A few months ago, I spoke about Samvega – the quality of spiritual urgency. These reflections have continued, and the initial spark to the previous post – reading the Buddha’s words in the Anguttara Nikaya – has continued. (I’m now just over 600 pages in with 1000 to go!).
One of the Suttas in the Anguttara Nikaya is called ‘Goad’ which means either ‘to provoke or annoy someone in order to stimulate a reaction’ or ‘to drive cattle with a spiked stick’. The way the word is used in the Sutta is more like the second definition, but the first is relevant too.
The Buddha starts by saying that there are 4 kinds of excellent thoroughbred horses existing in the world. The Sutta uses a familiar device where later it compares and contrasts the thoroughbred horses to excellent thoroughbred persons.
The 4 horses each react differently to the threat of the goad and the suffering it will cause: the first is ‘stirred and acquires a sense of urgency’ when it catches a glimpse of the shadow of the goad, the second when the goad touches its hair, the third when its hide is struck by the goad, and the fourth is motivated only when the goad strikes painfully right to the bone.
The persons, likewise, respond differently to dukkha – suffering: the first excellent thoroughbred person is stirred and acquires urgency (to practice) when they hear of someone suffering an illness or dying in a near-by village. The second doesn’t respond to this suffering that is somewhat removed but only when they actually see a man or a woman sick or dead with their own eyes. The third person is not affected and stirred to action until one of their own family is involved. And the fourth person doesn’t react until they themselves are seriously ill or dying (stricken and racked with pain as the Sutta puts it). Then this excellent thoroughbred person is finally motivated to practice and understand the truth of the Buddha’s teachings. The Sutta is offering a stick approach, rather than the carrot.
How quickly or slowly do we ‘get it’? Do we learn through repeated and painful life lessons? Or is our sense of Buddha’s words deep and intuitive, and our motivation to follow the path natural and continuous? What motivates us to practice the path? Mostly we don’t learn things without repeated experience of them. Or repeated practising of them.
What can stir us to urgency to practice? One thing I’ve found helpful to bear in mind is that we can’t expect our motivation to always come from within. Finding dharma teachings to remind us of the truth of things is essential and can deepen our motivation to practice. One such verse that will be familiar to some of you can be read aloud, perhaps before we sit to meditate.
The 4 Reminders – taken from the original verses by Tsongkhapa and adapted (see below).
This human birth is precious,
An opportunity to awaken,
But this body is impermanent;
Ready or not, one day I shall die.
So this life I must know
As the tiny splash of a raindrop,
A thing of beauty that disappears
Even as it comes into being.
The karma I create
Shapes the course of my life,
But however I act
Life always has difficulties;
No-one can control it all.
Only the Dharma
Can free me and others
From suffering forever.
Therefore I recall
My heart’s longing for freedom,
And resolve to make use
Of every day and night
To realize it.
[Written/compiled by Viveka and reworked by Vessantara and Vijayamala. This version 2021.]
If you would like to hear more about the quality of spiritual urgency, and its companion quality ‘pasada’ or tranquillity you can check out a talk I gave recently at the shrewsbury triratna buddhist centre.