Thursday, June 27, 2013

The False Idea 'I AM'

"According to the Buddha's teaching, it is as wrong to hold the view 'I have no self' (which is the annihilationist theory) as to hold the opinion 'I have self' (which is the eternalist theory), because both are fetters, both arising out of the false idea 'I AM.' The correct position with regard to the question of Anatta is not to take hold of any opinions or views, but to see things objectively as they are without mental projections, to see what we call 'I,' or 'being,' is only a combination of physical and mental aggregates, which are working together interdependently in a flux of momentary change within the law of cause and effect, and that there is nothing permanent, everlasting, unchanging and eternal in the whole of existence."

The above extract is from a wonderful book by the Venerable Doctor Walpola Rahula. To download a free pdf copy of the book, click here: What the Buddha Taught
For another quote from the book, click here: What is Essential
For a review, click here: Review: What the Buddha Taught

Monday, June 17, 2013

Buddhist Monks Get Nasty

Is there a division between this Muslim's face & you?

There is a trend in Buddhism these days which not only goes against the spirit of the Buddha's teaching, but also against Buddhist rules. This is illustrated by the recent convention in Burma held by leading Buddhist monks there, in which various measures intended at reducing tensions between the majority Buddhist population of Burma and the minority Muslim community were discussed. “We hold this meeting with the intention of protecting our Buddhist race and our religion, and also to have peace and harmony in our community,” said U Dhammapiya, a senior monk and a spokesman for the convention. At first glance, this may seem a reasonable statement, but if we examine it a little more wisely, it reveals some disturbing ideas not in line with the Buddha's teachings.

Firstly, the monk refers to "our Buddhist race." This is a common attitude amongst those whose cultures have adopted Buddhism over long periods of time, but is it really a Buddhist one? Look at the wording carefully - presumably the monks did so before voicing it in public: "Our" suggests a division between 'us' and 'them.' In addition, the usage of the term 'Buddhist' in relation to race suggests that there is such a thing as racial Buddhists, whatever that might be. But being Buddhist is not a matter of birth, but of choice, or intent. We can't be born 'Buddhist' as to be Buddhist is to consider the Buddha's teachings and put them into practice. What newborn child is capable of that?!

Let's return to this attitude of 'us and them.' Does this fit in with Buddhist ideas or not? In a word, no. Buddhism is not a label or racial attribute that we can identify with, but a set of teachings & techniques to realize our true nature. Anyone can become Buddhist, whether they are born into a traditionally 'Buddhist' society or not - this author is an example of this. The Buddha did not teach us to view ourselves as a separate community to others, cutting ourselves off from them, or thinking ourselves special in some way. As Buddhists, our duty is live in peace & friendship with all people, whether Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, atheist, or whatever. This brings us to another disquieting announcement by the monks - to introduce a law banning marriages between Muslim men and Buddhist women.

U Wirathu, a well-known nationalist monk, said he was delighted with the plans to try to stop any Buddhist woman from marrying a Muslim man. “I have dreamed of this law for a long time. It is important to have this law to protect our Buddhist women’s freedom,” he said during a press conference. What about a woman's freedom to marry who she wishes - Buddhist, Muslim or otherwise?! The proposed law would require any Buddhist woman seeking to marry a Muslim man to first gain permission from her parents and local government officials. It also requires any Muslim man who marries a Buddhist woman to convert to Buddhism. It is based on similar laws in Singapore & Malaysia, which the Burmese monks say have helped to establish inter-communal harmony in those countries.

However, the right to marry whoever one wishes is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights Article 16, which states that “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.” Surely making inter faith marriages impossible between Buddhists & Muslims is not going to do anything positive in the relations between the two religious groups. In fact, it runs the risk of driving the two groups further apart. This appears to be part of a wider campaign by U Wirathu who leads the controversial 969 campaign that is being implemented all over Burma. It encourages Buddhists not to do business with Muslims and only support fellow Buddhists’ shops. How can this bring longterm inter-communal peace?

Another important issue here is that Buddhist monks in the Theravada tradition - to which U Wirathu & his colleagues belong - are proscribed from involving themselves in politics & law-making in the the rules for monks. Furthermore, the Buddha instructed monks to desist from even discussing politics, reflecting on the Buddhist teachings instead. By involving themselves in such issues, these monks are actually breaking their own monastic code of conduct, and ceae to be worthy of alms - nor should Buddhist laypeople listen to their views on such subjects, as by doing so, they also risk losing sight of the Buddha's true teachings. It is really sad for a fellow Buddhist to read of their activities - if they or their associates read this, they are seriously advised to focus their efforts on the Buddha's teachings regarding suffering and its ending, and practice to that end. 

Reflecting on these Buddhists' actions described above may help us somewhat. They are acting out of fear and attachment, which unenlightened people do the world over. It is a real shame however, that as senior monks respected by countless Burmese Buddhists, they are so deeply enmeshed in deluded thoughts and actions. Clearly, they are fearful of the majority Buddhist traditions of Burma being diluted or even destroyed by an increase in Muslim population, especially if it comes at the expense of the former. This comes out of being attached to their Buddhist identity, that feeling that says, "I am Buddhist" or "I am Burmese," and not being able to see beyond such a limited and limiting perspective. Of course, we are all made up of cultural, ethnic, and hereditary factors. But Buddhism teaches us how to realize that awareness that lies behind all these particular faces and see the original face that lies behind them.

To illustrate this point more concretely, we can take this author as an example. I am a man. I am British. I am caucasian. I am middle-aged. I am Buddhist. I am straight. I am married. Etc. But, if I take the time to look beyond these various masks that I have adopted over my life, what do I find? Looking back here now, I do not see a caucasian, middle-aged face, but rather a clear, spacious awareness. Moreover this awareness (or original face, or no-face) is full of whatever is present, as there is nothing here to keep it all out. If I were to see you now, in truth I would be you, for your face would be present here, in my no-face. And this would surely be so for you also, but in reverse - you would have my face! (You can test this out right now by simply looking and seeing what is the case in this present moment - what do you see where you are?) For U Wirathu & his colleagues too, this holds true. If he were to look at a Muslim right now, he would see a wonderful human face existing in his own no-face - the two would be one. Then, there are no divisions, whether cultural, religious or otherwise. May all beings be happy.

The above is adapted from an article on The Buddhist Channel, which can be read here: Monk's Convention in Burma

Friday, June 7, 2013

Rain, Perspective & True Nature

Rain pours from the heavens, drenching everything within sight. From grey skies it descends, banishing the humidity that preceded it, and forcing everyone outside to take shelter. Its noise drowns out all other sounds as it pounds against any surface, a torrential orchestra of raindrops, conducted by nature itself. Just moments earlier, it was a hot, close late tropical afternoon, with no hint of the rain to come. But now it dominates the senses, not only its sound, but also its wetness as I briefly retrieve some clothes from the balcony. The atmosphere freshens as the storm continues, the temperature seeming to drop several degrees in just minutes, no longer humid.

To the raucous boys that were gathered nearby the back of the house, and now disappeared on their bikes, the rain may well be perceived as a nuisance, spoiling their fun. To my dogs, also, the garden that is normally their favorite haunt is now abandoned for the dryness of the house. They look out at the falling water and turn away to find someplace to lie down. For this writer, however, the rain is most welcome. No longer sweaty, and with no intention of going out this evening anyway, this tropical deluge is a most positive event. Furthermore, coming as it does after several weeks of very hot, humid weather, its cooling wetness is much appreciated.

Perspective: that is what's really being discussed here. The rain is merely a trigger, a cause for this reflection hot arise. From the viewpoint of those boisterous boys, the rain is almost certainly a pain, at least at first. To my canine companions also, do not seem to possess much gratitude towards the rain's arrival. From my perspective, however, it is a real relief and pleasure to hear the continuing rainfall. The local toad population appears to be excited too, croaking away as vocal accompaniment to the water music being played. Same thing, rain, but different responses, based on different perspectives. 

How we look at any given situation depends on so much; similar happenings can evoke very different reactions dependent upon the circumstances. If I was walking to work when the rain suddenly dropped from the sky, no doubt relief would not have been amongst the various emotions arising. Whether we experience something as pleasant, unpleasant or neither depends at least partially on what we're doing at the time, then. Moreover, past experiences can condition us to perceive something like rain in generally positive, negative or neutral ways. So, even if its to out immediate benefit that a rainstorm arrives, we may not see it that way, cursing the rain out of habit.

Culture is influential on how we perceive things as well. Rain is often seen as a negative occurrence in England, a place where it can appear to rain nearly every day, dampening the spirits of even the most robust individuals. "When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads / They might as well be dead," sang the Beatles. In Thailand, however, rain is viewed in primarily positive ways, as it comes to rescue us from the ruthless tropical heat, especially at the end of the long dry season. Indeed, the Thai word for rain, fon, is a common nickname for girls (the English word rain being the nickname of this writer - imagine a girl being called 'Rain' in England).

Circumstances, memories, habits, and culture are just a few conditioning factors that can affect one's perspective. Genes and one's mood are also important factors. If someone has inherited a predominately negative attitude towards life, or they happen to be a bad state of mind, then whatever they perceive is more likely to inspire a negative response. Also, if one has planned to hang out the washing, and there's a sudden, persistent rainstorm, one's view of the rain isn't likely to be very positive; it's ruined one's plans. But, do we necessarily need to allow these various factors to determine our perspective of life? Can't we be free of such conditionings?

In a word, Yes! If we take a moment to see who's perspective this really is, we may find that whilst the factors described above are not completely negated (and why should they?), they lose their otherwise unchallenged dominance over our view and experience of the world. They still remain, for they are the 'flavors' of life, the aspects of life that give it its myriad tastes. But, if we see them in perspective, as it were, they no longer determine whether we see things as pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Rather, we can experience things in their own right, as they really are, still 'flavored' with our own experiences, but in a broader context. But what is this context?

Normally, we view life from the position of being a particular person, an ego with a specific set of limited and limiting perspectives. There is a simpler, deeper, more primal viewpoint that we all share, however, and it has the advantage over the former in that because it takes things as they are, it doesn't cling to perspectives that hinder our ability to respond to life with flexibility and openness. This may sound all very well, but not particularly accessible. After all, if we have spent a lifetime building up our individual perspectives on life, wouldn't it take an equal amount of time to let go of them? Well, no, for it is possible to let go of these positions without rejecting them altogether. 

Moreover, we can begin this process without having to take up complicated meditative practices or cultivating purity through a commitment to an ethical system. Not that these endeavors are to scorned at; this author practices both and finds them crucial to the development of a truly Buddhist lifestyle. Indeed, what Buddhism calls 'enlightenment' requires such commitments, and without them only a partial liberation from suffering can be achieved. This understood, we can nevertheless use certain techniques to reveal different, freer perspectives on life, even without a commitment to Buddhism. One such technique is described below. Why not take a few moments to try it out?

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 'original face' is pure awareness, simply awake to what is on show, not judging it or evaluating it, but just witnessing it. Personal perspectives that normally accompany experience aren't found here, just this spaciousness. Sure, perspectives can be detected, arising in this awareness. However, if we recognize this facelessness as the true nature that lies behind the mask of particularity, not only do we have this wide-open alertness as our essential nature, but also any individual perspectives that we normally would identify with lose their grip on how we view ourselves. Living thus, we can allow such perspectives to exist, but not cling to them so tightly, which restricts experience.

So, as rain floods awareness, the reactions that occur in response are just as valid as ever, but don't dominate consciousness. Rain can be experienced as it is - a natural process that brings much-needed moisture to the land and its inhabitants. It's amazing appearance will thereby become a 'just-so' experience, speaking of the perfection of this present moment. Even if it causes us to run for cover, grab clothes from the washing line, or cancel a much-anticipated event, it still retinas its beauty, which points to this faceless beauty that lies at the heart of being. So, why not look at what is experiencing the rain- or whatever is arising - and see how this transforms experience from the limited perspective of an individual, to the limitless perspective of knowing itself?