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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


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.


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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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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work because it can seem so limited, so lacking in perspective. It can look like empire building; it can look like meditation taught by the book. This in turn may also create distrust. Forgive me for exaggerating the polarity somewhat; and no doubt the real situation at centres is more complex. But there does seem to be an issue, and when I first saw it, it really gave me a big nudge. The suggestions below (under ‘evolving a fresh view’) are conceived as a way to establish greater harmony amongst us.

the issue of insight training

There ...

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