You often give talks on the Bodhisattva ideal. What do you find so inspiring about it?
The Bodhisattva ideal has always been the thing that’s inspired me most about the Dharma. When I first went along to the Glasgow Buddhist Centre, I had quite a strong sense of wanting to change the world and work against injustice from my involvement in left-wing politics and the women’s movement, but I had become quite disillusioned with politics and in retrospect I can see that it left me in quite negative mental states. The political path was so oppositional – you were gay rather than straight, you were a woman rather than a man, you were left-wing rather right-wing, you were working class rather than middle class – there was a whole identity that I’d been building up through otherness and opposition.
One of the things that I found so beautiful about Buddhism, and in particular the Bodhisattva ideal, is that it transcends the polarities of self and other – it challenges you to change the world by changing yourself, it challenges you to love the doer of the unskilful deed as well as the victim of that deed. So I think the reason why I originally found the idea of the Bodhisattva ideal so inspiring was because it was quite a good fit with some ideas that were already important to me but at the same time it was also completely revolutionary.
What do you find so appealing about Sangharakshita’s presentation of the Bodhisattva ideal?
One thing I really like about Sangharakshita’s approach is that he doesn’t separate the Bodhisattva ideal off from more Theravadin influences – he gives us tools that come from the whole of the Buddhist tradition. Sangharakshita saw that the roots of the practice of altruism – the way of working through the self/other dichotomy which is at the heart of the Bodhisattva ideal – can be found right back in the Pali Canon. There’s that line in the Dhammapada, for example, ‘Hatred never ceases by hatred; love alone can combat hatred’.
The other main reason why Sangharakshita’s approach appealed to me was because it is very pragmatic – Buddhism’s something to practise in the 20th and 21st century and it’s something to practise as a Westerner, so you don’t need to convert to something outside of your experience. And yet there’s an air of transcendence to what Sangharakshita teaches, so it’s different from a political path or a secular path.
The idea of transcending self and other can sound like quite a lofty ideal. Can you explain what it is like from your experience?
I think we all get senses of transcending self and other, and we can get a sense of it quite quickly in meditative practice. In the third stage of the metta bhavana, for example, by bringing the neutral person into sharper focus, you’re ceasing to have the world divided into ‘like/don’t like’, and in metta in general we cease to divide into ‘me’/‘not me’. So I think the metta bhavana is a way of starting to transcend self and other; it’s an insight practice at that level.
And I think we can also get a sense of transcending self and other through practising community living and working together with people – we’ve all experienced difficulties that come up when people don’t do what we’d like them to do; we do things differently and of course our way’s much better thank you very much! I think that if we can become aware of those difficulties and work through them, we can start to see that actually our identity isn’t quite so strong and fixed as we thought it was – all the stories that we tell ourselves about who we are just start to break down through practice. So maybe transcending self and other isn’t such a huge thing; maybe it doesn’t always come with fireworks.
You have said in a talk on the Bodhisattva ideal that ‘to have metta towards somebody does not mean leaving behind your critical faculty’, that ‘metta can be quite challenging’. How does this fit in with the idea of transcending self and other?
Well I don’t think metta means that you accept that anything goes. If you come across something like cruelty, racism or homophobia, metta isn’t the kind of idea that, ‘Oh well, never mind, because I love both of these people equally right now.’ I think metta is more to do with opening the heart to the fact that we act in dependence upon conditions – we all seek happiness and yet at the same time often create the conditions for suffering. So if we see somebody acting cruelly or unjustly I think a real sense of the Bodhisattva ideal would mean that you could look at that person and think, ‘You are building up the conditions for your future suffering.’ And then compassion is quite a natural response to that, but it doesn’t mean that I would sit back and not in some way engage with what is going on.
Sangharakshita talks about the bodhicitta arising as a resolution of conflict, so, for example, the conflict between withdrawal and involvement – there’s a movement away from the world and a movement towards the world happening at the same time. I’ve always found that really inspiring – how can I make sure that I have both of those things in my practice? And on a larger scale, how can we make sure that the Movement creates opportunities for withdrawal but at the same time responds to the cries of the world?
Do you think that there is anything in particular Triratna could do make the Bodhisattva ideal more alive in the world?
Sometimes I wonder where the radical edge is in terms of what we offer to the world. I would like to see a bit more action within Triratna; I’d like to see more engagement with the world through ecological projects and us getting involved with things like Transition towns and veganism. I think we need to remember that actually there’s something really not right about the way the world is; there’s a lot that needs to be changed.
I think that over the past 40 years we’ve matured as an Order and there are certainly advantages in that – we’re not quite as mad as we used to be, for example, but there seems to have been a bit of a swing the other way, to people looking for security. Of course, a level of security is important, but it’s equally important to be willing to experiment and question things. To me, this is what the Bodhisattva path is all about – there’s never really a ‘settledness’ to it. Sangharakshita translates the paramitas as the ‘constantly transcending virtues’ – he thinks that it is a mistake to think of them as perfections because that can sound quite static. Actually the Bodhisattva ideal means constantly going beyond, constantly transcending.
Mindfulness is becoming an increasingly popular word in society today. With this in mind, can you say how the Bodhisattva ideal relates to mindfulness?
Bhikkhu Bodhi has said that he is concerned that we will end up with the ‘Buddha’s Noble Onefold Path’, and I think there is a danger that, as mindfulness becomes popular in a secular context, it gets separated from all the other contexts in which a Buddhist practises mindfulness. But Sangharakshita teaches that mindfulness is an integrative practice and I think the Movement has done well to emphasise that. We just need to make sure that we continue to incorporate metta and compassion into our mindfulness-based teaching, to make it explicit and not just implicit.
Lastly, if you were asked to give three tips on how to practise compassion, what would they be?
Three tips? That’s funny.
Well, firstly I think that you need to work with your own internal conflicts before you can work with external conflicts. You need to find peace in yourself before you can find peace in anything else.
And then I think there’s something about being able and willing to just sit with people when they are suffering. Sometimes there can be a desire to rush in and make everything OK, but I think real compassion can start with just being able to be with people.
And lastly I think it is important to practise not only metta but also deepen our understanding of conditionality and realise that there is no separate self, because I think that’s where compassion arises from as well.
So there are your three tips!