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Trim your sails to change your spots

Two apparently unrelated events in the past few weeks have together coalesced to form this article. The first was a conversation with a member of the Ipswich Sangha about a mutual friend. The second was from some research I was exploring into various schools of Zen Buddhism.

This month’s article is also an extension of last month’s piece concerning ‘change’. Last month I focused on how we need to be open to continual change, and in that way progress on the spiritual path. This month I will look at the ‘other’ aspect of change; which is being aware that other people, not just us, are also changing.

I’ll start with the conversation. I am sure you will have heard of the phrase ‘A leopard never changes its spots’, meaning that a person doesn’t change the way they behave. This phrase came up in the conversation applied to a particular person. It struck me that this is a way we have of fixing people. This habit of ours, of fixing people, is an interesting activity to explore. As I discussed last month the spiritual life is one of change and the Buddhist way leads us to change in ever more radical ways. Strange then that we find it hard to accept that others might also be changing.

So if we are actually changing in a significant way then we can feel a bit lost, the world seems all wobbly. We are not quite sure where we are, our relationship to other people, or how we rank or fit into society. We appear to be all at sea. So if people around us are also changing then it gets even more complex to find our position. If we stop and ponder for a moment we realise that this feeling is just a manifestation of Dukkha (dissatisfaction), and all we need to do is sit with the feeling and gain some understanding about the situation and wisdom will blossom.

But often we take the easier route and realise that if we can fix someone then we became sure of our position in relation to them, and all will seem well.

As the phrase about Leopards and Spots is normally used negatively, we can also use it to feel superior to that person. Maybe we consider their ethical behaviour to be lacking, and therefore it proves that our ethical behaviour is exemplary, we become self-righteous and create our ‘self’ yet again. It may also just be that they cannot do something very well that you can do, again leading to that feeling of superiority. Sometimes it seems like we will try anything to re-establish the ‘status-quo’, to restore an imaginary stationary and predictable existence.

We also use this kind of thinking, that others cannot change, to ensure our place in our friendship groups, even in our Sangha and also society generally.

In the last few weeks on Mitra Sangha Evening we have been exploring the highest practices of the Bodhisattva ideal. Looking at actually placing others, them out there, in a superior position, ‘and give the victory to others’ (Eight Verses for Training the Mind). This practice is especially challenging when applied to people we have difficulty with, as in the fourth stage of the Metta practice. From our discussions on these evenings, it is clearly a very hard thing to do and we each individually have areas where it is very difficult to truly be kind and compassionate towards other people. This area of practice would ideally be accepted as the cutting edge of our own spiritual efforts. But unfortunately, we often shy away from facing up to how we are habitually relating to and treating other people, whether they be friend or foe.

That Zen Buddhist element comes from the history of a certain Rinzai Zen Buddhist school in Japan, that failed because of a particular idea. The idea that the school adopted was essentialism, which is a philosophy holding the view that a person or thing has innate or essential unchanging characteristics. Again this is the view that people cannot change and therefore always behave or act in a particular and predictable way. This idea taken to its logical conclusion implies that people cannot develop and so remain as they were born. This is the basis of caste-ism and racism, which is so harmful in India and most other countries.

The Zen school failed because over time it moved further and further away from the Buddha’s core teachings. Sadly this drift away from the Buddha’s compassionate teaching eventually allowed that school to sanction the murder of peoples from other countries.

Many forms of Tibetan Buddhism also have a hard or fatalistic view of karma. A view that all one’s current misfortune or suffering is directly related to your previous life and so you can do nothing about it, so again you cannot change. This way of thinking is more of a Brahmanical (Hindu) view rather than a Buddhist view.

Luckily for us in Triratna, Sangharakshita has emphasised the idea of the Five Niyamas as a way of looking at karma allowing other factors to be at play in how our future unfolds. Just to briefly explain the Niyama teaching which splits Karma into five processes or orders that operate on us. These five are: 1. utu-niyama, physical inorganic order, 2. bīja-niyama, physical organic order, 3. mano-niyama, psychological or non-volitional mental order, 4. karma-niyama, volitional order, our wilful conditioned activities, and 5. dharma-niyama, the transcendental effect. So you can see that what we often call ‘our karma’ comes from different sources, different orders of conditions, and only one of these is, as their Pali names suggest, is actually Karma. So the Buddha taught that every willed action produces an experienced effect (karmavipaka), but that every experienced effect is not the product of willed action.

So now if we apply these five niyamas to our un-changing person. They can move house and live in a different area. They can change their diet. They can change their friends, job or see a therapist. They can become more aware of their ethical failings. And finally, they can open themselves up to Buddhist practice and the transcendental qualities of the Buddha’s and Bodhisattva’s.

In this way the Leopard can change its spots.

So to summarise, Buddhism tells us that any apparent permanent traits we or others have, exist only because of certain conditions operating at the time. When those conditions change those traits will change or disappear and they will become a different person. It does mean that we will have to learn how to relate to that ‘new’ person all over again. But learning about and embracing change is the great joy of life. And seeing other people change, witnessing their growth, reminds us that we too can change and progress on that sometimes difficult path towards Enlightenment.

In this month of June there is much happening at the Centre that will enable our change and the change of those around us. We have a weekend Sangha retreat at Vajrasana, which is a great opportunity to be part of a temporary Buddhist community in the heart of the Suffolk countryside.

If you are a Mitra then do come along to the Centre on Wednesday evenings and be an active part of the Mitra Sangha, forming that community of friends we call Sangha.

If you are not yet a Mitra then there are still many classes and events for you to experience.

See you around


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