Transcribed talks by Ratnaghosa
Talk five of six on patience or kshanti
At the beginning of this series of talks I was keen to point out that Kshanti is not a passive virtue. To practise Kshanti requires energy. You need to make an effort in order to be patient, or to practise forgiveness or tolerance. I have chosen the title “creative listening” to indicate that the topic of this talk, receptivity, also requires energy and effort. It is perhaps understandable that receptivity should be thought of as passive.
You don’t have to make an effort to receive. Or so we think, at least. But what about receiving criticism or praise, don’t we have to make an effort to listen to what is being said and remain open to it? Receptivity as an aspect of Kshanti is receptivity to the Dharma. To be receptive to the Dharma means to hear the Dharma, to listen to the Dharma and to allow oneself to be affected by it. Listening includes reading by the way.
Creative listening or creative reading is listening or reading in a way that is not passive. It means actively engaging with whatever is being heard or read, asking oneself how does it apply to me, how is it related to the actual practice of the spiritual life.
Receptivity presupposes something worth receiving and somebody capable of expounding it. To be receptive therefore we need to have faith in the Dharma, faith that it does emanate from a higher state of consciousness or a higher realm, and also faith in spiritual hierarchy, faith that there are those who are more spiritually developed than we are, who have understood and experienced the Dharma more deeply. Faith or Sraddha is, as we know, based on intuition, reason, and experience.
Our initial intuition is later confirmed by our reason and experience and this gives rise to even greater faith. Our faith in the Dharma then is initially an intuition, there is a response in us, something resonates with our experience, it feels true. Later, after some practice we know that it works from our own experience. And reasoning from this we can deduce that even more is possible.
The Dharma is not just words or concepts however. It is a living thing. It manifests in the lives of individuals. Our faith is also based on seeing that there are some individuals, who as a result of practising the Dharma are more aware and more friendly what we are.
Or it may be that we feel there is something about people who practise the Dharma which we like, even though we don’t quite know what it is. And we want to discover more. We want to experience for ourselves the benefits of the Dharma.
So we listen, we learn, we practise. We try to be receptive to what we read and to what we hear from those we respect and look up to. We acknowledge that we have something to learn and that there are people who can teach us both by their words and by their behaviour. We acknowledge the existence of a spiritual hierarchy, a hierarchy of spiritual development. Spiritual hierarchy is not a matter of titles or status. That is ecclesiastical hierarchy.
It is not that an Order Member is automatically more spiritually developed that a Mitra or Friend, or that an Order Member practising celibacy is more spiritually developed than other Order Members. Until Insight is attained it is possible for people to fall back to a lower level.
It is quite difficult to see spiritual hierarchy. Spiritual hierarchy manifests in how someone behaves and how they are. It is not about what people say necessarily, although what people say and how they say it may give some indication of their spiritual development. However it is not easy to judge whether someone is compassionate, aware and earnestly striving unless we know them very well.
And even then, unless we ourselves are on the same level of spiritual development or a higher level we may not be able to really know how developed someone is. This is why it is sometimes said in traditional Buddhism, that the disciple doesn’t choose the guru, but rather the guru chooses the disciple, by which is meant that the disciple is in no position to recognise the guru.
However we do have our intuition and in the FWBO at least we have the opportunity to observe Order Members in all sorts of situation, so we can build up some sort of experience of them. And we don’t need to be in contact with someone who is vastly more spiritually developed in order to make progress. We just need someone who is a little bit more experienced than us, who can give us a helping hand. But we do need to have someone to look up to, someone we consider more spiritually developed, otherwise the Dharma is dead.
So if we have faith in the Dharma and faith in spiritual hierarchy, we can practise receptivity. Of course we can be receptive in a more ordinary sense to our friends who are on the same level as us, spiritually speaking. Sometimes an ordinary friend can point things out to us or give us a different perspective, especially when we are in a mood. We can learn from all sorts of people and situations if we are receptive enough, if our responses are creative enough.
There are lessons about impermanence and suffering confronting us all the time, if we care to look. What can you learn by observing your parents? What can you learn by observing your children? What can you learn from your responses to various stimuli as you walk down the street? What can you learn about yourself from your attitudes to food, money, sex, clothing and so on? If you are listening creatively, the world is all the time teaching its lessons.
We can also be receptive to ourselves in the sense of acknowledging and reflecting on our experience and achievements. This is a good way to build confidence and self-metta. At the time of the Buddhas Enlightenment it is said that he was attacked by Mara and tempted by Mara (the personification of evil) and when this failed to disrupt or disturb him, Mara tried a different tack. He said, What right have you to sit here on the spot where Buddhas of the past have sat, who do you think you are?
The Buddhas response was to touch the earth and when he touched the earth, the Earth Goddess arose and she testified that the Buddha had practised the perfections for many lifetimes and was therefore ready to sit in the vajrasana, the throne of Enlightenment. We could understand this attack by Mara to mean that at the time of Enlightenment there arose in the Buddhas mind thoughts of hatred, craving and doubt and he dealt with them by suffusing them with awareness. He overcame the doubt by referring back to his experience and achievements.
We can do this too. We can look back on our experience and achievements and gain confidence from them. In this way we can be receptive to ourselves and make creative use of our lives. There are many different elements to receptivity. There is entreaty and supplication, as in the Sevenfold Puja. The is listening, reflecting and meditating, sutta-maya prajna, cinta-maya prajna and bhavana-maya prajna. The three kinds of wisdom.
There is self-examination and self- questioning. There is scepticism as opposed to cynicism. And there is humiliation through contact with Reality. In the Entreaty and Supplication section of the puja, what we are doing in effect is asking for a teaching. We are declaring our receptivity to the Dharma.
Of course it is not enough to say we are receptive, we have to actually be receptive. Sometimes we ask questions as a way of avoiding the truth rather than penetrating deeper into it. Being receptive to the Dharma is not simply a matter of acquiring more knowledge, it is more a case of being willing to change as a result of the new insights we gain from hearing the Dharma. It is not easy to have an open mind and an open heart.
Our fear and insecurity urges us to put up defences and be closed to whatever disturbs the status quo. Our intellectual arrogance leads us to think we have understood the Dharma before we have allowed the meaning to touch us. It is easy to understand the words but miss the point. So when we are asking to hear the Dharma, whether at the Entreaty and Supplication stage of the puja of in a study group, we should [need] to be genuinely open to the message of the Dharma, which means recognising the fears, insecurity and arrogance that keep us closed and suspending our prejudices for a while.
There is a story from the Zen tradition about a professor who visits a Zen master to ask some question. After they’ve spoken a little the Zen master offers him some tea, which the professor gladly accepts. The Zen master begins to pour the tea and he keeps pouring and the tea rises to the rim of the cup and over the rim and he keeps pouring. The professor is astonished at this and he watches the tea come up over the rim of the saucer and start to flow onto the table. Eventually, unable to hold himself back, he says rather loudly, My cup is full, you cant get any more in.
And the Zen master looked straight at him, the way Zen masters always do in these stories and said, Yes, exactly, your cup is full, come back when you are ready to receive the answers to your questions. So obviously the point of the story is that although the professor was asking for instruction, he was not actually receptive enough to really take it in. The three levels of wisdom, sutta-maya prajna or listening, cinta-maya prajna or reflecting and bhavana-maya prajna or meditating, give us an idea of how to be really receptive.
First of all listening, sutta-maya prajna, which includes reading, is concerned with gaining knowledge of the Dharma in a fairly ordinary sense. This means learning about the Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, the law of conditionality, the five precepts and so on. We need to have a knowledge of these basic teachings, so that when we manage to concentrate our minds and want to use that concentration to penetrate deeper into the Truth, we will have something to work with.
Otherwise as Sangharakshita puts it, our concentration will be of no more use to us than a sharpened pencil to a man who cannot read or write (P 194 Survey). (meditation experiences not ends in themselves) Also in order to Go For Refuge to the Dharma we need to have a clear idea of what the teachings are. The second level of wisdom, cinta-maya prajna or reflecting corresponds more to what I have called creative listening.
At this point we are turning over in our minds what we have heard or read and making it our own, so to speak. We are going deeper into the meaning of what we have received and allowing it to affect our lives. This stage of reflection is, you could say, the stage of mundane receptivity and it paves the way for bhavana-maya prajna or meditation, which in this context if the stage of Transcendental Insight, At this point, bhavana-maya prajna, one is not reflecting on the Truth, but one has to some extent become the Truth.
This is the stage of the Perfection of Receptivity, when the Dharma has permeated ones whole being and one is utterly changed by it. Another feature of receptivity which could be seen as a part of cinta- maya prajna, reflecting, is the aspect of self-examination and questioning oneself. Self-examination in the sense of trying to be honest with oneself about what one does or does not understand and being honest with oneself about just how receptive or not one is.
It is better to be clear that we honestly don’t like a particular teaching and don’t want to practise it than to just avoid it or pretend that we accept it. For instance, for a number of years I didn’t like the teaching about the four dhyanas, the four levels of meditative concentration. I used to find it depressing and just avoided it. It took me some time to realise that it was meant as a helpful guide to recognising and understanding meditative states rather than as a judgment on my poor attempts at concentration.
Recognising that I simply didn’t like the teaching was a starting point from which I could understand what was really going on I just felt bad about my ability as a meditator, and that my lack of confidence in my abilities was nothing to do with the teaching of the four dhyanas. ( Also overestimating the importance of the four dhyanas – only access concentration indispensable to Insight) So self-examination in this way can help us to become more self-aware. By questioning oneself I mean asking oneself how a particular teaching or particular aspect of the Dharma applies to ones life. How is it going to help me to progress spiritually? What should I do as a result of this?
Does this teaching have any practical application in my life? How does it connect with other things I have heard or read? For instance, does this talk on receptivity have any application to my life? Do I want to change anything in my life as a result of hearing this? How does receptivity connect with ethics or generosity of the Mindfulness of Breathing? And so on, you can see the point I’m making. Listen or read with a questioning mind and try to see the relevance of the Dharma to your own life. This questioning attitude can also be related to scepticism. It is reasonable to be sceptical with regard to what you read or hear.
To be sceptical is to question or to accept things provisionally. This is better than being gullible. However we need to be careful that our scepticism doesn’t become cynicism. Cynicism is a negative mental state that tends to undermine everything of value and seeks to drag everything down to a low level. Cynicism is a form of ill-will or hatred. Scepticism on the other hand is a reasonable questioning, a suspension of judgment and it can be very positively motivated.
At its best, scepticism is an attitude of seeking the truth and not settling for less. In this way scepticism is related to receptivity. Blind faith is not necessary in Buddhism. All teachings are meant to be put to the test and accepted or rejected according to whether they conduce to spiritual development or hinder it. We must be careful though that we do test the teachings rigorously, whether in our thinking or practice and not reject what we merely dislike.
Spiritual intelligence is something quite different from intellectual ability in the ordinary sense. Spiritual intelligence is an intuitive knowing of the truths of impermanence and conditionality that goes far beyond and mere understanding of the concepts. So when we subject the Dharma to sceptical questioning, intuition and experience should come into play as much as intellectual examination. Also traditionally it is recommended that we have recourse to those whom we consider to be wise and not rely totally on our own ability to perceive the truth. We may simply not have the capacity as yet.
This point is illustrated in the Kalama Sutta. The Kalamas of Kesaputta were confused by all the different teachings they heard about how to attain the Transcendental and they asked the Buddha how they could tell what was correct and what wasn’t. The Buddha said, Now Kalamas, do not ye go by hearsay, nor by what is handed down by others, nor by what is handed down by others, nor by what people say, nor by what is stated on the authority of your traditional teachings. Do not go by reasoning, nor by inferring, nor by argument as to method, nor from reflection on and approval of an opinion, nor out of respect, thinking a recluse must be deferred to.
But, Kalamas, when you know, of yourselves: “These teachings are not good; they are blameworthy; they are condemned by the wise: these teachings, when followed out and put in practice, conduce to loss and suffering” – then reject them. There are three things to note about this. Firstly, the questioning is about methods of attaining the Transcendental, not about the existence of a transcendental state or the possibility of attaining it.
The existence of a transcendental state is by its very nature not susceptible to sceptical reasoning. Secondly, the teachings are to be tested by the results achieved from practising them. In other words, experience is the real touchstone. Thirdly, the testimony of the Wise needs to be listened to carefully. So, in being receptive to what we hear and read there is no need for us to be gullible, but to really know for ourselves what is true we have to practise the teachings and consider the views of those further on in the spiritual hierarchy. If we are truly receptive to the Dharma we will be humiliated by it.
As the Diamond Sutra says, “those sons of good family, who will tale up these very Sutras, and will bear them in mind, recite and study them, they will be humbled, well humbled will they be!” (Wisdom Beyond Words p.157) The Dharma undermines our ego-identity and although we may think this is a very good thing and nod approvingly when we hear about it, when it actually starts to happen to us we may feel very distressed indeed.
We may even think that the Dharma is not really working properly, because we intended to gain happiness and well-being and instead we are feeling miserable. The spiritual life is a happy life but it is not an easy life and as we become more aware we will discover unpleasant truths about ourselves, This means that the Dharma is working. A process of purification is underway and we need to recognise this. We may feel humiliated because we are not the person we thought we were or wanted others to think we were, but there is no need to be despondent. As the process of gaining greater self-knowledge and purifying ourselves carries on we will gradually emerge happier and brighter. Spiritual rebirth often involves a humiliating journey through the dark night of the soul.
This is what having our ego-identity undermined involves. We have to be transformed, broken down and re-assembled, not simply re- decorated with a new label such as Buddhist or Mitra or Order Member. My strongest personal experience of this was in 1986 when I was invited on an Ordination retreat in Tuscany. I was invited in March and by May I had started to experience all the parts of my psyche that didn’t want to have anything to do with Ordination or spiritual life. I went to Tuscany but Bhante felt he couldn’t ordain me because of the emotionally unstable state I was in.
This was a shock. I was devastated. My pride was squashed. My ego-sense was disoriented and I entered a dark night of the soul, depression, anger, doubt, isolation, fear – But it was impermanent thankfully and here I am, testimony to the fact that humiliation is not fatal. Traditionally, the disciple was humiliated by the guru in order that the ego got a good bashing. But really there is probably no need for anyone to humiliate us in this way.
If we practise the Dharma, if we meditate and enter into communication with others, if we develop ethical sensitivity and if we study the teachings, we will find ourselves humbled often enough by our own selfishness and the sublimity of the Ideal. To be humiliated by the Dharma is one thing, to practise humility another. Humility as it is usually understood is not necessarily a positive thing and may often be simply a form of inverted pride.
It may even be a way of avoiding humiliation. As James Boswell puts it in “The Life of Samuel Johnson” – “Sometimes [humility] may proceed from a mans strong consciousness of his faults being observed. He knows that others would throw him down, and therefore he had better lie down softly of his own accord.”
So it is not enough to be humble. In “Wisdom Beyond Words” Bhante puts it like this “You need to take risks. If you don’t ever face the possibility of failure, then you don’t ever face the possibility of humiliation, and therefore of growth. Failure will only have meaning for you if you have made a tremendous effort to succeed. The terrible temptation is to venture nothing. But in fact, the less you risk, the greater your fear of failure, and the greater the potential humiliation.
So much becomes invested in the imperative of success that you cannot even give a lecture in case it should not be an astounding success. You become paralysed. You haven’t gone beyond success and failure; you Are beneath them. If you’re not careful, you become someone with a great future behind them.”
By taking risks we can be humiliated. We need to learn to make the most of humiliation. It is an opportunity to loosen our grip on our ego- identity, an opportunity to become a little less attached to our fixed self view and therefore an opportunity for spiritual insight. These are all sorts of ordinary situations which we might find humiliating, travelling in a foreign country where we don’t speak the language could be humiliating. Being ill and losing our control over our body can be humiliating. Growing old and being patronised by younger people could be humiliating.
Giving a public talk and making a mess of it could be humiliating. Trying to be friendly to someone and getting rejected can be humiliating [examples taken from Wisdom Beyond Words]. I’m sure there are plenty of other examples. Probably everyone has their own particular fear of failure, which could involve the risk of humiliation. So there are plenty of opportunities on a fairly mundane level for us to have an experience of undermining our ego identity.
But receptivity to the Dharma will enable us to do a much more systematic and thorough job. Receptivity to the Dharma will turn us inside out and upside down as it were. It will transform us. As Bhante puts it, “Receptivity means that one should be prepared for a radical change in ones whole mode of being, ones whole way of life, ones whole way of looking at things. “Often we are not prepared for such radical change and so we resist. We don’t really want to see things differently. We don’t really want to see the truth although it may be staring us in the face.
For instance, the fact of death is extremely difficult to really grasp, to really feel with our whole being. We can see it all around us if we look, but we don’t really take it in, we don’t really let it affect us to the core of our being. It takes much reflection and practice before we can really face the fact of death and especially the fact of our own death. There is a story in the Pali Canon which illustrates this point. It also illustrates the virtues of patience and receptivity. So it is a good story to bring in at this point in our series of talks on Kshanti. The story in question is one you’ve probably heard before. I
t is the story of Kisa Gotami. The version is from Footprints of the Buddha p96/97 But at that this moment there came up a young girl carrying a dead baby on her hip. I had seen her when I was last in Savatthi. Her name was Kisa Gotami. She was thin of body and plain of feature, and born of a poor family. She had been treated disdainfully by all, especially by her husbands family. Then she had borne a son, and people no longer saw her ugly features, but respected her for he boy-child. That was when I had last seen her. Now the child lay dead upon her hip and she was distraught with grief.
She told the Master that she had gone from door to door pleading with folk to give her medicine to restore her child to life, but they had all laughed at her. Then one kinder than the others had told her of the Master, saying that he could give her medicine for her child. And that was why she now came. She held forth the child to the Master, and the depth of agony in her eyes made her seem crazed. He looked upon her with deep tenderness and said: Sister, go enter the town and bring back a mustard seed; but – it must come from a house where no one yet has died.’ The young girl took the dust from his feet and departed with great hope and joy.
That evening she returned. Gotami, have you found the little mustard seed? he asked. The work of the little mustard seed has been done, she answered, and went on to tell him what had happened. She had inquired of the first house for a little mustard seed, which the great Buddha had said would cure her child. The folk there were glad to give her mustard seed, for they felt pity for her. Then she added:
But the mustard seed must be from a house where none has yet died. Then they of that house said softly: Who shall say how many have died here? Last week the house-mother died here. The dead are many; the living are few. Such mustard seed will then have no virtue, she said, and departed sorrowfully to a second house, where she was told the same thing, and then to a third, but always they of the house replied: The dead are many; the living are few, By evening she knew her quest would have no ending, and the dead child grew heavy on her hip.
Suddenly it came to her that it was out of his great compassion the Master had sent her upon this quest that she might find out for herself the first great truth that all must suffer. Her eyes filled with tears that the World Honoured One should seek to help her, even her, the despised and ugly one. She took the dead child and laid him in a charnel field, for she was poor and had no money for cremation. It was late at night when the Master finished teaching Kisa Gotami. He looked across to the city where the lights flickered and were extinguished, as one by one the folk lay down to sleep.
Even so, he concluded, as little lights are the lives of men. They flicker for an instant and are gone. The Buddha was patient with Kisa Gotami but he didn’t try to protect her from the truth. He set her up to receive the teaching gradually. She was receptive to the truth and seeing the implications, sought out further teaching. Her openness to the truth brought about a radical transformation. I will conclude now with a brief summary of the points made about receptivity and then end with a quite from Robert Thurman. We have seen that receptivity does not mean passivity and that it involves effort and energy.
Receptivity also requires faith in the Dharma and in the spiritual hierarchy. It is also possible to learn valuable lessons by being receptive to friends and to what we experience in the world around us. We can be receptive to ourselves, by reflecting on and valuing our experience so far. Receptivity involves asking for teaching as in the Entreaty and Supplication section of the [Sevenfold] Puja. When we ask, we should be open to receiving.
f our cup is full we will go away empty-handed [mixed metaphors deliberate?] Receptivity can also be seen in terms of the three levels of wisdom; listening, reflecting and meditating. As part of being receptive we should engage in self-examination in the sense of being honest with ourselves about just how receptive we are. We should also learn to question ourselves about the relevance of any particular teaching to our lives today.
And we should bring a questioning attitude to everything we read and hear, while at the same time being willing to be guided by those wiser than ourselves. When we are truly receptive to the Dharma we can be humiliated by its sublimity in contrast to our own selfishness. Humiliation, whether by the Transcendental truths of the Dharma or by more ordinary situations, can be helpful to us, if we respond with an attitude of receptivity.
Receptivity means being prepared for radical and total transformation, because our conditioned mind cannot grasp the Dharma. Only when our consciousness expands beyond all dualistic frameworks and encompasses that which is incomprehensible, will we be freed enough to receive the Dharma, but then we will not have a subjective experience of receptivity to an objective Dharma. There will be no distinction.
As Robert Thurman puts it, “In the face of the incomprehensibility of things, ordinary knowledge and especially convictions are utterly lost; this is because the mind loses its capacity to objectify anything and has nothing to grasp onto. The mind reaches a stage where it can bear its lack of bearings, as it were, can endure this kind of extreme openness.” May we all be open to the sublime teachings of the Buddha.