Monday, May 27, 2013

'In the Unborn,' by Bankei

"Not a single one of you people at this meeting is unenlightened. Right now, you're all sitting before me as Buddhas. Each of you received the Buddha-mind from your mothers when you were born, and nothing else. This inherited Buddha-mind is beyond any doubt unborn, with a marvelously bright illuminative wisdom. In the Unborn, all things are perfectly resolved. I can give you proof that they are. While you're facing me hearing me speaking like this, if a crow cawed or a sparrow chirped, or some other sound occurred somewhere behind you, you would have no difficulty knowing it was a crow or a sparrow, or whatever, even without giving a thought to listening to it, because you were listening by means of the Unborn."
(Bankei Yotaku Zenji)

The above quotation comes from the Zen Master Bankei (1622-1693). For more on him, read the following: Review: Bankei Zen, by Peter Haskel.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Birth-Day, Death-Day, & Everything-Inbetween-Days

Today yet another birthday comes, which also means another year gone. One year further away from my birth and one year nearer my death has passed. And, in-between these two bookends of life, innumerable days of dukkha, or stress. Not that it's been a particularly troublesome existence, you understand - there have been plenty of highs along with the lows (and the in-betweens). But, through it all, there has been this gnawing fact that life is somehow inherently unsatisfactory, which is another translation of the Buddhist term dukkha. The fact is, that as a human being, I am born to suffer; until I die that is. Life's a bitch, and then you die, goes the somewhat cynical saying. 

The Buddha's teaching on dukkha is not an inherently negative view of the world, however, merely a realistic one. Most babies come into this life screaming, and many people go out of it in a similar way. Existence can be confusing, scary, painful, and wearisome. The good times can seem awfully fleeting, and what do we have to look forward to? Death! If we reflect on this, it may come to us that given this knowledge, we may as well make the most of what little time we have, and there is much to be said for this attitude. One problem is the perception that we need to doing an incredible things to lift us out of the mire of dukkha, whether it be being a movie star, a noble prize winning scientist, or a living saint. Unfortunately, such an existence is out of reach for most of us. We are stuck in our unsatisfying lives.

This, however, turns out to be not such a bad thing. For, we've all heard or read of filthy rich people committing suicide, or celebrities visiting addiction clinics. Living the dream isn't necessarily all it's cracked up to be. Having an ordinary lifestyle can actually turn out to be a saving grace, allowing us the chance to reflect on life and develop some insight into it. This means that dukkha itself becomes the focus for contemplation, leading us to insight into the way-things-are (the Dharma), which turns out to be the real way out of our stressful lives. So, while pop stars, politicians and millionaire business types wallow in the extraordinary suffering of their extraordinary lives, we can use our quieter, less distracting situations to awaken to true happiness.

Bearing in mind the day that this body & these thoughts will pass away is not a morbid thing to do, but a wise one. Accepting the mortality of this person can be a motivating factor to discover what's important, and how to achieve it. In the Buddha's teaching it is happiness or contentment that is considered of prime importance in our lives. Not just for the individual, but for all people and creatures. The ultimate happiness is the absence of suffering, a state that is known by many names, some of the most well known being enlightenment / awakening (bodhi), 'blowing-out' (nirvana), extinction (nirodha), the deathless (amata), and the unconditioned (asankhata). Some of these might appear negative, but it's worth noting that happiness (such) is another synonym for this realization.

Unless we are monks or nuns, earning enough money to live by is an important occupation in life, and avoidance of this aspect of living can cause much suffering in the long run. However, thinking that fame & fortune are the most important factors in leading a happy existence would seem negated by the above references to the stress experienced by the rich & famous. The must be another way to lasting happiness, and this is the path (marga) that leads to awakening (bodhi). This path involves eight factors which cover correct understanding, correct intention, correct speech, correct action, correct livelihood, correct effort, correct mindfulness, and correct concentration. They are 'correct' in that they lead to enlightenment. Walking this path is the Buddhist 'holy life,' and its fulfillment is true, lasting happiness.

So, on a birthday such as this, a wise thing to do is resolving to continue walking this path & realizing its many fruits, the pinnacle of which is nirvana...before death-day arrives.
May all beings be happy!

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Buddhism & Stress

Having one of those days? The Buddha can help.

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 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. 

A particularly stressful day might include an argument with a partner, discipline issues with the children, and the dog hassling to be taken for a walk. And that's before even leaving the house! This is followed driving the kids to school and being late for work due to the daily traffic jams. At work, the boss is extra demanding and a disagreement with a colleague causes friction. Upon returning home through a rain storm, there's nearly an accident, and clothes get drenched in the process. Finally at home, a burnt supper lies slaughtered on a plate, not exactly the reward one might expect after such a day. The evening news presents story after story of crooked politicians & petulant celebrities. At last in bed, exhausted, insomnia strikes - the final nail in a coffin of stress!

Some things we can improve in our lives through positive action, reducing stress in the process. We can relate better to those around us, spending more time with our loved ones and listening to their concerns, responding in appropriate ways that lessen stress for all concerned. We can perform to the best of our ability at work, being conscientious workers, minimizing the possibility of conflict with work colleagues. We can go to bed early and get up early so that we not only get enough sleep, but also have enough time to get the following day off to a good start. We can be more selective with what we watch on TV, and when we watch it, so that potentially stressful programs don't affect us so much. These are general steps we can take to improve our lot in life and reduce stress; but, there some things we can't change, like other peoples' behavior, the weather, and the stock market! 

This is where Buddhism comes in. Buddhism contains many teachings & techniques that can lead to a reduction in stress. Indeed, the ultimate goal of the Buddhist life, nirvana, is described as the complete absence of any kind of stress. To achieve enlightenment isn't immediately achievable for all of us, however - when was the last time you met someone you thought was a living buddha? - but nevertheless, Buddhism can help us to significantly reduce our stress levels if we learn a few of its basic teachings and techniques. The core teachings of the Buddha are called the four noble truths (ariya-atthangika-magga), and are as follows: 

  1. Life is stressful (dukkha, often translated as 'suffering,')
  2. The cause of stress is craving (tanha, often 'desire.')
  3. To end (nirodha) craving is to end stress.
  4. There is a path (magga) to end suffering.

From these truths (which are called 'noble' because they lead to nirvana, or enlightenment) can help us to understand stress better. They don't refer to specific types of stress, nor to medical conditions that cause acute forms of stress - for the latter, please refer to a qualified medical doctor. But, for the majority of us suffering from your run-of-the-mill stress that permeates life, Buddhist teachings can be of profound help. (And, in conjunction with medical assistance, they can be of use to those of us with clinically-diagnosed stress, too.) In essence, they can be summed up in the following statement by the Buddha: "I teach stress and the ending of stress." The latter is achieved through first recognizing the existence of stress, understanding its causes, and letting go of them, thereby letting go of stress itself. And there are a number of ways to do this.

One simple exercise, traditionally ascribed to the Buddha, is called mindfulness-of-breathing. It is normally practiced sat cross-legged, but can be done sat on a chair, as long as we re sitting in an alert posture. With eyes closed, focus attention on the breath as it touches the nostrils, watching it go in, and then come out of the nose. To begin with, this can be very difficult as the mind will wander away into its own reveries. It's important to return attention to the breath as soon as this is noticed. A helpful method is to count the breaths from one to ten, starting again each time the mind drifts or ten is reached. Mindfulness-of-breathing can be done for ten to fifteen minutes, ideally twice per day. But, even once a day will be of benefit, calming as well as focusing the mind. This will not only reduce stress when meditating on the breath, but will seep into the rest of one's day, making one more resistant to stress.

Having practiced mindfulness-of-breathing for some time, it will be able to establish the mind in a calm and focused state easily. This will enable one to go to the next stage of the practice: looking at and analyzing stress. When calmer, the ind will not so easily get stressed, but underlying causes of stress will be there, and stressful states will still occur, if less often than before. When they do, a calm & focused mind will be able to look closely at particular forms of stress and their causes. When their causes are clearly seen, which will be certain types of craving, then the latter can be let go of, leaving no causes for the further arising of those kinds of stress. There are many other techniques we can use to the same end, some of which are described in other articles in this blog. Please use the search facility to the right of this page to explore for more.

An example of this is realizing that a specific form of stress is caused by the desire for someone to be different to the way they are. Fighting with those aspects of reality that we cannot change will lead to stress, but seeing that a person we cannot avoid causes stress, and that we cannot change them, can be the cause of stress reduction, if we let go of the desire for them to be different. Reflecting, "So-and-so is the way they are, and that's not going to change," can lead to letting go of the craving for them to be other than they are. With this acceptance comes a lessoning of stress. This technique can be applied to many causes of stress that we experience, reducing the suffering that we are normally victims of due to our ignorance. By looking into the nature & causes of our stress we are developing wisdom, the cure for ignorance. Buddhist enlightenment is taking this process to the very core of all our ignorance & suffering - but that's not within the scope of this particular article! For now, let's leave it here. A little daily meditation & reflection can do wonders for our stress levels.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Thai Buddhism: A Land of Smiles

In Thailand, it pays to smile!

Thailand is rightly known as the Land of Smiles (เมอืงยิ้ม / 'meuang-yim' in Thai). Everywhere you go in the country, you will be greeted by smiles. Often in the most difficult of situations, smiles will be seen. Why? Well, to smile in adversity is considered a virtue in Thai culture, and it is also considered polite, whereas a grimace or frown is usually taken as impolite. Moreover, a smile can hide a multitude of sins; guilt, embarrassment, unease, dislike and even anger. It communicates warmth & friendliness, visual signals that make people feel at ease, and feeling at ease (สบาย/ 'sabai' in Thai) is a quality that Thais consider most important.

Of course, not everyone smiles all the time in Thailand; that would be insane! When upset a Thai can cry or display other behavior that reveals their feelings. And, as Thailand modernizes, its traditions are coming under continual strain, and the age-old customs of politeness and smiling are being worn away. Nevertheless, even amongst the more modern set in Thai society, smiles are much more abundant than found in many other countries. And its effects are immediate; when we smile with each other we feel more relaxed and happy. Smiling isn't just a result of being happy; smiling can inspire a happier state of mind as well. 

Again, as indicated above, not all smiles in Thailand are genuine in the sense that a person smiling really feels happy or actually likes the person they are smiling to. A Thai can sweetly smile to you while inside they might be thinking something like, "What a jerk!" Seeing the behavior of a lot of foreigners in Thailand, it would seem that this reaction is probably widespread! An incident from many years ago comes to mind. In a fast-food restaurant in Bangkok, a western man and his small children had been waiting quite some time for their takeaway meal. Too much time for the westerner's liking, so he promptly started to berate the staff, who reacted by standing silently staring at him with wide grins on their faces. Probably misunderstanding their smiles as smirks, he shouted even louder at them until his food finally arrived and he stormed out, children in tow. 

The above story illustrates the cultural importance of smiling in Thailand. The staff were not smiling at the foreigner, as though laughing at him, but were smiling to him, in the hope of placating him and quietening him down. It didn't work, as the westerner no doubt thought the smiles were completely inappropriate in that situation. For Thais, however, a smile from someone not performing to their expectations will normally calm them down, at least for a while. This goes to show that wise usage of the smile is culturally-dependent, and this should be understood so's not to create unnecessary antagonism. This withstanding, non-Thais can learn from the Thais' implementation of smiling. And this is related to Buddhist practice too, as it is in the spirit of Buddhism to act in friendly, non-aggressive ways to others, and smiling can assist in this. (It's worth noting that many eastern peoples that use the smile in the same way as the Thais, such as Cambodians, Laotians, and Burmese, etc. are also predominately Buddhist.)

Now, walking around with a permanent grin on one's face is likely to get one locked up, or at the very least, one will find threes giving one a wide birth when in public. The smile should be primarily used when actually in contact with others (animals included). It's interesting to experiment with smiling and see if people respond differently; this author has found that they do. And, when smiling is combined with qualities traditionally lauded in Buddhism, such as calmness, friendliness, helpfulness, gentleness etc., it creates a very positive atmosphere not only for the recipients of the smile, but also for the smiler. Why not try it? Start by smiling more in specific situations, such as at home or at work, and see how people respond to you. Depending on your particular circumstances, you will need to adjust when & how much you smile, but the results will surely be positive…overall. Smile away, and create a land of smiles in your own life!

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Thai Buddhism: Saving Face & No-Face

What's she pointing at? Do you see?

Saving face is a big thing in Thailand. The wrong look, word or gesture can give instant insult to a person without any intent on the part of the offender. Moreover, if you are a foreigner with limited knowledge of Thai customs - and that's just about every foreigner - it's often impossible to know that you have offended someone, as they won't tell you to your face, as that would be considered losing face, too! Being too honest with others is a real no-no in many situations, with lying much-preferred to inconvenient truths. (And this despite the fourth precept of Buddhism being not to tell untruths!) Thai will people go to extraordinary lengths to save face, lying about their background, their financial situation, their work, their family, etc. so that they look good. To challenge any of this is to incur a loss of face, which is a taboo that most Thais are extremely reluctant to break.

Saving face isn't just done to make oneself look good, however, as the Thais are largely a group-orientated people, as are many Asian peoples. From this perspective, if someone looks good, this reflects well on their family, their employers, their neighborhood, their community, and their nation. To make someone lose face can insult not only that person individually, but also any or all of the groups mentioned above. This group-identity has many positive aspects to it, of course, as it motivates Thais to work for the common good of their families, communities & nation. On the downside, if someone makes a mistake or does something considered wrong, this will reflect on this same group, leading to much condemnation from others within such groups - sometimes to the person's face, often behind their back.

Of course, saving face is not unique to Thailand, and people all over the world will say & do things to make themselves and their associated groups look good. To insult someone or their family is taboo in most if not all societies, and some people will go to great lengths to gain honor, independent of the cultures hay were born to. In Thailand, however, foreigners that live in the country for any decent length of time are struck by the all-pervasive obsession with face-saving amongst the Thai people. And this despite Thai culture & psychology being imbued with Buddhism for many hundreds of years. Buddhism, it should be noted, does not encourage face-saving activities, and in the scriptures accepted by Thai Buddhists, whilst the Buddha often encourages his audience to be truthful, he never teaches that they should save face.

If we take the term 'saving face' literally, and it is interesting to note that many languages share this way of putting it, including in Thai where the terms กู้หนา้ ('goo-nah') & รักษาหนา้ ('raksah-nah') can both be translated as meaning to 'save face.' It does appear to be a common human experience that retaining honor or not being insulted are related to one's face. It's also interesting to note that people are not born with a sense of having a face, and do not usually recognize their own face in a mirror until they are at least eighteen months old. This has been corroborated in scientific studies, as has been the discovery that most animals do not appear to recognize themselves in mirrors. To date, only the great apes, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants & (interestingly) European magpies have passed the so-called mirror test. 

This is related to self-awareness, the ability to view oneself as separate to what one actually experiences one to be where one is. Returning to the visual sense, we never actually see our own faces where we are, first-person. The eyes are pointed outwards and cannot turn around and view the face of which they are part. Being able to recognize the face in the mirror as one's own is indicative of a sense of separate self here, distinct from all the other people and animals that we encounter. Acute self-awareness results in the desire to be seen in a good light in the eyes of others. We want others to think good of us, to respect us, and to posses the self-esteem that comes from this. This is 'saving-face,' and it is called such as it is wrapped up in our actual face. Having a big face is problematic, however, for it breeds competition where there is limited opportunities for people to save face. This results in face-to-face confrontations, where my saving face is, at least to some degree, at the expense of you saving yours. We are in a face-off situation.

In Zen Buddhism, there is a famous saying which goes something like, "What was your original face before you were born?" Originally ascribed to an ancient Zen master called Huineng (638-713), the saying is one of hundreds used by subsequent Zen teachers to awaken their students to the truth of Zen. It is one of the most potent, and it's strength surely lies in its reference to the 'original face,' the discovery of which is considered one's entry into the enlightened life. But, what is this original face, and what is its relationship to our everyday faces that we see in the mirror, and spend so much time trying to 'save?' Well, unless we have the time to seek out a living Zen master & study with him for many months if not years, we're unlikely to find out. And yet, if this original face is innate to all of us, and it's discovery is the simplest of things, as claimed by numerous Zen masters, might there be a short cut? Well, this author believes so, and the secret lies in that object already referred to several times - the mirror.

Our mortal face, which we spend so much time trying to save, is to be found in the mirror; this we can see simply by looking at our reflection. Something that many of us spend hundreds, maybe thousands of hours doing during our oh-so short lives. But, it is surely to be found here, this side of the mirror too, isn't it? After all, if it is the nature of a mirror to reflect, then it must be reflecting something here, mustn't it? But, this is all mentation. A more direct method would be to actually look and see what is here, this side of the mirror. So, if you can find a mirror - or some other decent reflective surface - please take a few moments to induct the following exercise; its results may radically change your self-view. 

Look at your reflection in the mirror. Notice the outline of your head and the shape of your face. Are they oval like an egg, or more rounded? Notice your hair (or lack of!), and if you have some, how long is it, what is its colour and texture? Examine your facial features: eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, cheeks, chin etc. Take a while over this, making sure that you haven't missed any important identifying characteristics of your particular face, the one that separates you from everyone (and everything) else. Now, point your finger at where your face actually is…or where you'd expect to find it. What do you really see here? Do you see a eyes, a nose, a mouth, hair, ears, or anything else indicative of a face or head? Be honest, for this is really important: What do you see, right now? Do you find a face, or do you find what Zen Buddhism calls your original face, what is in fact no face at all? The only face I can see when I look in a mirror is there - in the mirror. Here, there's no face at all, just this spacious awareness that can recognize that face, but is no face at all itself.

This method of self-enquiry is surprisingly modern. Surprising because it's so obvious, and mirrors as well as other reflective surfaces have been around for a long, long time. And yet no-one seems to have noticed the dramatic difference between what we assume is here, and what can be actually seen. No-one, that is, before the Twentieth Century philosopher Douglas Harding, a man that this author met several times during the Nineteen-Nineties. In his many books and innumerable workshops Douglas Harding tirelessly promoted this direct insight into our true nature. The above exercise, among many other similar techniques, were developed by Douglas and friends to share this vision with anyone interested in seeing who they really are. And, as he was apt to say, what a waste of a life to live it and never actually look to see who's living it!

Douglas Harding was not a Buddhist, but he did appreciate its teachings regarding this central reality, along with other traditional ways of approaching it, such as Christian mysticism & Islamic Sufism. His encouragement that we look for ourselves and see what we really are echoes the Buddha's teachings in the Kalama Sutta. In this well-known discourse, the Buddha instructs a group of confused townspeople that they shouldn't believe something just because it comes from scripture, a  priest or monk, logic, surmising, or opinion, but from experience. He also presented people with a variety of mindfulness & meditation techniques to examine ourselves. Buddhists have since added to these practices with countless other methods, some clearly adapted from other traditions, such as the tantra found in Tibetan Buddhism which came from tantric Hinduism. In the forest Buddhism of Thailand, mantras such as Buddho are used, something not found in the scriptures of Thai Buddhism, but used to great effect nevertheless. The exercises of Douglas Harding can also be incorporated into Buddhist practice, assisting us in waking up to our true nature. After all, one of the titles given the Buddha in the Dhammapada is 'the seeing one.'

So, returning to the initial concerns of this article, that of saving face and its negative effects, which is better - saving face or no face? Well, looking back here and finding no face to confront others with, I find a spacious awareness instead. This empty knowing is capacity for others to appear in, rather than a closed off ball of flesh & bone with which to keep them out. If we live from this original face rather than our human ones, we are open to others rather than trying to get them to acknowledge how great we are. Rather, as this spaciousness, we are more likely to acknowledge the worth of other people, and without intending it, go up in their estimation in the process, as they see an openness & kindness in us that is lacking in so many 'face-savers.' As to that driving hunger for prestige & having a big face - and the inevitable suffering that comes from it when things go wrong - this too will be let go of if we live from the no-face that we see when accepting the current view in.

In conclusion, face-saving is a natural consequence of living from the illusion that we have a face here at centre - and it is an illusion, for if we look, we don't see a face, head or brain, but a vast aware space ('Buddha Space'). Of course, we do have these things, and if they need pruning or painting, or some medical procedure performed on them, it's quite right that such stuff occurs. But, when looking back here, we don't see them, and - more importantly - what we see instead is this alert void full of the world. If we live as space for each other as opposed to thinking that we're in competition all the time, trying to be Mr (or Mrs, Miss, or Ms!) Big, we find that we don't seek to save face all the while. Instead, we will seek to help one another to be free of the desire & ignorance that give birth to excessive face-saving. And all this by simply noticing the unborn no-face from which we are coming!