In my last post I quoted at length from Tenzin Palmo, the Englishwoman who spent 12 years in a cave on her own in the Himalayas, meditating within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. Her last 3 years were entirely solitary. It’s provided quite a lot of food for thought. On the one hand I have a lot of admiration for what she did, and the insight she gained. Much of what she says corresponds to what you can read in books, but there’s a flavour to it that shows she’s talking from experience, and that’s what I liked, and why I quoted from it.
I spent 18 years as a practising Buddhist myself in a kind of full-time way – that era ended 10 years ago – and I’m still sifting through it. I was never much of a meditator. Since then I’ve lived a much more ordinary kind of life, as well as involving myself in different non-ordinary things such as astrology! This has helped give me perspective, but it’s still work in progress.
There are certain things I love about Buddhism. Its philosophy of emptiness makes complete sense. It is saying that everything is part of an interconnected flux in which there are no separate ‘things’. That includes the sense of ‘I’ – hence the famous ‘no-self’ doctrine.
The sense of ‘I’ is a good place to start. It certainly seems very solid and real, and it locates us experientially at the centre of the universe, to which we reach out and relate. But that sense of ‘I’ is usually based on identifying with what we think and feel – that is what makes us ‘us’. What a lot of people don’t realise is that you don’t have to identify with, and act on, what you are feeling. We have a choice. If you are angry with someone, you don’t have to torment yourself with it, the mind circling endlessly as it tries to justify the feeling of anger. Nor do you have to go into therapy and try and find the root cause of it (though that can have its place.) We can make the decision to stand back and observe the feeling. This is a deeply transformational act.
This principle applies to all sorts of limiting, painful emotions which we all experience every day. And it is a different self that does the observing. This new self is not rigid and protective, for there is nothing to protect anymore. It is spacious. You no longer need take events so personally. You are fully present and aware, fully emotionally responsive to others, fully connected in a way you never were before, because you’re no longer seeing the world through the veil of your own reactions to it. You are, in other words, more aware of the interconnected flux to which in reality we all belong.
OK, fine words, and I sometimes manage a bit of it. But at the same time, I think it describes the fundamental inner act that makes us conscious beings, and that lies at the root of all spiritualities and religions, whatever the cosmologies and dogmas they surround it with.
So ‘emptiness’ (sunyata) can sound like an abstruse philosophical doctrine. But actually it’s immediate and practical. And that is why I like it so much. It has both a metaphysical dimension and a practical dimension, and they both make sense. And it is about a different kind of fullness.
As an astrologer, I respond to symbols, they take me more deeply into an intuitive apprehension of myself, other people and world events. And Buddhism (like any religion worth its salt) has this aspect. Buddhism has figures that are not ‘God’, that are not about obedience, that embody the deeper patternings within the human mind, the ‘archetypes’. These figures have accumulated significance and power over the centuries as generations of practitioners have successively contemplated them. Just like the planets, and the gods behind them, in astrology.
When I write about Pluto, Lord of the Underworld, he often gives me his blessing by turning up in the room behind me. Something of him comes closer to me, he starts to become, in a way, part of me. And it’s the same with the Buddhist archetypal figures when you contemplate them, or when you call upon them to help in a practical situation. One such figure is Vajrasattva, who embodies who you are when all the dross is out of the way, when you remember who you are and why you’re here (the North Node?) He is our 'original face', the fullness that is left when the infatuation with being a ‘somebody’, with ‘achievement’, recedes. I call on him when I need to open up the gap in my experience, when I’m in the grip of some painful emotion that is distorting my equanimity and steady judgement. I only recently began to look at him again, and after reciting his mantra, or sound equivalent, for a while, I began to have these words go through my head: “I am a brilliant human being!” Well we all are underneath it all, and this is what he was pointing me to.
Another figure is Avalokitesvara, in his form with 1000 arms, each holding a different implement. He embodies compassion, and the 1000 arms symbolise the different gifts, the different vocations that we all have that both nourish us and that one way or another impact positively on others. This is something I have come to believe in strongly, that life is about discovering the particular gifts that you have and using them. This is what I find a lot of astrological readings are about: helping people identify, and have courage in, their own gifts. Often people come to me at the point where they know what they want to do, but they are afraid they’ll be no good at it, afraid they’ll look stupid in the eyes of others. But that is a kind of initiatory fire that many of us have to go through, it often seems to be part of the process.
So this is kind of nudging me on to my points of disagreement with Buddhism, at least as it has come down to us. And it starts with the idea of the historical Buddha as a perfect human being. Was there something special about the period 2-2500 years ago when these ‘perfect’ people, like Christ and the Buddha, appeared? Anyone who called themselves perfect, or allowed themselves to be called perfect, would nowadays be rightly laughed out of court. I’ve never met anyone who is anywhere near ‘perfect’, and I’ve been around long enough to have confidence in my experience. There are people with more insight than most, yes, and such people can be pretty helpful. And I reckon it's the same now as it was then.
And yet Buddhism, for an orthodox Buddhist of any school, is rooted in the faith that the historical Buddha, about whom we actually know very little, was inwardly perfect (or ‘Enlightened’). The orthodox Buddhist then bases his or her life around the aspiration to replicate that perfection for themselves. Tenzin Palmo is one of these people, and very upfront about it. And so all the practices, effective and inspiring as they may be, take place in what seems to me to be this inauthentic context, a context that ultimately disempowers people. Because realistically, which of us has ever encountered perfection? It's a nice ideal, but is it something you can realistically feel is possible for you? Or for anyone? It's not part of being human.
Who knows what is the destiny of human consciousness? Who really knows what happens after we die? These are great imponderables and I, for one, am not looking for answers. The important thing is to try to be real while we are here, and the Buddhist tradition at its best (e.g. Dzogchen) has a firm grasp on this. But it is also a religious tradition which has inevitably accumulated all sorts of other dross on the way, 2500 years worth.
There is also the tradition of renunciation as providing the most effective conditions for spiritual progress, if you are up to it. This attitude comes across very clearly with Tenzin Palmo. I’m bothering to criticise her because I think she has some real attainments, and I admire her 12 years in the cave. You also get this in Christianity, where the monks and nuns and celibate priests are the ‘real’ practitioners.
Now I have no problem with people going off and meditating in caves for periods of their lives. For the right people at the right time in their lives, this can be very appropriate. In my experience most people are not talented meditators, including myself. It is a talent like any other, even though a certain amount of meditation seems to help most people. Yet this particular talent has been raised above all others as a sort of royal road to ‘perfection’ (how does one begin to untangle this one?)
If you are going to head off to a cave, or its equivalent, for an extended period, you’d better make sure you’re happy doing without the pleasures and involvements of ordinary life, that the pleasure and sense of meaning that a contemplative life gives you is commensurate. It’s a purely pragmatic decision. For, as any half-educated Buddhist knows, sense pleasures and personal relationships are in no sense harmful in themselves. It is how we deal with them that counts, and they can indeed be transformative. For most of us they are the stuff of life, they give it meaning, they are the charnel ground where we encounter ourselves at our best and at our worst.
But no. The renunciates, however ‘encouraging’ they are about the possibilities of progress in ‘worldly’ life, they still put it down, subtly or unsubtly, as second best. Renunciation for them is not just a pragmatic decision, it is a philosophy. And this is despite basic Buddhist teachings to the contrary, such as the fetter of seeing particular practices as ends in themselves, rather than as a means to an end. Tenzin Palmo has this philosophy (“relationships, let’s face it, can be pretty distracting”.) And it was there in the Buddhist set-up I used to be around, where the teacher encouraged celibacy as a superior path (while not being able to keep to it himself); you’d consequently get these poor people, usually young, wearing it as a badge of honour, when you knew they’d love nothing better than to get their ends away.
There are strengths and pitfalls to both ordinary life and to the contemplative life, and I think it is invidious to start implying one is better than the other: it creates inflation in monks and nuns, and it discourages people living ordinary lives. (In religions you get unwritten rules, and I have encountered a teacher who taught equivalence between ordinary and renunciative life, but in practice gave seniority to the more renunciate.) Broadly speaking, you could say that the strength of a contemplative life is depth of experience, and the pitfall is narrowness and naivety. Tenzin Palmo admitted that in some ways she got very dry during her 12 years in the cave, and immersed herself in music and literature when she came out. She described it as a rupture that needed healing. The pitfall of ordinary life, of course, is that so much is going on that we can forget about what gives a deeper sense of meaning. Its strength is that there is an ongoing challenge from the environment not to react in habitual ways, to look with fresh eyes, and when we succeeed we know it is for real, for it has been tested.
I could go on. There is the obvious issue of authority, around which any organised religion is to a large extent based. Adherents can find it very difficult to see, let alone admit to their compromise with authority, and the payback involved. It is substantially present (though of course not universal) in organised Buddhism just like anywhere else. But it did take me aback with Tenzin Palmo, for as far as I could see she had very much gone her own way, and gone where others would not have gone, in the context of a healthy and heartfelt relationship with her own teacher. So far so good. But her first instinct on deciding how to benefit others from what she had done was to think in terms of founding a nunnery where the young women would intensively study the relevant Buddhist texts in the original Tibetan, prior to heading off and becoming yoginis in their own right. Just like she did. Once it was set up, Tenzin Palmo would leave and resume her solitary meditational lifestyle. This struck me as naïve.
It is clear from her website that she is pretty much creating for women a copy of the monastic training for men that already exists. The women are joining as young as 15 years old, many with hardly any education, and subject to this narrow and intensive full-time training for years. No doubt they will benefit in some ways. But many of them will at the same time be subsumed by this system, they will be overawed by the teachers and their grand titles and the weight of tradition. In other words, authority. This is not what people need, and Tenzin Palmo seems as much as anything to be fighting a political battle to achieve equal status for women, at the expense of the women themselves.
It is clear to me that to this extent she doesn’t understand people’s real needs, the conditions they need to develop, despite the real insight she has gained through meditation, and the genuine goodwill she has towards people. And this is often characteristic of organised religion: there is ‘faith’ in its methods that blinds the teacher to what people actually need. You get this with the paedophile scandal in the Catholic Church. It’s partly caused by the arrested development of the priests, who as teenagers are shunted off to single-sex seminaries and told that sex is bad. The Pope has apologised on behalf of the Church for the scandal (in which he had been complicit), but seems unable to question the methods that have brought it about in the first place.
In the East, authority has always lain with the monks, who are organised hierarchically. This system is in its own way being replicated in the West, where you get these large Buddhist organisations held together by the authority of the teachers and senior disciples. And what the followers experience as 'faith' is often the hidden surrender of their own independence. Faith is a mixed thing: it is both healthy and necessary, but other more needy emotions also tend to jump on the bandwagon, and this is what makes it to that extent blind and resistant to a critical awareness of the tradition and of the teachers.
It’s a mess, and I accept that for some people finding their way out of this mess is part of their path; and for others who are dysfunctional (you get a high percentage in religious groups) the organisation and hierarchy provide a psychological security that enables them to cope.
(The astrological world is not immune from this. What I found at conferences was that you would get an over-emphasis on hierarchy, a clear division between 'names' and everyone else, that you could even spot in the dining-room. And the 'names' would award each other prizes (yes really!), and they would take it in turns to deliver the Dead Name Memorial Lecture. You could also spot the 'wannabe names'. I found this class-ridden context distasteful and disempowering. Which I why I like the blogosphere, because it is everything the self-styled 'establishment' is not!)
This brings me back to the 1000 armed Avalokitesvara and what I think the real purpose of a religious/spiritual grouping needs to be: it needs to be an informal network that helps people unfold their individual gifts and talents, for that is where their passion lies and their sense of purpose in being alive. The Buddhist practices and philosophy can be a very useful adjunct to this. But if, as in Tenzin Palmo's nunnery, you are a young person and all your time is taken up with philosophical and meditative training, and learning arcane languages and rituals, or working for the good of the organisation, and you are surrounded by people learning and doing more or less the same things, then where is the room for the individual and his/her talents? The words brain and wash come to mind. You end up with people who are sincere and well-meaning, but who lack the confidence to progress in the world, and substitute for this an inflated sense of themselves as ‘spiritual’ beings, unlike the rest of us who are immersed in the ‘mundane’ and doomed to endless rebirth.
And that’s another thing: Buddhism needs to ditch the notion that you find in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, that after we die we eventually flee back to a human body because we cannot handle naked reality. There is a certain truth in that, but it gives entirely the wrong emphasis. It is part of a Buddhist mindset that says earthly existence is basically a trap we need to transcend (Tenzin Palmo's view). I do not have a problem being embodied, and my aspiration is to feel entirely happy about being here on this beautiful earth before I die. And I’m here because there are things for me to do, and things to be learned, rather than because I am terrified of ultimate reality, or because I’m not ‘Enlightened’. I think it’s Buddhist scaremongering, just like the Tibetans do with their endless descriptions of hell (Tenzin Palmo agrees with me on that one), in a misguided attempt to get people to engage in spiritual practice. The Roman Catholic Church does the same thing.
Once when Tenzin Palmo was with her teacher, Kamtrul Rimpoche, she asked him a question. He replied well this is what the book says, and this is what I say. I liked that, the ability to function within a tradition without feeling beholden to it. Like any old tradition, Buddhism is like this pile of dross with the odd nugget of gold in it. And it’s only ever going to be a free-spirited minority, who have maybe been burnt by taking the dross too seriously, who will be able to be discerning. Like any religion.
I'm away till Friday, so I will join in the comment scrum at that point!