Saturday, October 27, 2012

Review: What the Buddha Taught, by Dr. Walpola Rahula

This tremendous little book was this reviewer's introduction to Buddhism many, many moons ago. Upon reading it, he immediately found a connection with the Buddha's teachings that was absent in his exposure to other faiths and philosophies. In fact, it was more like remembering facts previously known that lurked in the subconscious. It was a reacquaintance with familiar truths. And, like a lot of its readers, rereads the work every few years or so to refresh his memory, as well reflect on the text to see if any new insights arise, which they invariably do. 

In simple yet detailed language the Sri Lankan monk-scholar Dr. Walpola Rahula presents his reader with the basic teachings of the Buddha as found in the earliest extant texts, the Tipitika (or Pali Canon). He covers the four noble truths, not-self, and meditation, as well as the relevance of what the Buddha taught to the contemporary world. This is all followed - in later editions - with an excellent choice of original Buddhist texts from the Pali Canon translated into clear modern English.

After an extremely brief (one page!) introduction to the person of the Buddha, the second chapter focuses on the Buddhist attitude of mind. This emphasis on the actual teachings of the Buddha rather than his person is a strength of What the Buddha Taught. In doing so, its author avoids mixing the two up in the mind of the reader, which is easily done. And the reason to steer clear of this mixing up is that unlike most religions which encourage their followers to worship a god or gods or other such divine figures, in the Pali Canon the Buddha wants us to worship no-one. Instead, he points us to take a good hard look at the mind, and to thereby understand it, this being the path to enlightenment.

The tools to make this journey into truth are contained in the Buddha's four noble truths. Dr. Rahula commits four of the eight main chapters of the book to these truths, leading his reader through each one in turn enabling the step-by-step comprehension of them as traditionally taught in Buddhist countries. Following on from the four noble truths the book covers a commonly misunderstand aspect of the Buddha's teachings: anatta, or not-self. Here, the author goes to great pains to establish exactly what the Buddha meant by anatta, which is often different to what many commentators think. This is done in some detail, and the reader new to Buddhism may find this chapter a little hard going in places as a result, but subsequent readings (and experience) will no doubt help to make this difficult section of the book clearer.

A strength of What the Buddha Taught is that despite its emphasis on what the Buddha taught, it does not shy away from the techniques he developed to put the Buddhist teachings into practice. This is especially true in the chapter that covers meditation, also referred to as 'mental culture' by Dr. Rahula. In it, he acquaints the reader with anapanasati ('mindfulness of breathing'), the central meditation method found in the Pali Canon. Another important aspect of this mental culture is to develop mindfulness in all our actions, including those we might consider 'secular' or insignificant. Not only techniques but teachings for reflection during meditative mind states are included, such as the five hindrances and the seven factors of enlightenment.

In the final chapter of the book, Dr. Rahula discusses the role of the Buddha's teachings in the modern world. And, despite being originally published in 1959, the author's insights still ring true today. An interesting section of this chapter is where the author explores the Buddha's teachings regarding the perfect king, and uses this as a template for modern world leaders. If only the prime ministers, presidents & the like would take heed of these teachings, what an improvement in international relations there would be! Us ordinary folk aren't spared the Buddha's wisdom here, however; What the Buddha Taught contains priceless advice for our everyday lives too.

In summation, then, in this book Dr. Walpola Rahula has given the world a wonderful introductory resource to the Buddha's teachings. It is also a work that is worthy of returning to again and again as a stimulus for deeper reflections. This reviewer cannot recommend highly enough, for whatever faults it may contain - and all conditioned things are imperfect - What the Buddha Taught has much to inspire its readership. And for that, not only should we grateful to the Buddha, but also to Dr. Rahula, who skillfully condensed the essence of the Buddha's teachings into such a fantastic little book.

For a free pdf copy of the above book, minus the section of translated texts, please click here: What the Buddha Taught. Many thanks to the people at the Charleston Buddhist Fellowship for their meritorious deeds in supplying us with this wonderful resource.

Monday, October 22, 2012

An Experiment in Awareness

Look at what Arnie's pointing at...and be 'terminated!'

The central way to establish mindfulness in Theravada Buddhism is through the various satipatthana, or ‘frames for mindfulness’, which comprises focusing attention on one of four types of phenomena: the body, feelings, the mind and mind objects. Contemplation of the body includes the well known practice of anapanasati, or ‘mindfulness of breathing’, where one keeps attention on the in and out breaths, developing concentration and insight into the nature of the breath. Another long-established type of meditation is zazen, as promoted in Zen Buddhism. As with mindful breathing, zazen has become a very popular form of meditation in modern times.

An alternative to the above traditional awareness practices, is to turn attention around 180 degrees and look at who or what is experiencing the world right now. This technique, though surely not unknown prior to the twentieth century, was discovered and developed by the British philosopher and writer Douglas Edison Harding. It’s a startling simple and direct way to cultivate mindfulness and insight, and probably for this reason is often overlooked or undervalued.

To have any understanding of this technique does not come from reading about it, however, but arises from actually doing at least one of the experiments promoted by the late Douglas Harding. Here’s one of the simpler experiments:

Point at the scene in front of you, taking note of the size, color, shape and opacity of an object you can see. Next, point to another object near to where you are, answering the following questions: how big is it? What color is it? What shape is it? Can you see through it, or is it opaque?

Next, point at your own feet, asking and answering the same questions as above, before moving on to focus on your legs. Take a look at your torso, also taking the time to analyze its size, color, shape and solid nature.

Now, point your finger at your face – or at least where others see your face. What do you see? How big is it? What color is it? Does it have a shape? Is it an opaque thing, or the exact opposite? Pointing at where others see my face, I see no such thing. Right here, right now, this finger is directed not at a face or head, but thing whatsoever!

All the different sized things on display are in stark contrast to what I see here: they appear in the absence of any such thing here. Ditto colors – there are no colors here other than the colors of the objects arising in awareness. The same is true of shape – the ‘no thing’ here has no shape, as only things have shape, and there’s no thing here to have a shape! As to opacity, all the opaque objects that can be seen right now occur in this invisible no thing: its absence is their being. What do you see when you point at your ‘face’?

Hopefully you did the experiment above, rather than just reading the instructions and intellectualizing about them. Douglas Harding’s experiments are entirely based on doing them, otherwise they probably sound like so much gibberish! If you did do the experiment, but didn’t quite ‘get it’, you can always do it again, this time making sure to accept only the facts of this moment rather than what you imagine to be where ‘you’ are.Why do this particular form of mindfulness? Well, over the years, I’ve found it to be a pretty good technique for getting beyond many of the ego-based emotions and hang-ups that can dominate much of human thought. Looking back here and seeing that nobody’s home, when practiced over years, can alleviate much personality-produced angst, as well as the kind of self-consciousness that blighted my own youth. Also, with less of me here to get in the way, there’s a natural openness to all the people that appear in this naked awareness, with nothing between us to separate 'me' from 'them.'

As I’ve written before, some of the insights that have arisen in this mind in relation to what Douglas called ‘in-seeing’ do differ from some of his conclusions, along with many of his ‘followers’. Being brought up in a strict Christian environment, Douglas later related ‘seeing-who-we-really-are’ to a theistic view of life, describing this experience as seeing (and being) God. As you might expect of a Buddhist, I don’t experience the space here as any kind of deity, as such, but that’s not to say that Douglas’ ideas are completely at odds with my own views. One man’s God might be another man’s Zen, or one woman’s Brahman could well be another lady’s Nirvana. Enlightenment ain't to be found in words!

An important point that I would make as a Buddhist is that ‘the Headless Way’, as this technique is widely known, is not a stand-alone practice. Douglas and his many friends have often seen it as such, referring to religious tradition when it fits in with the ‘headless’ experience, but rejecting conventional spiritual life when it seems to suggest that there’s more to enlightenment/salvation than merely looking ‘home’. Seeing the void at the centre of ‘G’ is only part of the Buddhist Way that I practice however, and many insights have arisen over the years that have come from traditional Buddhist teachings and endeavors, rather than from ‘in-seeing’. The two complement each other nicely, and that’s the Way it works out here.

So, if you got the point of the experiment and saw what Zen Buddhists call “Your Original Face (before you were born)”, why not stick at it for a while and see what insights arise. If you wish for further information on this efficacious mindfulness technique, please click here: The Headless Way.

See also: A Second Experiment in Awareness & A Third Experiment in Awareness

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Question and Answer in the Mountains, by Li Po

Ask me how it is I've come to perch in these blue-green hills,

and I'll smile with no answer; I'm happiest with heart-and-mind just so, may be….

Peach blossoms float by here, gone into the quite definite shadows.

There is another world, other than this one we choose to live in.

The above poem by Li Po (701-762) is excerpted from a book by J. P. Seaton. For a review of this fabulous collection of poetry, click here: Review: Bright Moon, White Clouds.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Ajahn Brahm & Dependent Arising

Ajahn Brahm... singing the Dharma!

“This dependent arising, Ananda, is deep and it appears deep. It is through not understanding, not penetrating, this teaching that this world resembles a tangled ball of thread, a bird’s nest, a thicket of sedge or reed, and that people do not escape from the lower states of existence, from the course of woe and perdition, suffering from the round of rebirth.” 
(The Buddha to his cousin the Venerable Ananda, Digha Nikaya 15)

One thing that I really like about the teaching style of the British Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahmavamso (‘Brahm’ for short) is his detailed analysis of Buddhist teachings. He excels, for instance, at explaining the central teaching of the Lord Buddha called paticca-samuppada, or ‘dependent arising’. He has explained that dependent arising is only thoroughly known by a noble person (ariya-puggala), someone who has reached one of the four stages of enlightenment. This is why, he says, there is so much misunderstanding regarding paticca-samuppada - and why so few contemporary Western and Eastern Buddhist ‘masters’ teach it!

Ajahn Brahm is often asked how there is rebirth when Buddhism teaches that there is no soul to be reborn. He replies to this question by stating that the answer is dependent arising, for it is an empty process which flows from life to life, conditioned by the twelve forces that direct a life this way and that. In sequence, the twelve links of paticca- samuppada are: delusion (avijja), volitional formations (sankhara), consciousness (vinnana), name-and-form (nama-rupa), the six sense bases (salayatana), contact (phassa), feeling (vedana), desire (tanha), clinging (upadana), existence (bhava), birth (jati), aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair (jara-maranam- soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupayasa).

The venerable forest monk has explained that it is deluded karma (actions) and tanha (craving) that supply the ‘fuel’ for existence and rebirth in the form of the ‘stream of consciousness’ entering a new life. The Buddha explained this process in the following way:

“Karma is like a field, craving like moisture, and the stream of consciousness like the seed. When beings are blinded by delusion and fettered with craving, the stream of consciousness becomes established, and rebirth of a new seed takes place in the future.” 
(Anguttara Nikaya III, 76)

Ajahn Brahm teaches that when one’s mindfulness is empowered by jhana (deep meditative concentration), the stream of conscious is revealed as ‘granular’, as tiny moments of consciousness, that like grains of sand are very close together but not actually touching. It is karma and craving that produce the impersonal forces that direct the journey of consciousness, much like the autopilot in an aircraft. Insight into this process enables one to see with certainty that consciousness is independent of the body and therefore can survive upon its demise, in the impersonal and soulless progression of paticca-samuppada. This is how rebirth occurs without a soul.

But what exactly is the process by which awakening to the way things are (the Dharma) is achieved? As Ajahn Brahm is keen to point out, it is not by the various methods and philosophies that many modern teachers like to espouse each according to their own personal (and personality-dependent) opinions. It is in the Buddha’s teaching on dependent arising that we find the answer to this question. The Buddha taught that it is with the ending of delusion that volitional formations cease, and that with the ending of the latter that conscious ceases, all the way down the chain of twelve links to the ending of aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. This ‘ending’ (nirodha) is also known as *nibbana (extinction), and bodhi (enlightenment or awakening) along with many other synonyms.

Moreover, the way to establish this process of awakening in our lives is what the Buddha called ariya-atthangika-magga, or the 'noble eightfold path.' This path entails the cultivation of right understanding, right attitude, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Correct understanding of paticca-samuppada constitutes part of right understanding, and on the intellectual level forms part of the basis for walking the path. Ultimately, however, it is not in doctrinally-accurate understandings of Buddhist concepts that nirvana is realized, but through transcending all forms of clinging that bind us to our desires, which in turn create suffering. Then, and only then, will we truly, fully comprehend dependent arising as a living fact, that when reversed through Buddhist practice, is the very process of enlightenment.

To end this very brief description of dependent arising, a quotation from the classic Visuddhimagga:

“Mere suffering exists, but no one that suffers; 
The deed is done, but no doer of the deed; 
Nibbana is, but no one that enters it; 
The Path is, but no traveler on it is seen.”

*Note: The Pali word nibbana is its equivalent of the Sanskrit term nirvana. Both may be translated as 'blowing out,' as in the blowing out of greed, hatred & delusion. More often the term is rendered 'extinction,' or left untranslated due to being easily misunderstood…by the unenlightened!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Paticca-Samuppada (Dependent Arising)

One who sees dependent arising sees the Dharma; 
One who sees the Dharma sees dependent arising. 
(Majjhima Nikaya 28, Tipitaka)

Recently, I’ve been drawn to reflecting on the important Buddhist teaching of paticca-samuppada, variously translated as ‘dependent origination’, ‘conditioned genesis’, ‘conditioned co-arising’, or ‘dependent arising’. It explains the conditioned nature of the self, without reference to a permanent soul or essence. It also explains life without recourse to a creator god, describing how various factors combine to influence present circumstances. A typical description of paticca-samuppada can be found in Anguttara Nikaya 3:61:

It is with ignorance (avijja) as a condition that formations (sankhara) come to be; with formations as a condition, consciousness (vinnana) comes to be; with consciousness as a condition, name and form (nama-rupa) come to be; with name and form as a condition, the six bases (salayatana) come to be; with the six bases as a condition, contact (phassa) comes to be; with contact as a condition, feeling (vedana) comes to be; with feeling as a condition, desire (tanha) comes to be; with desire as a condition, clinging (upadana) comes to be; with clinging as a condition, being (bhava) comes to be; with being as a condition, birth (jati) comes to be; with birth as a condition, aging and death (jara-marana) come to be, and also sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair; that is how there is an origin to this whole mass of suffering (dukkha). This is called the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering.

We are conditioned beings. Looking at myself as an example, I can see that my thoughts and reactions to certain events are conditioned by my responses to similar previous situations. I respond to the world from the conditioning of my past, influenced by others, but grounded in my habitual responses. Even my being Buddhist is a conditioned state, dependent upon my personality, personal history, intellect, books, and some wonderful teachers, the first of which was the Lord Buddha. Physically, I am conditioned by my parents, by my diet, exercise (or lack of it), and my species.

Extending this insight to others, I can see that my dogs are conditioned by their genes, too, and by the relationships they have with human beings, as well as other animals. They been trained, for instance, to perform certain tricks when they want to eat treats. This is a kind of conditioning. They have been conditioned to go into the garden and heed the call of nature around six-thirty in the morning, which causes smelly problems if there is any major delay in this routine. 

Looking further afield and casting our gaze at a figure like Barack Obama, we can see that he too is a conditioned being; conditioned by birth, his life experiences and beliefs to become a Democrat, a liberal - by American standards - and to fear Islamic terrorism. In a sense, we can’t condemn President Obama for being himself – he was made that way. So too was Osmana bin Laden, but he was conditioned very differently from the American President – born in a conservative Islamic state, with very different genes to Barack Obama, and influenced by what he saw as the aggressive acts of foreign (‘infidel’) governments in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Both men could be said to be doing what they’ve been conditioned to think is best for their respective peoples – yet look at the results! Mixed in with all this conditioning is the will (cetana in Pali). It too is conditioned, of course, but does retain an element of individual choice. After all, you could have two identical twins with near-identical histories but one will decide to eat strawberry ice cream, while the other has chocolate ice cream. Of the will, the Buddha said:

Will (cetana) I call action (karma).
(Anguttara Nikaya 6:63)

According to Buddhist teachings, action (karma) always has a result, whether it be positive, negative or neutral. Our actions, whether mental, verbal or physical, will have future consequences for us, the nature of which will be dependent on the type of act and the state of the mind, of the will, when we did them. If one is motivated by greed, hatred or delusion, the results of one’s actions will no doubt hurt others, but it will also (eventually) hurt oneself. As many Buddhists chant daily: I am the owner of my karma, heir to my karma, born of my karma, related to my karma, abide supported by my karma. Whatever karma I shall do, for good or for ill, of that I will be the heir.

So, dependent arising doesn’t relieve us of responsibility for our actions, but it does explain much about why we are predisposed to this and not that, preferring this response to any given situation and not another. I am the way I am because of conditions, one of which is being influenced by some great forest teachers – thankfully! Barack Obama is conditioned by his previous circumstances and actions, as was his nemesis Osmana bin Laden. My dogs are conditioned by their canine genes and the training they have received from my wife and I. And you, my dear reader, are conditioned by so many, many things and events, all of which together go to make up the person you are.

The choice that we face now, in the knowledge of all this conditioning, is how we respond to this knowledge. We might become fatalistic, like many Buddhists do, and think that it’s all been decided and that there’s nothing we can do to alter how things pan out. But this is belief in predestination, and the Buddha taught against this kind of fatalism, classifying it as niyativada (the doctrine of fate), which was a teaching that existed in India during the Buddha's lifetime, expounded by a certain Makkhali Ghosala. (It’s interesting that some modern scientists and Christian sects hold the view that everything is predestined, either due to natural conditions or the will of God.)

Most scientists, Christians, Buddhists and others accept that we do have some level of free will; although just how free this will is can be debated. Knowing paticca- samuppada assists our efforts to develop wisdom with regards to ourselves and others. It is, actually, a kind of positive conditioning itself, laying the foundations for further insights to arise in relation to the Dharma.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Review: Rude Awakenings, by Ajahn Sucitto & Nick Scott

Rude Awakenings is a life-changing book, not only giving insight into the grueling pilgrimage of a forest monk and layman across Northern India, but also the journeys they take within their own hearts. Written in the alternating voices of the more contemplative Ajahn Sucitto (abbot of Cittaviveka Forest Monastery in England), and the more outgoing naturalist Nick Scott, the book is an entertaining mix of travelogue, Buddhist history, meditative reflections, Indian cultural observations, geography, and personal conflicts.

Ajahn Sucitto, as might be expected, supplies the more insightful pieces, exploring not only the Indian backdrop and its inhabitants, but his own reactions and shortcomings. He isn’t scared to criticize his traveling companion either, at one point lamenting how Mr. Scott fumbles his way through the daily Buddhist chants, getting basic words like Buddha and Dhamma mixed up, and ending up with Bumma!

For his part, Nick Scott describes his constant struggles to get the two of them around the holy sights of Buddhism with woefully inadequate maps, and a prevalence to seek out difficult terrain in the desire to see Indian wildlife, rather than take the more direct route – much to the chagrin of the ajahn. Again, as with Ajahn Sucitto, Scott is very honest in his appraisal of his own mind states, admitting at one stage of the journey that he even endangered their lives with his behavior.

Constant everyday struggles include getting Ajahn Sucitto’s inflatable bed to inflate, finding suitable venues for sleeping, the constant barrage of questions form the inquisitive natives and the often comical attempts to find somewhere to eat before the noon deadline that the Buddhist monastic rules contain. The official bureaucracy of various Indian institutions often seemed to exist to thwart the duos attempts to fulfill the aspirations of the two pilgrims to see as much of Buddhism’s historical attractions. At one point, it seems they won’t get to see the supposed ashes of the Buddha, as they didn’t fill out the appropriate form – until an ingenious, if not ludicrous piece of lateral thinking gains them access.

The challenges that the two Englishmen face aren’t always so harmless, however, and towards the climax of the book they find themselves in a life threatening situation in bandit country that surrounds the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment, Bodh Gaya. This is a truly distressing event that can leave the reader genuinely wondering whether the both of them will get out it alive. The kindness displayed in the wake of this part of the tale balances out the harrowing accounts of the near fatal encounter in the woods of Bihar State.

So, all in all, this is an enthralling account of a journey through the places that the Buddha visited during his lifetime, including Lumbini (the Buddha’s birthplace), Kushinagar (the place that he died), and of course, the above mentioned Bodh Gaya. But, it is the inner travels of Ajahn Sucitto and Nick Scott that really capture the imagination and admiration of the reader, surrounded as they are with wonderful descriptions of India, its people, and the teachings and history of Buddhism. Once read, this book can stay with the reader for a long time afterwards, with the tastes and smells and raw emotions that the two pilgrims write of merging with one’s own memories as if one had been there with them. A life changing book, in deed.

Rude Awakenings: Two Englishmen on Foot in Buddhism’s Holy Land, by Ajahn Sucitto and Nick Scott was published by Wisdom Publications in 2006.