This is the second chapter of a rather ambitious book that I am writing that is provisionally entitled ‘Mandala of Love – A Tantric Buddhist model of Mind and Meditation Practice’. In the first chapter, which you can read here, I introduce two important Dharmic frameworks – the Trikāya Doctrine and Sangharaksita’s ‘System of Practice’. I recommend that you read that chapter first. I find the trikāya to be a fundamental framework for understanding Buddhism, and find that it provides a useful doorway into an understanding of the Buddha’s notion of a Middle Way – understanding it broadly, as both a philosophy and an approach to practice.
I want to emphasise, as I did in my preface to the previous article, that whatever understanding of Sangharakshita’s ‘System of Practice’ I may be offering here is a very personal – I might even say that it is a maverick view. While I may share my thoughts with some conviction, I am not asserting a definitive interpretation. I only want to contribute to the discussion.
This chapter is, in large part, a response to the powerfully explanatory ‘Three Myths’ model (‘self-development’, ‘self-surrender’ and ‘self-discovery’) that was presented by Sangharakshita’s student, Dharmachari Subhuti, in 2003. Not a ‘model’ as such, this is a conceptual framework that many who know the history of Buddhist tradition will be familiar with. I find it very engaging because I believe that it illuminates important universal truths. Indeed, this conceptualisation – a fresh naming of the three main strands of philosophy and practice within Buddhist tradition – presents Buddhism as containing three nested archetypal perspectives. Like many others, I have adapted the model to some extent, as I have made use of it to explain the way I now think about Dharma practice. Once again, my presentation of this conceptual framework should be regarded only as a personal view, and as a stimulus to reflection and discussion – and certainly not as definitive in any way.
This chapter is a work-in-progress. I contains a lot of reflections that are very personal to my particular, and perhaps somewhat unusual, process of learning within Buddhist cultural settings – reflections that may not be generally applicable. It contains a lot of important and challenging insights that I have found difficult to adequately describe.
In this chapter, I shall be continuing to introduce the Trikāya Doctrine and Sangharakshita’s ‘System of Practice’. I shall also be making use of Dharmachari Subhuti’s ‘Three Myths’ model, which I introduced at the end of my last chapter, as a way of exploring the dichotomy of ‘self-power’ and ‘other-power’ in Dharma practice. In his ‘Three Myths’ talk (2003) and article (2004), Subhuti set out to draw our attention to the way Dharma practice, for Western practitioners, tends to progress in a way that begins with a ‘self-power’ emphasis (an archetypal perspective that has been called the ‘self-development’ myth); and then moves to incorporate an ‘other-power’ dimension (an archetypal perspective that has been called the ‘self-surrender’ myth); and then moves to an approach that transcends the apparent dichotomy of the two previous stages (an archetypal perspective that has been called the ‘self-discovery’ myth).
The ‘Three Myths’ framework gives us a way of understanding the three yānas – Hinayāna; Mahayāna; Vajrayāna – the three phases of the historical evolution of Buddhism. Even more significantly however, it shows us how the corresponding shifts of apparent emphasis within Buddhist philosophy are reflected in own evolving practice. Following Subhuti’s archetypal approach to this enquiry, I also want to reflect further on the need for those of us who aspire to be more conscious, to gain a capacity for this sort of archetypal psychological reflection. By this, I do not mean only an awareness of the archetypal Buddhas of the sambhogakāya. We also need to be keenly aware of the corresponding ‘negative’ archetypal imagery of the Buddhist tradition’s Six Realms – the archetypes that show us the egoic mind’s dysfunction. This is a theme that I shall be covering in more detail in later chapters. In this chapter, my focus shall be restricted to Subhuti’s three archetypal perspectives. This three-fold archetypal analysis generates a vast amount of reflection for me. I have a lot of criticism to share in regard to the ‘self-development’ perspective, which becomes extremely problematic when it is practiced in isolation – and I shall be highlighting the need for a three-fold synthesis of the three archetypal perspectives.
Presenting it as a three-fold view which offers the potential for a reconciliation of the dichotomy of self-power and other-power, I shall be offering a perspective on the Vajrayāna. Tibetan Vajrayāna is culturally extraordinarily rich and complex – so much so that Western practitioners can sometimes miss what is most essential and most valuable in the tradition. Hopefully cutting through some of that cultural complexity, I shall be seeking that essence of Vajrayāna that was present, I believe, at various times, in Gautama Buddha’s teachings – most notably in his characterisation of his teaching as a ‘Middle Way’. I shall be presenting Vajrayāna as a mode of practice that aspires to a transcendence of self-power and other-power – a mode of practice that incorporates, but also transcends, both the heroic idealism of self-power (the self-development ‘myth’), and the devotional-receptive other-power perspective (the ‘self-surrender’ ‘myth’). For me, the term ‘self-discovery’ does not begin to encompass the subtlety and profundity of the Vajrayāna perspective, but a conceptual label that would do it justice would be hard to find – so I hope that my use of the term Vajrayāna for the three-fold view, will itself serve us a conceptual pointer.
The Buddhist path looks very different at the end than it does at the beginning. Indeed, it is common for Dharma practitioners to look back after decades of practice, and realise that their previous years of passionate engagement with the Dharma were informed by various egoic delusions – various misunderstandings or partial truths that had been constraining their progress. We may even realise that, in our idealistic striving, we were sometimes striving for the wrong things. We may become aware that we have created conflict for ourselves. We may even have to accept that we had put our trust in people who were ultimately not worthy of the degree of trust that we placed in them.
The whole Buddhist tradition has been through several similar ‘life-review processes’ collectively over the twenty-five centuries of its history, and has also recognised that its earlier conceptualisations were inadequate. The Buddhist tradition’s development through three cultural and historical phases – Hinayāna, Mahayāna and Vajrayāna – may be seen both as a consequence of a natural self-critical and reflective process, and as a natural collective evolution in which the archetypal realities of the sambhogakāya were being articulated more and more clearly over time in the concrete nirmānakāya world of the Buddhist teachings and associated culture.
So, via processes that involved both rigorous introverted thinking and an ongoing conceptual clarification of the traditions teachings, on one side; and direct visionary revelation of the sambhogakāya level of mind, on the other, the tradition underwent a process of improvement and integration. These processes are now entering a whole new phase of consolidation, as centuries of traditional teachings are analysed by Westerners, and are becoming integrated with compatible currents within Western culture and Western psychological thought.
There is much that needs to be said as we attempt to distinguish these three philosophical attitudes within Buddhism. My wish here is to promote more nuanced and discerning reflection – not to confirm stereotypes. Firstly, we need to acknowledge that the term Hinayāna (‘Lesser Vehicle’) is a pejorative one used by the Mahayāna (‘Greater Vehicle’) as it sought to validate the emerging devotional-receptive emphasis, or ‘other-power’ perspective, that had appeared within the tradition. This was a perspective in which Enlightenment was seen to be embodied in the altruism of the bodhisattva, and seen to be a collective and cultural project – one that was in some important but difficult-to-define sense centred ‘outside’ of us, as if it were pervading the universe like an infinite golden light. Clearly however, the teachings of the historical Buddha were not ‘Lesser’. The Mahayāna was only pointing out that it was offering a more culturally developed expression – an ultimately more complete and effective expression of Gautama Buddha’s teachings and of the Buddha’s compassionate intention.
Secondly, we need to be clear that the distinctions that we usually make between the three yānas, are distinctions of cultural emphasis – not distinctions relating to the fundamentals of what Enlightenment is. There is certainly no absolute correspondence between, on one side, the cultural and historical movements of Hinayāna, Mahayāna, and Vajrayāna within Buddhism, and on the other side, the three perspectives of ‘self-development’ (self-power), ‘self-surrender’ (other-power), and ‘self-discovery’, to use Subhuti’s terms – even if those differences of emphasis may be seen. Both the Hinayāna and Mahayāna sought – and indeed found, in their own ways – the Middle Way reconciliation that we see most clearly articulated in the Vajrayāna. So, please be clear that it is not my intention to narrowly identify Theravada Buddhism with the ‘self-development’ perspective.
It has been argued by some, that practitioners ‘should’ begin by practicing for several years in the spirit of Subhuti’s heroic ‘self-development’ myth – I have heard 15 years suggested, and I find myself disagreeing strongly. I am not saying that this is Subhuti’s current view – only that it is a view that is taken by some who present commentary on his framework. What I take from Subhuti’s valuable reflections however, is the view that the ‘self-development’ perspective is only a myth – only one archetypal point of view among three archetypal perspectives that we must endeavour to combine if we are to truly practice the Middle Way. The value of calling these perspectives ‘myths’ is in the way that the word ‘myth’ highlights the fact that these three seemingly compartmentalised approaches, while they each have an archetypal basis, represent only partial truths – delusions even – if they are not brought together into a fully integrated three-fold model.
In the East, the most widely practiced form of Buddhism is what we can call ‘other-power’ Buddhism. This approach goes some way to combining the first two ‘myths’ – the ‘self-power’ and ‘other-power’ perspectives. ‘Other-power’ Buddhism could be characterised as archetypally somewhat similar to Christianity in some ways – because the power to gain salvation is projected out onto archetypal Buddha figures like Amitabha, the Buddha of Love, who is worshiped in order gain rebirth in his Pure Land. This two-fold perspective, where Enlightenment is projected out, lacks the philosophical subtlety of the Vajrayāna – where the practitioner ‘takes back the projection’ and endeavours to recognise that Enlightenment, although it is beyond the egoic mind, is in some sense ‘within’ the person as the transpersonal sambhogakāya and dharmakāya levels of mind.
The ‘self-development’ view is the most limited of the three ‘myths’, but many Western students of Buddhism adopt it as if if were the only valid perspective, and as if it completely encapsulates the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. These students are usually unaware however, that they are closing themselves to the other two perspectives, and that they are closing themselves to a deeper understanding – a deeper understanding which is actually essential to the Buddha’s Middle Way teaching and to Buddhist wisdom in general. It is as if Western students tend not to recognise that the ‘self-development’ approach, even if is directed towards Buddhism’s ideals of altruism and self-transcendence, is actually very close to the ordinary goal-orientated partial consciousness of the egoic mind. This means that the practitioners of this approach are very prone to errors of judgment and to confusion about the nature of the Dharma.
Being aware that everything arises according to conditions, and then studying those processes of conditionality and applying strategies for adjusting those conditions so that our lives are happier, has a place in Buddhist practice, but it is not in itself enough if we a seeking deep transformation. There is very much more to the Buddha’s path. This is why I took time to introduce the trikāya doctrine in my first chapter. We need to understand Buddhism as a Middle Way path, which engages both with the mundane processes of conditionality at work within this nirmānakāya level of our mind and our world; and also with the transcendental, or dharmic level, which is beyond the egoic mind and beyond this world. In the trikāya doctrine this dharmic level of mind is presented as having two levels – an eternal and almost unknowable dharmakāya, and an archetypal sambhogakāya, where the eternal dharmakāya finds expression in our experience as imagery and bodily-felt knowing. There can be no real wisdom and no radical transformation without some engagement with these transcendental dimensions of mind – dimensions that an exclusively ‘self-development’ approach fails to engage with.
A ‘myth’ is a collective story that has the power to shape our collective psychological culture. As Carl Jung explained so well however, if we are not aware of the myths that inform our culture, our values, and our ideas, we are in psychological danger – and our society is in danger also. One of the profound challenges presented by Subhuti in his ‘Three Myths’ talk and paper, was his direct reference to these dangers. He pointed out that each archetypal perspective has what we may call a ‘Shadow side’, to use Jung’s terminology. Subhuti referred to each myth as having a ‘back’, which is unconscious, and a ‘front’, which is conscious. Given that Jung’s notion of the Shadow archetype is now well-established in the conceptual and metaphorical language of most of the spiritually-educated and reflective people in the modern world, I much prefer to use that more common, and perhaps now universal, conceptual label, in relation to this important psychological dynamic.
I have written elsewhere (here), drawing on my own experience, about these possible Shadow expressions within the Buddhist tradition. It is of the nature of the egoic mind that consciousness tends to create a complementary Shadow – to create areas of cognitive-perceptual unconsciousness, or blind-spots. Until we have progressed a very long way on the path, and achieved a very high level of integrity and self-awareness, we all notice areas of empathy failure, or find ourselves manifesting actions of body, speech and mind that are incongruous with our conscious identity and our ideals. This is the nature of the egoic mind.
As spiritual practitioners most of us are idealists by temperament. We therefore need to maintain a high level of vigilance and humility in regard to the possibility of psychological Shadow – we need the high level of Mindfulness that the Buddha always advocated. I am talking here about the ‘vigilant’ awareness that the Buddha urged his students to engage in the course of the last discourse that he gave shortly before his death. This sort of watchfulness for the complementary opposite to our conscious attitude, is especially appropriate and necessary if we find ourselves seized by the high idealism of the bodhisattva ideal – or dabbling in what we imagine to be the Vajrayāna.
It is not always sufficiently appreciated that idealism can be psychologically disintegrating – that an egoic identification with an ideal might actually make us less aware rather than more aware of that in us which is incongruous with that ideal. This however, is an absolutely fundamental understanding without which the notion of Integration – the foundational stage in the System of Practice – cannot be understood. It is essential that we understand the way egoic consciousness divides the psyche. Egoic consciousness is structured in such a way that it always tends to value some cognitive-perceptual functions and devalue others, often exiling the resulting less developed, and therefore more difficult-to-acknowledge, aspects of personality so completely that we can speak of them as Shadow.
It is a fact of egoic consciousness that those complementary cognitions and perceptions are part of the personality, but in compensatory and unconscious ways. It is not inevitable that these polar-opposite psychological cognitions and perceptions are antagonistic to our conscious attitudes, but the more narrowly our approach is guided by the ‘self-development’ perspective, the more we see this tendency. Importantly, the Shadow attitudes and behaviours are usually ‘projected’ onto others – so that we erroneously perceive in others aspects of our own character that we are failing to recognise. One way or another, it is common for a person whose approach to personal development is merely idealistic and heroic (i.e. expressing the ‘self-development’ orientation) to find themselves living out patterns of violent and unethical behaviour that are deeply incongruous with their consciously-held values and aspirations.
One of the characteristics by which we can distinguish Shadow projection is the intensity of emotion that accompanies the Shadow cognition or perception – usually a furious anger or a violent non-rational condemnation. One the dangers of an overly heroic (i.e. ‘self-development’ orientated) Buddhist cultural situation is that this sort of emotional expression becomes normalised – seen as a normal and positive expression given the intensity of personal will-power that is being expressed in all aspects of practice. Within the psychological world of the heroic practitioner, relationships with inner world objects tend to be framed as a heroic, and as fight to gain dominance and control over mental states – to replace bad mental states with good ones.
This heroic internal fight is felt to be a reflection of the great cosmic fight of good against evil; a fierce struggle in which that which has been identified as bad must be condemned and destroyed. The heroic spirit of this noble inner fight for dominance and control unfortunately tends to spill out and to colour relationships in the external world. It cannot not effect the quality and tone of relationships with others in the outer world. It is therefore very easy, within the framework of the heroic, to fall into the idea that people who are deemed to be expressing negative mental states must be made change – everything is reduced to polarities of right and wrong, and to the assertion of a forceful and even violent authority by those who believe they are right. I hope to be able to point out in the course of this chapter, just how deeply rooted in the Western collective unconscious is this mentality of judgement and punishment in the guise of benevolence and wisdom.
My observation of these sorts of attitudes behaviours, in those Buddhist communities and projects where there has been an intense focus on the heroic ‘self-development’ approach to practice, has left me feeling very keenly the need to promote an awareness of the limitations of this perspective. Although the context of these sorts of the attitudes and behaviours may be Buddhist, and framed by Buddhist ideals, the negative mental states and the un-Mindfulness that are generated are often no different from those in any other high-pressure human work situation, but they are likely to be worse – the identification with the Hero inevitably makes them worse. The identification with the good and the projection of evil serves to maintain an emotional intensity and internal blindness. My observation and reflection upon the incongruous dynamics that the ‘self-development’ perspective appears to generate, has created a lot of understanding for me – not only in regard to Buddhist practice, but in regard to the nature of the egoic mind, and in regard to significant difference between the collective psyche of the East and the collect psyche of the West.
I was profoundly encouraged in these reflections by Dharmachari Subhuti’s analysis. One of the powerful implications that his conceptualisations highlighted for me, was that if we are encouraged to see the spiritual path exclusively in terms of either the heroic ‘self-development’ or ‘self-surrender’, and simultaneously discouraged from engaging with the more subtle and reflective path of ‘self-discovery’, we may be in great danger psychologically, because both of these first two ‘myths’ can show themselves to have a dark Shadow side – a Shadow which may only be recognised when we begin to practice on the level of ‘self-discovery’. We may be in especially great danger if we engage with elements of Tibetan Vajrayāna practice, while actually framing those practices within the reductive psychological worldview of heroic ‘self-development’ myth. I shall be exploring this theme further.
Several interpreters of Subhuti’s ‘Three-Myths’ model like to replace his modest and, I would say, appropriate conceptual label of ‘development’ or ‘self-development’, with another one – ‘self-transcendence’. I do not believe this term serves to improve or clarify Subhuti’s three-fold conceptualisation – indeed I find it grandiose and somewhat misleading. Those adopting the heroic ‘self-development’ attitude do indeed often believe they are engaged in self-transcendence, but that belief is challenged by the logic Subhuti’s three-fold model – which identifies ‘self-development’ as only the first of three possible perspectives on self-transcendence, which need to be combined and integrated if significant self-transcendence is to be achieved, and if we are avoid manifesting the Shadow side of this initial style of approach. Indeed, it could be argued that the use of a term as broad as ‘self-transcendence’ for a perspective that is as limited as the ‘self-development’ view, is symptomatic of the psychological inflation that plagues those who adopt this perspective exclusively. The implication of Subhuti’s article is, after all, that we need to question whether significant self-transcendence can actually be achieved if we are not incorporating all three perspectives into our practice in an integrated way.
The path of self-transcendence that the Buddha taught was the Middle Way – a vastly more subtle philosophical approach than the heroic ‘self-development’ one. If, as Western Buddhists, we are to be true to the actual depth, breadth and philosophical sophistication of the Buddhist tradition, we need, in my view, to critique the heroic ‘self-development’ approach, and understand its Shadow side, and highlight its particular dangers in the Western cultural context. When we go deeper into the archetypal psychology of the Hero – the archetype behind the self-development perspective – the dangers become clear. Since my twenties, I have found that my study of archetypal psychology concurrently with my study of Buddhism has allowed me to bring a critical perspective that have not seen elsewhere. Indeed it has become my conviction that archetypal psychology offers a mode of critical analysis that is greatly needed if we are to understand how Buddhism might be adapted to a Western cultural situation without losing its essential Buddhist character on one hand, or falling prey to the Shadow elements in Western collective psychology on the other.
What I am saying then, and what, I believe Subhuti is saying by implication, is that if we are to practice Buddhism in a Western psychological context, we need to have a discerning and morally vigilant awareness of the mythology that informs the Western collective psychological context of our practice. We may believe that we can leave the collective psychology of Western culture behind and adopt the collective psychology of the Buddhist East instead. Unfortunately, the collective psyche is a reality that cannot be swept aside in this way by our conscious intentions and aspirations. In the West, for example, there is no longer a near-universal embrace the mythology and collective mind-set of Christianity, but the archetypes that found expression in Christ’s torture to death on a cross; in the Christian eradication of Paganism; in the heroic ‘holy war’ of the crusades; and in the torture to death or simple slaughter of those with divergent spiritual views, are still with us, and they are all manifestations of the heroic – as are the even older European war-god archetypes that informed the rise of Nazism. Archetypal psychology allows us to factor in these profound psychological influences – influences that are profound but especially deeply unconscious because they exist in us at the collective level of the mind.
A comprehensive analysis of the collective, or archetypal, forces that are at play within Western culture, would require a whole separate book, or a series of books, but I feel a need to give a little time in this introductory chapter to an acknowledgement of this issue of the collective psychological context of the Western Buddhist practitioner. Indeed, we need to reflect on both the West’s and on Buddhism’s archetypal background, and to consider how these have the potential to interact in dysfunctional ways – or at least to cause us to misrepresent Buddhism when it is practiced in a Western context. As a passionate believer in the possibility of a significant cultural renewal in the West through a Western Buddhism, I want to help my readers to have a good understanding, not only of the nature of the egoic mind, viewed through the lens of archetypal psychology, but also of how the Shadow side of the archetypal patterns that have shaped Western culture can prevent us from realising that possibility.
Archetypal psychology is a style of psychological investigation that, while it looks in detail at at all manifestations of the mythic in our personal lives, also steps back and observes the wide sweep of culture and history. This wide anthropological sweep provides us with the data points that lead us to recognise the archetypes that are shaping the collective unconscious of a culture – in this case our culture, and that of ancient India. Perhaps inevitably therefore, I am going to make some ‘sweeping statements’ – some generalisations – but I shall be endeavouring to back these up with sufficient evidence, both from observation of individual psychological process in people, and from the observation of the collective psychological processes in history.
As a possible starting point as we enter into this archetypal psychological investigation, we probably need to start with a general observation that Carl Jung made, and acknowledge that the culture of the India and the East is more ‘introverted’ and that of the West is more ‘extraverted’. Introverted and extraverted are difficult and paradoxical concepts but they very useful. The introverted nature of ancient (and contemporary) Indian culture found expression in vast profusion of religious practices directed toward an exploration of and engagement with the inner world. The religious culture of India with its vast number and diversity of gods, religious cults, and spiritual practices reflects a general attitude of engagement with, and respect for the ‘inner other’ that we do not see in the West.
To this day, there is a valued and widely understood social role in Indian for the shrāmana, the ‘holy man’, and the guru. These numerous representatives of the extraordinary multiplicity of Indian religion are variously tolerated, or followed by millions with intense devotion. Their are whole hereditary castes and sub-castes within Indian society ancient whose lives are devoted to maintaining ancient temples and ancient traditions of worship and meditation, all serving to profoundly affirm the diverse and richly imagined inner world of the Indian gods. One of the paradoxes of all this introversion is that is means that the polytheism of Indian religious culture is most definitely an ‘other-power’ form of spirituality. In India, the power of the ‘divine other’, however that may be conceived, is tangible. Many Westerners are shocked and fascinated by this – they describe being able to feel the reversal in the collective psychological culture as soon as they get off the plane when they visit India. They sense that they can feel the spiritual power of ‘Mother India’ – not only more introverted but more feminine, and more maternal. Life is chaotic and uncontrolled, but also more unconditionally affirming.
The Buddha, like enumerable others of his time and since, left his home and family and became a shrāmana – a holy man living on alms. His passionate wish for a life of engagement with the ‘inner’ through spiritual practice was something that ancient Indian society readily understood and affirmed. It is worth taking a minute to reflect on the person he was at that time. He was born into a wealthy warrior caste family, so he wanted for nothing in his childhood. Indeed, his parents who had been told by an astrologer that he was destined to become a great spiritual practitioner and sage, had intentionally set out to overwhelm him with comforts and sensual distractions throughout his childhood and youth, so that he might be deflected from that destiny. So, the Buddha, at the time of his ‘Going Forth’ into the shrāmana life, had vigorous good health (he was undoubtedly an accomplished practitioner of the ancient Indian martial arts) and the will-power of a warrior, but also the introverted temperament and that Indian sense of ‘other-power’ that destined him for a life of meditation and self-enquiry.
What the Buddha discovered in the course of the process of his Enlightenment was a Middle Way. We can think of this as a reconciliation of two archetypal principles that were playing out in him – the heroic and worldly ‘self-power’ principle of his warrior ancestors, and the ‘other-power’ principle that was drawing him to a surrender to the transcendental dharmakāya. What the Buddha created out of that integration, was an entirely new religious sensibility – one that, while it emerged out of Indian spirituality, was qualitatively different and universal. He created a universal spirituality that has a place in both East and West. That adaptation of Buddhism to Western culture however, requires sensitivity to the differences in the collective unconscious of those two domains – a recognition that the East is introverted and polytheistic, while the West is extraverted and monotheistic. In this chapter, I shall be attempting to outline this very different inner landscape and challenges that it presents for a Western Buddhism.
A very significant feature of the inner cultural landscape, or collective unconscious (to use Carl Jung’s term for this essential concept) of the Indian subcontinent, both in the Buddha’s time and to this day, was the Mahabharat. The ancient Indian imagination recognised the achetypal reality of an eternal war between the devas and the asuras. The devas are a multi-layered pantheon of gods that exist within the polytheistic and introverted Indian imagination. They live in refined and blissful non-material levels of form – states of being that they have achieved though previous lifetimes of meditation and devotional practices that have a distinctively other-power focus.
The eternal opponents of the devas, in the Indian imagination, are the asuras. The nature of these beings contrasts in every way with the way of being of the devas. They are gross, harsh, violent, envious and extraverted – and completely focused on the accumulation of personal power and control. Importantly, in the light of our reflection on the differences in the collective unconscious of East and West, we find in the asura, an archetypal image of self-power – of the egoic will – that these are in effect presented as personifications of evil, and as direct opposites to the benign character of the devas. It would not be putting it too strongly to say that in the dichotomy of the devas and the asuras, we see an ancient Indian representation of the dichotomy of love and power, or of good and evil.
I shall have more to say about the asuras. The main thing I need to say at this stage is that this dichotomy of the love and power is not so clear in the Western imagination. Indeed significantly, in West we often see a failure to distinguish these those two principles, most notably in the Western presentation of the Hero as the archetype of the good – the moral will. When we compare the archetypal imagery of the Warrior Hero in Western mythology to that of the Warrior Hero in ancient India, we become aware of might be characterised as an over-simplification and a cultural confusion on the Western side – and general failure to recognise the dark side of the Hero archetype.
If we are seeking to understand the Western collective unconscious it is helpful to think of Jesus Christ is a mythic figure – or at least as a historical figure who lived a mythic life. Like the Buddha, he was man who was drawn to the inner world and to an engagement with the absolute – with that level of mind that Buddhism came to call the dharmakāya. As we all know, he was a Jewish man who lived in ancient Palestine at a time when it was under oppressive Roman rule. While many of his group and tradition wanted him to use his charisma and spiritual power to become a heroic leader in the Jewish fight against the Romans. He refused this heroic path, recognising that he had something much more universal and important to say – perhaps a spiritual and mystical message for all races, not just the Jewish people.
As we know Jesus was crucified by the Romans after being rejected by his community – all but a handful of close companions. If we are seeking to understand the Western collective unconsciousness, it may be helpful to understand Jesus Christ’s crucifixion as expressing a universal social dynamic. Perhaps Christ’s greatest gift was his exemplification of an archetypal dynamic in which there is a collective rejection a more realised and conscious individual who stands against the group. It is significant that Jesus, given the extraverted and monotheistic tradition of Judaism, is rejected and crucified, whereas the Buddha was welcomed and naturally found a place in the diverse, tolerant, and introverted culture of ancient India – even though his message was very challenging to his society.
The archetypal significance of the figure of Christ is rarely understood in this way – indeed, as most of know, his message is very often completely subverted. It is if, in the context of the Western collective unconscious his message, though much needed, is especially hard for us to hear. In the West we prefer extraverted warrior heroes, and Jesus was rejecting that role, and offering something very subtle indeed. His message of compassion and forgiveness, and his vision of a way of being that is a surrender, even to the point of identification with God – with divine ground of our being (the dharmakāya of Buddhist tradition) – has parallels with the teachings of the Buddha. We find the same emphasis on forgiveness, or primordial guiltlessness, in Buddhist wisdom, where it is framed in terms of ’emptiness’ of self-nature (shunyatā).
What is striking, in the context of this comparison of East and West is that there was a seeming reversal, due to the particular history of Christianity, in which the emphasis in the teachings were adapted to the political needs of the Roman Empire, became predominantly extraverted and heroic. Indeed, Christianity took on the Roman heroic culture and drive for empire and domination. It presented a version of the intolerance of other races and religions that had characterised Judaism, and proceeded to crush the Pagan religious cultures and to crush dissenting voices within it own ranks, with an astonishingly incongruous cruelty – given its founder’s message of tolerance and compassion. All this violence was justified by a rhetorical narrative that framed it in terms of the heroic fight – the extraverted heroic fight that Jesus had rejected.
There is so much that could be said about this. This is not just the history of the Christian Church – it is the establishment and consolidation, in the collective unconscious of the West, of a deep psychological Shadow and societal dysfunction. While Christianity remains an intolerant, belligerent, and imperialist cultural force, its dominant place, and its ability to shape the moral order has been largely taken over by a liberal humanism – a world-view that is just as wedded to the black and white, good and bad thinking of the heroic perspective. Every Western politician and journalist that I see on my television seems locked into the cognitive-perceptual blindness of the hero archetype. All historical context, balance, and nuance is removed. Instead we get ignorant one-sided narratives of good and evil. Sometimes we can see that they are just being dishonest and playing their propaganda role, but as often as not they are just lost in unconscious identification with the archetypal pattern of the heroic fight and the projection of the Shadow.
It is in the nature of the egoic mind to frame everything in heroic terms, and to defend against the reality of the transcendental. While Jesus attempted to offer a path away from that, it is probably fair to say that, in general terms, he was very unsuccessful – although clearly, there have been countless individual practitioners and communities within the Christian tradition that stayed much closer to his teachings, and I shall be reflecting on some of these later. The Buddha’s message was better received. Although Buddhism died out in India after Moslem invasions in the second half of the first millennium, it continued to flourish elsewhere in the East, especially in those countries where it adopted an ‘other-power’ orientated cultural form, and achieved a practical and philosophical reconciliation of ‘self-power’ and ‘other-power’ as in the Vajrayāna Buddhism of Himalayan countries. The point I want to emphasise here is that those who wish to promote Buddhism in the West need to be sure that their mission – their crusade even – in not informed by the same unconscious archetypal forces that caused Christianity to betray its founder’s message.
The crucifixion of Jesus was a particular instance of a broader archetypal dynamic in the collective unconscious that we can speak of in terms of the Scapegoat archetype – something that was given a form of conscious ritual expression in ancient Jewish tradition, but which now continues to be played out unconsciously every day in Western culture. It is a sad paradox that the West, whose dominant religion is Christianity, and whose founder was scapegoated, now continues to indulge every day in ignorant scapegoating narratives. I have a non-rational love of the figure of Jesus that surprises me from time to time, and have Christian friends who I love and respect. Also, many of my heroes were Christians. I believe it is important for Western Buddhists, without devaluing or dismissing Christian faith, to reflect deeply on the nature of Christianity, both as a cultural and historical process in the modern world, and as a set of psychological predispositions in the collective unconscious of the Western psyche.
It can be argued that there is a paradoxical sense in which Buddhists need to listen to the essence of what Jesus was saying, because it speaks to the Western mind. We must, I believe reject the pull to the extraverted surface and to the heroic, and must seek to recognise our identity with the eternal and the absolute. The general refusal, or inability, of the West to hear the message of Jesus should be taken as a warning by Buddhists. We must also resist the closely-related pull of the Scapegoat archetype – becoming aware of our Shadow and our projection of it onto others. The ignorant heroic spirit of Western culture cannot be incorporated into the culture of a Western Buddhism without significant danger. We must find a place within our Western scientific materialism for a true ‘other-power’ Buddhism, and for a Buddhist culture that values the introverted practice of self-enquiry, or ‘self-discovery’ – of looking deep beyond the egoic mind for the source of our being and our identity.
The West’s devotion to various expressions of the Warrior Hero archetype began in the Pagan period when the first European and Middle Eastern civilisations were emerging. The actual cultural institutions that grew out of the religion founded by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth – ‘Jesus, the Forgiver of Sins’ (to use William Blake’s wonderful phrase) – continued to give expression to this heroic spirit, while at the same time reacting harshly against the earth-god and feminine aspects previous spiritual culture of Paganism, traditions which revered personifications of the archetypal forces that animate Nature and human life and relationships. Christianity’s tendency towards a devaluation, subjugation and appropriation of the material and the natural – both in our environment and in human nature – is still shaping our world. Paradoxically, this continues to profoundly shape Western culture, not only our faith, but our atheism also – it shapes not only our irrational religious conservatism, but our secular democratic liberalism as well. We are still finding enemies to project our devils onto and still finding heretics to persecute. The chosen scapegoats change, but the spiritual ignorance and the violence of the defensive psychological dynamics remain the same.
In his lifetime Carl Jung witnessed a dramatic and difficult period of history – many decades of rampaging cruelty and psychological darkness – with the rise of fascism and totalitarian Communism, and two horrible world wars, both in nominally Christian Europe and across the globe. I see him as having spent his life calling the people of the liberal West to the same wide-awake ethical vigilance that the Buddha advocated. This was the same cautious, vigilant, watchfulness for the ever-present Shadow that was integral to the Buddha’s practice of Mindfulness. In recent times, only the great French philosopher, Rene Girard, has come anywhere near Jung (or the Buddha), in the depth of his engagement with the world-shaping, and potentially world-destroying, reality of psychological Shadow. I regard it as something of a failure of Western Buddhism that it has not been able to do more to contribute to a collective awareness of this archetypal dynamic.
So, an especially prominent and especially unconscious factor in Western culture is the ‘Warrior Hero’ archetype. We need to face into the fact that the mythic heroes who were the psychological founders of the Western cultural strands that found expression in ancient Greece and Rome, were masters of war – experts in violence, killing and conquest. The imagery and spirit of this archetype is compelling for us in the West, and is so deeply and unconsciously part of the egoic mind of the Western practitioner that we cannot help but project it onto Buddhism. Unless we are aware of this mythic background, we may even turn Dharma practice into a brutal and muscular conquest of psychological enemies within ourselves – especially a fight with the supposed enemy of our instincts for erotic bondedness and sexual intimacy.
At worst, the Dharma may even be taken over, in the Western context, by what Jung would call the psychology of the ‘positive-mother-complex’ – a precocious engagement with the cultural gifts of the Heroic, while being subject simultaneously to dark fears that these gifts will be lost to the devouring Mother archetype of family and sexuality, with her attendant preoccupations of material security and comfort. The positive side of the Mother archetype blesses her sons with confidence and capability, but the Negative Mother lingers in the unconscious poisoning their minds with irrational fears. Locked into a defensive relationship with their authentic depth, those apparently blessed individuals who become a ‘hero-of-the-mother’, are just as doomed as all material heroes are. In fact their fate may be worse. They sit forever in the lap of the Mother archetype – mostly unaware of her presence, even as they accuse others of being in her thrall. While sometimes appearing to challenge her, they are actually agents and advocates for a world-view in which Mother Nature – and not the transcendental – is front and centre. Consciously or unconsciously, they are champions of the personal will and of the scientific materialist worldview.
If we make the nirmānakāya the context for our worldview and our practice, rather than the dharmic order, then we are likely to end up advocating for a narrowly heroic and idealistic form of Buddhist spirituality, that while it may be aspirational and culturally rich, tends to be elitist – and unable to offer comfort to those who are struggling. There is a great danger that we then end up with an exclusive spirituality that is tailored for ‘strong ego’ individuals and has nothing to offer the traumatised – even though the traumatised will be drawn to the rhetoric and imagery of wisdom of compassion. When we begin to recognise that the heroic will and the egoic will are the same, and begin to recognise how limited the ‘self-power’ perspective is, we naturally want to move beyond mere ‘self-development’.
If we look carefully at the archetypal psychology of the Hero, we realise that, while such a spirituality can be made to look very sophisticated, a Buddhism created by and for such heroes, will be a dumbed-down spirituality. The brute Heracles, with a crude club as his chosen weapon, provides us with one of the quintessential images of the Western hero. He strangles the invulnerable Nemean lion with his bear hands and then takes its invulnerability upon himself by wearing its skin. This wearing of the skin of the Nemean lion is a profound and multi-dimensional symbol. The Hero values the invulnerability of the animal skin – the skin that could not be pierced by any weapon – and he also values the animal’s energy. He seeks to take on these two qualities and to embody them both. So, the animal skin of invulnerability symbolises but tight psychological defences of the egoic mind, and animal vitality of the natural world – the life-force of the positive side of Mother Nature. The heroic individual may be physically strong and self-assured, and maintains a certain power and charisma on the level of the personality, but he is hardened, brutal, and intellectually one-dimensional – and far from wise. It is the bodhisattva that we must keep in mind – not the Western warrior hero.
As an aside, I feel it needs to be acknowledged that men need archetypal images of the masculine to guide their aspiration and their development – and Buddhism, if it is wise, can respond to this in way that offers archetypal images of the masculine that are very much deeper than the Hero, which already dominates our culture anyway. In the imagery of the five archetypal Buddhas, and that of other archetypal figures like the bodhisattva, Buddhism provides a whole pantheon of inspiring male figures. These Buddhas embody a great depth of wisdom and energy – each one represents an aspect of the Middle Way path and of the dharmic reality. In a later chapter, I shall be outlining the profound aspects of the masculine that are embodied in each of these figures – dimensions of the masculine that go far beyond the merely heroic. Along with each of these, I shall be describing the corresponding female Buddhas, who we really need to think of as inseparable from their male partners – as if the pairs of figures represent two sides of the same experience; two sides of the same spiritual principle.
It is deeply significant and very telling that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, heir to Buddhism’s long history of monasticism, chose at some point in the last millennium of its history, to start depicting the essential qualities of Enlightenment in five male archetypal Buddha ‘couples’. Our assumption that Buddhas are solitary and ascetic figures is challenged when we see them represented iconographically as resting in sexual union with a female Buddha partner. In the course of their emergence within Buddhism in the previous millennium, these five Buddhas were often called the Jinas – the ‘Conquerors’ – and they were indeed figures of great importance in the historical expansion of Buddhism. The emergence within the tradition of this imagery of Buddha ‘couples’ certainly serves to counter the earlier association with the heroic and solitary – making the relational nature of these Buddhas very explicit indeed.
The Hero is a solitary figure and can sometimes represent courageous individuality in the face of group pressure – a qualities that were powerfully embodied in both the Buddha and Jesus. Unfortunately however, the hero image in Western culture more often ennobles the surrender of individuality. The most obvious example of this is the heroic soldier, who willingly immerses himself in the tribal consciousness of his regiment and his nation – and willing follows the orders of his commanders, even when death is much more likely than glory. This aspect of the heroic is disastrous for a Sangha, which, in my view, can only function and serve its community of students if each of its members is committed to an authentic individuality and personal responsibility that is rooted in an aspiration to a level of spiritual practice that has gone beyond the heroic.
In my view, there is nothing more undermining to individuality, and nothing is more potentially disintegrating both on the individual psychological level and the social psychological level, than an unconscious adoption of the values of heroic surrender in which we place the conviction of another over our own knowing. We may imagine that this sort of heroic surrender of the egoic minds volition and discernment will sweep away the egoic mind itself, but it will do the opposite – it will create internal conflict and depression, and it will damage relationships within the Sangha. Whatever superficial and temporary collective social cohesion is achieved by such heroic surrender of our knowing, to those of higher rank and experience in the organisation, this sort of behaviour or cultural expectation will ultimately only undermine the creation of true spiritual community – true Sangha.
Some may regard this a bold and paradoxical assertion. It is common for people to assume that the capacity to take individual responsibility is an essential feature of the heroic, but this is unfortunately not the case. Even if individuality and personal ethical responsibility are adopted within the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective as ideals, this is absolutely no guarantee that these qualities will be manifest. Intention and will power, even if these are present, are not enough. Individuality and personal ethical responsibility spring from profound and multi-dimensional self-awareness and from the meditative embodiment process that the Buddha described as a Middle Way. Such self-awareness and embodiment requires a true ‘self-surrender’ (in the sense of real recognition of, and surrender to, the ‘other power’ of the dharmic reality), and ‘self-discovery’ (forms of practice in which self-power and ‘other-power’ are balanced and reconciled, and in which the egoic will no longer takes centre stage).
Disparaging comments are sometimes made against the ‘self-surrender’ and ‘self-discovery’ perspectives by advocates of the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective. One of these is that those who go beyond the heroic ‘self-development’ stage, ‘do not need the Sangha’. While it is true that in the deeper stages of practice, we find, in a sense, sources of guidance within, I do not believe that it necessarily follows that we then no longer need the Sangha. I would certainly acknowledge however, that our relationship to Sangha changes, and this aspect of our ‘Going For Refuge’ matures into a deeper solidarity and a deeper desire to collaborate with our peers in the work of teaching the Dharma and creating Sangha. Ultimately, a Sangha is a spiritual community in which each participant is functioning as an individual – manifesting an individuality that is rooted in a keen sense of the dharmic reality, and showing the high level of discriminating discernment and objective knowing, that springs from that. It could be argued therefore, that an effective Sangha must have a critical mass of practitioners who are practicing out of the three-fold ‘self-discovery’ perspective.
There are very deep questions to be addressed in regard to the way in which the culture of the Sangha serves to support the spiritual development of its members, and we get different answers to these questions depending on which of the ‘myths’ we are viewing the Dharma from. An exhaustive exploration of these questions would be enough material for a whole separate book. While I do not want to give too much time to this, it needs to be acknowledged that there is an assumption, even among advocates of the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective, that we cannot sustain the heroic approach to the Dharma without the external support of other similarly-engaged Sangha members. This is a logical assumption. Indeed, it would seem that it is only as we grow into the three-fold perspective that I have been calling Vajrayāna, that we develop true spiritual autonomy. When we see spiritual development as primarily taking place through the action of the heroic moral will of the ‘self-development’ perspective, we are also acknowledging that, at that stage, our Buddhist identity and our ethics are primarily socially constructed through our relationships within the Sangha.
An extreme version of this view, holds that the novice should be willing to surrender every aspect of their identity, and should allow a new self to be curated by the influence of their spiritual superiors within the Sangha. While such an attitude expresses a heroic willingness to surrender the egoic mind, and a heroic commitment to self-transcendence, it is far from wise – indeed it is very likely to be either psychologically harmful, or at the very least completely unsustainable. This view also reveals the psychological shallowness of the heroic perspective, and a very disturbing, almost delusional ignorance regarding the nature of the self – a confusion that Buddhists are unfortunately very prone to. While the Buddha did indeed tell us that the self is a systemic phenomena made up of component cognitive-perceptual processes that are each ’empty’ of self-nature, he would not deny the particularity of each apparent individual’s process, or of each individual’s particular gift. The ’emptiness’ of skandhas does not imply any denial of the apparent individual’s value or humanity, or of the real human needs that arise in the unfoldment of their unique potential.
This tendency to advocate for this sort curation, or self-curation of the self is very common in Buddhist cultural settings, both in the East and in the West. There are formulations in the Pali Canon that appear to support this view, as does a superficial reading of the anatman (no-self) doctrine. Because it appears to have a traditional basis, it is very easy for a Sangha to fall into a cultural pattern of affirming this sort of dangerous and delusional thinking. The lack of thought given to the psychological implications of this view, is for me a classic example of how a partial psychological view like the archetypal perspective of the heroic, can seize the mind and plunge a person into unconsciousness, erasing true individuality. There is clearly a dark Shadow to this impulse towards heroic ‘self-transcendence’ through a curated or self-curated self. There are parallels in the social psychology of totalitarianism that the world witnessed in Nazi Germany and Soviet Communism – societies which embraced an ideal of heroic ‘self-transcendence’ through service to an all-powerful state.
Those who would create Sangha, need to be keenly aware of these dangers, and the need for a critical perspective on these Shadow aspects of the ‘self-development’ myth. Because this perspective appears to justify attitudes of positive social control by senior practitioners it needs to be approached with very great care and ethical vigilance. I have seen this sort of collective psychology of positive social control get out of hand – especially when goes hand-in-hand with the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective. At worst, the manipulation of individuals ‘for their own good’ becomes part of Sangha culture and even perhaps implicitly part of the ‘compassionate’ activity of the practitioner who has embraced the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective.
When we see the darkness of this Shadow, we have clearer understanding of why the Buddhist tradition evolved the balanced and three-fold view that I have been talking about. The historical flowering of an ‘other-power Buddhism’ – often simply called ‘Pure Land’ Buddhism – across the East, is evidence a movement within the tradition that countered the heroic emphasis that emerged in the Theravada. Other-power Buddhism can be seen as a movement towards balance within Sangha culture, and within the tradition. It creates Buddhist cultures that express a profound humility. It involves a recognition that our salvation is not achieved solely by our personal will, but by devotional-receptivity (‘self-surrender’) to benevolent forces beyond the ego.
There is a tendency for Western Buddhists of the heroic ‘self-development’ persuasion to see the self a some sort of tabula rasa (blank slate) – a dangerous delusion in my view. There is however, a balancing counter-point to this that had become well established in Buddhist tradition by the time it reached its Vajrayāna phase. I am thinking of the Tathagatagarba teaching – the teaching that we know as the ‘Buddha Nature’ teaching. The ‘Buddha Nature’ idea – the idea that one of goals of our practice should be to glimpse and familiarise ourselves with an eternal and primordially pure dharmakāya level of mind, that is always there, whatever the surface of the mind is doing, brings a whole new ‘self-discovery’ perspective to the culture of the Sangha, and is a powerful, and I would say necessary, counter to the problems associated with the heroic.
It needs to be acknowledged that the heroic ‘self-development’ approach, when it dominates our view of the Dharma and is practiced in isolation, is grandiose in its claims and aspirations, and can inadvertently set Sangha members up for almost guaranteed failure. This is not just my experience – the Buddha and numerous Buddhist sages down through the centuries, have said as much. The egoic will may bring success for a while – it may succeed in achieving our goals, in managing our suffering for a while by skilfully modifying the conditions that are creating it. It may succeed in finding positive experiences and material things that compensate for our suffering – but ultimately it always fails, if only in the inevitability of death.
The heroic ‘self-development’ perspective, quite apart from lending itself to crudely hierarchical forms of governance, has an inherent tendency to arrange the Sangha into a hierarchy of success and failure. While some Buddhists may be able to comfort themselves with the idea that there will be future lives, this is a very limited consolation. The heroic view speaks much too easily, in my view, about this idea of practicing in future lives over aeons of time, and is remarkably closed to the idea of gaining Enlightenment in this lifetime. I believe the Buddhist tradition developed a much better counter to our sense of the ego’s inevitable crushing failure and guaranteed suffering life after life, in the notion of ‘Buddha Nature’ – a relatively simple and logical idea that is essential to ‘self-discovery’ perspective of the Vajrayāna.
The ‘self-discovery’ perspective provides a necessary counterpoint to the sense of success and failure that so deeply part of the ‘self-development’ view. It is a perspective which invites all Sangha members into the enquiry and the collaboration. There is a Shadow side to ‘self-development’ view’s claim that we should ‘be receptive’ to those who are higher in the spiritual hierarchy, and should simply revere those members who have more experience. It can discourage critical thinking, creativity and initiative – and it blocks the flow of feedback that the senior members need in order to perform their leadership roles. It could even be argued that the heroic-hierarchical view discourages depth in peer to peer friendships. In the context of the three-fold ‘self-discovery’ perspective peer-to-peer Dharmic friendships naturally tend to become profoundly healing self-enquiry dyads – mutual investigations into the ’empty’ nature of mind. Paradoxically, this sort of depth of Dharmic connection, and Dharmic enquiry, can be threatening to the heroic-hierarchical view which sees wisdom as a commodity that flows down through the hierarchy from the wise to the ignorant.
For me, the notion of Buddha Nature is just another way of talking about the dharmakāya level of mind. It leads all members of the Sangha who are familiar with the idea, to begin entertain the possibility that there is something of the dharmic order ‘within’ us all. The idea that the presence of the dharmakāya may be recognised in the universal experience of Consciousness, has what may be called an ‘equalising’ effect on Sangha relationships – it also give a powerful impetus to Mindfulness practice. While a hierarchy obviously continues to exist in regard to all aspects of knowledge and virtue; within the three-fold perspective the general sense of hierarchy is not so absolute – and is less likely to be experienced as a hierarchy of value. Although it is regarded, in a rather unthinking way as an essential idea, by many Buddhists, for me, the idea that some people are of greater value than others is problematic – indeed I regard it as antithetical to the fundamentals of Buddhism. While clearly it is important that those who have studied and practiced the Dharma, or have worked for the Dharma, should be deserving of our profound respect, we must guard against the idea that others are not deserving of respect – an idea that easily gains currency when the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective is adopted exclusively.
I shall be returning to this theme. It is necessary to understand why advocates of the ‘self-discovery’ perspective tend to de-value the three-fold perspective, and the ‘self-development’ perspective in particular. We must recognise the potential for harm that is associated with this prejudice. I am a passionate advocate of the idea of a thoughtfully eclectic Western Buddhism, and I believe that it is appropriate for Western Buddhists to be discerning and selective about what aspects of traditional Buddhist philosophy and practice they adopt. We need to be aware of the effect of this selection process however, on the philosophical culture of the Sangha. I am of the view that Western Buddhism should be a diverse mix – rather than just a transplantation of particular ethic Buddhist traditions in their entirety. The different choices made in the creation of Western Sangha cultures, need to take care to create an appropriate blend of the three archetypal cultural perspectives, and therefore on their member’s overall experience of Buddhist practice. We need to be sure that, in our process of selection, a three-fold balance is being created – and that we are not imposing our Western prejudices on the Buddhist tradition.
These questions highlight for us the way that a heroic and socially constructed identity is not ultimately a good basis for personal ethical responsibility. An ethical sensibility can, and often does, initially develop as a form of idealism, and out of a social identification with the values set out in the ethical precepts of Buddhism. This is just the first level of ethics however, and in the modern world confronts us with complex ethical challenges that require much deeper investigation and much deeper self-enquiry. The traditional ethical precepts and the guidance of our spiritual superiors can only serve us up to a point – we must ultimately find a deep internal basis for our ethical sensibility. While it has its place at an early stage, we cannot live our lives guided by a sense of what others may think of us. Ultimately, personal responsibility and ethical discernment are rooted in the depth of our relationship with the dharmic reality. I believe that the brahmavihāras provide our best practice route to this deeper discernment. They are, I believe a bodily-felt resonance of the dharmic reality. I shall be reflecting upon them in detail a later chapter.
Ethics and non-violence in our decision-making, communication and conduct, needs more than a set of ideals and a heroic moral will. It needs comprehensive cognitive-perceptual awareness and multi-dimensional empathy – and this sort of breadth of awareness and empathy is not a strength of the heroic ego. To be deeply and instinctively ethical, we need Equanimity and Loving Kindness, and we need Compassion and Appreciation. When, through the practice of ‘self-surrender’ and ‘self-discovery’, we realise that each of these brahmavihāras are qualities of our own true nature, then we also realise that we are living in a universe that has Love, and therefore ethics, woven into its primordial fabric – and we recognise that these two realisations are inseparable.
I find myself thinking that perhaps the main value of the heroic in the spiritual life is that it takes us to that threshold of deeper and more transformative practice in which the heroic egoic mind is progressively seen through and transcended. Until we have really connected with the Middle Way, and have connected with that clarity of intention that Buddhism calls Going For Refuge, the heroic determination of the egoic mind and the urging of more experienced others may have their place. Once we are on the meditation cushion however, or engaging in self-enquiry, the heroic identity must learn, over time, to step back and allow the unfolding that is trying to happen – an unfolding of ‘other power’, and of the recognition of a mode of practice that opens to the dharmic reality as the source of our healing, and our identity, and our guidance. It is better that we think of the heroic and the Middle Way as opposite approaches to personal development – not the same.
The culture of renunciation that necessarily coloured the whole history of the Buddha’s community of monks, and has informed the various monastic traditions that he founded, gives us a set of very particular images and attitudes. The spirit of renunciation appears to be very close to the heroic spirit, so it very easy, to frame the Buddha’s ‘Going Forth’ into a life of spiritual practice, as a heroic act. Indeed, the heroic dimension of that incident in the Buddha’s life, prior to his Enlightenment, can distract us, from the fact that his actual Enlightenment process cannot even begin to be adequately understood simply in heroic terms. The Buddha makes it clear that his Enlightenment involved a giving up of his goal orientation, and the recognition that the germ of what he was seeking was already present – primordially present and recognised as having already been present even in his childhood.
The individual for whom the personal will is at the heart of his identity can, even if his goals are framed in spiritual terms, become disconnected – dissociated even – and it would be easy to imagine male Buddhas to be the same. We need to take care therefore, to be really clear that Buddhas are profoundly relational beings, and we need to recognise the integration processes of the Buddha’s Middle Way as the subtle and relational process that they are. When we come to look deeply at the skandhas in future chapters of this book, we will find that the cognitive-perceptual system that we take to be a self, is made up of multiple internal relationships between Consciousness and the rest of the skandhas, and between all the dynamic pairings and polarities that exist between the system’s various ‘internal’, ‘external’, and complementary components. Relationship is woven into the fabric of who we are, so relationship must be the path to our cognitive-perceptual wholeness and our freedom.
The heroic attitude does not lend itself to these complex and multifaceted integration processes and to the development of expanded awareness. Indeed it can have the opposite effect. The Hero is the archetype of the egoic mind. It is the archetype of that conscious attitude that tends to polarise against the unconscious and therefore does not relate to less conscious, but nevertheless important, dimensions of ourselves in a way that might draw them into consciousness and integrate them. One of the gifts in Buddhism’s mandala model of the structure of the psyche, is that it shows us the multiple polarities in that structure – each of which are, as likely as not, to become polarities of consciousness and unconsciousness in the egoic mind. When we recognise that the body-mind and the cognitive-perceptual system of Consciousness has this structure, and this tendency to fall into polarities of conscious and unconscious functioning, it becomes very clear that integration cannot happen solely through the heroic ‘self-development’ approach.
We need to understand that the Middle Way, does not give free rein to the heroic, and to the personal will. Rather it presents us with a much more subtle path which endeavours to fully integrate the ‘self-power’ and ‘other power’ perspective into a third perspective which transcends both. This means that the Middle Way is very difficult to conceptualise, and whatever conceptual clarity the Buddha might have presented in regard to it, has tended to become lost in the early centuries of the Buddhist tradition. While the Middle Way is, in my view, better articulated in the Tibetan Vajrayāna, its presentation there is also elusive, and easily obscured by the cultural richness and complexity of the Tibetan Buddhism.
There is a Tibetan term that many students of Buddhism will be familiar with – Dzogchen – which has something to offer us in our search for the Buddha’s Middle Way. In Tibetan Buddhism, Dzogchen training is presented in very particular traditional ways, but I have come to think of it as essentially a very comprehensive and complete perspective on Mindfulness practice and on the cultivation of the brahmavihāras. It is also a very direct and effective path to wisdom, because it encourages us to recognise that the ground of our being is the dharmic reality – that we are not the egoic identity that we have created for ourselves in this nirmānakāya world.
Dzogchen is also just another way of thinking about the eternal return of the compassionate bodhisattva. It invites us to find experientially within ourselves, a transcendence of the stark existential dichotomy of dharmakāya and nirmānakāya – and urges us to recognise the benevolent presence of the eternal in each moment of Consciousness. By doing this, it causes us to reframe the way we think about Enlightenment. Enlightenment is no longer negatively framed as a personal escape from the irredeemable tragedy and suffering of this world. Rather it becomes a purposeful surrender into this world, borne from a deep life-embracing compassion. So, Enlightenment is a coming to rest in the dharmakāya, and an embodying of the sambhogakāya, so that our life becomes a spontaneous act of offering service to the collective process of our world – a world in which the misery of samsara and the freedom of nirvana exist simultaneously and inseparably.
So, Dzogchen is a key component of the perspective that I have been calling Vajrayāna or ‘self-discovery’. It is the perspective which calls on us to recognise that the dharmakāya is ever-present in this nirmānakāya world – to recognise the benevolent transcendental reality of Consciousness and to turn towards it. It a ‘self-discovery’, or ‘self-enquiry’, path in which we seek to recognise that in us which is already at peace – and to rest as that, so that we gain a deep familiarity with it. That peace that we seek is beyond the egoic mind. Even if we have become very accomplished at using the egoic will to calm and pacify the mind, the ultimate peace of Enlightenment is always beyond the reach of the egoic will and of the ‘self-development’ perspective. The Middle Way perspective requires us to look beyond the egoic mind – not only to relate to that which is beyond us; but to shift out of the egoic way of being, into a new openness in which we recognise that the transcendent mystery is at the core of who we are.
I have been reflecting on the psychological dangers in the way the Western mind imposes its preference for the heroic ‘self-power’ and tends to frame Buddhism as primarily a path of ‘self-development’. What I am highlighting here is an archetypal dynamic that is very important, not just in male psychology and in the psychology of those who are drawn to Buddhism, but in the collective psychology of the West, which is the ultimate context of these reflections. Those who have a positive-mother-complex are often gifted individuals and confident public speakers, but they tend to generalise from their experience as heroes-of-the-mother – even though their experience leads them to an extreme view that is far from the Buddha’s Middle Way.
Clearly, those of a positive-mother-complex temperament have very different psychological needs to those of the negative-mother-complex temperament. The seemingly-positive ‘hero-of-the-mother’ psychology is completely different from the bodhisattva psychology that it might superficially resemble, but the figure of the bodhisattva is often presented as if it were essentially identical to the Western Hero. This confusion is inevitably very prevalent because those with ‘hero-of-positive-mother’ temperament are bound to tend to rise to positions of leadership in Western Buddhist organisations – unless perhaps there are feedback mechanisms within such organisations that facilitate more balance and wisdom. Like all religious organisations, Buddhist organisation can easily become ultra-hierarchical, in the sense that power and information generally flow downwards through the organisation from the top. This episcopal mode of governance is both ‘affirmed by’ and ‘affirming of’ the military-heroic mindset. This is something we need to keenly aware of if we are committed to building effective Sangha, and I hope to write more on this in the future.
I am talking in the language of archetypal psychology here – the psyche’s own language of archetypal principles and images. The Mother, in this context is Mother Nature, and may be characterised as the archetype of that in the conditioned world that appears to love and nurtures us – but only in the very limited way in which the biologically conditioned nirmānakāya world can love and nurture us. The Buddhist tradition bears witness to a fundamentally different source of love and nurture however – the spiritual love and nurture that comes from familiarity with the dharmakāya and sambhogakāya. I hope to show by the end of this book that systematic practice informed by the trikāya perspective can overcome this dichotomy. There is a sense in which the potent and penetrating dharmakāya, which is most often depicted iconographically as masculine, is ultimately also an aspect of the Mother – indeed, although it is that most consistent and benevolent aspect of the divine feminine, we nevertheless generally fail to recognise it.
This theme of the healing of this split in the Mother archetype is something I would like to give time to later in this book. Many Buddhists associate the sublime ending of the Heart Sutra with the voluptuous, benevolent, and ‘motherly’ female Buddha-figure of Prajñāpāramitā. It is as if we come to recognise, in the figure of Prajñāpāramitā, a primordial feminine benevolence in ourselves and in our world – and for many this energy is evoked by the recitation of her mantra at the end of a Buddhist puja (worship). A beautiful white female Buddha figure, she is closely related to Ākāshadhātvishvāri, who we find in the centre of the Dharmadhātu Mandala. Prajñāpāramitā is a personification of non-dual realisation, and of the bodhisattva’s final, utterly peaceful, coming-to-rest in the dharmakāya – even as he or she is drawn into the selfless response of concrete and practical engagement with the nirmānakāya world’s suffering. At the outset however, we need to face the stark duality of our habitual identification with time-bound Mother Nature and with the nirmānakāya – acknowledging it fully, but turning towards the dharmakāya and resting as Consciousness.
To be a ‘hero-of-the-mother’ is to be blessed with a range of very positive and supportive developmental experiences in childhood and early life – to have health, strength, confidence, and will power; and a seemingly uncomplicated psychology. Such individuals do have their fears and their blind-spots however, because – in archetypal terms – the negative mother is strongly constellated in the unconscious. So, for these individuals, Buddhist practice appears to offer a validation for their natural temperament, and a way of maintaining their positive state – a way of hanging onto, and developing, the egoic consciousness and range of skills that life has blessed them with.
Many come to Buddhism from a very different place however – and with a very different fundamental impulse or motivation. Indeed, the individual at the opposite extreme may come to Buddhism burdened by the conditioning that comes from a childhood and early adulthood that was full of trauma, deprivation and failure. Such a person may be disabled by unconscious emotional conflicts so that they have very little psychological energy available even though they are deeply and genuinely motivated. They may lack even the basic physical health and neurological capacity to focus the mind and meditate.
There is value in acknowledging both of these extremes, firstly because they provide us with opposite points of reference for psychological reflection, but also because Buddhism acknowledges both these extremes – and because the dharmakāya holds both these extremes in its unconditional and affirming embrace. What Buddhism offers is not a one-size-fits-all solution. We cannot all become a ‘hero-of-the-mother’ – if that was not our fate – but we can all become bodhisattvas, and we can all be loved and nurtured by the dharmakāya. We can all gain an appreciation for the dharmic order, absolutely available and reliable; and can ‘Go For Refuge’ to it; and can become healed and whole.
Because there is a general feeling among Western students of Buddhism that the Dharma represents a superior form of psychology – a spiritual psychology – there is a tendency to either dismiss Western psychology, and to fail to make use of important and highly relevant Western psychological concepts; or to use forms of Western psychology in inaccurate and un-thought-through ways. I have seen much confusion, and much justification for framing the Buddhist path as an essentially heroic one, generated by the very crude idea that the core of a man’s psychological challenges as he engages with the Dharma can be framed in terms of a need to ‘leave mother’. This could be described as a form of crude archetypal psychology, but it bears no relationship to that of Carl Jung and his followers. It is used both as way of affirming the heroic perspective, and as a way of discouraging men from having sexual relationships with women – both of which are easily justified in a Buddhist cultural context, but may not necessarily be what the individual needs.
So, close to the surface in our enquiry into the heroic mind-set – which effects the psychology of male Buddhist practitioners especially profoundly – is question of the place of heterosexual relationships in the context of commitment to spiritual development. The logic of the Hero archetype appears to lead to the idea that a male Buddhist should be a ‘man’s man’ and should cultivate a disinterest in relationships with women. This appears to align with the long history of Buddhist monasticism, and with the Buddha’s own renunciation of marriage and family, to embrace the traditional ancient Indian lifestyle of a shrāmana (a spiritual seeker living on alms). This mixture of principles, imagery, and mythology may be difficult for the male Western Buddhist practitioner to unravel and contextualise – especially if we are viewing the Dharma predominantly through the lens of the heroic.
I have heard these sorts of views presented with great conviction by Buddhists, and feel a need to critique them and to find a greater understanding of the real nature of the heroic. Although this sort of thinking appears to have a place within the framework of Buddhist culture and psychology, we need to be very careful. It needs to recognise that although such views have rhetorical power, they are often only an intellectually un-thought-through, and perhaps even dishonest, way of affirming the heroic perspective – and they are usually men of the ‘hero-of-the-mother’ temperament. Secondly, it needs to pointed out that a psychological view that places all women, and all female potential sexual partners, in the same vaguely negative category as the ‘mother’ in male psychology, is just unhelpful in the modern context – however much it might appear justified by the statements made in the context of Buddhist monasticism.
Clearly, the male practitioner who in early adulthood, or middle age, or even old age, still appears to be disabled by various defensive psychological patterns and dysfunctional adaptations learned in childhood is in some sense still conditioned by his relationship with his mother (and father) at that time. There might appear to be a parallel between the Buddha’s heroic ‘Going Forth’ (leaving the ‘worldly life’ behind and taking up celibacy and spiritual practice), and our engagement with a process of healing psychological transformation in order to leave behind our childhood conditioning, but the connection is a very limited one – because such healing usually needs much more psychological sophistication than the heroic ‘self-development’ approach can provide.
To make the judgement that such a man is ‘too close to his mother’, does not help us understand them, and does not support their process in any way. My first thought in response to that idea, is that the person who comes out of their childhood in state of confusion and psychological broken-ness is no closer to their mother than the individual with a positive-mother-complex. On further reflection however, I find myself wanting to point out the fact that those strong-ego individuals who embrace the heroic framing of the Dharma most readily, are experiencing the blessing of their mother’s nurturing and unconditional love every moment of every day, and although they may be entirely unconscious of it, they are profoundly conditioned by that experience. This is one of the reasons why the term ‘hero-of-the-mother’, as used in archetypal psychology, is so useful – it serves to highlight this paradox. That person whose psychological dysfunction shows as chronic anxiety, depression, and withdrawal, far from being ‘to close to their mother’, would be better characterised as one who appears to have no mother inside – and very likely no father also.
I feel a need to clarify the notion of the positive and negative mother complexes even further, because they are so relevant to the question of the heroic and its limitations – and to the larger investigation into the nature of the self that Buddhism engages in. When Carl Jung used this terminology he was using it in a very general way in order to lay out conceptually on a spectrum, the variety of psychological defences that we learn in childhood. At one end of the spectrum we have the more obviously psychologically damaged negative-mother-complex individual that I have spoken about – the individual whose challenges and deprivations in childhood and youth were too great. At the other end of the spectrum, we have the positive-mother-complex individual with good genetics, and strong physical and mental health, who grew up in material plenty, and in a nurturing and supportive environment with optimum challenges that served to build personality qualities and confidence.
In this context ‘Mother’, for Jung, was an archetype – not just the nurturing personal mother, but the archetype of all that nurtures and supports life and growth, including the actual mother. So, the positive and negative mother-complexes can be thought as a psychological short-hand, and we need to go much deeper into this frame of reference if we are to understand it deeply – and reveal how it relates to the heroic perspective.
I feel a need to address in more detail, the generalisation that a heterosexual man’s relationships with women undermine his spiritual development – that they even represent a sort of regression to the mother. I have heard advocates of the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective stating this with conviction. We always need to be asking ourselves if the conditions of our life are undermining our spiritual development, and there will certainly be times when solitude or single-sex retreats may be useful. Any generalised diagnosis and prescription of this regard is probably inappropriate however, because it can be argued that the opposite is true. Carl Jung can help us a little here. He would take the view that a heterosexual man, if he is physically and psychologically strong enough to relate to a woman, he should in a prudent and discerning way follow his natural instincts and his love and appreciation in this regard – precisely because of the great power of the erotic bond to precipitate deep processes of psychological healing and personal growth.
Indeed, Carl Jung, told us quite explicitly that it is the development of the ‘anima’ – i.e. the constellation of an inner feminine within the man through his discerning and conscious relationships with women – that heals that accumulation of positive or negative childhood conditioning that we can call the mother-complex. He would take the view that, if there is a regressive component in the man’s heterosexual bond, the relationship will generally have the effect of making it conscious and precipitating a healing – or the relationship will fail. When the inner feminine within the man (Jung’s anima archetype) is separated from the mother-complex, there is a potential for it to go through a process of transformation that can brings mental and emotional stability and even wisdom. Ultimately, anima, in Jung’s view, is a man’s capacity to relate inwardly to the core of his authentic self – to the ground of his being and his individuality. What most people observe in spiritually mature men is that, to the extent that a man relates with depth and authenticity to the woman in his life, he precipitates an equivalent relational process within himself.
By separating the mother archetype from the rest of the archetypal feminine, which we can call anima, Jung profoundly challenges the crude conceptualisations of the heroic view that we have sometimes hear put forward in Buddhist contexts. I believe there are different integration processes within the psyche of homosexual men, but in the heterosexual, it is quite simply incorrect to make any general statements about spiritual development in men requiring some sort of generalised renunciation of relationships with woman. The theory that such a renunciation brings about an integration of necessary and valuable feminine characteristics of the male heterosexual’s personality through a taking back of the ‘projection’, may not be altogether untrue, but we cannot make generalisations about these processes.
One of the main reasons why I have find is so important to offer a critique of the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective that often predominates in Western Buddhism, is that is appears to generate so many starkly untrue interpretations of the Dharma, and such terrible misunderstandings of how best to apply Buddhist principles in the Western context. As a frame of reference, the heroic seems inherently unreflective and narrow in its thinking, while at the same time asserting its beliefs with fierce conviction, and seemingly intent on imposing its views on other people. It tends to advocate, not just reverence for those in leadership roles, but strict top-down hierarchical governance, and this leads it to be closed to the feedback that might bring a correction to its errors. While we might imagine that heroic idealism is automatically good and necessary and functional, invariably, in my experience, it is not.
While my main concern in sharing these thoughts is to support critical reflection in Buddhist organisations, it needs to understood that our unconscious immersion in the Hero myth is a psychological dysfunction that affects the whole collective West – indeed this dysfunction has shaped the history of the 20th Century, and continues to impose its delusional imprint on the 21st. If we are studying Buddhism in the West, and concerned about male psychology, it is worth reflecting on our collective psychological history. We need to be aware that, at the end of the 19th Century, the call for women’s suffrage, and the related social changes to relationships between men and women, initially led to a reactionary backlash where the men of that time immersed themselves in the heroic, and exclusively-male, and deeply irrational, project of WW1. It can be argued that that horrific war served as a defence of masculine identity against painful psychological processes that were manifesting in the marital bedrooms of Europe throughout the early decades of the 20th Century. WW1 revealed the profound ignorance and monumental failure of empathy that is at the heart of the defensive and dysfunctional identification of male society with the heroic – and it was sustained by the dysfunctional ultra-hierarchical culture of the armies that were clashing, and of European society at the time.
The social tumult that followed WW1, with the rise of a totalitarian Communism in Russia, and the rise of fascism in Spain and Germany needs to be viewed as the bizarre and tragic collective psychological aberration that it was – and it needs to be studied again and again, because it has such important things to teach us about the nature of our humanity. What we saw after the heroic dysfunction of WW1, was a doubling down on that heroic mind-set and the rise of societies that were abandoning themselves to a collective psychosis in which the Hero was the guiding archetype. All across Europe, in different ways there was an embrace of the most violent, inhumane and unintelligent aspects of the hierarchical and heroic. There was a truly remarkable denial of human sensitivity and reason – and yet the descent into that madness was always framed as a form of heroic idealism and nobility.
There is much more that could be said in that vein. The Cold War saw extraordinary violence and cruelty visited upon the post-colonial developing world. Most of this was the result of the foreign policy of the US, whose violent political manipulations, and coups, and military interventions were tolerated by the supposedly-liberal post-WW2 world-order because they were dressed up in the garb of the heroic. US foreign policy was cruel, anti-democratic, unapologetically fascist, and complete unethical, but it was heroic. It was completely irrational, and brought widespread economic ruin and vast destruction, but was part of the noble fight against the evil of Communism and therefore was deemed acceptable. Now, thirty years after the end of the Cold War, we are again seeing trench warfare and an ongoing artillery duels in Europe – this time in Eastern Ukraine, with hundreds of thousands of Russian and Ukrainian men are getting slaughtered in an attempt by NATO to weaken Russia, after three decades of relentless and unnecessary NATO expansion finally reached her borders.
For the Russians, the Ukraine conflict is a continuation of their WW2 fight with Nazism in which 27 million Russians died, as they protect the ethic-Russian communities of Eastern Ukraine from the ethnic-cleansing operations of an essentially fascist Ukrainian government that despite having chosen to make its WW2 Nazi collaborators into national heroes, is being prolifically funded and supported by the ignorant heroic liberals collective West. The bullies of Ukraine and the collective West have once again managed to present themselves as noble and heroic. The simplistic truth-denying ‘good and evil’ rhetoric of the heroic makes the propaganda operation easy. Nobody in the heroic and unreflective collective West wants to consider that we may be ‘the baddies’ in this instance, so we all go along with the agenda of the Western arms industries and those who are desperately trying to prevent the emergence of a multipolar world and maintain US hegemony.
This sort of deep incongruity due to lies and manipulation of the narrative is everywhere in human history, but appears to be becoming more prevalent and more obvious in the modern world, because the propaganda resources available to the powerful are now so great, while the internet in simultaneously allowing small independant channels to provide truthful reporting. To understand this phenomena we need only to understand that the egoic mind instinctively divides the world into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – with itself identified, not only as the ‘good’, but the heroic agent of the ‘good’ in a moral fight against the ‘bad’. This moral fight begins with the narrative-forming function of the egoic mind engaging in condemnation to consolidate the narrative, but leads, seemingly inevitably, to violence – or in the case of the Ukraine proxy-war to a misdirection of precious human resources toward death and destruction.
There are several dimensions of the egoic mind – the Buddha spoke of these dimensions in terms of the five cognitive-perceptual skandhas, which I shall be coming to in my next chapter. Of these, there are two skandha categories that find most overt expression in the mentality of the heroic. These are, firstly, the rūpa skandha, which generates that heroic narrative description of the world which identifies itself as good, while condemning external others as bad and generating the klesha of hatred. The Buddhist tradition depicts this dynamic in the archetypal imagery of the Hell Reams, where there are two classes of beings – the persecutors and the persecuted.
Secondly, but more obviously, there is the volitional samskāras skandha, the desire energy which attacks and destroys in its quest for domination – symbolised in the ‘war god’ imagery of the archetypal asuras of Indian tradition. I shall be returning to these cognitive-perceptual details in my next chapter. Until we have begun to make conscious the self-serving and defensive function of the skandhas, we are living our lives immersed in the delusional world of the heroic myth – a childish, cartoon world of good and evil, and of noble, one-dimensional heroes and villains. This is, unfortunately, a world that bears no resemblance to reality. I shall be saying much more about the asura archetype – the violent imagery of the heroic ‘war gods’ of ancient India – without, which the Buddha’s critique of heroic cannot be fully understood. I have already spoken about the wisdom of Indian culture’s deeply ambivalent relationship with its war gods, and the collective psychological danger of the lack of this sensibility in Western culture. In the West, we are naive about the power of our heroic war gods to shape personal psychology and our culture. Buddhism, have arisen within the collective unconscious of ancient Indian holds a different perspective. I regard that Indian archetypal perspective is precious – protective against the Shadow of the heroic, and potentially a doorway into a renewed ethical sensibility for the modern West.
When we become attuned to the major archetypes, we see them in society and culture and history, as well as in the psychology of individuals. The archetype of the heroic is everywhere. It is the universal archetype of the egoic will. It is the archetype that can always be be guaranteed to set up a polarisation of consciousness against unconsciousness in the mind. It will always be evoked by the armies of professional propagandists in NATO; in the US and European foreign ministries; and by the numerous specialist public relations firms who are employed by those foreign ministries. Every manipulative politician and bad journalist instinctively evokes the heroic – as their main tool for creating Shadow projection and group cohesion around bogus pro-war narratives. Indeed, it seems that any time a Shadow dynamic or injustice within our society might be revealed, an external enemy is found and our heroic hostility is mobilised.
I share these historical reflections because it is important that we recognise the way appeals to the heroic have always be used to ennoble societal processes that are far from noble. It is instructive to acknowledge that the greatest evils of human history have usually been framed in terms of the heroic. It is just a fact of social psychology that appeals to the heroic can easily be used, by the powerful, to create an ennobling and supposedly ethical and compassionate narrative while simultaneously masking a primitive motivation that is selfish or nationalistic. Our governments, our newspapers, and our television news channels do this every day. This is not unusually malevolent and conspiratorial – this is just what they do.
We are all familiar with the idea of peer-pressure in groups. In regard to the heroic perspective and the heroic mode of consciousness, there is a similar social psychological dynamic that is so deeply inherent in the heroic, and deeply inherent in the egoic mind, that it usually functions completely unconsciously. There was a superficial dynamic that we might call peer-pressure operating in those who attended Hitler’s Nuremberg rallies in the 1920s and 1930s, but more fundamentally what history witnessed was a dimension of archetype of the heroic – a grandiose assertion of the egoic will that was simultaneously a loss of individual rationality and discernment through immersion in the tribal consciousness of German nationalism. While the reparations imposed at the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919, seemed calculated to break the German spirit, the Nazis created a vision of a vigorous Germany with a renewed sense of national destiny, and filled with an instinctive vitality and purpose – the qualities of the heroic.
It is useful to reflect that the Nazis experienced a form of self-transcendence – but not in good way. Such reflection may help us to recognise the very different self-transcendence via the Middle Way that the Buddha was advocating – and may help us to understand why a narrowly heroic approach to Buddhism should probably be regarded as very problematic, or even as antithetical to the more comprehensive and balance three-fold view that I believe we should be cultivating.
We like to think of Hitler as person of pure evil, but he was just a very intuitive leader, not unlike other leaders who have a keen sense of the power of the heroic. He had a particularly deep understanding the suffering and thwarted aspirations within the soul of the German people – it was as if he instinctively knew that psychological inner landscape – and most importantly, he had a particular instinct for the Warrior Hero archetype in German culture, and knew how to harness the power of that archetype. He almost certainly recognised that the Hero, when awakened in the collective, creates a force that subjectively appears noble, but objectively has a capacity for violence and inhumanity, and for ignorant submission, woven into it. He instinctively understood how to provoke a mass identification with heroic, so that the energy of the German population would be at his service, while dissolving the individuality of each individual German man and woman into their national identity. With this knowledge he was able to mobilise a heroic idealism that was simultaneous deeply inhumane – easily crushing all political opposition, eliminating democracy and establishing himself as the absolute leader.
If we are at all reflective and intelligent and well-informed about history, we cannot approach the heroic without ambivalence. I shall be attempting a more detailed analysis of why this is in my next chapter, which is on the cognitive-perceptual skandhas, but we need to be clear that any sort of exclusively heroic (‘self-development’) approach to Buddhist practice will always lead to a partial and incongruous mode of consciousness. I find it curious when I see Buddhists presenting the Dharma as if it were just a more refined and spiritual form of the heroic, because the heroic is the default perspective of the egoic mind. The Hero is the archetype of that narrow and inherently partial mode of consciousness that is the basis of our suffering. For me, it is the three-fold, or Middle Way, perspective that I have been calling Vajrayāna, that offers our best hope of liberation from that cognitive-perceptual blindness. Attachment to the heroic perspective is understandable given the egoic mind’s propensities, but it’s limitations as a basis for spiritual development are tragically underestimated, and not sufficiently understood by Buddhists.
This detour from our theme of sexuality and the important distinction between the mother and anima in male psychology, has been an attempt to correct in some small way this missing understanding – and there is still much more that I need to say. What I could say in summary regarding this dimension however, ahead of the more detailed analysis of cognition and perception in my next chapter, is that the heroic perspective tends to lead to cognitive-perceptual distortions of Dharmic principles and to a very proscriptive presentation of these distortions – distortions which may appear at first as appropriate adaptions, but in fact do not serve us, and are clear departure from the Middle Way. These distortions seem particularly prevalent in regard to the themes of renunciation and sexuality, where the heroic spirit at first seems keenly relevant, and where traditional Buddhism can only serve as a very limited and ineffective guide to the modern Westerner.
When I reflect on the various strongly held but quite erroneous views and evaluations that I have heard when Western Buddhists reflect on this area, I find myself convinced that there is something about the nature of the heroic perspective that leads to flawed interpretations of the Dharma. Our investigation of the nature of the heroic is in various ways bound together with our reflections on sexuality and the question of renunciation. There are various other areas of erroneous thinking that appear to be associated with the heroic, but the sexuality area seems to provide us with a lot of examples of cognitive and perceptual errors – so I will explore this further.
In regard to the theme of how we should view sexuality in the context of the Dharma, I find myself needing to state my view that, as a rule of thumb, in Western Buddhism, no proscriptive generalisations are appropriate in regard to the issue of the positive or negative effects of sexual relationships on Dharma practitioners. Indeed a different form of renunciation is appropriate in the Western context – a renunciation not of sexual relationships themselves, but of all crude and generalising judgements in regard to sexual relationships. We should also renounce all crude differential evaluations regarding the two genders, or regarding particular sexual orientations – like the idea that homosexuality is more supportive of spiritual development than heterosexuality. The positives or negatives are just too individual, complex and indefinable to prejudge, and each individual’s needs and circumstances are different.
Western students of Buddhism certainly need objective psychological knowledge to support self-enquiry and reflection regarding the masculine and feminine within the psyche, and on the nature of human sexuality through the lens of evolution, and on the possibilities of love-making without orgasm, but it is just altogether too presumptuous for us to be proscriptive regarding these aspects of lifestyle. Each Buddhist practitioner must be responsible for their own choices, and must feel free to make their choice without pressure from those who carry the authority of the Buddhist tradition. If anyone is offering guidance it must be that guidance that points the individual, though deep self-enquiry, to their own knowing.
Sexual relationships may or may not distract us from our spiritual path. Our view will likely depend on which ‘myth’ we are in, but we must decide for ourselves. Incongruous as this might seem to a heroic perspective rooted in the culture of early Buddhism, I believe that our relationship with our sexual partner may be the crucible of our transformation, and the most important venue for the work of developing the Positive Emotion and relational self-awareness that is the essence of the Dharma – and perhaps also for the ultimate work of self-transcendence. It needs to said that the Dharmic path is a path of relationship – a path of deep friendships and spiritual partnerships – and that these may or may not be sexual relationships. For me, Sangha must be understood broadly – more broadly than a religious institution. Sangha is the social psychological dimension of the Dharma. It must be understood to include our intimate partners – those with whom we share our lives. The Dharma is a path of integration and spiritual learning explicitly through this broadly understood Sangha principle – through authentic relationship and authentic community.
Because of Buddhism’s history, there will always be Buddhists who were dismissive about long-term commitment in sexual relationships – framing this as attachment and clinging. While I want to fully affirm that celibacy may be a valid path for some, I find myself also wanting to say that our sexual partners may be the most important spiritual friends on a mutual journey of healing and spiritual liberation, and are likely to be the deepest and most authentic relationships we will have. I see no reason why a Buddhist should not to approach such a relationship with the utmost seriousness and total commitment. In addition to bringing a critical perspective to the heroic impulse of renunciation, we need to distinguish between the Buddha’s social teachings, and the ultimate truths that are the foundation of his Middle Way path – his challenge to the heroic perspective of the egoic mind. By the Buddha’s social teachings, I mean those that relate to the social conditions of the culture of ancient Indian society, where the life of a celibate mendicant monk was usually the best option for one who is intent of self-transcendence – a lifestyle set within the framework of the strict expectations of the monastic community and the wider ancient Indian society.
Returning to reflect on Carl Jung’s spectrum of childhood conditioning, it is clear that our Dharmic understanding must include a wide enough range of psychological principles so that we can help people at both ends of the spectrum of life experience. The blessed individual at the positive end of the spectrum may have a bullet-proof strength of personal identity (the invulnerability of the heroic), whereas the challenged individual at the negative end may have either no functional ‘sense-of-self’ at all, or extreme self-hatred. When we face into the contrast between these two poles, it becomes clear that there is a need for thoughtfulness and humility. It is deeply relevant to the core of the Buddha’s teaching that we have a sophisticated and experiential understanding of the nature of the self – and that this is, by definition, not available within the framework of the heroic.
The positively conditioned individual, when presented with a narrowly heroic approach to the Dharma, is likely to appear to thrive, and to succeed at any task that they are given, whereas the negatively conditioned individual, who desperately needs an experience of personal effectiveness and personal value, is likely to fail. Dharma teachers need to be aware of this distinction. It is not enough to create a path that is adapted for the ‘strong-ego’, heroic, individuals. The weak also need help – indeed it is the more conflicted and stressed individuals that are more likely to be drawn to Buddhism, and they are likely to need a more nurturing path, and one that sees the healing of old wounds and the repair of psychological damage as explicitly having a place on the spiritual path.
A particularly unfortunate expression of a lack of awareness of the very different needs of different practitioners, and of a generalised application of the heroic emphasis in our approach to Sangha culture and Buddhist practice is in the idea that failure and humiliation are valuable and necessary. Buddhism is sometimes presented as if it is full of vague stories of Zen masters hitting their students with a stick, or of students being required to repeat useless tasks – tasks whose only purpose is the exhaustion and humiliation of the student. In the crude self-transcendence psychology of a heroic approach to Buddhism, this sort of practice is framed as having the purpose of ‘breaking the ego’. While there may indeed have been some notorious Enlightened masters in the ancient East, who engaged skilfully and beneficially with their ‘strong-ego’ students in this sort of way, we need to be very wary indeed of applying this sort of thinking in the Western context – and we certainly should not imagine that such practices are generally applicable.
One of the paradoxes that are highlighted when practitioners (we should include non-Buddhists who are also intent on radical spiritual transformation) are spread out along our spectrum, is that some of the most challenged individuals do eventually become wise – even to the point of gaining significant insight, and recognition of the dharmic reality – whereas the ‘strong-ego’ individuals will tend to achieve a lot of personality development while also seeming constrained, and paradoxically appearing not to change significantly. The Buddhist tradition acknowledges this connection between suffering (dukkha) and wisdom. This paradoxical phenomena is not limited to Buddhist communities. In almost every city in the world there are wise Alcoholics Anonymous coaches who, having achieved recovery, devote themselves to the support of others – endeavouring to introduce those who are still in the grip of addiction to the benevolent ‘other-power’ that will be their salvation. In the Buddhist context, the paradox is especially striking, and deserves our attention. Those who ‘get’ the Dharma at the deepest level, very often are not those of the heroic perspective. They are not the most charismatic, and physically vigorous, and accomplished students, as we might have imagined – and they are not the individuals that ‘fit in’ to the Sangha organisation most easily. Indeed the bold and critical clarity of their thinking is likely to create something of problem for the organisation’s leadership.
While we may not all be able to become heroes – as this may quite simply, be physically and neurologically beyond our capabilities in this life – we can all become humble agents of the transcendental dharmic order, and some of us may express that agency in a way that appears heroic, but that would be an incorrect characterisation, because such people are acting spontaneously, not embracing the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective.
The instinctively heroic individual, who we may call the hero-of-the-mother – the one who exclusively embraces the ‘self-development’ view, can easily lose his way, because there is a sense in which he is so blessed that he does not really need the transcendental. He has is not interested in other-power because his sense of self-power is go highly developed. This is a profoundly important theme for the Western Buddhist. If a practitioner is not in some way turning inwards to find the transcendental dharmakāya as the source of their healing and their wholeness; as a source of their mental and emotional stability; and as a source of their practice of Integration and Positive Emotion, then they will probably not be seeking beyond themselves for wisdom. They may even fall into the delusion that wisdom is merely a sort of extension of what they already know.
Inviting a deep enquiry into the archetypes that are at play when Buddhism is adopted and adapted within the collective psychology of the West, I have suggested, as a question to ponder, that the hero-of-the-mother does not need a transcendental – at least not in the traditional Buddhist sense, as a transcendental dharmic reality. This is perhaps very surprising and counterintuitive idea, difficult to face into for those who see Buddhism as path of heroic self-transcendence, but an idea that reveals itself in curious incongruities of philosophy and practice.
In general, the Western approach to knowledge tends to be an extraverted one, but wisdom requires that this is balanced by a more introverted approach – a willingness to look within; to engage in self-enquiry. Spiritual knowledge is not like the knowledge that we can gain by going to school or university and studying diligently. It is not enough to be deeply familiar with the traditional teachings – it is not even enough that we have a truly masterful and encyclopaedic knowledge of the teachings after years of reflection. Our purpose rather, is to recognise the objectively existing truths that the teachings are pointing us to – the archetypal realities of the sambhogakāya, and the concrete realities that the teachings point to in this nirmānakāya world. If we fail to balance the outer guidance with inner reflection and self-enquiry, we will always be absolutely beholden to others who identify themselves as wise – and may never find wisdom for ourselves.
The sort of enquiry that is required, is one in which we endeavour to see both the darkness and the light of the human condition. These things go side-by-side in the Buddha’s approach. The Middle Way and the Four Noble Truths both express this paradox. One of the practical implications of this is that those who suffer can often see the transcendental more clearly. The comfortable prosperous Christians and Jews who facilitated, and benefited from, the Atlantic slave trade, were morally bankrupt and spiritual lost. They used the external form of their religious teachings to justify their inhumanity. The African slaves who adopted the Bible as their spiritual support and guidance, looked beyond the words and developed a profound sense of transcendental – a sense of the universal moral order and of the ultimate goodness in the universe. Dr Martin Luther King, who was heir to that tradition and that suffering, became a beacon of truth and justice in the prosperous but morally bankrupt society of post-WW2 USA.
In Buddhism, especially in the Vajrayāna context, we acknowledge the way suffering calls forth a recognition of unconditional love, and of what Christians call ‘the peace that passeth all understanding’. Buddhist tradition recognises the deep paradoxical connection between these two realities. We may even say that suffering has a spiritual meaning and a spiritual purpose – even a compassionate purpose – in the mysterious reciprocal reconciliation process of spiritual evolution. We might even say that suffering is necessary – not just inevitable. We should perhaps entertain the possibility that we suffer in order to find the unconditional reality of love, equanimity, compassion, and appreciation – the brahmavihāras – woven into the fabric of Consciousness at the level of the dharmakāya and evident to us in the sambhogakāya.
I shall be exploring the brahmavihāras in detail in a future chapter. For me, these are the ‘other-power’ sources of our ultimate salvation and fundamental dimensions of our experience of the sambhogakāya, and we are very unlikely to recognise them if we too comfortable. It is commonly stated that Buddhist wisdom leads to a transcendence of suffering, but it is important not to understand that idea in a superficial way – those who do not suffer are not more spiritual, and those who have fallen into a complacent denial of the harsh reality of the suffering that pervades this world, have truly lost their way.
In this connection we should acknowledge the English Quakers, who also looked beyond the words of the Christian teachings and found guidance in an internal and transcendent light of truth. This was another vital spiritual community that arose out of painful disillusionment – out of the violence of the English Civil War in the mid-17th Century, and out of disillusionment that followed the first publication of the Bible into English. Nine out of the twelve members of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of Slavery that was founded in 1787, were Quakers – the other three being Anglicans. Quakers had however, campaigned against slavery for a century before this committee was founded. It is significant that the moral conviction and leadership came from the Quakers – a small, socially-marginalised, and persecuted religious group with no formal hierarchy of priests, and a group that sought only to facilitate its member’s ability to know ‘that of God’ within themselves and each other. Notably, the Quakers used a highly-conscious and empowering form of organisational structure that in the modern world would be identified as a form of ‘sociocracy’.
Martin Luther, reacting against the corrupt, disdainful, and abusive episcopal hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church had spoken of ‘the priesthood of the believers’, but the Quakers went beyond any other Protestant fellowships in the way they gave expression to this equalitarian principle. They called their church services ‘Meetings for Worship’, and while they had a keen sense of reverence for the elders within their spiritual community, they conducted these meetings in an extraordinarily egalitarian way. Essentially, they saw the whole congregation as standing in the all-pervading light of the transcendental. They were guided by the principle that while human beings may be very unequal in their gifts, they are of equal value in the sight of God, and should be equally ready to receive messages of wisdom or inspiration, and preach them to others – whether male or female, black or white, slave or free.
Shortly after my period of intensive study of Buddhism in my twenties, I became a practicing Quaker for ten years from my early thirties to my early forties, and found the Quaker approach to worship to be an extraordinarily beautiful expression of many aspects of the Buddha’s Middle Way – especially in regard to the need to balance the extraverted orientation of learning from external authorities within the tradition, with the more introverted approach of being supported to find a source of internal authority. At best, the Quakers were certainly ‘self-discovery’ practitioners – they achieved a reconciliation of the ‘self-power’ and ‘other-power’ to a significant degree. They bore witness to the fact that the light of Consciousness was beyond the egoic mind. Not only did they learn to rest in devotional-receptivity to that light; they knew that Truth – objective and compassionate knowing – comes from a meditative receptivity to that light.
If we are unconsciously immersed in the world-view of the heroic, we may never learn the subtle practice of allowing ‘other-power’ to guide our knowing. The Quakers had a keen sense of the importance of going beyond the egoic mind – of finding moments of receptivity to inner guidance in the midst of daily life decision-making. This is a neglected aspect of Middle Way practice – this ‘other-power’ mode of knowing. In the Buddhist context, we can think of it as gaining a sense of guidance through direct receptivity to the dharmakāya within. I often find myself wondering if elements of the organisational structures and decision-making practices that were adopted by the early Quakers, might usefully be integrated into the Western Buddhist practice of Sangha.
History has shown very clearly that there were elements in Quaker philosophy and practice that served to profoundly challenge a collective dysfunction that runs very deep in Western societies – and spiritual communities. We should at least be aware that when a Western Buddhist organisation chooses an explicitly hierarchical and episcopal structure, that a cultural and philosophical balance to this needs to be found – if the lived experience of Sangha is to deeply reflect the balance of the Buddha’s Middle Way. Indeed, the purpose of the teaching activities of any religious organisation must be to support its members to find their own knowing – to find their own recognition of the objective truth that the teachings are pointing to. This balance is difficult to find and incorporate in the culture of Sangha because the heroic ego tends to preference hierarchical organisation, and is by nature defended against practices that engage in ‘self-discovery’.
Of course, there is suffering in the modern West – terrible suffering, terrible injustice, terrible cruelty, and a terrible waste of human potential – and we do not need to be suffering the relentless physical hardship of life in medieval Tibet to be motivated to recognise the dharmakāya, but it is worth noting that there are many Western Buddhist practitioners who appear not to need the transcendental, and that many of them are highly respected and in positions of authority. This is important, because there are many ‘Buddhist leaders’ in the West whose Going For Refuge is so heroic in character that it does not include a turning inward toward the eternal dharmakāya.
It can be argued that the Buddhist notion of Going For Refuge to the ‘Three Jewels’ of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha is incomplete, and even misdirected, if it does not include this ‘turning inwards’ towards the truth – an internal source of truth without which we find ourselves dependent on external sources of guidance. External guidance is of course also necessary, and this involves the difficult task of translating and interpreting the Buddhist texts and commentaries, and discerning what is of value. Even more crucially, it involves deciding who we can trust – we should only ‘sit at the feet’ of teachers who have shown themselves to be trustworthy, and who really are wiser than us. We need to be aware that many who claim to be teachers in the Buddhist context, are teaching ‘out of the tradition’ rather than from direct realisation. There is always the danger that the Western practitioner may, even after years of such extraverted Buddhist practice, find themselves with no real source of guidance within – no direct knowledge of the truth that they have ostensibly been Going For Refuge to.
I hope that these detours in my narrative have helped my readers to see that there is a wider cultural issue here for the Western practitioner. The current spiritual crisis of the modern West could be characterised as having arisen because we are so materially comfortable that we no longer need the transcendental. Because, as a culture, we have no Mindfulness practice – no cultural habit of acknowledging a wise and compassionate ‘other-power’, we are no longer even seeking to recognise the transcendental in our experience. We have lost our moral reference points. Archetypally speaking, we have become the grandiose heroes of a materially benevolent mother – and in that heroic identification we have become distracted and disorientated, even though we are extremely accomplished. Because of hubris, we have allowed our sense of the sacred, and of the soul, and of the indwelling divine, to slip away.
At worst, we have lost the ability, or even the need, to look within – to recognise the eternal and transcendental reality in which we rest. And because of this we have lost our moral compass, our discernment, and our sense of spiritual direction. A true ethical sensibility requires a comprehensive self-awareness that challenges the egoic mind’s tendency towards unconsciousness. Even more fundamentally however, it requires an awareness of the moral order that is inherent in Consciousness and woven into the fabric of the universe on the level of the dharmakāya.
The cultural process that has brought the West to this lost place is a paradoxical one. The philosophically-minded might acknowledge that it has been a descent by way of the cultural movements of modernism and post-modernism. Our creative participation in the metamodern future that is trying to born requires us to become keenly aware of the cultural wall-paper that has been shaping our consciousness. Buddhism can help us in this, but only if we use its archetypal perspectives to critique our society and critique the heroic dysfunction of the egoic mind. As Subhuti’s ‘Three Myths’ model suggests, we need to become aware of the myths we are in and aware of their Shadow.
The notion of a metamodern intellectual sensibility that might take us beyond modernism and post-modernism, and might create a reconciliation and creative integration of those previous movements of thought, is directly relevant to our current theme. Metamodernism is a Middle Way – a third way which reconciles a previous dichotomy. The poles of that dichotomy of modernism and post-modernism have served us up to point, in previous periods of history, but ultimately could not take us far enough, because they became polarised and dysfunctional. Particular influential in shaping our world, has been the post-modern economic philosophy of neoliberalism, a body of ‘neo-classical’ economic theory that managed to heroically sweep aside the ‘classical’ economics that had gone before. Neoliberalism is distinctively heroic in its rhetoric and its style of ideological polarisation – it grew out the Cold War period. What is needed in the discipline of economics is a clear-thinking pragmatism that acknowledges multiple perspectives – a Middle Way.
Neoliberalism is a stark example of a mythic, or archetypal, and systemic phenomena playing out in history, and highlights the importance of our being able to see the myth we are in if we wish to observe the world objectively and make sound ethical judgements. Neoliberalism is also a good example of a post-modern reaction that we are not even aware we are in. Perhaps, even more importantly in regard to our current theme, it is a ‘hero-of-the- mother’ philosophy that over-values the personal will while de-valuing non-material human values. By making modernism and post-modernism more fully conscious, and releasing the habits of mind and the intellectual positions that go with them, we could create the conditions for the emergence of a new creativity that better serves human needs – a creativity that is more deeply reflective, more trustworthy, and more rooted in reality.
So, one of the main features of the zeitgeist – the worldview of the modern West – is this conviction that we can actually live quite well without a sense of the transcendental. We are content to live superficially because life, at least superficially, is so comfortable. The marriage of the heroic humanism of the scientific materialist worldview with Buddhist philosophy creates incongruities in the Western practitioner, however. We can end up with a Western Buddhism that it not really true to the tradition because it does not acknowledge and place value upon the transcendental dharmakāya – instead placing its confidence on the Western intellect and the personal will, and continually making reference to brain science and the latest fashions in liberal humanism, rather than attending, through the practice of Mindfulness, to the phenomenological mystery of Consciousness itself.
To really know the bodhisattva archetype – the principle that guides us to release egoic identification, and to surrender to the deeper transformation that only the dharmic order can bring – we need to distinguish it from, and perhaps contrast it with, the hero-of-the-mother. This is not easy to do, but I have been offering some starting points. The heroic is a left-brained and one-sided mode of consciousness that refuses the actual subtleties and complexities of reality. It tends to polarise against unconscious opposites rather than open inwardly in order to integrate them. Many Buddhists confuse the Hero with the bodhisattva, and in doing so create a terrible confusion – a destructive mental rigidity, which we must deconstruct if we are to enter deeply into the process of integration.
Sangharakshita’s ‘System of Practice’ begins with ‘Integration’, and many of his students have assumed that the primary agent of this process of Integration is the heroic will. It is my contention however, that Integration cannot be either correctly understood, or achieved, while we are caught unconsciously in the myth of the heroic – the myth of ‘self-development’. This is why I feel such a keen need to give time, in this chapter, to exploring the implication of the ‘Three Myths’ model before exploring the ‘System of Practice’ any further. We cannot afford to approach Sangharakshita’s ‘System of Practice’ in a way that is narrow and reductive – though many people do. We must approach it through the three-fold view of the Vajrayāna, and through the myth of bodhisattva – not through the archetypal perspective of the Hero.
So, we need to contrast the Hero and bodhisattva. Whereas the hero-of-the-mother is dramatic and impressive; the bodhisattva is humble – and may indeed, even, be unimpressive. The hero-of-the-mother is intent on mastery – and often shows mastery. The bodhisattva also finds mastery, but via a different process, and from a different motivation. His mastery is not simply an act of self-determined self-creation – rather it an expansion into his eternal and limitless true nature as dharmakāya, and is a patient and self-less responsiveness to the world’s needs within the limits of his capabilities. The bodhisattva‘s growing familiarity with the dharmakāya brings Spiritual Death and then Spiritual Rebirth – which are like a surrender into, and then spontaneous emergence from, the womb of the dharmakāya.
I am not saying that there is absolutely no place for the heroic perceptive – only that it is a partial perspective, and dangerous because it is so easily taken to be a complete and sufficient understanding, while it actually brings a psychological crudeness and lack of sophistication. One of the ways that the warning that am giving is sometimes spoken of (and was spoken of by Sangharakshita) is in the idea that power must always be in service to love, and not the other way round. It is a basic idea, but easily forgotten. There is an important related conversation here, about how we use the power of the egoic will to cultivate love through practice of the brahmavihāras (the most well-known being Loving Kindness – mettā / maitri). I hope to show in the course of this book that the cultivation of love is a Middle Way process – as much an ‘other-power’ process as a ‘self-power’ one, and ultimately one that transcends this dichotomy.
If, perhaps understandably, within the nirmānakāya perspective, we hold that the heroic egoic will is the only agent of spiritual transformation by which we can become a more ethical, relational and empathetic human being we may find ourselves failing in that aspiration. The love that we seek to embody is not just an idealised abstraction that we have created for ourselves or adopted as an emulation of the behaviour of others. Rather, it already exists ‘within’ us at the dharmakāya and sambhogakāya levels of our being. If we allow ourselves to be caught in an identification with the archetypal perspective of the Hero, there is a great danger that these suprapersonal dimensions will either never be recognised – or never taken seriously and allowed to inform our practice. Indeed, we may become locked in a narrow egoic delusion, while believing ourselves to be wise.
If we have been led to believe that the egoic will is the only agent of spiritual transformation, our spiritual progress is bound to come to a halt before we reach the goal. The Pagan myths were clear about the inherent limitations of the heroic. Think of all the heroes who were turned to stone by the Gorgon Medusa – the dark Shadow-side of the ‘positive-mother-complex’ perfectly personified. The Indian mythology is perhaps even more eloquent – and in a different way. It personifies the egoic will in a class of beings call the asuras, of which the most famous in Buddhist tradition, was the great Mara – a sort of devil figure in Buddhism – who confronted Gautama Buddha on the eve of his Enlightenment. It is sometimes said that the Buddhism is a religion without a devil. This is not quite correct. Buddhism presents us, in its description of the asuras, with a very sophisticated archetypal perspective on the nature of evil – and we would do well to pay attention to it.
The mandala wisdom highlights the very direct connection between the samskaras skandha – the volitional processes of the mind that give us our sense of a personal will – and the asura archetype. Buddhist tradition tells us that identification with the samskāras skandha leads to the accumulation of the energetic kleshas in an emotional category called irshya, or ‘envy’, and that this karmic momentum leads us to take rebirth in the asura realm. This realm is a cosmic dimension where the beings at first appear to have god-power like power, but are envious, avaricious, harsh and brutal – and always driven by a desire for control and domination. Preoccupied by thoughts of war and conquest, the asuras are locked eternally into an obsessive military conflict with the devas – whose easeful existence, born of good karma, they covert with passionate and ignorant envy. Female asuras are said to be beautiful, or at least very attractive and alluring, but both male and female asuras are manipulative and selfish. They are beings who are seized by the desire to steal or otherwise appropriate – or even to simply destroy what they cannot possess. While the idea of an objectively existing asura realm, may or may not be literally true, the Western Buddhist should be in no doubt of the psychological truth of the asura archetype – as a dark force that shapes human personality, human society, and human history.
If, as Buddhists, we think we can understand the egoic will without reference the asura archetype, we are deluding ourselves. The asuras are the archetypal personifications of the miserable and violent reality that is created by identification with the samskāras skandha and the kleshas of the irshya category. In the imagery of the asuras, we are shown the nature of the egoic will when its self-serving, controlling, dominating, manipulative, and inherently conflictual nature, is given free rein. If we are seeking self-transcendence within a heroic worldview that has no room for the transcendental dharmakāya and archetypal sambhogakāya, then we are doomed to embody the asura archetype. The asuras may be powerful and effective, but they are ‘war gods’ – they exist in an eternal state of envious warfare against the devas. They want what the devas have, but have no understanding of how to achieve it. The devas, whose divine rebirth is due to positive emotions and ethical actions in previous lives, represent a much more positive and creative developmental trajectory – they cling to the self-illusion, and express selfishness, but in a very subtle and refined way. The Buddha’s Middle Way, by leading us to release of identification with the cognitive-perceptual skandhas, which create the self-illusion and drive the process of becoming, allows us to go beyond rebirth into any realm.
The asura archetype shapes human history more than any other – there are countless examples of this. Most obviously in recent centuries, we can see the asura spirit at work in the colonial empires, which came to an end via the double disaster of the catastrophic and barbaric industrial-scale slaughter of WW1 and WW2. The rise of fascism in Europe, the totalitarian Communism of Stalin’s Russia, and the rise of a rapacious international capitalism based in the US, were all examples of societies in the grip of the asura archetype. War has always been with us, but the modern world of which Nietzsche said ‘God is dead’, was perhaps especially vulnerable to the power of this archetype – and remains so. The Nazis, with their distorted and cruelly elitist embrace of Nietzsche’s ubermensch and ‘Will to Power’ (an idea that Nietzsche himself abandoned – his book of that name was published without his permission), are further characteristic manifestations of the asura archetype in recent human history.
Sadly, the asura archetype is not recognised in our world – not recognised as the archetype of evil that it is – and our unawareness to this archetype makes the whole world ethically blind. Unable to see the asura archetype, we are blind to the confluence of dark forces that shape our world. The necessary systemic analysis of the psychological, social, economic, political, and geopolitical factors eludes us. I find myself astonished and exasperated that there so little room for this archetypal perspective in the public discourse – even within Buddhist communities of practice. Instead, we see a dumbing down of discussion. This ignorance serves, and is actually sustained by, the anti-democratic players who are seized by the asura archetype – the drive for personal, organisational, and military dominance. The necessary systemic analysis is dismissed as ‘socialism’, or as mere ‘conspiracy theory’.
There is, in Western culture, a sort of worship of the asura archetype. There is an irrational devotion that shows itself in a gullible susceptibility to the heavy-metal mystique of military firepower, and a willingness to sink a huge percentage of our collective resources into the manufacture of ultra-high-tech military weaponry. Our mystification leads to the political passivity of allowing experts within the military-industrial-complex to also manufacture enemies to attack with the weapons that our taxes are paying for. The belligerent narrative manipulation that openly surrounds all foreign policy debate is pure asura psychology, and the coverage of war by mainstream media channels is pure asura culture – manipulation, deception, and violent spectacle.
Perhaps even more significantly, asura culture expresses itself in economic debate, which, in Western culture, is under the spell of an asura economic philosophy, which I mentioned earlier. Leaving behind the earlier history of economic thought that took a much more challenging and all-encompassing perspective, the world is in the irrational grip of a ‘neoliberal’ economic philosophy that elevates Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ – the selfish personal will – to an absolute and overarching value, as if it was a source of divine benevolence.
It is very common for Buddhists to frame all reflection on ethics in a narrowly personal way, so much so that they find themselves falling into the idea that Buddhism has nothing useful to say about history, geopolitics, economics and war. This failure to engage with the collective and systemic dynamics that lead to a failure of ethical awareness in society is a betrayal of Buddhist wisdom, in my view. The Buddha would say that nothing is personal, and that we live immersed in the kleshas. So dark and violent are these collective and archetypal processes, that paradoxically, it is only through intensive spiritual practice directed towards recognising our personalising delusions, and only through gaining a deep familiarity with the benevolent dharmic reality in which we are simultaneously immersed, that we can begin to function as true individuals.
For the Buddha, the self was an impersonal and systemic phenomena – and he saw all human societies and all human groups in the same way. When it is true to this insight, Buddhism offers a subtle social psychological understanding – an understanding without which the foundational idea of Sangha, or spiritual community, is lost. Without this systemic and archetypal awareness, Sanghas can easily deteriorate into self-serving religious institutions – and spiritual community can even be lost to the archetypal dynamics of power that are depicted in our images of the asura realm. If we are engaged in the creation of Sangha, we cannot afford to be complacent and naïve about the dynamics of power. We cannot afford to make a deal with the archetypal devil of Buddhist tradition. We are truly deluding ourselves if we think that we can put our trust in the egoic will as our saviour.
As you will have noticed, I have felt a great need to expand on this theme, and to give my readers a really clear sense of the moral ambivalence of the egoic will. This is a foundational understanding that all spiritual traditions wrestle with. The egoic will does indeed have the potential to be a moral agent, and it does indeed have a profound role to play, but in the context of Buddha’s Middle Way, it plays a much humbler role than we might imagine. The heroic ‘self-power’ / ‘self-development’ perspective must be balanced by the ‘other-power’ / ‘self-surrender’ perspective, and must ultimately be reconciled in the ‘self-discovery’ perspective that we see most clearly in the Vajrayāna.
If we are wise, we will insist that the egoic will plays this humble role – or it is bound to take over and become an obstacle to our progress. Once we achieve some degree of spiritual knowledge and spiritual development, we are in great danger if we imagine that we have achieved these things entirely by our own efforts, because we become monstrously arrogant. It is also very easy from such an exclusively ‘self-power’ place to judge other people for ‘not making enough effort’. This sort of judgement is especially common in those of the positive-mother-complex temperament, for whom identification with the hero archetype, and therefore ‘effort’, is instinctive. When Sangha culture is dominated by the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective, we even see the tragic situation of those practitioners whose passionate commitment and engagement with the Dharma is finding expression through the ‘self-surrender’ (‘other-power’), or ‘self-discovery’ (Vajrayāna) perspective, being told that they are not making enough effort. It is as if the ‘self-development’ practitioners, want to drag others back into a more heroic mode of practice. This sometimes arises simply from a failure to understand ‘self-surrender’ and ‘self-discovery’ – but it can be more malevolent. The egoic mind being what it is, people like to undermine and dismiss what they do not understand, and what does not affirm their own perspective.
While virya, the Buddhist virtue of determination and spiritual purpose, is always necessary, we cannot afford to understand this virtue crudely. Rather we must attend to the way the tradition brought more and more refinement to the notion of virya over the centuries, so that it eventually came to spoken of in an almost entirely non-heroic way – in terms of the All-Accomplishing Wisdom. The All-Accomplishing Wisdom de-personalises the egoic will. It frees us from from the grandiose hyper-masculinity and simplistic binaries of the asura hero’s thinking. In this book I shall be reaching for this much-neglected perspective that is so foreign to the Western mindset – a perspective that is not only neglected by, but maligned by, the advocates of the heroic, especially those of the materialistic ‘hero-of-the-mother’ persuasion.
The All-Accomplishing Wisdom is a perspective that takes a phenomenological view of the will; that sees it as a multiple phenomenon; and that sees all motivation as impersonal life energy seeking fulfilment and reconciliation. So, the All-Accomplishing Wisdom is like the wisdom that we associate with Taoism and with the practice of Aikido – the wisdom that embraces the play of the opposites, and sees processes of healing and integration at work everywhere. The All-Accomplishing Wisdom is a ‘Middle Way’ wisdom. It is that patient wisdom whereby each dimension of mind progresses by first recognising and relating to, and then expanding into and reconciling with, its opposite.
For those that have become locked into an unconscious adherence to the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective, the Mahayāna (‘self-surrender’) and Vajrayāna (‘self-discovery’) approaches to practice are often distorted. The Mahayāna spirit of devotional-receptive opening to ‘other-power’ can easily be lost if the bodhisattva principle is embraced not as a universal in-dwelling potentiality beyond the egoic mind, but only as heroic ideal – an ideal to be achieved by heroic version of the ‘self-surrender’ myth, which may actually be just self-denial. This sort of mythic self-sacrifice, supposedly in order to conquer the egoic mind, is often compelling to those of us who are unconsciously immersed in the Christian cultural mind-set, and may feel very deeply meaningful – but it is not at all an expression of the Buddha’s Middle Way, and can be extremely limiting, and even psychologically dangerous.
It is as if the Westerner, when he or she engages in a devotional way with the archetypal images as if they were a depiction of egoic ideals, is sometimes not engaging in the sort of devotional-receptive faith that we see in the East, at all. Rather, there is a something heroic going on – an attempt to generate heroic energy by reinforcing our identification with the ideals in a social context. While this may be viewed as sort of self-surrender, it may only be a self-surrender of a heroic sort – a version of the heroic self-curation of the self that I spoke of earlier. This more heroic ‘self-development’ approach to pūja practice may lead to true ‘other-power’ self-surrender, but it may not – especially if there is an ambivalence about the ‘other-power’ perspective in the way these practices are introduced.
The Westerner’s opening to an ‘other-power’ perspective represents a significant opening – a movement towards balance that is an expression of the Buddha’s Middle Way method of healing. For me it represents a key step – perhaps the key step – in a Middle Way movement towards the more complete psycho-spiritual reconciliation that I have been calling Vajrayāna, or ‘self-discovery’. For me therefore, the ‘self-surrender’ is of enormous importance, and we can afford to allow our Western prejudices, and our unconscious preference for the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective, to confuse and reduce ‘other-power’ practice.
It is very easy for Western Buddhists, because they reduce the bodhisattva to the Hero, to fall into an identification of the Mahayāna with the heroic. We need to be very wary about – very aware of the danger that this holds. For me, the Mahayana Buddhism, and Buddhist worship practices, and mantra recitation are best understood as a way of introducing ourselves the an ‘other-power’ perspective. Ideally, the Mahayāna serves to open up a new devotional-receptive spaciousness in our Mindfulness and meditation practice – an intuitive opening to the dharmic reality that Buddhism presents to us in the imagery of the sambhogakāya and dharmakāya.
If we are practitioners of the brahmavihāras, this movement from self-power to other-power in the way we approach the meditations, has the potential to revolutionise our practice. I have already spoken about how, when we recognise Loving Kindness, Equanimity, Compassion and Appreciative Joy as objectively and collectively existing archetypal energies that are woven into, and inherently present in, Consciousness, our practice is raised to a whole new level. If, because of the power of the heroic ‘self-development’ myth, we refuse the gift of the ‘other-power’ perspective – the true ‘self-surrender’ perspective – we are doing ourselves, and the Buddhist tradition, a great disservice.
The Vajrayāna, when similarly viewed through the lens of the heroic will of the ‘self-development’ perspective, may be even more psychologically dangerous, since it appears to invite the practitioner to enter into egoic identification with mythic perspectives and archetypal forces, in order to deny human limitations. Although this misunderstanding is fairly common, it is not at all in the true spirit of Vajrayāna – and is a very long way from the subtlety of the Buddha’s Middle Way. This is why it is so important to correct these misconceptions.
Vajra, which is one of the most central symbolic, iconographic and archetypal principles in Buddhist art and psychology, and is often assumed to be a symbol of the egoic will of the Buddhist aspirant, but has little if anything to do with the egoic will at all. In the Tibetan system of spiritual psychology, it symbolises the positive, or dharmic, counterpart of the form-creating rūpa skandha – the judging, conceptualising, concretising and narrative-creating function of the egoic mind. So, vajra refers to the penetrating clarity of those who release their identification with that aspect of the mind and come to rest in, and have a deep familiarity with, the imperturbable stillness and non-reactivity of the dharmic reality. It is this familiarity with, and this unconditional surrender to the dharmic level of mind that is the basis of wisdom in Buddhism. The vajra principle therefore points to a release of egoic judgment, not an amplification of it, by an absolutising identification with judgemental conceptualisations that the egoic mind has created.
So, vajra is related to the brahmavihāra of Equanimity, and to the perfect stillness and pure objectivity of the Mirror-Like Wisdom – qualities associated with the dharmakāya, not the egoic mind. Yet it is common for people to be led to imagine the Vajrayāna as some sort of ‘smash-and-grab’ raid on Enlightenment – a ‘breaking through’ to Buddhahood by a heroic and psychologically inflated egoic will. At worst, when the frame of reference with which Vajrayāna practices are being approached is the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective, there can be a disastrous absolutisation of Dharmic principles that have been mis-understood within the heroic frame of reference of the egoic mind – and an corresponding absolutisation of the heroic will.
The actual symbol of the will – of the samskaras skandha and of the All Accomplishing Wisdom – in Tibetan tradition, is the visva vajra, or Vajra Cross, which we can think of as the primordial prototype of the mandala. The visva vajra is a profound symbol of, and graphic representation of, the structured multiplicity and energetic complexity of the mind – and of its potential for integration and unification. Energetically, it shows us the way the bodhicitta, the universal will of the bodhisattva, arises from multiple processes of separation and reconciliation – by our coming into relationship with, and then integrating, dharmic forces that are inherent in Consciousness but are beyond the egoic mind. Perhaps even more importantly, vishva vajra symbolises the mandala of cognitive-perceptual components (skandhas) – arranged as cognitive-perceptual polarities to be integrated and reconciled as we approach cognitive-perceptual wholeness.
So, the Vajrayāna reframes and profoundly refines the way we think about energy, determination and effort, because it sees the spiritual process as one in which energy is progressively released and made available by the reconciliation of the psychological conflicts that have previously been generated in the egoic mind by the cognitive-perceptual polarities within the structure of Consciousness. The Middle Way of the Buddha, and the All-Accomplishing Wisdom of the Vajrayāna, both point to a path that is much more sophisticated than the heroic ‘self-development’ path that tends to predominate in Western Buddhism. This is a path on which we seek to identify and fully acknowledge the multiplicity of opposites within the psyche, and then to transcend those dichotomies by bringing them into reconciliation.
I touched on this in my last chapter, but it needs to be emphasised that Mindfulness – the practice at the core of the Buddha’s teaching – is not the heroic practice that it is often presented as. We could take the example of the Israeli snipers who used to lie in safety behind the Gaza boundary fence peering through telescopic sights. They may well have showed incredible calm, and steadiness of concentration, and continuity of focus, for hour after hour – as they shot Palestinian boys through the knees, and logged their ‘successful’ hits. This is a strong example to make a point, but we need to be very clear about the difference between the extraordinary mental and physical competence of the egoic warrior-hero, and the attitude of the bodhisattva. When the Buddha told us that Mindfulness is ‘the Way to the Immortal’, he was clearly pointing to something expansive, profound and deeply humane – and to something much more challenging and subtle than the heroic mode of consciousness.
The heroic mode is not simply value neutral. It is much worse than that – because it dishonestly dresses itself up in the garb of nobility. It struts and postures, and maintains apparent psychological cohesion and identity, but its incongruity is inherent, even though it is often hidden. The apparent success of asura consciousness, with its invulnerability, strong will, and seemingly unshakable self-belief, is actually the opposite the softening and opening movement of mind that the Buddha was pointing to in his advocacy of Mindfulness practice.
So, it cannot be emphasised enough that the Middle Way is not merely heroic. The Middle Way explicitly invites to open out of the heroic mind-set via a balancing sense of the transcendental dharmakāya. And the dharmakāya is not just a source of ‘other-power’ to bolster the one-sided heroic ego and inflate it with spiritual power. Rather, it is the containing primordial space – the Vajra Space of Being and Consciousness in which the heroic self-illusion is dissolved. It is the Buddha Nature womb from which we are reborn into the patient, selfless, and compassionate activity of the bodhisattva. Vajra certainly denotes a penetrating clarity and deep conviction, but this is the gentle clarity of the perfection of wisdom – the acceptance of paradox and complexity, and the ability to hold multiple apparently opposed truths simultaneously in awareness.
I have felt a need to share these reflections in numerous ways in order to distinguish my position clearly. For me, the Vajrayāna denotes a complete and comprehensive three-fold perspective on spiritual development, such as was present in the teachings of Gautama Buddha but was most clearly articulated by the great practitioners of Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It is a gentle and subtle approach. It could be characterised as an approach that ‘works smarter – not harder’. It requires effort, but not necessarily more effort, and certainly not a crude form of effort, because it recognises that what we are seeking to embody is already eternally present in a germinal form in the depth of the mind.
What I am identifying as Vajrayāna, is the path that seeks to reveal what is obscured by the egoic mind – rather than focusing exclusively on the removal of the egoic mind’s obscurations (kleshas) or on their replacement by positive states. This is subtle and paradoxical, because it recognises that the dharmakāya and sambhogakāya are, in fact, never obscured. The kleshas are ultimately incapable of obscuring the dharmakāya, since the dharmakāya is the imperturbable space of the Consciousness in which the kleshas arise inseparably.
By understanding that the dharmakāya and sambhogakāya are never obscured – or at least never completely obscured – we can direct our attention to that which is always there beyond the obscurations, and can seek to cultivate a familiarity with that. This way is actually more direct, even though it may seem indirect from the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective. We do achieve a release of the obscurations, but the process is a gentle one and a paradoxical one – it is a ‘self-release’ of the egoic energies by a seeing-through of the self-illusion. This way avoids direct confrontation and internal conflict. It aims to go directly to the essence – directly to the experience of what it is that we are seeking.
Because it is so often distorted and misconstrued, many come to regard the ‘self-discovery’ myth of the Vajrayāna as the most potentially dangerous perspective of all, because it implies an invitation that we familiarise ourselves with that level of the mind that is already, in some mysterious and difficult-to-define sense, already Enlightened. It is even suggested by some, that if our practice were to be informed by this ‘self-discovery’ emphasis, there is a danger that we might glimpse that within us that is untouched by the egoic kleshas – untouched by greed, or hatred, or ignorance, or envy, or pride – and might, as a result, stop practicing the Dharma altogether.
I have seen advanced partitioners who gave up practicing mindfulness and ethics, and who rationalised this conduct in terms of ‘skilful means’ – a term which they associate with the Vajrayāna, but misconstrue. I cannot help feeling however, that these were not true Vajrayāna practitioners, and that the generalised belief in the danger of giving up practicing seems to be based on a misunderstanding. That fear, which I shall be exploring below, is in any case far outweighed by the very great transformative potential of the ‘self-discovery’ approach to practice – and by the important ways in which the Vajrayāna, properly understood, gives expression to the balance and completeness that was originally present in the Buddha’s vision of a Middle Way.
I am sure there are people who have given up spiritual practice after an encounter with the dharmakāya level of mind – and I am sure these people were especially common in the 60s and 70s. My readers have probably met people who appear to have had such ‘peak experiences’, and glimpsed their ultimate true nature – most often with the help of psychedelic substances. It is easy to become judgemental, and perhaps fearful, when we see how delusional and closed-minded such people can become, as they start to ‘teach’ from their new-found place of ‘spiritual knowledge’ – but these are usually people who were never really committed to spiritual practice in the first place, and have never grounded themselves through serious Dharma practice.
Only a fool would imagine that a glimpse of reality constitutes a complete energetic transformation of the body-mind. One of the things that I like about Sangharakshita’s ‘System of Practice’ is that it makes this very clear. It does not only present the two transformative stages of ‘Integration’ and ‘Positive Emotion’ – the stages of practice by which the egoic mind is brought into alignment with reality. It emphasises that the transformation process continues on after that, and, in effect, never ends. The internal and external transformation that is required if we are to be an agent of dharmakāya while living in the world of the nirmānakāya, is endless. An infinite accumulation of skills and positive qualities is needed, if we are to fully embody the bodhisattva principle.
In Sangharakshita’s ‘System of Practice’ model, there are two further stages of practice beyond the point of fully encountering the transcendental reality of the sambhogakāya and dharmakāya, and of recognising the ‘emptiness’ of the self-illusion. Spiritual Death and Spiritual Rebirth, the second pair of stages can be understood as higher octaves of the first pair (i.e. of ‘Integration’ and ‘Positive Emotion’ respectively). The second pair emerge naturally from our practice of the first pair, but provide us with a structured path of transformation even after we have learned to rest consistently as Consciousness – as the dharmakāya – and have already gained a corresponding sense of the ‘emptiness’ of the self-illusion. Because of this correspondence between the first two stages and the second two, the practice of Integration and Positive Emotion is, in reality, never left behind – they are an ever-present necessity inherent in our nirmānakāya nature and in our nirmānakāya situation.
I feel a need to further emphasise that the essence of the three-fold vision that I am calling Vajrayāna, was present in the teachings of the historical Buddha. We are told, in the Pali canon, that Gautama Buddha, reflecting on his experience, after his Enlightenment, briefly faltered in his conviction that what he had realised could be communicated to others. Until a conceptual framework for his teachings began to become clear to him, he appears to have been somewhat daunted by the enormity of the task. The tradition presents this in a wonderfully poetic and mythic way. The text (the Ayacana Sutta), which is clearly a mythic embellishment of a historic event, communicates a sense that the Buddha recognised that the path to Enlightenment was extremely subtle and multidimensional, and difficult to express in words. We are told that the highest form of Brahma appeared to the Buddha and, addressing his conflict, pleaded with him to teach the Dharma.
The sutta tells us that in the course of the eventual formation of his unequivocal decision to give himself completely to the task of teaching the Dharma, the Buddha had a vision of humanity in which he saw a vast lotus pond with innumerable lotus buds and lotus flowers of different colours and in many different stages of unfolding – some were only lotus shoots, still buried deep in the mud at the bottom of the pond; some were tightly closed buds, growing up through the water but still fully immersed; some were just breaking the water’s surface; and some were rising above the water level and beginning to unfold into full bloom.
So, the Buddha saw humanity as diverse – as widely differing in temperament; widely differing in ability; and at widely different stages of spiritual development. He recognised that, while all people are drawn, either consciously or unconsciously towards the light of the dharmic reality, they are at very different stages of spiritual evolution, and subject to very different needs. The implication is that there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ version of the Dharma – that the Dharma is always a personalised response to the individual’s life situation and cultural context.
So, because it addresses the diverse needs of humanity at different levels and stages, the Buddha’s teaching appears to contain incongruities – and when we address the Buddhist tradition as a historical whole, these incongruities are highlighted. This is why the ‘Three Myths’ / ‘Three Yānas’ model is so valuable. It provides us with a framework that allows us to discern three very distinct and very different perspectives within Buddhist thought – three perspectives which we must become deeply familiar with, and must combine and integrate, if we are to find our way on the spiritual path.
While I may be labouring this point, I cannot help feeling concerned when I see Western Buddhists who are failing to extend themselves intellectually so that they are working with this more comprehensive three-fold model that reflects to totality of the Buddhist tradition. The embrace, by default, in the West, of the heroic ‘self-development’ perspective is understandable. The Buddha himself was daunted by the task of developing adequate conceptualisations for the complex and paradoxical reconciliation process that he had himself undergone. The nature of the ultimate reality that later Buddhist tradition called the dharmakāya was, and is, almost beyond the limits of language. It is a reality that can only be ‘pointed to’ with conceptual labels – and those ‘pointers’ were always going to seized upon in erroneous ways by the egoic mind.
The Buddha spoke of the Dharma as a raft to get to the further shore of nirvāna. So, the Dharma was not a graceful boat of elegant design – rather it was just a crude and make-shift raft, to be left behind at that further shore. His point was that Dharmic concepts are inherently limited and limiting, and often not quite up to the task. He wanted us to understand that they are provisional, and that we must only use them to the extent that they serve us as a vehicle for our transformation – that we must be ready to abandon them as soon as they are no longer useful.
In his parable of the raft, the Buddha was saying that it would be absurd for us to become so attached to our concepts that we are unwilling to see their limitations and let go of them when the time is right – even carrying our crude raft of concepts on our backs when we reach the further shore. He wanted us to subject our Dharmic concepts to rigorous scrutiny – to ask again and again if they really ‘work’. If he could speak to Buddhists in the modern West, I imagine the Buddha would urge us to closely examine and critique the current translations of his words into modern English equivalents. He would advise us to ask whether the four hundred years of oral tradition, and all the translations and edits and re-translations down through the centuries have managed to retain the essence of his teachings – and in what ways aspects of his teaching has been lost over that vast span of time. I shall be engaging in some critical reflection of this sort in regard to the five skandhas, which is the subject of my next chapter.
In the curious and expressive idiom of Buddhist tradition, Buddhists speak of ‘Going For Refuge’ to the Dharma. In part this is a simple statement of our recognition the value of the teachings of the Buddha. To ‘Go For Refuge’ to the Dharma, is to recognise that the philosophy and practices that the Buddha taught, represent a source of absolutely reliable and liberating guidance in a world of illusions and unsatisfactoriness. If we think more deeply about this however, we acknowledge that ‘Going For Refuge to the Dharma’ encompasses a very rich and complex engagement – because the Dharma can be interpreted in so many different ways.
The Dharma is both broad and deep, and our ‘Going For Refuge’ to the Dharma expands as our appreciation of the Dharma expands. We need to understand it broadly, but in doing so, we must endeavour not to miss its depth and its essence – the eternal and archetypal Truths within the Buddha’s teachings – which the written words in the ancient Buddhist texts and Dharma books are only pointing to. The Dharma is an indefinable and universal idea – an archetype even – and paradoxically our ‘Going For Refuge to the Dharma’ requires us to release the idea that we already know what the Dharma is. Rather, we are undertaking to sincerely engage in a process of discernment, of the Truth that the word Dharma is pointing to. As modern Western practitioners, this commitment goes a step further, since we are not only undertaking to discern the Truth, we are also undertaking to freshly express that truth – to find new ways of expressing that Truth that are appropriate to the spiritual needs and philosophical sensibilities of the modern ‘Western’ world.
So, ‘Going for Refuge’ to the Dharma, for a Western Buddhist cannot be a passive activity. It is not simply about being a good extraverted thinking student faithfully absorbing the ancient texts and merely receiving the opinions of our teachers. Western Buddhism, for me, is an active intellectual engagement with the essence of the Buddha’s core teachings, and simultaneously with the collective spiritual, cultural, psychological, and philosophical plight of the modern West. It engages in deep reflection, as Carl Jung did, upon the dark philosophical, psychological, ecological, and geopolitical history of the last century, and attempts to distil some fresh understandings, both from Buddhism’s history and from the depth of our own knowing, that might help us the world at this time.
However great our book knowledge, our Going For Refuge to Dharma requires the humility of acknowledging the limits of language, the limits of the intellectual mind, and the limits of the tradition’s capacity to faithfully represent, or ‘point to’, the Truth that it is ostensibly baring witness to. This is yet another expression of the trikāya and the Middle Way. These teachings tell us that the Dharma has an absolute, eternal, and perhaps unknowable aspect which corresponds to the dharmakāya – a level of Truth, or better still, Reality, that transcends Buddhist tradition completely, but nevertheless provides Buddhism with its basis. Only slightly more accessible is the Dharma’s archetypal aspect – the universal spiritual principles that are represented by the mandala of sambhogakāya Buddhas. These universal spiritual principles have a Buddhist character, but are nevertheless also universal and actually transcendent of the Buddhist tradition. Thirdly, there is the nirmānakaya aspect of the Dharma – the vast collection of texts and traditions and commentaries and interpretations that represent the whole history of philosophy and practice within Buddhism. It is this third aspect of the Dharma that the Buddha was characterising as a mere ‘raft’ of approximate conceptualisations – and as a finger pointing to the moon of Reality.
When the Buddha spoke of the Dharma as ‘a finger pointing to the moon’, he was warning against the egoic mind’s tendency to literalise and reify Dharmic concepts – concepts that can only serve as pointers to the archetypal and eternal realities that they refer to. More than this however, he was urging us to turn our attention to those realities; to turn our attention to the moon; to endeavour to recognise the realities that later Buddhist tradition called the sambhogakāya and dharmakāya.
As a way of further clarifying this, we should acknowledge that the Buddha spoke of three levels of wisdom: firstly, the knowledge of the Dharmic conceptual frameworks; secondly, a contemplative familiarity with those Dharmic conceptual frameworks; and thirdly, the direct knowledge of the realities that the Dharmic conceptual frameworks point to. So, once again, we see the Buddha addressing multiple levels of study and practice, and we see him addressing them in a way that takes care to validate all levels of practice, while always re-asserting the ultimate level of engagement – the three-fold level of engagement that I have be equating with the path of Vajrayāna, or ‘self-discovery’; with ‘self-enquiry’; with ‘resting as Consciousness’; and with a direct engagement with the reality of the dharmakāya.
The principle of discerning pairs of opposites and understanding how a reconciliation of those opposites is possible through a third perspective is perhaps the essence of the Buddha’s Middle Way. This mode of discernment can be applied repeatedly in Buddhist study and practice, and indeed must be applied repeatedly, if we are serious about following the Buddha’s guidance. I hope my explanation of how the reconciliation between the ‘self-power’ perspective of the ‘self-development’ myth, and the ‘other-power’ perspective of the ‘self-surrender’ myth, has helped us understand this Middle Way principle – and has helped us to also understand the trikāya model of mind. Futhermore, I hope we are now better equiped to explore Sangharakshita’s ‘System of Practice’ from both a Middle Way and a Vajrayāna perspective.
I hope I have been able to show that the Hero is a deeply ambivalent archetype – and almost indistinguishable from the asura archetype of Buddhist tradition. Many Western Buddhists talk of the Hero archetype as if it were very close to the archetype of the bodhisattva. This is simply not the case. The Hero and the bodhisattva are better understood as opposites – perhaps opposites to be reconciled, like the nirmānakāya and dharmakāya. The resolution of this confusion requires that we ground ourselves in the practice of the sort of deep self-enquiry that is intrinsic to the three-fold ‘self-discovery’ approach.
Similarly, we must find a very deep and personally grounded experience of the truth through the practice of self-enquiry before we should let anyone convince us to ‘surrender’ to anything that is not our own ultimate true nature. The whole notion of ‘self-surrender’, while it may appear to be deeply part of Buddhist culture, and to spiritual culture more widely, is fraught with very great psychological and social dangers. Spiritual organisations are inherently and perhaps necessarily hierarchical, and this makes them vulnerable to all manner of social pathologies including elitism, Shadow projection, and social control. The complex relationship of the individual’s process to the social process which provides the context for practice, is easily confused – so that the needs of the group are often prioritised over the need to foster the individuality and spiritual autonomy of the group’s members. This confusion is especially prevalent if the notion of ‘self-surrender’ is being held up as a value without reference to a real sense of ‘other-power’ practice, or to the context that the Vajrayāna level of enquiry provides. Both the heroic spirit and the spirit of surrender must, in my view, arise naturally from a deep place of self-knowledge. They should not be forced, and indeed cannot be forced – not without psychological danger.
The bodhisattva path is a three-fold one, of ‘self-development’, ‘self-surrender’ and ‘self-discovery’ – although the term ‘self-discovery’ does not quite encompass the profundity of that third process. It is also a path of both wisdom and altruism – wisdom and compassion. Before we can apply the force of the egoic will to the task of transcending of the egoic mind, we should know where we are going – we should have a very clear comprehension of the nature of our goal. Before we can surrender the egoic mind to a spiritual ideal, or a teaching, or to persons who claim to embody such ideals and teachings, we should undertake a deep enquiry into our own nature, and should undertake to discover our authentic self and the gift we were born to give.
I would argue that the emphasis that I am advocating here is reflected in the teachings of Gautama Buddha himself, who identified ‘Right View’, or ‘Perfect Vision’, not as the last, but as the very first limb, of his ‘Noble Eight-Fold Path’. While many Buddhist teachers teach as if wisdom is so far down the road of our spiritual journey that we should not concern ourselves with it, I take the opposite view – an approach that is hopefully not only more respectful and less likely to waste your time, but also one that gives appropriate consideration to the psychological safety of those who would undertake this journey of radical transformation.
I take the view that, for the Western practitioner, the entry level for the Buddhist path is higher than we might have been led to believe – that a certain degree of wisdom, such as the Buddha expressed in his notion of ‘Right View’ is a necessary foundation for the subsequent ‘path of transformation’ (the remaining seven limbs of the Path). I believe that Right View, properly understood, gives us an overview of the Path. It is not unusual to find Buddhist practitioners (and practitioners in other traditions) who seem quite lost – who seem to have set off in the wrong direction spiritually speaking. It is common for instance to meet Buddhists who believe that the Buddha’s realisation led him to a dark view of human nature. Such Buddhists are therefore unnecessarily hard – even harsh – on themselves and others, and find themselves advocating an approach that is far from wise and compassionate.
It is also common to meet Buddhists who believe that the Buddha’s realisation brought him to a completely opposite place – to a state that in modern parlance might by characterised as one of ‘positive thinking’. I believe this is also incorrect, and can lead to a state of complacency, where the practitioner is lost in the delusion that it is enough to weave ourselves a comfortable cocoon of egoic positivity – a place from which we can then ignore the Shadow of the egoic mind in both ourselves and others.
The Buddha’s path was a Middle Way. His view, and therefore his path, was neither superficially positive, nor superficial negative. And it was not-not positive, and not-not negative. His was a non-dual realisation and a non-dual path – and we lose sight of this at our peril. His Middle Way approach could be characterised as one which sees the mind and the universe as both deeply positive and deeply negative simultaneously – but neither does this statement come even close, because the Buddha’s experience was one of a reconciliation and transcendence of these opposites. While the egoic mind and the nirmānakāya world rests eternally in the divine dharmakāya, the identification with the egoic illusion is so nearly universal that we collectively create a hell for ourselves – and we completely fail to see the dharmic heaven that is always simultaneously present.
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