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Remorse and Confession-Subhuti

by Subhuti

Remorse and Confession in the Spiritual Community

By Subhuti


From Sila to Samadhi

One of the first things we learn about Buddhism is that it is a spiritual path consisting of three great
stages or phases, namely morality, concentration and wisdom. The Dharma tells us that if we are
ethically pure, the practice of meditation will lead us upwards through a sequence of higher states of
consciousness; and that these states can then be used as the basis for a profound, liberating
understanding of reality.

Many practitioners of the Dharma, if asked to review their spiritual progress in terms of the
Threefold Way, would probably say that they are still mainly concerned with making the transition
from morality to concentration. Many of them know from experience that higher states of
consciousness are a reality – are 'there' to be attained. It is quite common at least to glimpse such
states in our meditation – especially when we are enjoying the supportive conditions of a retreat.
Actually being able to dwell in these states at will is, however, a much more difficult task. How
then do we make the step from sila to samadhi?

Some of the reasons for the difficulty involved are circumstantial. Many of us lead busy and
demanding lives, and can't devote to meditation anything like the time that rapid progress would
seem to require. However, time is not the only issue here. My work for the Order brings me into
intimate contact with a very large number of Order members and Mitras in both India and the West,
so I have quite a good sense of the sorts of spiritual problems people have, and how they try to deal
with them. Generally speaking, the experience has convinced me that the task of making the
transition from morality to concentration is not simply a question of having more time to meditate.
It is also a question of knowing how to practise effectively. As members of a new spiritual
Movement, we are all in the process of learning a great deal about this.

We will only experience samadhi to the extent that we have a strong foundation in sila. When we
review our own behaviour in the light of the precepts, we may not notice much that seems seriously
wrong. Consequently, we don't keep thinking very deeply or for very long about sila. Yet the logic
of the Threefold Way suggests (and my own experience tends to confirm) that, if we find our
progress in meditation is frustratingly slow, it may be because we have not given sufficient attention
to sila. We need to look again both at what sila is and at how to practise it.

For sila is a practice and we should regard it as such, just as we regard meditation. In relation to our
practice of sila, we should have the same kind of expectations that we have of meditation, namely
that it will be a progressive experience, in which we sense a gradual deepening and refinement.
Indeed, we should have this expectation more strongly with regard to sila than meditation, because
we are hardly likely to get much sense of progress in our meditation unless we first find it in our
sila.

My own understanding of how to do this has recently been greatly illuminated by my encounter
with two important texts. One is Sangharakshita’s Know Your Mind. The other is the
Bodhisattvabhumi (or 'Stages of the Bodhisattva's Path') by Asanga, the great Buddhist teacher born
in the fourth century CE. In the latter work, the chapter on the Bodhisattva's ethics was especially
valuable. Over the course of the last two years, I have had the opportunity to lead study on these
texts, both in the UK and in India. My repeated encounter with the Dharma, as embodied in them,
has led me to a much deeper appreciation of what is entailed in the practice of sila. Nor was I the
only one to benefit: it became clear that the Order members who participated in the study groups
also found the experience extremely useful. I became convinced that the ideas embodied in these
works should be discussed widely throughout the Order, and that it would also be fruitful to share
something of them with the wider Movement. Hence this article.

Traditional Buddhist psychology analyses the human mind by classifying 'mental events'. The most
important distinction in the whole system is between mental events that are skilful (or positive) and
those that are unskilful. The system that Bhante discusses in Know Your Mind lists eleven positive
mental events. In this article, I am going to focus on the first three of these, because they provide
the key to all the others. In Sanskrit, these three are sraddha (‘faith’), hri (‘shame’) and apatrapya
(‘shame through respect of the wise’). The English translations are of course approximate, and the
real meanings of the three terms are amongst the things I hope to clarify in this article.


Dimensions of Sraddha

Sraddha is the most fundamental of the three. Of course, sraddha does not mean religious ‘belief’ as
generally understood in the west. Sraddha is our spontaneous response to the spiritual Truth, in
whatever form it presents itself to us. As such, it is the motive force of the act of going for Refuge
to the Three Jewels. But what sort of 'mental event' is it exactly? How do we know if we experience
it?

Asanga offers an analysis that is very relevant to this question. He distinguishes three aspects or
phases of sraddha. Firstly, faith takes the form of conviction. You become convinced, for example,
that the Dharma is true. It appears to you to be an honest, accurate and profound account of reality.
Similarly, faith in the Buddha begins when we become convinced – perhaps from the evidence of
the suttas – that the Buddha was a profoundly wise and good human being. Such conviction is the
cognitive or intellectual aspect of faith, and it is indispensable. Secondly, sraddha involves an
attraction to the Truth we perceive. This is the affective (i.e. ‘emotional’) dimension of sraddha. We
can compare the feeling involved to aesthetic appreciation. The term ‘aesthetic’ is not ideal but it
does at least point towards the nature of the affective side of sraddha: a delighted fascination for
something seen as beautiful. Thirdly, from this attraction comes a decision to move closer to the
object of sraddha, and even to unite oneself with it. Here, an affect becomes a volition, or (less
technically) the feeling of attraction passes over into will and action. These three aspects of sraddha
are sometimes termed lucid faith (the conviction), serene faith (the attraction) and longing faith (the
volitional aspect).

An important aspect of longing faith is the sense that the longing can be fulfilled, that is, a
confidence that one is, in fact, able to close the gap between oneself and the object of sraddha.
‘Confidence’ is, of course, one of the possible English translations of sraddha, one that modern
translators, understandably keen to avoid Christian overtones, often prefer as an alternative to
‘faith’. This brings us to one of the commonest problems that people have with sraddha. It seems
that the lack of such confidence in one’s ability to ‘close the gap’ is an aspect of sraddha that many
of us find problematic. Despite what you might think, this is not a particularly modern problem. It is
discussed in the traditional sources. What is often different nowadays is our attitude to the problem.
We tend to view this lack of confidence rather sympathetically in terms of psychological
difficulties, lack of self-esteem, and so on. However, the old texts generally see it – rather
disconcertingly – as a form of laziness.

According to the Buddhist tradition, laziness has three forms. There is laziness as everyone
understands it – ‘the laziness that takes delight in lying down and not getting up’. Then there is the
laziness that consists of yielding to unskilful impulses when we should resist them. But there is also
the laziness of despondency. This is the state of mind in which we tell ourselves, ‘Poor me! What
can I do? Not only do I lack x, but I also lack y and z. I’m just not up to it. Ah well, there it is’. This
attitude leads to (or rationalises) the giving up of all effort. The tradition unequivocally regards this
as a form of laziness: an unwillingness to put forth the virya, or spiritual energy, that is needed to
close the gap between ourselves and our Ideal. It is important to distinguish this attitude from the
objective self-criticism that is informed by faith and which leads (as we shall see) to confession. But
before moving on to discuss confession, we need to look still deeper into sraddha.

I suspect that, too often, we tend to think of sraddha only in its affective aspect, and to have an
unrealistic idea of how strong that should be. We look for a sort of exhilarating fizz of inspiration,
filling our consciousness. But that is not its only or even its most characteristic mode. Faith is not
always an ‘obvious’ experience. It can be present as something embedded in our assumptions and
behaviour, ...

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