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Shedding our iron-rings

I have been back from India and the Ipswich Pilgrimage for a week now and returning to ‘normal’ life is occurring slowly.

As with any spiritual journey, such as a retreat or in this case, a Pilgrimage, the world never seems quite what it was when you left. The difference in conditions all make the life one led before, seem a long way away. Sometimes this effect can fade after a few days or weeks and sometimes a more permanent change happens. So in this way, your view of the world, your vision, moves closer to Perfect Vision, the start of the Buddha’s Eightfold way.

On pilgrimage one’s habits and ritual behaviours are often shaken, if not broken, and have to be remade or re-constructed from scratch. Sometimes this can be uncomfortable for a while until the new way of operating comes becomes the norm.

There may be one or two habits or routines that we have noticed we no-longer need to routinely perform, and we can see that they are no longer necessary to keep us stable and in-touch with the world. Sometimes, we can see more than just one or two, and we realise that all of the habits we use are no longer really necessary or important to our well-being.

We may even see ourselves as just a collection of habits and routines, a ‘ritual being’ that is controlled by the conditions in which it finds itself.

If we imagine those individual habits as iron-rings, and that we are locked into following those rigid bands, day after day or maybe second after second, then we can also imagine ourselves as a collection of those rings. Maybe a loose collection. Sometimes a tight collection.

We can also see that the people around us are forming another collection of rings. And that we intersect with those other rings and sometimes clash with them. We can also believe that the collection of rings is the sum of our life’s work, like a suit of armour or chain-mail, to protect us from that which we perceive as ‘other’. 

So, we can also imagine that the iron-rings that form us, and others, clash as we go about our lives. They make a terrible noise, the grinding of metal against metal, and break the silence that brings peace. I talked a bit about that deep silence last month.

So is that all there is to the people we meet, the people we love? What is inside all those rings? We can try to search for the ‘real me’ inside. A noble quest!

Buddhism tells us that we are created by a complex set of conditions that form us, form those rings and shape how we perceive ourselves. But, as I have said, in our imagination, maybe after a spiritual or life-changing event, we can see inside those rings, or even start to remove the rings in an attempt to reveal what is inside. And of course, once we imagine that our world is not as stable as we thought then the genie cannot be put back in the bottle, if it ever was in one.

On a pilgrimage we come up against many experiences that are outside our comfort zone. Experiences that reveal our personal habits and tendencies. We come up against people that we don’t like or are not the people we normally associate with. On a pilgrimage we live an itinerant life, moving on from one experience to the next, never stopping long enough to make ourselves comfortable, to regain our composure, so the next unusual experience hits us hard whilst we are already reeling. You could even think of a pilgrimage as a cremation ground, where we are given the opportunity to burn-up those habits that hold us in their rigid embrace.

Unfortunately, not many people get the chance to go on a Buddhist pilgrimage. Out of the hundreds that make up the Ipswich Buddhist Sangha, only a handful get to experience pilgrimage firsthand.

But we all go on a pilgrimage of sorts. We all are on a spiritual journey and maybe it is our meditation and Buddhist practice that provide a doorway into a different way of looking at the world. A way of engaging our imagination in a new and penetrating way, looking deeply into who we are, as individuals, and as a collective.

In some Buddhist teachings, there is the notion that there is a Buddha-seed inside us, just waiting to be sprouted. But we can look inside and see only emptiness, the emptiness of a permanent self. Just a creation of self that is required to live a life, a self that is constantly adapting and changing to respond to the world around it.

Of the 10 fetters that the Buddha listed that hold us back from Enlightenment, the third fetter is often translated as ‘Reliance on rites and rituals’. This is often solely taken to mean religious observations, but it is a fetter of far greater scope. We, as humans, are inveterate creators of rites and rituals, whether religious or everyday, just to make the world seem safe. Problems arise when we rely on, or ‘Take Refuge’ in those rites, rituals and habits and attempt to defend them against all comers. Defend them against other beings’ own rites, rituals and habits. That loud clashing of iron-rings.

Yesterday someone, a non-Buddhist friend, asked me… “How do you do cope with people who shout at you?”. I told her the story of the Buddha. When he was shouted at by someone, he used the concept of not accepting a meal to defuse the onslaught of abuse directed at him. (See the Akkosa Sutta). He did not accept the habit that that person was trying to force him into, the habit of being a victim. The habit of responding to anger with anger. Instead, responding with Metta, loving kindness and compassion, is the answer to all such clashes. It is Metta that allows us to see that our habits and the habits of those around us are not really personal, in fact they do not construct the person, the true person. The true individual is not created by conditions. Because they (the True individual) have broken the third fetter, and those iron-rings of conditional habits no longer hold them down.

As is often the way, awareness, is the key to unlocking the door of ignorance. If we are to have any chance of removing those fetters, we need to be aware of what is holding us back.

That Awareness can come along to our door by many means and at many levels of intensity; by pilgrimage, by going on retreat, or even by just attending a Buddhist class. We can realise that we can change. Change how we do things, now and into the future.

Sometimes we only awake for a short time, and we quickly slip back into our old ways and habits. But luckily, sometimes the vision is too bright to ignore, and it stays with us from then onwards. A few of those iron-rings slip away, and we become lighter and freer.

And if we can stop ourselves from creating more iron-rings, we will remain in that lighter state, able to respond creatively to the world rather than running from a pre-learned script that presumes a known outcome.

As it is Spring the Buddhist Centre is bursting with new life and growth potential. New Buddhism Level 1 and 2 courses are being planned and a new Foundation level study course will soon begin for those interested. But there are also many other things bursting into flower at the Centre so do come along.

See you all soon