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The Heights and Depths of the Spiritual Life

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by Sangharakshita

4: The Heights and Depths of the Spiritual Life

This is a chapter on a topic which constitutes one of the most important aspects, if not the most important aspect, the most important principle, even, of Buddhist thought, of Buddhist philosophy, that is, what is called the Law of Conditionality. The Law that whatever arises arises upon conditions and ceases when those conditions cease to exist, it may be in the material world, the mental world, the emotional world, even the spiritual world, whatever arises arises in dependence upon conditions, there is no chance, no accident, no fate, no destiny, but what we call the process of universal conditionality on all levels of existence from the very bottom as it were to the very top as it were of mundane phenomenal existence. Now we saw in the course of those first few talks in that series and also on various other occasions that, broadly speaking, there are two kinds of conditionality, or two ways, as it were, in which the law, or the principle of conditionality can act or operate. One we called the cyclical, the other we called the style#. Now the cyclical mode or the cyclical track of conditionality is that cycle, that mode, which consists in a process of action and reaction between factors which are opposites as, for instance, when you go from pleasure to pain, or when you go from life to death, birth to rebirth and so on. This is the cyclical movement of action and reaction between pairs of factors which are opposites.

Now the other with which we are not concerned so much this evening, the cyclical order or mode of conditionality is a process of action and reaction between factors which progressively augment one another, that is the succeeding factor augmenting the effect of the preceding factor instead of reacting from it to its opposite. So that when you have, for instance, pleasure you go from pleasure to happiness, from happiness to joy, from joy to rapture, from rapture to bliss, in an ascending progressive spiral, as it were.

So within conditionality there are these two great modes, great ways, as it were, in which conditionality operates. Action and reaction between factors, or pairs of factors, which are opposites and action and reaction between factors which progressively augment the succeeding augmenting effect of the preceding action. Now this process of action and reaction between factors which are opposites, between happiness and unhappiness, pleasure and pain, birth and death, loss and gain, this is what we call in Buddhist language the samsara or the Wheel of Conditioned Existence within which we revolve round and round and round within the two extreme limits, within the great opposites, that is birth on the one hand and death and rebirth on the other. Now within this great process of action and reaction between birth and death, samsara, the Wheel of Life, the Wheel of Existence, there are many different pairs of opposites again, we might say minor pairs of opposites, so this evening we are dealing with one of these pairs.

Last week you heard, most of you, those of you who were here, what the topic of today's lecture was going to be, you were told, if you remember, that it was going to be what we call the Heights and the Depths in the Spiritual Life, so this evening we are dealing with this particular pair of opposites between which we act and react as it were within that great pair of opposites represented by the samsara or conditioned, or phenomenal existence as a whole. So, as the title of the talk suggests, we are dealing with the heights and the depths not just, as it were, in its abstract, but we are dealing with them within the context of the spiritual life.

Now we may say that, very broadly speaking, there are two kinds of pairs of opposites. We can say that these are, as it were, the horizontal and the vertical. The horizontal meaning when you have got a pair of factors which are, as it were, on the same level. The other, the vertical, when the pairs of opposites are, as it were, arranged hierarchically. As an example of the first you might say take the pair of opposites represented, say, by the two sexes, say man and woman, this is a horizontal pair of opposites. If you take the pair of opposites, say, represented by teacher and disciple, this represents a relation of opposites not on the horizontal but on the vertical, as it were, in a hierarchical kind of order. So when we speak of the heights and the depths obviously we are concerned with a vertically arranged pair of opposites, that suggests itself from the very words themselves, the heights are, as it were, up there, the depths are, as it were, down there. Now what exactly do we mean by these expressions, the heights on the one hand and the depths on the other, 1 in the context of the spiritual life? Very broadly speaking we may say that in this context what we call the heights represent, to begin with, consciousness, and the depths, we may say, represent what is usually called the Unconscious, with a capital 'U'. Or we can say, paraphrasing, that the heights represent mind or thought or intellect, whereas the depths represent what we may call instinct or emotion or will, volition, collation and all the rest of it. So we've got these two, as it were, we've got the conscious, intellectual heights and the Unconscious, intellectual#, emotional depths. So the question which arises is the question of the relationship between these two, the heights and the depths, the conscious and the Unconscious, reason, if you like, thought, intellect, instinct, emotion, will.

Now perhaps it's best to explain or expound the relationship not by way of an abstract definition, but by way of an illustration. As I prepared this talk, as I thought over this particular portion, this particular section, there came as it were floating into my mind's eye, a picture of an iceberg.

You've all seen pictures of icebergs, some of you might even of# seen icebergs if you went near enough to the North Pole or to the South Pole. An iceberg, as you know, is an enormous mass of ice, but the strange thing about it is, that by far the greater portion of the iceberg is beneath the water, beneath the waves, I think its seven-eighths, but only one portion, that is one-eighth, is above it. So that we may say that the relationship between the conscious and the Unconscious, the thought and the emotion, intellect and volition, is rather like that between the unsubmerged and the submerged portions of the iceberg. The submerged portion is very much greater, the unsubmerged portion is comparatively, I won't say insignificant, but very small in comparison indeed. So this is the picture. We can develop this, we can compare not only to an iceberg, we can compare to a mountain. The peak of the mountain is very narrow, culminating in a point, the base of the mountain, as it broadens out and out and out is very broad indeed. I remember so many times in my own monastery in Kalimpong, I looked out towards the Himalayas, to the peaks of K( ) one sees that the base is very, very broad indeed, hundreds of miles in extent, but the peaks, the higher they get, the narrower, the taller they get until they culminate, as I said in a point. So the relationship between the conscious and Unconscious, between thought and emotion, or the instinct, on the other hand, is just like this, they're unequal, there is what we might call a tremendous disparity, the heights, as it were, infinitesimal almost and the depths, as it were, almost infinite.

Now this brings us, or we are brought in this way directly to what we may say is perhaps the central problem of the spiritual life. Take, for instance, in our own case, say, our knowledge of Buddhism, our knowledge of the Buddha's teaching. Whence have we derived that knowledge? In the case of most of us the greater part of our knowledge is derived from what we've read from books about Buddhism, to a lesser extent, perhaps, from what we've heard. So this is how we get our knowledge, so in this way we may come to be well acquainted with things like the life of the Buddha, the Jakata stories, the history of Buddhism, how the Order was founded, the various doctrines, schools, theory, principles of meditation and so on. In this way from the books and the lectures we can, as it were, get it all, in a sense we know it all, but at the same time we have to admit, we can't help admitting, we can't avoid but admitting, that though we know all this, though we could perhaps if we took a little thought, give a fairly complete, fairly coherent account of the Buddha's teaching, though we could explain and expound all the different texts leading to nirvana, though we might even be able to give a quite accurate account of what nirvana is, at the same time we have to confess, we have to admit, that we're not Enlightened. We know it all, but in another sense, a profounder sense, we don't know anything at all. So why is this#, the facts are all before us, the information is there, we know everything, we've got it all at our fingertips, but at the same time we aren't Enlightened. What's the reason for that? So the reason very obviously, very evidently, is that though we know we know only superficially, we know, as it were, only with the unsubmerged portion of ourselves, the unsubmerged eighth or ninth or whatever it is, we know intellectually but that is all, we don't know profoundly, we don't know with that unsubmerged portion of ourselves, we don't know as it were emotionally, we don't know instinctually, we might say that we know in the heights of our being, but we don't know down in the depths, so we might even go so far as to say that we don't therefore know at all. Now should you have noticed there is not even a question of half and half, if there was a question of half and half it would be something, because then a real sort of tension would be set up, a 2 ...

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