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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 “…a trifle ambitiously, a system.”

So, the first thing he wanted to do was to link the different practices. And then he goes on to make clear why. He said that it needs to be clear how the practices are related. What we need is an arrangement of practice that takes us forward step by step, and stage by stage, and then he went on to say that what he wanted was something that made clear the progressive, cumulative nature of spiritual practice. And for me they’re the central points that I want to just underline in this talk: that what Bhante was trying to do was – from the point of view of our own practice being effective – articulate how what looked like a kind of random set of practices… ...

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