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The Dharma and Denial

by Manjuka

The Dharma and Denial

by Manjuka

Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM758B

I wrote this for the men’s national order weekend in February. It’s a look at identity and
how that impacts on our approach to Dharma practise. It’s a look at change and what do
we mean by changing ourselves. Along the way it resolves the tension between the
immanence and developmental approaches to practise. It’s the talk I would like to have
heard 10 years ago myself, but I reckon if I had heard it I don’t think I would have
listened at the time. The theme of the weekend was Sangharakshita’s aphorisms, and the
one I chose to talk on was:

“One cannot be what one should be merely by closing one’s eyes to what one is.”

(Sangharakshita, ‘Peace is a Fire’)

In reflecting on this aphorism I came up with an image. The image was of a muddy pond.
The muddy pond that we have as-it-were lived our lives within. Encountering the Dharma
we learn to meditate and let the pond clear, the mud settling to the bottom, and we enjoy
the new clarity of our vision which comes as a relief, a welcome respite from our
confusions, a necessary first stage along the Path.

The pond water is now pure and we can see clearly, and yet much of the life of the pond
is in the mud settled in strata along the bottom. Despite the new clarity tension can arise
through not wanting to look at the strata of mud along the bottom. We love the new
clarity. We think we are over the murky gloom. We even pretend it has gone away, which
to all appearances it has – as long as we don’t look down! And so we learn to move in a
restricted fashion so as to avoid stirring up the mud, fearful of losing our new found
clarity, giving it value over the murk and gloom.

This image of the pond illustrates the two separate but connected messages in
Sangharakshita’s aphorism. The first is “what one should be” or at least what we think we
should be, illustrated by the clear water. The second is “closing ones eyes to what one is,”
– the layers of mud along the bottom. The moving in a restricted fashion so as to avoid
stirring up the mud points to the tension we can experience in the spiritual life. The
tension between our sense of beauty and joy, of something more to life, and the
realisation that an authentic life must engage the pain and suffering we find in the world.

Sangharakshita’s aphorism points to the need for an understanding of the dangers and
distortions we may face in aspiring to realise spiritual ideals. Spiritual experience can be
seductive, it can take us away ‘beyond the world’ and assuage our pain, it can be beatific
and full of meaning and significance, it can give us a glimpse of something more. The
danger comes when we find it hard to let these unitive experiences go. It can seem like
this-is-where-its-at, “what one should be”. And so we can get busy trying to recreate
these experiences by closing our eyes to what we are, or more precisely what we don’t
like about what we are (i.e. variously a bundle of messy confusion / anxiety / insecurity /
anger / jealousy / grief or whatever.) In doing so we are not only closing our eyes to what
we are, we are also closing our eyes to what is, closing our eyes to reality.

It strikes me as ironic that for all the talk of suffering in Buddhism, that Buddhism can
itself be used as a means to avoid rather than gain insight into suffering. Although ironic
it is not so surprising. After all, why should our practise of Buddhism be somehow
exempt from the deluded nature of our minds and separate from the various other means
we utilise to avoid our pain? The seductiveness of the 3rd Noble Truth, the idea of the
cessation of suffering, is a powerful fantasy which has oriented us all our lives – we
naturally orient ourselves away from pain. When this orientation of avoidance blends
with Buddhist practise it can result in the cultivation of non-suffering experiences and the
denial of suffering experiences. In this way we split our experience, holding on to a
certain version of “what we should be” while “closing our eyes to what we are”.

This has very little to do with any genuine approach to insight, confusing as it does the 4
Noble Truths with doctrine, rather than as a particular methodological application of
conditioned co-production to suffering. The cessation of suffering is the Dharma
packaged to attract those in pain, it is the banner headline that draws us in.

I can split of from my experience of suffering in all sorts of small ways, like when
someone says to me in all sincerity, “Hey Manjuka, you are looking a bit down.” I usually
find this threatening, I don’t want to acknowledge to myself or anyone else that I am
suffering. And so I shrug my shoulders and mumble something about being fine and just
a little tired. Acting in this way I am in denial, certainly to others and often to myself.

Such denial can arise to the degree that one becomes identified with the calm, spacious,
contented mental states aimed at in samatha practise. By identified I mean forming an
identity around calm states and forgetting that they are only a part of our experience. Well
maybe we don’t forget the other angry, anxious, lonely mental states, they come along
soon enough, but identification with samatha states will mean our response to these more
troubling states will be variously intolerant, non-accepting and fearful. Calm, spacious
samatha experiences are then given more value and seen to be more spiritual than
troubled, anxious, angry experiences. Such troubling experiences are to be got-away-from
at all costs, rather than understood to be as equally empty as any other mental state.

Splitting of from these unacceptable aspects of our experience, and the tension they create
in us, we cling to our identification with being calm, generous, purposeful and kind. In
short this is the formation of a spiritual identity, a false self that we present to ourselves
and the world so as to avoid our pain. And hey-presto! we are attempting to become what
we “should be” merely by closing our eyes to “what we are” - because as well as being
calm, generous, purposeful and kind we are also freaked-out, selfish, lazy and bitchy.

Such a spiritual identity or false self will lead to the adoption of a set of lifestyle choices,
rules, habits and ways of being. These support the maintenance of what we like about
ourselves, which has now become spiritualised and the faking of, “what one should be”.
Let’s say I am uncomfortable with anger (which I am), then I may adopt an identity that
is harmonious, conciliatory and deferential – anything to avoid conflict. I may also tend
towards being generous and helpful, inspired as I am by the ideal of selflessness.
However to the degree that I am generous and conciliatory out of a need to gain the
approval of others, feel worthwhile and needed then I am confusing a co-dependent
version of self-negation with true selflessness. Burn out will come eventually, perhaps
followed by blame. What I need to do is learn to love myself, which will then allow me to
say “no” and stop being a doormat.

Or feeling shame at wanting affection and love (as I do), I may adopt an identity that is
aloof, stand-of-ish, matter-of-fact. I withdraw from others because I find them
threatening. Dependency and neediness are my worst fear. I am attracted by the heroic
ideal, wanting to be strong, independent and invulnerable. (Secretly I want to be a Jedi!)
Feelings are Chinese to me. I find it difficult understanding other people’s struggles. I
don’t see why they just can’t get on with it. I am most comfortable when given a task that
I can do by myself. Such an approach can be rationalised using teachings of detachment
and renunciation. What I need to do is to become more fully embodied, more engaged
with myself and others. This is why friendship is so important and scary, it is what I most
long for and yet also what I find the most threatening. Self-development books are a
popular parody of this persona, emphasising as they do the ‘self’ aspect of development,
playing into the fantasy that we can do it alone without having to enter into relationship
with others.

Both these identities are distorted attempts at transcending suffering. In reality they are a
deepening of fixed self-view, strengthening the First Fetter rather than freeing
consciousness from its entanglements in form, feelings, personality and social
conditioning. They are the use of spiritual practise to shore up a shaky sense of self, or to
belittle basic needs and feelings, all in the name of Enlightenement. They are also a
confusion of absolute and relative truth. Attempting to live our lives from the level of
absolute truth we reject the level of relative truth in our experience. The poisoned snake
in the Dhammapada being grasped wrongly turns to lay in its poisoned fangs!

Obviously this ‘closing our eyes to what we are’ is not real Buddhism but something ...

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