Read more from the Being Truly Human August 1995 Newsletter
By Sylvia Swain
Continued from part 1, part 2 and part 3
In setting out his Noble Eightfold Path to bring about the ending of the ill state, the Buddha gave eight requisites for the living of the religious life, which are as follows:
— a list which reflects the wisdom, the moral and the spiritual aspects of life.
To begin with, we might consider the implications of that word right. We may simply think of it in the context of conventional correctness and assume that external standards of right and wrong are sufficient for salvation. A better interpretation of the original Pali term sammā, here interpreted as right, is suggested in Christmas Humphreys’ Dictionary as supreme, the highest possible. This lifts its meaning out of a relative and social context into a personal and religious one. We are then confronted with the eternal religious question of how, with only our limited awareness and human fallibility we can hope to aspire to that transcendent “highest possible.”
The Buddha said: “Cease to do evil, learn to do good, purify the mind, this the teaching of all the Buddhas”. We certainly cannot “cease to do evil” until we have familiarised ourselves with the forms that evil takes in the depths of the mind. It then becomes clear that the first step on the Eightfold Path, Right View, transcends any personal views and becomes “the supreme” all-inclusive viewpoint, extending and addressing itself even to the problems of unconscious “evil”, which lie in the darkness of the, as yet, unknown. Any interpretation of texts and scriptures, and indeed any self-examination also, confined only to the known will inevitably project the unknown onto “others”, create a new set of scapegoats, and end in general religious dissension with its history of violence, or in personal confusion, which can prevent us from achieving the peace and harmony that we seek.
This shows how important a matter scriptural interpretation can be. As Phiroz was wont to point out, the scriptures need to be presented anew for succeeding generations in ways which reflect the highest psychological and spiritual understanding, if they are to promote personal endeavour and growth to maturity. This Phiroz himself achieved in an outstanding way for religion in general, and Buddhism in particular, for our own generation.
Although Buddhism is not the only religion which reaches out for such “supreme” wisdom, it is true to say that Gotama Buddha had an understanding of the human heart and mind far in advance of the era in which he lived. He understood the simple heart which is dedicated to the way of faith, and he also appreciated the complexities and deep concerns which accompany those who are in the more sophisticated stages of psychological development, and so he addressed the Buddha Dhamma not just to one type or another but to the whole problem of the clarification and “the setting upright of that which has been upset”. For this purpose he devised a wealth of practices to deal with avijjā, ignorance, that dark unknowingness which he saw as a fundamental root of “tormentor psychology”.
Foremost among these Buddhist practices is a set of four meditations, the Brahmavihāras, or divine states, designed for this purpose. They are practices through which we can transcend our narrow self-concern and be opened up to the concerns of our common humanity.
The first of these practices is mettā, loving kindness. It has been said that eleven benefits accrue from its regular practice. Here five will suffice:
The first four offer healing of familiar modern problems, but number five suggests the awakening of those higher states of consciousness which are symbolised by celestial beings in all the religions.
It is comprised of six sequences in which good will is focused on people of our own sex. This immediately links it with the shadow side of the ego complex, which in dreams is always represented by a same-sex symbol.
Having started with a short period of mindful breathing to dissipate any restlessness, we draw on our capacity for goodwill, allowing it to permeate body, heart and mind, noting both the physical and emotional sensations which accompany its uprising.
The impediments to mettā are: aversion, too much emotion, or perfectionism, which arouses self-criticism and inflation. The main problem is probably the impatience from which all these things arise, but the way to deal with all of them is to treat ourselves as we would a child, with the same emotional content that we find within.
However, if we bring patience to bear, this practice has the potentiality for promoting healing of even the most deep-seated problems, depending on the depth and honesty we bring to it. It can address early ego complex problems, help us to correct a distorted self-image, and gradually to recognise and withdraw shadow projections. Even at the very simplest level, it is a valuable exercise in goodwill and brotherly love.
The psychological safeguard here, in dealing with such deep problems, and possibly disturbing material, is that it is done within the framework of religious practice, and, in the presence of a teacher, it can provide a secure religious environment for spiritual adjustments which otherwise might be too painful. Even without a teacher, our own patience and compassion towards ourselves is safeguard enough, as we simply practise each stage for as long as it naturally takes before we go on to the next one. Jung used to tell his patients:
“All haste is of the devil”. How right he was!
Continued in part 5
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