A student writes:
I struggle with things being labelled as ‘auspicious’ – it sounds like merely superstition to me and I would have thought that Buddhism, with its emphasis on ‘dispelling the darkness of confusion’ would reject such thinking as being deluded?
Lama Shenpen replies:
A very pertinent question. It does seem like mere sentimentality, I must admit. It is in fact a very deep topic and not something that one can really understand straight off. So for most people talking about auspiciousness is like observing some ritualistic superstitious practice that has lost its meaning.
I suppose what I am saying is that often deep truths about the nature of reality are embedded in cultures and their traditions, so that people are somehow doing things that are beneficial without knowing how they work or why; then later on, it becomes evident why they work or why they no longer work or why they never worked and were totally wrong ideas from the outset.
So you are right to be suspicious of so called ‘auspiciousness’. It has often been at the root of all sorts of superstitious and prejudiced behaviour.
I’ve given a talk on this topic before, at the Hermitage and I spoke about the intuitive sense we have of what feels like the right thing to do. People often say things like ‘It was obviously meant to be’ and more often than not they say this in relation to major moves in their lives such as deciding where to live, who to marry, what career to follow and so on.
When we have to make these decisions, we often go by an inner sense of rightness, as if there is a gateway opening up for us and all the signs are that we should go that way.
We start to notice all sorts of strange coincidences and patterns of events that seem to be pushing us in a particular direction and something inside us is somehow responding and starting to move in that direction naturally, so that any other direction feels false and uncomfortable.
I wonder if this sort of feeling sounds familiar to you?
Then again we often hear people say things like ‘Oh, it always rains when I go on holiday’ or ‘the train is always late when I am in a hurry’. What is going on when we say things like this? It is as if we conceive of the Universe as somehow unfolding in response to our particular personal mandala.
So we are capable of such a conception. Rationally we know of no mechanism by which the rain could decide to rain in response to our being on holiday or trains to be late in response to our need for them to be on time and so on.
Yet we still somehow feel we live in a world where such is the nature of reality. You could, as you say, think this was merely a sign of our delusion. It is part of our egocentric way of thinking of the world.
However, it seems from what those who are Awakened say, that this is not the whole story. Yes, the way we understand everything is tainted with delusion and yet there is also something in the way we think that has an element of truth in it.
Thinking in terms of auspiciousness and patterns of events having subjective meaning is no exception, I think. There is something in it that reflects something true about the nature of reality.
Events are connected in a mysterious way that is not explained by our usual model of reality based on grasping time and space as real. Within such a model of reality, it is clearly irrational to think that the Universe ‘out there’ is somehow responsible for the pattern of the trajectory of the events of my life.
If, from my point of view, they somehow have a meaningful pattern and rightness about them, then this is just a subjective judgement concerning what is basically a merely mechanical series of coincidences.
Interestingly, such a view of life is actually not a view that we relish. It means that the bottom line is meaninglessness. A sense of meaning is simply a deluded subjective judgement.
So there is something to ponder about here. If our usual view of the cosmos in which we grasp at entities fixed in time and space actually turns out to be deluded, then how do the events of our lives unfold as if in time and space? What is the connection between things that are not things and are not there?
It is relatively easy to recognise that things that seem real are not real. What is really difficult is to understand what then produces the details of this manifest world that we inhabit. If our karmic actions produce an effect in a future life, how does the pattern of our deeds in this life affect the pattern of events in a future life?
All these questions are related. It also relates to the question of how, if the past is gone, can we know what happened a moment ago? How come there is any pattern to events at all, any meaning at all, any knowledge at all? All these questions are related.
This is a weasely answer to your question, I am afraid! The reason that I call things auspicious is because there is a whole tradition associated with linking events into auspicious patterns and realised beings are said to have the power to be able to weave and read such patterns.
It is part of what comes to the yogin naturally as he or she learns to relax into the Awakened Heart. They start to sense the patterns of things in a non-conceptual way and to know intuitively and effortlessly what to do when.
Whatever the nature of the Universe is, they start to move in harmony with it and have the power to transform what might be an inauspicous pattern into an auspicious one by means of their power of truth and pranidhana. So the whole topic opens up and opens up.
This sort of tradition seems fine and meaningful within the context of its own native culture. But beyond this I think one has to be careful. Many people believe in all sorts of popular astrology and other signs, omens and superstitions for which there is no foundation whatever.
I agree that one does have to be careful with this sort of thing. People are apt to just start to believe in anything and take any pattern they see as being meaningful and rush this way and that way trying to make sense of everything in a world of complete fantasy.
Before one can start to develop that deep spontaneous sense of rightness I was talking about, you have to go through a long training. You have to first learn to align with the heart wish, which means you have to learn to be honest and true to yourself, trust yourself.
What often happens is that people substitute superstition and prejudice for openness, clarity and sensitivity. So that conforming to patterns and traditions becomes a kind of clinging rather than an inspiration.
One has to go beyond all forms of clinging in the end, but along the way, we have to find the right balance within our personal mandala. We cannot start off with a natural and spontaneous sense of rightness. We have to start somewhere. You suggest we start by being rational. I think that is basically right.
We have to take what seems like a rational view and live in a way that seems reasonable to us. Then as we train, we can start to investigate the patterns that we find ourselves going along with to see if they do indeed make sense and whether we can go beyond them or not.
I think one can find rational reasons for observing things like feast days. Simply the fact that these are the days everyone has decided to concentrate their energies is perhaps enough to be going on with. The cycles of the sun and moon do actually affect the energy of our planet in such a fundamental way it is reasonable to time our special events to coincide with their rhythms.
Beyond that, well I guess it depends how convinced you are about the source of these customs and traditions. Do they indeed come from some deep level of realisation and wisdom passed down the ages to us or even recently discovered for us by Awakened beings?
Well, who knows. As with everything else we do, we tend to go by repute. We believe the science of reputed scientists and the Dharma of reputed Dharma teachers. That is about it really, isn’t it?
Although it is true that at some point all conditioned things are seen to be empty, which means ungraspable in nature, this is not to say that there is simply an amorphous blob with no structure and no meaning to the connections between things.
The ‘thingness’ that we see is not the true situation. Openness is the true situation. Nevertheless the ‘thingness’ of things manifests as it does because somehow there is some meaning to the patterns in the Universe.
So there is meaning in being a person and having connections with others and in sharing a world in which things happen in a patterned kind of way. So observing customs could in fact have some kind of significance much deeper than simply what can be observed in a superficial way.
I don’t think I can say more than that at this point, but it is an area of Dharma that opens up and opens up. It is important not to think that once we realise emptiness nothing matters any more. Everything matters even more in a way. Everything is more meaningful in a way.
Lama Shenpen Hookham
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