Within Buddhism, and within our particular tradition, we encounter a diversity of dharma practices, and it’s important we understand what each is intended to achieve. All dharma practice really boils down to one: the practice of spiritual realisation. Cultivation of the Buddha’s awakening, and receptivity to the influence of that awakening, is the thread running through all the many Buddhist practices of ethics, meditation and insight. It is our overarching spiritual purpose, the compass for the whole dharma life. We need to maintain it strongly and continuously.
There is a progressive aspect to Sangharakshita’s five stages of dharma life. First integrate the self; secondly cultivate an empathic, emotionally positive self. Those are the developmental stages. Thirdly, see right through that concept of self — see that the illusory world we’ve been creating all this time around that illusory idea, while useful and necessary, is ultimately not real. In the fourth stage, allow this realisation so thoroughly into our life that ‘we’ no longer obstruct its passion. In this way our passion for life, previously caught in craving and hatred, becomes purified, illuminated and awakened, a force for the good of the world.
This fourth stage, which comes after the insight of anatta, where the self view collapses, is called spiritual rebirth. Often in Triratna Buddhism this post insight stage is associated with visualisation meditation or sadhana, though its range is broader as we shall see. And since we are talking about more advanced stages of spiritual experience, where the waters are not well charted and experiences not easily described, then our discourse becomes exploratory rather than definitive.
Let’s first distinguish spiritual rebirth from the ordinary kind of rebirth. Embodied beings like ourselves are subject to unpredictable changes which just go on, on and on forever in the familiar world of impermanence, change, and endless varieties of suffering: that’s the familiar kind of rebirth—a new life, but not essentially different from the old one. Spiritual rebirth is a radically transformed life that starts when we see outside those karmically conditioned changes. We poke our heads through the shell of ignorance, see the boundless spaces of nirvana, and step out into those spaces.
Though one necessarily precedes the other, there is no substantial difference between spiritual death and spiritual rebirth; there’s just a back and a front end. Chittapala’s booklet picturesquely describes spiritual death and spiritual rebirth as going hand in hand, inseparable, like a pair of lovers. On the one hand, spiritual death is the essential experience that makes spiritual rebirth happen; on the other, spiritual rebirth is what makes sense of the experience of spiritual death.
I feel it’s very important that we use this idea of spiritual rebirth. I don’t know why, but it seems to me that in our presentations of vipasyana we’ve tended to place the stress on spiritual death. The term itself is accurate enough, but our associations with the word death can be… let’s say, a little discouraging. When we teach the Dharma, we tend to find ourselves explaining that what’s at the end of this long demanding spiritual journey is spiritual death. The impression of death rather sticks in one’s mind. We are probably all familiar with Bhante’s words on this: “What is the next step… what is the next step…? The next step is death! The happy, healthy individual which you are now… must die!” When I was in my twenties, this radical kind of talk greatly appealed to me. I too used to give talks in this vein, and impressed my listeners with devilish, Bhantoid chuckles. But I was really just showing my ignorance. It was not even a proper reflection of Bhante’s teaching, because he used also to speak in terms of spiritual rebirth. I just didn’t understand the notion of spiritual rebirth, so I couldn’t include it in my picture of Buddhist liberation. And since what stuck in my mind was death, and since death is something one fears, I tended to see vipashyana as something to be afraid of. This made it rather unlikely that I would try very seriously to develop any vipashyana.
It seems reasonable for us to be afraid of actual death, though from the perspective of Dharma, fear is actually a quite unreasonable and counterproductive response to the positive opportunity that the dying process offers. But I don’t think that is all that prevents our realising spiritual death. Something that also puts us off is a kind of fear of the life on the other side. We can imagine it to be a no-fun place: dull, worthy, cooped up without outlet for our colourful passions and interests. I think that’s sometimes how we come to see spiritual transformation. Maybe some of this feeling is natural enough, considering how passionate and how interested we are in so many things. But as an attitude to spiritual transformation it is not reasonable or useful.
It’s worth looking more deeply at the relationship between our passions and the dharma. Read more
Based on a talk to the Triratna Order given on the Order Convention, Wymondham College 12 August 2003. Republished with permisson from kamalashila.co.uk