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Here be Dragons: Pitfalls, Disasters and Dead-Ends on the Spiritual Quest by Vessantara

A review of the Free Buddhist Audio podcast

This is a classic talk on Free Buddhist Audio, recommended to us by Viryamati in our mitra study group, as a resource to come back to, perhaps when we are facing some spiritual challenges and looking for a seed of inspiration.

Vessantara gave the talk for the Triratna Buddhist Order at a Men’s National Order Weekend in August 2002. First of all, what seems significant is that this was given after a year-long sabbatical at Guhyaloka Retreat Centre in the Spanish mountains, which appears to have provided an extended period of deep reflection and outpouring of energy to tell this story.

The talk describes the spiritual life as an Arthurian legend, a quest for the holy grail of enlightenment by the order of knights at Camelot’s round table. He tells countless tales of the adventures, expeditions, and side quests of these young knights searching for the grail, with all the pitfalls, dead ends, and difficulties you face.

The title of the talk comes from traditional inscriptions on medieval maps of “Here be dragons,” warning travellers of uncharted territories or places to never return to. He likens the dharma to maps of the spiritual life, detailing the terrain and the routes to tread. He also warns that these beautiful traditional maps of the dharma may provide an idealised path, but we may need to update them to reflect our current-day experience accurately.

I have a deep connection with maps. I regularly participate in orienteering events across East Anglia, and I have come to appreciate the care that goes into map-making and cartography. Although the contours of the land and the fundamental truths may remain constant, new surface features and developments may need to be plotted regularly to guide orienteers on their way.

Although this talk may have been directed at order members, I feel like it offers a lifeline for anyone facing a spiritual crisis. Telling it in terms of mythical stories and epic legends profoundly appeals to my love of fantasy novels and science-fiction films. Acknowledging that heroes in these stories face setbacks, too, is reassuring for my dharma life. I have personally met many doubts on the way and had periods of rigid, mechanical practice where I’ve been uncertain if I am getting anywhere. But this free buddhist audio episode emboldens me to diligently strive on.

PS: The postscript to this talk is delightful. I won’t spoil it here, but I feel like it secretly reveals some deep wisdom on the grail quest I love to ponder. It’s definitely worth a listen!