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The Heights and Depths of the Spiritual Life

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by Sangharakshita

... spiritual tension, and out of that spiritual tension, something might come, but it isn't even that, just on the one hand as it were knowing with a seventh or eighth part of ourselves, even then not very thoroughly, not very seriously, and not knowing at all with the rest of our being. Most of the time we might say in the case of most of us there is at best a sort of mild oscillation as we can call it, a mild oscillation, not even a violent one, we come to meetings, come to lectures, read books, and just for a minute we are mentally lifted up to the heights, just mentally, but we put the book aside, we leave the vihara, go back home, turn on the television, listen to the radio, go to the cinema, whatever else it happens to be and with that we're down in the depths again, the unregenerate and incoherent depths. So there is a mild oscillation going on like this all the time, not even, as I have said, a real tension, much less still one might say an actual conflict. So some people are quite happy to go on like this in a Christian context, of course, they go to church on Sundays, half sleep through the sermon, sing a hymn or two, say amen at the end, go home and carry on living their lives, they feel uplifted a little bit, you can't say it hasn't done them any good, it's done them some good, they're being uplifted in a sluggish sort of way for a few minutes, I think it's twenty or twenty-five minutes# they've cut the services down to nowadays, and there is the danger also that Buddhists do the same thing, they come along to a meeting, come along to a lecture, even go to the summer school for ten whole days, and they're uplifted while they're there, but they can't keep it up, they slip down, back as it were into the depths and most people, as I've said are quite happy to go on like this with an occasional little bit of uplift just to keep them feeling good, to prevent too much tension from developing, just to burn a little incense at the shrine of religion as it were to show that they respect all members of society and then that's that. But it isn't of course enough from a deeper point of view because it means that people are involved only mentally, they've mentally accepted, mentally acknowledged, but not anything more than that. So the problem which faces us, the problem which we have to solve is how to bring in as it were the depths, how to know as it were emotionally, not just to know on the heights, not just to know mentally, but to know in the very depths of our being, in the profoundest places of our being, to know from the top to the bottom of ourselves wholly and totally. We can't possibly ignore the depths. It's out of the depths that our energies come, energies of instinct, energies of emotion, energies of will and somehow or other these have to be harnessed to the chariot, as it were, of the spiritual life. Otherwise we just have our little bit of superficial mental understanding up there and all these energies, all these forces welling up from the depths are just dragging us in some other direction. So they've got to be harnessed, they've got to be integrated somehow and it's here that there comes in what we call or what we refer to as the devotional side of Buddhism.

Devotion or sraddha, in Sanskrit, saddha, in Pali, is one of the ways, one of the most important ways in which these energies of instinct, emotion and so on can be harnessed, can be refined, can be sublimated and gradually integrated with our mental understanding contributing their energies to that mental understanding and helping us in the direction of the actual realisation of what we've merely so far understood. If we go to any of the Buddhist countries, whether Ceylon, or Burma, or Thailand or Tibet, Japan or China in the old days at least, we find that the worship of the Buddha in the sense of paying homage to the Buddha's memory and to the ideal, the spiritual ideal which he represents, paying homage either by offering flowers or incense, chanting from the Scriptures and so on, occupies a very, very important place indeed because it helps to refine and sublimate those emotions which otherwise would just be dissipated and perhaps even pull us in a direction opposite to that of the one that we're trying to go in. It was I would say a very interesting experience for me at the Summer School recently to find how warm a response there was to the devotional meetings which were held on the last three evenings. We had rather imagined that just perhaps ten or twelve more pious people would come along and that the rest wouldn't, but it so happened that practically everybody turned up for these meetings held on the last three days of the Summer School at 9.30 at night, they even left their coffee to attend these meetings and it was very interesting to find that some people afterwards said that the meditation which followed went for them much better on account of the previous devotional meeting for evidently what had happened was that the devotional meeting had just not really aroused, not really stirred up, but harnessed those emotions which are usually just dissipated so that when the time came to meditate the force and the energy of those feelings and emotions there behind the 3 meditation were as it were pushing it forward so that the meditator was able to derive energy from this particular source, so this is the sort of thing that we find happening, all these devotional practices, all these devotional exercises in Buddhism have, among other reasons, this reason for their existence, that they refine and sublimate the emotional nature and replace this energy at the disposal of the spiritual, the religious life.

Now there are various other ways, various other means of refining and sublimating the emotional side of our nature. One can do it, or some people can do it, through the arts in their more refined forms, especially one might say, the Buddhist arts, such as the arts say of ancient India, or of China, or Japan, Tibet, all those countries where arts in the traditional sense are, as it were, impregnated with spiritual values, even though not explicitly expressed in religious terms, has been cultivated. Many people, looking at, say, a Chinese landscape painting or just looking at a sculptured image of the Buddha, can develop the same state of refined emotion and feeling as others get from the more religious devotional practices. There is also the practice of what we call the Four Brahma Viharas, the systematic cultivation as a type of meditation of the sublime sentimetns of love or mitri, friendliness, loving kindness, karuna or compassion, sympathetic joy, mudita, and tranquility and equanimity, or upekkha. These practices also refine and sublimate the entire emotional nature. To me it was rather interesting to find on my return to this country a year ago when I started teaching meditation that many people had difficulty, even had great difficulty with this practice of Mitri Bhavana, or the Development of Loving Kindness. It seemed to point to a certain difficulty in them of refining and sublimating their emotional nature. Those who find the Mitri Bhavana difficult usually find the Mindfulness of Breathing, the counting of the breath, a much easier practice. So for them there is a sort of temptation to follow in that line of least resistance, to concentrate on doing that which you do most easily, but one might say that this is a temptation which should be resisted. If you find the emotional side difficult and the intellectual side easy you should cultivate the emotional side more, if you find the intellectual side difficult and the emotional side easy, then vice versa. Cultivate, therefore, that which is weakest in us, not just following the line of least resistance which might tend to lead us into rather a lopsided development. This is, of course, the significance of that very famous teaching that I've often mentioned here before, that is the Five Spiritual Faculties. The Five Spiritual Faculties as you should know by now are Faith and Wisdom, then Energy and Concentration and finally Mindfulness. So the first and second and the third and the fourth constitute two pairs, Faith and Wisdom first, Faith represented on the emotional and devotional side of the spiritual life, Wisdom represented on the intellectual and cognitive side. So these two must be balanced, according to the Buddha's teaching. Unless you have these two in balance, the development of the following of the higher spiritual life is very difficult, one must be emotionally and intellectually in harmony as it were. Then there's the extrovert and introvert, the active and the meditative, these two have to be balanced and balanced, of course, both pairs, with the fifth faculty, the faculty of Mindfulness which is described as being always useful. So here, of coursek we're concerned more with the Faith and the Wisdom in balance, if these are not balanced, then, of course, spiritual progress will be hampered, hindered, if not actually delayed.

Now so far we may say we have considered the heights and the depths in a comparatively mundane manner, we haven't gone very far, we haven't gone very deep into the matter, but we can go farther and deeper yet, even, we might say, much deeper. We might say that as we lead our spiritual lives, as we get more and more, I don't like to say advanced, because it isn't a very pleasant sort of expression, but as we become a little more accustomed to it, as we get more into the way of it, as we make a certain amount of progress, especially in meditation, we find that there come to us various experiences, to begin with, of course, the experiences are comparatively superficial, some people meditating see lights or hear sounds, these are all very incidental things, not to be taken at all seriously, just to be noted and passed over, as you progress, as you go further than that, higher than that if you like, other experiences come ...

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