Why Triratna Cannot Support Insight

Why Triratna Cannot Support Insight

The biography of the Buddha is clear that the motivation for him leaving home and enduring years of ascetic and other practices was to seek an end to suffering.  Buddhism, as the root word budh (to awaken) in Sanskrit makes clear, is about 'awakening', namely to the causes and conditions whereby suffering is created and can cease.  Shortly after the Buddha experienced awakening, that was how he described it: 'I am awakened (buddha-asmi)'.  With this in mind, any organisation which considers itself to be 'Buddhist' must offer teachings and practices that lead to the goal of awakening, by which suffering ceases.  

What has become clear is that Triratna cannot support true awakening (also known as 'insight') because the methods and outcomes offered are entirely different from what the Buddha taught - the teachers and leaders within Triratna are unable to understand what awakening is all about.  Those within the Triratna hierarchy also cannot support true awakening because they are unwilling to do so; if actual insight were to become normalised within the organisation, it would reveal how erroneous Sangharakshita’s “particular presentation” of the Dharma really is.  This would then undermine the charismatic authority that the College of Public Preceptors (College) have inherited from Sangharakshita, and show how Triratna is not an actual Buddhist organisation.

That Sangharkashita taught something quite different from the dharma as taught by the Buddha can be seen by examining four critical areas: what the initial step on the path to awakening is, the types of practices and methods that lead to awakening, the changes that occur once awakening starts to occur, and the resulting lived experience.

The Initial Step on the Path

The Buddha in the Pali Canon repeatedly emphasised that our first step towards awakening addresses our belief in a 'self' that we presume is separate from, and somehow behind, all of our activities and experiences.  Perhaps because we have certain tendencies to act in a particular way, we infer there is a “someone” who is always present, goes by our name, and is in control of and experiences all that is happening to us.  However, the Buddha taught that it is an illusion that there is a 'self' of any sort, be it permanent, impermanent, or otherwise.  In Buddhist terminology, that is what the anatta or 'no self' doctrine means - there is no 'self' whatsoever.  If we instead believe, for example, that there is a 'self' that changes and develops, that can lead to a 'self-improvement' trap that is quite difficult to get out of, since we would then be holding on to that 'self' and the belief that there is some kind of agent separate from experience.  As a result, true dharma practices that lead to awakening are geared toward seeing that there is no 'self' of any kind - that’s really all there is to it.

However, Sangharakshita had a very different interpretation of the anatta doctrine, speculating that we really do have a self as the sum total of our activities: a real, impermanent, and empirical self.  This empirical self is our svabhāva, our ‘own-being’, and the anatta doctrine doesn’t mean we never have a self, but that we always have a new (empirical) self that is constantly arising.  While he taught that we also abstract an unchanging 'self' that is separate from and somehow behind our activities, his primary teaching was that the initial step on the path (aka 'breaking the first fetter') is really about affirming there is an empirical 'self', and replacing the current empirical self with a new and improved one.  By breaking the habit of being a particular type of person, and becoming a better one, he believed this would enable us to be continually aware and emotionally positive, and continually responsible, sensitive, and creative: in other words, continually creative of our own self.  It is perhaps for this reason that he found the analogy of the spiritual practitioner with that of the artist so compelling.

Thus, from the outset, we see that Sangharakshita suggested we accomplish something completely different from what the Buddha outlined, proposing we undertake a self-improvement rather than a self-elimination scheme.  However, true awakening doesn’t mean holding on to or improving the 'self', but seeing that the very idea of a “self” is just that -- an idea, a mental fabrication.  Since there is nothing there that could be improved, what we need to do is let go of this idea altogether.  For the scores in Triratna who now know this (albeit by non-Triratna means), it is no surprise that they have come under such criticism, and accusations of delusion and bypassing, since they are talking about a realisation that is quite foreign to those who follow Sangharkashita’s teachings.  

Insight Practice

That there is no separate 'self' is not an experience that can be induced.  Indeed it is in part a realisation that there is no experiencer.  Seeing this can take place in a short period of time, and is not dependent on  any sort of meditation experience.  If, rather than paying attention to multitudes of sensory experience, which is our tendency, we simply look for the 'self' that we assume is controlling or perceiving that multitude of sensory experience,  we can directly see there is no such thing.  As with the idea of Santa Claus -- once seen as simply an idea or an image -- that is that.  Fully and decisively seeing there is no 'self' is the first step toward liberation.

On the other hand, Sangharkashita believed that refining the empirical self and making it ever more positive meant that we need a deep spiritual insight into what he believed was the fact of universal conditionality and impermanence.  He further believed that we induce this experience by contemplating impermanence: the end is thus the extreme of the means.  He taught that a single decisive moment of mindfulness will not be sufficient to take the first step of awakening to impermanence; rather, we must reach and maintain a certain level of meditation experience, and in that higher state of being and consciousness, we are able to be aware of the thousands of sense impressions impinging upon us, and also to know just what effect they are having on us.  Everything of which we become conscious is significant, and we cannot afford to let it slip past: we have to keep this up, from instant to instant, throughout the weeks, months, and years.  Eventually, our vision is clarified, by which we perceive everything as an unbounded, unbroken flow, after which we would have no need for an unchanging self to connect it all together.  While this will also serve to affirm the existence of an impermanent and empirical self, the main point is that fully understanding the principle of conditionality is what leads to liberation.  

As a result, we again have a substantial disconnect between what Sangharakshita believed and taught on the one hand, and what the Buddha taught and what people are discovering for themselves on the other.  Those who faithfully follow what Sangharakshita taught no doubt find it incomprehensible that simply looking in direct experience and seeing there is no self is an effective practice, or that spiritual progress is possible without many years (or lifetimes) of dedicated meditation practice and associated preparations.  Further, they assume that while the end result will perhaps remove the belief in a fixed self, the resulting experience will surely be described in terms of affirming a growing and changing empirical self and, most importantly, a revolutionary insight into the truth of impermanence: this is simply not the case, though.  

The Arising of Insight

Once we see there is no separate 'self' that is (or at least imagines itself to be) in control of experience, our perception of everything else does not appreciably change, at least not at this first step.  We aren’t magically transformed - familiar habits, memories and behaviours remain.  We still believe in time and space, thus notions like 'impermanence' persist, though that doesn’t seem any more or less significant (and in fact will eventually disappear).  However, one key thing is now missing: belief in a separate 'self' that goes by our name, and that was once thought to control and experience what is happening.  As a result, we no longer feel the need to cater to this 'self' or otherwise go through the day with that burden, and that makes a tremendous difference in how we respond to what is happening around us.  There is still an underlying sense of presence or 'me', but the notion that there is a separate 'self' is now gone.  We start to understand that the spiritual path isn’t about understanding 'the way things really are', but instead 'the way I really am not'.  Traditionally, this first step is called ‘entering the stream’.

Alternatively, according to Sangharakshita this initial shift means that we see the fact of impermanence and that everything changes, and therefore the possibility of growth and development of our (empirical) 'self'.  He speculated that when we begin to see things in this way, our whole outlook changes radically, and that we see ‘the way things really are’ (i.e., constantly changing and impermanent), which transforms our whole being.  This is apparently because seeing that all is 'conditioned' (arising and falling in dependence on conditions) is insight into the true nature of phenomena, which then leads to a tremendous, peak sort of experience.  Our knowledge and vision will then be an experience of the ultimate meaning of things; we will see things as they really are rather than as they appear to be - as a flow of dependently-arising events that make up reality in its entirety.  In other words, Sangharakshita believes that seeing the way we can see today (that things are composites, essentially), but seeing it as deeply as possible, will somehow lead to a spectacular transformation, by which one ‘enters the stream’.

The substantial differences in these two accounts of what happens when we initially awaken have important consequences.  For example, while what the Buddha taught is clearly discernible in one’s experience (i.e., it is quite obvious when one no longer believes  in a separate ‘self’, just as it is clear when you no longer believe in Santa), Sangharkashita’s version essentially unknowable: how do you know if or when you have fully understood ‘the way things really are’ and have experienced ‘the ultimate meaning of things’?  This means that there would be no discernible endpoint to the spiritual path, a belief that is quite prevalent within Triratna, but contrary to the Buddha’s recurring statements that there is in fact an endpoint: when suffering stops.  Moreover, as many in Triratna have now experienced, there is a point on the path where the illusions of “time” and “space” disappear, taking with them the necessary (but illusory) framework for perceiving “a flow of dependently-arising events” in the first place.  

Experience of the Shift

While this initial 'I don’t exist as I thought' shift may come as quite a shock, in many ways our perception of the world remains surprisingly ordinary.  While the tendency might be to imagine there is some blissful 'state' which we obtain or enter, there is simply a deeper relaxation into what is happening here and now.  Without constantly catering to the wishes and needs of a supposed 'self', this initial removal of the mentally-generated condition we attempt to place on experience (i.e., that there is a ‘self’ that is in control) means we can become more involved in everyday life, rather than pulling back from it or seeking some purer/higher 'state' elsewhere.  In other words, we start to wake up from ‘conditionality’.

And yet, the push and pull at life continues, and may even have more of an effect on us, because the traditional three kleshas or 'poisons' of greed, hatred and delusion remain untouched.  Selfish motivations continue to be chief drivers of action, at times or perhaps quite often, resulting in  moral and ethical behaviour that may not be much different than before.  We may be able to respond more readily to the needs of others, but we may also experience a 'klesha-rama' now that negative mental states are no longer being denied or repressed.  Having ‘entered the stream’, others may have unrealistic expectations of us, and assume that we will be an infallible source of guidance and example.  In reality, we have only taken the first step on the path, and there is an incredible amount of hard work that remains to be done.  

This could hardly be more different than Sangharakshita’s idealised speculations as to what ‘stream entry’ is like.  He believed that stream entry results in a state of pure awareness, and of perfect psychic wholeness, in which there is a clean, even serene, withdrawal from involvement in conditioned things.  Insight saturates our psychic contents, organizing them around itself in a harmonious system.  We can’t be moved or stirred or touched by any worldly happening; firmly fixed in the truth, and absorbed in the bliss of what he refers to as the ‘Unconditioned’ (which he leaves undefined), nothing can touch us.  Everything conditioned is unsatisfactory, impermanent, and without an unchanging self; the Unconditioned, by contrast, is blissful, permanent, and characterized by true individuality, by which there is always a lack or void which only the Unconditioned can fill.  In other words, we can hold onto our desires, trusting that they will be fulfilled.

Sangharakshita also speculated that though greed, hatred, and delusion continue to arise, they can no longer dominate our actions.  Selfish motivations will have ceased to be the chief drivers of action, and we will have an absolutely unblemished morality.  A spiral chain of selfless mental states then spontaneously arise, by which we will encompass and respond to the needs of living beings, taking us from greater clarity, freedom, love, and joy to yet greater still.  For others, we become a basis for complete confidence, and can be fully trusted by them as an infallible source of guidance and example, all by virtue of our having seen ‘the way things really are’.  From here, no further effort is needed: we simply hoist our sail to catch the breeze as we float down the stream toward full enlightenment.

This profound disconnect regarding the outcomes of the initial arising of insight is probably the biggest stumbling block to Triratna being able to recognise and support the arising of insight.  Given the many misguided suppositions, which many (and perhaps he himself) believe described Sangharakshita, the people in Triratna who see through the illusion of a separate 'self' have an impossible set of expectations thrust upon them.  Of course, Sangharakshita himself didn’t actually exhibit those traits, particularly in regard to an 'absolutely unblemished morality', but that does not stop those who are loyal to him from holding a double standard by selectively asserting "Insight will be seen in our behaviour".  For them, Sangharkashita taught the true Dharma, regardless of his behaviour, while others are judged by these unrealistic standards.  What this description of stream entry really says, though, is that Sangharakshita obviously didn’t know what he was talking about, in that this and all of the previous disconnects show that he was merely speculating about the nature of awakening and the arising of insight.

Insight is Incompatible with Triratna

In summary, Sangharakshita’s 'particular presentation' lays out an erroneous and speculative description of what the initial step on the path to awakening is, the types of practices and methods that lead to awakening, the changes that occur once awakening starts to occur, and the resulting lived experience.  Given that actual progress along the spiritual path invalidates the very basis of Sangharakshita’s 'particular presentation' of the Dharma, it is no wonder that those striving for awakening and insight as described by the Buddha are not supported within Triratna, either before or after they start to awaken.  It also makes it impossible to meaningfully discuss insight within Triratna, because the experience is so foreign to those in teaching and leadership positions, and are in those positions because of the fidelity they have demonstrated to Sangharakshita’s ‘particular presentation’.  They have a completely different idea of what Buddhism is all about.  

Perhaps more significantly, Triratna cannot support true insight because it invalidates Sangharakshita’s claim to be a Buddhist teacher whose particular presentation offers a complete path to awakening.  Though some have attempted to do so, what he taught cannot be reconciled with the Dharma.  It is understandable that those bearing the authority of office in Triratna simply cannot entertain the idea that Sangharakshita, and thus they themselves, have been 'barking up the wrong tree' for many years and even decades.  In reality, Sangharakshita taught something much more akin to German Romanticism, which is primarily concerned with such ideas as a higher and lower ‘self’ and the principle of interconnectedness  (see the article 'Sangharakshita and Buddhist Romanticism' in the Articles section of this web site).  However, to someone who has invested decades of their time and energy in the belief that Sangharakshita taught the actual Dharma, this is no doubt incomprehensible since, among other things, it means that Triratna is not an actual Buddhist organisation, but only uses the vocabulary of Buddhism.  

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