Sunday, February 28, 2010

Monkey Mind & Buddha Mind

 Monkey Mind & Buddha Mind become one...

The breath slowly flows in and out, the sounds of birds, neighbors, and a fan fading into a quiet joy that engulfs the mind, thoughts dissolving into nothingness. In this peace, the restless 'monkey mind' has ceased to chatter, and no longer swings from branch to branch, but instead merges into the serene inner forest of the silent mind. Such is the psychological state that meditation can bring, freeing oneself from, well, one's self. It is such experiences of a rested mind that give a glimpse of the fruits of meditation, and show us that beneath the mad monkey mind that leaps about frantically looking for next tasty nut or banana there is the serene simian called 'Buddha Mind.'

Often in meditation, that monkey mind doesn't transform into a peaceable primate, but continues to scurry about, distracting attention. Indeed, it is common for thoughts to appear to increase in intensity during concentrated meditation practice. This is either because whilst in the confines of the practice the monkey mind reacts with increased activity, or because in focused meditation thoughts are 'lit up' and are noticed more than they normally are. Despite these apparent setbacks to cultivating meditative practice, they are in fact signs that the mind is becoming clearer to us, and the answer is not to get caught up in thoughts nor to resist or suppress them, but simply to watch. If we have the patience, and any longtime meditator will tell you of the importance of being patient, thoughts will dissipate by themselves; the mind will cease all its monkey business by itself, and reveal the ever-present Buddha Mind out of which all comes.

Buddha Mind is our real nature, the unconditioned 'Mind' - and words are metaphors here, remember - that lies beneath the conditioned monkey mind that is interdependent with the world with which it interacts. Moreover, the monkey mind, our everyday mind, is conditioned by our genes, our upbringing, our subconscious, our memories, fears and loves - no wonder it dances about so madly if allowed to, for this is its natural response to so many complicated and contradictory conditioning factors. At some point in meditation, however, the mental monkey gives way to Buddha Mind, and this naked awareness is free from the clinging that causes so much suffering in our lives. It is also often called 'No Mind', because it is so different to the usual mind that we identify with, and because it is without particular features, unlike the everyday mind (and universe) that we usually experience.

If this Buddha Mind remains clear of any monkeying around, it can transform the very same everyday lives that are usually so full of stress and strains. To experience this moment as a confined mind with all kinds of pressures and predispositions is to live under the canopy of a threatening forest where the monkey in us can be attacked and injured any moment. Alternatively, to experience this moment as No Mind or Buddha Mind without any pressures and predispositions is to live freely, spontaneously interacting with a world that goes far beyond the limits of the monkey's threatening forest. Firstly, however, it will help the transformation from monkey to Buddha by practicing meditation in order to quieten the chattering of the distracted and distracting monkey, so that when this monkey-infested world is encountered, it is the serenity of the Buddha Mind that experiences it, and not the agitated simian soul that sees everything as a threat.

Any interesting experiences and insights regarding the monkey mind or Buddha Mind? 
If you do, why not share them by clicking on the comments link below?

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Buddha & Science: A Buddhist Post-Mortem

 To die or not die, that is the question...

Death is coming! There is no evidence to suggest that anyone who has lived, is living, or will live, will not die: we are all subject to a death sentence awarded us the moment we were conceived. This transient nature of our existence is, of course, a natural one. Although some religious traditions may ascribe our mortality to some ancient event such as 'the fall of man', there is no scientific evidence to back such tales up. Furthermore, all living creatures will eventually die, both fauna and flora. Even the Earth is not eternal, according to scientists, along with the Sun and all the other stars in this universe. Death is coming!

Looking a little more closely at our own human demise, what does science tell us? Well, when someone stops breathing and the heart ceases to beat, that person is a 'goner.' This demise may be caused by natural causes such as illness or aging, but also accidents, war, murder, manslaughter, and suicide are also potential reasons for someone dying. And, after death, the body (if it is still intact) will decompose, eventually ending up as a bunch of crumbling bones. But, where is the mind of the dead human being, according to the boffins? Well, in a word, nowhere. The mind, being the result of complicated processes in the brain, ceases upon death. (Most) in the scientific community declare that it vanishes in an existential 'poof' at the end of life.

Now, in traditional Buddhism, along with the belief systems of many cultures around the world, death is indeed the end of the physical body as scientists claim. (At least for now - some religions such as Christianity do teach of a literal bodily resurrection at some point in the future.) As to the mind, most religions teach that there is an eternal aspect to it called the soul that transcends physical death, whilst in Buddhism we find the more complicated idea that some aspects of the mind continue from birth to birth, but not an intact and eternal soul or mind, as such. Either way, there's a departure here from the modern scientific position that nothing survives death, either physical, mental, or 'spiritual.'

As Twenty-First Century Buddhists, what are we to make of these differences between science and the traditional Buddhist conceptions of death and the afterlife? For, the only afterlife accepted by the modern scientific understanding of the term is in the passing on of our genes, or in making a lasting impact on the people or society with which we have interacted whilst alive. This is very different to Buddhist understandings of this topic, where the rebirth of people's mind-continuum from to life to life is not only believed in, but allegedly documented. (See the reincarnation histories of the Dalai Lamas for examples of the latter.) Moreover, as in most traditional cultures, Buddhism attests to the existence of ghosts and spirits, phenomena that the far mass of Thai Buddhists believe in, for example.

Within Buddhism there is another attitude towards death which takes a much more immediate and, it must be noted, scientific approach, and that is to use our mortality as a subject for meditative reflection. Here, we are not dealing with beliefs or cultural assumptions pertaining to mortality, but in looking death in the eye and seeing what effects this process creates in us. It is a way to not only to come to terms with our own human mortality, but to actually psychologically transcend it, letting go of the fear that normally accompanies such considerations, and 'dying' into the present moment.

What is the focus of this fear that usually infects our contemplation of death? Essentially, it is the fear of losing one's self, that sense and idea of being this particular person in a world of separate individuals. We fear death because we fear the non-existence of the self. But, according to both science and Buddhism - though in slightly different ways, it must be noted - the self is an impermanent collection of elements that will not only eventually dissolve away, but are constantly changing throughout our lives. Both the idea of self and the feeling of being a self are themselves ephemeral processes in the human mind that will one day cease.

Wisely reflecting upon death, with a mind already pacified by meditative practice, can bring about a radical alteration in our understanding of ourselves and in our experience of our lives. When we are able to calmly consider that death is all-inclusive, and that no part of the self will escape its clutches, then we are able to accept death, and live life with the full appreciation that the present moment deserves. Paradoxically, in this acceptance, we are ripe to realize that all that is to die is not my self, anyway, taking us to another level of realization on the Buddhist Path. For, whether we take the scientific view of death, or whether we cling to a particular set of afterlife beliefs, or simply keep an open mind on the subject, as individuals our mortality is a fact, and yet, seeing beyond the ego is seeing beyond death, for there is no one to die! With this insight, our understanding of death is transformed: Death is coming? There's no such thing!

So, what do you make of death? Do you ascribe to a traditional understanding that something in us survives our physical demise? Or, do you take the modern scientific view of death that indicates nothing of our individuality transcends the cessation of our vital signs? And what of the notion that in truth there's no one here to die, anyway, and that if we can realize this fact wholeheartedly, we will have no need to fear that which cannot touch us? Please jot down your thoughts via the comments section below...before it's too late!

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Is Buddhism a Religion?

 Are these monks praying, and does it matter?

When filling in a census form, under the section 'Religion', I write 'Buddhism.' This may not, to the general reader, be much of a surprise, considering the fact that I am a Buddhist, and yet, many Buddhists would themselves feel uncomfortable with classifying Buddhism as a religion. Why? Well, if we take a typical dictionary definition of religion, we usually come up with something like the following (taken from the Concise Oxford English Dictionary, in this case): 'the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods/a particular system of faith and worship.' If we examine this description of what religion is, and then compare it to our own understanding of Buddhism, do we find that the former sums up the latter or not?

First of all, is Buddhism 'the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power?' If we define the law of karma as such, then the 'superhuman controlling power' bit works, albeit loosely. However, look at those two words 'faith' and 'worship' - is Buddhism primarily a form of faith and worship? I've certainly never read of Buddhists having faith in or worshiping karma! However, for many Buddhists around the world, of whatever sect, faith in the Buddha, his disciples, the Teachings, gurus and teachers is an important aspect of Buddhism, expressed in acts of worship. And yet, others - in my opinion a small minority - would balk at the suggestion that they either have faith in the Buddha or worship him, let alone any of the other aforementioned objects of devotion.

This minority does appear to be predominant amongst Western Buddhists, not surprisingly given their rejection of faith-based religions such as Christianity and Judaism, along with the anti-superstitious feeling that the sciences promote in the Occident. In the Orient, where Buddhism has been practiced for the past two-and-a-half thousand years, such rejection of faith and worship is much rarer, although it is widely documented, due to the high-profile academic positions held by many of its proponents. In Japan, for example, the famous writer on Zen Buddhism D. T. Suzuki presented Buddhism as a fusion of spirituality and psychology, whilst his compatriots in the 'Kyoto School' of philosophy, including Nishida Kitaro and Nishitani Keiji, also described Buddhism in rationalistic and scientific ways.

But what of the second part of that Dictionary entry on religion above? It defined 'superhuman controlling power' not as the Buddhist notion of karma, but as 'especially a personal God or gods.' Even if we allow for faith and worship to be considered 'genuine' Buddhist practice, surely neither a god nor gods would be the object of such devotion? Well, again, the way that Amitabha Buddha is viewed and worshiped seems little different to a god, and even in the Pali Canon we find the Buddha acknowledging the existence, and sometimes the contemplation, of gods (although not the adoration of them). Again, modern-minded Buddhists might interpret the various non-historical buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, and spirits described in traditional Buddhist circles in mythological or psychological ways, but for most Buddhists such beings are believed in literally, making their experience of Buddhism very much a religion, not a philosophy or 'way of life.'

In the last part of the dictionary definition of religion cited above, we find 'a particular system of faith and worship.' We've already examined the use of the words 'faith' and 'worship' in relation to Buddhism, but what of the idea of it being a system? Well, this would appear to fit in with the philosophy and practice of the Noble Eightfold Path, with a fair definition of it as 'a system of spiritual/psychological liberation.' This would appear to offend few modern-minded Buddhists, but doesn't really begin to acknowledge the other more religious beliefs and practices found within Buddhist communities. We seem split between very different interpretations of what Buddhism is, all rooted in long-established scriptures and traditions, but diverging dramatically when present practices are examined.

So, is Buddhism a religion? Or, is it a 'system of liberation from suffering', or a complex set of philosophies, or a set of cultural practices? Maybe it's all of the above, and more. Perhaps this is the beauty of Buddhism, that we can experience it in the way that suits us best, depending on cultural, individual, and temporal conditions. The Buddha is seen to teach different 'levels' of Buddhism to different people in both the Theravada and Mahayana scriptures, and within the living traditions of both major branches of Buddhism we find multiple forms of belief and practice. It is the conclusion of this writer - for the time being at least, for all things are impermanent - that Buddhism can be described as a religion, with some reservations regarding theistic terminology, as well as a branch of philosophy, and, most crucially, a way of life intended to end suffering. What do you think, dear reader?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Buddhism's Five Precepts

High Five for Buddha!

From the earliest known texts on the matter, Buddhism has considered morality an important part of the practice, presented in the simplest form for lay Buddhists as the Five Precepts. In some of these texts, the Buddha is often seen advising against the breaking of the Five Precepts at the risk of future woes, not only in this life, but in lives to come. Indeed, willful acts that do not conform to these precepts are often said by the Buddha to lead to the hell realms. So, if we want to avoid being reborn into disadvantageous circumstances, as an animal, or in the torments of Yama's underworld, we'd better make clear what these precepts actually are:

  1. To avoid killing sentient beings
  2. To avoid stealing
  3. To avoid sexual misconduct
  4. To avoid lying
  5. To avoid taking intoxicants

 Now, looking at each of the five precepts in turn will help us to determine why we should adhere to it, and what this entails. Starting with Precept #1, we need to establish what is meant by 'sentient beings,' thereby knowing what it is we shouldn't kill. Any creature that has a mind is considered a sentient being in Buddhism, and in the physical world this corresponds to any creature with a brain, no matter how small that being (or its brain) might be. So, unlike the Judeo-Christian commandment not to kill, the First Precept of Buddhism discourages us from willfully taking the life of any living creature, including all types of animals, birds, fish, insects, etc. Precept #2 encourages us to avoid stealing, that is taking anything that we haven't bought or been given, if we believe it to belong to somebody else. Taking wild fruit to eat would be fine, as long as we know it isn't on private property. So, obviously theft, mugging, and burglary are out of the question for a well-practicing Buddhist. But, what about finding money in the street and then keeping it, does that count as breaking the Second Precept? If we know the money doesn't belong to us, then it is against Precept #2, as is pilfering from the workplace as a 'perk of the job.'

The Third Buddhist Precept discourages 'sexual misconduct', a phrase that has been variously interpreted, depending on the culture and morality of the individual doing the interpreting. Does it only mean not committing adultery or raping someone? Some Buddhists think so, whilst at the other end of the moral spectrum there are traditionalists that consider any sex out of marriage to be breaking this precept. Somewhere between the two would seem more in line with the general 'thrust' of Buddhist morality, however. Loving sex between people committed to each other that has at least a modicum of wisdom and compassion thrown in somewhere would appear to be in line with Precept #3. For, whilst on the one hand a ceremony and a bit of paper do not necessarily indicate either wisdom or compassion, promiscuous sex would appear to have none of either.

Precept #4 guides us against lying, that is deliberately telling untruths. Again, as with Precept #1, the Fourth Precept is broader in scope than we might think at first, for this doesn't just include blatant lying such as perjury, slander, or inaccurate boasting. It also includes so-called 'white lies', as they are still denying the truth of the way things are, and therefore contradicting the Dharma. Telling an uncomfortable truth, keeping quiet, or changing the subject are always preferable if we take this precept seriously.
As to the Fifth Precept, to avoid taking intoxicants, this doesn't just mean not drinking alcohol. It includes not talking recreational drugs, eating magic mushrooms, or sniffing toxic glue. Precept #5 exists to help us avoid twisting perception so that we misunderstand the Dharma (the-way-things-are), and so that we don't break any other of the Five Precepts whilst 'under the influence.'

That's all well and good on the level of theory, you might well think, but what about the practical application of the Five Precepts: is it possible to live in the modern world whilst adhering to these five guidelines, and if it is, is anyone doing so? Taking a look around Thailand, the country often touted as the most Buddhist country on Earth, it would seem that the Five Precepts aren't widely followed. Animals are routinely slaughtered for food, and insects, particularly mosquitoes, are swatted by just about everyone, it seems. Stealing is a problem in the Land of Smiles, too, and sexuality has often been indulged in in Thai society - it's a sobering thought that despite the thousands of 'sex tourists' that come their exotic holidays every year, more than ninety per cent of prostitution in the Kingdom involves Thais only. Lying to 'save face' is an integral part of Thai culture, too - very few people speak the truth about themselves or others (or their country) when an untruth will make everyone feel better about themselves. And, as for not taking intoxicants, Thailand is one of the drug centers of the world, where narcotics are not only smuggled in and out of the Kingdom, but many locals are addicted, also. And, on any weekend take a stroll around the bars and nightclubs of any Thai town or city, and the drunkards are out in force!

And yet, there are lay Buddhists in this land, who like the best of the monks, keep the Precepts, and lead virtuous and harmless lives. Hard to identify, they are occasionally met whilst traveling, or visiting a forest temple, where many of the more dedicated lay Buddhists go to beef up their practice from time to time. In this world of multitudinous temptations, it would be somewhat naive to expect the majority of people to be keeping the Five Precepts, but it is encouraging nevertheless when such people are encountered, showing that virtue is not dead, and that the wholesome foundations that maintaining the Precepts gives us for the further cultivation of meditation and wisdom is achievable.

So, here in Thailand, there are Buddhists that benefit from their adherence to the Five Precepts, but then what of Westerners who have not grown up in a predominately Buddhist culture - can they too sustain such a practice? From my personal experience as a Western Buddhist, he simple answer is' "Yes!" The slightly more complicated response is that whilst it is possible for those of us born outside of Buddhist families to keep the Precepts, it isn't plain sailing. (And, neither is it so for many devout Thai Buddhists, either, for that matter.) Despite living in Thailand for the past few years, previously my wife (who is also Buddhist) and I lived in England, and we managed to cultivate the Precepts there too, despite the very different cultural backdrop. And, this shouldn't be too surprising when we remember that most Thais don't practice the Precepts, creating a society that looks at those of us that do live by them as oddities. Ultimately, it's up to each of us to make the commitment to keep the Buddhist Precepts or not, and whilst it's nice to have others around us doing the same, if we really, really care about it, we'll do it.

But, there's a question that arises here that needs to be addressed: why bother to maintain the Five Precepts at all? If it's not about fitting in with the morality of one's community, then we should look into the reasons for taking up the Precepts, albeit briefly. Well, returning to my own experience in these matters, there have been tangible results from keeping the Five Precepts which include a clearer conscience, confidence, and an increased measure of happiness or contentedness. Having a clear conscience that one is not behaving in the selfish and unwise ways that the Precepts discourage, means that less guilt is likely to arise in the mind, certainly regarding the most serious misdemeanors that humans can get up to. Cultivating the Five Precepts also leads to a confidence born from the fact that the (often negative) desires that arise in the mind do not have to be acted out, and that awakening to the way things are and responding appropriately is possible. The feeling of contentedness that comes out of a predominately guiltless and confident mind is a wonderful gift to possess that can not only be experienced by the bearer, but also shared with all sentient beings. This, coupled with the fact that by keeping the Precepts in the first place we are doing considerably less harm to others, makes us a positive not negative force in the world.

To sum up, then, the Five Precepts are not always that easy (or fun) to maintain, but when cultivated over some time, they bring real benefits to those of us that keep them, as well as to all other sentient beings. So, over to you dear reader - do you keep the Five Precepts, and if so, what is your experience with them? Please leave a comment on 'Buddha Space' by clicking on the link below. I look forward to your responses.