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The Dharma and Denial

by Manjuka

... else.
What I am describing is a spiritual materialism. When I think of spiritual materialism I
think of those horrendous makeover TV shows which follow some unhappy person from
ugly-before-shot, through plastic surgery to the not-so-ugly-but-a-bit-scary-after-shot.
Not happy with how they looked they swapped for something better. Spiritual
materialism is a similarly crude literalism and distortion of self-transformation, where one
attempts to reject an unhappy state for a happy one, and instead of calling it denial, we
call it the Dharma. Such spiritual materialism is based on a crude and linear
understanding of growth. It thrives on ideas of growth which are developmental,
evolutionary, seeing life as a natural process of constructive increase and maturation.

Dharma practise based on this conception of growth will have no place for stuck-ness,
limitation, falling-apart, confusion, despair. Such states will inevitably be seen as a
setback to growth and therefore be viewed negatively and rejected or denied, while other
‘growthful’ states will be acknowledged and encouraged. In my experience ‘growth’ has
not been the replacing of previously troubling and painful states with other more
‘developed’ states. I tried to make this happen for a long time, but the painful states
would always come back. Like when I go back to visit my parents, I still feel at times the
same as I did when I was ten, fifteen, twenty years-old. My inner feeling response is
almost predictable. Yet there has still been a change and a ‘growth’, and this has been a
growth in awareness, an increasing ability to discriminate my experience in a way that
gives me choice about how to respond to it. This is not a growing ‘out of’ my
disturbances by no longer experiencing them, but rather a learning to recognise them and
free myself from ‘acting-out’ behaviour.

Much of denial also comes from views around the much debated and misunderstood
word: ‘acceptance’. There is the view that to accept yourself will mean accepting
unskillfulness. I recently heard report of an Order Member saying, “the basis of the
spiritual life is realising that we are fundamentally unacceptable.” This no doubt comes
from Sangharakshita who suggests, “Let us accept what is skilful in ourselves, but let us
reject what is unskilful.” However I can easily see such an understanding of acceptance
leading to a practise that actively furthers a splitting of experience, where the rejection of
“what is unskilful” becomes just another version of “closing one’s eyes to what one is.”

Denying that I am angry will mean I am unable to dwell in the gap between anger and
aggression, thereby short-circuiting any attempt to leave the wheel and journey along the
spiral. Such a denial of feeling states comes from mistaking having a particular content of
experience, i.e. anger, with acting out that content, i.e. aggresion. It is only the latter that
is an unskifulness and until then the practise is to dwell in the gap between feeling and
desire, facing our feeling with the acceptance and understanding that then allows us to
chose whether to indulge the feeling or not. But there is nothing unskillful about our
feelings, our vedana, they are a given, a resultant Karma. Feelings are raw data.

Denial and non-acceptance are synonymous with a lack of awareness. If we want to
become aware of our feelings we need to accept them. What we then do with this
awareness is the ethical issue, rather than the other way around – i.e. seeing ethics as the
absence or removal of troubling experiences that may lead us to act unskillfuly. Neither
spiritual experience nor ethical practise is about having particular feelings and not others.
They are not about feeling either good or bad. Because if they were about feeling a
particular way then where all the talk of change, impermanence and insubstantiality? If
they were about feeling a particular way then where all the talk of fixed self view and
breaking the fetters? Because if spiritual practise were about feeling a particular way how
could we not then form an identification with that particular content of experience and
thereby split of from other aspects of our experience. All aspects of our experience are
just as real (or empty) and close to reality as any other.

The fear of facing ‘what is’, is that unruly, troubling and seemingly worldly feeling states
will take us over, swamp us, drag us down from our hard won spirituality. And well they
might! Indeed being thus overwhelmed is a necessary stage to go through before
awareness and perspective can arise. There will always be a necessary contraction in
awareness when new material arises in the mind. However to avoid this contraction is to
miss out on the eventual expansion of awareness it brings. This is the value of stirring up
the mud from the bottom of the pond, it allows it to be brought back into awareness.

To get to the heart of the tension described in Sangharakshita’s aphorism is to look at the
“what one should be” and clarify just what it is that we are trying to do in practising the
Dharma. What is the aim or purpose at the heart of the spiritual life, and what does it tell
us about what if anything we should be? If the “what one should be” is taken to mean that
we all have the potential for Buddhahood, then how do we see the state of
Enlightenment? Turning to the Buddhist tradition for our answer we find a vast and
seemingly contradictory tradition that has no one answer.

In the Sutta Nippata the ‘Qualities of a Muni’ are described, amongst which are,

“He has no anger, no fear and no pride. Nothing disturbs his composure and nothing
gives him cause for regret…He has no longing for the future or grief for the past…He can
see detachment from the entangled world of sense impression.”

Here the Buddha is detached, free from the world, neither caught up in the past or future.
And yet in the Samyutta-nikaya we see a very different Buddha, one who laments the
death of his chief disciples Sariputta and Moggallana. Speaking to Ananda the Buddha is
recorded as saying,

“Now the assembly seems to me as though it were empty. The assembly is empty for me
know that Sariputta and Moggallana have attained final Nibbana. There is nowhere one
can look to and say, ‘Sariputta and Moggallana are living there’”

These contrasting descriptions of the Buddha each seem to me to contain a partial truth
about the Buddha, each speaking to different ends of the polarity in Sangharakshita’s
aphorism. To resolve the tension in Sangharakshita’s aphorism we will need to hold both
partial descriptions of the Buddha in mind:

1) the Buddha as a transcendent being, detached from the world and free from pain

2) the Buddha as a strongly feeling man who felt loss at the death of his good friends.

Sangharakshita’s aphorism highlights one of the distortions of the developmental model
and the path of transcendence. By attempting to transcend our experience we are in
danger of getting ahead of ourselves, cutting of from our here-and-now experience and
imagining we are further along the Path than we actually are. This then becomes spiritual
practise as castle-building-in-the-sand. Fearful that in accepting the content of our
awareness we will deepen the hold it has on us we turn away from it and seek
transcendence. Such attempts at transcendence are however a non-transcendence when
they lead to splitting and denial.

Of course one could then swing the other way and follow a less explicitly developmental
approach, pursue an immanence model and ‘pure awareness’. However the danger or
distortion does not go away, it merely changes form. The distortion would then become
one of dwelling-in or remaining-in one’s experience without seeing through it or beyond
it. Emphasising practise in either way leads to opposite ends of the tension described in
Sangharakshita’s aphorism. However, transcendence and immanence need not be seen as
holding two ends of an opposing tension.

True transcendence will only result from first of all facing our fear or discomfort and
accepting the content of our experience. Denial and non-acceptance are synonymous with
a lack of awareness. Therefore in accepting the content of our experience awareness
follows. This awareness far from increasing the hold of the experience over us brings in
perspective around it, one is less caught up in it, less likely to act-out, one is dwelling in
‘the gap’. This perspective is then a transcendence of the experience, while also a
simultaneous inhabiting of the experience more fully in awareness, being immanent and
transcendent together.

Here transcendence does not negate immanence or vice-versa. Transcendence can be seen
to be the perspective we have on our experience, immanence can be seen to be the
inhabiting of our experience with awareness – both transcendence and immanence
needing each other to function without distortion. In this way the tension in
Sangharakshita’s aphorism is released.

Now we can understand ...

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