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The Order-s Relation to Sangharakshita

by Vishvapani

You searched for SANGHARAKSHITA

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... is to mean anything then we cannot regard his views in the same way that we
regard other people’s. Especially in relation to views such as Bhante’s on gender, which
raise such strong feelings, we need to be prepared to set aside our reactions, trust that the
motivation behind them is one of kindness and wisdom, and consider the possibility that
we may be wrong. We need to accord due weight to the fact that these particular views
have been expressed by someone to whom we look for guidance.

Secondly, we need to be clear whether the disagreement concerns an area that is so
fundamental that our discipleship is undermined. I think this means asking whether it
prevents us from going for Refuge to the Three Jewels in the context of the WBO, and in
the light of Sangharakshita’s exposition of the Dharma. So, for example, Bhante’s views
on gender seem to me peripheral to his teachings as a whole, and I can’t see why
disagreement with these should undermine more fundamental agreement.

Thirdly, the manner of our disagreement with our teacher is important. If we are to
disagree we should do so politely, without making a rousing declaration of our
intellectual autonomy, or an oedipal triumph. And I think that our disagreements should
be regretful, and made with humility. And they must take place within the context of a
broader assent, and spiritual harmony.

And finally, as Bhante stressed at the colloquium, when people disagree with him they
need to take the risk of that disagreement. That is, they risk possibly falling into ‘wrong
views’. The responsibility is ours.

Bhante’s Influence

So far as it goes this account of Bhante’s authority seems fair and accurate. Yet there is
something lacking from it. This way of putting things expresses our relation to Bhante
from his perspective, suggesting the claims he does and does not make on us through his
role as our teacher. But what does it feel like for us to be in this relationship? I want to
move on now from considering the dynamics of our relationship with Bhante, which I
have discussed in relation to the question of authority, to a more subjective dimension,
and reflect a little on the psychology of discipleship. If Bhante is not an authority he is
none the less an influence, and I want to ponder what it is to be influenced by another, or
even to be ‘under their influence’. I want to reflect a little on the phenomenon of ‘the
anxiety of influence’, which is the title of a book by Harold Bloom who, some of you
may have noticed, is a considerable influence on me.

Bloom is an English Professor at Yale, but he is rather more than a critic: he is a brooding
meditator on poetry who tracks the spiritual life of the post-Renaissance West through his
readings of its literature. ‘The Anxiety of Influence’ is his key work, written in 1973, a
‘poetic myth of the origins of poetry’, that turns on the paradoxical relationship between
a poet and his or her precursors. A poet in the romantic and post romantic traditions of
modern poetry seeks fresh or direct utterance. Yet the imagination of every poet is
wakened into song by the poetry others have written before him. A poet learns to write,
think, imagine through his encounter with the imagination of an earlier writer. As Bloom
says:

‘the poet is condemned to learn his profoundest yearnings through an awareness of other
selves. The poem is within him, yet he experiences the shame and splendour of being
found by poems – great poems – outside him.’ (p. 26)

In this view the precursor initiates the student into his own experience, but this is a
problematic phenomenon for someone who wants to find their own voice. I have
pondered Blooms theories for a number of years, and wondered how much they can tell
us about our own relations with our teacher’s. I think the parallel can easily be over-
stretched because the ‘strong poets’ Bloom is discussing are exceptional individuals, each
of them a great mind straining after originality. Such a mind needs to struggle against
influences in order to find the creative space for fresh utterance, and Bloom charts the
twisting path along which poets travel, rereading and misreading their predecessors in the
interests of this search.

We aren’t like that, or at least I am not like that. But on my own level I have often felt the
need to ‘think for myself.’ Yet this approach has dangers. As Bhante commented at the
colloquium ‘very few people think for themselves’, and he warned against ‘a pseudo
thinking for oneself, which is really just raising objections.’ Indeed we may ask, what is it
to think for oneself? On that colloquium I reflected that my concern to protect myself
from influences had in the past taken the form of a scrupulous scepticism, a concern to
rest only on what I knew to be true. Others there had a similar approach, indeed,
academics guard closely their intellectual autonomy, and incline towards asking
questions rather than settling on answers. Bhante responded to our questions by
commenting that ‘there is no limit to scepticism, and where one stops is a subjective
matter.’ As an alternative he invoked Keats’ negative capability, the capacity to dwell in
a state of ‘not knowing’, without any ‘irritable searching after fact of reason’.

Erecting a barrier of doubt and questioning to ward of influence is, according to Bloom’s
categories, a ‘weak misreading’ of our precursor, that fails in its aim of protecting a
creative space that is safe from the precursor’s influence. But ‘nothing is got for nothing’
in the psychic economy, and we shall find that the space we have made – in this case the
fortress of reason – is a lonely citadel, whose walls isolate it from the very creativity we
originally craved. This is just one variety of defence against influence, and there are as
many others as there are temperaments. But if our defence is simply a warding off it will
make us weak because it is defensive and unconscious. Bloom insists that the history of
individuality show that it is never achieved without the active presence of a strong
influences. To do so is to remain trapped within our limitations – that is why in his later
book The Western Canon Bloom so bewails the deconstruction of the values of the
western literary tradition on political rather than aesthetic grounds. In turning away from
the giants of the past we avoid confronting their strength, but also lose the opportunity to
find ourselves in relation to it.

We, too, can live in ways that minimise our contact with strong presences such as those
of senior Order members, let alone Bhante. Are we afraid of Bhante? Afraid that our
budding individualities will be overwhelmed by the force of his mind? The individualist’s
fear is above all that he will fall into conformity, but the paradox is that his own aversion
to influence is itself a testament to its strength. It is exceptionally difficult to find a third
way, between individualism and conformity, a strong response which is both a full
engagement with out teachers, and yet is our own.. Before I moved to Madhyamaloka
this concerned me too. Would I subtly lose the initiative in my own mental life, or even
in my life as a whole. My anxiety concerned not just Bhante, but Subhuti, and in fact the
weighty beings of Madhyamaloka as a whole, by whom I would be surrounded. Would
there be space for me to flourish?

Having lived there for over a year I still think that the anxiety of influence is real and
challenging. Among guests to the community dinner table a frequent problem is the
influence of anxiety, which is rather different. The problems of influence concern the
nature of one’s life as a whole and the forces that shape it, and this is perhaps particularly
an issue for those who have spent a long time around Bhante. But it is also clear that this
very phenomenon of influence has helped produce the strong personalities, developed
minds that I see around me.

Engaging with an influence is not easy and not without its cost. Three years I interviewed
Robert Thurman on the subject of future of Tibetan Buddhism, and asked him about the
role of teachers. Perhaps responding to the over-emphasis on teachers among American
students of Tibetan Buddhism Thurman recounted a Tibetan saying that ‘the best teacher
is the one that lives three valleys away.’ And he added, ‘You have to remember that in
Tibet three valleys means, like, from here to Switzerland.’ Sometimes a space is needed
so that we may find the strength in ourselves with which we can confront the strength of
our precursor.

Bloom’s great point is that we have to make our own sense of the precursor’s perspective
if we are to achieve a vision of our own. This is the way to strength. Throughout this
article I have stressed the ways in which we need to make Bhante’s teachings our own,
and more broadly still, to make the Dharma our own. A true teacher does not want mere
followers, so much as successors, and those who will surpass him. As Bloom says, ‘Be
me but not me’ is the paradox of the precursor’s implicit charge.’(p.70) ...

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