issue 23 Summer 04
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Working models

Do we see the spiritual life as a path, or a process of surrender, of unfolding, or of emergence? Subhuti explores these four approaches and describes how his own meditation practice has been evolving. Interview by Vishvapani.

When I started to meditate I learnt two techniques, the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana (development of loving-kindness). These practices are basic to meditation in the Theravada tradition, and to meditation as taught within the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. I used these as the initial basis for my meditation until I was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order. Then I took on a visualisation practice and that became the basis of my practice. In each case meditation meant following techniques that involved going through specific stages, and trying to cultivate particular mental states.

But even quite early on I found, especially doing the Vajrasattva and Manjusri visualisation practices, that certain experiences started to unfold for themselves within the context of the formal technique. As time has gone on - I've now been meditating for 35 years - I am less and less applying will and following a technique, and increasingly allowing something to unfold naturally and spontaneously. I hardly use technique at all any more and no longer think of my meditation in terms of 'doing' any particular approach. My practice is to allow something to happen.

When I meditate I try not to think about what I'm doing because I want to get beyond thought to the experience itself. But I have also wanted to become clearer about the connection between these differing approaches. So outside meditation I have reflected on how we think about what we do in spiritual life.

However we approach meditation and spiritual life we will always have a model - an idea of what we are doing. Spiritual life is based on a fundamental duality between present experience and an experience you want to develop or grow into, and there is always some kind of tension between them. You can think about that relationship in various ways and how you do so determines how you work in meditation, in your general mindfulness and spiritual life in general. The desired state can either be seen as lying outside you or as lying within you. If it is outside you can either think in terms of developing it within yourself - an approach that could be termed 'self-development', or of incorporating yourself into it - which could be called 'self-surrender'. If it is within you can either think in terms of your discovering it - 'self-discovery' - or of its emerging within you - 'emergence'.

I think these four models - self development, self-surrender, self-discovery and emergence - describe the possible ways of thinking about any spiritual life, not just for Buddhists. Different religions emphasise different models. Theistic religions stress self-surrender while some of them, along with some eastern religions, have a mystical element that speaks of emergence or discovery within. More muscular religions, and 19th and 20th-century moral thinking, emphasise self-development and raising yourself up.

Each of these approaches has benefits and dangers. When we use a technique we tell ourselves that 'I' will apply that technique in order to produce a certain effect: that is the character of self-development. To start with it was helpful to me to think in that way and to have a sense that I was using my will to bring about a different mental state from the one I was then experiencing. But there are limitations in that way of looking. It can reinforce your ego identity - your idea of who you are - or it can be demoralising if you can't do the technique successfully.

Personally that was compensated for by opening myself up to greater forces, which I thought of in terms of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas upon whom I was meditating. I opened myself to an influence that was outside and beyond me and I made an effort to surrender myself to the Bodhisattva. A limitation of that approach is that it isn't easy to do - you need an experience of the Bodhisattva's presence in order to surrender to them. There is the possibility of identifying with them in an immature way and believing you are their messenger - a great danger in a theistic religion. One final danger is that you may never go beyond the dualism between yourself and the Bodhisattva.

But through that approach of self-surrender I began to have an experience, which at first I identified with the Bodhisattva. Over time the experience itself has grown stronger and more vivid and I stopped thinking about what it was. This experience seems to be independent of my will, but I have a sufficient continuing relationship with it that, if I am receptive enough, I can be confident that it will emerge. Initially I saw what was happening in terms of self-discovery - I was discovering a truth within me - but that still implies the exercise of will. It was more that I was allowing something to emerge - so I have now come to think more in terms of emergence.

My experience of meditation, therefore, has moved from one that could be described as self-development and self-surrender to one that could be described as self-discovery, especially emergence. But what can I make of this change? My own teacher, Sangharakshita, has been wary, even critical, of the language of emergence. He was concerned that (in the early stages of spiritual life) to think there is nowhere to go, nothing to do, and one is already Enlightened, destroys motivation and values. He has seen people undercutting the moral and cultural aspects of spiritual life by thinking in that way. However, Buddhism has spoken the language of all the models I have mentioned. Sangharakshita himself has also used language that suggests emergence, and he has been strongly affected by Tibetan dzogchen teachers, who speak in just these terms. So what is the best approach?

I was helped greatly in finding a resolution of this conflict by reading the medieval Korean Son Buddhist teacher Kihwa. Writing against the background of a fundamental distinction in Chinese philosophy between essence and function, he speaks of a practice that is mainly to do with allowing what is essential in you to emerge, while also finding a way to function that is in accordance with your essence. He emphasises that what his translator calls a 'function-orientation' and an 'essence-orientation' must be kept in balance. He also speaks of a third orientation, which is a non-orientation - a recognition that both essence and function are provisional terms. This approach suggests that, as Padmasambhava teaches, we should 'descend with the view and ascend with the conduct'. We try to operate from the broadest possible vision, but proceed in daily conduct by training in the precepts.

Kihwa's approach confirmed a recognition that had arisen in me, that there are different ways of thinking about spiritual life, which need to be balanced. And we need a perspective that lies beyond any models. Reading Kihwa clarified and resolved the conflict I had felt between what was developing in my own meditation practice and Sangharakshita's cautionary words. I saw the possibility of holding different perspectives together, and considering they may be appropriate at different times. All are just models with a provisional truth and all have potential dangers.

In terms of classical Buddhist analysis, the self-development and self-surrender models tend to eternalism - fixing the truth into something absolute and immutable. Emergence and self-discovery models tend to nihilism - denying that there's any source of value and meaning at all, because when we look inward the context is scepticism and doubt about what is outside. That is why it can be helpful to play these dangers off against each other.

Discussion of different approaches to spiritual life can easily polarise as we tend to consider our own approach the best one, and to see the limitations and dangers in others. It helps to have a sense that each of them can aid us in some way at a particular time. Any model is a way of conceptualising something that is not finally to be understood conceptually, and any model has dangers if taken over-literally. Seeing the provisionality of each helps me to appreciate them better. And, as I have become conscious of the way models work, I have tried to keep the different models in tension with one another.

In modern western culture we tend naturally to be most sympathetic to the view that meaning lies within. In a traditional society there is a strong sense of a higher reality lying outside oneself and spiritual life primarily concerns surrendering to something higher. With the European Enlightenment and modernity people found it harder and harder to think of an external reality to which they must surrender themselves. The accent came onto the individual and their moral responsibility and spiritual life came to be seen in terms of self-development. But increasingly, Enlightenment thinking has led to a growing awareness of the conditional nature of our individuality and our susceptibility to psychological and cultural forces much larger than the sphere of our conscious control. Indeed, the whole idea of self-development has become problematic, especially in light of the political excesses to which it has led, and we are now much less confident about the primacy of the individual and the ego. In this post-modern era we tend to believe that, if there is a truth, it must lie within.

Over the years I have been critical of the post-modern position, as I'm very aware that it can lead both to a failure to make moral effort, and to over-identifying with what is seen to be within. Kihwa's notion of the contingency of models of spiritual life - and the changes in my own practice - has moderated this. I now accept that the post-modern view is the one from which most people in the West start, and I believe we must try to enrich it rather than fight it.

But like other views the post-modern one goes wrong when taken literally and becomes relativism - the belief that nothing has more value than anything else. Even if we don't go to that extreme, there is a danger in an approach that says models are limited and we should play them off against each other. It tends to sap energy and inspiration, and you can end up with nihilism or vagueness.

My feeling is that if we find ourself motivated by a model we should commit to it and follow it through. When meditating we need to spend some time making an effort and some time not doing so. If making an effort in meditation has become a grind and a bore - then just open up. In the Mindfulness of Breathing there needs to be an element of effort, but that effort needs to be sensitively applied. What we focus on is not the state we're trying to bring about but the state we're actually in - simply experiencing what is going on now and not on trying to escape it. So to begin with I think that a judicious mix of self-development and self-surrender is probably the best way forward. We also need an element of allowing something to emerge.

At every stage it's vital to realise that the ways we approach our spiritual practice can have both benefits and dangers. We need to keep alive the metaphors we use and be conscious that different ones may be more or less useful at different points in our lives. We must also use them intelligently - aware that they are only metaphors and not Reality itself.