Part Eight - Self and Sraddha
We are born with inquiring minds, so we desire to know what Enlightenment may, or may not be, before we set off on our journey. If nothing else it gives you something to look forward to. Though the path of purification can sometimes appear as clear as the mud that a fledgling white lotus tentatively peeks out from. We are, after all, bound by our aspiration for Enlightenment, not by our experience of it. With only this thread bare grasp on Insight, we commit ourselves to the path purification. Ajahn Punnadhammo sees this as just how it is on the learning slopes of spiritual practice:-
“It could be said that for one who has not yet glimpsed for themselves the unconditioned, this is the one place in Buddhist teaching where the faculty of faith (sraddha) is absolutely indispensable. Because all our language and thought belongs to the conditioned realm, the unconditioned can never be imagined or arrived at by reason. Even for one who has realised it, it cannot be explained. For one who has not, it must be taken on faith”8
Another interpretation then of what may be meant by ‘Binding one’s Self without a rope’, is that our practice will inevitable be done in this manner; without a clear comprehension of who, what or how we will be, once we’ve reached that ultimate objective. No matter what you call it, Awakening, Enlightenment, Nirvana or Buddha Nature, it cannot be grasped hold of, in the way a rope can be. Any rope we conceive of, will be an imaginative misconception. Until we actually experience Enlightenment, we have to proceed with our practice ‘without a rope’ of insight.
This would further explain why Dogen placed such an emphasis on practice being complete in itself. In practicing because we practice we shouldn’t need to get somewhere, because that ‘wanting to get somewhere’ can become a bit of a problem in the spiritual life, as we have already seen. Determined and dedicated practice forms its own virtuous spiral, self-supporting and self-transcending, Dogen even said that :-
“ Your practice as a descendant of yourself is endless” 9
To truly understand how the sense of one’s Self comes into being, will provide enough work for this, or many lifetimes. It may not appear that radical a vision for practice, but it is underpinned by a metaphysical viewpoint that is. Put simply; the act of sitting on a cushion to practice is an embodiment of Buddha Nature. At that moment our intention, our volition, our simple devoted act of meditation manifests it, at least in embryo , within everyday reality. Absolute Reality is sitting within the Relative view of reality, like a sleeping cat curled up in a lap. We only need to awaken it through practice . Nirvana is a multi-faceted diamond, more valuable because it is shot through with the glinting flaws of Samsara. Our imperfections sparkle in the strengthening light of our practice. The ordinary everyday world appears to act like a dense fog , concealing how inseparable our connection to Buddha Nature really is. The act of practice itself, clears the fog away and our perceptions are also purified of obscurations.
On really cold frosty mornings, as you get into your car, the instant you sit down on your car seat the windscreen will mist up, just as a consequence of your presence, from the warmth of your body and breath. Living in a conditioned reality is like that. Simply by virtue of having a body with senses, a mind with a Self, your perceptions will be fogged, misted up and obscured. At least this is how it can seem from our conditioned perspective. What appears to happen at the moment of Insight indicates that a profound shift in that perception does takes place. It’s demonstrated by the 'Not-Two-Doctrine,' expounded in a popular sutra, that isn’t really a sutra at all; The Vimalakirti Nirdesa :-
“samsara and nirvana make two. See the true nature of samsara, and then there is no samsara, no bondage, no liberation, no burning, and no cessation”
“Purity and impurity make two. If you see the real nature of impurity, then there is no state of purity, and you conform to the state of purity, This is entering the gate of the Not-Two-Doctrine”10
If our windscreen is obscured by mist it would seem practical to wipe it clear. Likewise we conscientiously proceed with the practice of cleaning our perception, purifying our motives and broadening awareness. This works only up to a point, that point is when we question our real nature, the origin and cause of the mist that obscures our vision. How did these impurities arise in the first place, where did they come from? This is when the imperfect nature of our thoughts, words and deeds become just symptoms emerging out of the much greater malaise - the Self. It is both the progenitor of our impurity, and the cause of our misperception of it. The moment we really see the true nature of The Self, then all those troublesome dualities vanish, and consciousness is restored to an intrinsic purity, the natural state of Buddha Nature.
This in no way implies we shouldn’t, or don’t need to, make an effort. Its vital we investigate the imperfect nature of our actions, be ethical, practice precepts etc. This is the basic groundwork, the essential preparation, and a necessary process in practice which we need to apply to ourselves assiduously. Dogen, himself, struggled with this apparent contradictory pull in emphasis - What is the purpose of practicing the path of purity if we are intrinsically pure already? It is an issue that has confounded countless Zen practitioners over the centuries. Dogen overcame it by making practice itself a de facto manifestation of Buddha Nature. All that the 'Not-Two-Doctrine' really implies is, that by all means remove the dust from a mirror’s surface, polish it till it gleams, but if you don’t also look into the experience of your Self and reality full-face in that mirror, then all your effort will be for naught.
Dogen deeply desired to encourage us to practice above all else, but he didn’t want to alienate us from our present selves in the process. He sincerely wanted to draw us closer to a truer sense of Self and Reality. Yet if we practice because we practice, can we do so unsupported ‘without a rope’? Sometimes rope- ladders, rope-bridges, or guide-ropes are essential to help us cross the complex of chasms and ravines we encounter in our practice, they draw us safely through dark, unfamiliar terrain. We surely need to place our trust in something, to have something to steady us? If we hold on to nothing, what will support and give a sense of direction when, from time to time, our determination deserts us? This brings forth another explanation for what ‘Binding one’s self without a rope’ may mean.
Whilst we are still stuck in a conditioned view of existence, our way of escape, of getting off the merry-go-round is unclear. Within the Nidana Chain is shown a way to escape, a tangible point of exit, placed slap-bang between the stages of Feeling and Craving. Normally we feel pain, and try to escape it by indulging in craving. We move from feeling to craving so quickly, we are soon lost in the labyrinthine complexities of the Self and its desires. Whilst the first part of pratitya samutpada described the means by which we are imprisoned by conditioned existence. The second half of pratitya samutpada describes both a method and a means of escape :-
This not becoming –That does not become
From the ceasing of this – That ceases.
All this says, is that the causation process, the wheel rolling down the hill, that constructs conditioned experience can be brought to a halt, and cease altogether. The first part shows what propels the wheel; the ongoing desires of the Self. The second part shows that if desires no longer arise then everything that is a conditioning consequence of them ceases. This sounds perfectly logical and simple. Awareness of how this works happens slowly and is not necessarily easy. First you have to notice what is happening. Then instead of letting unpleasant feelings roll on into the craving for pleasure, or letting pleasurable feelings roll on into our wanting to possess them eternally, we learn how to stay put with whatever feeling that has arisen. When craving is not indulged in, then nothing becomes of it, and in that ‘nothing moment’ the desire to respond fades away. A baby will often cry because this is how it gets the attention it wants, and it will continue to do so if you always respond by giving it the attention it wants - so it is with craving. The volition behind conditioned existence is fueled by craving, the moment it ceases being responded to, then all that normally follows on after it ceases too.
Staying with our feelings, whether unpleasant or not, requires practice and consistent application. Through doggedly staying with them, here and now, we can finally appreciate what had been happening unconsciously all the time. Conditioned existence is, and always will be, an unsatisfactory whirl of activity. Until we actually realise this to our very bones, we cannot hope to rise above it. If we hover at this point between feeling and craving for long enough, we may eventually achieve some form of insight into how much we’re buggered about by conditioned existence. Real sraddha or faith in an unconditioned reality is said to arise as a consequence.
As fallible, frail hearted beings we feel the need for guidance, and some sense of certainty. Such a life-saving rope, cannot be an intellectual idea alone, it has to be profoundly touched by a personal vision or sensitivity.
Sangharakshita says that ;-
“Faith is the emotional counterpart to reason. What you understand with your intelligence you must feel also with your emotions”11
The Sanskrit word sraddha is often translated as faith, though it’s meaning, it’s real spirit, is captured better by a descriptive phrase ‘that which we place our heart upon’. We never immediately place our heart upon anything. Sraddha is not blind or impulsive, it’s tried and tested, our trust and confidence in it, is built up, reinforced and strengthened over a lifetime of reflection on a lifetime of experience. This may make it sound like an entirely rational thing, but feeling, intuition and imagination play a large role in creating the rope that is sraddha. It cannot be prescribed, so you have to learn for yourself what constitutes sraddha for you. What exactly is your heart placed upon?
Personally I’ve found sraddha a tricky thing to grasp and keep hold of, it can easily slip through my hands as though they were oiled or greased. It appears to resist too tight a hold, or too rigid a definition. I have sometimes found myself bereft of a positive vision and desire for practice, these being eclipsed temporarily by the arising of stronger negative emotions. At such moments sraddha can seem a very insubstantial wraith indeed. Though even in the midst of despair, the weakened pulse of sraddha can always be heard. It is subtle, and a difficult thing to spot, particularly if you’re not in good spirits, though it will be there none-the-less. Afterwards, once the dark mood has passed, its worth asking a few questions of yourself; What has stopped me packing in this whole spiritual life and practice, or even giving up on life itself? What things do I continue to do, what do I maintain even in the midst of despondency? What usually lifts my spirits, however temporarily, why and how do they do this? What is it that pulls you out of the darkest of mental wombs?
We want to live, something keeps us going, it maybe tenacity, resilience, we want to survive, yes, but it's always for a reason. Whatever it is that gets us back on our feet, isn’t entirely dependent on a raw survival instinct kicking in. Some element of sraddha makes us bear with the despair, we know it will pass. Though it may elude our conscious grasp, there is still trust in there being some purpose to our life. As a child, when you were learning to ride a bike, you’d no doubt fall off and hurt yourself frequently, but you’d dust yourself down and get back on the bike. You’d set your heart on achieving something, were determined, and as a consequence developed trust and confidence you would make it,eventually. That was a moment of sraddha.
Over the years I’ve found it helpful to reflect on my darker moods from the perspective of the conditioned marks - moods aren’t permanent either- Hurrah! - they might feel substantial, but they’re not – Hurrah !! – they cannot be a reflection of your self worth, because what is that anyway? - Hurrah !!! Sometimes, in craving for my experience to be pleasant and less painful I’ve made it worse and suffer even more. If I can bear with such feelings without a craving desire following, it does pass much quicker. This experience of the effectiveness of the Buddhist teachings, if I’m able to recollect it, also reinforces my sense of sraddha. Such recollection needs to be practiced, as our world is dominated, if not obsessed, by negative perceptions, so they can swamp or drown out the positive uplifting insights.
For myself, equilibrium is often restored through intimate conversation with valued Buddhist friends. They let me say what I need to say, get whatever it is off my chest, and then support and encourage me to see what’s happened in a broader perspective. In effect they hold my a sense of self belief and sraddha, until such times when they can safely place it back into my hands, Over the years I’ve come to place my heart more confidently in the strength of such friendships.
Contact with some form of beauty is often essential, particularly being close to nature. I’ve sat on sand dunes, alone, observing the currents of the ocean, the tidal fluctuations, patterns and flumes. Watching the way the coastal winds blow dry sand from the dunes in feathered streams across a wet beach. I’ve admired the skilled flight and stasis of seabirds. Laid down on the beach, looking up as the cloud formations scud quickly overhead, backed by the sharpest of blue skies. Stared out at the clearest, most expansive of horizon lines, in awe and wonder as the spectrum of sunlight changes as it waxes and wanes. All these things quickly convert the insistent bleating of thoughts into a more peaceful, contemplative content. My heart feels restored to its home and is at rest.
I remember a specific occasion when I was on a solitary retreat in Suffolk, in a place called Shingle Street. It was a beautiful day, with a clear sky, bright, but with a strong breeze. I took out the kite I’d brought with me and lay down on the shingle bank. I listened for a while, giving attention to the genial rattle of pebbles as each wave advanced and retreated. Slowly I let out the kite string, watching as the wind lifted it higher and higher. This gentle elevation suddenly felt significant, like my own heart was being lifted with it too, my aspiration for release was up there flying with the birds. At the same time I felt separate from it, so rooted to the ground and weighed down by myself and my earthly concerns. For that one moment I felt strongly what my heart most wanted and simultaneously how far away it seemed. It felt both so beautiful and yet so tragic that I was moved to tears. Somehow, that experience helped bring further shape to what the core of my sraddha consisted of.
Other forms of beauty, more man-made, such as forms of Art, can affect me too. Music, poetry, painting, film, theatre, even humour can be beautiful in what it reveals sometimes. Sraddha can also be restored by the sense of beauty present in meditation, or in the reading a Buddhist sutra or a discourse by Dogen. All these things raise my spirits, bring a clearer more heartfelt perspective, that things can get better, that better is still possible. This perception of beauty (however conditional) prefigures the vision of a True Enlightened Beauty. Even just briefly brushing against this can transfigure the blackest of nights.
Dogen implies that awareness of sraddha is not only a practice, but a form of self knowledge, even a means to Insight, when he states that :-
“ Understanding through faith is that which we cannot evade”12
So looked at from this perspective ‘Binding one’s self without a rope’ turns from being advice, to being a warning. ‘Bind one’s Self’ but don’t attempt to do it ‘without a rope’ – you need a golden thread of sraddha to hold onto. It would be unproductive, if not dangerous, to go probing into the sense of one’s Self without a well developed sense of sraddha, as your lode star and emotional compass.
Sraddha can never be fully knowable, but it is a spiritual faculty that needs encouragement to develop. There are five spiritual faculties:- sraddha / faith , prajna / wisdom, virya / energy, samadhi / concentration of mind, and smrti / mindfulness. A spiritual practitioner needs to be a bit like a tightrope walker, and have all these faculties alive and well balanced. Again I refer to Sangharakshita :-
“Just as the five sense-faculties govern and control and dominate mundane life, so, in the same way, the five spiritual senses govern and control and dominate the spiritual life Just as we find our way about the physical world with our sense-faculties, so, in the same way, we find our way about the spiritual world with the five spiritual faculties”11
So, a tightrope walker crossing Niagara Falls, has to keep his face looking forward. Putting trust in his practice of balance to keep him upright. He cannot keep glancing downwards to check if the rope is still there, otherwise he might wobble and fall. He has developed a trust and confidence that the rope will be there at the beginning, be there in the middle and be there at the end. With a strong sense of himself, the energy he has at his command, plus his ability to concentrate on the task at hand, he has learnt to sense his way forward using only the touch of his feet. Sraddha, likewise, can only be felt, without it, the pounding foam and voluble roar of Samsara will dominate, overwhelming our practice with doubt and panic. Sraddha is, according to John Daido Loori an emotional quality that remains:-
“dark to the mind but radiant to the heart ”13
What binds us spiritually to a path of purification is intimately connected to the depth of our feeling and emotional connection to it. How willing we are to follow the instructive impulses of what we have placed our heart upon. These will hold us to our practice regardless of the terrain. You can then proceed confidently with no literal map to follow, even ‘without a rope.’.
Part Eight - References
8 – Taken from – The Right view of Re-Birth – By Ajhan Punnadhammo
Published in Buddhadharma Magazine , Spring 2007.
9 - Taken from – Dogen’s formative years in China - By Takashi James Kodera.
Published by Boulder: Pranja Press 1980.
10 – Taken from – The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti – Translated by Robert A.F. Thurman.
Published by The Pennsylvania State University Press 1976.
11 – Taken from – What is the dharma ? – By Sangharakshita.
Published by Windhorse Publications 1998.
12 - Taken from – Nothing Special / Living Zen – By Charlotte Joko Beck
Published by Harper Collins Publishers 1993.
13 - Taken from – The Eight Gates of Zen - By John Daido Loori
Published by Zen Mountain Monastery Publications.