Sādhana in the Western Buddhist Order


ver the last few years, in fact during the period I’ve been at Madhyamaloka, I have been thinking more and more about the importance of Order members’ meditation. It is our meditation, in the end, which informs and shapes the movement.  The way we practice is, in the end, how we are.  And how we are, in the end, determines the whole character of the movement.

There is something very particular about meditation.  Meditation gives us an experience.  We can actually contact something real in meditation.  Meditation gives us a strong experience of reality.  At least, it should do so at times.  Perhaps it gives us that experience at times when we meditate intensively.  Perhaps it happens when we allow plenty of space around our meditation. Or perhaps it’s when we simply value meditation highly and are very mindful of it.   I think this is how it should be – that at least from time to time, that our meditation should give us a strong experience.  It shouldn’t just keep us in a kind of nice gentle mood all the time – all balanced, all sorted out.  That isn’t real, that doesn’t go very deep.  No, now and again, our meditation should be giving us a bit of a spiritual nudge, even a bit of a spiritual jolt.  If it is the case that our meditation does not give us a strong experience, at least now and again, it may be that we do not do very much of it, or it may be that we do not take meditation very seriously as a spiritual practice. 

One of the things we were discussing at Madhyamaloka last week was the question as to whether we in the movement take meditation very seriously.  I think it is reasonable to say that these days there is less intensive meditation going on than there used to be in the days when Bhante was around all the time.  We often used to do sesshins, we often used to do meditation retreats.  Nearly everyone used to do those annual month long solitary retreats.  On the whole, people used to meditate more than they do now.  Of course I am generalising, of course there is Vajraloka, there is Taraloka and Guhyaloka, and there are two Order members now doing long retreats.  Though, I have to say, that is two out of 791.  Of course, the developments which have taken place in the last decade, in the fields of Study, and Right Livelihood, and in the ordination process, have been crucial ones.  They are what we needed to do.  But in some respects I feel the pendulum may have swung rather too far away from direct spiritual practice. 

Of course, the Order has grown – grown in numbers.  But we have also grown in years.  Abhaya came up to me yesterday to remind me that this year he and I, and one or two others, celebrate the 25th annniversary of our ordination.  There must be lots of Order members pushing 15 and 20.  There are now many senior members of the Order, men and women who have thought much about the Dharma, who have meditated regularly, and at times meditated deeply.  People who have continued to go for Refuge through many difficult circumstances, who have acquired insight through all this Dharma activity.   We should rejoice in all that practice, in the collective foundation that represents. 

And it is a good thing for each of us individually, because all of us are going to have to face old age and death.  The crazy young men and women who made the movement happen in the seventies are now at least fifty; they are perhaps even going on sixty.  Yes, all of us, unless we die young, will have to face old age and death.  All of us are going to have to face reality.  So we should start doing so sooner, rather than when it is too late. 

It is very auspicious that all of us have been able to make a start on this.  We are very lucky to have found the Dharma. 

So I think this is a good time for more of us, especially the more senior among us, to take seriously the fact of our impermanance, and to take refuge in meditation as a source of the wisdom which we need to face it.  We are all fairly well prepared in study and ethical practice, and presumably we’re filling in any gaps in these areas as we go on.  So I’m asking you to consider giving more priority to the practice of meditation.  Consider spending more time on retreat, that is on meditation retreats, and on solitary retreats which are spent in meditation.  Consider giving more time to your personal practice.  Please think in terms of gaining wisdom, gaining a perspective on human existence which will make you a resource for others, and which will allow you to be happy whatever happens to you, whatever circumstances arise in your old age.  Create in yourself a counterweight to the human tendency to slide into an impatient, unwise and crotchety old age, or a flabby, silly old age, one in which your wisdom does not shine through, because it simply isn’t there.  Now is the time; now is the time to meditate, because time is running out. 

I said just now that I felt the pendulum of our collective practice may have swung too far away from meditation. And I have been saying how I think it could, and should, start to swing back in that direction, and  how we could, and should, contribute to that swing.  I think our doing so would create more of a unity in our spiritual practice overall.  Dharma study and all that implies, spiritual friendship and all that implies, meditation and all that implies – all need forging together into some kind of new sythesis.  Of these three, there seems currently to be a lack in the dimension of meditation. 

Of course, I do not think the issue is one simply of meditating more.  It’s not just quantity, there is also quality.  Meditating more is something we all need to do, I suspect, but we also need to think about it more, understand it more. In a way,  we understand meditation very well.  I think the FWBO generally has an excellent understanding of the nature and role of meditation, and a good reputation for teaching it.  But there is more, there really is.  There really is further to go.  We need to articulate better the deeper aspects of the Dharma. 

What we need to articulate better are our realisations of the Dharma.  Now at some point each of us has realised the Dharma. We’ve each realised the truth to some extent – or we would not be here.  Our insights may be spelt with a small ‘i’, but still they have brought us to the stage of effective going for Refuge.  Since then we may sometimes have lapsed, our going for Refuge may have slipped at times,  but at least once in our lives, something happened which we cannot forget.  There was some kind of insight which in our best moments we can remember –  and which we can recapture, if we make sufficient effort. 

It is important that we recognise our realisations, that we remember them, even that we write them down, and that we reflect further on them.  Because in terms of the spiritual life, we are our realisations.  Our realisations are where we are at, they are what changes us.  We act in accordance with our realisation.  We are going for Refuge in accordance with our realisation.

Essentially, it is this realisation which was recognised by our preceptor at ordination.  It was seen, it was witnessed by someone who we also recognise as one who has realised, witnessed by someone who himself clearly goes for Refuge to the Buddha and to his Practice of realisation.  It is when our realisation is recognised, and when our determination is recognised to act on that realisation, act for the benefit of all beings – it is then that we enter the Order, and then that we receive our sadhana.  That’s one reason why sadhanas are so important.  The sadhana begins at that crucial point.  Because what is also recognised is our connection with the Buddha; and our connection with the Buddha appearing in a particular form. 

And meditating on this particular Buddha form, or Bodhisattva form, keeps alive the karmic weight of the ordination. In retrospect, our ordination was the most important juncture in our life.  It was a weighty karma which gave us a whole new life.  So the Sadhana recapitulates and symbolises our having been seen to go for Refuge to the Buddha, and having been seen to take responsibility for eventually becoming a Buddha.

This is why we are enjoined to practice the sadhana every day.  I’m going to say more about that a bit later on.  In the meantime I’ve got a few points about sadhana in general. 


n the whole, we don’t talk much about sadhana in general.  We don’t talk a lot about sadhana anyway.  I’m not sure it’s so much because of lack of opportunity or the right people to talk to.  I don’t think we really know very well how to discuss sadhana, what to talk about, what language to use.  I think that’s a vital issue.  But anyway, when we do talk, we generally talk about particular sadhanas.  I do the Padmasambhava sadhana.  You do the Tara sadhana.  They do the Ksitigarbha sadhana or the Manjughosa or the Avalokitesvara sadhanas.  I’ve often been on sadhana kula retreats, which is where we probably do most of our talking about particular sadhanas – though, of course, the main emphasis of these retreats is on actual meditation.  I’ve attended, and even occasionally led, quite a number of retreats on Tara, Manjughosa, Vajrasattva and Avalokitesvara.  But as you know, in recent years I’ve started to lead a regular retreat on the theme of what the sadhanas have in common.

This isn’t at all because I want to discourage the kula retreats – of course I want to see Order members practising meditation, and particularly sadhana, and this is a very good way to practice.  However I do think we need to come to a better collective understanding of what we are doing when we practice sadhana, whatever sadhana we happen to practice. 

Dharmacaris and Dharmacharinis need to examine these questions, because our tradition of practice has a special way of looking at them.  The visualisation practices we have been given originally arose within a context of so-called ‘Tantric’ Buddhism.  However, that is not the context in which we practise them now.  We do them in the context of a more universal form of Buddhist practice, a more open tradition of practice, a tradition which questions existing tradition, one which tries to see what is essential. 

I think it is very important that we take this context on board, for quite a few different reasons.  One reason is that it is quite easy to harbour a romantic view of visualisation practice.  There is something of a temptation to cling on to an idea that, really, behind it all, we are actually practising within a ‘traditional’ framework – traditional, that is, in the sense of a particular tradition.  We may harbour the fond feeling that we are,  secretly, Nyingmapas, or Kagutpas, or in any case Tibetan, Buddhists.  After all, most of our teacher’s teachers were, so surely, in some sense, we are too.  Well, of course there is a connection of some kind.  However as an Order we do not take on the framework of Tantra.  Our visualisation practices are not Vajrayana practices.  They are just Buddhist practices.  When we practice sadhana we are imagining the Buddha.  We are making a connection with the Buddha.  But the way we do that is simply how it happens to be at the time.  We simply connect with the Buddha, and take things on from there.  In our communication with the Buddha we do not carry with us the intellectual baggage of the Vajrayana.  Even though Vajrayana ideas may be interesting, and may be useful, it is not considered that they are necessary for that communication to take place. 

As a movement, we are developing a critique of Triyana Buddhism which is likely to be important for the future of Buddhist practice.  Once upon a time the Mahayana arose as a response to the monastic and scholarly preoccupations of the Hinayana.  Later on, the Vajrayana arose as a response to the monastic and scholarly preoccupations of the Mayahana.  Nowadays it seems that the present day Tibetan schools, representing the Vajrayana, have monastic and scholarly preoccupations which will eventually need to be gone beyond.  I’m not saying that the FWBO has all the answers,  I wouldn’t dare say such a thing, but at least it is asking these questions seriously, and trying out some answers.  Buddhism is coming out of a stagnant period; it is due for another renaissance. I am quite sure that the FWBO is playing an important part in that.  These are obviously very early days, but they are very creative ones.  We are creating a new way of practising sadhana.  We are going back to the essentials of practice, and taking our practice from there. So this is why we need to think more about what it is that we are all of us doing in visualisation meditation.  


ne thing that all our sadhanas have in common, whatever their particular form, is the blue sky.  The blue sky is something very profound.  The form of the Buddha or the Bodhisattva manifests out of this, out of our symbolic imagination of sunyata, our imagination of the ultimate view of reality.  So immediately, we have a meditation within a meditation, a meditation on form and reality, rupa and sunyata.  The beauty of the ideal form of the ideal man on the one hand; and on the other, the truth of that form’s real nature, a nature which cannot be described.  The truth of things is that they are impermanent and have no substantial existence.  Or one can say that the manner of their existence is deeply mysterious.  You just cannot get at the way things exist.  You just cannot understand it – not as you are now, anyway – so all is mysterious, all is void, all is sunyata, the open dimension of things, ineffable, beyond description. 

So when we imagine the boundless space of the blue sky, we meditate on this.  The image of the Buddha and the blue space of the void are quite inseparable, they are of exactly the same stuff.  There is no difference.  The image is sunyata, and sunyata is nothing else but image.  So we meditate on this, and all this implies, and it implies quite a lot.  It implies Enlightenment.

So as the image of Enlightenment manifests out of the voidness, we take him as the ideal object for reflection on rupa and sunyata. We know we have created this form ourselves. It has come out of our relatively impoverished imagination. So it is quite clear that this object is entirely conditioned.  And yes, our ability to visualise is imperfect.  Perhaps we hardly perceive anything at all when we visualise.  Yet we are doing something when we sincerely make the attempt.  Something is arising in dependence on our sincere efforts.  And that something,  however imperfect it may be, is what we call the visualised image. Its imperfection is actually quite irrelevant.  What is relevant is the fact that we are creating it out of sunyata.  And that it stands in the place of the Enlightened One, the Buddha.

Formally, one does this reflection on the nature of form and the nature of potentiality at the beginning, and at the end, of the visualisation part of the sadhana.  Of course, it helps if we do it at other times, to.  But at the point when we start to imagine the Buddha appearing out of the blue sky, we have a special opportunity to reflect on how form arises out of emptiness.  And then, when the Buddha dissolves back into the blue sky, we have a special opportunity to reflect on how emptiness is no other than form.  Often the sunyata mantra is recited at this point, to mark the transition.

It is very interesting to reflect on the nature of form; for after all, what is a form?  You can say that there is visual form that you see, there is aural form that you hear, there is tangible form when you touch. There is also the form of an idea or a feeling.  Because feelings do have a kind of form, a kind of shape. So does an idea – though these forms are not visual.  An idea might spark off a visual image in the mind, but that image is not the idea itself.  We are talking about the form of the actual idea.  That is quite indescribable in visual terms, yet it does have a form.  It is so interesting that these forms, which engage our attention all the time, are so often beyond verbal description.  For example, you can say a perfume has a form. I can very clearly imagine the perfume of a rose.  I can easily imagine the smell of frying onions, too.  These odours have a form, but I can’t describe what kind of form they have.  Its rather similar with the form of the Buddha.  We can only attempt to paint, in our mind, the Buddha’s form.  That is not only because we are not especially adept at visualisation.  There is another very important limitation, which is that we are not enlightened. When we try to imagine the form of the Buddha, in terms of a visual image, an icon of colour and light, that is of course only a tiny part of how a Buddha really is.  It is even a tiny part of how we would actually experience the Buddha if he were actually present.  So we shouldn’t expect too much, not yet.  There is, for example, that element of atmosphere, or presence.  The Buddha Vibe.  How is one to imagine the form of an atmosphere?  Sure, each person has an atmosphere, which is quite distinct and recognisable.  It has some kind of form, it has some kind of outline, it has certain definite characteristics which can be recognised.  But this rupa, this form, can’t be adequately described.  So when you ‘visualise,’ you don’t have to think of form just in terms of shapes in space.  It is useful also to think of indiscribable shapes in the mind, to imagine impressions, vibrations, which don’t translate in the usual visual terms.

Reflection on the nature of form may seem a kind of abstract thing to do.  But it only seems abstract because we are so lacking in faith and imagination.  This is definitely not something abstract!  It is of the essence of reality.  You can’t get more real.  All dharmas really are sunyata.  The fact that we often dismiss the point and pass on makes no difference whatsoever.  I think that an attitude that ‘this is just abstract’ can sometimes betray our emotional resistance to the Buddha.  It perhaps shows us that in order to engage with sadhana, we need to open ourselves up a little bit.  Perhaps we need to drop our habitual armour, and simply recognise that we don’t really know what the ‘mind’ is, and we don’t really know what ‘things’ are either.  When meeting a Buddha, it’s an opportunity to recognise that you are completely ignorant of who you are, and who he is.  When a Buddha comes near to us, when we call him to us with his mantra, it will surely help the communication get off the ground if we relax that rigid pose we have of knowing all about reality, thank you very much. 

We can do this reflection in our practice, every day.  But it might also do to prepare ourselves more thoroughly, to do some background work: to consider the whole background of what we are doing in visualisation. 



e should start with the Imagination, because the essential key to sadhana is to realise that our imagination is at play everywhere, and all the time. The act of imagination does not necessarily take place on some exalted plane.  It is a faculty which we all use in every moment of our existence.  It is continually at work in all the various different worlds we inhabit.  We know that it is active in our waking life.  But it’s also there in our dreams, in our meditation – in our distractions from meditation, too.  It is even said to operate in after death experience. 

The Bardo Thodol refers to the six bardos of waking, dreaming, meditating, the moment of death, the after death state, and rebirth.  Of these, we are most familiar with waking, dreaming, and meditating, more or less in that order.  We obviously know the waking state best.  That is our normality.  But how would we characterise it?  Perhaps we would say that the basic experience is one of consciousness.  Because what happens while we are awake is that we see, we hear, we smell and taste, we touch, and we cognise mental things.  We experience the six sense consciousnesses; so we might say, therefore, that the six sense consciousnesses are what characterise waking life. 

However, sense consciousness is not unique to waking life.  In dreams, too, we see, we hear, we experience touches.  We also remember and plan in detail.  We are driven by strong feelings and emotions.  So when we see the extent to which consciousness also takes place in dreams, it is rather difficult to pin down what is special about the waking state.  We all view our waking lives as the most real and significant part of our existence.  Yet at the time that it happens, a dream is completely real to us; it is as real as waking life.  So all we can really say is that the waking state is the one with which we most associate ourselves.  It is here that we have the most power to intervene, to exercise our will, to be responsible, to respond rather than react. 

I am not arguing that dreaming is more real, or more important, than being awake, or vice versa.  We are exploring the activity of the imagination, and the point is that we spend long periods of actual, vivid, sensuous life in a world that works completely differently to that of waking existence.

The point is very significant, because sadhana meditation, too, can become a vivid, real experience.  So to draw out this significance, it is very helpful to watch dreams. Occasionally, even, to make a practice of recording them. This brings more attention on to one’s dream life; it brings more attention on to one’s mental life generally.  So that we tend to notice much more the continual play of images arising in the mind.  

Since the waking state is no different as an experience, maybe it would be interesting to treat your waking experience as though it were a dream.  Try imagining that you’re dreaming, that this is a dream.  It has an interesting effect.  It can make you more self-aware, bring you into the present more.  It’s just a trick, of course.  You could just practice mindfulness in the ordinary way and the effect is the same. Life becomes more vivid; you become more aware of the continual activity of the six senses – the eyes and the ears and the mind.  You perceive, with the eyes and ears, more what is actually there, without allowing the mind habitually to add or subtract information.  By practising mindfulness of our senses, we come to perceive our sensations more as they really are. We then come closer to the real workings of the mind and the emotions.

This is liberating.  It is liberating to be alive to the spontaneous movement of the mind.  It is liberating to notice our thoughts as they arise, liberating to observe the mind at play. 

The mind is playing with all its stored-up memories.  In most of our mental activity, whether we are thinking, reflecting or planning, we use stored memories of previous sense impressions.  All the sights we’ve seen, the sounds we’ve heard, the ideas we’ve had.  (Our experience, that’s what we call it.)  These sense memories serve as a kind of clip-art for the imaginative process.  After all, impressions are all we have to work with.  Our thought processes can only have sense memories to work with.  All our data is, at some point or another, received through the senses.  If I am thinking about something, for example thinking about what I am going to say to you, I weigh and measure its meaning by subtly arranging and rearranging clips from my former experience.  And what I am saying will make sense to you largely to the extent that you can fit it all together meaningfully in your own mind.  And to do that, you use your own set of former experiences as you have them stored in your memory.  If we think about what we could be doing next week, we take sense memories and put them together in a kind of picture of what this or that different activity might be like.  It’s the same when we consider how we feel about someone else – it’s the same sort of process of match-and-compare.  We do it even if we have never met someone – we just use guesswork to picture them, still using images and feelings created by previous sense impressions.  From the various scraps of available information, we surmise that they are probably rather like this, or like that.

The five physical senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching, all work through the sixth sense, the mind sense.  You and I see each other.  But our physical eyes are just receptors for coloured light.  They see nothing.  The information comes alive when it is processed by our brain and interpreted by our mind. Really, all our sensing takes place in the mind.   Our sense world is an interpretation by our mind.  To grasp this point is important in developing our view of what happens when we do sadhana meditation. 

It is useful as an exercise when starting the sadhana, or indeed any meditation practice, to experience the activity of the senses in the moment that it happens.  So for a while, instead of withdrawing from the senses, we can just sit loose to the habit of interpreting what manifests through them, so that we ‘just see’, ‘just hear’, and ‘just experience.’  It is easier said than done, but just trying to do it trains us in a useful approach to the practice.  To the extent we can do it, we bypass the problem of hindrances and distractions, because these are seen as further sense objects to be incorporated into the meditation.  That process of incorporation knits the mind together and empowers the imagination.  In this approach it isn’t that we ‘let go’ of sense experiences.  It is more like we let them ‘come and go’ within a spacious awareness.

This is also, of course, not just an ‘approach’, but an important meditation practice in its own right.  It is also something we can do when we are not formally meditating.  Because generally, in the way just outlined, it is good Dharma practice, an aspect of mindfulness, to live more in the senses. The attempt to live more in the senses is aimed at seeing, and then breaking out of, our habitual way of employing the senses.  What we eventually transcend is our covering over of the real world with a veil of assumptions about it. 

Because we normally approach meditation through sense-withdrawal, it is easy to start viewing the senses as pertaining to a lower form of consciousness.  But this is by no means necessarily the case.  The important shift we are trying to make is not so much to get out of the senses, but to transcend our habitual attachment to sense experience.  It is this attachment which keeps us in a distracted state.  Withdrawal from the senses in meditation – as when we close our eyes, and focus our attention away from sounds and ideas – is just a particular method of temporarily achieving this transcendence of attachment.  In dhyana we temporarily transcend the kāmaloka.  But the kāmaloka is not the realm of the senses, but the realm of sense desire.  It is the realm in which our relationship to the senses has been distorted through the influence of negative emotions.  The emotions which we habitually generate towards the objects in our world tend to fix the way we experience those objects, until the whole process congeals and sets our world in particular, narrow forms.  It is this habitual sense-desire which prevents our imagination from taking wings.  In the rūpaloka, the realm of purified form which we can enter in meditation, I would say the senses still operate.  It is just that they operate in a very different way, in a more visionary way, purified as they are from the hindrance of attachment to sense experience.  

Sense experience in itself is quite pure and undistorted. You can explore this continually through the practice of mindfulness.  By simply looking at the colours and forms surrounding you.  By simply listening to the weather, to the engine of a car driving by.  Whether you are in the country or the city, you can listen to all the different sounds which take place inside the building you are in, and to all those generated inside your body.  The contrast between the sounds which are actually happening, and those which we assume are happening, can be very surprising. 

We have been exploring our experience of the senses in waking consciousness, and just now we took a little diversion into the experience of subtle senses in meditation.  Yet it is just the same situation when we are dreaming.  All kinds of sights, sounds, smells, touches, ideas, and memories also arise in dreams.  In dreams we experience a whole world, just as we do when awake.  There is a very strong experience of ‘me’, a subject; this subject experiences all kinds of objects ‘out there’; and, in the relation between these two, arise all kinds of complex emotions and thoughts.   In dreams, the physical senses are not actually operating, even though they appear to do so.  All experience takes place within the mind-sense.  In dreams, all our experience is centred around a kind of mental body.  But in this mental body we still have experiences of sights and sounds which are just as real as those we encounter in this so-called physical body. In fact we find that in all the worlds we inhabit, whether awake or asleep, or meditating, alive – and even, they say, in the after death state – the same thing occurs: the mind creates a sense world.  An experienced subject somehow perceives objects.  There is an experience of a body, a location, and an experience of a world bounded by time and space. 

What though is this ‘world’, and where do its forms come from – why do we perceive the particular forms that we do?  In the forms we individually experience, and in the different worlds we inhabit, people really are astonishingly different from one another.  The way I perceive such and such a person can be radically different from the way you experience them.  What I like for breakfast will certainly be perceived differently by me and by you.  What I find pleasant, you may find disgusting, and vice versa.  There is a rough outline experience of the world which everyone agrees that they share.  There are finer, more exclusive worlds which are shared between like-minded friends.  But even then, my world is never completely the same as your world, and yours is never quite the same as mine.  Even though there are many experiences which we more or less share, we never fully share them. Each experience is always different for everyone.  So again, what are these different worlds of experience – where do their forms come from?  Why do we, individually, perceive the particular forms that we do? 

According to the Yogacara way of viewing reality, the forms which populate our personal world, with all their pleasant and painful aspects, are seeded by the contents of the Alayavijnana or Store Consciousness. This is the granary of all our past sense impressions and deeds, all the activities of our mind amassed over the entire course of beginningless time.  The notion of the Alaya is simply a model.  It does not profess to describe absolute reality.  However, it does profess to describe the way we actually experience ourselves.  This is where we store all our sense memories.  This is how our karma stimulates and stirs up those sense memories.  This is how everything we experience takes place in a mysterious medium that we call ‘mind’. 

So if we can understand how we are continually creating the world that we inhabit, and can see how our world is actually a story we tell to ouselves and which we illustrate using pre-existing sense memories – if we can see all that, then how can we say that we do not visualise?  We visualise everything.  We imagine everything.  We visualise in the world of waking; we visualise what we might have for dinner, and what it might be like to meet someone.  We imagine our spiritual teacher.  We even imagine one another.  Of course we imagine one another whilst practising the Metta Bhavana – but even when we meet face to face, actually, we still imagine one another.  It still takes an act of imagination to see, to any extent at all, who someone else is.  We even imagine ourselves.  That is what we are. 

Everyone visualises all the time; our lives are a visualisation.  So no-one cannot meaningfully say that they do not, or that they cannot, visualise. If anyone has a problem, it is that they find difficulty in visualising specifically in meditation.  And clearly that has to do with the way in which we view the meditation practice.  We need to wake up to the endless play of our imagination, and realise that this is what is employed in meditation. The constant activity of our mind consciousness needs to be brought into the rest of our spiritual life, linked to our spiritual purpose, our going for Refuge.  When we do this, we begin to imagine the state of Enlightenment and the embodiments of Enlightenment.  We begin to imagine the Buddhas, the Bodhisattvas, and the enlightened Teachers. 


 think we find that to imagine a Buddha or Bodhisattva is somehow more demanding than imagining an ordinary person.  Well, of course we do not understand the Buddha.  Being enlightened, he lies outside our normal range of experience.  So we start in the sadhana practice by creating a kind of bridge.  We create whatever image we can of the Buddha, we locate some kind of impression of him in our mind, using whatever images we already have available to us.  We usually use the standard iconography – Sword and Book for Manjughosa, White Snowy radiance for Vajrasattva, Red Sunset radiance for Amitabha, etc.   In employing such imagery we should remember that this is only our crude attempt to make a bridge to the Buddha.  We have to make some attempt.  The sincerity of this attempt makes it possible for the real Buddha, the Enlightened consciousness itself, to come to inhabit, so to speak, the world we have created in our imagination.

We know that the image we create is known as the samayasattva, and that the arising actual Buddha is called the jnanasattva. Once we have worked our imagination, and established the visualised world of the sadhana, there is the possibility of an even greater expansion of the imagination – an expansion into Enlightenment.  But from the unenlightened viewpoint where we stand now, we cannot extend the imagination very much further.  All we can do now is richly to imagine the Buddha, and to be open to the potential unfoldment of the Enlightened consciousness.  Indeed, I think it is important not to think that we can make contact with the real Buddha by the sheer power of our imagination.  The truth is that we can only pray, have faith, and be receptive.  Our sraddha marks our side of the samaya or the connection we make with the Bodhisattva.  The Bodhisattva himself has his own side of the samaya:  he or she undertakes to bestow their Enlightened qualities in response to our faith.

It’s time now to conclude with a few points as to how to practice a sadhana. 


e are all told, ‘do your sadhana every day.’ But what are we to do if we don’t feel very well prepared for meditation? How can we expect to do our sadhana effectively?  We might think that we need to do some more basic practice.  After all, there is that principle of Regular Steps: that any more advanced stage can proceed only on the basis of the less advanced.  It seems to make sense, that.  But then another problem arises.  If I take the time to do some Mindfulness of Breathing, when will I ever find time to do the sadhana? 

There are a couple of points here.  First, the obvious one. In the end, the crucial factor may simply be the amount of time we allot to meditation.  Most people cannot really develop their sadhana with just one meditation session a day.  Two is more realistic as a minimum – or at the very least we should add a few extra sessions throughout the week, perhaps at weekends or on some evenings.  The point is not just that we need to maintain sufficient shamatha in order to concentrate and be receptive in the visualisation practice.  It is also a matter of our involvement in the practice.  Spending a little extra time on meditation will naturally cause us to reflect more on the sadhana, and think just a little less about the thousand other things in our lives.  Distraction and dissipation of energy is probably the main cause of our losing the feeling of connection with the Sadhana. 

The second point has to do with the nature of sadhana itself:  it is that we tend to think of sadhana strictly as the meditation practice which focuses on the Buddha or Bodhisattva to whom we were introduced at ordination.  But the term can also be used in a broader sense.  Sadhana (with a capital ‘s,’ let’s say) can be said to consist of our entire practice in all its aspects, which centres around the Bodhisattva.  Our Sadhana then is a complete body of practices, which forms a kind of mandala with the Bodhisattva at the centre. Each aspect of the mandala contributes in some way to the experience of the Bodhisattva in our mind.  It keeps the Bodhisattva alive for us.  It keeps the Sadhana alive.  So the metta bhavana can do that, the mindfulness of breathing can do that, the six element practice can do that, and so can the whole way we behave, and all the views which we hold.  All of these keep alive our Sadhana, in the sense of the totality of our spiritual practice. 

But that totality centres upon the Bodhisattva with whom we have our special connection, and so it is very important that we do their special practice, the particular visualisation practice.   Because the most important thing about a mandala is what is at the centre.  The mandala originally came about because of that central figure.  So when we practice the sadhana of the Bodhisattva, that is the sadhana with a small ‘s,’ practice their visualisation and mantra recitation, we do so within a sense that we are developing and enriching the larger Sadhana – that is, the whole collection of spiritual practices which bring out the qualities of the Bodhisattva who we are trying to emulate. Their compassion is developed through the visualisation and through the metta-bhavana. Their wisdom is developed through the visualisation and Dharma study.  Their skilful means is developed through the visualisation and through the precepts.  So this is the inner mandala of our tutelary Buddha or Bodhisattva, the Enlightened being with whom we have a special connection, who protects and blesses us with his or her influence. 

I don’t have much time to speak about the dynamics of the mandala of our Sadhana, how much time should be spent on samatha, how much on vipassana, how much on the visualisation and mantra recitation.  I have said a bit somewhere in my other talks.  But you can work it out if you just remember that the whole needs to add up to a complete mandala, and that at the centre of that mandala should be placed the Buddha. Once they are in residence, we need to make regular visits.  It’s very much like kalyanamitrata.  We need to keep the friendship alive. 


here is much more detail that can be gone into. I have done that to some extent in my talks on visualisation, which are available to read.  I am also writing a book which will go into these areas in a lot more depth and detail.  I’m doing this, for the reasons I stated earlier – because I believe that Order members’ meditation is one of the most important aspects of our movement.  Because it is our meditation, in the end, which will shape the movement.  The way we practice is, in the end, how we are, and how we are, determines the whole character of the movement. I would like to see us bring more meaning into what we do as Order members, and to bring into more vivid life those forty or fifty daily minutes in the shrine room.  So let me finish by repeating the three exhortations with which I began this talk. 

1)       At least from time to time, your meditation should be giving you a strong experience of reality.  So please make sure this is happening. 

2)       Each of us has to face death, and probably old age too.  We have all made a good start in life, and in spiritual life.  So please take the opportunity to deepen your practice in the years you have left.  For many of the older Order members, now is the time to meditate.  Don’t give yourselves any cause for regret in the future.  Remember that in the end, happiness is dependent on spiritual development.  So please value the practice of meditation.

3)       Finally, do try to understand more clearly what your meditation is about.  Understand your sadhana, reflect on it, and use it as a means to gaining wisdom.  

 [62 mins]