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The Psychology of Spiritual Development

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by Sangharakshita

Aspects of Buddhist Psychology

Tape 41: The Psychology of Spiritual Development Mr Chairman, Reverend Sir and Friends: I suppose all of us were young once - in some cases rather a large number of years ago - and I'm sure that when we were young, most of us heard from time to time, perhaps from the lips of our parents or other elders - fairy tales. And some of you may remember from that far distant period hearing the fairy tale of the Sleeping Beauty.

And you may remember how in this fairy tale, the Sleeping Beauty was asleep for a hundred years in the midst of a beautiful palace, in the midst of beautiful gardens, and that the gardens were surrounded by an enormous hedge of thick, prickly bushes absolutely bristling with thorns, and the prince who was to awake her with the proverbial kiss had to struggle through this thick thorn hedge to get at this princess.

Now you may have been thinking recently that we are in a similar sort of predicament - because we are trying to approach this subject - the sleeping princess as it were - of Buddhist psychology. And last week, as those of you who were present will remember, we had to struggle through the thick thorn hedge of what we call in Buddhism the Abhidharma. And I understand, from what I heard, and overheard, that some of us were a little scratched on that occasion! Now I'm happy to inform you that this week, we are on rather easier, more negotiable, ground. And we shall emerge, I hope, this evening, comparatively unscathed. Not only that, I hope that even though we are unable actually to penetrate through to the princess, we may be able to pluck here and there, perhaps, a few flowers.

Now we come this evening to an aspect of Buddhist psychology - and we are concerned in this course with the aspects of Buddhist psychology - we come to an aspect which is difficult to apply and difficult to practise, admittedly, but perhaps not so very difficult to understand, at least theoretically. This evening we come to the subject of the psychology of spiritual development, according, of course to the Buddhist tradition.

Now before we start on the subject proper, let me make just one or two preliminary observations.

I must admit to begin with that I don't like very much this word 'spiritual'. We're talking about the psychology of spiritual progress, but if I had been able to do so, I would have selected, would have discovered, a better word. But ransack the dictionary as I might, I'm afraid I could not find a better or more suitable word than this word 'spiritual'. I do remember that many years ago, when I was in India and writing books and articles on Buddhism, I did coin a word which I hoped might gain currency as a substitute for the word 'spiritual' and that was 'normative': but no-one liked it, it never caught on and I'm afraid eventually I had to drop it. So therefore we carry on with this word spiritual, than which apparently, we don't have a better word. But when it occurs in the present context, in the context of this lecture and the whole course of lectures, it is to be understood as covering, as connoting whatever conduces either directly or remotely to the attainment of what Buddhists call Enlightenment. It is in that sense that we shall be using the term this evening and on subsequent occasions.

Now we are speaking on, we're trying to understand, the psychology of spiritual development. But I think it's obvious straight away that we are using the word psychology in a wider sense than is usual, at least in some circles. Last week you may remember, those of you who were present, that we studied the Abhidharma's analysis, among other things, of mind. And we saw that the Abhidharma classified mental states - what are called cittas in Buddhism - mental states, according in the first place to their ethical value; whether they were skilled states dissociated from craving, anger and delusion, or unskilled states associated with craving, anger and delusion and so on, and we also saw that cittas, or mental states were classifiable according to plane.

Whether they were associated with the sensuous plane, with the archetypal plane or with the higher, again to use the word, spiritual (or even noumenal) plane, or even the transcendental plane.

In this way, we saw the Abhidharma had developed a psychology not only of normal mental states - I say 'normal', of course, within inverted commas - that is to say, the states which we usually experience in our ordinary waking and dream consciousness - but the Abhidharma also developed its own psychology of what we may describe as the supernormal states - those states which transcend the ordinary waking consciousness, those which transcend the state of dream or deep sleep, those which are experienced only in comparatively lofty states of concentration and meditation. In other words the Abhidharma developed its own psychology - its own in a way quite scientific psychology - of what are loosely known as mystical states or mystical experiences. So far we got last week.

And today, this evening, we are covering to some extent much the same sort of ground. But this evening we are covering that ground in a rather different way. In fact, I may say, in a very different way indeed - much more practically, in contradistinction to the way in which we covered it last week, which was rather more theoretical.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________ Now let us start off with this whole idea of spiritual development. Or perhaps, to begin with, the idea of development itself in general. The dictionary defines development as "the gradual advance or growth through progressive stages". In more Buddhistic terms, we may say that development consists in the arising of a higher stage in dependence upon, conditioned by, a lower stage. In other words, to use traditional phraseology, we may say that development in Buddhism is a type of what we call dependent origination, or in other words, or rather in a single word, of conditionality.

Now once we start speaking in terms of dependent origination, in terms of conditionality, then we are carried immediately right to the very heart of Buddhist thought. So perhaps I'd better go back a little - perhaps we'd better start from the beginning. Perhaps we'd better even go back so far as the Buddha, the human historical Buddha, Gautama the Buddha, himself.

As you know or as you will remember, the Buddha gained what we call Supreme Enlightenment, Samyak Sambodhi, after six years of very strenuous spiritual struggle in the jungles and caves of Bihar and Upee, as we call them now. And the Supreme Enlightenment or Samyak Sambodhi which he gained or experienced represented what we may describe as a profound spiritual experience, an experience which was a turning point not only in his own history, his own life, but even in the life and the history of Asia, perhaps of the world itself.

And we are told by the Scriptures that after experiencing Enlightenment, after winning Enlightenment, gaining Enlightenment, he remained immersed in the experience, in the bliss of Enlightenment, as the Scriptures say, for seven whole weeks.

One can just imagine, as it were, with what tremendous relief at last he plunged into that experience. Six years before, he'd left his home, left his palace, his parents, his wife, his child, and for six years he had struggled, sometimes despairing of success, sometimes wondering whether the light was ever going to dawn, but always struggling on; sometimes fasting, sometimes fainting even; sometimes with friends and followers, sometimes quite alone. But he'd always struggled on, despite everything, and at last, after six years of endeavour, he had reached the Goal. So what else in a sense, was there for him to do, but to remain there, as it were, immersed in that state, in that transcendental experience, for, according to the Scriptures, seven whole weeks, without moving, without stirring from that place.

And we are told, further, that towards the end of this period, in the fourth or fifth week, we are told, a train of thought, a train of reflection, started arising quite spontaneously in his mind. He started wondering, as it were, whether he should ever reveal to others, to other human beings, the Truth or the Reality which he had discovered; whether he should ever reveal to them the secret of his own spiritual experience. We are told that after - we can hardly say "thinking it over", at this level - but after a sort of supreme spiritual crisis, he decided, out of compassion, out of pity for the whole of humanity, to reveal what he had discovered, to make the truth known, or to preach the Dharma.

But no sooner had he made that decision, no sooner had he decided to make known the Truth that he had discovered, than a problem, a difficulty at least, arose. And this is what we know nowadays as the problem of communication: how to put across your experience, how to put across your understanding, how to put across your knowledge, to others? And this is a problem, this problem of communication, which is faced not only by the Buddha, but by all those in the history of humanity whose insight and whose experience go beyond the average. How to put across to other people, to other human beings what one has found, or experienced or discovered? And that is why those whom we regard as exceptional people or those whom we describe as geniuses, are often, as it were, very lonely; often feel that they are, as it were, voices crying in the wilderness, because the problem of communication is so great and so intense. They have something to communicate, they have something to impart, some knowledge or some vision, but there is as it were, no-one to hear, no-one to receive, no-one to understand.

And ...

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