Friday, June 27, 2014

Buddha on Self & Not-Self

Then the wanderer Vacchagotta went to the Blessed One and, on arrival, exchanged courteous greetings with him. After an exchange of friendly greetings & courtesies, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there he asked the Blessed One: "Now then, Venerable Gotama, is there a self?" When this was said, the Blessed One was silent. "Then is there no self?" A second time, the Blessed One was silent. Then Vacchagotta the wanderer got up from his seat and left.

Then, not long after Vacchagotta the wanderer had left, Venerable Ananda said to the Blessed One, "Why, Blessed One, did the Blessed One not answer when asked a question by Vacchagotta the wanderer?"

"Ananda, if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of eternalism. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, that would be conforming with those brahmans & contemplatives who are exponents of annihilationism. If I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is a self — were to answer that there is a self, would that be in keeping with the arising of knowledge that all phenomena are not-self?"

"No, Blessed One."

"And if I — being asked by Vacchagotta the wanderer if there is no self — were to answer that there is no self, the bewildered Vacchagotta would become even more bewildered: 'Does the self I used to have now not exist?'"

(Ananda Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 44:10, Tipitaka. Notes: ‘Blessed One’ & 'Venerable Gotama' refer to the Buddha; eternalism is the view that there is an eternal, unchanging self; annihilationism is the view that death is the annihilation of self. Buddha’s teaching of anatta (not-self) states that there is no self in the first place to cease existing. This is not to be understood as a doctrine or philosophy, but to be experienced by the meditative mind.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dhammapada Reflection #2

Dhammapada, Verses 3, 4 & 5

"He abused me, struck me,
Overpowered me, and robbed me."
Those that harbor such thoughts
Cannot still their hatred.

"He abused me, struck me,
Overpowered me, and robbed me."
Those that do not harbor such thoughts
Can still their hatred.

Hatred is never appeased
By hatred in this world.
By non-hatred alone
Is hatred appeased.
This is an eternal law.

 Hatred is fuelled by negative thoughts. It is a fire that burns on negative sentiments such as feeling verbally or physically abused, or robbed. These thoughts proliferate if not checked, begetting more and more negativity that feeds our hate until we become engulfed in pessimism. People that we perceive as having inflicted such sufferings upon us are viewed with a hatred that is incredibly destructive towards those that we think have done us wrong, seeking to punish them in various ways, often the same ones that they wreaked on us. However, such hatred will also eat us up ourselves, too; we will become victims of our own hatred. Embittered and suffering, we'll be prisoners of self-propagating thoughts in a vicious circle of ruination.

 By contrast, if we don't indulge in hatred, we can experience life in a much more positive way. By letting go of our negative feelings towards others, we break down some of the barriers between us & them, allowing for more fulfilling relationships. We also will feel less distress within ourselves, our minds not continually tossed around by destructive emotions. This is done by cultivating 'non-hatred.' In some translations of the Dhammapada, the word 'love' is used here, but the original Pali wording is averena ca, which is better rendered as 'only through non-hatred.' Non-hatred is not as emotive, passionate word as 'love,' and in the context of Buddhist practice & teaching, it is too vague a term to use here.

 We can cultivate non-hated in various. Buddha taught the brahma-vihara (‘divine abodes’) to counteract certain negative human traits. They are metta (goodwill), karuna (compassion), mudita (empathetic joy) & upekkha (equanimity). Metta, usually translated as goodwill or ‘loving-kindness,’ can be developed to cancel out hate. The other three divine abodes can help also, but here we’ll focus on just one. If we feel goodwill towards others, wishing them safety & happiness, acknowledging that these states are wished for by all human beings, then hatred is less likely to get a grip on us. Trying to force the arising of goodwill probably won’t help much, however, especially if left to the last minute when already caught up in hateful thought patterns. The Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahm can help us here.

 Ajahn Brahm advises starting off by visualizing a kitten, puppy, baby or any another helpless creature or thing (even a young plant), imagining it as needing our care, our love and attention, as it is not doing so well. We see that it is in a sorry state, and we imagine holding it, feeding it, and caring for it, perhaps telling it how we will look after it and protect it. With the feeling of kindness that we’ve developed, we next turn our attention to someone close to us; our partner, a friend or close relation. Extending the feeling of loving-kindness to this person, we wish them well, extending positive thoughts of goodwill towards them. When this feeling fills the mind, the next subject to receive our careful attention is an acquaintance whom we know but not as well as the previous person. Thirdly, metta is directed to someone that we don’t like, someone that causes us displeasure; an enemy, even, if we have one. No matter what bad things they have done to us, or bad habits they have that we dislike, we overcome our negative thoughts by wishing them well.

 Ajahn Brahm next instructs us to emit loving-kindness to the people that we live with or work with, or to our neighbors, before sharing such positive feelings with all beings, as in the Metta Sutta quote: “May all beings be at ease!” Lastly, he tells us to extend metta towards...our own self. For, as Ajahn Brahm points out, how many of us, particularly in the West, have bad or guilty feelings towards ourselves? The one person that many of us don’t really like, at least subconsciously, is our own self, and this is why Ajahn Brahm instructs us to develop metta towards all beings first, filling the world with loving-kindness before turning our attention upon our own being. Having wished goodwill towards all others, we then do the same for ourselves, overcoming any latent self-criticism with the strength of well-developed metta.

 Ajahn Brahm has taught that metta meditation softens the mind, making full of goodwill as the meditator becomes more selfless and peaceful towards others. He has stated that metta is an emotion that is full of delight and pure in nature. When developed, it takes residence in the heart and the meditator becomes more compassionate with their kindness a source of great joy to all. With such a mind-set, the arising of hatred towards that we feel have slighted us will be less likely, instead we might even be able to develop some wisdom with regards to why people do nasty things to each other, and how thus relates to the inherent stress (dukkha) that most of us experience in life.

The Dhammapada ('Verses of Dharma' or 'Path of Dharma') is an ancient Buddhist text that is said to contain some of Buddha's teachings in poetic form. The first chapter is called Yamakavagga, 'Chapter of Pairs,' and the above three verses are from this part of the book.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Buddha on Skillful Means

“O Shariputra! The real intention of all the buddhas in adapting their explanations to what is appropriate is difficult to understand. Why is this? It is because I have expounded the teachings with innumerable skillful means and various kinds of explanations and illustrations. Yet this Dharma is beyond reason and discernment. Only the buddhas can understand it. Why is this? It is because the blessed buddhas appear in this world for one great purpose alone. O Shariputra! Now I will explain why I said that the blessed buddhas appear in this world for only one great purpose.

 “The blessed buddhas appear in this world to cause sentient beings to aspire toward purity and the wisdom and insight of the buddhas. They appear in this world to manifest the wisdom and insight of the buddhas to sentient beings. They appear in this world to cause sentient beings to attain the wisdom and insight of a buddha’s enlightenment. They appear in this world in order to cause sentient beings to enter the path of the wisdom and insight of a buddha.

 “O Shariputra! For this one great reason alone the buddhas have appeared in this world.”

(Buddha to his disciple Shariputra, from the Lotus Sutra, Chapter 2 ‘Skillful Means.’ Note: Skillful means – upaya in Buddhist parlance – is an important concept in Buddhism, as the various teachings & techniques therein can be seen as skilful means to awaken to true nature & realize nirvana.)