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Twenty Years on the Middle Way

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by Sangharakshita

... you were considered to be ready to become a Mitra in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order.

Even though it's not easy to be a member of the Western Buddhist Order, not easy even to be a Mitra, nevertheless quite a number of people do make the effort or they're making the effort in increasingly large numbers, not only here in England but in a number of other countries as well. Because they make that effort, because they try to deepen their spiritual commitment, and to bring their lifestyle more and more into harmony with that commitment, they change. Or rather they don't just change, they develop, they grow as human beings, spiritually, and sometimes they change a very great deal, and change very quickly. And this is something that I have certainly seen in the course of the last 20 years, and it's certainly one of the most rewarding aspects of my own personal association with the FWBO: just to see people change, certainly from year to year, sometimes even from month to month, from week to week, especially when people are on retreat. So one concludes that the Dharma really does work, the Buddha's teaching really does work, the different methods of practice about which we heard in the afternoon really do work. That is to say they work if you practise them. I've absolutely no doubt about that, in fact I might say that the evidence for the fact that the Dharma works is right here before me. And I'm sure that each and every one of you has changed for the better due to your contact with the Dharma as mediated by the FWBO.

This is a very imperfect world, and in this imperfect world even change for the better, even spiritual development may bring it's own little problems along with it. When you develop spiritually even to a small extent, you not only develop, not only grow, you grow away from. You grow away from your old friends and associates, you grow away from your relations, and you grow away from them because you no longer share their ideas and their attitudes. It's not that you necessarily want particularly to grow away from them, the growing away from them is simply the natural result, the inevitable result, of your own process of development. And in particular perhaps you grow away from your parents, your mother, your father, and of course there is, as you all know, in any case the generation gap as it's called. In modern Western society, relations between parents and children are often not easy, are often a very strained, very difficult, painful, for various reason. Now here too the FWBO follows the middle way. Here too we have been on the middle way for the last 20 years. In this connection I'm speaking of all of us: order members, mitras and friends alike. The middle way is by definition a middle way between extremes, between two extremes, so what are the two extremes so far as our relations with our parents are concerned? What are the two extremes? We can call them submission and rejection, though these terms are not particularly good ones. Perhaps conformative and rebellious would be better.

By submission I mean accepting your parent's point of view in all things, or at least in practically all things. Accepting their ideas, accepting their attitudes, and so on. And therefore not doing anything of which your parents would disapprove, even if you want. I remember when I was in my teens I heard about a woman, a good enough woman, married woman with a family, who didn't dare to mend a stocking on the Sabbath because her old father who was living with them disapproved of that sort of thing. I was about to say that this sort of submission is becoming increasingly rare, but then I remembered that there is also what we may call the internalized parent.

Now the internalized parent is often as powerful, or even more powerful than the actual parent ever was. Be that as it may, in the FWBO we neither submit to our parents, nor do we reject them. Here too we follow the middle way, we are on the middle way. The mere fact that we are changing, that we are developing spiritually, means in most cases as I've already said that we are moving away from our parents, so there is no question of our submitting to them. Indeed we may have moved away from our parents both literally and metaphorically long before we had any sort of spiritual development, long before we came into contact with the FWBO, so we are not in much danger really of falling into the extreme of submission.

What about the extreme of rejection? We're in a much greater danger I think of falling into the extreme of that, the extreme of rejecting our parents. For various reasons in fact society often seems to encourage us to reject our parents, seems to accentuate the differences between us, seems to widen the generation gap.

(SIDE 2) Not only that, there are some extreme religious groups which do in fact encourage us to reject our parents, encourage us to cut off all contact with them that is if they do accept our new belief, but this most emphatically is not the attitude of the FWBO. In the FWBO we actually encourage our members to keep up contact with parents, with our parents, we encourage them to improve their relations with them, though without compromising our own independence. So why do we do this? Why is this the FWBO's attitude? For what reasons does the FWBO adopt this attitude? The reason is very simple and it is a Buddhist reason: when one rejects one's parents, when one rejects anybody in fact, the rejection is almost always the expression of a negative emotional attitude. In plain English it's an expression of anger, or ill-will or even of hatred. Now negative emotions, as I'm sure practically all of us know only too well, negative emotions are one of the biggest obstacles to the leading of a spiritual life. They're one of the things that really get in the way, that really do prevent us from making progress. Hatred in fact is one of the five mental hindrances, as they are called, that prevent us from entering into higher states of consciousness, or prevent us, in a word, from meditating properly. It is important therefore, in fact it is of the utmost importance, that we get rid of our negative emotions, and particularly that we get rid of our negative emotions if we have any towards our parents.

Now you may be wondering, why is it particularly important that we should get rid of our negative emotions towards our parents? Well the reason is I think sufficiently obvious. Under normal circumstances it is after all our parents who bring us up, and we therefore have a longer connection with our parents than with any other human being, with the possible exception of our siblings. Because we are so closely associated with our parents and from such an early period, from such an early date, our emotional tie with them are naturally very strong indeed - sometimes we don't realize how strong they are, in fact they are probably stronger than our emotional ties with anybody else, and may even determine the pattern of all our subsequent emotional relations. Thus a great deal of emotional energy is invested in our attitude to or relationship with our parents even though we may not be aware of the fact. So what does it mean, what does it add up to? It means that if our emotional attitude towards our parents is negative, then our emotional attitude is very negative indeed. It means that our whole emotional life is seriously disturbed, even distorted, may even mean that we have difficulty in relating to other people in a positive manner and it certainly will mean that we find it more difficult to develop spiritually than we otherwise would have done. It therefore is of the utmost importance that we should get rid of our negative feelings towards our parents. It's important that we should establish positive, friendly relations with them. Important that we should not reject them. Now the establishing of positive, friendly relations with one's parents may not be easy, may not be easy either for them or for us. But we should persevere, we should be patient, what has taken a long time to do will probably take a long time to undo, I'm referring of course to the development of negative emotion. Our parents may actually disapprove of our way of life, of what we're doing, they may be disappointed that we're not living up to their expectations - and parents have all sorts of expectations of their children very often - they may not be able to understand why we have given up a good job, or sacrificed a promising career for the sake of what they see as a passing whim, namely Buddhism or the FWBO. And these matters may make our task more difficult. But as I said, we should persevere, we should explain to our parents what we're trying to do, to communicate ourselves as fully as possible, and in the end if we persevere usually they will understand, at least to some extent.

Even parents aren't totally stupid. They may not understand why you have gone, or want to go, for refuge to the three Jewels, but at least they have come to understand that Buddhism really is important to you, really does matter to you, and perhaps they'll even see that you've become a better and happier person since you became part of the FWBO. Even if they don't understand however, you at least will have cleared the air so far as you are concerned. Your attitude towards them will be emotionally positive, whatever their attitude towards you may be. You will feel metta for them, even though they may not feel metta for you, and in this way you will avoid the extreme of rejecting your parents, even as we avoid the extreme of submitting to them also. Like the rest of the FWBO, you will be following the middle way, you will be on the middle way so far as relations with your parents are concerned.

Though parents loom so large in our life especially when we're young, they're only part of a larger scene... part of a larger whole. Part of a particular ...

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