Monthly Archives: April 2008

Baptism of Fire

The following line of thought is one I use to deal with certain difficult or adverse situations. I do not pretend that it is appropriate for other people. The reason I use this way of thinking, however imperfect it may be, is because I do not want to remain bitter or angry! I hope people do not think this article condones the behavior that gives rise to difficult situations; it is right for people to analyze and criticize such behavior. My approach is to deal with these situations as facts and try to bring out some positive results from them. We may feel angry about certain situations, and that anger may even be justified, but for me the key is to use the fire element (denoted by the presence of anger) in a more positive way. Please note that this article should not be taken as a recommendation for any particular course of action.

In Eight Steps to Happiness Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes:

The Kadampa Geshes taught that the function of a Spiritual Guide is to point out his or her disciples’ faults, for then the disciple has a clear understanding of these shortcomings and the opportunity to overcome them. These days, however, if a Teacher were to point out his or her disciples’ faults they would probably become upset, and may even lose their faith, and so the Teacher usually has to adopt a gentler approach. However, even though our Spiritual Guide may tactfully be refraining from directly pointing out our faults, we still need to become aware of them by examining our mind in the mirror of his or her teachings. By relating our Spiritual Guide’s teachings on karma and delusions to our own situation, we shall be able to understand what we need to abandon and what we need to practise.”

Most spiritual practitioners relate to their Spiritual Guide through the medium of an organization – organized religion if you like – and most spiritual practitioners dislike one or more aspects of that religious organization. Maybe this dislike is justified, but it is also worth considering that the organized religion may function partly as a vehicle to enable the Spiritual Guide to indirectly point out his or her disciples’ faults.

One important fault that many of us share is weakness of character. A number of important books on psychotherapy and Buddhism argue that it is important to be a healthy person (i.e. to have genuine character) as a prerequisite for entering spiritual paths. These books include A Path With Heart by Jack Kornfield and Towards a Psychology of Awakening by John Welwood. Unfortunately most of us are introduced to Buddhism before we are healthy people. This partly explains why our religious organizations have developed along certain lines.

One of the keys to a healthy character is a strong sense of integrity. This is our own mental ‘governor’ which informs our morality, and governs how far we are prepared to be led down particular paths by others. It is this sense of integrity that is often tested by our religious organizations. I would call this process the baptism of fire. It is the baptism of fire that forges the mettle of our character. In Christianity two phases of baptism are explained: first by water, then by fire and the Holy Ghost. John the Baptist said:

“I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me [Christ] is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire” (Matthew 3:1).

When we start practicing a spiritual path we may experience many beautiful blessings. This can be thought of as the baptism of water. If we remain on that spiritual path then it is likely that sooner or later we will find our integrity tested, perhaps sorely. This is the baptism of fire. The baptism of fire is not pleasant, not beautiful. It will cause us a lot of suffering, and it is not definite that a healthy character will emerge as a result, nor is it predictable which trajectory the character that emerges will take. It may take us out of our religious organization, and perhaps that is not necessarily a problem. I believe the most important thing is to be a strong character with integrity, as a basis for making progress on the spiritual path.

How should we regard the Spiritual Guide’s role in all of this? I think we should focus on his or her kindness for providing us with a series of situations that test our mettle, and that help make us stronger characters. Everyone can view their Spiritual Guide as kind in this regard, even if they are unsure whether he is a Buddha, Bodhisattva, ordinary man or a bad man. In Eight Steps to Happiness Geshe Kelsang Gyatso writes:

“The fact that some of the people who help us may have no intention of doing so is irrelevant. We receive benefit from their actions, so from our point of view this is a kindness. Rather than focusing on their motivation, which in any case we do not know, we should focus on the practical benefit we receive. Everyone who contributes in any way towards our happiness and well-being is deserving of our gratitude and respect.”

If we put our Spiritual Guide’s motivation to one side, then the next focus of attention is likely to be his or her methodology. Is it fair to put us through a baptism of fire? Did any of us ask for this? Did we sign up to the contract? Did we consent? If so, when, and how? If baptism of fire means learning to make sense of pain, well, didn’t we have enough pain already? Yet sometimes our religious organizations seem to intensify the pain, and to throw up conflicts and quandaries that throw us out of kilter, and spin us round on our axis. It is up to all of us to decide when we have had enough, when we want to withdraw.

In Frank Herbert’s science-fiction novel Dune the young hero Paul is given a test in which he has to put his hand into a fire-box. At this point in the story Paul’s family is preparing to move from the water-world of Caladan to the desert world of Arrakis. Paul himself is coming of age, and the fire-box test can be seen as a form of initiation. He is instructed to put his hand into the fire-box and then threatened with a poisoned needle if he withdraws it prematurely. Paul feels his hand start to warm up, then smoulder and burn. He can smell the charred flesh, and he visualizes the hand stripped down to the bone. Finally the test is over and he is allowed to withdraw his hand. He is amazed to see that it is unharmed and intact.

If a Spiritual Guide wants to forge his disciples’ characters what is he going to do? He or she is unlikely to merely utter a series of teachings on good character. Instead, if he is powerful enough, he will produce a huge training arena, that continually throws up tests. Even if we leave the main arena we still find ourselves tested, trying to deal with the material. Perhaps we can decide when we have had enough, when we have wrestled with the material sufficiently. Hopefully that moment will be when we are strong characters able to stand on our own two feet, not before.