A talk by Mr Donald Lambie given at the School of
Philosophy, SE London branch on 20 February 2023
Very good to be with you ladies and gentlemen and I am delighted that we’ve got people also from St Alban’s and Kent and Kingston, Sussex; so welcome. If you haven’t been here before this is Athene House, we’ve got Athene here, the goddess of wisdom. She also has a certain warlike aspect to her nature, depicted on the right and that’s to fend off the darkness which is represented on the sculpture on the right.
I want to talk this evening on the subject of svadharma. I’ll explain what that means, why I want to talk about it and why it is important. And I hope in half an hour’s time you will think this is the most precious gift that you have. And if you think that I will have succeeded. And if you don’t think that I will have failed. So, let’s hope for the best.
Svadharma is made up of Dharma which is a difficult word to translate into English. We can say ‘law’ and that’s as good as anything: the laws of nature, the universal laws of nature. Sva means ‘self ’ or my’; so, dharma is universal and svadharma is individual.
To give you an example, there is a statement, ‘to love your neighbour as yourself ’. This is a universal commandment. Now let’s imagine you live at number 20 whatever your road is, your Svadharma is to love the people who occupy number 21 and 19 either side of you, to love them as yourself. Svadharma is particular, it’s individual. It’s the operation of the general, universal principle at the individual level.
To take another example, the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have done unto you. This is a universal statement applicable to everyone and it’s astonishing how many traditions it’s found in.
So that is the dharma, the universal, general statement. When it comes to how an individual acts in relation to other individuals then it’s svadharma. So, for example, Sri Vasudevananda Sarasvati at the end of one meeting said that his svadharma was to make sure that we are following the right direction. This was his svadharma.
So we could translate svadharma as duty, one’s own duty. And the reason I wanted to talk about it is because, as often as not, when we say the word duty it connotes a kind of heaviness, an obligation, something slightly unpleasant in one way or another but, as I said, I’m hoping to convince you that it’s not heavy, it’s not unpleasant. It is our greatest gift. Svadharma.
• It clarifiers our life
• It strengthens us, and
• It makes us universal
So firstly, it clarifies life. We may remember a man called Bernie Madoff. He was an American financier, unfortunately, regrettably, a most dishonest man. He ran a great big elaborate Ponzi scheme and he swindled lots of people out of their money. And he was arrested and convicted in 2008, or thereabouts. Anyway, about 10 years prior to that there’s a man in School who, at that time, used to work for an investment fund and this fund got a new client. The new client had a lot of money invested with Mr Madoff. So, the man telling me this story said, ‘this is now my responsibility to make sure the money is well invested’. So, he decided to get on a plane and go to New York and he went to the offices of Mr Madoff and spoke to the people there and, he said, ‘I just didn’t understand really what they were doing’. He didn’t necessarily think they were dishonest but he didn’t understand it either. So, he decided it would be better for the money
to be taken away from Mr Madoff and invested somewhere else. Which was most fortunate for the client because if the client had stayed with Mr Madoff, 10 years later he would have lost everything. But what I liked about the story was the man, he said, ‘It was my responsibility’. When we recognise our duty, our svadharma, things become clear, it is your responsibility, whatever it is you are doing.
If you came here by car and when you go out of here and get in your car you have a responsibility, a duty to be careful to other road users. And it’s very specific, you don’t turn right unless there are no cars coming and it’s moment by moment. So, when people understand their own duty, their own svadharma it makes life clear. I used to work as a barrister and often came to Croydon, to the Croydon County Court. Quite a lot of the barristers work consists of people either not doing their duty or trying to do somebody else’s duty or, in some way or another making a complete muddle of what they are
supposed to be doing, or not supposed to be doing.
All walks of life whether you are a doctor, a dentist, a workman, a bus driver, everyone has their svadharma. When that is followed, things work beautifully, they work well. When we recognise this. There is a very nice series of quotations on the walls out here and one of them is a statement from Helen Keller, you may remember she was the American lady who was blind and deaf. She was a remarkable woman and at one point, the quote out here says,
I think it is a lovely statement. ‘I long to accomplish great and noble tasks but it is my duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.’ Generally, as often as not, our svadharma is right in front of us. As Helen Keller said, the small tasks right in front of us. Another great woman, Florence Nightingale said, ‘It is a religious act to clean a drain to avoid the spread of cholera, it is not a religious act to pray to God to ask Him to do it.’ Our svadharma is, generally speaking, right in front of us. It may be sometimes it’s not what we want to do or what we hoped to do but nevertheless, if we do follow it
the next step tends to present itself naturally. When we don’t do this, nothing works well. In public life, we sometimes hear that people have either been influenced by factors they shouldn’t have been influenced by, by money or gain or greed, something of this nature or simply been incompetent and it’s dispiriting. Incompetence is dispiriting. People who should be doing something well and don’t, it’s disheartening. When people do perform their duties well and carefully and intelligently it is correspondingly uplifting.
At Chartres Cathedral there are many beautiful pieces of sculpture, stonework and there are pieces of sculpture on the roof in places where nobody would see them. You couldn’t see them from the ground. You practically need a helicopter to get to see them where they are. But they have been done really beautifully. One can only think that the people who did them, did them for God because nobody else is going to see them. So, this is the first aspect of svadharma – it clarifies.
Secondly, it strengthens us. Now the fact is, whatever anyone might like to say, there are parts of human life that are difficult. There are things which we have to face which we don’t want to face or we may find unpleasant to face. And there is no use in running away from that. Responsible people will deal with whatever it is their duty to deal with. They won’t avoid it because it’s difficult or because they don’t want to do it. I very often take my dog out for a walk quite early in the morning and, since Covid when I regard it as my svadharma to support as many coffee shops as I possibly could, in these difficult
times, I stop off and get a coffee quite early in the morning and the people are there at 6.30 in the morning, and they’ve got out of bed to do this and I think it’s terrific. Getting out of bed is not always easy for people. So, just to get up is an aspect of svadharma and if people get up, they are stronger for getting up. If they don’t, if they are lazy, they end up weaker.
There is a young man and he used to be in the Navy. He’s now left the Navy and he’s got a job, I’m not sure where, and I’ve no doubt he’ll do well because in the Navy they are taught some discipline and, as his mother said, ‘He knows how to get out of bed in the morning’. It may sound simple but if you’ve got to get up at 3 o’clock you get up at 3 o’clock, what’s the problem? And it’s strengthening. When we face up to our problems in life and we look them fair and square, as it were, and we respond to them it’s strengthening. Our svadharma may not always be what we would choose but nevertheless it’s the gift from the universe to strengthen us.
The third aspect of svadharma is that it makes us universal. Dharma, as I said before, is general. Love your neighbour as yourself; Dounto others as you would have done unto you. When we follow our svadharma we become in tune with the universal. We are not out of step. As Helen Keller said, small tasks can be performed as if they are great and noble tasks and, in a way, if you think like that, they are great and noble tasks. They are part of the universal play. It’s an oft quoted story, but somebody went into the headquarters of NASA in America and there was a man who was cleaning, he was there with a broom brushing and sweeping away and he was asked, ‘What do you do here?’ to which his response was, ‘I’m working to help put a rocket into outer space’ which is a good answer isn’t it because by helping to keep the place clean he’s playing a part in putting a rocket into outer space. When we do give attention to these small tasks they are transformed and they become part of something much larger and we become part of something much larger.
So, in the School, people have duties, we are given duties and these can all be understood as svadharma and it’s noticeable if somebody does their duty well in the School it may start off, it could be anything, serving tea and if somebody serves tea nicely, intelligently, cheerfully week in and week out it’s not long before they are in charge of the team that serves tea and if they do that carefully and cheerfully and
week in and week out it’s not long before they are Leader of the Branch or something. That’s just how it goes. There was a man in one of the overseas Schools, this was years and years and years ago and the procedure was that Mr MacLaren would go to this place to take a residential week. This man’s group was not invited to come on the week, although he very much wanted to go, but his group was invited to come to prepare the house for the week.
So, he would not meet Mr MacLaren but he’d prepare the house. So he was told, ‘No, you can’t come on the main week but you can come and clean the house and get it ready.’ So, ‘Alright’ he said and he went along. There were a large number of glass windows which seemed to go on forever and he was told, ‘Clean the windows’ and there were a lot of them, as I say. So, he thought, ‘Alright, these are going to be the best cleaned windows ever’. He just worked with attention, letting the attention rest where the working services meet and he worked and he worked and he worked. He was so full of happiness as a result of doing it and then at the end of the week he finished the windows and he went home. That was his svadharma, to clean those windows, and he did them beautifully. And he is now the Leader of the School there. Now, it’s not as though you perform these actions with any particular motive or sense of reward or anything. Just let the action be done.
Now the highest duty, in a way, is to realise oneself. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna says we should raise ourselves up we should not lower ourselves. We should realise the Truth of who we are. This is the highest aspect of svadharma. I mentioned a good craftsman. A good craftsman doesn’t do his work or her work to please the customer
because the customer may not really know what is a good standard and what is not a good standard. The good craftsman does the work to please the Self within. This is the highest, best standard that can be achieved in this situation and it’s being done for something greater than the individual. So, whatever it is that we may find in front of
us, it can be responded to in this kind of way, in this spirit and our highest duty is the realisation of who we truly are.
But Helen Keller was right. In a way it starts with small tasks. It starts with what is in front of us. When you read the Bible, you read the life of Christ, he responded to the events which were in front of him. People came to him. Sometimes they came to him in a devoted way and sometimes they came to him in an antagonistic way but he just responded with wisdom. With wisdom and love to all of these events. That was his svadharma. As a result of that we have the Christian teaching 2000 years later and this really is the way all the great sages work. They don’t go out on any particular mission to
accomplish any particular thing or to convert any particular people. They just meet what’s there. They meet who’s there and they meet it, as I say, with intelligence, with wisdom and with love.
So, you recall, one man wanted to trick him, to trick Jesus, and he asked, ‘Should we pay our taxes to Caesar?’ And it was a trick question because he was hoping Jesus would say no and that would be a problem for him. The answer was, ‘To render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to render unto God that which is God’s’ What a
wonderful response. 2000 years later it still holds true. It still works. So, we could perhaps say his svadharma like the Shankaracharya, is to make sure we have the right direction.
So, this statement, ‘Above all, to thine own Self be true’. That is a beautiful expression of this svadharma, to be true to ourselves. To give the very best, to rise up, in whatever way is appropriate, to be true to oneself. Again, it’s moment by moment. No-one else can do this for us. Only we can do this. And when we do this, it raises us up. So, our svadharma, our duty is the greatest gift we have. It has been given to us by the universe so that we may become universal and we may realise ourselves. So, whether it seems small and insignificant or whether it seems something we really just don’t want to do it
doesn’t matter. Accept the gift. Life becomes easy.
This time next week we’ve got people coming from all around the world, the initiators, meditation initiators from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, America, Europe, this country. And it’s remarkable really that they will come from the other end of the world, literally, for a few days, we are only there from Monday to Friday, but they regard it as there duty to ensure that the introduction to meditation is carried out in a way which is beautiful and which is entirely faithful to the tradition from which the meditation comes.
That is their responsibility. So, they are happy to come and they like meeting together and discussing various issues and aspects, meditating together, all sorts – I don’t know what we are going to do yet, it will evolve as we get there. But it is an illustration of their
sincerity that they will make that effort in order to do their duty in the very best way that they can. The last meeting was 2014. We were going to meet in 2020, we were going to meet in June, and in March 2020 when Covid happened we were thinking,’ Is it going to be over by June?’ Little did we know! 3 years later we are managing to meet so it will be 9 years since the last meeting.
When we meditate it is our svadharma to simply give attention, simply to meditate so that something of the peace, the bliss of the Self may be experienced and that may be taken into the world. It’s not an onerous thing. The Svadharma becomes natural, it becomes easy. It’s our way to the Self. It’s each particular individual’s way to the Self. So that is really what I wanted to stay at this stage.