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A System of Training

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by Dhammarati

A System of Training
by Dhammarati

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=LOC17
Talk given at the National Order Weekend, February 2008

Dhammarati's nightmare; celebrating birthdays; the Order at 40 - taking stock

Vishvapani was saying yesterday that we make a fuss about birthdays; we remember
birthdays; and I also remember the sixteenth birthday of the order. I believe – Parami
confirms – that was the occasion of Bhante giving the paper on the ten pillars; and all of
us sitting (I think it was in York Hall) listening to a reading, basically, of the text of the
ten pillars… but a real seminal moment.

We also made quite an occasion of the twenty-first birthday. And what I remember of
that one is sitting in the basement of the LBC, designing the graphics for the twenty-first
anniversary. What I particularly remember was the logo— which was a Baskerville “2”
and a Japanese Calligraphy “1” — anyway, probably not a lot of people noticed that…
[LAUGHTER] …

Fortieth birthdays are more problematic (beast, isn’t it?) The only occasion I can think of
is a mid-life crisis… [LAUGHTER] … so – assuming that we are not about to all go and
buy a red sports-car at the end of this weekend – I was thinking, well what happens when
you’re forty? And there’s definitely (if I can remember back that far) a kind of taking of
stock; there’s your youthful idealism, and even – may I say – naiveté meeting the
complexities of real experience, and you having to figure out what’s of real central value
to you.

I was talking to Subhuti recently. He was talking about his time as Order Convener. I
think that maybe some people missed that Subhuti was the overall Order Convener.
Subhuti had so many responsibilities, they all blurred into a sort of single portfolio, pretty
much. Subhuti was ubiquitous, I think, for a lot of our time growing up. He was saying
that he became Order Convener just before the Guardian article came out, and he stopped
being Order Convener just after Yashomitra’s letter. And I think the point he was making
to me was just wanting a bit of empathy for the responsibility he had through what’s
probably been the most turbulent period of self-questioning that we had ever been
through as a movement – as a community.

So, I think this whole motif about the age of forty— taking stock, and just thinking: well
actually, where have we got to; what is of central importance to us?— is kind of apposite,
actually.

The 'Chetokhila Sutta' - confidence in your basis of practice; influence from other

sources; lineage and handing on through generations

I volunteered to do the talk on the System of Practice. I wanted to do a talk, and this was
the one I was interested in. And there’s two reasons for that actually, and in a way they
follow from that from that point of being through such a turbulent period. In Subhuti’s
recent letters, one of the things that really struck me was a point he made about the
Cetokhila Sutta, and the Buddha (in the Cetokhila Sutta) says: “If you want to make
spiritual progress, you have to have confidence in the system of practice that you’re
using; that that confidence is an absolute functional necessity; it’s not a sort of sectarian
thing. So I wanted to address this whole thing of a system of training because I think that
this issue of confidence in our own system – for some of us I think that happens to have
been an issue for us over the last few years, and I want to really try and make the case for
the grounds for confidence in our system of training.

The second one is that I think that over the last few years, we’ve had more inputs, more
inflows from other sources, from other traditions, than ever before in our experience as a
community. I have to say, on the whole, I’m with Vishvapani on this one. I’ve personally
found that a very stimulating thing, and I think that one of the ways that you become
clearer about who you are, is to be in dialog with others; and I think that the dialog that
we’ve been involved in over the last few years, I think has been a healthy thing. But I
think it’s also true that it’s raised questions, and questions that need clarification, so the
second point is, I want to come onto this whole issue of lineage. I think we’re already at a
point, as a community, where we’ve been handed something by our teacher, where it’s
our responsibility in an order of the age of forty to be handing it on to the generation
coming behind us. And I think as well as our own individual practice, we have to be clear
as a community, as a practice community, well what is our tradition, what is it that we are
handing on.

So, I want to try to address both of these issues: confidence in our own practice as a
condition for successful practice; and clarity about what our system of practice is, so we
can hand it on faithfully.

Systems; Ravenna mosaics and modern mosaics - building in irregularity

The title of the talk is: What Do We Mean by Our System of Training?

The first thing that I want to say is that talking about a system at all, immediately brings
up my own personal unease. On the whole, I like a little bit of freedom; as soon as I see a
fence, I want to climb it. I was visiting Vassika recently in Paris. She was telling me
about the mosaics in Ravenna (Ravenna, if you don’t know, is this place in the North of
Italy with some astonishing first century mosaics covering a lot of the churches; they’re
really, really beautiful). And she was showing me a piece of a mosaic done in the style of
Ravenna mosaics and a piece of modern mosaic— the thing about modern mosaic… is
that it’s all (if I understood Vassika’s point) regularly cut tiles put flat in the grouting.
And, by comparison, the mosaic that they used to do in Ravenna, and the main element of
the method (or at least a couple of the elements) is that the tiles are all of irregular size
(basically they’ve been broken), and they’re put into the cement at irregular angles. And
the effect of that is, as you walk past the surface, the whole thing is scintillating; the way
light catches it is completely unpredictable… much, much more interesting than the
rather uniform, regular, mosaic done in a more modern method. And that image struck
me: I just realised that I like a little bit of irregularity; actually, I like something that’s not
too tight a system.

One of the things that the piece that Vassica was showing me, was that all of that
irregularity made up this glorious, luminous, halo of a saint. So there was a pattern there,
the whole thing held together; it was alive, and it was moving. So I want to just sort of
reassure myself first of all, by allowing for a little bit of irregularity in the pattern. I’ve
got an unease with a system that’s too tight. Luckily, however (it seems) so has Bhante.

Sangharakshita on the FWBO system of meditation

I was listening, as part of the preparation for this talk, to a set of question and answer
sessions that Bhante did recently at Madhyamaloka on a seminar organised by Subhuti on
Sangharakshita as Teacher. But a few things that Bhante said in those Question and
answer sessions really struck me: one of them about the System of Meditation.

So Bhante said that the system is not meant to be a rigid system with carefully defined
boundaries; each stage is meant to cover a vast range of experience and practices. And
then he goes on to say— for example, in the second stage – if you’re talking about the
stage of positive emotion (I’m assuming that most people [here] are familiar with the
main categories of the System of Meditation at least), and in the stage of positive emotion
there can be joy, ecstasy, bliss, compassion, everything that’s of an emotionally positive
nature, from ordinary positivity to sublime spiritual experience – one shouldn’t think of
these stages in too narrow a sense.

So, that was the first point I wanted to make. So when Bhante talks about a system of
practice, he’s talking about a stage that encompasses a vast range of experience and
practice.

What, in that case is the value of a system at all? And, in the first lecture that Bhante gave
on the System of Meditation, he laid out his reasons for why he wanted to articulate a
system. And what he said was, “I want to take up different methods of meditation current
in the order.” If I can do a little aside there: at our recent Guhyaloka, Dharmapriya
counted up the number of meditations current in the order and I think he came to
seventeen meditation practices being done regularly (counting sadhana practices as a
single practice). So there’s seventeen – pretty much on a regular basis – being done.
Anyway, Bhante said that he wanted to take up the different methods of meditation
current in the order and see in what way they link into “What I have called,…” and at this
point he puts in the qualifier ...

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