Sunday, May 17, 2015

Dhammapada Reflection #6

Verses 13 & 14

Just as rain breaks through
An ill-thatched house,
So passion penetrates
An undeveloped mind.

Just as rain does not break through
A well-thatched house,
So passion never penetrates
A well-developed mind.

Raga is a key concept in Buddha’s teaching. It can be translated s ‘passion,’ ‘desire’ or ‘attachment.’ It denotes passion for things that lead to stress or suffering (dukkha). As such, it is one of the three poisons or three unwholesome roots, a basic teaching of Buddhism. The other two poisons are aversion (dosa) & ignorance (moha). A synonym found in Buddhist texts for raga is lobha, which means ‘greed.’

Recognising passion is or greed within ourselves is the crucial first step towards understanding it. When understood, passion can then be let go of. This relinquishing of passion is part of the awakening process, and when combined with the letting go of aversion & ignorance it results in the ending of suffering. This state is known as nirvana, the ‘snuffing-out’ of the three poisons, and it is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice.

An important note here is not to confuse the term ‘passion’ when used as a translation for raga with some of the ways the English word is used in everyday life. Passion can denote enthusiasm for something such as a good cause. When warning us of passion (raga), Buddha is referring specifically to attachment to people & things that lead to suffering (dukkha). This isn’t saying that we shouldn’t have passion for helping those in need or practising Buddhism (for example); it means recognising that passionate attachment that leads to suffering and then abandoning it.

All this may seem fine in theory, but how are we to achieve letting go of passion and the other two poisons? This is where mindfulness & meditation come in. An “undeveloped is  mind” as mentioned in verse 13 above, is one that is unmindful of its workings, whereas a “developed mind” as mentioned in verse 14 is one in which mindfulness & meditation have been cultivated. It is a mind aware of passion, understanding its causes and letting go of them. The initial step in this process is to use meditation to calm the mind to the extent that its workings may be observed with a quiet dispassion. If this stable base isn’t established, it is highly unlikely that the mind will be able to observe itself without getting caught up with, and identifying with, the very passion that it is attempting to observe & understand. With such a well-trained mind, passion can then be explored & let go of using insight techniques.

Recognising & releasing passionate attachment after it has already arisen is an important development in one’s meditation practice. Such skill can be taken further, however, for when well-developed, the mind can recognise the potential causes of future passion before they cause it, avoiding its arising in the first place. Such a mind is then free of the entanglements that tie it to suffering, and can focus on deepening its insight to the point of awakening (bodhi). In this way, “passion never penetrates a well-developed mind.”


The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of the Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above two verses are from this part of the book.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Ajahn Amaro on "Who" & "What"

Ajahn Amaro (1956-present): "Who" or 'What" are you?

In order to discover the place of non-abiding, we have to find a way of letting go of the conditioned, the world of becoming. We need to recognize the strong identification we have with our bodies and personalities, with all of our credentials, and with how we take it all as inarguable truth: I am Joe Schmoe; I was born in this place; this is my age; this is what I do for a living; this is who I am.

It seems so reasonable to think like this, and on one level, it makes total sense. But when we identify with those concepts, there is no freedom. There’s no space for awareness. But then, when we recognize how seriously and absolutely we take this identity, we open ourselves to the possibility of freedom. We taste the sense of self and feel how gritty that is and how real it seems to be. In recognizing the feeling of it, we are able to know, “This is just a feeling.” The feelings of I-ness and my-ness (ahamkara and mamamkara in Pali) are as transparent as any other feelings.

When the mind is calm and steady, I like to ask myself, “Who is watching?” or “Who is aware?” or “Who is knowing this?”  I also like asking, “What is knowing?” “What is aware?” “What is practicing non-meditation?” The whole point of posing questions like these is not to find answers. In fact, if you get a verbal answer, it is the wrong one. The point of asking “who” or “what” questions is to puncture our standard presumptions. In the spaciousness of the mind, the words “who” and “what” start sounding ridiculous. There is no real “who” or “what.” There is only the quality of knowing. And, as we work with this in a more and more refined way, we see that feeling of personhood become more and more transparent; its solidity falls away, and the heart is able to open and settle back further and further.

The above is an extract from the excellent book ‘Small Boat, Great Mountain’ by Ajahn Amaro, which can be downloaded for free from here. Ajahn Amaro is abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in England and has been a Buddhist monk since 1979, having studied with Ajahn Chah & Ajahn Sumedho.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Robert Aitken on Enlightenment & Love

Robert Aitken Roshi (1917-2010)

Everything falls under the law of change,
like a dream, a phantom, a bubble, a shadow,
like dew or a flash of lightning;
you should contemplate like this.

This poem comes at the end of the Diamond Sutra, and refers not only to the brevity of life, but to its very texture at any moment. It is not substantial; in fact, as the Heart Sutra says, it is empty.

Because the Buddhist doctrine of emptiness cannot be understood intellectually, it is widely misunderstood. Some Buddhist scholars are reduced to explaining it simply as the ultimate of impermanence: "When you say 'now' it is already gone." But this is not the ultimate fact.

Emptiness is simply a term we use to express that which has no quality and no age. It is completely void and at the same time altogether potent. You may call it Buddha nature, self-nature, true nature, but such words are only tags or pointers.

Form is emptiness and as the Heart Sutra also says, emptiness is form. The infinite emptiness of the universe is the essential nature of our everyday life of operating a store, taking care of the children, paying our bills, and other ordinary activities.

In realizing all this, we understand how we are just bundles of sense perceptions, with the substance of a dream or a bubble on the surface of the sea. The vanity of the usual kind of self-preoccupation becomes clear, and we are freed from selfish concerns in our enjoyment of the universe as it is, and of our own previously unsuspected depths.

The mind is completely at rest. Nothing carries over conceptually or emotionally. In this place of rest, we are not caught up in the kaleidoscope of thoughts, colors, and forms as they appear, so we do not react out of a self-centered position.

We are free to apply our humanity appropriately in the context of the moment according to the needs of people, animals, plants, and things about us. We stand on our own two feet and decide, "I will do this; I will not do that." This sense of proportion is called "compassion," a word that originally meant "suffer with others." "I am what is around me," as Wallace Stevens said in an early poem. Thus you may see that enlightenment and love are not two things.


(The above is excerpted from the excellent book ‘Taking the Path of Zen’ by Robert Aitken.)

Friday, April 17, 2015

Buddha's Ten Duties of a Leader

Do any of these leaders live up to Buddha's teachings?

Here in Thailand, society is subject to the same political vicissitudes found the world over. In recent years, this lovely country has seen turbulent times involving successive governments, claims of corruption, incompetence, and favouritism thrown around on a daily basis. The present military junta is not above such accusations either. 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 other leaders such as prime ministers and presidents. They are called the ten duties of a king, or dasa-vidha-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 the Buddhist Teachings on wisdom and kindness. Indeed, a son and daughter of King Ashoka’s 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. But even if a leader or candidate for leadership displays some of the rajadhamma qualities he or she will surely be an improvement on the average world leader. We need to be aware of our leaders’ characteristics and support those that fulfil at least of the duties expected of them.

The Anglo-American Buddhist 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, April 7, 2015

Ajahn Pasanno on Mindfulness & the Aggregates

Ajahn Pasanno (1949-present): Mr. Mindfulness

What the Buddha tells us in the Fire Sermon, that the eye is burning, form is burning, eye consciousness is burning, eye contact is burning, the feeling arising from eye contact is burning, is that it’s not a picnic, not something that we want to be seeking. It is not something to be delighting in, and it is not something to be averse to. It is something to wake up to, something to really take the opportunity to wake up to. Quit being a working stiff, a wage laborer. Quit seeking for more contact, trying to get the feeling you want. Pay attention to the opportunity that this is what relinquishment is about. This is what practice is about. The very act of establishing mindfulness in a moment is an opportunity to step back from the impulse of becoming. Recognizing the power of mindfulness is wisdom in and of itself. The sustaining, cherishing, willingness to maintain the quality of mindfulness takes relinquishment. It takes letting go. It takes a willingness to not accede to the power of becoming and to recognize the tremendous power in being mindful.
On one level, the teachings of the Buddha and the tools that he gives us are extraordinarily direct and straightforward. When we apply them, we see the results: Sanditthiko dhamma, “they are visible here and now; one can experience them for oneself.” The nature of the Dhamma is that “it is well-taught, well-proclaimed. It has tangible benefits. It invites one to see here and now. It is leading inwards, to be experienced by each wise person for themselves.” Each moment of mindfulness is the opportunity to verify the Dhamma of the Buddha. But in order to verify them, to really experience them, you have to be mindful; you have to be willing to pay attention, to not be swept up and swept along by the power of habit and the power of becoming.
But on a certain level, because of its directness and straight forwardness, the teaching is deceiving. The Buddha explained so many different avenues of approach, of tools, of how to experience it. This evening, I’m using the six sense bases as an example. But there are many, many ways of parsing it out. There is coming back to the five khandas and investigating them. The nature of becoming has the sense of an external object, something to become or drawn towards, or the internal sense of “me,” of being something or somebody. But if we look and see, we’ll find form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness.
You think, “Well, there’s more to me than that. I’m something more than that, more important than that. I’m not just form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. I must be something more than that.” But the reality is the way that the Buddha has parsed it out into that structure. If you really look at everything you conceive, perceive, proliferate around, that is all there is. It is not “that’s all there is and you’re nothing; you’re a nobody.” It is the basis of experience, and we create the desirable, interesting, fascinating, compelling, or the disgusting, irritating, doubtful, uncertain nature of the experience around us. We recognize that we’ve done this before and wonder how we get caught by it. It is the compulsion of becoming, the compulsion of kama-tanha, bhava-tanha, vibhava-tanha. Usually when our minds cling to the nature of experience in a personalized way, we end up running around trying to prop up a sense of a satisfied happy self, or reinventing ourselves as miserable and hopeless. But all it is is form, feeling, perception, mental formation, consciousness. And we’ve done it to ourselves.
So you recognize that you can step back to a place of mindfulness and relinquishment. You still rely on the five khandas to do that, but you use them in a skillful way. The point is the cultivation of the tools that facilitate awareness, peace and wisdom. You also have to let go of that, but you’re not pushing it away or annihilating it because you know it is going to arise and cease on its own. It is really seeing clearly; taking what we build experience from and seeing it from a place of Dhamma, as opposed to from a place of kama-tanha, bhava-tanha, vibhava-tanha—of sensual desire, desire for becoming, desire for non-becoming—which puts us into the mode of attachment and becoming.
(The above is excerpted from the book ‘On Becoming and Stopping’ by Ajahn Pasanno, and can be downloaded for free here.)

Friday, March 27, 2015

Shunryu Suzuki on Zazen

Shunryu Suzuki (鈴木 俊隆, 1904-1971)
Today I am sitting in Los Altos. Tomorrow morning I shall be in San Francisco. There is no connection between the "I" in Los Altos and the "I" in San Francisco. They are quite different beings. Here we have the freedom of existence. And there is no quality connecting you and me; when I say "you," there is no "I"; when I say "I ," there is no "you." You are independent, and I am independent; each exists in a different moment. But this does not mean we are quite different beings. We are actually one and the same being. We are the same, and yet different. It is very paradoxical, but actually it is so. Because we are independent beings, each one of us is a complete flashing into the vast phenomenal world. When I am sitting, there is no other person, but this does not mean I ignore you, I am completely one with every existence in the phenomenal world. So when I sit, you sit; everything sits with me. That is our zazen. When you sit, everything sits with you. And everything makes up the quality of your being. I am a part of you. I go into the quality of your being. So in this practice we have absolute liberation from everything else. If you understand this secret there is no difference between Zen practice and your everyday life. You can interpret everything as you wish.
A wonderful painting is the result of the feeling in your fingers. If you have the feeling of the thickness of the ink in your brush, the painting is already there before you paint. When you dip your brush into the ink you already know the result of your drawing, or else you cannot paint. So before you do something, "being" is there, the result is there. Even though you look as if you were sitting quietly, all your activity, past and present, is included; and the result of your sitting is also already there. You are not resting at all. All the activity is included within you. That is your being. So all results of your practice are included in your sitting. This is our practice, our zazen.

(The above is excerpted from ‘Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’ by Shunryu Suzuki. A review of this incredible book can be found here.)

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Dhammapada Reflection #5

Dhammapada, Verses 11 & 12:

Those who mistake the unessential to be essential
And the essential to be unessential,
Dwelling in wrong thoughts,
Never arrive at the essential.

Those who know the essential to be essential
And the unessential to be unessential,
Dwelling on right thoughts,
Do arrive at the essential.

Two concepts & their opposites dominate these two verses – The first is sare (essential) & its opposite asare (unessential); the second is samma-sankappa (right intention, translated as ‘right thoughts’ above) & miccha-sankappa (wrong-intention). Understanding these terms is crucial in understanding these verses, so this article must initially resemble something of a dictionary entry so that it has a sound foundation upon which to build. As the verse suggests, distinguishing the essential from the unessential is dependent upon our intention (sankappa), so it is with the idea of right-intention that we will begin.

Right-intention is the second aspects of the noble eightfold path (ariya-atthangikamagga), and with right-view (samma-ditthi) forms an aspect of the path known as wisdom (punya). Right view, put simply, involves viewing experience in the light of such teachings as the three characteristics (tilakkhana), which describe all things as impermanent (anicca), stressful (dukkha) & not-self (anatta). Right intention, which complements right-view and sets the mind up for moral & meditative training, involves setting the mind up in the right direction for such endeavours. It is sometimes translated as ‘right-thought.’ In the early texts, Buddha says, “What, now, is right-intention? It is intent free from lust (nekkhamma-sankappa), intent free from ill-will (avyapada-sankappa), and intent free from cruelty (avihimsa-sankappa). This is called right-intent.” (Digha-nikaya 22, Pali canon)

Being free of lust, ill-will and cruelty is to establish the mind in a state where it will be more able to facilitate a morally-positive lifestyle (which comprises a further three aspects of the path). All this helps to create a peaceful mind free of negativity & its associated guilt, thereby allowing a successful meditation practice to lead to calmness & wisdom, and eventually, enlightenment. Caught up in wrong intention leads to suffering & ignorance to the way things are, and makes progression along the Buddhist path impossible. Right-intention, therefore, is a crucial aspect of awakening or enlightenment.

The term essential (sare in Pali) can be looked at in two in ways. The first is explicit in the meaning of the verses as explained above, defining the essential as having right-intention (and by extension, as they are inextricably linked as the training in wisdom, right-view). That is, to practice the noble eightfold path and awaken to our true nature we need right-intention; it is essential if we wish to awaken to the way-things-are and live from this wisdom. The other way we can understand the word essential is implicit in the above verses’ meaning, and it is see to that which is essential to our being – and therefore essential to our ability to awaken.  This essential aspect within us is not a teaching or doctrine, but rather the essence of what we are, right now, when we take the time to actually look and see. Shall we look, then? Why not?!

Point at the scene in front of you, taking note of the size, color, shape and opacity of an object you can see. Next, point to another object near to where you are, answering the following questions: how big is it? What color is it? What shape is it? Can you see through it, or is it opaque?

•          Next, point at your own feet, asking and answering the same questions as above, before moving on to focus on your legs. Take a look at your torso, also taking the time to analyze its size, color, shape and solid nature.

•          Now, point your finger at your face – or at least where others see your face. What do you see? How big is it? What color is it? Does it have a shape? Is it an opaque thing, or the exact opposite? Pointing at where others see my face, I see no such thing. Right here, right now, this finger is directed not at a face or head, but at...no-thing whatsoever!

•          All the different sized things on display are in stark contrast to what I see here: they appear in the absence of any such thing here. Ditto colors – there are no colors here other than the colors of the objects arising in awareness. The same is true of shape – the ‘no thing’ here has no shape, as only things have shape, and there’s no thing here to have a shape! As to opacity, all the opaque objects that can be seen right now are occurring in this invisible no-thing: its absence is their being. What do you see when you point at your ‘face’?

So, you see, the essential isn’t merely a specific teaching or intent, but it is also that which can be experienced in this very moment as the essence of what we are. Merely seeing this doesn’t mean that we’re enlightened, however; it is a glimpse of what lies beneath our everyday facades, and it requires all the intent & effort summed up in the noble eightfold path to deepen and make permanent our experience of true nature. So, to “know the essential to be essential” can be understood and applied in these two, complementary ways. We need right-intention & right-view (the latter of which includes the above insight) to light up our lives with the living Dharma of Buddha and reside in the essential.


The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of the Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above two verses are from this part of the book.