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.