Back at the burning house

I had meant to write several posts about Reb's retreat in quick succession and then get back to the book but I am (pathetic excuse) too busy - working on the second edition of my textbook Consciousness: An Introduction. It is extremely hard work (though I love doing it) and just doesn't leave time for much else. I hope to have it finished in about 3 weeks and then I will have time for the blog.

So there we were, meditating all day - knowing we are living in the burning house, meditating, walking, doing our retreat jobs, all in the burning house. But if the way out is our self and there really is no self ....

In an interview I get the chance to ask Reb at last. We are sitting facing each other in the library with the great trees and Gaia House's lovely garden outside the windows. He is attentive, alert and his eyes seem to contain the whole universe.
"So who gets out of the burning house?" I ask him.
"The one who made it" he says in a matter-of-fact tone. I'm shocked. He'd already said that there is no creator, no maker of the universe.
"But no one made it" I protest "Wasn't it just made by the whole universe tangling things up together?"
"Yup" he says "and that who gets out - the whole universe gets out."
"So the white bull and the computer that never crashes are all a con too?"
"Yup". He smiles.

I am so relieved I want to hug him. I feel such a weight of confusion clear away as we go on to explore the parable and its strange implications.
But this con is a serious one - not just for me I realise as the retreat draws to its close. On the last night there is a ceremony in which four people take the precepts. I notice there are a few visitors and even some children sitting at the back of the hall to watch them take this great step in their lives. I begin to feel uncomfortable.

The whole process is done with precise coordination and seriousness, with the four lined up in front and Reb presiding. It reminds me of going to church but without the lovely music and beautiful surroundings. Here are four people, with deadly seriousness, dressing up in special robes and taking vows that are - by any normal standards - completely ridiculous.
Not killing is fine unless you accept that by simply being alive and eating food you are responsible for others dying. Not intoxicating oneself or others is fine if you really think you're going to live without alcohol, cannabis, or any interesting drugs for the rest of your life - and what about tea, coffee, and those nice cold remedies that send you off into a woozy sleep when you feel ill. I suppose not misusing sexuality is fine if you have a clear idea of what use and misuse are in the case of sexuality. But I shiver at the whole idea of taking these sacred vows, and intending to become a Bodhisattva and live your life forevermore for all others.

Worse than the impossible vows is the apparent clash with everything we have been learning. Didn't Reb say that the mind of intention is wrong mind? Why then pile on all these intentions? Haven't we been learning that we are nothing other than all beings in the first place, so vowing to work for all beings is superfluous. Hasn't he explained that the inside and the outside of the burning house are really one and the same, and the promised mega-computers and fancy vehicles are just a trick to lure the children out? Why then dress up in fancy robes, put silly bits of cloth round your neck and make all these promises?

What do you think? Have any of you taken the precepts? Have any of you avoided doing so for similar reasons? What would you have done in this situation?

About the Author

Susan Blackmore

Susan Blackmore, Ph.D., is a British psychologist, writer and broadcaster, and author of The Meme Machine and Conversations on Consciousness.

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