Today I attended my monthly gathering of dharma friends for a Riwo Sangchö practice. This is a smoke offering ceremony that acts as a physical metaphor for transforming all the negativities in the world, freeing them into the indivisible unity of space and wisdom. I am a Western woman, brought up culturally as an Anglican Christian, yet it has been through my engagement in the teachings and practices of Tibetan Buddhism that I have found a form of spirituality that works for me. It combines all the intellectual rigour of Buddhist mindscience and philosophical inquiry with the mythopoetic ceremonies of Tibetan culture—a culture, which, like those of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australia, is filled with poetic engagement with the natural world.
As with all such Buddhist ceremonies, first we take refuge from our worldly preoccupations in a symbol of wisdom and compassion. In my Nyingma tradition, this is Guru Rinpoche (the precious teacher), by which Padmasambhava, the great mystic saint of Tibetan Buddhism and the conqueror of all forces of negativity, is known. I remember a time that I was in Tibet, visiting Samyé, Tibet’s most ancient Buddhist temple. While making a light offering on the top floor of the temple, we encountered a group of Tibetans circumambulating around the images in the ancient way, loudly chanting Guru Rinpoche’s mantra: OM AH HUM BENZA GURU PEMA SIDDHI HUNG, keeping their spiritual strength alive despite all the political difficulties swirling around them.
If I was a Christian or Muslim I would similarly be taking refuge in the symbols of the prophets, Jesus and Mohammed, equally regarded as embodiments of wisdom and compassion. For Australia’s Indigenous peoples, they take such refuge in their connection to country. For our Riwo Sangchö practice, after taking refuge, we arouse in ourselves a commitment to compassion with the intention that all beings be freed into this wisdom and compassion. Then we enter into the ‘inner being’ of the practice, for which we have received teachings, explaining all its symbolic meanings, so that we can actualise it as a mode of being. We let go all of our own negativities, and aspirationally we let go of all the forces of negativity around us and ‘infecting’ our world—anger, hatred, jealousy, prejudice, stupidity, ignorance, greed—be it in the world of politics, business, community, family and among our friends and enemies.
What is particularly powerful for me is that one of my Buddhist teachers who regularly visits the Blue Mountains and has also visited Uluru and met with the elders there, has composed a sang offering prayer that speaks to the deities of this land, and celebrates the presence of Vajravarahi, a powerful female wisdom figure in the Tibetan tradition, manifesting here in rock formation not far from where I live. It is this sort of connection to nature that we need, one that inspires spiritual awe as well as ecological awareness.
Dr Payi Linda Ford, a member of the Rak Mak Mak Marranunggu from Kurrindju on the Finniss River in the Northern Territory and Principal Research Fellow at the Northern Institute of the Charles Darwin University, is working with action-based cultural survival research. She describes it thus: ‘Ceremonial performance is a socially powerful site of exchange, transmission and transformation of relationship to country, kin and identity to benefit future generations of Indigenous people’s identity and Australia’s shared history’ (quoted in Deborah Bird Rose’s Love at the Edge of Extinction).
Without access to this deeply encoded ceremonial spiritual life, people can easily feel marooned, adrift with fear and anxiety in the world of materialist consumerism or looking for affirmation and identity through social media connections, or expressing their rage and frustration in the twittersphere.
The late Traleg Rinpoche, a Buddhist teacher also skilled in Western psychology, had this to say about how to deal with fear.
Fear is ubiquitous. We all have an underlying sense of not being settled, of not being secure. We have an existential feeling of uncertainty and instability, and that makes us very anxious.
He noted that unfortunately, we usually apply the wrong antidote to this ever-present sense of anxiousness. To allay or mollify that fear, we try to find refuge in accumulating wealth, or trying to make a big name for ourselves, or doing aerobics, or getting a new nose, or whatever. Yet doing these things over and over again does not settle us. In fact, it does the opposite. It exacerbates the very problem we are trying to address.
The secret does not lie in extreme austerity as that can become just another obsession. Rather the secret lies in our attitudes—our relationship to our material possessions, our sense of identity, our purpose in life, and our own inner self confidence.
Traleg Rinpoche, like all the great masters of his tradition, advises that when we do things to try to make ourselves secure, to establish our own sense of identity, we are barking up the wrong tree. We enflame our negative emotions. When these emotions become inflamed, our fears grow. They compound. They go haywire. As the Buddha himself said, we get completely bogged down by fears of not getting what we want to have, being separated from what we have, and getting what we do not want. Unless we have some kind of spiritual focus, we do not feel any real sense of groundedness, and so our efforts are not fruitful in the long run. We disperse our psychic and spiritual energies right, left, and centre, leaving ourselves exhausted and frustrated. We think we’ve missed out on this or that, or that everybody is an obstacle to our effort to improve ourselves. We want to have a certain kind of life, but everything is frustrating that.
When we feel like that, all kinds of fears arise—fear of death, of old age, of our reality crumbling, of ending up being nothing or nobody. On the other hand, if we are secure in ourselves from having found some kind of spiritual focus, and we learn how to gather our psychic and spiritual energies into ourselves, we can discover a kind of inner richness. If we acknowledge the deep sense of emptiness we feel at the very bottom of our being, which cannot be filled by any kind of love that we might get from other people or any amount of money, we see that it can be filled only by the richness of our own spiritual cultivation. If we do that, we will experience a sense of groundedness that allows us to reduce and manage the fears we experience and, eventually, to overcome them.
All the great spiritual traditions teach these ancient truths. The great tragedy is when they are captured and distorted by those who turn their wisdom and compassion into dogma, of claims that only one way is valid, that those who do not follow this way are condemned to exclusion—hell in an afterlife, or even death in this one. And they cling to their position of righteousness with a fierce intensity that allows no room for either wisdom and compassion, for a genuine feeling of love to and serenity to pervade their inner being and their relationship with other.
It is why religious belief has so often been at the heart of wars and conflict and why many who know this, who have studied history, turn away from some forms of organised religion, even when they search for a path of spirituality. It is why many of us treasure the separation of religion and politics and want to see the machinery of the State remain secular. If people of faith wish to be respected and admired then they must show their face of wisdom and compassion for all, especially for those who do not share their particular beliefs that infringe on others. In a multicultural and multi-faith society like Australia, we must hang onto this as the bedrock of our society. To abandon this is to invite conflict, chaos and suffering, which is especially tragic if it is done in the name of protecting religious freedom.