Friday, December 27, 2013

New Year's Reflection 2013

Who's Santa really pointing at?

Here we are on the brink of another year. We can use this opportunity to reflect over the past year, or to ponder the future. This can be beneficial, as long as our reflection does not turn into regret or resentment, and as long as our pondering does not turn to fear or worry. Whatever we do on the eve of 2013, we can do it with awareness. If we act from a state of knowing rather than nescience, we have a greater chance of doing it right, and even developing some wisdom.

Wisdom is needed in this world. Look at the sky ripped open, the still-hungry millions, the near-extinct animals, the war-mongering, and the general fear. We need wisdom to learn how to live peacefully & without ruining the planet. On New Year's Eve, many of us will get out of our heads on alcohol and/or drugs, shutting out the suffering world, and burying our own miseries beneath copious amounts of intoxicants. This, however, will simply leave us with a hangover on New Year's Day, and no deeper understanding of the world, including those we claim to love.

Love is needed in this world. Not love based on lust, nor love that demands that people act and say the things we want to see and hear, but real love that allows people to be themselves, whether straight or gay, hip or nerdy, gregarious or solitary, or whatever. In this kind of love, we are open to the suffering both in ourselves and others, and therefore more able to respond appropriately, helping where needed. How can we approach the world with this kind of love?

Love and wisdom are two sides of the same coin. According to Buddhist tradition, they are the two wings of enlightenment. If we can see the world with wisdom, we will also develop love for it, for we will see that it is us, and therefore love it as we love ourselves. If we can feel the world with love, we will also develop wisdom towards it, for we will feel its suffering, and with this wisdom know the way out of suffering. We are enlightened together, as one.

One way to see this unity is to simply look. Try out this following exercise and see if it's true for you. It's really easy to do, and what it reveals can start a quiet revolution of insight that releases love & wisdom into our lives. One point to remember as we go through it is that we accept what we see as it is right now, and not filtered through our intellect, which will surely distort the truth of this moment. Anyway, here it is:

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’?

This emptiness at the heart of our selves isn't merely a meaningless nothingness, however. It is full of the world, the scene before us. As this emptiness, we are full of the world, people, & animals that we see. Furthermore, there's no perceivable gap between this emptiness and those creatures - it's all one, undivided and together. We are each other, and we can see this simply by looking! The trick is to accept what we see, and then the challenge is to live from this vision, open to the world, the people, and the animals that we see. But, it's worth the effort, as it is living without separation, rivalry or hatred. And what could be more a more worthwhile New Year's resolution than that?

So, after the hangover's worn off, or the incense sticks have burnt out, we might take the time to look back at who's living this life, and see the emptiness at the heart of all this oh-so precious existence. Seeing this emptiness, we have the means to develop the wisdom mentioned above, for when everything - including the thing called 'me' - is seen to be empty, we see it in a completely different way. And love is no longer reserved for this self and those close to it, but spread out to all we meet.

Anyhow, wishing you all the love and wisdom in the world for the New Year. Have fun over the festive period, and on New Year's Day take a few moments to see where all this stuff ('the world') comes from. It's a real eye opener!

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Layman Pang & Zen Master Shitou


In the year 785, Layman Pang went to see Zen Master Shitou Xiqian and asked him, “What about someone who has no connection with all worldly phenomena?”

Shitou put his hand over the Layman's mouth, and in a flash he had a sudden realization.


One day Shitou said, “I’ve come to visit you. What have you been doing?”

The Layman said, “If you’re asking what I do every day, there’s nothing to say about it.”

Shitou said, “What did you think you were doing before I asked you about it?”

The Layman made up a verse:

"What I do every day is nothing special: 
I simply stumble around. 
What I do is not thought out, 
Where I go is unplanned. 
No matter who tries to leave their mark, 
The hills and dales are not impressed. 
My supernatural power and marvelous activity - 
Drawing water and carrying firewood."

Shitou approved, saying, “So, are you going to be a monk or a layman?"

The Layman said, ''I will do whatever is best.”

It came to pass that he never shaved his head to join the monkhood.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Seeing Buddha Mind

The proof is in the seeing.

"The primary misconception about the mind and body is the false view that the mind dwells in the physical body."
(Buddha, Shurangama Sutra)

In Buddhism, mind is often used to indicate the perceiver, the knower; spacious awareness. Looking now, I see all things, including this body, arising in this mind, not mind in a body. This may sound crazy, for common sense dictates that the mind resides on the body - but is this actually true from direct experience? The only way to know for ourselves whether the mind is in the body or the body is in the mind is to look and see for ourselves. And by look and see, I literally mean look and see.

Taking 'mind' to indicate awareness, that which knows, look now. All the objects that you can see right now, where do they occur? They exist in awareness, in this very mind. In reality, I cannot see mind contained in anything; it is unrestricted, unshackled by a container, bodily or otherwise. Instead, all things exist in this no-thing, this Buddha Mind which is none other than my true being. This observation is confirmed by the Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm, who has said:

"Indeed, remembering that the mind is the biggest thing in the world - the mind cannot be within three-dimensional space, but three-dimensional space is within the mind - the mind contains the universe."
(Ajahn Brahm, 'Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?')

All very well from one's personal point-of-view, you might say, but this isn't exactly scientific, is it? Well, let's see. Science teaches us that we experience the world in our mind, as data is collected via the five physical senses and perceived in the mind. An example is that of what we see. Light bounces off objects and hits the eye, which then sends this visual data to the brain. It is here, in the mind that sights are then experienced, recognized and responded to. 

Moreover, we see the world as our mind reconstructs it from the sense data that it collects. Therefore, any preconceived ideas that we have about the world will affect the way that we experience it. This reflects Buddha's opening words in the Dhammapada, when he states that, Mind precedes all things. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. The world, as we experience it, is dependent upon our senses and the mind in which it is perceived. Ask any two witnesses from a crime scene what they saw, and they will in all likelihood recall somewhat different events, dependent on their minds.

"All buddhas and all sentient beings are nothing but the one mind, beside which nothing exists. This mind, which is without beginning, is unborn and indestructible."
(Huangbo, Chuan Xin Fa Yao)

So, looking now, seeing 'all sentient beings' - humans, animals & insects - they are seen to be in the mind, nowhere else. As to this mind itself, is it perceived to be made of destructible things that will fade & die away? When looking now, I can find no such impermanent things, only the no-thing in which all worldly things are born, live & die. So, although this body was born, and will one day die, this mind is unborn and cannot die. 

Buddhist and scientific descriptions of how we experience the world are confirmed through actually looking & seeing what we truly are. 'Buddha Mind' hosts the entire cosmos within itself, not the other way around, and this awareness is not experienced as an impermanent thing, but rather a no-thing that has no perishable characteristics. Buddhist truth, scientific truth & experiential truth turn out to be one and the same truth, experienced through a simple act: Seeing!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Shunryu Suzuki on Transciency

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi: A Seminal figure in western Zen

"The basic teaching of Buddhism is transiency, or change. That everything changes is the basic truth for each existence. No one can deny this truth, and all the truth of Buddhism is condensed within it. This is the teaching for all of us. Wherever we go this teaching is true. This teaching is also understood as the teaching of selflessness. Because each existence is in constant change, there is no abiding self. In fact, the self-nature of each existence is nothing but change itself, the self-nature of all existence. There is no special, separate self-nature for each existence. This is also called the teaching of Nirvana. When we realize the everlasting truth of 'everything changes' and find our composure in it, we find ourselves in Nirvana."
(Shunryu Suzuki, in 'Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind,' p.91)

For more on the book quoted above, click here: Review: Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind

Sunday, November 17, 2013

So, Buddha, What's All This About Suffering?

"What, now, is the noble truth of suffering?
Birth is suffering; Decay is suffering; Death is suffering; Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief, and Despair are suffering; not to get what one desires, is suffering; in short: the five groups of existence are suffering." 
(Buddha, Tripitaka)

Now, the heart of Buddha's message is built on the noble truth of suffering. But what is this truth, and how is it exactly noble? In other words, what's so noble about suffering? Moreover, what use is this teaching to us? Does it help us in any way or is it simply the recognition that life can be pretty awful…and then we die?!

To answer the above questions, it's important to actually define what is meant by suffering by Buddha. As found in ancient Buddhist texts, dukkha is the original word in the Pali language that is usually translated as 'suffering,' but can equally be rendered as 'stress,' 'angst,' 'pain,' 'unsatisfactory' and a number of such variations. It is a word that points to the underlying sense that life is imperfect, stressful, and has many ways to hurt us. Although it can be used to refer to physical pain, its normal usage in Buddhist teaching is to denote mental suffering. 

So, why did Buddha call suffering a noble truth? Well, it's a truth in the sense that it's a universal fact of life. And it's noble because through understanding this truth we can cultivate the wisdom to reduce or even end suffering and achieve the raison d'ĂȘtre of Buddhism - nirvana, or 'enlightenment.' Some translators prefer to translate the Pali word for noble - ariya - as 'ennobling,' emphasizing the dynamic aspect to this process of awakening. And this is crucial: Buddha's teachings aren't merely to be memorized and recited, clung to as holy doctrine, but reflected upon, and realized as true in our lives. The noble truth of suffering exists for this very purpose.

Looking back at the list of sufferings above, if we ponder them for even a short time, their propensity for stress will surely be most apparent. Birth is a stressful time for both mother and child; the mother screams in annoy & the newborn baby cries in shock at having been ejected into this world from the safety and warmth of the womb. All things are in a state of decay; cells decay and are replaced by new ones, people decay as we age and eventually become decrepit.Death is a painful time for the one that is dying (unless it's a extremely quick death, and there's no kind of afterlife), and the loved ones that witness their demise.

Feeling sorrow is obviously stressful, as is lamenting another's death. Pain normally goes hand-in-hand with suffering as does grief and despair; all negative states of mind that people go to great lengths to avoid. Not getting what one desires is also a cause for suffering. We want a new car, lover, laptop, house, etc. but can't get them - and suffer. Moreover, this works in reverse too, for not avoiding what we don't want causes stress swell. Stuck in the company of someone we really don't like can be anything from mildly annoying to downright insufferable! Getting a big bill through the post we weren't expecting can be pretty stress-inducing too, as can having a physical ailment that we'd rather avoid. 

The five groups of aggregates referred to are the way Buddha summed up human experience - the body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness. The body covers, well, the body, whilst mental faculties are covered in the other four groups. By consciousness is meant that which conscious or aware of any of the other aggregates, so when we see something, we are aware of seeing it. When we are unconscious, this aggregate is not present, and we experience and subsequently remember nothing. 

Buddha describes feeling as positive, negative or neutral arising in response to mental or physical stimuli - see a beautiful sunset and a positive feeling will occur, think of your least favorite relative and a negative feeling arises, think the word 'spoon,' and probably a neutral feeling will result. (Unless you've previously had a particularly bad experience with a spoon!) The aggregate group of perception includes memories, so when we see a sunset, we recognize the sun, the horizon & the sense of beauty. Mental formations covers just about everything else, including concepts, ideas and specific emotions. This includes Buddhist teachings such as the five groups of aggregates.

At this point it's pertinent to point out that the noble truth of suffering is the first of four such truths. If Buddha's teaching stopped here, then it might enable us to cultivate a kind of stoicism to put up with all this suffering, but it wouldn't offer a way out - and this is exactly what Buddha claims following his way can help us achieve. The second truth is that suffering is caused by desire; the third states that the end of desire is the end of suffering; the fourth noble truth is the way to achieve this liberation from suffering. In this brief article, there isn't space to explore these other noble truths - they will be examined in later reflections, opportunity permitting. Needless to say, in the light of these further truths, establishing understanding of the noble truth of suffering will establish a firm foundation for the cure to all the stress in our lives. Observing and recognizing suffering in our lives - with a calm and detached meditative mind - is the beginning of the path to awakening. Walk on!

Related posts: Buddha on Suffering, The Four Noble Truths.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Four Noble Truths

What is the noble truth of suffering? Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, sickness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; association with the loathed is suffering, dissociation from the loved is suffering, not to get what one wants is suffering; in short, the five aggregates affected by clinging are suffering.

What is the noble truth of the origin of suffering? It is craving, which renews being, and is accompanied by relish and lust, relishing this and that: in other words, craving for sensual desires, craving for being, craving for non-being. But whereon does this craving arise and flourish? Wherever there is that which seems lovable and gratifying, thereon it arises and flourishes.

What is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering? It is the remainderless fading and cessation of that same craving, the reject- ing, relinquishing, leaving and renouncing of it. But whereon is this craving abandoned and made to cease? Wherever there is that which seems lovable and gratifying, thereon it is abandoned and made to cease.

What is the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering? It is this noble eightfold path, that is to say: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

Of these four noble truths, the noble truth of suffering must be penetrated to by full knowledge of suffering; the noble truth of the origin of suffering must be penetrated to by abandoning craving; the noble truth of the cessation of suffering must be penetrated to by realizing cessation of craving; the noble truth of the way leading to the cessation of suffering must be penetrated to by maintaining in being the noble eightfold path.

The above description is credited to Buddha, and is taken from the Tripitaka (Buddhist scriptures).

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Evolutionary Buddhism

Buddha & Darwin: best of pals?

Sometimes, it seems that religion & science are diametrically opposed, and that contradiction & conflict occur whenever we attempt serious dialogue between them. This can be witnessed in the ongoing (mainly) verbal battle between the theories of evolution and creationism. To those sincere believers in the doctrine that the Bible is the inspired word of God, and that everything in it is literally true, the evolutionary theory that we are evolved creatures is heretical. On the other hand, to the majority of evolutionary scientists, the notion that a dimity created life on earth in one swell swoop in 6 days is equally unacceptable. 

On the face of it, Buddhism doesn't seem any more open to the theory of evolution than the creationism found within  Christianity & Islam. Buddhist scriptures describe the process of rebirth with no reference to the evolution of life from single-celled organisms to plants and animals (including humans). Indeed, Buddha is quoted as stating that the creation of the universe and all life in it is beyond human ken, and that to ponder such matters is a waste of time. And yet, it is the argument of this article that the Buddhist & scientific world views are compatible. 

When seeking what is important in a religion or philosophy, it is the view of this writer that it is the essentials that should be considered, rather than those teachings that are 'add-ons,' often appended to the simpler, original teachings at a later date. The existence of God, for example, is central to all theist religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and (arguably) Hinduism. No such figure is central to Buddhism, however, as Buddhism denies the existence of a permanent self, whether that of an individual soul or that of a transcendent deity. In this sense, Buddhism is more akin to science than it is other religions. In fact, many modern-minded Buddhists are loathe to call essential Buddhism a religion at all, a view which this author is sympathetic to.

Traditional Buddhism does recognize the existence of deities however, albeit not the eternal creator-god that is found in monotheism. Like polytheistic Hinduism, Buddhist scripture acknowledges the existence of many gods. Unlike Hinduism however, Buddhist teachings state that these beings are not immortal, and are subject to birth and death like all other living creatures. These deities (and other supernatural beings and places) in Buddhism differ between Buddhist traditions, however, and are culturally dependent. Moreover, they are not considered central elements to the Buddhist teachings. Which brings us to an important consideration: what are the essential teachings of Buddhism?

Different Buddhists will give somewhat different answers to the question, but the following are some points are probably accepted by all that practice Buddhism. The essential teachings of Buddhism are called the four noble truths and consist of 1) there is suffering, 2) the cause of suffering is desire, 3) the ending of desire is the ending of suffering, 4) the path to the ending of suffering. The details of that path differ according to sect, but are based upon the so-called threefold training of morality, concentration & wisdom. The ending of suffering, by the way, is often referred to as nirvana, and a buddha is an 'awakened one' that has realized this. It is worth noting that none of this is supernatural or unscientific in nature; quite the contrary, many Buddhists find in these basic teachings a kind of scientific spirituality.

So, having found what can be described as the core Buddhist teachings, how do these compare with evolution? Well, the truths themselves do not actually touch upon the subject of evolution - as most prescientific religions & philosophies do not, unsurprisingly! On the other hand, is there anything in the four noble truths that is incompatible with the theory of evolution? Well, evolution states that life on Earth evolved over billions of years, starting as the most simple of organisms and developing into all the myriad forms of life we see today. The first noble truth of suffering is viewable observing humans and other sentient creatures; science would concur with this. That he cause of suffering is desire might be more controversial to the scientist, but it isn't exactly contradicting evolution. The third noble truth logically follows from the third.

As to the fourth noble truth, based as it is on morality, concentration and wisdom, all developed by humans through their own efforts rather than bestowed on them through the grace of a divine being, there is nothing to conflict with evolutionary ideas. Indeed, it is possible to see the four noble truths as part of humanity's ongoing development or evolution to the nest stage of its development. In this, it would stand alongside science itself, for if humans are to continue our evolutionary development and not stagnate or die out, surely science has a crucial role to play in this. In this light, it is interesting to reflect on how 'evolutionary Buddhism' might go hand-in-hand with science. As the Buddha said: Walk on!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Buddha on Suffering

What, now, is the Noble Truth of Suffering?
Birth is suffering; Decay is suffering; Death is suffering; Sorrow, Lamentation, Pain, Grief, and Despair are suffering; not to get what one desires, is suffering; in short: the Five Groups of Existence are suffering.

What, now, is Birth? The birth of beings belonging to this or that order of beings, their being born, their conception and springing into existence, the manifestation of the groups of existence, the arising of sense activity: this is called birth.

And what is Decay? The decay of beings belonging to this or that order of beings; their becoming aged, frail, grey, and wrinkled; the failing of their vital force, the wearing out of the senses: this is called decay.

And what is Death? The departing and vanishing of beings out of this or that order of beings; their destruction, disappearance, death, the completion of their life-period, dissolution of the groups of existence, the discarding of the body: this is called death.

And what is Sorrow? The sorrow arising through this or that loss or misfortune which one encounters, the worrying one- self, the state of being alarmed, inward sorrow, inward woe: this is called sorrow.

And what is Lamentation? Whatsoever, through this or that loss or misfortune which befalls one, is wail and lament, wailing and lamenting, the state of woe and lamentation: this is called lamentation.

And what is Pain? The bodily pain and unpleasantness, the painful and unpleasant feeling produced by bodily impression: this is called pain.

And what is Grief? The mental pain and unpleasantness, the painful and unpleasant feeling produced by mental impression: this is called grief.

And what is Despair? Distress and despair arising through this or that loss or misfortune which one encounters: distressfulness, and desperation: this is called despair.

And what is the ‘Suffering of not getting what one desires’? To beings subject to birth there comes the desire; ‘O, that we were not subject to birth! O, that no new birth was before us!’ Subject to decay, disease, death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair, the desire comes to them: ‘O, that we were not subject to these things! O, that these things were not before us!’ But this cannot be got by mere desiring; and not to get what one desires, is suffering.

(Digha Nikaya 22, Tipitaka)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Home Sweet Home

Recently, my family & I moved home. It will be the seventh home that my wife and I have shared, and one of numerous places that I have called home during my life. Some have been warm, cosy dwellings, whilst others have been somewhat dirty and rundown domiciles. The new house that we now occupy is a wonderful, newly-built place, with spacious rooms and a decent-sized garden for the kids & dogs. Compared to previous houses that we've occupied, it is aesthetically more pleasing & will be somewhere that we will be happy to call home for many years to come. But, on reflection, is it our real home?

The point here is not to question whether or not the house is the abode in which my family & I live, but rather to consider what it is that is truly 'home.' In other words, where is it that we all retreat to and reside in at the end of the day? It was the widely-respected Thai Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah that said our real home is inner peace; that spacious awareness in which all our experiences arise. It is true enough, of course, that this body resides in a physical home, but it also inhabits another home. This home contains everything I have ever seen, heard, tasted, smelt or touched. It contains such phenomena right now. But, it also plays host to every thought, emotion, or memory. And, what's more, I can never leave this home, for it is an indispensable aspect of my being; without it, there is no world and no 'me' to experience the world.

What is the nature of this home, then? Generally, homes can be big, small, attractive, ugly, elaborate, simple, old or new. This home is spacious enough to contain everything I ever experience - including his sense of 'I' - and yet it can seemingly contract to contain nothing but the minuscule figure of an ant. It allows for beauty and ugliness, complexity and simplicity, aging and birth…and yet it is none of these, for it is unlimited by being this or that. It's lack of specificity is the very quality that gives rise to all the myriad particular things of this universe. That this home is silent capacity means that all sounds can appear in it; because it is invisible potentiality, all sights can be seen in it. Try the following exercise, and see if what's written above is true for you or not.

  • Look at your home - or wherever you happen to be right now - and note the following, basing your conclusions on current evidence as opposed to memory or assumptions.
  • Firstly, observe your environs visually. What colors, shapes, & sizes can you see? Take time to mentally describe as much of your seeable surroundings as you can. Now, turn attention around to observe the observer. What can you see where you are? Pointing at your eyes, what can you actually see? Is there any color, shape or size there? Or, do you see what I see here: a spacious aware nothingness in which all visible objects appear - including my own 'self?!'
  • Secondly, observe your environs audibly. What sounds, rhythms and tunes can you hear? Take time to mentally describe as much of your hearable surroundings as you can. Now, turn attention around to listen to the listener. What can you hear where you are? Listening to your ears, what can you actually hear? Is there any sound, rhythm or tune there? Or, do you hear what I hear here: a spacious aware nothingness in which all audible objects appear - including my own 'self?!'
  • Finally, observe your environs mentally. What thoughts, emotions and mental images can you perceive? Closing your eyes, take time to mentally describe as much of your brain as you can. Now, turn attention around to observe the observer. What can you observe behind those thoughts, emotions and mental imagery? Do you find what I find here: a spacious aware nothingness in which all mental objects appear - including my own 'self?!'

This spacious awareness which - hopefully - you have just observed, is that in which all phenomena appear, including those places we normally consider home; houses, apartments, bodies, and minds. It is our real home, and unlike those other places, it does not get old, damaged, or destroyed - there's nothing to be destroyed! And yet, we need to be a little careful here, for there's a subtle distinction to made between this spaciousness and 'self.' As observed in the third exercise above, not only is the body not our true home, but nether is mind our true home; both are contained in what we truly are. This true nature is pure being, and cannot be deemed this or that. Therefore, even the underlying sense of 'I am' is itself something that lives in this home. In the history of Buddhism, this error has frequently been mentioned, as it is an easy mistake to make.

An episode in Buddhist scripture illustrates this last point nicely. The Venerable Khemaka stated that he no longer regarded any of the five aggregates (form, feeling, perception, volitional formations and consciousness) to be self. Hearing this, a group of monks declared that Khemaka must be an arahant, a fully-enlightened one. Khemaka denied this, however, for although he didn't associate self with any of the aggregates, he still had the residue feeling of being a self, or 'I am.' (In the text, known as the Khemaka Sutta, the monks and Khemaka did realize full-enlightenment whilst the latter gave a thorough explanation of the Buddha's teachings regarding the sense of 'I am.')

The American monk Ajahn Sumedho once wrote to me that even the sense of being a Buddhist (or whatever views of self we posses) must be let go of, for eventually even they get in the way of simply living as the knowing. The awareness that lies at the heart of human existence is not Buddhist, Christian, atheist, theist or whatever; it is the home in which all these ideas live. We may use them to help approach and exist as this spaciousness, but they will become a hindrance of we cling to them for too long. Letting go of these temporary abodes and residing in our real home (as our real home) is the ultimate aim of Buddhist practice, as well as much mysticism in the world's religions and philosophies. So, whilst my family's new house is our outward home, and one which we will enjoy, our real home lies within, and is even more wonderful, being free of suffering and ignorance. And, it is waiting to be discovered. Right now.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Heart Sutra

When Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva was engaged in the practice of the deep prajnaparamita, he perceived that there are the five aggregates; and these he saw in their true nature to be empty.

"O Sariputra, form is emptiness, emptiness is form; form is no other than emptiness, emptiness is no other than form; that which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness is form. The same can be said of sensation, perception, thought, and consciousness.

"O Sariputra, all things here are characterized with emptiness: they are not born, they are not annihilated; they are not tainted, they are not immaculate; they do not increase, they do not decrease. Therefore, O Sariputra, in emptiness there is no form, no sensation, no perception, no thought, no consciousness; no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind; no form, sound, colour, taste, touch, objects; no element of vision, till we come to no element of consciousness; there is no knowledge, no ignorance, till we come to there is no old age and death, no extinction of old age and death; there is no suffering, no accumulation, no annihilation, no path; there is no knowledge, no attainment, and no realization, because there is no attainment. In the mind of the bodhisattva who dwells depending on the prajnaparamita there are no obstacles; and, going beyond the perverted views, he reaches final nirvana. All the buddhas of the past, present, and future, depending on the prajnaparamita, attain to the highest perfect enlightenment.

"Therefore, one ought to know that the prajnaparamita is the great mantra, the mantra of great wisdom, the highest mantra, the peerless mantra, which is capable of allaying all pain; it is truth because it is not falsehood: this is the mantra proclaimed in the prajnaparamita. It runs: 'Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha!' (Gone, gone, gone beyond, gone utterly beyond, hail enlightenment!)"

*Notes. A few points in the above text may need clarifying. Bodhisattva is the highest form of practice in Mahayana Buddhism, which is prevalent in such places as China, Japan, & Tibet. Avalokitesvara is the bodhisattva of compassion, popular all over the far east. Sariputra was one of the Buddha's foremost disciples, renowned for his insight, which is revealing here as he is the recipient of wisdom. Prajnaparamita means roughly 'transcendent wisdom,' and is the highest wisdom recognized in Mahayana Buddhism. The aggregates are the Buddha's fivefold classification of human experience: form, sensation, perception, thought, and consciousness. Emptiness is not mere materialist nihilism, and isn't to be understood intellectually, but directly experienced through meditative practice & insight. The final mantra is in praise of enlightenment, the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice. The Heart Sutra is chanted by Buddhists every day all over the world, and is used as a focus of reflection to realize nirvana. Bodhi svaha!

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Buddha, Beethoven & Beatles

Buddhism can sometimes appear as am austere tradition. Indeed, in the earliest known monastic rules monks & nuns are forbidden to listen to listen to music as it might distract them from their mindfulness practices. These rules are still found in the monks' rules in Thailand, along with a few other countries, but monks do often appear to enjoy music in the land of smiles, as observed by this author. There are some monastics that do not indulges in music, but music is played in public a lot in Thailand, even in festivals and other activities within Buddhist temples, so it's difficult for many monks to avoid, really. 

In other Buddhist traditions, as found in Tibet and China, for example, music is not only listened to by monastics, but actually performed by them, especially during Buddhist services. Chinese Buddhist chanting is often accompanied by music, and is itself most melodious, and the image of Tibetan monks blowing on long horns and clanging cymbals is an enduring image. Thai Buddhist chanting, on the other hand, is normally performed a cappella, and is pretty monotone in style. It is done this way to avoid any indulging in music or melody, thereby avoiding getting caught up in the beauty of music. (Many Buddhists will tell you, however, that it is possible to get entranced by the hypnotic qualities of such plain chant - this author included!)

Buddhist laity, whatever the tradition, are not proscribed from listening to - and enjoying - music. Only when staying in certain meditation temples are they discouraged from listening to or performing music. This author knows from personal experience that music can have all kinds of effects on the mind, sometimes calming, other times agitating. As these words are being written, Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major is emerging from the same computer that these words are being typed into. Such music can complement mindfulness practice if attenuated to correctly - and it can help to avoid the boredom that so often drives us away from being heedful of this present moment.

Listening to music can be a mindfulness practice in itself. Like mantra recitation, or shamanic drumming, it can be used to keep the mind in this current moment. This assists in cultivating present-moment awareness so important in Buddhist practice. Something I've enjoyed since a teenager is listening to music on headphones or earphones, giving the impression that music is coming from within rather than without. This enables one to focus even more clearly on the music, being able to follow a particular instrument through a song from beginning to end. Attaching attention to Paul McCarney's often very creative bass lines in those great old Beatles' records is an enjoyable example of this. Just listen to his bass guitar work on Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds and you'll see what I mean. 

When listening to music attentively, something wonderful can happen; awareness moves from the sound of the music to the sound of the silence in which it arises. This silence is amazing in that it is capacity not only for Beethoven, the Beatles and other great composers' music, but for any sounds that occur. It doesn't judge them or discriminate between them, bit rather gives them all the space they need to exist. Moreover, this silence isn't something separate from the listener, but is in fact his or her core nature. Sounds (along with all other phenomena, both mental as well as physical) arise, exist and end in this silent awareness. Both in meditation and in general mindful living, this spaciousness is the impartial host to all that is. To awaken to it is to begin the real Buddhist journey towards realization of the Buddha within; this 'Buddha Space.'

Making our everyday life our Buddhist practice is a crucial aspect of walking the Buddhist path. Monastics do this by adapting their environment so that many ordinary occurrences simply do not arise for them, enabling them to focus their attention more easily on their subject of awareness, whether it be their mind or body. We laypeople can do the same to some extent, but then as most of us do not live in a monastery or a cave, we can't cut out all of the distractions and pleases that monastics can. But what we can do is to adapt what we do experience to fit into a meditative regime. Beethoven and the Beatles can be used this way - as can most, if not all, music - moreover, our enjoyment of their music can help us to stick to the mindful path, not slipping off so often into the dream worlds of past and future. So, if you enjoy music, whether making it or listening to it, why not use as a focus for mindfulness practice - and you can hear your way to enlightenment!

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Buddha on 'A Thicket of Views'

Not knowing what is worthy of consideration, and what is unworthy of consideration, the ignorant worldling considers the unworthy, and not the worthy.

And unwisely he considers thus: ‘Have I been in the past? Or, have I not been in the past? What have I been in the past? How have I been in the past? From what state into what state did I change in the past?

Shall I be in the future? Or, shall I not be in the future? What shall I be in the future? How shall I be in the future? From what state into what state shall I change in the future?’

And the present also fills him with doubt; ‘Am I? Or, am I not? What am I? How am I? This being, whence has it come? Whither will it go?’

And with such unwise considerations, he adopts one or other of the six views, and it becomes his conviction and firm belief: ‘I have a Self’, or: ‘I have no Self’, or: ‘With the Self I perceive the Self’, or: ‘With that which is no Self, I perceive the Self’; or: ‘With the Self I perceive that which is no Self’. Or, he adopts the following view: ‘This my Self, which can think and feel, and which, now here, now there, experiences the fruit of good and evil deeds: this my Self is permanent, stable, eternal, not subject to change, and will thus eternally remain the same’.

If there really existed the Self, there would also exist something which belonged to the Self. As, however, in truth and reality neither the Self, nor anything belonging to the Self, can be found, is it not therefore really an utter fools’ doctrine to say: ‘This is the world, this am I; after death I shall be permanent, persisting, and eternal’?

These are called mere views, a thicket of views, a puppet- show of views, a toil of views, a snare of views; and ensnared in the fetter of views the ignorant worldling will not be freed from rebirth, from decay, and from death, from sorrow, pain, grief and despair; he will not be freed, I say, from suffering.
(Buddha, taken from Majjhima Nikaya 2 & Majjhima Nikaya 22)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The Way It Is

Ajahn Sumedho observing the way it is.

The Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho has often emphasized seeing the true nature of things and being able to say, “This is the way it is.” This can be done by simply observing the body, with all its myriad sensations and movements. This is done without thinking, "My body is doing this," or "My body is feeling this," but with an impersonal attitude towards its current condition: "This body is doing this," and "This body is feeling this." Without adopting a personality viewpoint, we can observe ‘the way it is’ by witnessing the body’s breathing, its posture, and just noticing how it is now, in this moment. This is the path of mindfulness, of being awake to the reality of the human form.

Being alert to this body is a basic mindfulness practice taught by the Buddha back in India over 2, 500 years ago, remaining conscious of its every move whether walking, standing, sitting, or lying down. Ajahn Sumedho promotes an understanding of ‘the way it is’ through mindfulness as a means to liberate ourselves from the negative thoughts and habits that condition our lives. A practical upshot of such alertness is that we’re less likely to make mistakes as we won’t be so distracted or absent minded. How many times have you stubbed your toe on a doorway, chair or table leg due to thinking about something else and not being conscious of where you were placing your feet? I’ve done it innumerable times – a painful reminder of the dangers of heedlessness!

Avoiding throbbing toes is but one advantage of a more aware mind: a much more profound benefit is the insight that can develop from being cognizant of our bodily movements and feelings. This insight involves the realization that the body is truly not ours; it is of nature, and is the result of natural processes, most of which are out of our control. Whilst we can direct the body to do this or that action, within natural limits of course, we cannot prevent it from ever being ill, from aging, and ultimately from dying. Watching our physical condition can open a door onto the true nature of the body, that it is impermanent, unsatisfactory, and not self (the three characteristics of existence).

As well as the body, Ajahn Sumedho advises us to be heedful of the state of our minds, and this too was a frequent subject for reflection in the sermons of the Buddha. The mind’s moods, whether it is dull or bright, happy or sad, are conditions that we can know; the empty mind, also, free of the myriad thoughts and feelings about the self and others can be known. It can be seen to be both intelligent and compassionate. If we are willing to go through boredom, miserable feelings, and other forms of suffering, the mind will become clearer, bearing with negative mind states rather than suppressing them. Ajahn Sumedho sees this as an opportunity to recognize that this is the way that it is at this time, at this place, and by doing so, wisdom will grow.

Knowing the mind as it is now means that we’re less likely to drift off into unhelpful reveries that take us away from the natural ability of the mind to find solutions to the every day problems that arise in all our lives. As Ajahn Sumedho has often reminded us, this doesn’t mean that we’re taking the easy option by becoming more mindful, for in doing so we will undoubtedly discover the negative states of our minds as well as the positive. But becoming more aware of such mental conditions will enable us to deal with them better, allowing an understanding to arise that can encourage us to let go of them and cultivate more beneficial psychological attitudes. And we might stub our toes less often too!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Buddha on Right Speech

"What now, is Right Speech?

Herein someone avoids lying and abstains from it. He speaks the truth, is devoted to the truth, reliable, worthy of confidence, not a deceiver of men. Being at a meeting, or amongst people, or in the midst of his relatives, or in a society, or in the king’s court, and called upon and asked as witness to tell what he knows, he answers, if he knows nothing: ‘I know nothing’, and if he knows, he answers: ‘I know’; if he has seen nothing, he answers: ‘I have seen nothing’, and if he has seen, he answers: ‘I have seen’. Thus he never knowingly speaks a lie, either for the sake of his own advantage, or for the sake of another person’s advantage, or for the sake of any advantage whatsoever.

He avoids tale-bearing, and abstains from it. What he has heard here, he does not repeat there, so as to cause dissension there; and what he has heard there, he does not repeat here, so as to cause dissension here. Thus he unites those that are divided; and those that are united, he encourages. Concord gladdens him, he delights and rejoices in concord; and it is concord that he spreads by his words.

He avoids harsh language, and abstains from it. He speaks such words as are gentle, soothing to the ear, loving, such words as go to the heart, and are courteous, friendly, and agreeable to many.

He avoids vain talk, and abstains from it. He speaks at the right time, in accordance with facts, speaks what is useful, speaks of the law and the discipline: his speech is like a treasure, uttered at the right moment, accompanied by arguments, moderate and full of sense.

This is called Right Speech."

(Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya 10.176)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Thai Buddhism in Crisis

The fast track to nirvana with Wirapol, the flying monk!

Thai Buddhism is in crisis. It isn't remarkable in this, as a glance at the state of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, Japan, Burma, China or Korea would lead to the same conclusion. And neither is this sorrowful situation particular to Buddhism of course; institutionalized religion the world over is in varying states of crisis. But, being a Buddhist living in Thailand does give one a unique perspective on this issue. No two religions are exactly the same, and no two sects of Buddhism are identical either. The specific problems that face Thai Buddhism may differ to the difficulties encountered by Japanese Buddhists or American Christians, but the underlying causes are surely the same. We will be looking at these in due course, but first it will be illuminating to look at some examples of the crisis as it appears in Thailand.

Until very recently, Ajarn Pu Nen Kham was a popular monk with thousands of followers in the Thai kingdom. Thai Buddhists would flock to his public sermons to listen to his particular brand of wisdom. And, of course, as is Thai tradition, give generous donations to him & his monastery. This is where things get somewhat, well, murky. The monk was filmed aboard a private jet - allegedly his - wearing designer sunglasses and playing with expensive gadgets. Traditionally-minded Thais, who expect their monks to live more modestly were not pleased with these images. Next, came many more unsavory allegations against the monk.

Firstly, a picture circulated which some claimed showed a close-up image of Ajarn Pu Nen Kham's face next to a woman led on a pillow, apparently asleep. Needless to say, Buddhist monks are expected to be celibate; moreover to avoid any hint of scandal, they are not even supposed to go into a room or any other isolated place alone with a woman. On top of this, a woman came forward claiming that when she was under the age of consent, the monk fathered a child with her! This allegation is being investigated, and it is possible that the monk - also known as Wirapol - could face up up twenty years in jail if found guilty.

Secondly, the  financial scandal around the monk extends to allegations that he has used donations to buy dozens of cars, build palatial homes for himself and his family, and has numerous bank accounts, containing millions and millions of Thai baht. Moreover, a lay devotee who claims she gave Wirapol land to build a temple on never saw the temple built, but instead the monk and his monastic community live there. When she recently asked for the land back, no doubt disappointed at the nonexistent temple, she alleges she received death-threats.

When the outcry erupted, Wirapol, on a trip abroad - apparently a regular pastime of his - first refused to return to Thailand from France. Then, he fled to America, where he has had a big house built in California. In his absence, he has been formally defrocked, and is no longer permitted to call himself a monk in Thailand, losing all the privileges that go with that position. Some of his followers have not only stuck by the disgraced monk, but actually came out in public denying all the accusations made against him, claiming that there is a conspiracy involving both the Thai media and the Thai D.S.I. (Department of Special Investigation). This kind of dogged loyalty is often found around those exposed by the media and largely reviled by the majority of a populace; recall how some aides to Saddam Huissein continued to support him even after his capture & execution. The following questions do arise however: Just how close to Wirapol were these people, and were they directly involved in his misdemeanors? Did they, along with many other benefactors, receive gifts or payment from him?

While the above drama continues to be played out in the Thai media, its outcome still to be decided as this article is being written, something needs to be borne in mind: This is by no means an isolated incident in Thailand. The magnitude of Wirapol's misconduct is astounding, but corruption is nothing new to the Thai monkhood, and neither are sexual scandals, theft, drug abuse, violence and general rudeness! Monks who have been expelled in high-profile cases before include Dharmavadi, Yantra, and Pawana in 1990s. Pawana was particularly horrible, found guilty of raping hill tribe girls that he had given shelter to in his temple. The Thai media is focusing on such issues once more in light of Wirapol's exposure, and questions are being asked of the Thai Buddhist hierarchy's abilities to run its ship effectively. For example, it has been reported that Thais donate over 100 billion baht (over 3 billion US Dollars) to Buddhist monasteries, and yet the is no national audit of what the monks do with all that money!

So, why do monks such as Wirapol and the others mentioned above do such controversial stuff? Well, because they are human. This is why the rules for monks and nuns exist in the first place, because from the time of the Buddha until now, they have done things unfitting for someone wearing the saffron robes. These monkish rules are precious. If adhered to, they guarantee that monks and nuns live virtuous lives conducive to enlightenment; moreover, they make sure that monks and nuns live in a way that inspires others, rather than disgusts them. Wirapol, and monks like him, flout these rules, and what exasperates the situation is that both laypeople & senior monks ignore their wrongdoings. In this sense, all Thai Buddhists that turn a blind eye to this sort of stuff are to blame for the current crisis they face. Sure, Wirapol should face justice, but he should not become a smokescreen for all the other bad practices going on in this Buddhism today: all Buddhists need to look homewards and see the truth of their own practice.

Another contributing factor to this crisis is the laziness of most Thai Buddhists. Basically, their idea of Buddhist practice is to offer alms to monks (and sometimes nuns), occasionally attend a Buddhist service or festival, and chanting in a language (Pali) that they do not understand. Actually studying the noble eightfold path that the Buddha taught, and putting it into practice would take too much effort for them, so they hope to make merit by giving things to monks. They don't even bother to keep the basic five precepts of Buddhism: to refrain from killing living beings, stealing, casual sex, lying, and taking intoxicants. It seems today that most Thais wouldn't think twice about swatting an insect, taking a stranger's money, having sex outside a stable relationship, telling untruths to save face, and consuming alcohol or other recreational drugs. So, the question arises: In what sense are they Buddhist?!

As Buddhists living in Thailand, we are responsible for keeping the Buddhist precepts and encouraging (not forcing) others to do the same, pointing out their benefits, as well as the potential consequences of breaking them. When we see others doing things against Buddhist principles, especially monks, we should point this out or report it in the case of a monk like Wirapol. He got away with all his controversial actions for so long because he was allowed to, nobody blowing the whistle on him until years had passed. Of course, the authorities in Thailand should be more active in checking and investigating the affairs of monasteries. Both monastic and civil organizations have clear responsibilities in these areas. And, if the civil authorities lack powers to act in such circumstances, it is the duty of government to enact laws that award them such powers. The very future of Thai Buddhism is at stake, and at the moment, it would seem that it is headed in the wrong direction - straight to hell!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Buddhism & This Glassy Essence

“Man, proud man! 
Drest in a little brief authority; 
Most ignorant of what he’s most assur’d, 
His glassy essence, - like an angry ape, 
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven, 
As make the angels weep.” 
(From ‘Measure for Measure,’ by William Shakespeare)

Sometimes life can be pretty complicated. Family ties (or Thai families!), friendships, work commitments, and even the needs of our pets can pull our attention in various directions. Having a religious or spiritual discipline can also become another commitment full of demands and complications that seem to clutter up our lives, adding to the mental maelstrom inhabiting mindfulness. Not that this is the point of Buddhism or any other spiritual way of life; such modes of existence are surely for freeing us from our bonds, not strengthening them further with rituals, recitations, dogmas, doctrines and intricate etiquette guidelines on how to behave towards others within or without a particular discipline. 

The first visit to a Buddhist monastery or temple, whether in the Occident or the Orient, can be a minefield of conventions dictating how to talk, walk, eat, bow, chant, and when to do such things. Having written the above, it might seem that the writer is veering towards a very common modern view of religious conventions which rejects them for being as troublesome as living without them, perhaps worse. But no, this isn't the case, for chanting, rituals, hierarchies and dress codes all have their place – without them, people often become libertines, doing anything and everything in the name of ‘spirituality’, however unwholesome those actions might be.

So, where is this leading us? If religious conventions add to our already complicated lives, how can we keep them in perspective? We do so with mindfulness (sati). But even being mindful takes effort and concentration, doesn’t it? It too can be another complication focused on keeping an eye on all the other complications. But it doesn’t have to be. It depends on what form mindfulness takes. An extremely beneficial practice that I’ve used for many years is the simplest of techniques, but can have the profoundest of effects on one’s level of mindfulness, and was called by its founder, Douglas Harding, 'the Headless Way.' This form of mindfulness simply involves reversing one’s attention from the many and varied objects ‘out there’ to that which is doing the observing. Using one’s finger, one can see what is meant by pointing back at where one is looking from and noting what one finds. Doing so now, I thing at all.

Well, one might well ask, what is the use of nothing – or no thing? Well, focusing on the gap at this end of the pointing finger enables the realization to arise that there’s nobody here. ‘I’ am out to lunch, as it were. Permanently so! Visual objects can be seen to arise and exist and cease in this awareness, which itself remains clear and calm, whatever’s going on ‘in’ it. And, this ‘seeing’ isn’t restricted to what one actually sees – which was Douglas Harding’s main area of focus – it can be extended to all the senses, including hearing and the mind. With eyes closed, it can heard that all sounds occur in a serene silence; as to thoughts, well they arise in an otherwise empty mind. Emotions can be experienced in this context also, allowing a detachment to develop towards them, stripping them of their power to dominate attention.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a technique taught by the Buddha – at least no one I know has found reference to it in the Tripitaka, or Buddhist scriptures. Nevertheless, the senior Buddhist monk Ajahn Sumedho, himself a bit of an innovator when it comes to developing mindfulness techniques, did once write to me that ‘headlessness’ – which is a somewhat misleading term, by the way – is a valid form of mindful practice. Along with other ways of being alert, it leads to what he called ‘Ultimate Simplicity.' Combining Douglas Harding’s in-seeing technique with a tradition like Buddhism works well. The simplicity of the former blends with the often complicated system of the latter, creating a relaxed yet focused mindfulness as a base for all of the chanting, prostrating and the like. And this mindfulness, as Ajahn Sumedho has so often pointed out, is the “path to the deathless”, leading to the realization of Ultimate Simplicity.

As written above, some consider the term ‘headlessness’ and its variations somewhat misleading, and even Douglas Harding himself admitted in later life that he did have a head. With such a term, however, he and others were essentially pointing out the essential, using the initial impression of being without a head a kind of shock treatment into mindfulness of this moment. What’s really essential is what Shakespeare called our “glassy essence” that lies at the core of every conscious experience. recognizing this “glassy essence” – or naked awareness, consciousness, mindfulness, etc. – can be a liberating experience. It enables the viewing of all our experiences with a certain coolness, preventing us from overheating with our emotions, for instance. It can also help in discouraging identification with the body, as it is seen in relation to awareness rather than blindly taken to be one’s self. All those complications referred to above, along any others that one could mention, can be known in the impartiality of attention. It’s a case of the complicated being known by the uncomplicated.

Now, an important realization of Douglas Harding hasn’t been touched on yet, and it would be seriously amiss of the writer not to mention it. Going back to seeing the void (awareness) that’s here and the things that are there, can any distance or separation be detected between them? Not here. Again, try out this theory with some of the other senses such as hearing and thinking – is there anything between awareness and its contents, or are they one? When you look at someone’s face, in actual experience, is it face-to-face or face-to-no face? (Looking in a mirror can reveal the answer to this one, too.) With nothing to separate us, we become one. Your concerns are mine and so are the world’s. This is where compassion (karuna) and goodwill (metta) come in, for with no self-made barriers between us, I naturally care for you and you naturally care for me. Letting go of self-identification and living form direct awareness instead loosens the ego’s grip on consciousness, allowing it a freer experience of existence, and the suffering beings that inhabit it.

Anything that simplifies our complicated lives yet at the same time deepens our reflective experience of life has got to be a good thing, surely? Sitting at the computer now, it can be seen that there’s no one here typing these words, but that the words, the computer, the fingers, thoughts, sounds, etc. are all arising in awareness. And this awareness has no barrier between itself and the objects that occupy it: they are it and it is they. In this ‘fusion’ selfishness takes a vacation, and selflessness takes residence in the heart, with the experience of being a separate and (inevitably) selfish being let go of.

Related posts:

Note: The above Shakespearean quotation was a favourite of Douglas Harding's. If you are interested in finding out more about ‘headlessness’ or ‘Seeing’, please click here: The Headless Way

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Ajahn Chah on Not-Self

When one does not understand death, life can be very confusing. If our body really belonged to us, it would obey our commands. If we say, "Don't get old," or "I forbid you to get sick," does it obey us? No, it takes no notice. We only rent this house, not own it. If we think it belongs to us, we will suffer when we have to leave it. But in reality, there is no such thing as a permanent self, nothing solid or unchanging that we can hold on to.

Buddha made a distinction between ultimate truth and conventional truth. The idea of a self is merely a concept, a convention-American, Thai, teacher, student, all are conventions. Ultimately no one exists, only earth, fire, water, and air-elements that have combined temporarily. We call the body a person, my self, but ultimately there is no me, there is only anatta, not-self. To understand not-self, you have to meditate. If you only intellectualize, your head will explode. Once you understand not-self in your heart, the burden of life will be lifted. Your family life, your work, everything will be much easier. When you see beyond self, you no longer cling to happiness, and when you no longer cling to happiness, you can begin to be truly happy.

The above wisdom from the Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah is taken from a wonderful book by Jack Kornfield & Paul Breiter, which can be read about here Review: A Still Forest Pool.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Buddhism, Stress & No-Stress

Look & see the place of no-stress!

*Stress is a big problem these days. Stress-related illnesses are common ailments in the twenty-first century. Modern life seems geared towards creating stress in us, whether it's at home, at work, at school, or at the supermarket. We are stressed out with the pressures put on us by our parents, partners, children, work colleagues, neighbors, and just about everyone else. We don't have to meet those that bother us, either: politicians, business moguls, and celebrities can cause irritation (or worse) to us. And it's not limited to human beings, either. Animals such as pets or strays can make us stressed. Even the weather can get us down, raining when we want the sun, dry when we want the rain, etc. 

Basic Buddhist teachings center around stress; its existence, its cause, its ending, and the way to achieve this ending. These are called the four noble truths - 'noble' because they lead to enlightenment, or the ending of all stress. In a tradition so profoundly concerned with suffering and its ceasing, its reasonable to assume that many ways have been developed to deal with stress. And this is indeed so, for there are various forms of meditation & mindfulness designed to this end, such as mindful breathing, mindful walking, mantra recitation, chanting, visualization, and plain old 'just sitting.' All of these practices can lead to discovering that spacious awareness that lies behind all our egoistic clinging and related stress. One modern, and it must be said immediate way to this end is called 'seeing.' We'll 'look' into it in this article. (Apologies for that rather weak pun!)

Seeing, or to give it its fuller equivalent, 'seeing-who-you-really-are,' was discovered & developed by the modern British philosopher / mystic Douglas Harding. Douglas - and I call him by his first name as I knew him personally - was not a Buddhist, although he was very keen on some of its teachings, especially some of those found in Zen Buddhism. 'Seeing' fits in with Buddhist practice nicely, however, as it does with any lifestyle, for it is one of those techniques that doesn't depend on specific knowledge or affiliation. It is, however, a very down-to-earth method, as Douglas was a very down-to-earth type of fellow - even if some of its terminology is somewhat, well, bizarre - but we'll come to that later!

In essence, seeing is a mindfulness practice. But, unlike most such methods which focus on a particular object such the breath or a mantra, this technique relies on the viewer observing the absence of any such object. It requires the commitment to take current experience as truth - based on present evidence alone. Thoughts or beliefs as to what one thinks should be experienced or found are a barrier to seeing the whole point of seeing, and if the method is to be benefitted from, all assumptions must be put to one side. Douglas called initial investigations into his technique 'experiments,' as he was very enthusiastic about science and the scientific method. So, having an open mind, and taking what one sees as the truth of this moment are essential to seeing, then, and if you are willing to commit to these undertakings, you are ready to conduct an experiment into 'seeing-who-you-really-are.'

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’?

This 'no-thing' or 'no-face' is the 'original face' referred to in Zen Buddhism, which explains why Douglas was so enthralled by the sayings of the great Zen masters. It is the still center at the heart of human existence, and if we identify with it instead of various aspects of our body & mind, we no longer create that clinging desire that is the cause of so much stress in our lives. And, being open capacity for others, we are less likely to create stress for them either, rather being aware of their stress and need for freedom form it. In simple, everyday issues, seeing is a wonderful way to let go of so much stress in our lives, and to avoid creating more of it. It encourages an openness to life that is stifled by constantly acting out of the usual ego-centered lives that we live.

This author first came across Douglas and his amazingly simple method many, many moons ago, not long after taking up Buddhist practice. Indeed, teachings on selflessness, emptiness, interconnectedness, and compassion can make more immediate sense in light of seeing. And, seeing is a radical type of mindfulness that's easily applied to any of life's situations, lending a calm clarity in the face of life's vicissitudes. Over the years, the seeing technique has been returned to again and again, always appearing fresh and enlivening. It in no way conflicts with the Buddha's teachings, and is easily fused with Buddhist practice, complementing Buddhist forms of meditation nicely. There are other Buddhists that use seeing in their practice, too, including monks in the forest tradition found at Amaravati Temple in southern England.

It was mentioned above that some of the terminology of seeing is bizarre - at least from the conventional point of view. Let's look at some of the terms commonly used by Douglas in his books and by users of his method to this day. Seeing is often referred to as in-seeing, emphasizing the act of turning attention around to focus on who's actually doing the seeing - this is fair enough, but it may appear strange to someone unfamiliar with the technique, as well as seeming to ignore outer reality, which it certainly doesn't as everything is contained in this no-thing. Rather, in-seeing simply indicates the direction of attention, from which is seen there's no dividing line between 'in-here' and 'out-there' - it's all experienced here as one, inseparable reality.

Another term that might cause confusion or unease is headlessness. Seeing that there's no face (or head) to be seen here is quite often referred to in this way, and Douglas himself came to prominence as 'the headless man,' after the publication of his breakthrough book On Having No Head. However, it isn't that we don't have a head here - of course we do. I can see your head and you can see mine, but we don't have to live from the self-conscious awareness of as much, with all the self-obsession and neurosis that can accompany it. If we focus on the spaciousness that lies behind these fleshly masks, we're much less likely to be so concerned with our appearance as we normally are. (For those that might take the headless tag literally, just take a moment to feel your face and the head to which its attached: Yes, it can't be seen, but it can be felt.)

So, if we live, moment-by-moment from this seeing, what effect will it have on our lives, and the stress that we experience? Well, if we respond to the people we meet from the point of view of openness, rather than as headed fools, surely both we and those we encounter benefit. If no division is experienced between you and I, we are effectively one, and will work for our mutual benefit, rather than at 'loggerheads.' If this no-thing experiences a speeding car or a rainy sky, it doesn't mean that the walkway or an umbrella aren't sought, but there's no individually-originated stress involved. If the computer appears to be uncooperative and what should be a simple action cannot be completed, there's no desire-born stress coming up. Just an openness awake to its underlying reality, and alert for the endless possibilities life is currently offering. Why not incorporate Douglas Harding's deceptively simple technique into your Buddhist practice - who knows what you'll see?!

*Stress is one way of translating the ancient Indian Buddhist term anatta into English from the Pali language (Pali being a sister-language to Sanskrit). Other, equally valid translations are suffering, unsatisfying, imperfect, painful, angst, dissatisfaction. For the linguaphiles amongst you, it may be unclear why some of these renderings are nouns and others are adjectives - which type of word is the original, anatta? Well, technically, it's an adjective - the noun form is anattata - but in English translations it has been common to use nouns rather than adjectives. Using the important Buddhist principle of skillful means, this author uses whichever works best at the time… and causes the least stress!

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