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Here Be Dragons - Disasters Dilemmas and Dead Ends on the Spiritual Quest

by Vessantara

Here Be Dragons

Disasters, Dilemmas, and Dead Ends On The Spiritual Quest

By Vessantara

Talk given at the Men’s National Order Weekend, Wymondham College, August 2002

(N.B. This talk was aimed at its specific audience, but others, especially those preparing
for Ordination into the Western Buddhist Order, may find it of interest.)

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM584

Introduction: the knights reassemble

Last summer I took time out from my year’s sabbatical to attend, and partly lead, the
Tuscany Reunion Retreat at Il Convento. Il Convento is for me an archetypal place. It’s
where I spent 18 months on retreat in the ’80s, on six ordination courses, and saw 101
men ordained. It’s also where Bhante gave his papers on The Journey to Il Convento and
St Jerome Revisited, discussing symbol and archetype. So naturally I tended to see the
retreat in archetypal terms.

During those weeks last summer, Il Convento became in my mind not an old monastery,
but a kind of Camelot, a Dharma castle from which, over a 6-year period, 101 men had
ridden forth on the quest of the Holy Grail of Enlightenment. Now 15-20 years later, we
were reassembling, from all points of the compass. I had brought with me photos from
those ordination retreats, of those mainly absurdly young and fresh-faced knights riding
out, full of enthusiasm for the quest. Now we were returning to Camelot, all older and
wiser. Some, whilst still continuing on the Quest, were unable to join us. A handful had
left the Order and, if they were still questing, were doing it in their own fashion, no
longer in contact with the rest of us. One, sadly, had died by his own hand.

So I looked around me at the assembled company. We were all much older, we had all
been on the Quest for 15 years or more, and we all had tales to tell, adventures to recount.
Some had enjoyed the Quest; perhaps a few had even had glimpses of the Grail. But there
were also those who had fought dragons and been badly singed, some who had been
imprisoned by evil wizards or enchantresses, and there were those who had had periods
of being separated from their brother knights, and had wandered long in barren

And the King himself had aged. He was now 75, and his, external sight was failing him.
Though it was clear, from the equanimity with which he dealt with the partial loss of his
sight, that his inner vision was still bright, perhaps brighter than ever, and his certainty
that it was possible for each of us to succeed on the Grail Quest was as strong as when he
had witnessed our setting out, all those years ago.

I spent some time during my year’s sabbatical at Guhyaloka reflecting on this experience
at Il Convento, thinking about the ups and downs and struggles that people had gone
through. And when at times I began to forget this train of thought, it would often be
restarted by reading Shabda [the order journal]. In each month’s crop of reporting-in,
there are always a certain number of Order members ‘going through it’ - men or women
in crisis, not sure why they are practising the Dharma, unsure about the Order or the
FWBO, depressed, etc. etc.

So my experience at Camelot/Il Convento and my reading of Shabda prompted me to
want to give a talk about spiritual crisis and difficulty. I’m sorry if it doesn’t appear to be
a very inspiring topic, though personally I often find Order Members’ struggles very
inspiring. I am not planning to discuss other Order Members’ crises, and I shall probably
not be handing out much general advice. I shall of course draw on my observations of
Order members over many years, but often I shall be drawing on my own rich and varied
experience of spiritual crises: doubts, difficulties, and downfalls. If you find any of this
helpful in your own situation, then all well and good.

Is the Path well mapped?

Before I do talk more personally, I want first to mention something about maps. The first
part of my title: Here Be Dragons comes from inscriptions on old maps, from the days
long before just about every square metre of the planet had been surveyed, explored, or at
least photographed from the air. I want to start by talking about maps because accurate
maps of the spiritual terrain are crucial for the spiritual quest. Obviously we need to know
the direction in which Enlightenment lies, otherwise we could search forever.

In a sense we have no real problems in this regard, as the Buddha has laid out very
clearly the nature of Enlightenment, and the general path of ethics, meditation and
wisdom that leads to it. However, to be confident on the journey, we also need as clear a
map as possible of the terrain through which we are likely to pass. And it seems to me
that here we as westerners need to start doing some new mapmaking. All too often we are
working with traditional maps, descriptions of the Path that seem not to fit our
experience. These traditional maps include the Spiral Path - in which in dependence upon
suffering arises faith, then onwards and upwards: from joy to rapture, rapture to calm,
calm to bliss, bliss to concentration, and from concentration to knowledge and vision.
There is also the Buddha’s account in the Samannaphala Sutta of the fruits of the life of a
recluse. He describes how one who has gone forth into the homeless life practises the
precepts, this gives him a basis for the practice of contemplation; that enables him to
guard the gates of the senses; this enables him to develop sati and sampajjañña; this leads
to contentment, overcoming the five hindrances, and then cultivating the dhyanas, this
gives birth to insight, the development of supernormal powers, and so on, until one
arrives at liberation of the heart and the certainty that Enlightenment has been gained.
It’s not that these maps are false, but rather they are too idealised to meet our needs as we
strive to follow them. They tend to give a very rosy picture of the spiritual life. They’re a
bit like aerial photos of terrain to be covered, which are taken from too high up to show
the peat bogs, rocks, etc. that a walker will encounter. It is easy to compare one’s own
spiritual life to these ideal accounts, and become disheartened and feel that one is a
completely useless Buddhist practitioner.

It is clear from reading Buddhist literature that even for most of the greatest Buddhist
practitioners, life was not so straightforward. In the Pali Canon one reads many accounts
of monks who become dissatisfied with their Dharma life, who totally lose their
inspiration. In the Mahayana tradition you have figures like Asanga who meditated for 12
years, giving up at regular intervals because he seemed to be gaining no results. Or there
is the tantric siddha Virupa who, after many years of practising tantric visualization was
so disenchanted that he took his mala and threw it into a cess-pit. There are also cases of
burn-out, such as Hakuin, who in his Yasenkanna describes how he pushed himself so
hard that for a while he became a mental and physical wreck.

And in the Pali Canon the Buddha also gives descriptions of the spiritual path that make
it sound less straightforward than the account in the Samannaphala Sutta. For example,
there is a sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya in which the Buddha says that some people find
the spiritual life easy to start with and easy in the later stages as well. Some find it
difficult and then easy. Others find it easy and then difficult. And then there are those for
whom it starts off difficult, and carries on being difficult until the end - when of course
all the difficulties are finally seen to have been worthwhile!

Even if we manage to put together realistic maps from traditional sources, we are still
faced with the fact that as an early generation of Dharma practitioners in the West,
although the general principles of the Dharma will be the same, some of the doubts and
difficulties, and some of the psychological mechanisms involved in practising those
general principles will be different. Perhaps in 500 years’ time, Western Buddhist
teachers will be able to guide their students along well-plotted routes, well aware of the
likely pitfalls and difficulties. But we have to pioneer, with all the risks of venturing into
unexplored territory: the spiritual equivalent of falling into crevasses, or being eaten by

To take one example of what I’ve, been talking about, if you follow the traditional maps,
getting into dhyana is followed by more dhyana, and then by the development of insight.
However, I had an interesting conversation last year at Guhyaloka with Bodhananda, who
has led a lot of meditation retreats at Vajraloka and elsewhere. He said that in his
experience of leading retreats and doing many meditation interviews, it was almost
invariably the case that people who got into dhyana found themselves within two or three
days falling into a bit of a pit.

This was also my experience in the first years of my practice. It was as if I had ...

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