Thursday, September 27, 2012

Haiku: Sudden Shower

in a crevice of an old wall - 
a pregnant spider


Heat in waves - 
in the stones
angry reverberations


Sudden shower
and rising from the heat,
the broken-down horse


fleeing up the wall,
the legs of a spider


Sudden shower - 
clutching the blades of grass
a flock of sparrows


Down a paulownia tree
the rain comes trickling
across a cicada's belly


The tree frog
riding the plantain leaf


"It's much too long a day,"
opening its mouth
a crow


The above haiku are excerpted from a book by Stephen Addss, Fumiko Yamamoto & Akira Yamamoto. For a review of this fabulous collection of poetry, click here: Review: Haiku, An Anthology of Japanese Poems.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Buddhist Reflection on Listening

Listen up, folks!

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: The American monk Ajahn Sumedho 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!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Review: In the Buddha's Words, by Bhikkhu Bodhi

There are several good translations available of parts of the Pali Canon (Buddhist Scriptures) in English. A recent addition to this growing list of extracts of the Tipitaka (another name for the Pali Canon) is called “In the Buddha’s Words” and is the work of the well-known and well-respected American monk Bhikkhu Bodhi. The book typically contains the usual translations of the Buddha’s teachings on suffering (dukkha), enlightenment (bodhi), the Buddhist Path (magga) etc. What is distinctive about this latest compilation is that it contains a broad sweep of teachings of the Buddha, not only focusing on renunciation and the ultimate goal of enlightenment, but also featuring subjects such as gaining present life happiness and a decent rebirth.

The Venerable Bodhi divides the Blessed One’s dispensation into chapters, some of which are called The Human Condition (life without Dharma; living in delusion from life to life), The Bringer of Light (the coming and development of the Buddha), The Path to Liberation (the Buddhist Way to enlightenment), and Mastering the Mind (meditation and mindfulness). Other chapters include The Happiness Visible in this Present Life which regards the fulfillment of moral and social duties that result in a content life. Bhikkhu Bodhi emphasizes in this part of the book that as the Buddha said himself, he came “for the welfare of the multitude, for the happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare, and happiness of gods and humans.” This chapter reveals the Buddha’s words on how laypeople can live in the world, showing the wise and compassionate ways that we can handle our various relationships in society towards parents, children, teachers, students, friends, and partners.

The book doesn’t ignore the pinnacle of the Buddha’s teachings, however, and the chapter entitled The Planes of Realization features many important sermons on the noble eightfold path (ariya-atthangika-magga) to awakening and the four types of noble person (ariya-puggala), who have entered the stream to enlightenment, and culminate in the arahant, an enlightened one. Shining the Light of Wisdom is a chapter focusing on the nature of both wisdom (panna) and nirvana, and includes many illuminating discourses on the five aggregates that make up experience and the somewhat complicated teaching of dependent origination (paticca- samuppada).

Bhikkhu Bodhi introduces each chapter with his own insightful comments, making clear how each part of the Buddha’s teachings fits into the scheme as a whole, organized as a progressive path from The Human Condition through to The Planes of Realization. He displays a depth of understanding of the Tipitaka that spans the aforementioned and previously well-covered subjects of renunciation and enlightenment as well as how to be happy in this current life, which has often been neglected by his predecessors.

The Buddha divided the progress of a Buddhist into three stages: pariyatti (study), patipatti (practice), and pativedha (‘penetration’ or realization). Reading too many books may well hold back practical progress and ‘penetration’ of the Buddhist truths, but one book that will complement both practice and realization is In the Buddha’s Words. This book gives us a clear and concise account of the teachings attributed to the Buddha, regarding the whole of his dispensation, and as such is a boon to both renunciant and layperson, whatever their level of practice. I strongly recommend it to anyone curious about the Buddha’s teachings.

The above book is published by Wisdom Books, and is available from their website here: In the Buddha's Words.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Listening to the Dharma in Nature

When listening to the sounds of nature I can hear a variety of noises in my 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' 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.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Layman Pang: Ultimate Attainment

"The past is already past - 
Don't try to regain it.
The present does not stay,
Don't try to touch it from moment to moment.
The future is not come,
Don't think about it beforehand.
With the three-times non-existent,
Mind is the same as Buddha-mind.
To silently function relying on Emptiness,
This is profundity of action.
Not the least dharma exists - 
Whatsoever comes to eye leave it be.
There are no commandments to be kept,
There is no filth to be cleansed.
With empty mind really penetrated,
The dharmas have no life.
When you can be like this,
You've completed the ultimate attainment."

Poem by Layman Pang (740-808), translated by Ruth Fuller Sasaki, Yoshitaka Iriya, and Dana Fraser. Taken from 'Zen Sourcebook' (p.59), edited by Stephen Addiss, with Stanley Lombardo and Judith Roitman. For a review of this book, please click here: Review: Zen Sourcebook

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review: Food for the Heart, by Ajahn Chah

If there’s one book to have containing the teachings of Ajahn Chah, it’s surely got to be this one. All of the venerable forest monk’s previously freely distributed collections of talks have been collected into one volume for commercial release here, in the hope that his teachings will reach a wider audience than those visiting forest monasteries or the various forest Buddhism websites (click on the Weblinks tab above). These free books include Bodhinyana; A Taste of Freedom; Living Dhamma; Food for the Heart; and The Key to Liberation.

Now, Ajahn Chah wrote precious little in his life, despite being literate, so Food for the Heart is not a typical Buddhist book with well-organized chapters focusing on individual themes. It is made up of spontaneous talks given by Ajahn Chah in a variety of contexts and recorded by his disciples, each talk effortlessly flowing between different topics, neatly woven together. Many are desana (sermons) given at Wat Nong Pah Pong and Wat Pah Nanachat, others are informal instructions handed out around forest monastery grounds, whilst others were given in general society, such as the talk entitled Our Real Home that was given in a dying lay woman’s home. In this sermon, Ajahn Chah states that no being can remain in any state for long, whether they are rich or poor, young or old, human or animal. Change is a fact of life that we cannot alter, but what we can do is follow the advice of the Buddha and contemplate the body and mind, seeing them as neither ‘me’ nor ‘mine.’ Like a house, the body is only nominally ours, as are wealth, possessions, and family. They belong to nature.

The words above are classic Ajahn Chah: down-to-earth; relevant to their listener; practical; and deceptively wise. The great meditation monk is famous amongst those who new him as someone always in the present moment, seeing what needed to be done now, including just what to say to those in his company. The above is a pretty general set of statements, however inspiring, but Ajahn Chah could also give very precise teachings on the specifics of Buddhist training, born of his own life long practice of Dhamma (Sanskrit: Dharma). In a talk focusing on anapanasati meditation, the meditation master said that while meditating there’s no need to pay attention to sense impressions. Ajahn Chah further advises us to let go of any feelings or sensations that arise in the mind. It doesn’t matter whether such feelings and sensations are good or bad, the trick is to not make anything of them, and turn one’s attention to the breath.

Ajahn Chah is also renowned for his vivid use of allegory in his teachings used to illustrate what might otherwise be rather dry, complicated or boring Buddhist doctrines. He uses the image of an apple orchard to explain the Buddhist idea of bhava (becoming), saying that if we don’t reflect wisely, we can be ‘born’ into every one of the apples grown in it. The forest monk says that this is ‘a bhava’ for us, as the mind has been born into each apple like a worm: in fact, it’s as if our mental ‘tentacles’ have been sent into all the trees in the orchard.Food for the Heart is a book full of forest wisdom, cultivated by Ajahn Chah over many decades of dedicated contemplative practice. This simple, humble, yet sometimes fiery master has inspired thousands of Buddhists and non-Buddhists with his particular brand of insight, and it is this breadth of teaching experience and variety of oratory techniques that make this book so unique. Despite all this, Ajahn Chah could be very direct when the listener(s) required it, as when announcing that if we don’t practice, we may study till the day we die, but we’ll never know the taste of freedom!

Title & Author : Food for the Heart: The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah
Publishers      : Wisdom Publications
Page Count    : 432
Price               : $15.16
ISBN               : 0-86171-323-0