Friday, August 28, 2009

The Great Escape / Anapanasati

"Welcome to the real world."

Escapism is a common response to the nasty side of life. The different forms of escapism seem endless: movies, novels, sports, computer games, pornography, alcohol, sex, drugs, crosswords, and music to name but a few. Now, these activities are not inherently ‘bad’ for us, but looking closely at how we use them can reveal the motives behind why we often resort to them when the going gets tough. All these various forms of entertainment are used to shy away from life’s negative side, to avoid confronting those aspects of living that we find distasteful. Worried about paying the rent or the mortgage, concerned that our love life has lost its spark, or niggled by our over-demanding boss at work, it’s understandable that we hide away in a bottle of beer or the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

Life is not only often a nasty experience however; it can also be very boring! Who amongst us would rather sit and watch the nondescript nature of breathing than an exciting movie such as ‘The Matrix’, with its intense actions scenes and fantastic storyline? What could be less interesting or inspiring than paying attention to our in-breaths and out-breaths moment by moment? But this is exactly what the Buddha encouraged us to when he frequently described the practice of anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing) as a form of meditation in famous discourses such the Maha Satipatthana Sutta and the Anapanasati Sutta. In these texts, meditators are advised to go to the forest, or to the foot of a tree, or to an empty, solitary place (hence the existence of forest monasteries where societal distractions are not to be found). Now, this doesn’t mean that meditation can’t be performed at home, in the village, town or city, but it does indicate that wherever we choose to practice anapanasati it should be quiet and free from distractions. A quiet room at home or a peaceful garden would be fine for this purpose: the Buddha and his disciples often hung out in orange groves to meditate and live mindfully.

The Buddha further instructed that the meditator sits down cross-legged, keeping his body erect, and focuses his mindfulness. Sitting cross-legged with a straightened back is a good posture for long periods of meditation, allowing one to be relaxed yet alert, and is found in many meditative traditions outside Buddhism. If one finds it excessively uncomfortable sitting erect on a chair will suffice, as long as one doesn’t get too comfortable and start snoozing off! Then with keen mindfulness he breathes in and with keen mindfulness he breathes out. This is the essence of anapanasati, to watch the breath with patience, noting whether it is long in-breath or short in-breath, long out-breath or short out-breath. Focusing the mind thus, over time one will develop a peaceful alertness that establishes a secure base from which to watch both body and mind more closely, seeing them as they really are in this moment as impermanent, suffering, and not-self. This is the beginning of the Buddhist meditation path, and an opening up to the wisdom of the Buddha, as attested to by many practitioners to this day.

Anapanasati is not a particularly negative experience, but neither is it an exciting one. And this middle ground is precisely what gives anapanasati its strength; in paying attention to our breathing, we can begin to liberate ourselves from the constant search for highs. We start to become awake to the nature of our minds, jumping from one object to another in a constant flux of avoiding the unpleasant and seeking out the pleasurable. Facing reality in this way is not the easy option of course; smoking a joint or watching a football match on TV are much more convenient activities. But is a life lived in various forms of escapism healthy in the long run? If we blindly follow our impulses and desires we are their slaves. The Buddha taught that desire is the main cause of our suffering (dukkha). If we don’t get what we want, or get that which we don’t want, we suffer. I want nice weather on my day off work, but instead it pours with rain; now, I can cling to my desire for clement weather and get wound up, or I can calmly accept the way things are – which is the wiser?

Being alert to the nature of our breath is a calming practice, enabling the mind to reach a stable and peaceful state in which we can observe the myriad thoughts and feelings that occur in a surprisingly short period of time. Understanding can then arise, as we begin to notice our habits and impulses, conscious of them for perhaps for the first time in our lives. We can then see that we’ve been caught in a self-perpetuating loop of avoidance-attraction-avoidance-attraction, ad infinitum. Seeing thus presents a new possibility, a new way of living; being with the present, with the way things are. Then we can say with the character Morpheus in the Matrix movie, “Welcome to the real world”, and actually have an inkling of what that actually means, as like Neo, we escape from our self-made prison.

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

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ajahn Chah on Romance

Ajahn Chah: Wise & Funny

Ajahn Chah wasn’t just a great meditation teacher, although that’s what he’s most famous for throughout the world today; he was also a deeply wise man that could penetrate to the heart of a problem affecting one of his disciples at the drop of a hat. He could do this using both compassion and a biting humor that made clear to his recipient where their efforts should (or shouldn’t) be directed. An example of this direct teaching style is found in the following story: Ajahn Chah was once traveling in a car with several other monks, when he turned around to say something to a young American novice sat behind him. Another Western monk translated the master’s words, in which Ajahn Chah said that the young monk was thinking of his girlfriend back in the United States. The American novice was somewhat taken aback by the accuracy of his teacher’s words.

Next, the forest ajahn was translated as reassuring the novice not to worry, and that his problem could be sorted out. He was told that next time he wrote a letter, he should request that his girlfriend send him something personal to remind him of her. The novice, surprised by Ajahn Chah’s statement, asked if this was allowed for a Buddhist monk, and was assured that it was. The next words of Ajahn Chah took some time to be relayed, as the monk doing the translating required some time to stop laughing. If the novice monk wanted something personal to remind him of his love, he should ask her to send him a bottle of her shit! Then, every time that he missed her, he could open the bottle and take a deep sniff!!

This tale shows the brilliance of Ajahn Chah working on two levels. Firstly, it points out to the novice the ridiculousness of a celibate monk hankering for the love of a woman. Secondly, it indicates the essential nature of the human form that inspires such romantic and lustful feelings; it’s made up of some pretty awful things that are anything but attractive or arousing. Not for most folk, anyhow!

The above story is paraphrased from an anecdote retold by Ajahn Brahm in his wonderful book ‘Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?’ It’s published by Wisdom Publications, and well worth a read.

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

Friday, August 14, 2009

Buddhism in the Bedroom

It’s no good. I’ve avoided it long enough. There’s an important issue that thus far on this blog I’ve not broached, but it can’t be evaded any longer: sex! What’s sex got to do with practicing Buddhism you might well ask, and I’d reply, “Everything!” You see, if one’s to live one’s life practicing according the Dharma (Buddhist teachings), there can be no areas of living that are exempt. It’s all or nothing. So, here goes…

Sex. Most of us are at it, and those of us who aren’t live in the hope that we will soon be. (Buddhist monks and other celibates accepted, of course.) In the light of Dharma, however, what should be our approach to this thorny (no pun intended!) topic? Well, the ideal attitude in Buddhism is one of renunciation, of course, but monks, nuns, and dedicated (or very lonely) laypeople are the only ones to fulfill this extremely strict practice, however. The rest of us have to struggle on with the sexual urges, temptations and opportunities that arise (to varying degrees) in our lives. What does Buddhism actually have to say on the subject?

For laypeople, the Buddha taught that there are two approaches to sex that can be taken. One is to follow the lead of monks and nuns and abstain all together. The other way is more complicated and needs some careful reflection to be fully understood and implemented, and is based upon the third precept which states that lay Buddhists are (supposed) to refrain from ‘sexual misconduct.’ But what exactly is that? Firstly, for people like myself who are married, it means not committing adultery – that’s simple enough. Secondly, for those who haven’t got hitched, the age-old Buddhist emphasis on wisdom and compassion can to be applied. And to sleep around is neither wise nor compassionate. It’s unwise because there’s the risk of catching something nasty, getting a nasty response, or gaining a nasty reputation. Promiscuity is uncompassionate because it involves using others for our own pleasure, ignorant to their feelings and hopes: how does it feel to give oneself to somebody completely and then be rejected the very next morning? It’s also uncompassionate towards our own self, for we are creating the seeds of low self-esteem and guilt which will grow into much bigger problems further down the road. To avoid these problems, we need to find someone that we can commit to, both in body and in mind.

That’s the negative reasons for not indulging in sexual misconduct, but what are the positive ones? For starters, those issues of self-esteem and guilt are tackled head on, with a sense of honor and a guilt-free happiness being established in the heart. Contemplating how to act with compassion towards one’s lover, both in and out of the bedroom, will create a more peaceful atmosphere within which to develop the relationship as well as a way to live a mutually more satisfying life in general. Buddhism does allow for married couples (or their equivalents) to enjoy themselves, which includes enjoying each other, in every sense of the term. Not all Buddhists need give up sex, but we can do it with compassion and wisdom. Also, from the wisdom point of view, committing to a faithful, loving partnership one isn’t giving cause for unwanted diseases, confrontations or heedlessness to the way things are to arise. The last aspect noted is crucial for the Buddhist, for to develop wisdom and to understand our physical and mental functions is the path to liberation from suffering, which is the realization of true happiness. A clear, compassionate mind is the perfect tool for this purpose, and by being sensible and caring in our sexual relationships, we come to travel the road to enlightenment quite a bit further.

There, it’s over and done with for now: sex has been put to bed, so to speak. We can all sleep a bit happier tonight, knowing that giving up sex isn’t necessarily the answer for all Buddhists, but that simply being aware of the issues involved and adjusting our behavior accordingly, in the light of awareness, we can live the way the Buddha advised us to, enjoying the lay life.

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

Thursday, August 6, 2009


“Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are mind-made.
If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts,
Suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the ox.

Mind precedes all mental states.
Mind is their chief; they are mind-made.
If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts,
Happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.”

The above are verses 1 and 2 from the famous Buddhist book The Dhammapada, which contains poetic statements of the Buddha. These words are not points of doctrine, however, simply to be studied and recited as some kind of dogmatic teachings, but are meant for reflecting upon, as with every utterance of the Awakened One. So, let’s take a brief look at them.

“Mind precedes all mental states” is clear enough: everything that we experience is in the mind, not just thoughts, feelings, memories and other obvious mental stuff, but also the physical phenomena. All of it is perceived here in the mind, nowhere else. We don’t actually experience the world ‘out there’ in the world, but encounter it here, in the mind. Sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and tangible objects are collected by the senses and known in consciousness, which is an aspect of the mind.

“Mind is their chief; they are mind-made.” All experiences are conditioned by our minds, for how we know them depends on our particular perspective, which in turn derives from our past history, on our mental habits. This is the psychological host of all mental and physical stuff, and colors the way that we see them. For instance, if you and I were to look at my living room, we might see somewhat different things – I may see it as a homely, relaxing environment, whilst you might experience it as an unsightly mess!

“If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts, suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the ox.” These words are moving on to the effects of how the mind approaches the world, and are concerned with karma (action), and its results. In Buddhism, three main types of action are recognized; physical, mental, and verbal, and they all have results that may be good or bad for us, depending on their ‘quality.’ For if our thoughts, words and deeds are born of an impure, that is selfish, mind, they will incur negative reactions. But, if they are done in a positive, selfless state of mind, good repercussions will follow: “If with a pure mind a person speaks or acts, happiness follows him like his never-departing shadow.” 

The mind is our real abode. It’s where we construct our universe, not only of the physical information received via the five physical senses, but also of the mental habits that help shape it. Mind is, indeed, the chief of all mental states; shaping our experience of the world both now and in the future. To become aware of the importance of the mind and to see the way that it molds every aspect of life, is to discover a priceless tool that enables one to grow in wisdom.

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