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Looking Back - and Forward

by Sangharakshita

Looking Back ­ and Forward

by Sangahrakshita Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=BH10 Talk given at the Birmingham Buddhist Centre, April 2007 Thank you Saraha and greetings to everybody.

About five years ago I had the unpleasant experience of partially loosing my eyesight. I think most of you know about that and, as you perhaps also know, throughout my life I've been a great reader. So to loose my eyesight even partially was quite an affliction.

But even so there are always compensations, even for afflictions like that, and one of the results was that I started listening to the radio a little bit more than I had been doing. Also perhaps seeing more people than I had been seeing.

But listening to the radio over the years I noticed something. I noticed that every now and then there would be an anniversary celebrated. There seems to be quite a lot of anniversaries around. I remember the two-hundreth anniversary of the battle of Trafalgar.

That was celebrated with a few programs. And more recently there's been programs around the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome and, at present, on the anniversary front we're in the midst of all sorts of programs about the Falklands war of twenty-five years ago. And, of course, looking beyond secular events to events of a Buddhist nature which have been celebrated in recent months, looking back to last October, there was the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Ambedkar's conversion to Buddhism which, of course, was followed by the conversion of tens of thousands ­ even hundreds of thousands ­ of people in India and elsewhere. So, many anniversaries. And it does seem that anniversaries are rather important; they have a collective importance, they have an individual importance. There are collective anniversaries, there are individual, personal anniversaries. They form part of our history. They remind us of what has happened. They help create continuity, they help create a story. They help to create a collective or individual, personal identity and continuity. And so it is that today we are celebrating the fourtieth anniversary of the founding of the FWBO.

I must say that I was a little disappointed actually when I learned that there wasn't going to be the usual big national celebration here in the U.K.. I understand though that plans are afoot to give us next year a bigger celebration, not, of course, of our fourtieth but our forty-first anniversary. [Laughter] And I suppose we shall have to be content with that.

[Laughter] I'm assured that it will be something rather different and very attractive and many, many people are expected to attend. But anyway, even though there isn't this year a national celebration of FWBO Day here in Birmingham, we are celebrating it and I am very glad to see and to know that people are coming to take part in this celebration from a number of other centres. And it's very good that we can all be together on this occasion.

And naturally my thoughts go back, my thoughts fly back to those very early days forty years ago. Sometimes it seems a long time ago, sometimes it doesn't seem very long ago.

I was, I think, forty-one at the time; still a comparatively young man. And as I remember those early days, there rises in my mind a quite vivid picture of just how and where we started. We started, of course, very small. We're a bit bigger now, of course, but then we were very small indeed; just a handful of people. And we didn't even have a centre of our own, not one that we actually had bought. Our first activities, our first classes were held in a very modest basement in Monmouth Street in central London. As far as I remember the basement was about twelve feet square. Twelve feet each way. Hmm? And with a bit of juggling we could get twenty chairs in, because in those days people did not sit on the floor to meditate, they all sat on chairs. That gradually changed. And when we had our inaugaral dedication we allowed a few people to stand and we squeezed in altogether twenty-four people. [Laughter] Twenty-four people. And I led, and we all recited a dedication ceremony that I'd composed only the evening before. And thus we dedicated what we called our Triratna shrine and meditation room. And that was how and where the FWBO began. Forty years ago.

The first activity we started up was meditation classes. Perhaps it has a significance of its own that we should have started there. Meditation being such an important aspect, such an integral part of the Buddhist spiritual path and the Buddhist spiritual life. So, we started with meditation classes. And we very soon had two, even three, mediation classes ­ there seemed to be at that time quite a demand for them. Of course, there was quite a big turnover but our meditation classes were usually quite full. We usually had eight to ten or twelve people. I must admit though that on one evening when I came along to the basement shrine, ready to take the mediation class I found only one person had come. But that's the sort of thing that does happen, as all of you who have taken classes at FWBO centres will know only too well. Only the other day I heard of someone having organised something and had taken a great deal of trouble and when he turned up to take his part in the proceedings he found nobody else had come. So it can still happen occasionally. And we hope to practice patience and optimism and not lose heart. I certainly didn't lose heart on that occasion because there were other encouraging signs.

And , of course, the meditation that I was teaching was, first of all, `The Mindfulness of Breathing' and then, of course, after a while I started teaching `The Metta Bhavana'.

Both these meditations, especially I must say, the Mindfulness of Breathing, had been very important in my own spiritual life in India for quite a few years. And I know that these practices continue to be taught in all our FWBO centres. And they lay, as it were, a firm foundation for our practice of meditation in the FWBO, and the practice of the spiritual life generally. Mindfulness of breathing can take us very,very far, as I'm sure practically all of you know. From mindfulness of breathing we can go to mindfulness of the body and its movements generally; we can go to mindfulness of our feelings, our emotions, mindfulness of our thoughts; of every thought that passes through the mind, every imagination, every dream; and we can go to mindfulness of the Dharma, mindfulness of the teaching of the Buddha, even eventually to mindfulness of Reality itself. So mindfulness of breathing can take us a very long way, and we shouldn't doubt that. Similarly, the Metta Bhavana can take us a long way. Starting with the Metta Bhavana we can practice `The Karuna Bhavana'. We can practice `Mudita Bhavana'.

And we can practice `Upeksha Bhavana', the bhavana of complete tranquility, within which we find it difficult to make any distinction between how we feel towards others, and how we feel towards ourselves. And that can lead us right into the heart of the Dharma into ? and shunyata. So these two practices, seemingly so simple, so straightforward, Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana are as it were the two, twin pillars of our practice of meditation. We may take on other practices in the course of our spiritual life, and they may be very helpful, but at rock bottom we need these two practices.

So we had meditation classes. After a while there were people who wanted a more extended practice of meditation. They wanted to go deeper. And if your just sitting for a couple of hours, you can't always go very deep, especially if your coming straight from work as many people did in those days to those classes. So we started holding retreats, week-long retreats in the countryside. It was I think in West Sussex. We went to a place called Quartermain and another bigger place called Keffels. Some of you who were around in those days will probably remember those two places. And we had what has come to be, I think, a sort of standard FWBO retreat consisting of talks, meditation, periods of silence, walks and talks together, pujas, study and so on, and I have very pleasant memories of those far-off days. I can remember the day when we introduced, or rather I introduced, the communication exercises. I noticed that people didn't always find it very easy to communicate with one another. So I thought `Well, what to do?' A bit more mindfulness might not help very much, even a bit more metta bhavana... So I bethought myself of these exercises I learnt in India many years before from an English woman who'd devised them on the basis of what she'd received from various teachers, and I introduced these exercises and they had an almost miraculous effect people: really opened up with one another. So after that the communication exercises came to be a regular part of the FWBO repertoire, and I believe they're sometimes still used on retreat when perhaps people aren't opening up with one another quite sufficiently.

So we had these retreats. I remember at the end of the week people would be loitering at the gate, waiting for their transport looking very sad, looking quite unhappy. They'd been very happy altrough the week, in fact increasingly happy, but they were very very sorry that the retreat had ended. It would be on a Sunday evening of course, and on Monday morning they were going back to work. But in the course of the retreat, I noticed such a remarkable change in people. They would arrive looking rather tired, perhaps a bit fed up, but as the ...

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