Saturday, January 30, 2010

Buddha & Science: Exploring the Buddhaverse

Space, the final frontier...

Space, we are told by scientists is so immense, so mind-bogglingly vast that it is as good as (or, in fact, actually is) infinite. It is full of billions galaxies that are in turn inhabited by billions of stars and planets, and, moreover, the new scientific theories of the multiverse  state that the universe in which all of this exists is just one of countless parallel universes. And, because space contains all of this stuff, it can kinda make one feel not so much tiny in comparison, but rather insignificant. For, in such an unimaginably infinite void, 'I' am just a tiny, albeit somewhat intelligent, animal scurrying around on the surface of Planet Earth along with nearly seven billion fellow human beings. We are like ants, nay microbes, in the sheer magnitude of this existence: so, in this light, how unimportant 'I' seem.

Despite the gloomy sentiments of the paragraph above, please don't despair, because space itself will now be shown to be the cure to this existential angst that contemplating it created in the first place! This more pleasing apprehension of space is not to be seen 'out there', however, but is to be experienced right here, where the feeling of 'I' occurs. And, thankfully, it doesn't require an extremely large and expensive telescope to be witnessed, either. All that is required to see the space at the heart of one's being is attention - even eyes aren't essential, in fact, for 'it' can be known just as well with eyes shut as open. To see what I mean, dear reader, I invite you to give a few minutes to investigate what lies at your very center:

Look at whatever is in front you - probably a computer screen at present - and notice its shape, size, colors, and its solidity. Now, turn your attention around to gaze back at what is doing the looking. Do you see 'you', dear reader, or do you see the space to which this little exercise is aimed at uncovering? What I mean to suggest, is that everything that you perceive right now is appearing in a spacious awareness located right where you are: do you see what I'm getting at? And, to show that this isn't a trick of the eyes, close them and pay attention to all the sounds that you can hear and that in which they arise. Do sounds not occur in a silent (spacious) awareness, too, along with all other physical and mental phenomena? Play with this exercise a short while, and see if you can find the space that lies behind the sense of 'I'.

Now, this space that we can experience in this present moment is also infinite, just as the 'outer' space described above. If you don't believe this, take a few more moments to explore it, and see if you can define it anymore than scientists can define that which contains the universe or multiverse. How big is it? Where does it begin and where does it end? Can it be timed or measured in any other way? I find not. This space is as infinite as the cosmic one that astronomers spend their days (and nights) staring at so intently. Moreover, this spaciousness is (thanks to the human mind) aware of itself; it can know that it is. And, because it has this capacity to know, it can be dubbed 'Buddha Space', for the term 'Buddha' comes from the root word 'budh', which means to be awake or to know.

In this context, the 'I' that can feel so minuscule and irrelevant when pondering the enormity of existence can be seen to be a valid vehicle for spacious awareness to know the universe and itself. 'I' do not have to feel so impotent in the face of the cosmos because at heart I am not 'I' but the spacious knowing that contains all that is experienced. Whilst over-identification with being this person can cause all kinds of problems for all concerned, seeing 'me' in its grander context as that which the monk Ajahn Sumehdo likes to call 'the knowing' is the beginning of awakening to our true nature, which is a vast and peaceful awareness. It is the 'Buddha Space' after which this blog is named, and if you are encouraged to take a peek back at what you truly are at heart by these words, then the blog has done its job, and 'I' can feel some pleasure from writing these small black squiggles, knowing that even they have some relevance in the vastness of this 'Buddhaverse.'

Saturday, January 23, 2010

There's No 'Us' & 'Them' in Buddhism

Buddhists, like other people that identify with a particular group, naturally associate with other Buddhists where possible. ‘Practice’ takes place in special places such as temples and retreat centers with other Buddhists, and when not in such focused environments we can tend to feel apart from mainstream society. Most people don’t meditate, study sutras, chant, or cultivate mindfulness, and consider those of us that do with some scorn or perplexity. We are strange in their minds, and they may appear somewhat shallow or base in their habits and interests to us, if we aren’t heedful of our own thinking processes. A divide can exist between Buddhists and others, or between ‘us’ and ‘them.’

Even within our families, perhaps especially within our families, an interest in Buddhism can be seen as exotic, unusual, or just plain weird. In Britain, it’s often considered weird to be openly religious or spiritual, anyway, and this opinion exists within highly secularized families as much as in society at large. I recall my own family concerned when as a teenager I became interested and involved with Buddhism, my mother in particular worried that I’d be exploited or brainwashed in some way. She seemed to think that cultists were out to get me, and turn me into a kind of mindless follower of some odd secretive sect. In truth, being mindful and not mindless is the central focus of the Buddhist teachings, but then the Buddhadharma is not widely understood in many ‘Buddhist’ countries, let alone in the West.

It may surprise you that this lack of understanding is true here in Thailand, also, despite government statistics claiming that roughly 95% of Thais are Buddhist. When told that I meditate on a daily basis, the usual reaction from Thai people is astonishment; admittedly, this level of surprise is related to the fact that I’m a white-skinned foreigner, and Thais never dream that a Westerner would meditate. Having said this, even native Thais are considered unusual if they have a regular meditative discipline. For, as in most countries around the world, gambling, clubbing, drinking alcohol, dancing, and sexual promiscuity are much more common in ‘Buddhist’ Thailand than the widely-considered esoteric arts of meditation and mindfulness.

Is this perceived divide between Buddhists and others caused by ‘them’ or ‘us’? Or, is it in fact caused by both? Whichever it is, it goes against the teachings of Buddhism to view people that don’t walk the Buddhist Path as different or deficient in some way. On the level of our humanity, we are all suffering, and whether Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, atheist, agnostic or whatever, we deserve understanding and compassion. At the very least, a little goodwill is called for. The neighbor that bugs you, the rude shop assistant, the judgmental relative, the unreliable friend, the abusive lover – they are all suffering. True, they may well cause us to suffer too, but such actions are caused by their ignorance, just as we cause suffering through ours.

Next time you’re with someone who’s annoying you, take a good (mindful) look at their face: do they look happy, relaxed or content? Or, do they have a somewhat pained expression on their face, as though their negative words and actions are coming out of an inner reservoir of pain and suffering. Of course, the natural response of the ego to being offended by someone else is to blame them for the suffering they are causing. We condemn them for their selfish behavior, argue back at them, and sometimes wish them ill. But, if we use mindfulness to actually take a good look at them, we can see that they are suffering too. They are blaming us and attacking us just as we might do the same to them, and it’s all coming out of a lack of insight and genuine compassion.

As well as taking a closer look at those that seem intent on hurting us, we can benefit from turning our attention around 180 degrees and observing our own reactions to them. What feelings and thoughts arise in the mind when we are confronted with aggression, anger, sarcasm, rudeness, and the like? Is there understanding of why this person is acting the way they are, and compassion for their underlying suffering? Or do the old, familiar self-defensive reactions come up, returning like for like? Actually noticing the emotions and thoughts that surface in such circumstances can be both eye-opening and liberating. We see what the human mind is really like, and we gain insight into possible ways to transcend the mutual negativity that exasperates confrontational situations.

Being perpetrators and victims of suffering is our lot on the human level, and to counter all this pain with some kindness will not cause it all to suddenly cease, but it will make it a little more bearable for us. Simply deciding to be kind has its limits however; to radically alter our lives for the better it needs to be counterbalanced with at least a modicum of wisdom or understanding. Such knowledge is not the exclusive property of Buddhists and Buddhism, and we should have the humility to learn from whoever and wherever lessons on love may come from. Such opportunities may occur in the most unexpected places, with people that are not Buddhists, let alone recognized Buddhist teachers. Being mindful can assist us to recognize these opportunities.

In this sense, Buddhist ‘practice’ is wherever we happen to be in this moment. If we are awake to the present, the angry driver behind us can be just as inspiring as the great teacher before us. Certainly, temples and retreat centers can have positive effects on us, and the opportunities to visit them can be wonderful occasions, but it is in the every day moments of our ordinary lives that the Buddhadharma can be truly lived and shared with others. Of course, if people do not practice Buddhism the way we do, overt discussions and displays of Buddhist practice won’t be appropriate, but this can be a good thing. For, rather than pontificating on such Buddhist ideals as kindness, wisdom and compassion, we have the chance to live them. And, then we can see that there’s no ‘us’ and ‘them’ in Buddhism.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

No Ajahn Chah Day

Ajahn Chah...Not!

January 16th is Ajahn Chah Day, when members of the Thai Forest Tradition in the lineage of the monk in the above picture celebrate the life and teachings of this remarkable man. Here in Ubon Ratchathani, thousands of people congregate at his old forest monastery Wat Nong Pah Pong, teachings are given by senior monks and mass chanting and meditation sessions take place. Food is given freely to anyone that visits, and a market forms in front of the monastery grounds, selling all kinds of food, souvenirs and knickknacks. All this is quite a palaver for a man that never existed. To state that Ajahn Chah never existed might seem an outrageous thing to write, especially at this time of year, and yet, it’s not my warped sense of humor that’s inspiring these words, but the words of Ajahn Chah himself. If you’ve read a book knocking around entitled ‘No Ajahn Chah’, you’ll know what this article is getting at, and if you haven’t, there’s a link below which will take you to a site where you can download it for free. So, in this small, compact book, two occasions are recalled when the forest monk was asked who Ajahn Chah was. Once, when seeing that the questioner was not advanced in practice, he replied that he was Ajahn Chah, whereas on the other occasion, he saw that the person asking was more advanced, so he answered that there was no Ajahn Chah! Which answer was true? Well, both were, for on the conventional level of human experience Ajahn Chah was Ajahn Chah – he certainly wasn’t anyone else – but on the level of ultimate Dharma, when all is realized as not self and emptiness is seen at the heart of experience, there was no Ajahn Chah, just as there’s nobody writing these words and nobody reading them. You may think that this is plain nonsense, because you are aware of your existence as you are reading – but, what is it exactly that you’re aware of? In other words, what are you?

Your body belongs to nature – it is a natural organism born via procreation and sustained by physical nutrients. Your mind is somewhat more complicated to apprehend, but in essence it is a collection of ever-changing thoughts, feelings, memories, fantasies, emotions, and habits. These too can be understood as impersonal, natural processes taking shape on the psychological level, interdependent with the corresponding physical sensations. The sense of ‘I’ that we tend to be so precious about is a collection of thoughts, feelings, and sensations: strip away the layers and there’s nobody home. This ‘home’ was referred to by Ajahn Chah as our real home – inner peace. It’s not simply a nihilistic void, or absence of being, but neither is it ‘me’ any more than it is ‘you.’ Rather, it is the unconditioned as opposed to the conditioned – in other words, it is the no thing that lies at the heart of every thing. And, not being limited to being this or that, it is simultaneously no thing and all things, but never limited to being any particular thing. Therefore, it is free from the sufferings of human beings, whilst aware of them and responsive to them, forever serene amid the turmoil of our lives. So, if you can’t make it to Ubon to pay respects to the ashes and memory of Ajahn Chah, why not turn your attention to the ‘No Ajahn Chah’ which is also the No You and the No Me that is right where you are at this very moment.

To download the lovely little book mentioned above, click here: No Ajahn Chah

Friday, January 8, 2010

Back to Buddha Basics

When this blog began, the first reflection was on the nature of the Buddha. This is such a crucial subject for Buddhists to consider that it’s worth meditating on again, as we enter a new calendar year, and make renewed commitments to walking the Buddha Way. As a teacher of English, I have often used basic question-and-answer formats to elicit responses from new students, giving them a chance to learn about their teacher and each other, whilst also giving me the opportunity to assess their verbal capabilities. These questions are simple queries such as ‘Who are you?’ ‘Where do you come from?’ ‘How old are you?’ With the replacement of the word ‘you’ with ‘Buddha’, we can use this format to explore our own understanding of the Buddha:

  • Who is Buddha?
  • Where does Buddha come from?
  • How old is Buddha?
  • What does Buddha do?
  • Where does Buddha live?

Although some of these questions may seem weird, over simplistic, or just plain daft, in their direct manner they do have the ability to help us to cut to the chase and perceive our essential understandings and experiences of the Buddha. It’s not the intention of this blogger to influence your initial responses to these questions, so I’ll refrain from expressing them just yet. This is because I’m fascinated in your answers to these five basic questions about the Buddha, dear reader, and would really appreciate it if you’d take the time to ponder them, and then write your answers in the comments section linked to below. In sharing our understandings of the word ‘Buddha’ we can help each other to open up to new ways of experiencing the Buddha and this can be a real boon to our living the Buddhadharma.

To read that first post and readers responses to it, please click here: Who is the Buddha?