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Dhyana For Beginners - First Mitra Retreat 1976

by Sangharakshita

The Venerable Sangharakshita Mitra Retreat
Questions and Answers based on 'Dhyana for Beginners'

Sangharakshita: Any general points or general attitudes, as it were of the text that haven't been made clear?

________: (unclear) translations (unclear) using different words for what might be the same term or the same word for maybe two different terms and it's generally becoming a bit of a hotch. It sort of rambles (unclear).

S: I think we did get the impression when we went through this at an Order study retreat that perhaps the text had been made up from talks and lectures given to disciples at different times. There do seem to be a few gaps, as it were, in the text. I mean not actual gaps in the text itself but the system which is implicit in the text, the system of meditation as it were, isn't made fully explicit, and that when we edit the 'Dhyana for Beginners' seminar this is something that I want to do, to write a lengthy introduction and make the whole system fully explicit. Because it is a very useful text as regards certain topics which it does cover very well, and if those gaps which are filled in in the overall structure were made clearer it would be a very useful text indeed. Despite those relative shortcomings I still think it's the best sort of general introductory book to meditation that we have in English. I can't think of any (unclear). I'm not very happy about books on meditation anyway, but if one has to have a book on meditation this is about the best that we have, I'm sure. I was rather horrified to learn recently that Heinemann's are thinking of commissioning someone to write a book on all existing meditation techniques, which doesn't seem to be the right sort of thing to do at all. Needless to say it would be someone who hadn't practised all of them, or perhaps not any of them.

________: From one particular religion or...

S: I don't know. It hasn't been clarified. I don't think they were quite clear about this.

________: It will probably be read by people who don't intend to meditate at all!

________: A thing that crossed my mind that still isn't clear is this thing about you can't practise dhyana (unclear) unless you go away. (unclear)

S: Well put it this way. There are degrees of going away and there are degrees of practising dhyana. To the extent that you go away, to that extent you'll be free to practise dhyana. So if you shut yourself up in your own room for an hour all by yourself you've 'gone away' to some extent, and to that extent you can practise dhyana, but if you want to get really deeply into it, which might mean hours of practice a day, then you have to go away in a much more radical sort of fashion. That might mean going into solitary retreat for a month. But the principle is that to the extent that you want to practise dhyana, to that extent you have to go away. That is if you are a beginner and this is dhyana for the beginner. If you are advanced and you can maintain a positive, as it were, dhyanic state of consciousness in the midst of your ordinary everyday activities, that's fine. You just mustn't fool yourself about that. The beginner needs to go away in order to practise dhyana, whether it's go away into his own room or go away into the forest for a weekend or go away into solitary retreat for a month, or go away into a hermitage for two or three years.

Aryamitra: You see within the movement that will be what we will be doing next. At the moment people do a lot of work. That will be the next wave. You can't really get into dhyana states and work at the same time. Not to begin with. [2]

S: You can't, but at the same time I've noticed say at Sukhavati that the general state or level of consciousness among the people living there seems to be very positive. I think more than I've encountered, apart from sometimes on retreat, in the case of any group of people in England. I've not encountered anything so good since I left India, most definitely. So there is a combination of work and meditation and just general companionship and a relatively innocent life, and that seems to (obscured by coughs) positive influence. Most of them say that when they go out of Sukhavati, even though they've quite enjoyed themselves, had a good evening out somewhere, they're quite happy to get back.

Aryamitra: Is that produced more, do you think, by working together than the actual sitting that they might do. Because I've heard that mostly while they're sitting they're thinking about what work they've got ahead.

S: This might be the case with regards to one or two who are responsible for organising the work, but I have heard - in fact they admit it quite frankly - that they often find it difficult to meditate because they're so tired sometimes. But nevertheless, one must think not so much in terms of technical levels of meditation attained while sitting, one must think much more in terms of the overall level of consciousness maintained. The overall level of consciousness maintained seems to be very good and very positive and, as it were, somewhat dhyanic. There's a faint or sort of diluted dhyana state that most people are enjoying much of the time. It's very friendly, there's no negativity or very little, and I certainly have not felt any sort of tension or friction between people since I arrived there. It seems completely absent, which is quite extraordinary when you think of two dozen people living there. So the positivity of the atmosphere there seems to depend upon three factors as far as I can see: the first factor is that you have a definite objective towards which you are working. This seems to be the first thing, that you are working for something.

Aryamitra: It keeps your concentration.

S: It's not just work. You are working for something that you believe in. That seems to be the first. There is a regular spiritual practice, even though it's not always very well kept up, though I think most people are pretty sensible. If they feel that they're so tired they're not going to have a good meditation they just stay in bed with a clear conscience and no one is going around making them feel a bit guilty or a bit of a bad boy for not getting up and going to the meditation. It's left to their own judgement. If someone feels well no, it's not going to be any good going and meditating, it's better having another hour's sleep, he feels free to do that. Or if someone feels he'd like to take the day off, well fair enough. It's left to each individual person's sense of responsibility to do the right thing by himself and by everybody else. So these two things. Firstly the fact that you're all working for a common objective, that you all have a certain amount of spiritual practice in common, and there's also the study; and also a third factor which seems to be quite relevant, which mustn't be overlooked, is the fact that it's all men, and that also seems to make a great difference. So I think it's just these three things. Which in a way are the things that you get in traditional monasteries, certainly Zen monasteries and Chinese monasteries. You get the common spiritual objective, which is enlightenment itself, and everything is geared and oriented to that, even the organization and administration of the monastery; and then you get the common spiritual practice. Everybody at least gathers together and chants together, even if they don't meditate; and then it is a men's community. These are the essential things of a 'monastic', inverted commas, set up in the East. And they seem to be extremely powerful and positive factors, and if you're all living together in that sort of way, a positive atmosphere is almost automatically created. But again I must say - I've been thinking about this quite a bit - I think the work is very important, because if you're working, especially if you're working in that sort of context, you are putting energy into something, [3] energy does not stagnate. If there is any sort of curse of monasticism in the East, and it's a real curse, and it's probably the curse of monasticism in the West also in its day, it's simply stagnation and idleness. This is really the thing to watch. So I think once the work on Sukhavati is finished we have to be very careful that the community doesn't sort of settle in or settle down and then find itself with nothing much to do. Then even your meditation will be affected, the general atmosphere will be affected. The work is very important.

________: And that would even apply to more rural settings where there's never any lack of work to do.

S: Perhaps.

________: (unclear) Christian monastic communities (unclear)

S: I think the combination of just these three things - the overall spiritual context, there's an ultimate spiritual objective for everything that you're doing - one. A certain amount of common spiritual practice, at least meditating and chanting together, and then it being a masculine community. These three things seem just to work wonders for people. So some no doubt can be immersed in that more or less permanently and others can come for the odd weekend or a week retreat as circumstances permit. In this way they'll benefit very much. It's not necessarily a permanent set up.

Aryamitra: It seems that the communication through work seems to develop a lot, in terms of creating positive energy rather than highly, sort of more personal things.

S: Sometimes personal things are a real drag. Or to hear about personal things and personal problems. But if you're working together and, as you say, communicating through work, that can be very positive and you get a very definite relationship built up. [Pause]

Padmapani: ...

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