Saturday, May 02, 2009

PRACTICE 1 - Ethical Practice, Dhyana & Sahdana

I've been continuing the preparatory study for the Bodhicaryavatara retreat, reading and making notes on Sangharakshita's book - The Bodhisattva Ideal. Much of the territory is so familiar that one can find oneself taking for granted that you know what it all means. Just occasionally there's some refreshingly eye opening insight that makes one review or take a more active interest. This week I was reading about the qualities and depths of dhyana possible through meditation. Though I'm conversant with these in theory, I'm not conversant with them from my actual meditative experience. Sangharakshita states that if we were without mental obstacles, resting in dhyana would become our natural everyday state. I've previously understood that not getting into dhyana was never solely a result of an imperfect meditation technique, but also about the imperfections in ones ethics too. I've tended to focus my major ethical effort on what is most easily noticeable to myself and others -my external ethical practice. In The Bodhisattva Ideal, he makes it clear that whether one regularly courses in the dhyanas or not, is dependent on the relative health of ones body and mind - how at ease one is within oneself - that this is fundamentally an issue of internal ethical well-being.

In this regard he directs attention towards observing the strength or weakness of the five hindrances in meditation as good ethical indicators. ( The hindrances are - restlessness & anxiety - doubt & indecision - sloth & torpor - desire for sense experience - ill will.) I've not explictly seen the five hindrances in quite this way. I've used them primarily as a tool for analysing or monitoring my awareness and experience, as a means to cultivate positive mental states, which it has to be said, are inherently ethical ones. However, I think I've seen the increased ethical awareness and sensitivity as being a by-product of this positive mental state, not a foundation for it. Perhaps it is both cause and outcome.

I believe I have a reasonable self awareness of the ethical consequences of my outward actions and speech. Though it is all too easy to see ethics as entirely this externalised thing. To work on oneself ethically by not harming others through my actions or speech, is no bad thing in itself, though it is only partially facing the issue, dealing with symptoms, not causes. I have known individuals to place an inordinate, if not self-righteous, amounts of effort on their external ethics, whilst it is self-evident that its their internal mental states that require the real ethical attention. Something felt like it was being masked or evaded by this strong outward focus. That said, it is undoubtedly harder to notice the tone and quality of ones internal dialogue, or to raise ones awareness of the 'ethics of the private moment.' It's also much more uncomfortable to turn the spotlight inwards rather than outwards. Whilst external ethical practice is an essential starting point, one cannot rest on the laurels of outward ethical practice alone. Sangharakshita is clear that if you want to abide regularly in dhyana, then a broadly based effort on external ethics, needs to be accompanied by a focused effort on the ethics of thoughts and internal dialogue within ones own mind. At some point, you do have to face what are the causes of it all.

I've made two small re-adjustments or re-visioning as a result of reading this. The first concerns the five mental hindrances as unethical states. These can be quite persistent, and via there tone or consequence, they are unskillful states to indulge in - being neither wholesome nor pure of taint. More consciously working from the perspective of ethics might contribute to improving the health of my mental landscape. One of the traditional antidotes to the hindrances is to consider the consequences in allowing an unskillful state to continue. So there has always been an ethical implication or imperative there, were I to have noticed it.

The second adjustment concerns the Shakyamuni Sahdana practice (a devotional visualisation) that I do. I've imagined this practice as a coming into imaginative relationship with an Enlightened state of consciousness - somewhere vaguely out there. Working with this sense of an Other Power, to be able to draw down from it for inspiration, is important. Though I'm beginning to see being drawn towards this externalised Other Power is reciprocated internally - with a greater sense of Self Power also being cultivated. Visualising Shakyamuni Buddha helps me grow more intimate with a sense of Buddhahood or Buddha Nature within myself. Yet, lying between me and Shakyamuni's grace, somewhat like a veil, is the health of my ethics, where the hindrances are the obscuring screen. The clarity with which one sees a picture on a computer, if looked at in detail, is dependent on the number of pixels. Similarly the imperfections in my ethical practice, when looked at closely, pixelate the screen, disrupting my ability to envisage and connect with the transcendental in myself and the world.

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