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Our Work as Teachers and Practitioners

by Kamalashila

Our Work as Teachers and Practitioners
11/22/2006 02:24 PM
our work as teachers and practitioners


an address to the Western Buddhist Order at WBO Day, London 2005 and edited for written publication
by Dharmachari Kamalashila

overview
This talk presents the suggestions of a team of senior Order members for a new meditation training
programme. It contains my personal view of some faults in our approach which the programme is
designed to address.

Readers should bear in mind that this originated as a spoken talk. In attempting to consider certain
group tendencies, I often make generalisations which may not apply to individuals.

introduction
the essence of Buddhist practice
Over the last few years, as most of you know, I've been exploring Mahamudra and Formless
meditation, and it was on the basis of what I’d learned in that field that I undertook my long retreat
which ended a couple of years ago. More recently I've been wondering how to bring that way of
seeing things in line with more mainstream FWBO teachings. And one thing I've been trying is a
comparative study of the Satipatthana Sutta with a text called the Mahamudra Pranidhana.
Pranidhana means Vow or Prayer, so that’s ‘Prayer of Mahamudra’.
In some ways you could hardly find a greater contrast. The Satipatthana is very analytical.
Essentially it’s a four part list to memorise – of what you need to be aware of in order to gain
Enlightenment, and the manner in which you need to do that. First you need, the Buddha says, to be
aware of body - of your body breathing, your body posture, your body activity, your body’s anatomy,
of the four physical elements - and to contemplate the impermanence of all that (using, as meditation
object, a decomposing body). Then you need to be aware of each feeling - how pleasant or painful it
is, how worldly or unworldly it is. Thirdly, you need to be aware of your mind state - is this ordinary
greed hate delusion, or is it less ordinary - is my mind concentrated, become great, or even liberated.
And fourthly, you need to be aware of the objects of your mind’s attention, moment by moment, and
check them against various dharma categories - ask, is this mental object one of the five hindrances,
or the five skandhas? If it’s a sense experience, will it give rise to one of the ten fetters? Or to one of
awakening factors, the bodhyangas? And how does it relate to the Four Noble Truths?
And the manner in which you should be aware of body, feeling, mind and mind-object is with a fiery
diligence for actualising the Path: that is, (in Pali) with aatapii. You should be fully present, right here,
on the ball, in the present moment: in other words, should have sati. And you should clearly know
exactly what you are trying to achieve in each moment in view of the Path: that is, have sampajaana.
And finally, if you are actually going to be able to do that, effectively, you have to be quite un-
pressured by desires and discontentment.
That’s a brief content summary of the Satipatthana. It’s a text we all know. It is basic dharma;
mindfulness is also the essential Buddhist practice. It’s the core practice without which there can be
no progress on the path. Mindfulness is not easy, actually. Or at least, many of us don't find it so. I
sometimes even get an impression that some people feel guilty about their inability to practice
mindfulness. And then I sometimes wonder if there is something about the Satipatthana’s form of
instruction, or at least in the way we in the Order tend to interpret that instruction, that is a little
discouraging. Maybe even somewhat uninspiring. Mindfulness is undeniably a good thing, yet here it
may start to appear unpalatable, somehow.
That’s partly why I was interested in the Mahamudra Pranidhana. Its language is so very different,
even though it also tells you what you need to be aware of, and it also tells you in what manner you
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Our Work as Teachers and Practitioners
11/22/2006 02:24 PM
need to be aware. It is amazing that it contains essentially the same instruction, but couched in
language that is highly inspirational. Each verse is a prayer: May I always meet and never stray from
the unerring dharma, the Twofold Reality, the ground of experience that is the heart-mind, free from
ego positioning, that is clarity and emptiness both at once. May I gain certainty in this, and may the
Dharmakaya, which is the heart of all experience whatsoever, be revealed by this great Vajra Yoga.
That’s the flavour of the text. Long ago I was in conversation with Bhante and some others. We were
talking about how difficult it was to practice mindfulness – yes, a perennial topic - and I had a flash of
inspiration. I said ‘it’s because we don't actually want to do it. You have to want to do it’. Bhante
thought this was a good point, and I've been working on it ever since, with varying degrees of
success! But what struck me about the Mahamudra Pranidhana verses is that they are all about
wanting. A prayer is a wish; it’s very much from the heart. Oh, may I always meet the dharma, face
to face. May I always realise that my immediate experience is none other than the Dharmakaya. My
working ground, my point of practice is always this. May I realise what that means, in all its amazing
significance, all the time. May this be the case. May I gain certainty in this truth. It is what I really
really want, I never wanted anything else but I keep forgetting. May I never forget this again.
I find this pranidhana very inspiring. It helps me feel inspired about Satipatthana, too.
Recently I have been thinking about the characteristic flavour of the FWBO approach to the Dharma.
What is it? What’s our dharma? Is it mindfulness? Probably it should be, but if it’s not, let me
suggest interconnectedness. That may not have occurred to you before, but consider it for a moment,
anyway. Interconnectedness is an important Mahayana way of looking at ultimate reality – an
expression of the ultimate vision of pratityasamutpada or universal conditionality. The absolute
interconnectedness of all dharmas, all things whatever; their interpenetration, their interbeing. It’s
Indra’s jewelled net. It’s the Avatamsaka view of simultaneity and Totality. It’s the universe in a grain
of sand. It’s I am you and you are me, and we are we, and we are all together (as John Lennon once
said).
No doubt we have some way to go before so exalted a viewpoint could be said to be characteristic of
us; but certainly in the WBO we have always had a very strong emphasis on connection. It’s very
noticeable from the outside. I recently visited a Buddhist friend in Bristol who teaches in the
Dzogchen tradition, and as well as talking a lot about the dharma we of course got on to the subject of
the FWBO. What he wanted to know was, how do we do it? What is it that draws so many people?
And more than that, what is it that keeps us together? I said an important reason is the sense of
connection we all have with everyone in the Order. And we have always emphasised this. We meet
one another and we commit to one another. It’s an important part of being an Order member that we
have weekly Order meetings, and all kinds of larger Order gatherings. We have Shabda every month
– it’s a magazine of personal reports – all about maintaining connection. We Order members really
get to know one another extensively, continuously, over our whole lives. We track one another, we
feel that we practice alongside one another. We are continually providing reference points for one
another.
the need for harmony amongst teachers
This deep connectedness acts as a ‘container’ that can hold, and eventually allow the resolution of
disharmonies that will inevitably arise amongst such a diversity of Order members. There is currently
an important example of this. There seems to be quite some discrepancy between teaching work
done at Centres and what people can learn on retreats led by OMs not affiliated to any particular
centre. Someone coming on one of my retreats might learn the six element practice. On Vasumitra’s,
they’ll get perfection of wisdom style dialogue. Or Viveka will teach them Dzogchen; or Padmadevi
will teach Pure Awareness. From Sona, they’ll get Anapanasati in 16 stages. Then they’ll go back to
their local centre. And the Order members there, who may be quite new and inexperienced, may
have to deal with some rather specialised questions about meditation. Of course the local teacher
may be very experienced, but still know next to nothing about Anapanasati or Dzogchen.
This discrepancy can create misunderstandings. Centre teachers can view these independent
teachers as individualistic, ego building, teaching inappropriately to newcomers, just confusing them.
Independent teachers can then feel distrusted. In turn, they can start resenting some centre teaching
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