Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Bodhisattva Vows

The bodhisattva vows in Japanese

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put them to an end.
The teachings are boundless; I vow to master them.
The awakened way is supreme; I vow to attain it.
The four bodhisattva vows are recited by Buddhists from Japan to Tibet, Singapore to California. They are intended to encourage in us a limitless intent on both our own awakening and that of countless other beings. The word bodhisattva itself literally means 'awakening-being' and can also be understood as 'one-who-helps-others-to-awaken.' If recited intently, the four vows inspire a concern for the well-being & enlightenment of all suffering beings (and, according to Buddha, all unawakened beings are suffering). Moreover, if we recognise the boundless nature of the teachings, we never have the conceit to presume we know it all - there's always more to awaken to. Humble & helpful; at the very least, the four bodhisattva vows can encourage us to develop these qualities. Humility discourages sectarianism, thinking we know the true teachings but others don't, so as bodhisattvas, we won't judge those who are not, such as Theravada Buddhists and non-Buddhists. rather, we will simply wish to help them in whatever ways we can. We can't all be great teachers or humanitarians, but if we allow the four vows to awaken a taste of Buddha's wisdom within us, then we are on the bodhisattva path: May all beings be happy!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Wind Teaches Dharma

Is it the flag or the wind that moves - or your mind?

"One monk said that the wind was moving, while another monk said the flag was moving. They argued on and on, so I went forward and said, ‘It is not the wind that is moving, and it is not the flag that is moving. It is your minds that are moving.’"
Huineng (638-713), Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism

The wind is a great teacher. Just like Buddha, Ajahn Chah or Zen Master Huineng, it teaches us the Dharma. Unlike those teachers it doesn't use words, however, nor does it have what we would normally define as a language to communicate its wisdom. Yet, in its own subtle way it's constantly teaching us the way things are, using what we might name 'the language of the wind.'

We might understandably wonder what form this language takes if it doesn't involve words. Well, we humans use languages that have no words when we pull a face to indicate displeasure, produce or listen to music to inspire pleasure, or construct a building in a specific style. (A Gothic cathedral with all its angels and devils communicates very different messages to us than a modern, shiny hospital. Although the inhabitants of both would claim to deeply care about people.)

So, how exactly does the wind teach us? We can't even see the wind, although we can hear it, especially clearly in a gale, for example. We can also feel it on our skins & in our hair as it blows past us. And, although we can't see it directly, we can see the effects of the wind, which I am enjoying as I write these words, occasionally glancing up to see the treetops waving back and forth as the gentle breeze plays with them.

Now, accepting that all this is the 'language' of the wind, why would interpret it as pertaining to the Dharma, particularly. Surely, we can understand this language in a variety of ways, not necessarily in terms of the Dharma. This is true, as it it of anything in life. We can look at the surface of an act involving thought, word, or deed and understand it in that specific context, so that those rustled trees over there simply mean that it's a windy day. But, we can look a little deeper into the implications of what we are seeing, and this what we do when we listen to the Dharma rather than to other aspects of life's many modes of communication.

Returning to those trees for a moment, I will pause in this commentary - the wind manipulates them, and teaches of the continual flux of this universe. They aren't still for a moment, swishing this way and that, in a kind of existential dance. Sometimes they slow down, only to speed up and become almost manic in their movements, all directed by the invisible wind. This characteristic of the wind, that it is unseeable, speaks of another important fact of life, which is that there are unseen forces at work, which we are usually (if not constantly!) unaware of. They are not only active in the wind, but also in everything else that exists in this wondrous cosmos, including in these bizarre constructions that we call our bodies, and which we normally (mistakenly, according to the Dharma), identify with.

Back to this present moment, and the wind softly caresses the skin of this body that sits on the balcony typing with its tapping fingers. It soothes the mind within this body, like an amorphous masseuse tenderly kneading limbs and head. It teaches that the body is part of nature, linked to it in invisible connections that include the wind's breath. But, learning the Dharma is not all pleasant feelings, and when the wind blows over those garments hanging from a clothes horse, annoyance arises in the mind. This too, is a teaching, for it is the same wind that blows on those clothes and this body. So, too, should the mind reflect the balance between what it deems good and bad, for such ideas do not always correspond to the way the world actually is.

Taking a moment to reflect on the quotation from the Platform Sutra at the top of this piece, Huineng's wisdom shines forth as if born on the wind itself, blowing away our delusion. He points to the discriminating mind that will argue over just about anything, including whether the wind is moving or those treetops over there are moving. Pointing directly to the mind that is moving, Huineng brings our attention to that which never moves, what he called our 'original face.' This face, we might call it Buddha-face or even no-face, is what sees the waving trees; it is the space in which those branches and leaves have their being.

All this talk of wind-blown trees takes me back to my childhood and early teens when I used to gaze out of my bedroom window at the tree in my family's front garden. Bathed in the yellow light of street lamps, it was a real attention-grabber. Somewhat hypnotic in its movements, the tree flowed in the wind, its disparate parts unified in a graceful undulation of golden leaves. I would find my mind silenced in these moments, awareness tied to the tree's fluctuations. A state of what Buddhism calls samadhi, or concentration, would ensue. This was my meditation at that time, long before I explored the teachings of Buddha. And, what the wind taught on those quiet evenings long ago isn't so different from Buddha's own words of wisdom that I later came to discover.

A bell tinkles in the wind, bringing attention back from the mind's reveries and to this actual moment. It was the mind that was moving after all! The shadow of a flag catches attention, reminiscent of an early satori, or enlightenment, experience from my late teens, when a fluttering plastic bag caught on a branch of a tree brought about a sudden awakening. Each moment, which is of course this moment, is a chance to glimpse, or better still rest in, this 'original face' that watches fluttering leaves, bags, or banners. And those trees, that bell, or a fluid shadow can all call to attention the Dharma, the way things really are, as they arise and dissolve in this no-face, this 'Buddha Space.' Time to go 'inside' now, the wind's getting cold!

For more on Zen Master Huineng, see here: Master Huineng on Meditation & Wisdom
For more on Ajahn Chah, see here: Ajahn Chah Day 2012

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Amida, Buddha-Nature & Gratitude

"Amida Buddha is like a mirror that shows one’s true self."
(Professor Kogi Kudara, Ryukoku University, Kyoto)

The famous statue of Amida Buddha known as 'Daibutsu' (Great Buddha) is venerated by pilgrims from all over the world, just as the phrase 'Namu Amida Butsu' (Homage to Amida Buddha) is used by Shin Buddhists to praise him. And yet, these acts, as virtuous as they may be, point to the deeper truth that Amida as a buddha represents the underlying 'buddha-nature' that we all share. 'Namu Amida Butsu' is a link, an opening into connecting not only with Amida Buddha, but with the buddha-nature within ourselves. Doing so can free us from our self-created suffering: Namu Amida Butsu!

The calm look of Amida Buddha is reflective of his insight into the way things are. It is also representative of the compassion that Amida has for all suffering beings (us!). Amida Buddha is not 'out there' however, separate to ourselves. He is, as a personification of our innate buddha-nature, within us, and if we can find him within us, we too will be calm & compassionate. Immersing in his peaceful façade can help us to open up to the buddha-nature within, as can chanting his mantra: Namu Amida Butsu!

Shin Buddhists recite 'Namu Amida Butsu' ('Homage to the Infinite Light Buddha') in gratitude for his compassion. Shin also teaches us to be grateful for all the wonderful things we have in life: family, friends, food, water, shelter, medicine, entertainment, etc. We are interdependent beings, depending on each other, on the Sun, the Earth, the weather, fauna & flora. There's so much to be grateful for in life, from our parents to our pets. We don't have to recite a Japanese mantra to express our thankfulness, though (although that's good, too), we can simply utter an inward 'thank you' at the appropriate time, and cultivate this feeling of gratitude. Life will be better for it: Namu Amida Butsu!

Reciting Na-man-da-bu, a contraction of Namu Amida Butsu, Shin Buddhists express gratitude towards Amida Buddha for his wisdom & compassion. Amida is said to welcome all, to be open to all. We can emulate this openness when chanting na-man-da-bu (or some similar phrase), by noticing the spacious silence that the words arise in. Just as Amida is open to all suffering beings, in truth so are we, as this capacious awareness that hears not only our chosen mantra, but also all sounds. Sitting alert, listening to the world is being open to it, and this is akin to Amida's own compassionate nature: Na-man-da-bu!

When I think of my wonderful wife, family, friends, pets, colleagues, students, community, earth, sun, life... there's so much to be grateful for. Gratitude is important in Buddhism, too, and it can be summed up in a phrase such as Namu Amida Butsu ('Homage to the Buddha of Infinite Light'), sometimes contracted to Na-man-da-bu. Reciting this phrase with gratitude can refresh the heart & clear the mind: Na-man-da-bu! Na-man-da-bu! Na-man-da-bu!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Buddha's Two Kinds of Gifts

Ajahn Chah: Merit beyond numbers

A popular practice in Thailand is to visit a temple and make merit (ทำบุญ / tum-boon in Thai). Thais take much comfort in the good results that they will receive from giving food, robes, and medicine to Buddhist monks, as seen in the current Khao Pansa (เข้าพรรษา) festivals, where temples are inundated with gifts. Of course, people don’t stop at giving just the four basic requisites to the monks, they will also offer candles, incense, toothbrushes, and just about anything else that they think the men in orange might need or want. It doesn’t always stop there, though. A monk at Wat Pah Nanachat here in Ubon Ratchathani told me that many laypeople even like to offer mobile phones to the monks – I didn’t know that enlightenment was available with a quick phone call nowadays!

All this isn’t to say that giving alms food and other stuff to monks is in any way ‘wrong’, it’s just that many (most?) Thai Buddhists seem to think that it’s all they need to do in their practice of the Buddha Dharma. And in this, they would be ‘wrong’! The Buddha taught that there are two kinds of gifts (dana) in this world. The first kind is what Buddhism calls amisadana, or material gifts, whilst the second kind is known as Dhammadana, or the gift of Truth. In the Pali Canon, he is quoted as saying:

“The gift of Dharma excels all other gifts.”
(Dhammapada, verse 354)

The highly-respected Thai monk Ajahn Chah was also somewhat doubtful of the long term benefits of giving material gifts to the monks when not backing up such action with actually practicing the Buddhist Way. After all, this kind of behavior is akin to singing God’s praises in a church on a Sunday, then being an absolute heathen the rest of the week. The venerable forest master questioned the ultimate merit to be found in visiting temples to pay homage to the Sangha (the monks’ order), but then not bothering to learn how to improve themselves in any way. He compared it to trying to dye a dirty, unwashed cloth: it’ll still retain all the dirt.

Ajahn Chah was concerned that people use the Dharma as a stopover point, flitting from temple to temple like a crazed bee, picking up the pollen of desire and dumping at the next flower, only to collect more ‘pollen’ there. People want to perform good works, in the hope that this will deliver good results for them in the future; they’re not concerned with giving up unwholesome acts, such as those refrained from in the five precepts.

This desire to receive future benefit from making merit is often geared towards material goals, rather than spiritual ones. Merit makers are all too often caught up in the desire to accrue more social status or wealth, but remain unconcerned with increasing the amount of kindness, compassion, and wisdom in their lives. Ajahn Chah taught that we can accrue merit whilst sat in our homes, if we practice according to the Dharma, developing wholesome mind states such as harmlessness, generosity, equanimity and mindfulness. He told merit-making visitors to Wat Nong Pah Pong that the highest form of merit is giving up that which is unwholesome: giving to the poor and to monks are good deeds, which will sow the seeds for future happiness, but if wrongdoing is not relinquished also, that happiness will be short-lived. 

As an interesting footnote, many merit-makers that visited the great ajahn would also request numbers from him, believing that as he was a highly-accomplished meditation master, Ajahn Chah could supply them with winning lottery numbers. He always refused to give his visitors any numbers, emphasizing that practicing the Buddha Dharma was the real way to achieve something good in this life. He never denied the existence of magic, but just felt that people’s focus should be on the true magic of Dharma. In a final twist of irony, after Ajahn Chah’s death, many local people in Ubon used the date of his demise as their lottery numbers – and they won! 

Going to a temple and making merit is a worthy endeavor, and one which I would never say people shouldn’t do, but if practiced in isolation, without following the Buddhist precepts or developing mindfulness and kindness, the merit made will be much less potent, and unable to counter the future effects of unwholesome action. To truly give the gift of Dharma doesn’t just mean teaching Buddhist ideas to others, nor paying for the publication of Dharma books, but in actually living those teachings day to day. This is the heart of the Buddhist path to Awakening.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Buddha's Ten Duties of a Leader

The shouting, sneering faces of modern politics...

Watching political leaders, we may despair. They often let us down with unjust laws, unethical deeds and sometimes nepotism. True enough, there are principled, hardworking people in the field of politics out there, but all too often our news headlines are filled with the misdeeds of our leaders, whether elected or not. The current presidential contest in the United States is an exemplar of this. Claims and counterclaims of illegal & immoral actions of their opponents are issued daily by the rival camps. Indeed, observing the profusion of insults and lying exchanged, it's hard to imagine political behaviour & debate becoming any worse - though I wouldn't bet on that one!

Here in Thailand, society is subject to the same political vicissitudes found the world over. Claims of corruption, incompetence, and favoritism have beleaguered successive governments, preceding the military coups that have overthrown two democratically-elected governments over the past decade. If this predominately Buddhist nation is to progress in the future, it requires sound political leadership. But, how should Thailand expect its future elected leader to behave? Well, Buddhism does have a set of guidelines for kings, which in the modern context includes prime ministers and presidents. They are called the ten duties of a king, or dasavidha-rajadhamma in Pali (or rajadhamma for short). They were taught by the Buddha over two thousand years ago, but are as valid a set of principles now as they were all those centuries ago. Let’s take a brief look at them:

     1.   Dana – charity – having a willingness to sacrifice one’s interests for the people.
      2.   Sila – morality – maintaining a high moral order in one’s personal conduct.
      3.   Pariccaga – altruism – being generous towards the people, avoiding selfishness.
      4.   Ajjava – honesty - fulfilling one’s duties with loyalty and integrity.
      5.   Maddava - gentleness – being kind and gentle, never arrogant.
      6. Tapa – self control – to perform one’s duties with dispassion.
      7. Akkhoda – non-anger – remaining calm in the midst of confusion.
      8. Avihimsa – (non-violence) – being non-violent, not persecuting the people.
      9. Khanti – (forbearance) – practicing patience in one’s duties.
      10. Avirodhana – (uprightness) – respecting public opinion, promoting harmony.

Historically, there was a man who exemplified the ten rajadhamma, and that man was called King Ashoka (304-232 BCE), who ruled India for forty-one years. Initially, he was a great warrior general, winning many battles, and continued to expand the Indian empire during the first eight years of his reign. After one particularly bloody campaign, King Ashoka wandered the sight of his army’s victory, and seeing the carnage all around him, famously cried out, “What have I done?” Following this, he embraced Buddhism, establishing a just kingdom along Buddhist lines and was known as ‘Dhammashoka’ – “Pious Ashoka.” He promoted wildlife protection, banning hunting for sport, built universities, hospitals for people and animals, and constructed irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He also renounced the use of violence, ceasing all military campaigns against his neighbours, instead sending monks and nuns abroad to spread Buddhist teachings on wisdom and kindness. Indeed, a son and daughter of King Ashoka who were monk and nun took Buddhism to Sri Lanka, where it remains the predominant faith to this day. This is not to say that he promoted Buddhism at the expense of other religions, however, as he also encouraged tolerance and understanding between different creeds and ethnic groups. King Ashoka is remembered by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike as an example of a truly compassionate and just ruler, who lived according to the ten rajadhamma.

Now, this tenfold list of kingly responsibilities is surely a set of qualities that would make any ruler a great leader of their country today, just as King Ashoka was in ancient India. But do such leaders exist nowadays, one might ask, considering the many examples of politicians that have been exposed as anything but charitable, moral, or honest? Scandals have involved so many political and royal figures that it seems nigh on impossible to find one that comes anywhere near the ideals in the ten duties.

Thailand does have a leader that is considered to be the embodiment of these qualities, however: His Royal Highness King Bhumibol. With his numerous development projects to help the Thai people, and his reputation for helping those in need, the King is a figurehead that gets directly involved with the concerns of his people. His work in the area of rain-making to help the millions of Thais working the land is well documented. He is a deeply loved man, whose popularity is directly related to the public perception that he exudes the ten kingly duties.

The highly-respected Anglo-American monk Ajahn Sumedho has spoken on the subject of the ten royal duties, saying that rather than simply applying them to our presidents and prime ministers, to see if they’re really up to the job of governance, we can reflect on them with regards ourselves. We can contemplate our own behaviour, as well those who are in positions of power, to see if we are ruling our own lives in the spirit of the rajadhamma. After all, what’s the point of having a good constitution, a great leader and government, if we the people are selfish, unwise, violent, and ignoble?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Buddha's First Sermon

Buddha delivering the First Sermon

Today is Asalha Puja, when Buddhists recall the giving of the first sermon of Buddha, called ‘The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma Sermon’ (in Pali, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta). In this sermon, Buddha presents the basic teachings of Buddhism in the form of the Four Noble Truths, which include the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to complete enlightenment. He also sums up this Path in terms of the Middle Way, an avoidance of the extremes of self-indulgence and self-torture. Not only is this sutra recited on Asalha Puja Day, but it is frequently chanted and reflected on by Buddhists across the world, for it contains the very heart of Buddhism. It is, therefore, well worth spending a few moments of our time reflecting upon this seminal teaching of Buddha.

“These two extremes, bhikkhus, should not be followed by one who has gone forth: sensual indulgence, which is low, coarse, vulgar, ignoble, and unprofitable; and self-torture, which is painful, ignoble, and unprofitable. Bhikkhus, by avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata has realized the Middle Way, which gives vision and understanding, which leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana.”

That Buddha is addressing monks – both ‘bhikkhu’ and ‘one who has gone forth’ refer to monks - should not be interpreted that the teachings themselves are not intended for nuns and laypeople; it’s just that when he delivered this sermon it was to five fellow monks. For, although it is often argued that Buddha’s teachings are more easily lived in a monastic setting, many householders have also benefitted from them, realizing Nirvana just as their baldheaded brethren had done. The word Tathagata is a title Buddha often used to refer to himself in the scriptures, and it is usually rendered in English as either ‘the Thus Come One’ or ‘the Thus Gone One’, both suggesting a being that is spontaneously living in the moment.

As to Buddha’s description of the two extremes that we should avoid, they are both described as being “ignoble and unprofitable.” They are ignoble in that they are not worthy of someone endeavouring to lead an enlightened life, and unprofitable in that they will prevent us from leading such an existence. Self-indulgence is singled out for further criticism; Buddha stating that it is “low, coarse, and vulgar.” That lax morals and their resultant actions are not conducive to living an enlightened life is no big surprise, for even in more worldly lifestyles they are generally considered undesirable, so even more so for one walking the Path of Buddha.

This avoidance of self-indulgence and self-mortification is dubbed by Buddha “the Middle Way.” If perfected, this way of living “gives vision and understanding” and “leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment” and “Nirvana.” These benefits are listed in this order deliberately; it is no accident that vision precedes understanding and that both come before calm, which is followed by penetration, enlightenment, and finally Nirvana. Again, it is worthwhile giving our attention to this process so that we at least have a broad understanding of what Buddha was getting at. In doing so, we may gain the insight needed to progress along the Middle Way far enough to meet Buddha himself, for as he famously declared, whoever sees the Dharma also sees Buddha.

The first step in awakening to the Dharma (the truth of the way things are) is to obtain the vision that sees life as it really is, and not as we usually misperceive it. This involves a radical shift in our awareness, a kind of profound simplification that opens us up to be able to understand the Dharma, the way life is. This understanding, which is not intellectual, but can be expressed intellectually at least to a degree, is a wisdom that arises out of direct perception of the Dharma.

With this understanding comes the calmness that Buddhists are often – correctly and incorrectly – attributed with. This calm arises from knowing the way things are which allows for a certain acceptance of life as it is. For, if we know and accept life, then we will not be upset by its challenges and problems, but simply recognize that this is the way it is and act appropriately. Resting in this calm wisdom, we will then penetrate to the heart of Buddha’s teachings, indeed we will fly like an arrow straight to the bull’s eye of the universe, seeing and knowing people and things just as they are, all flowing out of that which is neither a person nor a thing.

Next in Buddha’s description the fruits of the Middle Way comes enlightenment, which is not so much seeing things as they are, but seeing ‘No-thing’ as it is. That is to say, it is seeing and living from the naked awareness of a buddha. In this enlightenment, not only is the Dharma the Buddha, but so are we; there is no thing to separate “us” from “him.” Finally, Buddha talks of Nirvana, a state of being that is literally beyond words, out of reach of the intellect, and so sublime that to even label it “Nirvana” should only be done with the knowledge that it is just a pointer and nothing more. Indeed, many Buddhist masters have often avoided mentioning Nirvana altogether, fully aware that much misunderstanding can arise from such talk. So, let’s swiftly move on to the next part of the sermon!

“And what, bhikkhus, is the Middle Way realized by the Tathagata, which gives vision and understanding, which leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana?
It is just this Noble Eightfold Path, namely: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.”

Where Buddha’s teaching on the Middle Way gives us a broad outline, the Noble Eightfold Path is a more detailed exposition of the route to enlightenment. Too detailed to go into here, the Eightfold Path is often summarized into the three trainings, Morality, Concentration, and Wisdom. Morality comprises Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood, and details how to live in harmony with the society and world we live in. Concentration includes Right Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration, and guides us how to cultivate both peace and focus, and includes meditation amongst its tools. Wisdom is made up of Right View and Intention, and it appears at the beginning of the Path, when we learn of the Way, and at the end of the Way, when it is an expression of our own understanding. To perfect the Eightfold Path is not to be fully enlightened, but to be perfectly ripened awaiting “it” to occur spontaneously.

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow, and despair are dukkha, association with the disliked is dukkha, separation from the liked is dukkha, not to get what one wants is dukkha. In brief, clinging to the five aggregates is dukkha.”

Here, Buddha introduces the notion of dukkha, or suffering, which is a central idea in his teaching. Life is full of suffering, in the many ways that he describes above, and even when we are enjoying ourselves, suffering is waiting for the good times to end, so it can rear its ugly head. It has many levels of intensity, from mild irritation all the way up to full blown-agony, and from the egoistic point of view it is impossible to completely eradicate from our lives. Buddha, however, is suggesting that a life without suffering is realizable, if we walk the Path, and the reason is that dukkha has a cause:

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the cause of dukkha: The craving which causes rebirth and is bound up with pleasure and lust, ever seeking fresh delight, now here, now there; namely, craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence, and craving for annihilation.”

Craving is the cause of our suffering; because we desire life to be certain ways, when it doesn’t live up to our expectations we experience dukkha. Three basic kinds of craving are listed by Buddha: craving for sense pleasure, for existence, and for annihilation. It’s pretty clear why desiring certain forms of pleasure will inevitably result in suffering, for as Buddha stated earlier in the sermon, when we do not get what we want, we will suffer. As to craving for existence, this doesn’t only mean desiring to be alive, but also includes wanting to exist in a particular way or form, and when this is threatened or absent, we will suffer. Craving for annihilation causes suffering because while we are alive, the desire not to be, or not to be the way we are, will create dukkha. Furthermore, if we accept the theory of rebirth, even suicide is not a way out of suffering, for we will face the consequences of our actions in our next birth.

“This, bhikkus, is the Noble Truth of the cessation of dukkha: The complete cessation, giving up, abandonment of that craving, complete release from that craving, and complete detachment from it.”

This may sound a bit of a tall order, to say the least, for while we are alive as human beings, we will surely have desires that will sometimes be fulfilled and sometimes not, resulting on suffering. Buddha, however, teaches that it is indeed possible in this very life to achieve “the complete cessation” of dukkha, for whilst on the conventional level of experience we are human beings, at the “deeper” or more fundamental level of being, we are ‘No-thing’ at all. It is human ‘things’ that experience dukkha, so if we let go of identifying with being these ‘things’, and realize the ‘No-thing’ that we truly are, we are realized from suffering, for ‘No-thing’ has no desires whatsoever, and therefore no suffering. And how are we to achieve this? Buddha has already told us: the Noble Eightfold Path:

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the way to the cessation of dukkha: Only this Noble Eightfold Path; namely, Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.”

 Buddha goes on in the sutra to explain in some more detail how he used the Four Noble Truths as reflective tools to meditate on and achieve full enlightenment, but the gist of his teaching is contained above, and it is this which is recalled on Asalha Puja. If we can appreciate these teachings and then put them into practice, we will be walking the Middle Way that Buddha established roughly two thousand years ago. This Path has many interpretations from Thailand to JapanTibet to Vietnam, not to mention all the newer forms arising across the globe today. If they keep to the well-trodden Path that Buddha taught all those centuries ago, they will lead to the same place: no place at all. For, it is as this ever-present ‘No-thing’, this ‘Buddha Space’ that contains all, that we are freed from our desires and the suffering that arises from them. May all beings be truly happy!

For a previous reflection on the Buddha's first sermon, please click here: Dharma Day

Monday, July 4, 2016

Buddha Rain

"Raindrops keep falling on my head..." Or do they?!

Outside – is it raining outside? What is ‘outside’ in current experience? Science teaches us that our five senses collect information (in this case sound) and send it to the brain, where it is known by the mind. Accepting this, I might decide that in truth I am not in the world, but rather the world is in me. In this sense, there is no ‘outside,’ for everything is experienced here, in my mind. It is raining in me, or, as the old song goes, “It’s raining, raining in my heart.”

So, common sense tells me that it’s raining outside me, whereas science tells me that as I know it, it’s raining inside me. But, what of direct experience? What does that tell me? Above, I wrote that when focusing attention on the rain and nothing else, the presumption that it’s over there whilst I am here weakens. This seems to be corroborated by scientific descriptions of how we experience the world. So, in the spirit of science, perhaps we might conduct a little experiment to see into this matter further.

Focusing attention on the rain (or any other sound), take note of its characteristics. How loud is it? What is its rhythm? How about its pitch? Take a while to examine these aspects of what you are hearing. Now, turn awareness around to that which is listening. Is it loud or quiet? Does it have rhythm or pitch? Or, is it without any particular characteristics? Is it a spacious knowing that contains sounds but is itself silent?

All assumptions put to one side, I do indeed find a silent knowing. In truth (in direct experience) here is a spaciousness that all sounds arise in; they are not over there, but rather here, in this awareness. This view of life reflects a branch of Buddhist philosophy called Yogacara, which states that all we experience is dependent on mind, occurs in the mind, and is an expression of the mind. Hence, this tradition’s other name, the ‘Mind-Only School.’

Rain, properly observed in its truest context is ‘buddha rain,’ a manifestation of the Dharma (the way-things-are). Paying attention to it, as it arises in awareness, can reveal the underlying reality behind all our experiences that is called buddha-nature. Listening to rain in its true context reveals this nature, as well as this fact of human experience: the world is in the mind, not the mind in the world. It seems that scientists & Yogacarins are right after all, but we don’t need a degree in science or philosophy to see this truth for ourselves. Just listen to the rain.