Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Paticca-samuppada (Dependent-Arising)

One who sees dependent arising sees the Dharma;

One who sees the Dharma sees dependent arising.

(Majjhima Nikaya 28, Tripitaka)

Recently, I’ve been drawn to reflecting on the important Buddhist teaching of paticca-samuppada, variously translated as ‘dependent origination’, ‘conditioned genesis’, ‘conditioned co-arising’, or ‘dependent arising’. It explains the conditioned nature of the self, without reference to a permanent soul or essence. It also explains life without recourse to a creator god, describing how various factors combine to influence present circumstances. A typical description of paticca-samuppada can be found in Anguttara Nikaya 3:61:

It is with ignorance (avijja) as a condition that formations (sankhara) come to be;

with formations as a condition, consciousness (vinnana) comes to be;

with consciousness as a condition, name and form (nama-rupa) come to be;

with name and form as a condition, the six bases (salayatana) come to be;

with the six bases as a condition, contact (phassa) comes to be;

with contact as a condition, feeling (vedana) comes to be;

with feeling as a condition, desire (tanha) comes to be;

with desire as a condition, clinging (upadana) comes to be;

with clinging as a condition, being (bhava) comes to be;

with being as a condition, birth (jati) comes to be;

with birth as a condition, aging and death (jara-marana) come to be,

and also sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair;

that is how there is an origin to this whole mass of suffering (dukkha).

This is called the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering.

We are conditioned beings. Looking at myself as an example, I can see that my thoughts and reactions to certain events are conditioned by my responses to similar previous situations. I respond to the world from the conditioning of my past, influenced by others, but grounded in my habitual responses. Even my being Buddhist is a conditioned state, dependent upon my personality, personal history, intellect, books, and some wonderful teachers, the first of which was the Buddha. Physically, I am conditioned by my parents, by my diet, exercise (or lack of it), and my species. Extending this insight to others, I can see that my dogs are conditioned by their genes, too, and by the relationships that they have with human beings, as well as other animals. They have been trained, for instance, to stand on their hind legs and do a little dance when they want to eat a treat. This is a kind of conditioning. They have been conditioned to go for a walk and heed the call of nature around six-thirty in the morning, which caused a minor mishap this weekend when my wife and I had a lie in until past seven-thirty – one of them excreted on the kitchen floor!

Looking further afield and casting my gaze at a figure like Barak Obama, I can see that he too is a conditioned being; conditioned by birth, life experiences and beliefs to be an American, a Democrat, and to fear Islamic terrorism to the point of continuing the ‘war on terror’ instigated by his predecessor. In a sense, we can’t condemn President Obama for being himself – he was made that way. So too Osmana bin Laden, but he was conditioned very differently from the American President – born in a conservative Islamic state, with very different genes to the President Obama, and influenced by what he saw as the aggressive acts of foreign (‘infidel’) governments in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Both men could be said to be doing what they’ve been conditioned to think is best for their respective peoples – yet look at the results! Mixed in with all this conditioning is the will (cetana in Pali). It too is conditioned, of course, but does retain an element of individual choice. After all, you could have two identical twins with near-identical histories but one will decide to eat strawberry ice cream, while the other has chocolate ice cream. Of the will, the Buddha said:

Will (cetana) I call action (karma).

(Anguttara Nikaya 6:63)

Karma always has a result, whether it be positive, negative or neutral. Our actions, whether mental, verbal or physical, will have future consequences for us, the nature of which will be dependent on the type of act and the state of the mind, of the will, when we did them. If one is motivated by greed, hatred or delusion, the results of one’s actions will no doubt hurt others, but it will also (eventually) hurt oneself. As many Buddhists chant daily: I am the owner of my karma, heir to my karma, born of my karma, related to my karma, abide supported by my karma. Whatever karma I shall do, for good or for ill, of that I will be the heir. So, dependent arising doesn’t relieve us of responsibility for our actions, but it does explain much about why we are predisposed to this and not that, preferring this response to any given situation and not another. I am the way I am because of conditions, one of which is being influenced by some great forest teachers – thankfully! Barak Obama is conditioned by his previous circumstances and actions, as is his nemesis Osmana bin Laden. My pet dogs are conditioned by their canine genes and the training they have received from my wife and I. And you, my dear reader, are conditioned by so many, many things and events, all of which together go to make up the person you are.

The choice that we face now, in the knowledge of all this conditioning, is how we respond to this knowledge. We might become fatalistic, like many Buddhists do, and think that it’s all been decided and that there’s nothing we can do to alter how things pan out. But this is belief in predestination, and the Buddha taught against this kind of fatalism, classifying it as niyativada (‘the doctrine of fate’), which was a teaching that existed in India during the Buddha’s lifetime, expounded by a certain Makkhali Ghosala. It’s interesting to note that some modern scientists and Christian sects hold the view that everything is predestined, either due to natural conditions or the will of God. Most scientists, Christians, Buddhists and others, however, accept that we do have some level of free will; although just how free this will is hotly debated. Knowing paticca-samuppada assists our efforts to develop wisdom with regards to ourselves and others. It is, actually, a kind of positive conditioning itself, laying the foundations for further insights to arise in relation to the Dharma (‘the-way-things-are’).

“This Dependent Arising, Ananda, is deep and it appears deep. It is through not understanding, not penetrating, this teaching that this world resembles a tangled ball of thread, a bird’s nest, a thicket of sedge or reed, and that people do not escape from the lower states of existence, from the course of woe and perdition, suffering from the round of rebirth.”

(The Buddha to his cousin Venerable Ananda, Digha Nikaya 15)

The popular British bhikkhu Ajahn Brahmavamso (‘Brahm’ for short) excels at explaining paticca-samuppada. He has explained that Dependent Arising is only thoroughly known by a Noble Person (ariya-puggala), someone who has reached one of the four stages of enlightenment. This is why, he says, there is so much misunderstanding regarding paticca-samuppada - and why so few contemporary Western and Eastern Buddhist ‘masters’ teach it! Ajahn Brahm is often asked how there is rebirth when Buddhism teaches that there is no soul to be reborn. He replies to this question by stating that the answer is Dependent Arising, for it is an empty process which flows from life to life, conditioned by the twelve forces that direct a life this way and that. In sequence, the twelve links of paticca-samuppada are: delusion (avijja), volitional formations (sankhara), consciousness (vinnana), name-and-form (nama-rupa), the six sense bases (salayatana), contact (phassa), feeling (vedana), desire (tanha), clinging (upadana), existence (bhava), birth (jati), aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair (jara-maranam-soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupayasa).

The venerable forest monk has explained that it is deluded karma (actions) and tanha (craving) that supply the ‘fuel’ for existence and rebirth in the form of the ‘stream of consciousness’ entering a new life. The Buddha explained this process in the following way:

“Karma is like a field, craving like moisture, and the stream of consciousness like the seed. When beings are blinded by delusion and fettered with craving, the stream of consciousness becomes established, and rebirth of a new seed takes place in the future.”

(Anguttara Nikaya III, 76)

Ajahn Brahm teaches that when one’s mindfulness is empowered by jhana (deep meditative concentration), the stream of conscious is revealed as ‘granular’, as tiny moments of consciousness, that like grains of sand are very close together but not actually touching. It is karma and craving that produce the impersonal forces that direct the journey of consciousness, much like the autopilot in an aircraft. Insight into this process enables one to see with certainty that consciousness is independent of the body and therefore can survive upon its demise, in the impersonal and soulless progression of paticca-samuppada. This is how rebirth occurs without a soul. But what exactly is the process by which awakening to the way things are (the Dharma) is achieved? As Ajahn Brahm is keen to point out, it is not by the various methods and philosophies that many modern teachers like to espouse each according to their own personal (and personality-dependent) opinions. It is in the Buddha’s teaching on Dependent Arising that we find the answer to this question. According to Buddhist tradition, he taught that it is with the ending of delusion that volitional formations cease, and that with the ending of the latter that consciousness ceases, all the way down the chain of twelve links to the ending of aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. This ‘ending’ (nirodha) is also known as Nirvana (Extinction), and Bodhi (Enlightenment, or Awakening) along with many other synonyms. To end this very brief description of Dependent Arising, a quotation from the classic Visuddhimagga:

“Mere suffering exists, but no one that suffers;

The deed is done, but no doer of the deed;

Nirvana is, but no one that enters it;

The Path is, but no traveler on it is seen.”

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An Opportunity to Practice

“Association with the disliked is dukkha.”

(Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta)

So often in life we are faced with those people and things that we don’t particularly like. Not necessarily objects of our hate - or though such extreme emotions as hatred certainly can and do arise – but those individuals that we find somewhat irritating, and those situations that are boring or awkward. Buddhism teaches that these occurrences are indicative of the unsatisfactory nature of life. (The word ‘unsatisfactory’ is one way to translate the Pali word dukkha into English, and the Buddha taught that it is dukkha that is the central problem in life – transcend it and this life becomes ‘heaven on earth’, as it were.)

One example here in Thailand of this side of life is the mosquitoes that bite me whenever they get the chance. I often felt resentment towards them, as I have a minor allergy to them which means I get large itchy bumps that last for up to five days every time one of them nabs me. I managed to let go of any feelings of hate, after reflecting on the fact that they are merely behaving according to their nature, and feed on me to live. This was replaced by a feeling of annoyance, however, as I would often find one or more in either the bathroom or the bedroom late in the evening, and have to catch them and put them outside. (I never kill them as this would be breaking the first precept of Buddhism, and I do have compassion for them even if I don’t really like them.) Recently, I contemplated my reactions to the mosquitoes further, however, and realized that actually they supply me with the opportunity to live the Buddhadharma. By not killing them, I am practicing compassion (karuna) and goodwill (metta). By taking the time to catch them, and not getting frustrated or angry when it takes me some time to entrap them, I am practicing patience (khanti). It also takes a certain amount of mindfulness (sati) to be alert enough to actually catch them in the transparent plastic tube that I use for the purpose. These are four positive qualities that mosquitoes encourage in me – there are more, but due to lack of space, I’ll leave it there. Rather than be angry or resentful towards these insects, as a Buddhist I can be grateful to them, thankful for the challenge to practice Buddhism that they give me.

This reflection on my relationship with mosquitoes got me thinking about something Ajahn Chah liked to teach his monks, which was that a monk should spend time with the monk that they felt the most aversion to, for he would be the one that could supply the best opportunity to practice being a monk, and developing the qualities described above, amongst others. Now, I’m not a monk, but as an active layman there are plenty of people that I come into contact with that I don’t see eye to eye with or that can irritate me on occasion. My attitude towards these people has changed recently, after mulling over the opportunity to practice that they give me. And really, I should be even more grateful to these teachers-in-disguise than those pesky mosquitoes, as the insects can’t annoy me half as much as ignorant, selfish or insensitive humans can!

Often in life, we miss the boat to Awakening, so to speak, caught up in our own emotional dramas and not seizing the opportunity to practice, to watch the mind, to let go of greed, hatred and delusion. We sink in our own self-created suffering (another translation of dukkha). But, even long after such missed opportunities, we can still reflect on them, using them to cultivate more skillful mind states for the future. So, to all those people, animals, machines, weather systems, illnesses and the like that I have caused so much suffering around - and just a little wisdom – I’d like to say a big THANK YOU!

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Grasping Mind

Sitting in meditation today, allowing the mind to rest in this moment with no particular object to focus on, attention moved from one object to another, first a sound then a thought then another thought and so on. Occasionally, awareness would rest in a peaceful state not seeking out mental or physical stimuli, but content to simply be awake to this moment, centered on a quiet bliss. But not for long; soon enough it would become restless once more and look for something interesting to hold onto for a second or two before becoming bored and moving on again. This is the nature of the mind, to grasp after one thing after another, finding nothing ultimately satisfying.

Ajahn Chah has used the colorful analogy of a hunter’s trap to illustrate the grasping mind: when animals are trapped in the hunter’s trap, they must wait for the hunter to come and kill them. When a bird is caught in a traditional trap in Thailand, a string wraps around its neck, and even though it flies here and there, the bird cannot escape. And when the hunter arrives, the bird’s time is up! Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, and mind objects are much the same. They ensnare the mind and leave us in the same predicament as a fish caught on a hook, awaiting the arrival of the fisherman. There seems to be no way out.

When not meditating, the mind continues this pattern of hunting out the interesting, pleasant or stimulating, clinging to each object until it loses its appeal and is discarded as the mind seeks out new something new. First, it wants to read a book, but after a while it becomes uninteresting so the thought of watching a movie comes to mind. Flicking channels on the TV, a suitable film is stumbled upon which entertains for a while, but then this too becomes boring. How about a drink? That’ll stimulate the senses (and the mind) for a moment or two. Not really thirsty, but just seeking out pleasant experience, one put s the drink to one side, half finished and decides to listen to some music. Ah, this is great, letting the rhythm and melody waft over one’s awareness…until this too loses its attraction. Sound familiar?

The mind is a fickle thing, jumping from this to that and then back again on a moment to moment basis. It is not a faithful lover. Learning to see this behavior can be the first step in freeing oneself from the prison of desire, which if unchecked will deny one the opportunity of any real contentment. For contentment cannot be found in the things that might stimulate for a time, but in the stillness that resides beyond both object and desire, and that is the doorway to a truly happy existence.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Noblest Jihad

“Though one may conquer a thousand times a thousand men in battle,
Yet he indeed is the noblest victor who conquers himself.”

The above quotation is one of my favorite sayings of the Buddha, recorded in the book The Dhammapada as Verse 103. Considering the various conflicts around the world that continue to keep the news media busy, this verse is as important and pertinent for our lives today as it was when first uttered millennia ago. America and her allies are fighting Muslim ‘insurgents’ in both Iraq and Afghanistan, while Muslims have attacked their fellow countrymen (as well as foreigners) in pursuit of self-rule. But, though they may defeat their enemies, have any of the combatants or their leaders conquered their own minds? Who or what are the real enemies of the West? Islamists? Communists? And who or what are the true foes of the Islamists? Westerners? Infidels? No, the real enemies of Westerners, Islamists, communists, religionists and atheists alike are the same. In Buddhism they are called lobha, dosa, and moha, or greed, hatred, and delusion.

It is greed (or raga, ‘lust’), that drives all humans to want this beautiful person, or that expensive car, or to gain and cling to positions of power and influence. We find someone attractive, physically, mentally, or perhaps both. We are friendly towards them, listening to their opinions and problems with an open heart, unlike those people that we aren’t very keen on. This is attaching to our likes, favoring those that make us feel good in some way. Perhaps the person that wasn’t so attractive to us might have been a positive influence in our lives, helping us with some worldly endeavor, or even assisting us to grow in the Dharma. But, being greedy for those that we like, we miss out on a chance for growth. Hatred repels us from those people, things, and situations that we don’t like. How many of us in the past few years have felt repulsion either at the actions of the foreign military against Muslim civilians or/and the bombings of other civilians by their ‘fellow’ countrymen? This is a form of hate, arising in our hearts in response to that which we do not like – and has this hate changed a thing in Iraq and Afghanistan, or has it simply caused unhealthy mind states to arise within ourselves? Similarly, intense dislike of those people and things that we must endure in our everyday existences are also the recipients of our negative emotions. And do they stop being the way they are, simply because we hate them for it? Of course not.

Both greed and hatred have their root in delusion, or more precisely, the delusion of self. The feeling of being a self (mana, or 'conceit') fuels the fires of desire and aversion: it’s all about what I like or what I don’t like. Living from the position of ego, we constantly judge the world around us and the people in it. Whether it’s a hostile neighbor, soldier, terrorist, or love rival, it’s this sense of I up against the other that is the root cause of all this hatred. Ditto, with regards to desire; this I-ness causes us to latch on to this person or that, desiring all kinds of contact with them! Suffering, whether on the personal or societal level, ultimately comes from the three unwholesome roots of greed, hatred, and delusion that every human on this planet is subject to, unless he or she becomes enlightened. A name for enlightenment in Buddhism is nirodha (cessation or ending). Some think that this refers to the cessation of the self, but this is incorrect. Ultimately, the self is a delusion, so therefore it cannot end for it never existed. Enlightenment is the ending of greed, hatred, and the delusion of being a separate self. True victory is therefore the defeat of the delusion of self; it is the final triumph, which no tyrant can deprive one of, no matter how much they abuse one.

According to many scholars and mystics, this realization is not limited to Buddhists. In the traditions of Christian mysticism, Advaita Vedanta Hinduism, and Sufi Islam (not to mention many, many others), there are records of those that have let go of all striving and transcended the limitations of the ego to realize that which lies beyond the self. This conquering of the self – or, to be more psychologically accurate, relinquishing of ego – emphasizes the bonds between people, not the differences; it produces peace rather than conflict in our hearts and lives; it is the result of the inner, or greater, jihad (‘struggle’) that many Muslims speak of as being superior to the outer, or lesser, jihad against the ‘infidel’ aggressors. In the practice of Buddhism, we work towards the awakening of this realization of selflessness that transforms our understanding of who and what we are. Living from this position of awakening to the Dharma (the way things are), we are less likely to be in conflict with each other. I hope and pray that those in the throws of outer conflict are able to listen to the Dharma (whether cloaked in Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, atheist, or any other language) and adjust their lives accordingly. Only then will the people of the beleaguered nations of the Earth begin to live in peace (both physically and mentally).

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Ajahn Chah on Action (Karma)

The Venerable Ajahn Chah

Action, or karma in Buddhist parlance, is something that we can’t get away from. Like something rather nasty and smelly on the soul of one’s shoe, it follows one around wherever one goes. While we live, we can’t exist without some sort of action, and every action has a reaction; what goes around, comes around. And it doesn’t matter whether anyone’s watching or not, for the law of karma states that all seeds have a result, whether good, bad, or indifferent. The wise Thai monk Ajahn Chah taught that when people do selfish or wicked things in private, thinking that if they don’t get caught, they won’t face the consequences of their actions simply display a lack of understanding of the Dharma. He has emphasized that we never really get away with anything. But, if we practice according to the Dharma, then we can watch the results of previous actions (karma-vipaka), allowing them the space to arise without reacting to them and creating more karmic reverberations. Venerable Chah relates this process to knowing the universal characteristic that everything is impermanent (anicca). The fruit of actions (karma-phala) will inevitably ripen one day; but if we keep in mind that it is impermanent, we can bear it well.

If we develop a strong conscience of what are wholesome actions and what are unwholesome, then even when we are alone, and no one can see what we’re up to, we will do what’s good. This is because their will be that little voice inside one saying, “Hey! Don’t do it. It’s bad karma, man!” Wherever one might be, in a deep hole or up a tree some place, one will be aware of what one is up to, and act accordingly. Some of us may already posses such a voice, albeit not very loud. If carefully attended to, however, this inner voice will grow in volume over time, eventually booming out its advice, and it’ll be impossible to ignore. In such a state of self-awareness, Ajahn Chah has said that we should pay attention to our wholesome activities too, appreciating any good things that we do. This way, we will cultivate wholesome action as a habit, whilst avoiding unwholesome karma through knowledge of its negative results. We will be able to judge on a moment to moment basis as to what is appropriate behavior, without dithering over the pros and cons. We will instinctively know by listening to that inner voice what is right and what is not right: We will live more wisely.

The above reflections first appeared on the blog ‘Forest Wisdom’, and are based on the teachings of Ajahn Chah to be found in the book “No Ajahn Chah”. It is available here as a freely downloadable pdf book from the Wat Nong Pah Pong website. (Please scroll to the bottom of the page to access the ebook.)

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A Buddhist Reflection on Listening

Friends, Romans, Countrymen...

There are different levels of listening that normally we do not explore or even know of that well. This is because we’re so caught up in the world, with its many, many distractions that our desires feed on, sustaining themselves and begetting more desires. We’re too busy to stop and listen to the world around us, including the people we meet. In fact, we’re usually too preoccupied to listen to ourselves, never paying attention to these bodies and minds that we take to be our selves. If we do manage to wriggle free of the entanglements of the passions for a moment, however, we can learn to see things as they truly are and not as we take them to be. We can learn to listen.

Listening to the world: The visual sense is predominant for most of us, most of the time. We rely on it to identify and negotiate the world around us, and in doing so build up our worlds of delusion upon it. We see, we want, or we see, we dislike. Vision is so caught up in our desires and misconceptions of this life that it can take another sense all together to challenge those misconceptions. If we close our eyes right now and simply listen to the world, we can open the door of wisdom. What can you hear in this moment? I can hear insects in the tropical evening, as well as music flowing from the stereo speakers in the room that I’m writing. These sounds aren’t full of desire or delusion in them selves, are they? They’re simply what they are: sounds. It’s what we think and feel about them that make them appear pleasant or unpleasant, desirable or undesirable.

Listening to others: So often in life we don’t really listen to each other. We wait for the other person to cease talking so that we can air our views and opinions (no matter how misguided they may be). We don’t make the effort to actually listen to the other person’s tone of voice, choice of words, and what they’re talking about. We hear them, but don’t truly listen to them. We’re unaware of just how upset they are if we aren’t taking note of how they saying what they’re saying; they may be angry with us, frustrated with life, or making subtle invitations, but if we’re not attentive to them, we’ll miss all these signs. And then we’ll wonder how we missed what they were really saying. We’ll be astounded by our own ignorance, born of the fact that we didn’t listen to them.

Listening to ourselves: Not only do we fail to listen to others, including the ones we hold most dear, but we don’t even listen to ourselves. Our bodies produce all subtle (and unsubtle!) sounds, including the creaking of bones, the chewing of food, the swallowing reflex, and the sound of our breathing. Listening to the breath, for instance, we can determine if we are more agitated than we realize, or discover that we’re not as fit as we previously thought, panting like a randy poodle! The mind can be listened to also, in the sense that we can hear the silence that thoughts, feelings, and memories appear in. Ever had a song that sticks in the brain and repeats endlessly despite our wish that it didn’t? Well, next time that arises, try listening to the silence that surrounds it, and see what happens to the annoying tune.

Listening to the sound of silence: Ajahn Sumedho, a senior western Buddhist monk, has for many years talked of ‘the sound of silence’, an inner sound that can be heard if one quiets the mind to the point that it opens up to the subtlest of noises. This sound is also called the ‘primal’ buzzing or hissing, and appears to be a kind of ringing inside the ears rather than outside of them. It’s a physical sound that isn’t ‘out there’, but rather ‘in here’. Listening to this sound has a calming affect on the mind and helps it to develop concentration also. It gives consciousness something less distracting to focus on, enabling one to let go of other noises as well as the ‘inner voice’ that normally rambles on about every little event that occurs in our lives. It leads us to the real silence that’s found not in tranquil surroundings, but within ourselves.

Listening to the silence: This silence is with us always. But usually we’re unaware of it because we never listen out for it. We don’t know where to look for this transcending silence: we never imagine that it could be found inside ourselves. Once we’ve become alive to it, we can focus on this silence and notice that all sounds arise in it, whether the sounds of nature or of humanity, whether outside of us or within us. This silence is ever present if we have the skill to listen to it. It’s a peace that we take with us everywhere we go, but are normally completely oblivious to it! It puts all our delusions and desires into perspective, as objects in audio-awareness. They lose a lot of their power to disturb us, seeming much less important in this sea of tranquility.

So, true silence is found whatever audio objects can be heard. Even in the deafening din of loud music, the silence is still here, as calm and unaffected as ever. If the mind can be turned away from particular noises to that in which they exist, then a radically different way of experiencing oneself and the world will be discovered. Those distracting sounds will lose their power to disrupt the contentment that lies at the very heart of every human being, and is waiting to be found and fed upon. For feeding on this silence leads us to our real home: peace. This can be achieved by truly listening to the world, others, ourselves, the ‘sound of silence’, and ultimately silence itself. And this silence is one that can never be disturbed, whatever the cacophony that inhabits it!

If all the above seems a trifle abstract, perhaps the following will help illustrate how awareness of silence can transform our everyday experiences. When listening to the sounds of nature I can hear a variety of noises in my Thai neighborhood, produced by both creatures and natural forces. There are numerous species of birds, all singing their own particular songs. Insects make surprisingly loud noises, especially the cicadas in the tropical evening. Then there’s the sound of the wind rustling the foliage in the garden next door, which is a kind of unkempt mini-wood. Our neighbors’ dogs often bark either at passers-by or at each other. Sometimes I wonder if they’re howling at the ghosts that so many Thais believe in without question. (And such ghosts might exist – I’ve seen a few scary-looking individuals lurking the streets around here!)

All of these sounds are impermanent, however. Birdsong, for instance, occurs at specific times of day; it doesn’t go on all the time. Some species sing at the crack of dawn, while others sing at dusk – some are squawking now early in the afternoon. The fact that birdsong doesn’t last twenty-four hours a day is a sign that it is impermanent (anicca). Sounds such as the evening shrieking of the cicadas show impermanence in another aspect of their structure. They are not constant drones, but have gaps in between different segments of sound; they start-stop, start-stop, etc. They are impermanent in this way too, along with not lasting all day. In the gaps that separate the creatures’ noises there is space. This space also can be seen (well, heard) prior to an animal’s call, as well as after the period of noise-making has stopped. Space contains the sounds of nature, including the rustling of leaves and the falling of rain. This space is non-judgmental in its nature. The mind, or personality, reacts to different sounds, liking the particular song of one species of bird, whilst on the other hand disliking the neighbor’s dog that barks late at night. Even in our negative responses to sound we can develop some wisdom, however – the howling dog shows just how unsatisfactory (dukkha) life can be! Space, on the other hand, simply contains all sounds, whether from nature or the human world (and what is the human world but an extension of nature, if we think about it?).

Through associating with the space by being the awareness that is conscious of sound, rather than identifying with being a particular person with specific likes and dislikes, one can become more open-minded. In this open-mindedness is an acceptance of the way things are (the Dharma). Moreover, by being the spacious awareness that is host to all phenomena (not only sound), one becomes more open-hearted, more compassionate and loving. Personal preference is less likely to dominate one’s relationship to the world, allowing for a deeper connection with the sounds, sights, tastes, smells, tactile and mental sensations that enter awareness. This connection of spacious awareness to the world is not one of identifying with these various sense objects as being mine or not mine, likeable or dislikeable, because it is essentially an impersonal relationship. Even thoughts and feelings associated with being me (or whoever) are objects in consciousness, they do not comprise a self (anatta). Being awake to this aware space is a liberating experience, freeing awareness from the prison of personality and ego. It also makes one appear as a nicer guy or gal to those that one meets, making their lives a little happier and less stressful.

So, in listening to the Dharma in nature, we can begin to recognize the way things are; they are impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self (anicca, dukkha, and anatta.). We can learn to associate not with the personality that forever judges the world and its contents, but with the spacious awareness that is host to the myriad phenomena that make up this life. Extending this insight to all sense objects and not just sounds, we can radically alter our relationship to humanity as well as the natural world. One no longer sees oneself as just another person struggling against the natural and human obstacles to happiness, but the space in which such thoughts arise, along with all else. And this is the way to true happiness.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Now is the Knowing

Yesterday is a memory. Tomorrow is the unknown. Now is the knowing.

The above is a bit of a catchphrase of Ajahn Sumedho, the well known American Buddhist monk, which he’s used on numerous occasions to emphasize the importance of living in this moment. At first, it may seem rather simplistic and obvious, but if reflected on, it can give rise to some revealing insights into the way things are (the Dharma).

Firstly, the words Yesterday is a memory encourage us to see that the past is gone, and is beyond our influence. We cannot go back and change all the mistakes that we’ve made, or retrieve some sporting results and win a fortune betting on them as in the Back to the Future movies. But we must live with the effects of our past thoughts, words and actions; if I’ve been mean to my wife I can expect her to be less than friendly towards me, whereas if I’ve treated her well, chances are she’ll be alright with me. (Although various factors may affect her behavior towards me other than how I’ve been with her – karma, or our own actions, are only one source of our present circumstances according to Buddhist teachings. She may be feeling under the weather and take it out on me; but then such is the bliss of married life!)

Secondly, the venerable monk’s words Tomorrow is the unknown point towards the realization and acceptance that whilst we can make plans for the future, it hasn’t actually arrived yet. Sitting and worrying about every conceivable future scenario is not necessarily the best preparation for a future event, as we may simply wind ourselves up so much that when it comes we’re too uptight to do what we planned in the first place. Alternatively, we may imagine so many different ensuing occurrences that when the time comes we just can’t make up our minds what to do and end up making a hash of things that way! Of equal importance is the fact that that while we spend so much of our time concerned with the future we neglect the present, and in doing so miss opportunities that are currently presenting themselves to us.

Thirdly, we have the heart of Ajahn Sumedho’s wise words: Now is the Knowing. The past exists only as memories, as images or ideas in our minds. The future is a collection of either imaginable or unimaginable possible events, none of which are with us right now. The only moment that we can truly know things as they are is now. The only time that we experience anything is now, including all our mental meanderings about the past and future. I can only know and love my wife now: all else are imperfect memories, or fictitious thoughts of times to come. In focusing on the present moment we will become more alert to the possibilities that present themselves, we will be more aware of the needs of those around us, and we will come to see the reality of this life in all its splendor and tragedy. And we will begin to awaken to the Dharma that can free us from our self-made suffering.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Cankama (Walking Meditation)

Walking meditation is not so very well known in the West, but is a common practice in the traditional forms of Buddhism found in Asia, and is known as kinhin in Japanese and cankama in Pali. In the forest tradition of Northeast Thailand many well known monks, such as the renowned meditation master Ajahn Mun, have used the latter method to cultivate enlightening mind states. In Wat Pah Nanachat, the International Forest Monastery in Ubon Ratchathani, walking meditation is used by many of the contemplatives, and has been avidly promoted by its former abbot Ajahn Nyanadhammo.

Walking meditation is a useful alternative (or complementary) technique with regards to sitting meditation, the classical physical position for anapanasati briefly described in the previous post. In his booklet called ‘Walking Meditation’, Ajahn Nyanadhammo states that many monks and nuns have realized insight and enlightenment whilst practicing walking meditation. He also says that in the Forest Monastic Tradition every part of life is an opportunity to meditate, not only when doing sitting meditation. So, cankama can be used as an integrated aspect of Buddhist practice, allowing the various processes of life to be investigated and understood as impermanent, imperfect, and impersonal.

I personally find walking meditation effective for establishing mindfulness in the mornings, and Ajahn Brahmavamso has said that the Buddha himself used cankama early in the mornings (a lot earlier in the mornings than me!). There are many variations of walking meditation, but one simple method to begin with is the following:

  1. Find a suitable place for cankama. This can be outside, perhaps positioned between two trees as in the practice of forest monks, or indoors, say in a corridor. I use the corridor in my house, which is about seventeen steps long – in the forest tradition it’s often up to thirty paces long.
  2. Do cankama barefooted if possible, as this heightens the sensation of the feet touching the ground, which is usually the main focus of attention.
  3. Establish mindfulness prior to beginning to walk. This can be done by holding one’s hands in anjali (palm-to-palm, as in prayer) and reciting a brief Buddhist phrase, perhaps remembering the Three Refuges of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.
  4. Holding one’s hands in front of one’s self walk at a comfortable pace, neither too fast nor too slow, enabling one to be mindful of each step.
  5. Keep looking about a meter and a half in front, avoiding looking at this and that.
  6. Focus awareness on the feet, noting the different sensations as each foot is placed on the ground and then rises from it, much as one might focus on the breath.
  7. When you reach the end of your meditation path, turn around and stand still for a few moments, reestablishing mindfulness before resuming walking.
  8. To begin with, do cankama for about fifteen minutes, longer if it’s comfortable. Eventually, half an hour to an hour will become possible without losing mindfulness.

Using walking meditation this way, we can lay the foundations of a steady and alert mind which can be of benefit away from the meditation path. We may find that there is an increase in the general alertness of our actions as well as with regards the feeling of walking itself. Then, wherever we are, we will be walking the Buddha’s Path of wisdom.

The above post first appeared on the blog 'Forest Wisdom,' which was reborn as this one.