Wednesday, December 28, 2016

A Buddhist New Year's Resolution

A New Year question: "What's the point?"

New Year is a time when we can reflect on the past twelve months, and make resolutions for the coming weeks. When we think back to the events of the previous year, it does us well to consider not only what happened to us, and what we did, but also how we thought, what our mind states were for the majority of the time. Were we skillful in the way we approached the world, or did greed, anger, and delusion color much of what we did? And, regarding our practice as Buddhists, did we keep the precepts well, did we meditate as often as we intended, and did we develop any wisdom? If we reflect wisely, we can see where our practice faltered, and therefore where we need to redouble our efforts over the next few months. And, here is where a New Year’s resolution can come in handy.

If our meditation practice has dropped off lately, we can make a commitment to a new discipline for the New Year, and if we’ve failed to live up to the way of life promoted in the Buddhist precepts, we can endeavor to fulfill them more readily in the near future. A simpler, but very effective, attitude to cultivate is openness. To be wide open for the world is a challenging but rewarding way to live this life, enabling us to let go of some of the egoistic elements that make us fall short of walking the Way with more purpose. Being open to the New Year and all that it will present to us seems both a wise & compassionate approach to things, and doesn’t involve much preparation or philosophical acumen. All we need is a bit of attention and simplicity.

All that we see, hear, taste, smell, touch, feel and think occurs in our awareness. This awareness isn’t me or you, it doesn’t have a name, and nor does it have an agenda to follow at the expense of others. It is the simple act of knowing in the present. And, if we associate with this knowing, rather than with the ego-personalities that we think we are, barriers start to fall. The barriers that separate me & you begin to crumble, and the barriers that separate this thought from that world start to dissolve also. The experience of duality is inherent in the notion of being a separate self, and to see that such a self is a delusion is to begin to let go of it. It isn’t always easy to do, and even less easy to sustain, but then the Buddhist teachings and practices exist to help in this process of letting go, so they can be employed in this task.

So, turn your attention around to that which is attentive: What does it look like? What does it sound like? Is it a thought or a feeling? The limits of the conditioned senses are where the unconditioned begins; a spacious awareness that contains all that is experienced. Simply by pointing a finger back at our ‘eyes’ right now, we can see this featureless knowing, and that because it is empty of self, it is full of the world instead. No separation, no conflict: Just Buddha gazing at his own countenance. Surely, this is a New Year’s resolution worthy of a bit of effort, the right effort, to give our traversing of the Middle Way a little push into the future. And, when we see that there’s no separation between you & me, him & her, us & them, this & that, then we may have the wisdom to recite with conviction:

May all beings have a Happy New Year!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Bankei on the Unborn

Zen Master Bankei: Gazing from the Unborn

"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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Ajahn Sumedho on the Unborn

Ajahn Sumedho: A smile from the unborn

"The statement in the [Buddhist] scripture that really inspired me years ago, that really meant a lot to me a the time:

There is the unborn, uncreated, unformed, unoriginated, and therefore there is an escape from the born, created, formed, originated. If it were not for the unborn, uncreated, unformed, unoriginated, there would be no escape from the born, created, formed, originated, but because there is the unborn, uncreated, unformed, unoriginated, there is an escape, there is liberation from the born, created, formed, originated. (Udana VIII.3)

This puts it in terms of the unborn and the born, the uncreated and the created, the unoriginated and the originated. These are words, yes, but the born, the formed, the originated, these are sankhara, mental formations, aren't they?

What we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, think, feel, the four elements - the earth, fire, eater and wind elements - the thoughts, the memories, the feelings - pleasant, painful, neutral feeling - the physical body, in fact all experience, the whole universe, is the created, the born, the formed, the originated. So that means everything, everything you can think of, imagine, feel, experience…but there is the escape, there is liberation from the born the created, the originated. There is the unborn. So then reflect on what is the unborn, unformed, uncreated, unoriginated."

Taken from a teaching entitled 'Refuge in Awareness' by Ajahn Sumedho. More on the book in which it appears (on pp.215-216) can be read here: Review: The Sound of Silence.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Shinran on One Mind

Shinran Shonin 親鸞 (1173 – 1263): A deep mind

Singlemindedness is deep mind. Deep mind is deep faith. Deep faith is steadfast deep faith. Steadfast deep faith is decisive mind. Decisive mind is supreme mind. Supreme mind is true faith. True faith is enduring mind. Enduring mind is sincere mind. Sincere mind is mindfulness. Mindfulness is the true One Mind. The true One Mind is great joy. Great joy is the true entrusting heart. The true entrusting heart is adamantine faith. Adamantine faith is the aspiration for Buddhahood. The aspiration for Buddhahood is the desire to save sentient beings. The desire to save sentient beings is the desire to embrace sentient beings and bring them to the Pure Land of Peace and Bliss. This desire is the great bodhi-mind. This mind is the great compassion, for it arises from the wisdom of infinite light. The oceanlike vow is without discrimination; hence, aspiration for bodhi is without discrimination. Since aspiration for bodhi is without discrimination, the wisdom of the path is also without discrimination. Since the wisdom of the path is without discrimination, great compassion is without discrimination. Great compassion is the right cause of Buddha’s enlightenment.

(From the Kyogyoshinsho, by Shinran Shonin)

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Buddha on Right Speech

Think before you speak...

"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,Cunda Kammaraputta Sutta)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Buddha on Remaining in Emptiness

Enso: Zen symbol of dynamic emptiness

"Ananda, whatever contemplatives and brahmans who in the past entered & remained in an emptiness that was pure, superior, & unsurpassed, they all entered & remained in this very same emptiness that is pure, superior, & unsurpassed. Whatever contemplatives and brahmans who in the future will enter & remain in an emptiness that will be pure, superior, & unsurpassed, they all will enter & remain in this very same emptiness that is pure, superior, & unsurpassed. Whatever contemplatives and brahmans who at present enter & remain in an emptiness that is pure, superior, & unsurpassed, they all enter & remain in this very same emptiness that is pure, superior, & unsurpassed.
"Therefore, Ananda, you should train yourselves: 'We will enter & remain in the emptiness that is pure, superior, & unsurpassed.'"
That is what the Blessed One said. Gratified, Venerable Ananda delighted in the Blessed One's words.
(Buddha, Cula-sunnata Sutta)

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Bodhisattva Vows

The bodhisattva vows in Japanese

Sentient beings are numberless; I vow to save them all.
Desires are inexhaustible; I vow to put them to an end.
The teachings are boundless; I vow to master them.
The awakened way is supreme; I vow to attain it.
The four bodhisattva vows are recited by Buddhists from Japan to Tibet, Singapore to California. They are intended to encourage in us a limitless intent on both our own awakening and that of countless other beings. The word bodhisattva itself literally means 'awakening-being' and can also be understood as 'one-who-helps-others-to-awaken.' If recited intently, the four vows inspire a concern for the well-being & enlightenment of all suffering beings (and, according to Buddha, all unawakened beings are suffering). Moreover, if we recognise the boundless nature of the teachings, we never have the conceit to presume we know it all - there's always more to awaken to. Humble & helpful; at the very least, the four bodhisattva vows can encourage us to develop these qualities. Humility discourages sectarianism, thinking we know the true teachings but others don't, so as bodhisattvas, we won't judge those who are not, such as Theravada Buddhists and non-Buddhists. rather, we will simply wish to help them in whatever ways we can. We can't all be great teachers or humanitarians, but if we allow the four vows to awaken a taste of Buddha's wisdom within us, then we are on the bodhisattva path: May all beings be happy!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Wind Teaches Dharma

Is it the flag or the wind that moves - or your mind?

"One monk said that the wind was moving, while another monk said the flag was moving. They argued on and on, so I went forward and said, ‘It is not the wind that is moving, and it is not the flag that is moving. It is your minds that are moving.’"
Huineng (638-713), Sixth Patriarch of Zen Buddhism

The wind is a great teacher. Just like Buddha, Ajahn Chah or Zen Master Huineng, it teaches us the Dharma. Unlike those teachers it doesn't use words, however, nor does it have what we would normally define as a language to communicate its wisdom. Yet, in its own subtle way it's constantly teaching us the way things are, using what we might name 'the language of the wind.'

We might understandably wonder what form this language takes if it doesn't involve words. Well, we humans use languages that have no words when we pull a face to indicate displeasure, produce or listen to music to inspire pleasure, or construct a building in a specific style. (A Gothic cathedral with all its angels and devils communicates very different messages to us than a modern, shiny hospital. Although the inhabitants of both would claim to deeply care about people.)

So, how exactly does the wind teach us? We can't even see the wind, although we can hear it, especially clearly in a gale, for example. We can also feel it on our skins & in our hair as it blows past us. And, although we can't see it directly, we can see the effects of the wind, which I am enjoying as I write these words, occasionally glancing up to see the treetops waving back and forth as the gentle breeze plays with them.

Now, accepting that all this is the 'language' of the wind, why would interpret it as pertaining to the Dharma, particularly. Surely, we can understand this language in a variety of ways, not necessarily in terms of the Dharma. This is true, as it it of anything in life. We can look at the surface of an act involving thought, word, or deed and understand it in that specific context, so that those rustled trees over there simply mean that it's a windy day. But, we can look a little deeper into the implications of what we are seeing, and this what we do when we listen to the Dharma rather than to other aspects of life's many modes of communication.

Returning to those trees for a moment, I will pause in this commentary - the wind manipulates them, and teaches of the continual flux of this universe. They aren't still for a moment, swishing this way and that, in a kind of existential dance. Sometimes they slow down, only to speed up and become almost manic in their movements, all directed by the invisible wind. This characteristic of the wind, that it is unseeable, speaks of another important fact of life, which is that there are unseen forces at work, which we are usually (if not constantly!) unaware of. They are not only active in the wind, but also in everything else that exists in this wondrous cosmos, including in these bizarre constructions that we call our bodies, and which we normally (mistakenly, according to the Dharma), identify with.

Back to this present moment, and the wind softly caresses the skin of this body that sits on the balcony typing with its tapping fingers. It soothes the mind within this body, like an amorphous masseuse tenderly kneading limbs and head. It teaches that the body is part of nature, linked to it in invisible connections that include the wind's breath. But, learning the Dharma is not all pleasant feelings, and when the wind blows over those garments hanging from a clothes horse, annoyance arises in the mind. This too, is a teaching, for it is the same wind that blows on those clothes and this body. So, too, should the mind reflect the balance between what it deems good and bad, for such ideas do not always correspond to the way the world actually is.

Taking a moment to reflect on the quotation from the Platform Sutra at the top of this piece, Huineng's wisdom shines forth as if born on the wind itself, blowing away our delusion. He points to the discriminating mind that will argue over just about anything, including whether the wind is moving or those treetops over there are moving. Pointing directly to the mind that is moving, Huineng brings our attention to that which never moves, what he called our 'original face.' This face, we might call it Buddha-face or even no-face, is what sees the waving trees; it is the space in which those branches and leaves have their being.

All this talk of wind-blown trees takes me back to my childhood and early teens when I used to gaze out of my bedroom window at the tree in my family's front garden. Bathed in the yellow light of street lamps, it was a real attention-grabber. Somewhat hypnotic in its movements, the tree flowed in the wind, its disparate parts unified in a graceful undulation of golden leaves. I would find my mind silenced in these moments, awareness tied to the tree's fluctuations. A state of what Buddhism calls samadhi, or concentration, would ensue. This was my meditation at that time, long before I explored the teachings of Buddha. And, what the wind taught on those quiet evenings long ago isn't so different from Buddha's own words of wisdom that I later came to discover.

A bell tinkles in the wind, bringing attention back from the mind's reveries and to this actual moment. It was the mind that was moving after all! The shadow of a flag catches attention, reminiscent of an early satori, or enlightenment, experience from my late teens, when a fluttering plastic bag caught on a branch of a tree brought about a sudden awakening. Each moment, which is of course this moment, is a chance to glimpse, or better still rest in, this 'original face' that watches fluttering leaves, bags, or banners. And those trees, that bell, or a fluid shadow can all call to attention the Dharma, the way things really are, as they arise and dissolve in this no-face, this 'Buddha Space.' Time to go 'inside' now, the wind's getting cold!

For more on Zen Master Huineng, see here: Master Huineng on Meditation & Wisdom
For more on Ajahn Chah, see here: Ajahn Chah Day 2012

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Amida, Buddha-Nature & Gratitude

"Amida Buddha is like a mirror that shows one’s true self."
(Professor Kogi Kudara, Ryukoku University, Kyoto)

The famous statue of Amida Buddha known as 'Daibutsu' (Great Buddha) is venerated by pilgrims from all over the world, just as the phrase 'Namu Amida Butsu' (Homage to Amida Buddha) is used by Shin Buddhists to praise him. And yet, these acts, as virtuous as they may be, point to the deeper truth that Amida as a buddha represents the underlying 'buddha-nature' that we all share. 'Namu Amida Butsu' is a link, an opening into connecting not only with Amida Buddha, but with the buddha-nature within ourselves. Doing so can free us from our self-created suffering: Namu Amida Butsu!

The calm look of Amida Buddha is reflective of his insight into the way things are. It is also representative of the compassion that Amida has for all suffering beings (us!). Amida Buddha is not 'out there' however, separate to ourselves. He is, as a personification of our innate buddha-nature, within us, and if we can find him within us, we too will be calm & compassionate. Immersing in his peaceful façade can help us to open up to the buddha-nature within, as can chanting his mantra: Namu Amida Butsu!

Shin Buddhists recite 'Namu Amida Butsu' ('Homage to the Infinite Light Buddha') in gratitude for his compassion. Shin also teaches us to be grateful for all the wonderful things we have in life: family, friends, food, water, shelter, medicine, entertainment, etc. We are interdependent beings, depending on each other, on the Sun, the Earth, the weather, fauna & flora. There's so much to be grateful for in life, from our parents to our pets. We don't have to recite a Japanese mantra to express our thankfulness, though (although that's good, too), we can simply utter an inward 'thank you' at the appropriate time, and cultivate this feeling of gratitude. Life will be better for it: Namu Amida Butsu!

Reciting Na-man-da-bu, a contraction of Namu Amida Butsu, Shin Buddhists express gratitude towards Amida Buddha for his wisdom & compassion. Amida is said to welcome all, to be open to all. We can emulate this openness when chanting na-man-da-bu (or some similar phrase), by noticing the spacious silence that the words arise in. Just as Amida is open to all suffering beings, in truth so are we, as this capacious awareness that hears not only our chosen mantra, but also all sounds. Sitting alert, listening to the world is being open to it, and this is akin to Amida's own compassionate nature: Na-man-da-bu!

When I think of my wonderful wife, family, friends, pets, colleagues, students, community, earth, sun, life... there's so much to be grateful for. Gratitude is important in Buddhism, too, and it can be summed up in a phrase such as Namu Amida Butsu ('Homage to the Buddha of Infinite Light'), sometimes contracted to Na-man-da-bu. Reciting this phrase with gratitude can refresh the heart & clear the mind: Na-man-da-bu! Na-man-da-bu! Na-man-da-bu!

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Buddha's Two Kinds of Gifts

Ajahn Chah: Merit beyond numbers

A popular practice in Thailand is to visit a temple and make merit (ทำบุญ / tum-boon in Thai). Thais take much comfort in the good results that they will receive from giving food, robes, and medicine to Buddhist monks, as seen in the current Khao Pansa (เข้าพรรษา) festivals, where temples are inundated with gifts. Of course, people don’t stop at giving just the four basic requisites to the monks, they will also offer candles, incense, toothbrushes, and just about anything else that they think the men in orange might need or want. It doesn’t always stop there, though. A monk at Wat Pah Nanachat here in Ubon Ratchathani told me that many laypeople even like to offer mobile phones to the monks – I didn’t know that enlightenment was available with a quick phone call nowadays!

All this isn’t to say that giving alms food and other stuff to monks is in any way ‘wrong’, it’s just that many (most?) Thai Buddhists seem to think that it’s all they need to do in their practice of the Buddha Dharma. And in this, they would be ‘wrong’! The Buddha taught that there are two kinds of gifts (dana) in this world. The first kind is what Buddhism calls amisadana, or material gifts, whilst the second kind is known as Dhammadana, or the gift of Truth. In the Pali Canon, he is quoted as saying:

“The gift of Dharma excels all other gifts.”
(Dhammapada, verse 354)

The highly-respected Thai monk Ajahn Chah was also somewhat doubtful of the long term benefits of giving material gifts to the monks when not backing up such action with actually practicing the Buddhist Way. After all, this kind of behavior is akin to singing God’s praises in a church on a Sunday, then being an absolute heathen the rest of the week. The venerable forest master questioned the ultimate merit to be found in visiting temples to pay homage to the Sangha (the monks’ order), but then not bothering to learn how to improve themselves in any way. He compared it to trying to dye a dirty, unwashed cloth: it’ll still retain all the dirt.

Ajahn Chah was concerned that people use the Dharma as a stopover point, flitting from temple to temple like a crazed bee, picking up the pollen of desire and dumping at the next flower, only to collect more ‘pollen’ there. People want to perform good works, in the hope that this will deliver good results for them in the future; they’re not concerned with giving up unwholesome acts, such as those refrained from in the five precepts.

This desire to receive future benefit from making merit is often geared towards material goals, rather than spiritual ones. Merit makers are all too often caught up in the desire to accrue more social status or wealth, but remain unconcerned with increasing the amount of kindness, compassion, and wisdom in their lives. Ajahn Chah taught that we can accrue merit whilst sat in our homes, if we practice according to the Dharma, developing wholesome mind states such as harmlessness, generosity, equanimity and mindfulness. He told merit-making visitors to Wat Nong Pah Pong that the highest form of merit is giving up that which is unwholesome: giving to the poor and to monks are good deeds, which will sow the seeds for future happiness, but if wrongdoing is not relinquished also, that happiness will be short-lived. 

As an interesting footnote, many merit-makers that visited the great ajahn would also request numbers from him, believing that as he was a highly-accomplished meditation master, Ajahn Chah could supply them with winning lottery numbers. He always refused to give his visitors any numbers, emphasizing that practicing the Buddha Dharma was the real way to achieve something good in this life. He never denied the existence of magic, but just felt that people’s focus should be on the true magic of Dharma. In a final twist of irony, after Ajahn Chah’s death, many local people in Ubon used the date of his demise as their lottery numbers – and they won! 

Going to a temple and making merit is a worthy endeavor, and one which I would never say people shouldn’t do, but if practiced in isolation, without following the Buddhist precepts or developing mindfulness and kindness, the merit made will be much less potent, and unable to counter the future effects of unwholesome action. To truly give the gift of Dharma doesn’t just mean teaching Buddhist ideas to others, nor paying for the publication of Dharma books, but in actually living those teachings day to day. This is the heart of the Buddhist path to Awakening.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Buddha's Ten Duties of a Leader

The shouting, sneering faces of modern politics...

Watching political leaders, we may despair. They often let us down with unjust laws, unethical deeds and sometimes nepotism. True enough, there are principled, hardworking people in the field of politics out there, but all too often our news headlines are filled with the misdeeds of our leaders, whether elected or not. The current presidential contest in the United States is an exemplar of this. Claims and counterclaims of illegal & immoral actions of their opponents are issued daily by the rival camps. Indeed, observing the profusion of insults and lying exchanged, it's hard to imagine political behaviour & debate becoming any worse - though I wouldn't bet on that one!

Here in Thailand, society is subject to the same political vicissitudes found the world over. Claims of corruption, incompetence, and favoritism have beleaguered successive governments, preceding the military coups that have overthrown two democratically-elected governments over the past decade. If this predominately Buddhist nation is to progress in the future, it requires sound political leadership. But, how should Thailand expect its future elected leader to behave? Well, Buddhism does have a set of guidelines for kings, which in the modern context includes prime ministers and presidents. They are called the ten duties of a king, or dasavidha-rajadhamma in Pali (or rajadhamma for short). They were taught by the Buddha over two thousand years ago, but are as valid a set of principles now as they were all those centuries ago. Let’s take a brief look at them:

     1.   Dana – charity – having a willingness to sacrifice one’s interests for the people.
      2.   Sila – morality – maintaining a high moral order in one’s personal conduct.
      3.   Pariccaga – altruism – being generous towards the people, avoiding selfishness.
      4.   Ajjava – honesty - fulfilling one’s duties with loyalty and integrity.
      5.   Maddava - gentleness – being kind and gentle, never arrogant.
      6. Tapa – self control – to perform one’s duties with dispassion.
      7. Akkhoda – non-anger – remaining calm in the midst of confusion.
      8. Avihimsa – (non-violence) – being non-violent, not persecuting the people.
      9. Khanti – (forbearance) – practicing patience in one’s duties.
      10. Avirodhana – (uprightness) – respecting public opinion, promoting harmony.

Historically, there was a man who exemplified the ten rajadhamma, and that man was called King Ashoka (304-232 BCE), who ruled India for forty-one years. Initially, he was a great warrior general, winning many battles, and continued to expand the Indian empire during the first eight years of his reign. After one particularly bloody campaign, King Ashoka wandered the sight of his army’s victory, and seeing the carnage all around him, famously cried out, “What have I done?” Following this, he embraced Buddhism, establishing a just kingdom along Buddhist lines and was known as ‘Dhammashoka’ – “Pious Ashoka.” He promoted wildlife protection, banning hunting for sport, built universities, hospitals for people and animals, and constructed irrigation systems for trade and agriculture. He also renounced the use of violence, ceasing all military campaigns against his neighbours, instead sending monks and nuns abroad to spread Buddhist teachings on wisdom and kindness. Indeed, a son and daughter of King Ashoka who were monk and nun took Buddhism to Sri Lanka, where it remains the predominant faith to this day. This is not to say that he promoted Buddhism at the expense of other religions, however, as he also encouraged tolerance and understanding between different creeds and ethnic groups. King Ashoka is remembered by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike as an example of a truly compassionate and just ruler, who lived according to the ten rajadhamma.

Now, this tenfold list of kingly responsibilities is surely a set of qualities that would make any ruler a great leader of their country today, just as King Ashoka was in ancient India. But do such leaders exist nowadays, one might ask, considering the many examples of politicians that have been exposed as anything but charitable, moral, or honest? Scandals have involved so many political and royal figures that it seems nigh on impossible to find one that comes anywhere near the ideals in the ten duties.

Thailand does have a leader that is considered to be the embodiment of these qualities, however: His Royal Highness King Bhumibol. With his numerous development projects to help the Thai people, and his reputation for helping those in need, the King is a figurehead that gets directly involved with the concerns of his people. His work in the area of rain-making to help the millions of Thais working the land is well documented. He is a deeply loved man, whose popularity is directly related to the public perception that he exudes the ten kingly duties.

The highly-respected Anglo-American monk Ajahn Sumedho has spoken on the subject of the ten royal duties, saying that rather than simply applying them to our presidents and prime ministers, to see if they’re really up to the job of governance, we can reflect on them with regards ourselves. We can contemplate our own behaviour, as well those who are in positions of power, to see if we are ruling our own lives in the spirit of the rajadhamma. After all, what’s the point of having a good constitution, a great leader and government, if we the people are selfish, unwise, violent, and ignoble?

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Buddha's First Sermon

Buddha delivering the First Sermon

Today is Asalha Puja, when Buddhists recall the giving of the first sermon of Buddha, called ‘The Turning of the Wheel of Dharma Sermon’ (in Pali, Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta). In this sermon, Buddha presents the basic teachings of Buddhism in the form of the Four Noble Truths, which include the Noble Eightfold Path that leads to complete enlightenment. He also sums up this Path in terms of the Middle Way, an avoidance of the extremes of self-indulgence and self-torture. Not only is this sutra recited on Asalha Puja Day, but it is frequently chanted and reflected on by Buddhists across the world, for it contains the very heart of Buddhism. It is, therefore, well worth spending a few moments of our time reflecting upon this seminal teaching of Buddha.

“These two extremes, bhikkhus, should not be followed by one who has gone forth: sensual indulgence, which is low, coarse, vulgar, ignoble, and unprofitable; and self-torture, which is painful, ignoble, and unprofitable. Bhikkhus, by avoiding these two extremes, the Tathagata has realized the Middle Way, which gives vision and understanding, which leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana.”

That Buddha is addressing monks – both ‘bhikkhu’ and ‘one who has gone forth’ refer to monks - should not be interpreted that the teachings themselves are not intended for nuns and laypeople; it’s just that when he delivered this sermon it was to five fellow monks. For, although it is often argued that Buddha’s teachings are more easily lived in a monastic setting, many householders have also benefitted from them, realizing Nirvana just as their baldheaded brethren had done. The word Tathagata is a title Buddha often used to refer to himself in the scriptures, and it is usually rendered in English as either ‘the Thus Come One’ or ‘the Thus Gone One’, both suggesting a being that is spontaneously living in the moment.

As to Buddha’s description of the two extremes that we should avoid, they are both described as being “ignoble and unprofitable.” They are ignoble in that they are not worthy of someone endeavouring to lead an enlightened life, and unprofitable in that they will prevent us from leading such an existence. Self-indulgence is singled out for further criticism; Buddha stating that it is “low, coarse, and vulgar.” That lax morals and their resultant actions are not conducive to living an enlightened life is no big surprise, for even in more worldly lifestyles they are generally considered undesirable, so even more so for one walking the Path of Buddha.

This avoidance of self-indulgence and self-mortification is dubbed by Buddha “the Middle Way.” If perfected, this way of living “gives vision and understanding” and “leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment” and “Nirvana.” These benefits are listed in this order deliberately; it is no accident that vision precedes understanding and that both come before calm, which is followed by penetration, enlightenment, and finally Nirvana. Again, it is worthwhile giving our attention to this process so that we at least have a broad understanding of what Buddha was getting at. In doing so, we may gain the insight needed to progress along the Middle Way far enough to meet Buddha himself, for as he famously declared, whoever sees the Dharma also sees Buddha.

The first step in awakening to the Dharma (the truth of the way things are) is to obtain the vision that sees life as it really is, and not as we usually misperceive it. This involves a radical shift in our awareness, a kind of profound simplification that opens us up to be able to understand the Dharma, the way life is. This understanding, which is not intellectual, but can be expressed intellectually at least to a degree, is a wisdom that arises out of direct perception of the Dharma.

With this understanding comes the calmness that Buddhists are often – correctly and incorrectly – attributed with. This calm arises from knowing the way things are which allows for a certain acceptance of life as it is. For, if we know and accept life, then we will not be upset by its challenges and problems, but simply recognize that this is the way it is and act appropriately. Resting in this calm wisdom, we will then penetrate to the heart of Buddha’s teachings, indeed we will fly like an arrow straight to the bull’s eye of the universe, seeing and knowing people and things just as they are, all flowing out of that which is neither a person nor a thing.

Next in Buddha’s description the fruits of the Middle Way comes enlightenment, which is not so much seeing things as they are, but seeing ‘No-thing’ as it is. That is to say, it is seeing and living from the naked awareness of a buddha. In this enlightenment, not only is the Dharma the Buddha, but so are we; there is no thing to separate “us” from “him.” Finally, Buddha talks of Nirvana, a state of being that is literally beyond words, out of reach of the intellect, and so sublime that to even label it “Nirvana” should only be done with the knowledge that it is just a pointer and nothing more. Indeed, many Buddhist masters have often avoided mentioning Nirvana altogether, fully aware that much misunderstanding can arise from such talk. So, let’s swiftly move on to the next part of the sermon!

“And what, bhikkhus, is the Middle Way realized by the Tathagata, which gives vision and understanding, which leads to calm, penetration, enlightenment, to Nirvana?
It is just this Noble Eightfold Path, namely: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.”

Where Buddha’s teaching on the Middle Way gives us a broad outline, the Noble Eightfold Path is a more detailed exposition of the route to enlightenment. Too detailed to go into here, the Eightfold Path is often summarized into the three trainings, Morality, Concentration, and Wisdom. Morality comprises Right Speech, Action, and Livelihood, and details how to live in harmony with the society and world we live in. Concentration includes Right Effort, Mindfulness, and Concentration, and guides us how to cultivate both peace and focus, and includes meditation amongst its tools. Wisdom is made up of Right View and Intention, and it appears at the beginning of the Path, when we learn of the Way, and at the end of the Way, when it is an expression of our own understanding. To perfect the Eightfold Path is not to be fully enlightened, but to be perfectly ripened awaiting “it” to occur spontaneously.

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of dukkha: Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, death is dukkha, grief, lamentation, pain, sorrow, and despair are dukkha, association with the disliked is dukkha, separation from the liked is dukkha, not to get what one wants is dukkha. In brief, clinging to the five aggregates is dukkha.”

Here, Buddha introduces the notion of dukkha, or suffering, which is a central idea in his teaching. Life is full of suffering, in the many ways that he describes above, and even when we are enjoying ourselves, suffering is waiting for the good times to end, so it can rear its ugly head. It has many levels of intensity, from mild irritation all the way up to full blown-agony, and from the egoistic point of view it is impossible to completely eradicate from our lives. Buddha, however, is suggesting that a life without suffering is realizable, if we walk the Path, and the reason is that dukkha has a cause:

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the cause of dukkha: The craving which causes rebirth and is bound up with pleasure and lust, ever seeking fresh delight, now here, now there; namely, craving for sense pleasure, craving for existence, and craving for annihilation.”

Craving is the cause of our suffering; because we desire life to be certain ways, when it doesn’t live up to our expectations we experience dukkha. Three basic kinds of craving are listed by Buddha: craving for sense pleasure, for existence, and for annihilation. It’s pretty clear why desiring certain forms of pleasure will inevitably result in suffering, for as Buddha stated earlier in the sermon, when we do not get what we want, we will suffer. As to craving for existence, this doesn’t only mean desiring to be alive, but also includes wanting to exist in a particular way or form, and when this is threatened or absent, we will suffer. Craving for annihilation causes suffering because while we are alive, the desire not to be, or not to be the way we are, will create dukkha. Furthermore, if we accept the theory of rebirth, even suicide is not a way out of suffering, for we will face the consequences of our actions in our next birth.

“This, bhikkus, is the Noble Truth of the cessation of dukkha: The complete cessation, giving up, abandonment of that craving, complete release from that craving, and complete detachment from it.”

This may sound a bit of a tall order, to say the least, for while we are alive as human beings, we will surely have desires that will sometimes be fulfilled and sometimes not, resulting on suffering. Buddha, however, teaches that it is indeed possible in this very life to achieve “the complete cessation” of dukkha, for whilst on the conventional level of experience we are human beings, at the “deeper” or more fundamental level of being, we are ‘No-thing’ at all. It is human ‘things’ that experience dukkha, so if we let go of identifying with being these ‘things’, and realize the ‘No-thing’ that we truly are, we are realized from suffering, for ‘No-thing’ has no desires whatsoever, and therefore no suffering. And how are we to achieve this? Buddha has already told us: the Noble Eightfold Path:

“This, bhikkhus, is the Noble Truth of the way to the cessation of dukkha: Only this Noble Eightfold Path; namely, Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.”

 Buddha goes on in the sutra to explain in some more detail how he used the Four Noble Truths as reflective tools to meditate on and achieve full enlightenment, but the gist of his teaching is contained above, and it is this which is recalled on Asalha Puja. If we can appreciate these teachings and then put them into practice, we will be walking the Middle Way that Buddha established roughly two thousand years ago. This Path has many interpretations from Thailand to JapanTibet to Vietnam, not to mention all the newer forms arising across the globe today. If they keep to the well-trodden Path that Buddha taught all those centuries ago, they will lead to the same place: no place at all. For, it is as this ever-present ‘No-thing’, this ‘Buddha Space’ that contains all, that we are freed from our desires and the suffering that arises from them. May all beings be truly happy!

For a previous reflection on the Buddha's first sermon, please click here: Dharma Day

Monday, July 4, 2016

Buddha Rain

"Raindrops keep falling on my head..." Or do they?!

Outside – is it raining outside? What is ‘outside’ in current experience? Science teaches us that our five senses collect information (in this case sound) and send it to the brain, where it is known by the mind. Accepting this, I might decide that in truth I am not in the world, but rather the world is in me. In this sense, there is no ‘outside,’ for everything is experienced here, in my mind. It is raining in me, or, as the old song goes, “It’s raining, raining in my heart.”

So, common sense tells me that it’s raining outside me, whereas science tells me that as I know it, it’s raining inside me. But, what of direct experience? What does that tell me? Above, I wrote that when focusing attention on the rain and nothing else, the presumption that it’s over there whilst I am here weakens. This seems to be corroborated by scientific descriptions of how we experience the world. So, in the spirit of science, perhaps we might conduct a little experiment to see into this matter further.

Focusing attention on the rain (or any other sound), take note of its characteristics. How loud is it? What is its rhythm? How about its pitch? Take a while to examine these aspects of what you are hearing. Now, turn awareness around to that which is listening. Is it loud or quiet? Does it have rhythm or pitch? Or, is it without any particular characteristics? Is it a spacious knowing that contains sounds but is itself silent?

All assumptions put to one side, I do indeed find a silent knowing. In truth (in direct experience) here is a spaciousness that all sounds arise in; they are not over there, but rather here, in this awareness. This view of life reflects a branch of Buddhist philosophy called Yogacara, which states that all we experience is dependent on mind, occurs in the mind, and is an expression of the mind. Hence, this tradition’s other name, the ‘Mind-Only School.’

Rain, properly observed in its truest context is ‘buddha rain,’ a manifestation of the Dharma (the way-things-are). Paying attention to it, as it arises in awareness, can reveal the underlying reality behind all our experiences that is called buddha-nature. Listening to rain in its true context reveals this nature, as well as this fact of human experience: the world is in the mind, not the mind in the world. It seems that scientists & Yogacarins are right after all, but we don’t need a degree in science or philosophy to see this truth for ourselves. Just listen to the rain.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Metta Bhavana (Loving-Kindness Meditation)

Ajahn Brahm: full of metta

A wonderful exponent of metta (goodwill, or 'loving-kindness') is Ajahn Brahmavamso, an Englishman who is abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Australia. Ajahn Brahm (as he is affectionately known) is a very popular teacher amongst Buddhists in the Thai forest tradition, and is very skillful in his descriptions of the meditative life - his book, ‘Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond’ is the main source of inspiration for my own meditation practice these days. He has taught extensively on Buddhist teachings including meditation and many other topics such as everyday mindfulness. But here, I want to focus on his directions on how to practice metta meditation.

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.

Footnote: Years back, I was experiencing difficulties getting to sleep at night. I’d read, or heard, somewhere that practicing metta meditation upon retiring to bed could help such a condition, enabling one to fall asleep and have a sound and comfortable night’s sleep. So I tried it, and it worked beautifully, really quickly. (In fact, I rarely got to extend loving- kindness to myself, as I’d fall asleep long before I got to that point of the meditation.) So,whether for the benefit of others or for oneself, or both, metta bhavana can have great results. Why not try it?

For more on metta, see the following;

Saturday, June 4, 2016

A Third Experiment in Awareness

Think you know who you are? Think again!

In recent posts, two experiments in awareness have been presented, the first centered on sights, the second on sounds. In this third experiment in awareness, the focus will be on thoughts. This will reveal that what the British philosopher Douglas Harding called ‘seeing-who-we-really-are’ isn't dependent upon the physical senses, despite being so efficacious when applied to them. So, as with previous experiments, please follow the instructions whilst keeping an open mind along the way.

This experiment can be done with eyes opened or closed, although the latter method will probably work best for most experimenters, particularly at first. Take a few moments to quieten down and withdraw attention from the physical world. What are you thinking at this precise moment? Is it a quick succession of thoughts or is your thinking quite slow and steady?

When awareness loses touch with the thinking process gently bring it back to the thought(s) arising at present. Again, analyze the nature of the thinking process; is it fast or slow, is it constructive or rambling? Try to remain with the present train of thought for a minute or so, maintaining aware of its nature. Note that thoughts, although not physical, still have particular ‘shapes’ or forms, and that they are things.

Next, turn attention to that which is conscious of thoughts. Is it classifiable in the same way as its contents are? Is it fast, slow, systematic or rambling? Can it be said to have any shape or form? Here, I find a clear awareness that is awake to the thoughts that arise in it, but isn’t one of them. In fact, it is nothing like them, because it is not a thing – it is no thing at all!

In response to the previous experiments, the question arose, “What’s the point?” This question is very important, for if there’s no reason to experiment with awareness, then why bother? Well, speaking from my own experience with these techniques, I can vouch that they can be very effective in loosening the bonds of identifying with, and attachment to, the ego-self that I normally take myself to be. Not only is this a more accurate understanding of what we truly are, but it is also conducive to an increase in happiness or contentment.

Allied to the above benefits, which could be seen as somewhat selfish, even though they involve a reduction in self-identification, is the fact that other people may well benefit as well. This is because to practice this form of mindfulness results in the crumbling of the self-made barriers that usually separate human beings. Looking back here and finding nobody home means that there’s no self interest to get in the way of the perception of others. In fact, they are experienced as part of this awareness, and as such are not recipients of the usually self-centered attitudes that color our attitudes and actions towards other people.

These three experiments have featured three different elements of the human experience: vision, hearing, and thinking. There are other senses that can be explored in the light of awareness, which include touching, tasting and smelling. The Buddhist satipatthana mindfulness practices supply more potential subjects for us to view in relation to awareness, which encompass feelings (positive, negative and neutral), the state of the mind (greedy, generous, hateful, loving, etc.), The four noble truths (suffering, its cause, its ending, and the Path to its ending). No doubt you can think of other ways to experiment with awareness and its contents yourself. (For more on satipatthana, click here: 4 Focuses of Mindfulness)

So, all in all, ‘seeing-what-we-truly-are’ (a variant of Douglas’ well known description of this technique quoted above) can be an effective way to practice insight. It can transform our relationship to the world and the myriad beings that we encounter in it. Above all, it gives us a valuable, simple, and direct method to let go of greed, hatred, and delusion, leading to a more awakened life. Give it a go and let me know how you get along.

Friday, May 20, 2016

A Second Experiment in Awareness

With eyes closed, listen to your inner buddha...

Following on from a previous post that featured an experiment in awareness, here’s another (albeit brief) exploration of what the British philosopher Douglas Harding called ‘seeing who we really are’. The previous experiment focused on awareness in relation to the visual sense, this one features the auditory sense.

Close your eyes. Listen to an external sound, maybe a dog barking or traffic passing by. Notice its volume level, its pitch, and whether it’s constant or intermittent.

Next, focus awareness on another noise, this time something closer to you; perhaps music, voices, or a whirling fan. Again, take note of the specific characteristics of the sound, observing them one by one.

Now listen to a sound emanating from yourself. Your breath will do, as it enters and exists from your body. How loud is it? What’s its tempo: is it long and slow or short and swift.

Finally, turn your attention to that in which all these various sounds occur in. Can this said to be loud or quiet? Intermittent or constant? Is it fast or slow? Here, all audible phenomena arise in a silence. That they have particular qualities is the very stuff of what they are made of, but the silent awareness in which they are born, live and die is peace itself, a tranquility that hosts everything.

So, as with the experiment in awareness in the last post, if you don’t do it, but merely read about it and think about it, you’ll miss the whole point. If you did do it, but still appeared to miss the whole point, there’s no harm in repeating the exercise, is there?

This experiment is one of many pioneered by Douglas Harding, a wonderful man that I had the pleasure to meet several times in the Nineties. He himself continued to tour the world promoting ‘seeing who we really are’ to anyone who showed an interest well into his own Nineties, passing away at the ripe old age of Ninety-seven in 2007. His vigor and enthusiasm for what he also called ‘in-seeing’ – in this instance ‘in-listening’ might be more appropriate – reflect some of the benefits of practicing this technique in mindfulness.

Buddhists, if we are open-minded to the experiments and their results, can find great use in them. They naturally lend themselves to everyday mindfulness, enlivening each and every moment that the space here is paid attention to, as well as being conducive to meditation practice. Sitting and just looking at the spacious awareness to all that is seen, or listening to all that is heard, is a simple and insight-producing activity. It reveals something about our nature, as it is in this very moment, rather than from reading a book or philosophizing (as useful as these endeavors can be).

What exactly does it reveal, however? It shows that beneath (or alongside) all the things that exist in human experience, whether they be visual, auditory, mental or whatever, there is this peaceful knowing that not only is aware of everything, but is also somehow one with them. This means that whatever distracting or upsetting things are happening in awareness, awareness itself remains no such thing; it is the no thing that is host to all things. Isn’t it worth a look – or a listen?