Monday, August 27, 2012

A Buddhist Reflection on Stonehenge

Stonehenge: impermanent, imperfect, & impersonal.

According to the 2001 British national census, I'm an apparently rare breed - a British Buddhist. (There were 151,816 British Buddhists at that time resident in the UK. That's 0.3% of the total population.) My hometown is a small city in the English county of Wiltshire called Salisbury, also known historically as Sarum. So, as I live in Thailand these days, you could say that I’m a 'Sarumese' guy living amongst the Siamese. A more traditional moniker for someone who was born in Wiltshire is a 'Moonraker,' derived from a quaint story about smugglers who hid contraband alcohol in a river. When they returned at night and raked the water to retrieve their booty, they were confronted by some men of the law. To explain away their odd behavior, the smugglers said that they were raking the moon from the river, as its image was reflected in the water! I’ve never ascertained as to whether this bizarre excuse worked or not – I guess that’s not the point, really.

Not many people know the above tale, but one thing pertaining to Wiltshire that is known around the world is the giant megalithic structure called Stonehenge, that lies at the heart of the shire. As a 'Moonraker,' the Stones, as Stonehenge is also known, are a powerful symbol of where I come from, situated a few miles north of Salisbury. But, although a Buddhist rather than a Druid, I’m led to consider what they actually mean to me, if anything.

Contemplating the structure of Stonehenge leads me to think on the three characteristics (of existence), or tilakkhana, if you wanna be fancy. These are that all things are impermanent (anicca), imperfect (dukkha), and impersonal (anatta). The Stones are very, very old – over four thousand years old. No doubt they have aged dramatically during that time, and do not look exactly as they did when first erected. They typify all that is impermanent, despite their great age.

Stonehenge is by no means perfect, either. The original pattern in which the megaliths were placed has been disrupted, with some of the rocks broken and lying at odd angles to one another on the ground. They are subject to dukkha, to being imperfect; if they were perfect, they would still be in the same positions as they were four millennia ago, but of course they’re not. As with everything, they are vulnerable due to their very nature as conditioned phenomena.

Little is actually known about the Stones, either. No carvings or books remain that refer to their makers or original purpose: there they stand on a plain hill as though dropped their by some pagan gods, or as some more imaginative theorists would claim, by aliens! In truth, we don’t know who made Stonehenge, and as it is barren of any calligraphy or imagery, its makers remain anonymous, or ‘selfless.’ Stonehenge stands on Salisbury Plain like a giant freak of nature. And in this way, it symbolizes anatta.

So, returning to my query above, as to what the Stones mean to me, my answer as a Buddhist is unsurprisingly dependent upon the Dharma. Stonehenge encapsulates the three characteristics, standing as a colossal reminder that all things are under the sway of impermanence, imperfection, and selflessness. Applying these reflections to our own selves, we begin to see through the assumption of self and the suffering that necessarily follows from thinking of oneself as inherently separate from the world around one. In truth, there is no self, and like the giant Stones north of Sarum, to silently play witness to the conditions that constantly arise then fall away is the best that can be done – unless one wants to rake after a moon that dissipates upon closer examination.

*These numbers are from the 2001 census, as figures are not out for the 2011 census at the time of writing; no massive difference in figures for the number of British Buddhists is expected, however.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: The Sound of Silence, by Ajahn Sumedho

Ajahn Sumedho's The Sound of Silence is a joy to read, full of the insight and humor that this popular Buddhist monk is famous for. It was a genuine privilege to receive his wisdom as I worked through its pages, savoring the words of its author as he discusses Buddhist meditation and mindfulness. This wisdom has been accrued over a long monastic career of over 30 years, first as a young monk in Thailand, under the meditation master Ajahn Chah, before moving to the West to be the abbot of Cittaviveka and then Amaravati Buddhist monasteries. Since this book was published, the venerable ajahn has retired in Thailand, living out his life as a simple Buddhist monk. He recognized around the globe as a compassionate & wise Buddhist teacher.

The twenty-seven chapters cover subjects from body contemplation to 'the sound of silence,' and from the nature of consciousness to awareness of rebirth. They were transcribed from spontaneous talks given by Ajahn Sumedho over a six year period, and retain much of the vigor and liveliness he is renowned for. Throughout, he never strays far from the central theme of this work – mindfulness, or as he often describes it, intuitive awareness. Much of Ajahn Sumedho’s words revolve around making this clear consciousness the hub of one’s practice, remaining awake to the various thoughts, feelings, moods, and sensations that fill the mind’s attention. In doing so, the self-view (sakkaya-ditthi) dominates one’s perspective less, opening one up to the experience of life as it truly is: impermanent (anicca), unsatisfactory (dukkha), and not self (anatta).

There are many personal details from Ajahn Sumedho’s monastic career as well that add another dimension to The Sound of Silence, revealing his close relationship to his mentor Ajahn Chah, his analysis of his own personality traits, and his contemplative life as lived in both Thailand and England. In an example of this, we read of the poignant and amusing incident involving a bag of sugar and a fasting Venerable Sumedho – engineered by the ever-insightful Ajahn Chah! 

A really important aspect of this book is that it’s not a scholarly work revolving around complicated Buddhist philosophy and psychology (although Ajahn Sumedho does display admiral knowledge of Buddhist doctrine). Instead, the forest monk focuses on the meditative life as lived by real people with real problems and concerns, as reflected in the title of one of the transcribed talks: When You’re an Emotional Wreck. Indeed, dealing with everyday concerns with mindfulness is a central theme of this book, encouraging its readers to apply its teachings to their own lives.

The Sound of Silence is a true gem among the plethora of books on Buddhism that are available nowadays. It’s a work I will certainly return to again and again over the coming years as an aid to my own meditation practice, alongside Ajahn Sumedho's other major books Teachings of a Buddhist Monk, The Mind and the Way, and the wonderfully-titled Don't Take Your Life Personally. For, with this modest monk's words, we posses pointers to the gate to the deathless, and as we all head to our final breaths I can't think of a better companion. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Title & Author : The Sound of Silence: The Selected Teachings of Ajahn Sumedho
Publishers      : Wisdom Publications
Page Count    : 375
Price               : $15.16
ISBN               : 0-86171-515-2

Friday, August 17, 2012

Seeing Haiku

is it Buddha
that glistens
or the seeing?

falling leaves
thoughts disperse

ah! what relief
attention reversed
finding no-thing

mind is rain
falling nowhere
eternal downpour

I am lost
in your baby eyes
innocent gaze

perfect sickness
aware space
watching 'as is'

a butterfly
is awareness
flitting within

cicada calls
drawing attention
back home

the black cup

looking here
no-one's found
except you

the forest is full
of chanting voices
and yet still...

this old body
sprouts into
the ageless

a face stares
from a puddle
at nothingness

the lizard
is stillness

noises arise
in silence

we merge
in the presence
of your face

back and forth
in eternity

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Review: Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond, by Ajahn Brahm

This book is the kind of work that comes around once in a lifetime: it’s a book that can change lives. There are a plethora of books available these days on Buddhist meditation, written by this expert who studied with that master, or that master that adapted this practice for the modern world, etc. Ajahn Brahm’s work is somewhat different to the usual material found in the Buddhist marketplace: what we have here is a book not only based on the teachings of the Buddha as found in the earliest scriptures available, but also a modern teacher’s experiential account of how these methods work. In the introduction, he catches our attention perfectly by stating that meditation is the way of letting go. He says that in meditation the point is to let go of the complex outer world and reach the powerful bliss that lies within. Ajahn Brahm declares that in his experience, this bliss is better than sex!

The book is split into two sections, Part 1 which introduces meditation to those who are less experienced with it, and Part 2 which goes into much more depth on the subject…and I mean much more depth! To begin with, we’ll take a look at Part 1, however, which starts with two chapters dealing with what the forest monk calls “The Basic Method of Meditation.” Here, Ajahn Brahm details seven stages which lead from the simple beginnings of being alert to this moment, all the way up to what Buddhism calls jhana, the pinnacle of Buddhist meditation and the prelude to enlightenment itself. On the way to enlightenment, we encounter the five hindrances which Ajahn Brahm explains thoroughly, showing how they are to be let go of during meditation practice stage by stage. This first part of the book includes useful instructions such as how to set up and use ‘a gatekeeper’ to keep out unwanted distractions, and various meditation techniques such as anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing), metta bhavana (the cultivation of loving-kindness), and cankama (walking meditation). The emphasis is on breathing meditation and what the forest monk refers to as ‘the beautiful breath’, but the different methods are described in enough detail for someone inexperienced in them to be able to practice them.

The role of mindfulness is covered in Part 1, also, revealing how experiencing the jhanas (meditative absorptions) is an important precursor to the four foundations of mindfulness (cattari satipatthana) that are the way to see the Dhamma (more commonly known as the Dharma). This Dhamma is the way things are, and to fully comprehend it is to experience nibbana (also called nirvana). Ajahn Brahm states that the purpose of the satipatthana is to see anatta, the fact that there’s no self; that the body, feelings, mind, and mind objects are not self.

In Part 2, Ajahn Brahm goes into much more precise explanations with regards the jhanas, devoting three chapters to how they are developed and relate to one another. His knowledge of these extremely important (and often misunderstood) states is truly impressive, based on his own experience. Following on from the jhanas, he then relates the nature of ‘deep insight’ (samma-nana), and shows how it reveals the true nature of existence, and that which lies behind it all: nirodha (the ending of greed, hatred, and delusion).

The final two chapters describe enlightenment in much detail, and pull no punches when mentioning the inaccurate definitions of nibbana (also often misunderstood); he differentiates enlightenment from ‘psychic states’ of mind, for instance. He also writes that the meaning of nibbana is changed to be more appealing whenever Buddhism becomes popular. Teachings are well received when they coincide with what people want to hear, so some Buddhist teachers bend the truth to suit their followers, thus not contradicting their own unenlightened state. All this leads to ‘a dumbing down’ of nibbana.

Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond is a book written with much learning, experience, and humor. It is a work that I value greatly, and am still trying to come to terms with, for after over twenty years of meditation practice, this recently published work has much to teach me. I cannot recommend it more highly than that, and encourage anyone with a serious interest in the meditative disciplines taught by the Buddha to buy this book – now!

Title & Author : Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond: A Meditator's Handbook, by Ajahn Brahm
Publisher        : Wisdom Publications
Page Count    : 304
Price               : $13:56
ISBN               : 0-86171-275-7
Web Link        : Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond at Wisdom

Ajahn Brahm has written a follow up to the above book, a review of which can be read here: Review: The Art of Disappearing.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Bassui: From the Beginning

Bassui Tokusho Zenji

"From the beginning everyone is complete and perfect. Buddhas and ordinary people alike are originally the Tathagata. The movement of a newborn baby's legs and arms is also the splendid work of its original nature. The bird flying, the hare running, the sun rising, the moon sinking, the wind blowing, the clouds moving, all things that shift and change are due to the spinning of the right Dharma wheel of their own original nature, depending neither on the teachings of others nor on the power of words. It is from the spinning of my right Dharma wheel that I am now talking like this, and you are all listening likewise through the splendor of your Buddha-nature."

The above is a teaching by Bassui Tokusho (1327-1387), a Japanese Zen master, and is taken from the book 'Mud & Water: The Collected Teachings of Zen Maser Bassui,' by Arthur Braverman, p.28. For a review of this fantastic book, please click here: Review: Mud & Water

Thursday, August 2, 2012


He is teaching the Dharma; do you understand?

The word Dharma lies at the heart of Buddhism. It is the way-things-are, the nature of existence according to the Buddha, and it is the Buddhist teachings themselves, first taught by him, and then developed and expanded on by generations of Buddhist teachings. In the Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha states that the Dharma exists whether it is taught or not, as it is fundamental to the workings of the universe (Dhamma-niyama Sutta, AN 3.134). The Buddha, however, totally identified with his role as teacher of the Dharma, and therefore declared that whoever sees the Dharma sees the Buddha, and vice versa (Vakkali Sutta, SN 22,87). The Dharma, then, is the natural order of things, and the teachings that encapsulate it. As such, it is the second of the three refuges of Buddhism, along with the Buddha & the Sangha (the community of the enlightened). But, what exactly is it?

The Dharma has been formulated into collections of scripture known as Tipitika in Pali and Tripitika in Sanskrit. The former is generally considered the older of the two, and therefore nearer the actual teachings of the historical Buddha, and is usually called the Pali Canon in English. In this monumental collection of ancient Buddhist texts there can be found descriptions of the nature of the Dharma, that is to say, ways of recognizing it. This is important, for it's one thing to study Buddhist teachings and understand them intellectually, but another thing entirely to apply them to our lives. Knowing how the Dharma is to be approached and digested will help us in this endeavor, and the following description of it taken from the Pali Canon is the perfect place to start: svakkhato bhagavato dhammo, sanditthiko, akaliko, ehipassiko, opanayiko, paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi.

Svakkato bhagavato dhammo can be translated as 'Dhamma is well expounded by the Blessed One.' Dhamma is the Pali equivalent of the more widely known word Dharma, and the Blessed One is another name for the Buddha. So, what this phrase is telling us is that the Buddha taught the Dharma really well. So, if we explore his teachings as found in Buddhist scriptures, we will have a source of teachings that we can use for reflection that will lead to the ultimate goal of Buddhism: the ending of suffering. In the scriptures, alongside the Buddha, there are other accounts of the Dharma just as valid, spoken by his disciples. Moreover, subsequent teachings by Buddhist luminaries over the past two-and-a-half millennia are also extensions and variations on the Blessed One's teachings. All of this can be considered 'well expounded' and worthy of our attention. 

Sanditthiko means 'apparent here and now.' The Dharma is not mere abstraction. It is not a philosophy designed as a neat summing up of existence: it is to be known existentially, in our lives, right now. The three characteristics of anicca, dukkha, & anatta (impermanent, unsatisfactory, & not-self) are central Buddhist teachings to be experienced, not only understood. If we look around us, we can observe the impermanent nature of everything. But, how many of us have observed the ephemeral nature of the mind? Thoughts & emotions are also impermanent phenomena, aren't they? The Dharma, therefore, is 'apparent here and now,' and waiting for us to discover it.

Akaliko means 'timeless,' and indicates that the Dharma is not bound by time. It is a set of truths that remain the same whether encountered now, in the ancient past, or in the distant future. In this sense, the Dharma is like the laws that govern the universe, and to which we are all subject. The Dharma is timeless in another sense as well, which harder to grasp as it is not with the intellect that we do so, but purely through experience. When we penetrate to the heart of the Buddhist teachings, existentially speaking, we discover a timeless zone. This zone is without any characteristics, and is not only ageless but also deathless (amata); to experience it is to achieve the awakening (bodhi) also known as nirvana.

Ehipassiko means 'inviting investigation.' The Buddhist teachings do not exist as mere doctrines to be believed in. Neither are they a logical philosophy to be intellectually accepted.Rather than dogmas, the Dharma invites us to examine it, only accepting as true what we find satisfies our experience. It is upaya (Pali & Sanskrit), which can be rendered 'skillful means' or 'expedient means' in English. In the famous analogy of the raft (Alagaddupama Sutta, MN 22), the Buddha describes Buddhist teachings as being useful only as far as they lead us to nirvana. Like a raft, we should not cling to them after we have 'reached the other shore,' but rather let others use them to realize their own enlightenment. So, rather than having blind faith in the Dharma, we should investigate it, question it, reflect on it, and in conjunction with other skillful means, use it to realize nirvana.

Opanayiko means 'leading inwards.' Humans tend to look outwards. We study the world, try to understand it, and attempt to lead happy lives in it. We do not often, if ever, turn our attention around and examine ourselves for any decent length of time. According to Buddhism, this is exactly what we need to do if we wish to discover the cause of suffering (dukkha) in ourselves and then end all suffering through following the Buddhist Path (magga). An integral part of that path is what is termed 'meditation' in the English language. In such practices, we learn to look within, and see that suffering is caused by our own desire (tanha) & clinging (upadana). It is our inner reactions to outer phenomena that create suffering around them, not the other way around. The Dharma leads us inwards to realize this truth.

Paccattam veditabbo vinnuhi means 'to be experienced individually by the wise.' There is a discourse of the Buddha found in the Pali Canon called the Dhamma-viharin Sutta (AN 5.73). In it, the Buddha contrasts on the one hand the Dhamma-viharin ('one-who-dwells-in-the-Dharma') with those keen on studying the Dharma (with the intellect), describing the Dharma (to others), reciting the Dharma, and thinking about the Dharma. Those that meditate & experience the Dharma with mindfulness are extolled above the others. The Buddha described such people as Dhamma-viharin, or 'Dharma-dwellers.' Such persons will develop wisdom as opposed to knowledge, and though they may indulge in the other activities as well, it is by experiencing the Dharma individually that they really benefit from their practice.

These six attributes of the Dharma are chanted by Buddhists the world over every morning & evening. If only they were investigated as often as they are uttered, there would be so many more noble persons (ariyapuggala) around! The importance of the Dharma in the life of a Buddhist cannot be overestimated, nevertheless. For, even if one is not a 'Dharma-dweller' just yet, the Dharma is that which one believes, studies, teaches, recites, and ponders over. This is with regards the Dharma in the form of Buddhist teachings; as the 'way-things-are,' it affects us all, Buddhist or not, and reflecting upon it can only benefit ourselves and the world at large. Furthermore, if reflected upon wisely, the Dharma may be revealed as none other than the Buddha, the 'Awakened One,' and we may become members of the noble community of the enlightened (Ariya-Sangha). May it be so!