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Theris - Questions and Answers 2002

by Sangharakshita

... the six paramitas and engages in all kinds of
external activities. So you have - I won’t say a balance, between the two, it’s not that here’s the
sunyata and here’s the mundane practice, or ethics - the two are sort of interfused, though of
course at first it’s as though one sort of hops from one to the other, you have retreat, you have
activity, you have retreat, you have activity, but finally the two must really interfuse so that
there’s no difference between them.
And I must say speaking personally that I had a particularly intense experience of this years and
years ago when I was travelling among the ex-Untouchables in central and western India and
giving talks, giving lectures, seeing people all the time uninterruptedly for months on end, and I
never experienced any conflict between my inner experience and my outward activity. So this is
what it means to practise , at least to a limited extent, the Bodhisattva Ideal. It’s not easy to
achieve. I suppose you begin by achieving a sort of balance. But eventually there’s no question
even of balance, the two have become, one could say, one. You might find it difficult to say
whether you were practising or whether you were so to speak withdrawing, whether you were
experiencing sunyata, so to speak, or whether you were practising the paramitas.
So at the highest level this is what is called the non-abiding nirvana, at the highest level, that is to
say it’s called the apratistha nirvana. The Bodhisattva doesn’t abide in samsara, he doesn’t abide
in nirvana, conceived of as different. He’s gone beyond that difference, or she’s gone beyond that
Dhammadinna: Could you say the Pali term again?
S: It’s the Sanskrit term. You don’t get it in the Theravada Pali Buddhism. Apratistha. The non-
established. So you’re not established either in samsara or in nirvana, you’ve transcended that
duality. But that’s of course a very, very long way ahead, but it’s as well to bear it in mind, at
least as an ideal.
Dhammadinna: Could you say a bit more about how you keep sunyata at the back of your
practice of ethics?
S: Well, from Dudjom Rimpoche’s point of view it means that in addition to practising the
paramitas, practising ethics, you also have, as it were separately, a regular practice of what he
terms sunyata but which you could understand to mean the whole sort of meditative side of
spiritual life. You have that practice going on all the time, initially of course in separate sessions,
periods of meditation, but eventually the influence of that, the effect of that, percolates through
into your outward activities, so that gradually the two are brought together. But to begin with you
have to, as it were, practise the two separately.
If you don’t practise sunyata, in Dudjom Rimpoche’s terms, separately, then you just have the
external practice, which means that the sunyata is lost in the outward practice. For it to be
possible for the sunyata experience, so to speak, to permeate the outward activities, you have to
start off with a separate practice or experience of sunyata. Gradually the two come together. Is
that reasonably clear? As I say, I don’t remember the exact terms in which Dudjom Rimpoche
made this point, but I thought it quite significant. He certainly did use the term sunyata and I’m
not quite sure what term he used for the other half, or the other extreme.
Dhammadinna: Some of these questions may overlap on the Bodhisattva Ideal. This is from
Ratnadharini, from the study group she was in.
During this retreat we’ve been exploring the tensions inherent in the spiritual life,
as between one’s own personal practice and responding to the needs of others. In
the context of two of our ordination vows, ‘For the attainment of enlightenment I

accept this ordination’ and ‘For the benefit of all beings I accept this ordination’,
with the suggestion that this tension could be a positive catalyst for Insight and
transformation. Our group wondered whether this tension is the same as that
expressed in the myth of Avalokitesvara which seems more to do with the tension
arising out of the impossibility of solving duhkha on its own terms.
S: Yes, I’d agree. I personally find this myth of Avalokitesvara contemplating the sufferings of
the world, or rather of the beings in the world, and his head splitting into a hundred - some say a
thousand - pieces, very evocative. Maybe one experiences something just a wee bit like that when
one considers all the conflicts that are going on in the world today, ‘well, what can I do?’ It’s as
though your head splits. You can’t come up with a solution. You can only come back to your own
practice and the effect that that has within the circle of people with whom you are in personal
So yes you realise, duhkha is duhkha. The conditioned is the conditioned. The conditioned is not
the Unconditioned, not on our level of experience, and then that can give rise to, yes, a degree of
Dhammadinna: Ratnadharini wants to just add something.
Ratnadharini: I wondered, Bhante, if there may be connections between two different
descriptions or tensions. The first was a tension between one’s own personal practice and
responding to others, whereas I was beginning to think, is that the same thing as the tension
experienced by Avalokitesvara? Are they the same thing, but on different levels? I wondered in a
way whether there was a hierarchy in terms of the paramitas.
S: Yes, the higher the level of experience the greater the tension in a way. Yes, because
presumably Avalokitesvara would want to respond to the suffering of the entire world and in a
way does respond, and if one looks at the sort of myth dualistically, in popular terms, that is to
say of Avalokitesvara being willing to give up his personal nirvana - that is to say not to just
settle down or be established in that - it does represent on that much higher level the same kind of
tension. But the ultimate solution is to see that there is no ultimate distinction or difference
between the two. If you help yourself, you’re helping others. If you help others, you help yourself.
So even on an ordinary and everyday level of experience and practice, we should try to think in
those terms.
Well, recently in connection with the illness of your mother, you got a lot of help from other
people. So were they helping you? Were they helping your mother? Or were they helping
themselves? You can’t distinguish, it was all the same. Through helping you and helping your
mother, they were helping themselves. So even in one’s relatively mundane practice of the
Dharma one can see that sort of distinction between helping others and helping oneself
disappearing. I sometimes say that all the ethical precepts, all the ten precepts, have an altruistic
dimension. I think it’s important to see this. In fact it’s quite impossible to separate them from
their altruistic dimension, because, I mean, take the first precept, not to harm other living beings.
How can you practise it without an orientation towards other living beings? If there were no other
living beings you wouldn’t be able to practise that first precept. So it’s as much others, you don’t
just practise it to purify yourself of unskilful thoughts, unskilful attitudes - you do it for the sake
of other people, and the two cannot really be separated. So that first precept has that altruistic
dimension. The same with the second precept. Not to take what is not given. Not given by
whom? Others. Don’t take what belongs to them. So there’s again an altruistic dimension, and
similarly with all the precepts.
So I think we should be very careful not to set up a false antithesis between what we do for our
own benefit spiritually and what we do for the benefit of others. Because we have to be sort of
commonsensical because we have to recognise that we have personal limitations of time and
energy and knowledge. We can’t always do, whether for ourselves or for others, all the things that
we would like to do, so if you really overstrain yourself in as it were helping others, you’re not
really helping others necessarily, you’re not at your best then and you may not be helping
yourself. On the other hand you mustn’t be too precious.
Does that throw some light on the matter?

So you can’t help being Bodhisattvas whether you like it or not! [Laughter] The fact that you’re
involved with the Dharma, well, you know, you’re Bodhisattvas. You may be very small ones,
even budding Bodhisattvas as someone puts it, but Bodhisattvas none the less. The minute you
put your foot on the spiritual path, well hey presto, you’re a Bodhisattva! There’s no alternative.
To be an Arahant is not a real spiritual objective. Of course I’m speaking of the Arahant in so-to-
speak Mahayanistic terms. The Arahant of the Pali scriptures - Sariputra, Moggallana, ...

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