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Spiritual Rebirth

by Kamalashila

Spiritual Rebirth [WBO Convention 03]
11/22/2006 02:24 PM

Order Convention, Wymondham College 12 August 2003

In this series of talks, we come tonight to the stage for which Bhante has given us the term spiritual rebirth, and
which he associates, primarily, with visualisation practice. In our movement particularly there are so many
meditation practices. Potentially, the whole of Buddhist practice is available. So with all this choice, what
becomes important is that we understand, in essence, what it is we are trying to do. If we understand this
essence, all practice really boils down to one practice - the practice of realisation. But if we don’t have this
essence, we will just be lost in the supermarket of endless choices.
We need to recall our spiritual purpose as strongly and as continuously as we possibly can. This is the essential
practice which holds together the whole system of our practice. Progressing through Bhante’s stages, we first
integrate our self, and secondly create an emotionally positive self. Thirdly we see right through this concept of
self – we see the illusory world we've been creating all this time around that illusory idea. And what our fourth
stage is about is letting this realisation of non-self right into our lives so that ‘we’ no longer get in the way.
In the past I’ve given a number of talks just on visualisation, but I think tonight I need to range a bit more widely
than that. I’d also like to make a disclaimer and say that whatever I say will be quite exploratory. We are
talking about more advanced stages of spiritual experience. It seems to me that the waters are not well charted
and can never be described or understood easily.
Spiritual rebirth must first be distinguished from ordinary rebirth. We are all subject to unpredictable changes
which just go on, on and on forever. It’s the familiar world of impermanence, change, and endless varieties of
suffering. That is the familiar - the ordinary - kind of rebirth. Spiritual rebirth is when we start seeing outside
all this karmically conditioned change. We poke our heads through the shell of ignorance, we actually see the
boundless spaces of nirvana, and we even start stepping out into those spaces.
There is no real difference between spiritual death and spiritual rebirth. There’s just a back and a front end.
Chittapala’s booklet picturesquely describes spiritual death and spiritual rebirth as going hand in hand,
inseparable, like a pair of lovers. On the one hand, spiritual death is the essential experience that makes spiritual
rebirth happen; on the other, spiritual rebirth is what makes sense of the experience of spiritual death.
I feel it’s very important that we use this idea of spiritual rebirth. I don't know why, but it seems to me that in
our presentations of vipasyana we've tended to place the stress on spiritual death. The term itself is accurate
enough, but our associations with the word death can be… let’s say, a little discouraging. When we teach the
Dharma, we tend to find ourselves explaining that what’s at the end of this long demanding spiritual journey is
spiritual death. The impression of death rather sticks in one’s mind.
We are probably all familiar with Bhante’s words on this: “What is the next step… what is the next step…? The
next step is death! The happy, healthy individual which you are now… must die!” When I was in my twenties,
this radical kind of talk greatly appealed to me. I too used to give talks in this vein, and impressed my listeners
with devilish, Bhantoid chuckles. But I was really just showing my ignorance. It was not even a proper reflection
of Bhante’s teaching, because he used also to speak in terms of spiritual rebirth. I just didn’t understand the
notion of spiritual rebirth, so I couldn't include it in my picture of Buddhist liberation.
And since what stuck in my mind was death, and since death is something one fears, I tended to see vipashyana as
something to be afraid of. This made it rather unlikely that I would try very seriously to develop any vipashyana.
It seems reasonable for us to be afraid of actual death, though from the perspective of Dharma, fear is actually a
quite unreasonable and counterproductive response to the positive opportunity that the dying process offers. But I
don’t think that is all that prevents our realising spiritual death. Something that also puts us off is a kind of fear
of the life on the other side. We can imagine it to be a no-fun place: dull, worthy, cooped up without outlet for
our colourful passions and interests. I think that’s sometimes how we come to see spiritual transformation.
Maybe some of this feeling is natural enough, considering how passionate and how interested we are in so many
things. But as an attitude to spiritual transformation it is not reasonable or useful.
It’s worth looking more deeply at the relationship between our passions and the dharma. As most of you know I
have recently been on a long solitary retreat, and during all the months that I spent in my little hut, I was made
very aware of my interests and passions. I was made very aware of my samskaras. Samskaras like greed, hatred
and delusion - of course – but those are very general labels. In a situation like that one’s mind can become very
fresh and ready to learn, and we may uncover unseen threads of interest, and certain obsessions that we’d not
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Spiritual Rebirth [WBO Convention 03]
11/22/2006 02:24 PM
The day I left my retreat I got into my car and I drove from Tipi Valley in south-west Wales to Tunbridge Wells,
which is just south of London. It’s quite a long drive, and I took it fairly slowly as you can imagine, since it’d
been eighteen months since I’d driven - or even walked for that matter - on any kind of road, let alone a
motorway. So I made several stops at roadside cafes. It was a hot sunny day, and I found myself standing by my
car, drinking tea out of my big plastic bowl, and gazing wide-eyed at all the people and the strange ways they
were behaving. Especially I remember watching maybe a dozen policemen and women, all joshing around with
each other and tucking into a lunch of baguettes and sandwiches. I was touched by seeing them somehow. I was
fascinated, in fact; they completely drew my interest.
They were so incredibly unhealthy looking, so pasty faced and ugly. Their physical movements were so jarring -
they jerked their ungainly bodies along as though they were in plaster. At the same time, you could see they
were basically good people. I always feel a bit sad about police because they are hated and distrusted, and
sometimes no doubt that’s for a reason. What touched me was that a lot of them must originally have joined up
for altruistic motives, but I wonder how much of that lasts. It must be a difficult life.
As these thoughts floated around in my mind, I became aware of myself standing there. What an oddball I must
look, with my plastic bowl of tea, my unshaven face, and my soiled clothes. I had holes in my trousers. I’m a bit
dirty, I thought. (I’d just seen myself in the mirror in the gents’.) I looked down at my hands… there was dirt
under my fingernails. Then I realised ‘no – that’s not dirt. It’s the earth, it’s the earth’ and I started weeping. It
was the thought of the elements, who had been like close friends to me. Tears came up at the memory of where
I’d been for so long, of all the depth I’d been in touch with, and at the contrast with this life out here which was
so completely out of harmony with that.
Now I like to think that I wouldn’t confuse some vague emotional experience with insight into dharma. But clearly
this was some kind of reminder about an important dimension of things. I really had felt that the elements had
somehow been my friends – the idea means something very tangible to me. Anyway, whatever its significance,
this little incident seems to illustrate how our interest, our passion if you like, is always there; it is always strong,
and it is that which we channel and experience more deeply through our Buddhist practice.
When we look at Bhante’s ‘system’, we see two great stages. The first is preliminary to transcendental insight,
the second comes out of insight. Integration and positive emotion are necessary as a foundation. After the
illumination of spiritual death, there is a fundamental change, and life is never as it was before. This what Bhante
calls spiritual rebirth, or in Yogachara terms we have the paths of vision, transformation, and no more learning or
completion. Clearly, that’s where we all need to go. We all need to get on to those pathways of further human
development. I think it is what we really want. I think our passion, our deepest longings, have more to do with
that than with the substitutes we generally pursue. The problem is that we’re so often out of touch with what we
really want.
Spiritual death is when we have a real glimpse of nondual reality. We see, even if it is just for a moment, the
insubstantiality and the vastness of everything. We see for a moment at least, that we know nothing at all about
what is happening. That all our ideas are ...

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