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The Cosmic Symbolism of the Refuge Tree and Archeypal Guru

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 106: The Cosmic Symbolism of the Refuge Tree and the Archetypal Guru

One of the things, at least, about which we can be quite sure, is the fact that there is in the world a great deal of misunderstanding. In fact, some people would even go so far as to say that the world itself is just one great big misunderstanding, not to say one great big mistake. We have, of course, to begin with, various misunderstandings, on our own part, of ourselves. It's after all a very wise man who understands himself. There is also misunderstanding of the world in which we live, the social world, political world, the world as such, the cosmos and so on, and, of course, also, there is misunderstanding of other people, the people with whom we come into contact, even the people that we think we know quite well. And amongst the various topics, we may say, on which there is in the world a great deal of misunderstanding is the topic of the spiritual life itself. And on account of this misunderstanding of the spiritual life, what the spiritual life is, what it consists in, there is also a certain amount of criticism.

Criticism of the spiritual life itself, and also of those who are supposed to be leading spiritual lives.

Now, one of the commonest criticisms of this kind, one of the commonest misunderstandings about the spiritual life, is that the spiritual life is escapism, I am sure that quite a number of you, as your friends and relations came to understand, perhaps rather dimly and distantly, that you were involved with something like Buddhism, something like spiritual life, couldn't help thinking, perhaps even couldn't help telling you, that you were practising escapism, that you were, in fact, an escapist. Now, I must admit that I have been trying for quite a while now to find out what people mean when they use this word escapism. It's a word one often hears, one often encounters. But people seem to find it rather difficult to say exactly what they mean when they say that spiritual life is escapism. I must also admit that when I sought light from the dictionary, I was unable to find it there, I couldn't find the word escapism even in the dictionary,. at least, not in my dictionary which is the 1937 edition of Webster's New International Dictionary in four substantial volumes listing 300,000 words, it wasn't even there, not even in the addenda. But I did find in the course of my search for escapism, I did find the word 'escape', and the dictionary had quite a lot to say about the word 'escape'. And 'escape' was defined in it's primary sense - there were several senses but this is the primary one - as 'to get away, as by flight or other conscious efforts. To break away, get free, or get clear, from or out of detention, danger, discomfort or the like. As "to escape from prison"' So I was rather consoled by this, as it were.

Consoled from my inability to find the word 'escapism', because it struck me that this word 'escape', as so defined, was quite a good description of the spiritual life. At least from a certain angle, at least from a certain point of view. It may not be the whole truth about spiritual life, but certainly a substantial part of it. Because, to begin with, in the spiritual life, one is, or should be, certainly making a conscious effort. One is certainly trying to break away; one is certainly trying to get free; one is certainly trying also to get clear. When one speaks of getting clear, one obviously has in mind all sorts of entanglements, all sorts of involvements, all sorts of rather complicated murkinesses that one is trying to get clear from.

So evidently this is very pertinent to the spiritual life and definition of the spiritual life. One is trying to make the transition from lower to higher states of being and consciousness. One is trying to develop, trying to evolve. This is what the spiritual life is all about. But why is one trying to do this? Why is one trying to escape? Why is one trying to develop, trying to evolve, trying to rise from a lower to a higher state of being and consciousness? One is doing this, one is impelled to do this, not to say compelled to do this, because one experiences the lower state, the state in which one is at present as restrictive, cramped, limiting, confined, unsatisfactory, even dangerous. One feels only to often, in one's present state of consciousness, one's present state of being, not to say one's present circumstances, one feels only too often as though one was under some sort of confinement, as though one was even in prison, or in a concentration camp. So naturally one has the feeling, one has the urge, to get out, to break out if necessary, to get free, to get clear and so on.

And in this connection, following this sort of line of thought and feeling we find in the Pali Canon, a very interesting passage attributed to the Buddha, in the course of which the Buddha is explaining, or trying to explain, to some of his disciples, what it feels like to be enlightened. Obviously, the disciples would be very curious to know, when you are there, when you have arrived. What does it feel like, what does it feel like to be a Buddha? What does it feel like to be liberated? What does it feel like to be enlightened? What does it feel like even to be an Arahant? So, the Buddha, apparently, on one occasion was trying to make this clear, trying to make clear the inner contents of the experience, at least to some extent, trying to convey, trying to communicate something of the feeling of it. And he didn't do it conceptually, didn't do it or try to do it with the help of abstract ideas. But he introduced three similes, and he said: it's like this; suppose you've been carrying for a long time, for many miles, on a hot and dusty day an enormous burden, a great weight, a great load. Suppose you've been staggering on with it mile after mile, and then you are suddenly able just to put it down, to lift that load off your shoulders, off your head, maybe, as it's India, you just set it down, you are free from that tremendous, oppressive weight, you put the burden down. He says, being enlightened is just like that. You feel as though you have set down all your burdens, there is nothing for you to carry, there is no weight, there is nothing oppressing you, you are light, you are buoyant, you can, sort of, float free, as it were, enlightenment is like that, you've put down all the burdens. And then again, he says, suppose: you've been engaged in business, in some sort of trade, and suppose as the result of your business enterprise, or lack of enterprise you've got very heavily into debt, You owed a lot of money to different people and you didn't know where it was coming from, you didn't know how you'd be able to pay them and there all your creditors were knocking on your door, following you about wanting their money. And before you there was the prospect perhaps, of going to prison on account of those debts. And suppose, the Buddha said, one day you suddenly acquired, almost by miracle a large sum of money, you were able to discharge all your debts, pay off everybody, you didn't owe anybody anything, you could look everybody in the face, as it were, you are free from that terrible worry and anxiety. He said being enlightened is a bit like that. All your debts are paid, you don't owe anybody anything, you can look the whole world in the face as it were, you are free from debt. And then again, he said, it's like this, just like the case of a man who was shut up in prison for years on end and you can imagine what that is like, and suddenly one day the door is flung open and he is free, he can walk out into the sunlight and go wherever he pleases. The Buddha said being enlightened is just like that, you've escaped, as it were, from the prison of the world itself. So, in this way, the Buddha tried to make clear something of the feeling of the person who is enlightened. The enlightened person, the liberated person, feels absolutely light, feels buoyant, carefree, he may even strike the unenlightened as rather irresponsible, as not serious enough, as not taking life seriously enough. And at the same time the enlightened person feels completely unconcerned about the past. There's nothing left over from the past that he has to deal with, and he is not concerned about the future either. And above all, he feels absolutely free, because he has escaped, the enlightened person is one who has escaped.

So there is nothing wrong with escaping. Provided we take the trouble to use the word correctly, we can certainly describe the whole spiritual life as being, at least from one point of view, a life of escape, of getting free, breaking free, getting clear. But at the same time, that's not to say that there is no such thing as escapism at all. Or rather, that is not to say that there is isn't something, a certain attitude, to which the word escapism can be quite legitimately applied, something that needs, in fact, to be distinguished from actual escaping. One may say that if an escapee is one who breaks out of prison, or tries to break out of prison, the escapist is one who tries to forget the fact that he is in prison at all. The escapist is one who tries to pretend that the prison is not a prison, who tries to pretend that he is free when he is not free. And we can say that, broadly speaking, there are two kinds of escapism, and just for the sake of convenience we can label them the non-religious and the religious. Probably nowadays, non-religious escapism is the more common, the more popular. One may say that non-religious escapism consists in trying to forget the fact that one is in prison by becoming absorbed in whatever activities can be carried on within the prison walls. Religious escapism, on the other hand, consists in trying to forget the fact that one is in prison by becoming absorbed in books on how to escape from ...

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