closed-mindedness about learning anything which you feel might threaten your ego-identity, and upset the sense of security you wish to get from it, but which you are unaware of, and therefore feel you must protect'. Even though comparatively short, these three definitions are quite profound and far-reaching.

With the help of these three definitions we can begin to see what is meant by Spiritual Community. By Spiritual Community we mean a community which encourages the development in its members of skilful, rather than unskilful, mental states as being the best ideal for human beings. In the same way, the spiritual life is a life devoted to the elimination of unskilful, and to the development of skilful, mental states. In a higher sense, it is a life which is entirely based upon, and expressive of, the skilful mental states of contentment or peace of mind, friendliness, and wisdom. Spiritual practice, it follows, is therefore any observance, any method or exercise, which is conducive to the eradication of unskilful, and to the development of skilful, mental states.

The distinction between skilful and unskilful mental states can serve as a basis for distinguishing between different levels of experience. Firstly, there is a level of consciousness on which only unskilful mental states are present, secondly, there is a level of consciousness on which only skilful mental states are present, and thirdly, there is a level of consciousness which is just mixed. Further, these three levels of consciousness can be seen to correspond with three planes of existence. Arranging them in a slightly different way, in an ascending order, we get, first of all, what we may call the worldly plane. This is a plane of existence on which people are motivated entirely, or almost entirely, by the unskilful thoughts of craving, aversion, and delusion. It is a `state' in which they perform unskilful acts, which is to say: they harm other living beings, take what has not been given, and indulge in sexual misconduct. They also speak unskilful words: words which are untrue or false, which are harsh and malicious, which create dissension, and which are idle, frivolous, and useless. This, then, is the worldly plane, or plane of worldly life. We could simply call it the world.

The mixed plane is a plane of struggle, of effort and contest. It is a plane on which skilful and unskilful states are fairly evenly balanced. It is the plane where we find those who have just started to lead a spiritual life, who have just started trying to evolve. Just as an amphibian is a creature which lives partly in the water and partly on dry land, so the person dwelling on this mixed plane is spiritually amphibious.

Sometimes such a person is very worldly, but at other times he might be quite spiritual.

Thirdly, there is the spiritual plane. This is the plane on which people are motivated entirely, or almost entirely, by skilful mental states: motivated by contentment, love, and knowledge; motivated by mindfulness, energy, faith, joy, compassion, and so on. It is the plane on which they perform actions that are helpful, generous, and pure, where they speak words that are true, that are affectionate, that promote concord and harmony, and that conduce to the good of the hearer.

As you will have seen in the previous lecture, Buddhism speaks in terms of four levels of consciousness: consciousness associated with the plane of sensuous experience, consciousness associated with the plane of mental and spiritual form, consciousness associated with the formless plane, and, finally, consciousness associated with the Transcendental Path and with Nirvana. What I am here calling the world therefore corresponds with the plane of sensuous experience, and what I am here calling the spiritual plane corresponds with the plane of mental and spiritual form, together with the formless plane. Sometimes the word `spiritual' is used in such a way as to include the Transcendental as well, but my own preference is to make quite a sharp distinction between the spiritual and the Transcendental.

It is perhaps worth noting here that the spiritual plane corresponds to meditation in the sense of absorption.

It therefore follows that the meditation experience is best seen as being an uninterrupted flow of skilful mental states, without any unskilful thought intruding. This is what meditation essentially is, and this is quite a useful way of looking at it, since it makes it clear that meditation does not necessarily mean sitting in meditation. Meditation, essentially, is simply this flow of spiritual thoughts - whether we are sitting, walking, standing, or doing anything else.

If living in the world means being motivated by unskilful thoughts, speaking unskilful words, and performing unskilful actions, and if the spiritual life consists in the progressive eradication of unskilful, and the development of skilful, mental states - consists eventually in being entirely motivated by such states - then the more we lead a spiritual life the less we will tend to live in the world. This separation, this leaving the world behind, may be only mental, but it may be physical as well. People sometimes say that it is enough to give something up mentally, and that to do it ...

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