an interview with Dorine Esser in Holland
The interview was first published in Dutch in the Dutch Buddhist magazine ‘Vorm en Leegte’, part of an issue of the magazine devoted to mindfulness.
Please note that some of what Sangharakshita says has been translated from English to Dutch and back again - bear this in mind when reading it!
It is available (in Dutch) on the Features section of FWBO News here.
WANTING TO CHANGE IS AN INDIVIDUAL THING.
Urgyen Sangharakshita is one of the elders of Western Buddhism. He recently visited Amsterdam, where Dorine Esser, a Mitra from the FWBO’s Ghent centre, interviewed him.
Sangharakshita came back to England in 1967 – after he had lived for twenty years in India as a Buddhist monk – and founded there the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO). The Western Buddhist Order is dedicated to establishing Buddhism in the West, unaffiliated to Eastern cultural tradition.
Sangharakshita is in Amsterdam for a short visit. I am on my way to the interview, curious about his insights into mindfulness and his motives for founding an Order. He is old, but his mind is clear and he radiates enormous loving kindness. With other Buddhist teachers like Joseph Goldstein and Stephen Batchelor, I felt the same radiant, mindful warmth.
This alone makes it an inspiring encounter.
What is for you the meaning of mindfulness?
Sangharakshita: The word has many connotations. English Buddhists, some of them anyway, see mindfulness as a translation of at least two original Sanskrit terms, sati and appramada. In the more broad sense it means awareness of what happens in your own mind and in the world around you. (sati) And on a higher level it also points to an awareness of the consequences of what you do. (appramada)
When I teach mindfulness, I discuss it in four different states or levels (based on the Satipatthana sutra) First there is mindfulness or awareness of our own body. We are conscious of our movements: sitting, standing, moving or talking, all our different body postures. But we are especially mindful of our breathing.
The mindfulness of breathing, (see anapanasati) leads to a specific concentration training. This exercise can lead to deeper states of consciousness. Then there is also mindfulness of feelings. We look at how we feel, in the sense of pleasurable, non pleasurable or neutral, and we have awareness of our emotions, for example whether we are angry or in the realm of loving kindness. After that comes mindfulness of thoughts. What are we thinking of? Very often we are stuck in some train of thought, which we let race on because we are not fully mindful of it.
So in the mindfulness training we try to be conscious of what kind of thoughts play through our mind. Finally we try to be mindful of the dharma, for example of the Four Noble Truths or the Eightfold Path.
In short, being conscious of the possibility of becoming enlightened yourself.
The training of mindfulness is essential to the teaching of the Buddha.
After all those years of practice are you able to stop the stream of your thoughts?
Sangharakshita: I have experienced that it is possible. But as you suggest, you need many years of practice first.
Why would we want to stop this train? What is the benefit of it? Where does it bring us?
Sangharakshita: (laughs heartily) It is very good to understand your own mind and to see what happens in it. But if you practise Buddhism and want to grow in it, it is essential that you first learn to understand yourself. Only then can you learn to change your mind in order to make contact with a different kind of consciousness. After you have observed yourself in that way for some months or years, you probably notice that you will keep repeating one or more of these thought trains. You start to know your habitual thinking. When you bump into it, it says something fundamental about yourself. You probably also encounter fantasies about yourself. Things that are not true. As soon as, through observation, you can put your finger on it you will get more insight into the things you can work on in order to change.
Are we not good enough as we are?
Sangharakshita: (laughs again) It is more a matter of not being content with who you are or how you function. If you experience that, you might want to change. In Buddhist terms being dissatisfied is called dukkha.
As soon as we experience this dissatisfaction we feel the urge to try something else. People who don’t want to change are just satisfied with how things are or maybe they are not aware that there is more than this.
Would it not be good for everybody to change?
Sangharakshita: Wanting to change is an individual matter. Some people keep doing the same things, even if it leads them straight to the abyss.
I do think that in the end it will bring a better result for us all, if more people decide to change in a way which the Buddhist teachings find necessary.
I spoke to a professor of comparative philosophy who said that all of us take part in a cosmic transformation process.
Sangharakshita: I do think that as well. In some of my talks and publications I speak about it in terms of a higher and lower evolution. We all know the evolution theory in a broad sense. Humans are the product of a biological process. But there also exists another evolution, the one of the consciousness. This one goes much further than what we call the biological evolution. My impression is that the general evolution process brought us to our existence as homo sapiens. This is as it were a collective evolution of men as a species. If we want to transcend it, an evolution at the individual level of consciousness must exist. In fact there are different levels of consciousness in individual people. Spiritual development for me comes together with spiritual life in a Buddhist sense.
You could see the Buddha as a forerunner of that higher spiritual evolution. The final result of that evolution we call enlightenment. But that is something which will not happen automatically and collectively. We have to work on it ourselves.
Is that why you founded a Buddhist Order?
Sangharakshita: The main reason for it was my desire to give expression to the teaching of the Buddha (dharma). I had been teaching the dharma in India, where I lived for many years. So when I came back to England I just continued with it as a meditation teacher. I particularly taught two meditation techniques: the mindfulness of breathing and the development of loving kindness (metta bhavana). Apart from that I also gave public talks. People started to come to them and slowly but surely a group formed.
Because of that I had to think about the need for an organisational structure. I did not think that a foundation was a good idea. People pay a fee to become a member without committing themselves one way or the other, while I thought that commitment to the Buddhist path was very important. That is why an order seemed the best thing to do. The basis for membership of that order is the wish to really commit yourself to the path of that higher spiritual evolution. It is expressed in Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha (the community of Buddhists). At first it was a very small movement, but nowadays there are some 1500 order members worldwide, and probably three times as many mitras (friends). It developed step by step. I just got on with teaching and was more concerned with what had to be done the next day than with the idea of growth. What happens next depends on the individual order members.
Let us return to mindfulness. After Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced MBSR it has become a popular term. MBRS attracts people who experience dukkha but are not attracted by Buddhism. What do you think about it?
Sangharakshita: I think it is a pity, but it is their choice. When people have experienced that being mindful is worthwhile, there might be more benefit waiting for them when they encounter Buddhism. The mindfulness training stems from the Buddha, it is as simple as that. In itself it is a fascinating fact. In India there are many religions and traditions, in this time and at the time of the Buddha, but he was the only one who noted the usefulness and importance of mindfulness, of training in awareness.
Of course you experience more benefit from it when you practise it as part of a spiritual path, as a means for the attainment of enlightenment.
Does mindfulness training make sense when it is not practised in the context of Buddhism.
Sangharakshita: Yes, it does, but it loses a large part of its value.
It is still useful and practical, but in that way it is less valuable then it could be. Mindfulness can be an entrance to the dharma. As well as that, being mindful makes us more soft, more mild. But it would be better if it brings people still further. Or like in an English proverb: The good is the enemy of the best. Something may be good in a limited way and you may remain just satisfied with that, but that will prevent you from making use of something that is even better. It can happen that people who have encountered mindfulness training, only years later remember that it has something to do with Buddhism. It mostly happens after the experience of a great loss or grief. The intention to seriously explore the connection with Buddhism often arises then.
Do you see any disadvantage in the hype around mindfulness?
Sangharakshita: For sure there is a dangerous side to teaching mindfulness out of the context of Buddhism. You see, it only gives one part of the dharma, which makes it one-sided and too technical. This can lead to a serious alienation from your feelings. I have seen that happen.
We humans have the tendency to exploit a technique infinitely. I think that it is dangerous to apply whatever traditional Buddhist meditation method only as a technique. Whether it is the singing of mantras or the examination of your mind through the practice of mindfulness. There must also be space for emotions and devotion.
Therefore I always teach mindfulness together with the practice of loving kindness. It now seems that people are presented with mindfulness training as Buddhism by a teacher who has made mindfulness training his or her profession. Of course that is very misleading, because the dharma is much more than that and meditation teaching is not a profession.
How can we ensure that Buddhism remains authentic?
Sangharakshita: What I find most important is to try and verify what the Buddha really said and taught. In the aeons since he died much has been added that in fact has little to do with what the Buddha originally taught. Therefore it is essential to read and study the old Pali texts. These are the texts which are the nearest to the historical Buddha, even when we know that every word that it contains was not uttered literally by Him. The best way to check if a teaching is authentic is to hold it against the light of these texts. But it is as important to verify if the teaching you receive is really helpful to you and does not go against reason.
Have you become happier through the Dharma?
Sangharakshita: (hearty laugh) By nature I am reasonably happy and I don’t think that you will become happier by chasing it. Happiness is essentially a by-product. If you do something in which you really believe you will become happier automatically. For me it is the Dharma. I have committed my whole life to it. I can indeed say that, apart from the problems I experienced, I have led a happy life. But practising the dharma with the only purpose to make yourself happy, will not work.
You commit yourself to the Dharma, because you believe that it is just the best thing that a person can do.