July  1993   2536   Number 25 

Devotion and Gnosis; Ajahn Sumedho
Metta and the English Problem; John Aske
An Open Letter from Dharamsala
On Returning to Ladakh; Ven. Sanghasena
Indian Summer; Ven. Asabho
The Highest Tantra; Ajahn Sucitto

Devotion and Gnosis
This year is the centenary of the first Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago, 1893. In recognition of this, we will be printing articles edited from talks on religious themes. Below, Venerable Ajahn Sumedho points out a mode of practice that is common to, and transcends all, religious forms.

The words 'spiritual', 'holy', 'pure', 'good' and 'true', are important in any language because they remind us, of the aspiration of our human hearts.

We aspire to be good, and to be pure, yet we easily forget the whole purpose and opportunity of being human ... to realise the true, the beautiful and the good. Sometimes we can become cynical and think that these are na´ve daydreams of people who don't know anything.

The purpose and importance of human life can get lost in the Western world of middle class values and affluence. We can get what we want these days, but even when we do get everything - or a lot - of what we want, in the end we feel a sense of the meaninglessness or purposelessness of our lives. Depression in a common experience in affluent countries. Why is this, why do we think that if we get what we want then we should be happy? At this point, our ability to reflect on the way things are makes it possible to open our hearts to spiritual enquiry.

You can see Religious Paths as being of two kinds. There's the Devotional Path of religion and the Wisdom or Gnostic Path. In Hinduism, Bhakti is the devotional path, Nana or Raja Yoga the path of knowledge, profound insight or wisdom. Theravada Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Laos emphasises the Gnostic Path, and yet if you went to a country like Thailand you would find most of the people devotional. Modern Christianity has become very devotional and wisdom is not highly developed in modern Christian institutions. Yet, ultimately, devotion and knowledge meet. It's not that one cancels out the other; and yet, like everything, if we choose one and reject the other then something is lost. We can't just be wise without some level of devotion, and to be truly devoted means that inevitably we will become wise.

Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism are generally regarded as orthodox traditions, meaning they come from the revelations of prophets or sages. They have given powerful direction to human beings in realising and fulfilling their aspirations towards the immortal Truth, the Divine, the Absolute, or whatever one chooses to call the ineffable, Ultimate Reality. The definition of religion then is 'that which binds an individual being to the Divine', and thereby engages the whole life of that being. To be religious means that you engage your whole being with that one aim of Ultimate Realisation. It's not just a half-hearted, dilly-dallying with religious symbols, or ceremonies.

Devotional practice aims at total commitment and engagement towards ultimate reality, and gnosis, nyana, is the ability of the human heart and mind to contemplate existence and the way things are.
However, so much of what we call religion is a half-hearted adherence to culture or tradition. When you ask English people about the Church of England these days, they will usually say, 'It's part of being English.' Whether you believe it or not doesn't make any difference; it's more a matter of having a cultural identity to hold on to. But the aim of religion is to transcend cultural identity of any sort.

Even though as a religious seeker, the individual human being aims and aspires towards Ultimate Reality, that Ultimate Reality is not personal, not individual; it doesn't belong to any religion. It's not something that one religion has and another hasn't. This is where so much misunderstanding amongst religions takes place because of the tendency to think, 'Our Way is the only Way.'

This is our human blindness. However, we must have enough confidence in the religious form we're using to engage our whole being with it; we can't just think right now that it's a good idea, and make ourselves do it. We have to act from a level of trust and confidence in the convention itself. We need some trust or interest in it to start engaging our whole being, to give up everything for that Ultimate Truth. Then, when we have that measure of trust in what we're doing, we can devote our whole lives to Realisation. Once we've set our aim, then whatever happens on the worldly plane of conditions is part of the Path. We have to use the good fortune, the misfortune, the successes and the failures on this conditioned plane. We use those because we are no longer identifying with or demanding that the conditioned realm be anything; we recognise that whatever the condition is, it's part of our experience. We look into it, we bear with it. One has to bear with how things move and change. They may change in ways that we cannot control. But we no longer try to exert control, or hold onto what we want, and waste time trying to get rid of that which we don't want. We become trusting and confident because our goal is no longer a worldly conditioned goal. It's an Absolute Ultimate goal.

'Gnosis' is the Greek word: in Pali we use 'nyana', which means 'profound knowledge'. Any Gnostic religious form is a reflective, contemplative practice. Devotional practice aims at total commitment and engagement towards ultimate reality, and gnosis, nyana, is the ability of the human heart and mind to contemplate existence and the way things are. When we use gnosis, we are not starting with any a priori assumptions. We're not taking a position that 'There is (something)' or 'There isn't', but we're watching and witnessing what we're experiencing at this very moment. We're contemplating; we're thinking in a reflective way about the meaning of life. 'What is its purpose?' 'Why was I born?' 'What happens when we die?'

These are reflective questions. We can't answer them in the usual way. If we ask, 'Why was I born?' somebody might say, 'You were born to love the Lord.' That's all right when you're a child, but when you grow up you start questioning: 'Why does the Lord need to be loved?' 'Why would He create so much misery?'

We develop a way of dismissing such reflective questions about existence and Ultimate Reality; we tend to say, 'Don't bother with that, you have to learn how to pass your examinations and become number one. You have to become a success.' We hold up all these worldly goals. As a boy I was given worldly things to aim at in life: Ultimate Reality and Enlightenment were not even pointed to as anything worth bothering about.

What do we have now here in modern Britain? The goal is to try to create the perfect society. On a grander scale this includes a harmony between all human beings, a United Nations built on ideas of justice, mercy, ecology and conservation, sharing and goodness; all aimed at life on planet Earth. Once we get everything right on this Earth then we will somehow be happy. Yet even then, taking our earth-bound ideals to a complete and totally successful manifestation, it would still be unsatisfying to the human heart. It would not be enough for us; we would still find something to complain about because discontent of the human heart comes from the basic misunderstanding of the human being, when the Ultimate Truth is not recognised or realised. Nowadays, modern material values tend to be more attractive to masses of people: yet underlying all that, there is still a recognition of that aspiration of the human heart; and that aspiration goes for all humanity.

The Ultimately True and Beautiful; these are words that point to that in each of us that aspires to something beyond the changing conditions of the sensory world. The sensory world is this way - it changes; and changing doesn't mean it gets better and better. Sometimes it gets better and then it can get worse and then it can get better again. But things just don't get better and better, and they just don't stay the same; they may change in ways that we cannot control, or in ways that we don't like.

The human body changes, doesn't it? It doesn't change in the way we want it to; it changes into the way we don't want it to - until we have perspective on the Ultimate Reality. Then, the changing-ness of the sensory realm can be perfect for us, rather than changing in a way that we don't like. We begin to open up to life in its totality, its pain and its beauty. We are quite willing to endure the pain, the misfortunes, the blame, the rudeness and the meanness of human existence when we realise it as change rather than as some personal threat or terrible disillusionment with God because 'God shouldn't have created the world like this. He should have created it perfect according to the way I think, where things don't change but they remain in a permanent or static state of beauty and pleasure'. But sensual pleasure - one moment after the next, to eternity - sounds horrible doesn't it ... because pleasure is unsatisfying. Imagine just being praised for eternity ... or being able to live for five hundred years - that's eternal enough - with a crowd of obsequious sycophants saying, 'You're wonderful ...' 'I love you ...' 'You're the best.' Five hundred years of that!

With gnosis or insight knowledge, we remember that the human experience is the experience of knowing. Consciousness is a way of knowing things; when we are conscious of something, we know it. Just like seeing an object with my eye; I know what it is. It's conscious where the eye contacts the object; that's a kind of knowledge, one of many levels of knowledge. But gnosis takes the ability to know to an Ultimate position beyond interpretation.

For example, from the basic assumption that 'I am this body', and 'I am a person', whatever I know about my experience is interpreted from a very personal position: how it affects me; whether it pleases or doesn't please me. My ability to see and to know individual people on a personal level is tinged with infatuation or aversion, prejudice, opinion. All these come in and distort my knowing. Even though the eye sees, if there's 'me' and 'mine' and the assumption of 'me' and 'mine' accompanying that visual consciousness, then I interpret everything in a very personal way; various biases or prejudices influence that knowledge.

Gnosis, in Buddhism, is realised only through mindfulness. We can't study it in a book; it's not conceptual. We can't read a Gnostic text and suddenly become enlightened. The Buddhist teachings, as Gnostic teachings, are to encourage a total engagement with the Dhamma or the Ultimate Reality through reflecting on the way things are.

For example, we can reflect on the way things are within the limits and conditions of having a human body. What are the limitations of being human? The Buddha encouraged us to reflect upon old age, sickness and death, because this is what happens to every human being. Through a lifetime, from birth to death there is always a certain amount of pain and sickness along with the inevitable death of this body. From the personal position, we try to hold onto youth - because society adores the youthful, those who can do things and get things done. But if we reflect on the way things are, we see age as restraining. And anything that restrains and limits is helpful as a reflection. We can use age as Dhamma, rather than create suffering around it as a personal failure or problem.

Then on the emotional plane, what can I expect in this life as an individual being? Things are going to be good and bad; there's going to be praise, and I will be criticised. I will experience happiness, suffering, and the loss of loved ones. These are common experiences of all human beings whatever their cultural context.

So we can reflect, with wisdom using the limitations of our human experience; the limitation of masculinity, or femininity; the limitations of age. In monastic life, we use voluntary limitation as a form for restraint and relinquishment. We use it to reflect, to develop more and more of this profound insight into the Ultimate Truth, the Ultimate Reality, the Saccadhamma. The Saccadhamma is that which is ultimately true and real, Ultimate Reality. The sense of devotion is fuel to keep us going with loyalty and commitment and love. These come from the heart, so it is not just intellectual idealism. We feel it in our hearts; we long for and aspire towards realisation; we offer our lives to realise and be free from all delusions. We are willing to endure the inevitable changing process of this sensory realm in order to learn from it, from whatever happens: because whatever happens, is the Path for a Gnostic and a devotee of the Dhamma.