Transcribing the oral tradition...

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The Order-s Relation to Sangharakshita

by Vishvapani

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A Buddhist teacher differs from a poetic mentor in that he want to induct the disciple into
a third thing, the Dharma, which he, too, aspires to realise. Etymologically ‘influence’
means ‘in-flux’ or inflow and perhaps the closest word that Buddhism has for influence is
adistana or blessings, which also refers to the light that emanates form the yidam or the
guru in a sadhana practice. Most simply, we shall find our own space most truly in
relation to Bhante by making our own connections with the Dharma, and coming
ultimately to own realisations of its truths. If we do so in the light of Bhante’s teaching,
perhaps we shall feel more fully that we have chosen our teacher, out of what Goethe
calls ‘elective affinity’, rather than merely waiting to be chosen.

So let us not turn away from the strength of others, and let us not avoid Bhante’s
influence. Now that he is not a personal presence in many of our lives, we can still relate
to him through reading his books, and reflecting on his many teachings. His output is
formidable, in its extent, range and depth, but we can regard that as an intellectual and
spiritual challenge, and we shall have to become greater if we are to encompass it. We
should read them, and read the books by Subhuti and others as spurs to practice and
gateways to the open secrets of that Dharma, so that its own vast influence may also enter
our lives.

These reflections on the anxiety of influence point to a broader issue in relating to
Bhante. Very simply, we each need to consider how our psychology conditions how we
approach him. If we have problems with authority in general, we will certainly
experience these in the sangha, and some people at least will experience them strongly in
relation to our teacher.

Many of the same issues come up, of course, in relation to kalyana mitras other than
Bhante, and if we can work through issues of anxiety, idealisation, transference, and
projection with them, then we will have gone a long way to developing our relationship
with Bhante. But, I have one final thought. Perhaps the best way to understand Bhante is
to become a kalyana mitra oneself, and experience the pleasures and perils of influencing

Conclusion: Relating to Bhante as a Practice

If my talk has a single message it is that we should consciously take responsibility for
developing our relationship with Bhante – and by extension with other senior Order
members. We should regard it as a practice, seeking to understand the forces at work and
addressing difficulties as an aspect of our commitment to Dharma practice.

In Berzin’s ‘Relating to a Spiritual Teacher’, having considered the many difficulties and
misunderstandings that arise in such a relationship, he concludes that students must take
responsibility for it. Even if our teacher has both faults and virtues, it is open to us to
choose where we focus our attention. After all our closest friends also have a mixture of
qualities, but friendship is impossible if we dwell on their faults. Tibetan tradition sees
the relationship with the guru as a practice, and says that it can develop as we progress
along the path. This ‘sutra level guru meditation’ which is derived from Tsongkhapa is
different from the tantric practice of regarding the guru as a Buddha. It means cultivating
a skilful response to a teacher as a way of seeking to discern the Dharma, the truth they
have been teaching us, and which we aspire to become.

First of all we imagine our teacher by looking at a photo or visualising their image, and
we direct a puja towards them. The difference between the form of this puja and our own
is simply that it does not include going for Refuge. The teacher is an object of devotion,
but is not a refuge, and does not, as they would in a tantric practice, stand in for the Three
Jewels. We entreat the teacher not to die, and ask them for teaching – as in the ‘Entreaty
and Supplication’ section of our puja.

Next we remind ourselves of the benefits of dwelling on our teacher’s good qualities and
the disadvantages of dwelling on their faults. In brief we engage with our teacher as a
source of inspiration because, however complex our relationship with him may be, he is
the conduit through which the Dharma has come to us. It is a process of seeing the
Dharma through our teacher by seeing the Dharma in our teacher.

Next we may bring to mind what we believe to be the teacher’s faults and consider that
these are impermanent, and illusory when set against his virtues. We then bring those
virtues to mind, dwell on them and rejoice in them. We may consider the extraordinary
achievements of Bhante’s life: his deep connection with the Dharma; his intuitive grasp
of the essentials at an extraordinarily early age; his immense learning; the breadth of his
outlook, which enables him to be a kalyana mitra to so many people from so many
backgrounds. We may think of his mindfulness – which seems to be unfailing – his
devotion to friendship, his perceptiveness, and his mystery.

We move on to reflect on how these virtues came into being. For sixty years Bhante has
worked on himself with unfailing persistence, energy and resolve. His life is evidence of
his deep faith in the Dharma, and his willingness to do whatever is necessary to serve and
to practice it – whether that meant leaving his culture to devote himself to the life of a
monk; risking unpopularity through refusing to confine himself to the teachings of a
single school; or leaving behind his life of writing and reflection to respond to the
aspirations of Dr Ambedkar and his followers. Then Bhante came to the West to engage
in the vast task not only bringing Buddhism to the West, but translating it for the West.
He survived rejection by his critics in Britain, and had the courage and vision to found a
new movement. And then he patiently worked to develop the Order and movement,
unperturbed by the many, many difficulties along the way.

Bhante may not regale us with stories of his experiences in meditation but these
biographical details themselves tell us much about Bhante’s practice. He became what he
is through these efforts. So, in the next stage we consider that we, too, can develop such
qualities if we commit ourselves to practice. This is Bhante’s message to us. Through his
hundreds of lectures, dozens of books, his lifetime of teaching, and his personal example
he is showing us what we can become if we apply ourselves with love, respect and faith
to Dharma practice.

This brings us to a reflection on our teacher’s kindness, and a sense of what we have
gained from him. What would our lives be like if the Dharma had not been taught in a
way we can understand? What would our minds be like if it were not for meditation?
What worlds would we inhabit? We feel our hearts appreciation and respect for
everything he has done for us.

And finally we request inspiration – the adistana or blessing – which enters our hearts as
white or golden light, emanating from our teacher’s heart. An image of our teacher comes
to the crown of our head and they sit there for the remainder of the day as a witness to our
behaviour and thoughts, and a continuing source of inspiration. Before going to sleep at
night, Berzin suggests, we may imagine that this image dissolves into our hearts, or that
we fall asleep with our head in our teacher’s lap.

I don’t know if I am capable of such unselfconscious devotion to Bhante. But I am
moved by the reminder in this meditation and our own Kalyana Mitra Yoga, of
everything I owe to him, and the depth of our connection.

The culmination of ‘My Relation to the Order’ is the following passage, which is one of
Bhante’s most striking testimonies and finest pieces of writing. Having described what he
sees as his own limitations he expresses his amazement at what has resulted:

‘Now hundreds of lotuses are blooming, some of the bigger and more resplendent flowers
being surrounded by clusters of half opened buds. During the last 22 years a whole lotus
lake has come into existence, or rather a whole series of lotus lakes. Alternatively, during
the last 22 years the original lotus plant has grown into an enormous lotus tree not unlike
the great four-branched Refuge Tree – has in fact grown into a whole forest of lotus
trees. Contemplating the series of lotus lakes, contemplating the forest of lotus trees, and
rejoicing in the strength and beauty of the lotus flowers, I find it difficult to believe that
they really did all originate from that small and inadequate pot, which some people
wanted to smash to bits, or put in the dustbin, or bury as deep as possible in the ground.

In brief, dropping the metaphor and speaking quite plainly, when I see what a great and
glorious achievement the Order represents, despite its manifest imperfections, I find it
difficult to believe hat I could have been its founder. Not long ago, in connection with the
dropping of names from the Order register, I spoke of my having taken on the onerous
responsibility ...

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