I am writing this newsletter on the day when, exactly 45 years ago, I first set foot on the property that was to become the Buddhist Retreat Centre. As some of you know, I bought it impulsively, in thick mist and drizzle that prevented me from seeing anything further than what was vaguely visible three paces ahead from me. What I could make out was not encouraging: an expanse of impenetrable bramble, a forest of bugweed and dense Australian wattle saplings – all of them alien invaders that had overrun the property. I was therefore as stunned as the owner when I heard myself say: “I’ll buy it.”
I have had experiences like that before – and since. I am sure we all have them. But we seldom heed them. Indeed, before we commit ourselves to something it must be carefully thought out; we must not be impulsive. We must be rational.
We give such strange upwellings in our mind vague names: instinct, intuition, inspiration, premonition. Most of them are trivial and inconsequential and are easily ignored. But some are momentous and deeply convincing. Indeed, they have been recorded in all religions: Moses following his vision to lead his people out of bondage in Egypt; Jesus announcing that one of his disciples will betray him; the Buddha telepathically contacting his disciple Ananda to get him out of a tricky situation. (It involved a pretty girl….)
We have soothsayers to this day: astrologers looking up the signs of the zodiac and the planets at the time and place of your birth; palmists reading the creases in your hand to predict your future; Zulu witchdoctors throwing their bones; Taoist priests pitching their yarrow sticks. I have had them tossed for me by a Shinto priest at the gate of a Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan. Just for fun, of course…. But he proved to be eerily accurate in his psychic readings - as was a Sikh yogi I met in Varanasi in India who only needed to know my birthdate and full name to tell me that I was an architect and that my mother’s name was Gerritje (which was not easy to guess). It cost me five Rupees.
Back to the Buddha
Should these divinatory arts therefore be taken seriously? At least some of them - some of the time? The Buddha was clear about this: he acknowledged that certain supernatural skills and abilities of the mind (siddhis) exist and can be attained through specific yogic practices and training. But he also warned that they can become addictive and can be convincingly mimicked by charlatans and rogues. You then don’t know whether their utterings and predictions have any value. So you may as well do without them to begin with.
The Buddha’s philosophy and meditation instructions therefore aim at planting one’s feet – and mind – firmly into everyday reality: the world governed by the natural laws that are shared by everyone. Because that is where we have to do our living: in Nama-Rupa – in a world that becomes known to us though the “Formations” (Rupa) rooted in our physical and mental-emotional (Nama) experiences. He warned against valuing and indulging in such supernatural abilities too much. Genuine religious practice is not about his.
Indeed, he was concerned with something earthier than that: how we can learn to embrace our everyday experiences just as they are - particularly the difficult ones. Because only then will we have embraced wholeheartedly the totality of our spontaneously lived experiences. We will have discovered what keeps us trapped in Dukkha (“Suffering”): a mind-set that demands that only pleasant experiences should happen to us. How juvenile!
So - away with soothsayers and teacup readers. Let’s do some heroic living this New Year: let’s take life on the chin!