A topic that aroused a good deal of interest at the latest Vipassana Teachers’ Conference (April  at IMS) was ‘the sacred’. As in ‘What is it?’ ‘Is it a useful reference?’ ‘How do we teach it?’
The interest centred around the distinction between meditation as a system that one does and the meditative domain that can, over time, open. There thought and the world of the senses dissolve, and the will to do quietens down – so how to speak about such a ceasing, and of what value is it? Well, rather than being something way out there, maybe it’s closer than we think.
…’Conceptual proliferation’, papañca, is the process whereby an idea, impression or principle arising in our minds, is conceived to be some real thing that occurs, or could occur, ‘out there’. It’s not just an intellectual process: we do it all the time when we project characteristics onto other people based on our biases. As when in the act of seeing another person, we attribute (or remove) value based on their clothes, their skin colour, and so on.
And through papañca we create our own personhood and its future out of moods and impressions. Then the mind gets stuck on what it has fabricated and makes an emotional tangle out of what we should, might, and shouldn’t be. In this way an impression gets solidified into a three-dimensional reality that overwhelms awareness and extends into the future. This reflex is something that an Awakened One has terminated:
‘Humankind delights in proliferation, the Tathāgata does not proliferate’ (Dhp. 254)’… having seen what can be seen, the Tathāgata does not conceive the seen, does not conceive the unseen, does not conceive what can be seen, does not conceive one who sees.’ (A.4.24)
However given the message that ‘cessation’ doesn’t mean that there’s nothing, ‘sacred’ might well be an acceptable word to place as a flag on that experience; it conveys a profundity and a depth of value – not ‘out there’ but to be sensed in oneself.
Naturally, there are reservations. If you’re looking to resolve issues in terms of our social environment, references to the ‘ceasing of contact’ sounds like a sidetrack. Like it’s about spacing out and not dealing with the realities of everyday life. Then again, quite a few Dhamma practitioners are people who have abandoned conventional religion because of its adherence to ritual and its obedience to the will of the divine – as administered by a fallible hierarchy of priests.
Organised religion does by and large conceptually proliferate on the nature of the world, how it was created, why we’re born and what happens when we die; and holds its images and rituals to be the sacred rather than supports to realise it. Worse still, religion has too often been coopted to support the socio-political status quo. As a consequence then, there can be a reluctance to trust in anything other than the evidence of one’s eyes and the power of reasoning: ‘Think for yourself, don’t just follow a tradition’ is a common paraphrase of the ‘Kalāma’ sutta (A.3.65).
The authenticity is laudable, but what to be authentic about? Strings of slippery words? The gossamer weave of thought? Disorientation? Well, as was the case with the Kalāmas, what is sure is that we all need some standards and values to orient our minds and actions around in a turbulent world; absence just won’t do. (There’s enough of that already.)
So: ‘Be your own authority; figure it out for yourself?’ Not quite. Read more carefully, the Kalāma sutta advises us not to follow blindly: oral tradition, a lineage of teaching, hearsay, a collection of scriptures, logical reasoning, inferential reasoning, reasoned cogitation, or acceptance of a view after pondering it, or by the skill of a speaker, or out of loyalty to one’s teacher. In other words just about everything, including one’s own intellect.
On the other hand, the sutta does encourages us to put the need to find meaning to the test of direct personal experience. Then if one senses an action or inclination as blameless and ‘praised by the wise’, it should be followed; otherwise, not. So what is needed doesn’t come through blind rejection of guidelines or compulsively holding on to them.
Beautifully, there is an orientation we can trust: the Dhamma of direct personal experience, beyond logic; and experienced by ‘the wise’. Because here’s an intelligence that goes deeper than the tides of debate and theory.
This reflection by Ajahn Sucitto is from the Reflections Blog May 2017, Sacred Intelligence—It’s Nearer Than You Think.