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A Wreath of Blue Lotus

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by Sangharakshita

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... Hero, homage to you, O best of all creatures, who released me and many other people from pain. (158)All pain is known; craving as the cause is dried up; the Noble Eightfold Way has been developed; cessation has been attained by me. (159)Formerly I was mother, son, father, brother, and grandmother; not having proper knowledge I journeyed on without expiation. (160)That blessed one has indeed been seen by me; this is the last body; journeying on from rebirth to rebirth has been completely eliminated; there is now no renewed existence. (161)I see the disciples all together putting forth energy, resolute, always with strong effort; this is homage to the Buddhas. (162)Truly for the sake of many Maya bore Gotama. She thrust away the mass of pain of those struck by sickness and death.'<The Elders' Verses II (Therigatha), trans. K.R. Norman, Luzac & Co., London 1971, p.18> The last verse but one is particularly beautiful. Mahaprajapati says, `I see the disciples all together putting forth energy, resolute, always with strong effort; this is homage to the Buddhas.' We might say that this verse could serve as a motto for the entire Sangha-past, present, and future. We could also say that Mahaprajapati's acceptance of the eight important rules and her attainment of Enlightenment are by no means unconnected. The eight important rules made sure that her Going Forth was sincere; they made sure that she really wanted to be ordained, really wanted to go for Refuge. They made sure that her motivation was not social but spiritual. The eight important rules are like a great blazing fire, a fire in which all the impurities in Mahaprajapati's wish for ordination were burned up, were consumed, and from that fire Mahaprajapati emerged triumphant. To her, the eight important rules were not a crown of thorns but a `wreath of blue lotus'. They were not something to be endured, but something to be enjoyed. I am reminded in this connection of a passage in the Diamond Sutra: `Moreover, Subhuti, the spot of earth where this Sutra will be revealed, that spot of earth will be worthy of worship by the whole world with its Gods, men and Asuras, worthy of being saluted respectfully, worthy of being honoured by circumambulation,-like a shrine will be that spot of earth. And yet Subhuti, those sons and daughters of good family, who will take up these very Sutras, and will bear them in mind, recite and study them, they will be humbled,-well humbled will they be! And why? The impure deeds which these beings have done in their former lives, and which are liable to lead them into states of woe,-in this very life they will, by means of that humiliation, annul those impure deeds of their former lives, and they will reach the enlightenment of a Buddha.'<E. Conze, Buddhist Wisdom Books, George Allen & Unwin, London, 1958, p.56> Before concluding, I would like to generalize a little from the episode with which we have been concerned.

I have spoken of the Buddha wanting to be quite sure that Mahaprajapati wanted to Go Forth for purely spiritual reasons. But this should not be seen as applying only to Mahaprajapati, or even only to women.

It applies to all who want to Go Forth, to all who want to go for Refuge, to all who want to be ordained.

It is important that one should want to do the right thing for the right reason. Indeed, in the sphere of spiritual life, the right thing is not the right thing unless one does it for the right reason. In principle, the eight important rules represent all those factors that prevent us from Going Forth until we are really ready to do so. To begin with, of course, we may experience those factors not as a wreath of blue lotus, but indeed as a crown of thorns. We may feel very ill-used, very hard done by; we may go around wearing a martyred look. We may even feel angry and resentful that we are not being ordained. But a time comes when we no longer experience the crown of thorns as a crown of thorns but as a wreath of blue lotus. We accept that we are not ready for ordination. Then, paradoxically, we find-or it is found-that we are ready.

At this point a question may arise. Must our desire for ordination be perfectly pure before we can be ordained? In the case of Mahaprajapati this seems to have been what the Buddha insisted upon-perfect purity of motive at least with regard to what Blake called the Female Will. In modern times, when life is so much more complicated than it was in the Buddha's day, one might say that we cannot expect the desire for ordination always to be perfectly pure. But, at the same time, we can expect it to be so, in the sense that we must be prepared to put as much of our energy as we possibly can into the task of spiritual self-development, into the Going for Refuge. Not only that, we must be prepared to take active steps to put all our energies into it. If we can do that then we are ready to Go Forth, ready to go for Refuge.

There is one thing, however, that we must remember. So far as most people are concerned, the Going for Refuge is-to begin with-an `effective' rather than a `real' Going for Refuge.<The Going for Refuge is `effective' when insight into, and commitment to, the spiritual path is sufficiently deep and sufficiently sincere to serve as a strong basis for continued striving. `Real' Going for Refuge coincides with Stream Entry. From this Going for Refuge one cannot fall away. See Sangharakshita, Going for Refuge, Windhorse, Glasgow 1983> Inasmuch as it is only an effective Going for Refuge, we can fall away from it. It is therefore not only necessary to make sure that our desire for ordination is pure, but to make sure that we keep it pure. It is also necessary to make sure that our motive for being in the order remains pure after ordination. We do this by remaining aware and mindful, by remaining emotionally positive, by living and working under conditions which are conducive to our spiritual development, by keeping in close touch with our spiritual friends, and by coming together repeatedly and in large numbers. Otherwise, we may fall by the wayside.

There is just one more point to be made. The eight important rules ensured that Mahaprajapati's Going Forth was sincere. But Going for Refuge is an on-going process. It is not something that we do once and for all. Consequently we all need something like the eight important rules all the time, something that will make sure that our Going for Refuge really is a process that is constantly deepening.

This something is not so difficult to find. We can find it in the positive critical feedback of our spiritual friends-in what has been called `fierce friendship'. If we are to continue to develop spiritually, if we are to continue to deepen our Going for Refuge, then we will need genuine criticism. I am not of course suggesting that we need nothing but criticism-that can be counterproductive: we also need encouragement, appreciation, and inspiration. But we shall upon occasion certainly need criticism too. We shall need criticism that comes from the heart, criticism that is based upon positive emotion, on metta, criticism that is concerned only with our welfare, only with our development.

When we are given that criticism, how shall we receive it? Hopefully we will receive it in the same spirit that Mahaprajapati received the eight important rules from the Buddha: not as a crown of thorns, sharp and uncomfortable, but as a wreath of blue lotus resting beautifully on the top of our heads.

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