Buddhism and Healing
by Alfred Bloom, Professor Emeritus, University of Hawaii
Buddhism began in India about 5th century BCE and began its spread through Asia from about the 3rd century BCE when King Asoka sent out missionaries to South Asia and to the West. In the course of time, it evolved into two major traditions known in ancient times as Hinayana and Mahayana, the Smaller and the Larger Vehicles. Today, we do not us the term Hinayana or the Small vehicle, because it is pejorative. The style of teaching of that early tradition is now called by the name Theravada, which means “Way of the Elders.” There are significant differences between the two traditions which we will not take up in detail, except to indicate that Mahayana Buddhism spread largely to the Northwest and then North and East Asia, including the countries of China, Mongolia, Tibet, Korea and Japan.
Buddhism is sometimes described as a philosophy seeking a religion, in contrast to Christianity which was a religion seeking a philosophy. The consequence of this difference has been that Buddhism focuses on certain philosophic principles rather than beliefs. There are beliefs but they are not the primary consideration. There is, therefore, a considerable variety of teachings in Buddhist tradition, sometimes contradictory and confusing if one does not know the history.
However, Buddhism is a religion of practice and in its monastic forms strives to realize the principles as experiences in one’s own life.
Ultimately, they hope to achieve enlightenment as Gautama experienced. Speculation and doctrine are secondary to experience guided by a teacher and the major principles. Hence, meditation is a central feature of Buddhism.
Gautama’s enlightenment experience reached after six years of intensive spiritual search includes basic principles that permeate all Buddhist traditions. These are the Middle Path between extremes of hedonism and asceticism; the four noble truths and eightfold path, and the principle of interdependence, no-soul, and impermanence.
These teachings are first expressed in what we call now the Theravada teaching and practice. As indicated by its name, it is more conservative. The Mahayana tradition is more flexible and adaptable so that each country and culture where it spread developed its own distinctive styles of Buddhism which have been maintained to the present time.
Mahayana Buddhism elaborated on the initial principles and developed a cosmic, universal perspective indicating that all beings have Buddha nature and all beings will attain Buddhahood. Mahayana has been very positive in affirming life in this world, though it also has beliefs about the afterlife. It has a philosophy of education that takes into account individual differences whereby the teaching is to be given in harmony with the level of understanding and spiritual development of the student. This has been the basis of its adaptability and integration with native cultures. It is replete with Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who meet the spiritual need of each individual. While merging with folk traditions, Mahayana also developed subtle systems of philosophy focused on the concept of emptiness and exploring the nature of reality and our perception of it. There is a a wide variety of literature.
Buddhism in Hawaii is mainly the Mahayana tradition in its various forms which we see in the differing denominations. There are South Asian Buddhists from Vietnam and Laos; East Asian from China, Korea and Japan; and Tibetan Buddhists. There are Theravada Buddhists mainly from Thailand and some from Cambodia.
Mahayana Buddhism never denied the Theravada but built its teaching with that as its foundation and precedent. They considered the Theravada as elementary teaching and background for the more advanced Mahayana teachings.
Buddhism has had a concern for health, spiritual health, from its very beginning. Gautama, who became Buddha or Enlightened One, initially tried to solve the problem of human existence through extreme ascetic practice. He found this harmful and ineffective. He discovered that enlightenment could come only when there was a healthy mind in a healthy body. He enunciated the principle of Middle Path between extremes. Spiritual development can only come when one avoids hedonism, devotion to pleasure or asceticism, mortification of the body.
The Buddha is sometimes described as a physician because his analysis for the human condition proceeds as a doctor might in observing the condition, seeking the cause, prescribing the cure and applying it. In Buddhism these are called the Four Noble Truths.
The first truth is that all life is suffering. Westerners often see this declaration as a negative, pessimistic assessment of life. Rather, it is realistic, looking at the actual conditions of human life. The term for suffering — Dukkha — refers to a broad spectrum of conditions, namely dis-ease, not merely disease as a physical experience, anxiety, frustration, dissatisfaction. It takes into account that there is suffering in parting from things we love and meeting things that are unpleasant. There is suffering in what we call surfeit or too much of a good thing. Suffering in Buddhism comprises both physical and mental features.
Based on the principle of cause and effect, Buddhism sees the core problem in suffering caused by ignorance, not knowing the true nature of our life and world. We avoid facing the impermanence of life in all its dimensions. We are deluded by focusing on permanence and not realizing the non-soul character of all things. Non-soul is one of the difficult concepts of Buddhism and it means that nothing has its own essence or is totally self explainable or contained. Everything is interdependent with every other thing and the failure to see this leads to our egoism and our problems and conflicts with others who also pursue their own ego interests. We see everything only in reference to ourselves and as self-centered beings, we encounter resistance in the world, which increases our unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
Going deeper, the cause of the many forms of suffering is desire, perhaps better craving, lust, thirst or in general passions of hatred, greed and anger. These passions arise from our ego attachments to things, our ideas, our bodies etc.
However, Buddhism is an optimistic system and proposes a cure or healing. Whatever has a cause can be remedied by removing the cause.
The way to remove the cause is known as the Noble Eightfold Path It includes: Right View, Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration.
The system is a total spiritual discipline involving the body and mind. It aims not only at improving life, but also to liberate one from the bondage to finite existence and repeated reincarnations in the stream of births and deaths. The goal is ultimately Nirvana.
Though Buddhism aims at a final solution to the problems of existence, it also provides a pattern for living holistically in this world. Initially, it was for monks but its principles have relevance for ordinary life. The system of eight aspects of Buddhist spirituality begins with Right Views, which contributes to mental health. By having a proper and realistic understanding of the self as a dynamic, evolving process, we may become more adaptable and flexible confronting life situations. Accepting the impermanence of life and things, we may become more tranquil. There is a famous story about a mother, Kisa Gotami. Her baby had died and she was distraught. She pleaded with the Buddha to restore her child. The Buddha agreed, on the condition that she bring a mustard seed from a home where there had never been a death. She searched but could not find such a home. She gained insight and returned to the Buddha, now understanding that her child suffered death as all others do. She then accepted the death of her child.
The five aspects of Right Intentions, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort take up the inner and outer dimensions of our life activities. Buddhism focuses on the activities of the mind, body and speech, which are involved in all our activities. These should be integrated and in harmony with our understanding of reality. It involves ethical, spiritual and physical dimensions of living.
Right Mindfulness, and Right Concentration are perhaps the best known features because we hear so much about meditation in Buddhism and other traditions. Mindfulness is maintaining a focus of attention, an awareness of what is going on without focusing on a particular objects. It is a detached observation of what is happening within us and around us in the present moment
Right Concentration describes the unification of all mental functions on an object of meditation. It involves deep attentiveness and tranquility. Essentially meditation enables a detachment from the distracting flow of stimuli that assault the mind and permits an inner unification of the psyche to develop. As Jon Kabat-Zinn has written on mindfulness and meditation, it is like climbing out of a raging current in a stream and watching the stream from the bank. This unification can become the basis for more creative activity or involvement. We call it centering or working from the inner quietude of our minds. In meditation our egoism and its stake in things is set aside, allowing other perceptions and alternatives to emerge. When people get angry and wish to retaliate for a hurt, we say count to 10. That is, give space for the mind to truly assess the situation and find a more proper response. Meditation is a more developed spiritual approach to our problems.
Buddhism contributes to mental and physical health through encouraging the development of a unified and centered personal approach to our life affairs. It assists the well-being of the body through the body-mind synthesis in which the physical elements and the psychological and spiritual dimensions are all part of a continuum and a dynamic interrelation. In the west, we are prone to distinguish flesh and body, matter and spirit, body and soul, etc. However, Buddhism sees things as process in which all features of existence are interdependent and ultimately one. According to Jon Kabat-Zinn:
“Since the mind plays such an important part in people’s experience of their bodies and what’s possible in their lives, it seemed that a hospital would be a perfect place to train people in meditative awareness. They could optimize their inner resources for healing and take responsibility for their health.” (“Mindful Medicine”)
According to Kabat-Zinn, meditation-mindfulness can help in reducing stress, pain and depression. By letting go of stress, one may even enhance the body’s self-healing powers. Studies have shown that anger and hostility affect our health. According to one study, they influence heart disease (Dalai Lama, Dr. Howard Cutler, “The Art of Happiness,” New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p.247.)
The Dalai Lama states:
“The destructive effects of hatred are very visible, very obvious and immediate. For example, when a very strong or forceful thought of hatred arises within you, at that very instant, it totally overwhelms you and destroys your peace of mind, your presence of mind disappears completely. When such intense anger and hatred arises, it obliterates the best art of your brain, which is the ability to judge between right and wrong, and the long term and short term consequences of your actions.” (Ibid., p. 250.)…
However, the role of Buddhism in creating healthy life-conditions does not involve miracle cures, but employs methods for dealing with the emotional elements that accompany pain and even intensify it. The Dalai Lama indicates that happiness is not merely a feeling, but is the result of right thinking. Our problems begin with negative thinking. However, negative thought is not intrinsic to our minds and the mind can be trained to develop positive attitudes of love, compassion, patience and generosity. This approach has taken form in what is known as cognitive therapy, which seeks the source of negative and self-defeating ideas. Right thinking is not just a matter of correct information and belief. Right thinking in Buddhism means a transformation in one’s understanding of the nature of existence. Enlightenment is transformation of one’s total being.
I should point out that there are forms of therapy based in Buddhism. From the Pure Land tradition, there is the method of Naikan therapy which is a system of introspection to make one aware of our interdependence with others and to arouse the sense of gratitude for their contribution to our lives. This positive force can offset personal problems that induce negativity.
There is also Morita therapy based in Zen Buddhism and is reality therapy, that is living in harmony with reality as it is. According to Morita therapy, “the gap between the world as it is and the world as we think it ought to be can fill with pain. When we do not look the way we think we ought to look and when we cannot accomplish our goals as rapidly and effortlessly as we think we ought to be able to accomplish them, we worry that either there is something wrong with us or we are victims of injustice. Rather than futilely railing against nature or trying to force it into complying with our ideals, we can learn to live in harmony with it. To live in harmony with nature, we accept as parts of ourselves our talents, imperfections, painful feelings and real desires.”
I should conclude by indicating that Buddhism has all the elements of folk religions common around the world. There are Buddhas and bodhisattvas who offer healing and prayers requesting their blessing. There are shrines and services where people seek alleviation and healing from their illnesses. Among the most common figures are: Yakushi Buddha, the Buddha of healing; Kuan-yin, the Bodhisattva of compassion (a central figure in healing); and Jizo Bodhisattva who cares for children and the dead and also heals. Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra devoted to Kuan-yin presents the blessings she gives to her devotees. The text called the Heart Sutra, a profound philosophical text which is one page, is often recited in times of disaster and personal problems. There are practitioners who are considered to have special powers for healing and are consulted for many problems. There are practitioners in this community, some well known and others not.
In addition, there is the Daishi-sama cult based in Shingon Buddhism. The central figure is Kobo Daishi, a great teacher in ninth-century Japan who founded the Shingon sect. He became known in popular tradition as a healer, as well as culture hero. Many people in Hawaii also pray to Kobo Daishi.
Much of Japanese religion focuses on healing using different methods. The popular religion is focused on benefits in this life of health, wealth and success — though still holding traditional beliefs about the afterlife. The modern new religions also maintain this emphasis.
Buddhism is a complex of spiritual principles, practices and practitioners all designed to enhance the life of people corresponding to the level of their understanding and devotion. The heart of Buddhism is the Buddha’s compassion, which takes many forms and applications.
Toowoomba Buddhist Society (TBS), Australia:
A sizeable Buddhist Society is now meeting regularly in Toowoomba. The group evolved out of a course entitled ‘The Buddhist Way of Personal Growth’ offered through the Adult and Community Education (ACE) program at SQIT over the last eighteen months. The SQIT courses have all recruited well suggesting a great deal of interest in the community at the moment in Buddhism.
The interest seems part of a boom Australia-wide. Figures from the census bureau indicate a trebling of people involved between the 1981 and 1991 census, making it the fastest growing ‘religion’ in the country. This growth also seems to be a worldwide trend in Western countries and it seems in part to be the result of disillusionment with materialism. Also Buddhism represents a ‘Middle Way’ between the extremes of ‘heaven or hell’ in the traditional religions and the nihilism so typical of modern materialism. Neither of these extremes is very appealing from a Buddhist point of view. Instead Buddhism emphasizes ethical responsibility and a non-theistic, practical approach to direct contact with the transcendental.
The SQIT course stresses the fresh, open and eclectic approach of the emerging Western Buddhism. Buddhism in the West at the moment represents a unique historical occurrence – the coexistence in one single country of all the various types of Buddhism existing in the world. The new Western Buddhism (which has been around only for about the last three decades) has gone right back to the core of the Buddha’s teachings and tends to be more open, inclusive, non-dogmatic and non-hierarchical than the ethnic or cultural Buddhism of Asia. In particular it transcends the rigid split between monks and laity so typical of the latter forms of Buddhism.
The essential teaching of the Buddha emphasizes ‘Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels’. The Three Jewels are the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha is not considered a God but rather the embodiment of human enlightenment, which any human being is considered to be potentially capable of. The Dharma is the Teaching or method of achieving this goal, and the Sangha is the group of fellow aspirants who tread the path. So the Buddha represents the ideal of human enlightenment or the possibility of us breaking free from the suffering that is so much a part of the human situation. The Dharma is the detailed and practical methodology of how to do this. The Sangha functions as a support group of like-minded people whom practice and study together and support each other on this difficult path. Together they are described as ‘true’ refuges, as opposed to the ‘false’ refuges thrown up by an immoral and materialistic world. They are considered to be true because they represent a solution to unhappiness as opposed to the false refuges of short-term pleasure and hedonism, which can not give lasting happiness. So in a sense Buddhists are spiritual refugees.
The Buddhist teaching, more commonly described as the Buddha Dharma (The Teaching or Way) rather than as a ‘religion’, is an exceedingly clear and systematic method of personal, psychological and spiritual growth. It is also a very positive teaching considering the potential for such growth in any individual to be infinite. It is also emphatically non-dogmatic even in relation to its own teachings. It stresses to its followers to try the teachings out to see if they work in an experimental fashion and not to accept anything on the basis of ‘blind belief’. The simplest way of describing the essence of a Buddhist practice is that it consists of practising ethics, meditating, and studying and realizing insight or wisdom. These characteristics of the Buddha Dharma plus its emphasis on taking responsibility for oneself and one’s own actions and its overwhelmingly practical or applied nature seems really appealing to the pragmatic nature of Australians.
The group is in the process of attempting to set up a Buddhist Centre out of which it will run meditation and other related classes. When it has achieved this then Toowoomba will be one of only three Western Buddhist centres in Australia (the other two being in Melbourne and Sydney) perhaps suggesting the pioneering spirit for which this region is so well known.
Some Aspects of Western Buddhism
Most people would be aware of the enormous impact of Buddhism on Eastern cultures but perhaps less so of its impact in the West, which is now becoming considerable. Buddhism originated in the 6th century BCE (Before the Common Era is used now by students of comparative religion rather than the Christian calendar notation of BC and AD). There is evidence of contact between Buddhism and the West as far back as the time of Alexander the Great (356-323BCE). In fact as I understand it the first figures of the Buddha were created in ancient Greece.
Historically speaking, however, the dominant Western attitude to all things Eastern, according to Stephen Batchelor’s book The Awakening of the West, has been blind indifference. Accept for a period in the 13th century, that is, when Genghis Khan made his presence felt over an enormous amount of Eurasia, from Korea to Poland, the largest land empire in the history of the world. After this there was much more communication between East and West and Buddhism became known in Europe. From then until the 18th century the European attitude to Buddhism Batchelor characterizes as self-righteous rejection-it was dismissed as heathen idolatry (and probably still is in some quarters).
From the latter part of the 18th century a marked interest in Buddhism began in the West. This is when the Western word ‘Buddhism’ was constructed (and other new words like ‘Hinduism’). As I’ve pointed out in a previous article, Buddhism was not known as such in the East. It was simply referred to as the Dharma, which means variously, ‘the teaching’, ‘the truth’ and ‘the way’ as in ‘the way through the teaching to the truth’. During this time Buddhism attracted a spectrum of interest. Victorian scientists, busily rejecting the traditional religions because of their metaphysics and lack of empirically observable facts, were drawn to Buddhism and considered it as a field of rational, scientific knowledge. The Buddha’s teaching was considered to be empirical based as it was on inner observation. It also attracted the eye of missionary and other scholars who translated much of it into English using cumbersome, Western Christian style terminology. It also influenced certain Western artists and philosophers, Edwin Arnold’s poem The Light of Asia, for example, being particularly popular.
Buddhism was also central to the early Theosophists such as Madam Blavatsky. Batchelor describes the Theosophists as romantic fantasists (not fanatics) in contrast to the more scientific and scholarly interest in Buddhism. Madam Blavatsky and her partner were the first Westerners to publicly embrace Buddhism in Sri Lanka in 1880. The Theosophists were instrumental in bringing Buddhism into Australia at the turn of the century and I’ve been told that there has been Theosophists in Toowoomba right up to the present!
Interestingly Paul Crouch in his book A History of Buddhism in Australia (1848-1988), suggests the historical involvement of Australia could have started much further back in time. In fact, he quotes A. P. Elkin who wrote a book in 1945 entitled Aboriginal Men of High Degree (as I recall he was a professor of anthropology at Sydney University at the time). In this work, which is a fascinating read, Elkin suggests that things like aboriginal ignition rights and special powers were influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. I can’t help but feel that such claims at that time in Australia must have branded him as quite an eccentric. There are even assertions that certain aboriginal rock-paintings in Northern Australia depict the Buddha! Far fetched as these may sound Crouch points out that it is well known that Asian traders were here long before Dampier and Cook. It is highly likely that navigators from China and certainly from Indonesia, which was influenced extensively by Buddhism, interacted with Northern Australia. Maybe these traders brought Buddhist monks with them, who knows?
In the five decades since WW2 there has been a massive upsurge of interest in Buddhism in the West. The Dharma has firmly established itself in the Western countries of the North Americas, Europe and Australasia. Between the 1960s and 70s Asian teachers, particularly Japanese Roshis and Tibetan Rinpoches carried out most of the Dharma teaching. During the 70s almost every extant form of Buddhism in the world arrived in the West. These traditions established urban Buddhist centres and rural retreat centres and widespread teaching programs. The influx included representatives of the Tibetan Gelugpa, Kagyupa, Nyingmapa and Shakyapa traditions. From Central Asia came Japanese Soto and Rinzai Zen, Chinese Ch’an (the original Zen), Korean Son, Vietnamese Thien, as well as teachers from Burmese, Thai and Sri Lankin Theravada Buddhism.
Significantly, at the same time, new Western Buddhist organizations appeared for the first time. A handful of Westerners who had travelled to the East and studied Buddhism and become ordained Buddhists returned to the West in the 60s and began to establish groups of their own. Even the Asian Buddhists had already been adapting their teachings for Westerners. (It is a historical fact that Buddhism has always adapted itself to the cultures it’s spread into; that is why there are so many varieties). People like Sangharakshita, an Englishman who spent 20 years as an ordained monk in India, founded the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO). Others included Robert Aiken Roshi, who founded the Zen Diamond Sangha in Hawaii, Philip Kapleau Roshi, founder of the Rochester Zen center in New York and Lama Aangorika Govinda’s (a German national) who founded the Arya Maitreya Mandala in Germany. The FWBO, as an example, now has something of the order of 79 centres in 23 countries including Australia and New Zealand.
So what are some of the features of this emerging Western form of Buddhism? I’ll only touch on a few of these this week as from now on there will be a regular series of articles appearing in the Star exploring the nature of Buddhism from this perspective. The first and most obvious is the coexistence of all the major Buddhist traditions in Western countries for the first time in Buddhist history. So not surprisingly Western Buddhism is eclectic – it borrows from a great range of teachings and techniques and adapts them to Western needs. Again this has been typical of the whole history of Buddhism as it encountered different cultures. A simple historical example is the fact that Buddhism when it first moved from India to China taught its doctrines using the concepts of the indigenous Chinese Taoist philosophical tradition. In fact a distinctive Chinese form of Buddhism known as Ch’an (Zen in Japanese) resulted from the intermingling of Taoism and Buddhism.
A second feature that has come from this recent diaspora of Buddhist teachings into the West is that they are now being translated much more clearly into English. There has been an explosion of scholarly interest. Consequently much more systematic and in-depth knowledge is coming through. It’s also being translated much more accurately as it is stripped of its earlier quasi-Christian terminology. The Canons of Buddhism are monumentally extensive dwarfing the Bible and the Koran and as this detailed knowledge comes through it impacting on Western fields like psychology and the new physics.
Western Buddhism, as exemplified by the FWBO for example, consciously addresses issues peculiar to the contemporary Western situation. What is the relationship of Buddhism to Western culture? How do contemporary political, economic, environmental and social ethical issues effect its practice? How does a Christian (or post-Christian) upbringing effect one’s attitude to ethics and spiritual matters? How can one combine having a family with one’s desire to practice the Dharma? As I mentioned in a previous article Western Buddhism doe not favour the lay-monk split typical of traditional ethnic Buddhism-more about that in the next article.
We live in trying times in the West. There is a lot of negativity around. Late capitalist societies, like Australia and NZ, are now riddled with social problems. These include unemployment, inequities in income distribution, poverty, homelessness, drugs, crime, massacres and right wing fanaticism to name a few. Contemporary governments obsessed with an ideology of economic rationalism have elevated the market place and the dollar above all else to the neglect of social and environmental issues and the neglect of their citizens. Buddhism represents a profound critique of this trend. But it also offers practical advice for people disillusioned with materialism and looking for ways out of all the negativity.
To conclude, one simple meditation practice, which Western Buddhism has discovered to be of particular significance for contemporary people, is the metta bhavana practice. It means ‘making to become’ (bhavana) ‘loving kindness’ (metta) and has become a foundation practice. In the first stage of it you give rise to a strong feeling of loving kindness to yourself. Then you spread it to others and the whole world. A lot of Western people have a great deal of difficulty with the first stage. They discover that they don’t much like themselves. At this point I’ll simply pose the question as to why this is the case in Western societies. It is worrying if our society has created a situation wherein people fundamentally don’t like themselves or feel that they are flawed in some way or are simply outright angry. It’s worrying because we inevitably project what we feel inside onto the outside world. There does seem to be an undercurrent of dislike and anger in our societies. The metta bhavana practice helps individuals transform this negative emotional energy into positive. This Anzac weekend a group of people from the Toowoomba Buddhist Society is going on a weekend meditation retreat to deepen this type of meditation practice. Soon the society will be offering an introduction to Buddhist meditation course that includes it.
Beyond The Monk-Lay Split:
Whilst the history of Asian Buddhism is largely the history of Buddhist monasticism, western Buddhism seems to be moving in a different direction. Most of the Buddhist organizations in the west today concern themselves with teaching different varieties of ‘lay-Buddhism’- they’ve moved beyond the traditional monk-lay split. They are trying to create some kind of accommodation between the demands of a Buddhist practice on the one hand, and those of a modern western lifestyle on the other. It seems (according to recent scholarly research) the division between monk and lay developed in the early Buddhist sangha as the result of cultural processes and altered the nature of the community the Buddha himself established.
So in Western Buddhism lifestyle is considered secondary to commitment. In other words it’s possible to be actually more spiritually committed as a householder than a spiritually apathetic monk. That is not to say, however, that is not possible to be in a monastery or single sex community and committed as well. It’s the commitment that is primary and the lifestyle that is secondary. The principle commitment a Buddhist makes is to Go for Refuge to the Three Jewels-the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
It’s considered that only these Three Jewels can give lasting happiness, peace and security. People are usually going for refuge to what we call the ‘false’ refuges, things like drugs, gambling, craving material possessions and so on. They are seeking happiness in short-term hedonism and external material possessions but because nothing lasts frustration and suffering are inevitable; that is why they’re described as ‘false’ refuges. The Buddha said that just as the ocean has but one taste that of salt so too the Teaching has but one flavour that of freedom. So going for refuge means literally to seek true freedom and safety, to escape from suffering.
The first jewel, the Buddha, symbolizes the possibility for any human being of achieving the emancipation of Enlightenment, as did the historical Buddha. The act of bowing to a Buddha figure (rupa) is simply a ritualized acknowledgment of this fact; it certainly isn’t bowing to the Buddha as some sort of a God. The Dharma is the second jewel. It’s the teaching, the philosophy and the vast array of practical tools like meditation techniques that can help you become Enlightened or at least grow. The Sangha is the fellowship of practitioners all striving for the goal who provide support for each other on the path.
So in western Buddhist organizations like the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) the order is neither lay nor monastic. Some members choose to be celibate, others not. Some live with their families and hold regular jobs, others live in single-sex residential spiritual communities and work in Right Livelihood businesses. There has been a call as well for a western Buddhist monastic system, which would be an interesting development’
Buddhism – Its Starting Point:
One of the distinctive features of Buddhism, compared to the other traditional ‘religions’, is that it starts with the mind. In some respects that is why the word ‘religion’ doesn’t sit easily with Buddhism. Most religions involve belief in a creator God, and in dogma, and devotional practices that celebrate that God and those beliefs. Buddhism in contrast starts with working directly on the mind, your own every day mind. It is intensely practical and this is one of its features that contemporary westerners find very attractive. The Buddha in his teaching said that Mind precedes all things, mind is supreme, mind-made are they . The distinctive thing about our species that distinguishes us from the other animals is that we have self-consciousness. We can look into our own minds, we can make choices. That is why we named ourselves homo sapiens, ‘wise man’. But from a Buddhist point of view this ability of human beings for self-consciousness is a double-edged sword-it cuts two ways. It is the root of our creativity. However, as we will see in next week’s article, it’s also the root of our destructiveness. With it we can choose to behave ethically. We can also use it to work directly on our own mind by meditating to eradicate negative mental states and replace them with positive ones. That’s all, in essence, a practicing Buddhist does!
The Mind – A Double-Edged Sword:
Last week we established that Buddhism, unlike other religions, starts with the mind. The human mind is unique in that it has self-consciousness. This sets us apart from the other animals. Whilst the other animals are generally speaking simply aware through their senses and driven by their instincts we have what philosophers and psychologists refer to as ‘reflexive’ consciousness. If you look the word ‘reflexive’ up in a dictionary you’ll find it means to bend back on itself. In other words, we are not simply aware through the senses we are aware that we are aware. The mind bends back on itself and can look into itself. Because we are aware of something being aware we have consciousness of a self. We are taught to label this ‘something being aware’ as the ‘self’ or ‘I’ from an early age. Now once we become aware of ourselves as a self we experience that self as separate from everything else. Because we experience ourselves as separate from everything else we can manipulate the world around us.
This is where the double-edged sword idea comes in. Self-consciousness allows us many advantages and creative potential. With it we have a sense of autonomy and can make choices and engage in purposeful behaviour to ensure our survival. We can make and build things and pass this knowledge on. We can reason, remember and imagine and all of these abilities come from the mind being able to look into itself. However, on the other hand, the experience of separation from everything else (including other people) is dangerous. If mistaken for a reality it becomes from a Buddhist point of view a dangerous delusion (moha). In fact, from this perspective nothing can actually be separated from anything else; everything is part of an interwoven flux of ever changing conditions. Ultimately the human being can not exist separate from the air they breath, the water they drink and the plant and animal world that sustains them. They are part of the natural environment. They also do not exist independently of other human beings; they depend on them for psychological nourishment and even our own individual personalities are shaped by our interactions with family and friends.
So the experience of separation is apparent rather than real. Einstein described it as a sort of optical delusion. From a Buddhist perspective it is a very useful illusion because it does enable us to manipulate things and thus helps ensure our survival. However, unless it is grounded in an actual experience of the unity of all things (which is part of the Enlightenment experience) it remains a very dangerous ability. Consider the consequences of manipulating the natural environment on the basis of a belief that it really is separate from us when in reality it is not?
The Deluded Mind:
In the last article we saw how the fact that humans have self-consciousness is like a double-edged sword. It cuts two ways being, at one and the same time, the root of our creativity as well as our destructiveness. We are in a highly paradoxical position as a result of having self-consciousness. We are part of Nature, part of biological evolution, but that part which is conscious of itself. Hence we experience ourselves as separate from the rest and yet we are not. The experience of separation enables us to manipulate the rest to a far greater extent than any other animal. Together with self-consciousness this experience of separation, which is inherent in self-consciousness, means human beings have tremendous power. We have more power in relation to other species and our own than any other living being. And yet we are part of Nature, part of evolution.
So we are in a difficult and paradoxical position. From a Buddhist perspective the experience of separation is considered apparent rather than real. If believed to be true, that is an actual separation or disconnection from the rest, then it is a delusion (moha). Unfortunately, because this predisposition is ‘hard wired’ into us (part of our physiological make up), we do as a species automatically fall foul of this delusion. However, the Buddha Dharma teaches that it is possible to escape the delusion. It is possible to resolve the paradoxical position of humans in a correct fashion.
Last week we posed the question of considering the consequences of manipulating the natural environment on the basis of a belief that it really is separate from us, when in fact it isn’t? If it really is separate from us we can do anything we like to it without fear of consequence, like for example changing the physical and chemical properties of the atmosphere. The fact that this inevitably rebounds on us (the perpetrator) as pollution, acid rain and global warming simply indicates that we are not separate from it in the first place.
Unfortunately when we look around the world today we can only conclude that our western worldview has reinforced a belief in this deluded view that we really are separate. Environmental degradation is occurring on a scale never before witnessed in human history. When we look at the larger picture of geological time, there may have been eco-catastrophes in the past that drove species to extinction (eg. meteor impacts), but never before has this been done by one species to other species and potentially to their own!
The materialistic worldview has also, in defining Nature as nothing other than collections of dead inert, matter, led to a disrespectful attitude to Nature. In Buddhism Nature is respected as profoundly alive and mysterious. We also live in very selfish times when people are encouraged to separate themselves out from each other more than ever before in human history. Next week we investigate from a Buddhist point of view how the delusion of separation creates these tendencies within the individual and how they are also the root cause of our own suffering.
The Three Poisons
Once self-consciousness creates the experience of separation between self and other, as discussed over the last few weeks, certain negative tendencies automatically follow. An unfortunate by-product of self-consciousness is that, because we do experience ourselves as separate, a deep, existential state of tension follows. It could be characterised as a deep sense of aloneness , incompleteness and therefore insecurity. It is very deep in the sense that it is ‘hard-wired’ into us. It comes, in other words, from our physiology, our senses and our brain, which enables the experience of consciousness of self and perceiving the world dualistically and fragmented into a myriad of separate objects.
According to the Buddhist teaching (Dharma). in order to overcome this tension or insecurity two primal tendencies arise-craving and aversion. Craving plays the role of attempting to incorporate into out self-system, in order to give us more security, those things we perceive as pleasant. Aversion attempts to repel or push away the things we perceive as unpleasant and threatening to our self and its sense of security. This is what modern psychology describes as approach-avoidance tendencies inherent in perception. According to some psychologists we spend 80% of our time seeking ‘love strokes’ and the other 10% avoiding threats! Both these tendencies of craving ( ) and aversion ( ) are rooted in the basic delusion (moha) of separation which generates them. Together they are known in Buddhism as the three poisons. So named because not only do we experience world as a delusion (dualistic and fragmented when in fact a whole but e introduce as subjective filter that breaks the world up into pleasant unpleasant attractive etc-poison the mind.
The Possibility of Change
Last week we discussed the negative tendencies that automatically arise in the human mind because of our experience of separation from the Other. The experience of separation comes from self-consciousness and we try to overcome the tension created by this by craving the pleasant and repelling the unpleasant. In this way we try to secure our fragile ego. Traditionally, greed, aggression and ignorance operating within the human mind are known as the Three Poisons in Buddhism. These three poisons have now spread beyond the confines of the human mind to manifest as real, observable poisons effecting the global environment. The commentary on the Cakkavattisihananda Sutta of the Pali Canon, (thousands of years old; a sutta or sutra is a single teaching given by the Buddha on a specific theme), spells out this human-environment link between human morality (or lack of) and environmental consequences:
‘When humanity is demoralized through greed, famine is the natural outcome; when moral degeneration is due to ignorance, epidemic is the inevitable result; when hatred is the demoralizing force, widespread violence is the inevitable outcome.’
These tendencies, according to the sutra, contribute to an unsustainable situation and the end result is devastation and a shortening of the life span of the population. A cursory review of the world today would suggest that all of the above negative situations are present around the world on scales never before witnessed in human history.
However, the sutra’s discussion of the link between the human mind and the environment continues as follows:
‘ … If and when humanity realizes that the large-scale devastation has taken place as a result of its moral decline, a change of heart takes place … As morality is renewed, conditions improve through a long period of cause and effect ….’
Buddhism has a cyclic view toward all natural phenomena. It considers that when people wake up to the fact that their actions are impacting negatively on their quality of life, there is a change of heart (down in the emotional realm). The situation described in the quote also fits what many people hope is happening at the moment throughout the worldwide community in relation to environmental issues.
Buddhism is (and always has been) very optimistic about the human condition and its potential to develop higher ethical sensibilities. This is possible within the individual as well as within society as a whole (as in the quote above). No matter how unskilful we have been, no matter how much we have allowed craving, aggression and confusion to drive us, we can always reverse the situation. A Buddhist monk I met once in China quoted me the following verse, which illustrates this point nicely:
No matter how far you swim out in the bitter sea,
You can always return to the beach.
Put down the killing knife!
In the west we tend to have a fixed view of the self – we are what we are what we are; a leopard can’t change it’s spots, and so on. The Buddhist conception is much more fluid and positive. There is literally nothing we can not make of ourselves.
It is Fortunate to be born Human (article for ‘Star’ newspaper 14/6/99 by Roger Bastick):
As we have seen, deeply ingrained in the human psyche is a fundamental delusion (moha) that we are apart from everything else. This produces the two primal tendencies of approach and avoidance, craving and aversion. These volitional tendencies or samskaras drive our habit energies and generates our karma that results in us becoming what we are today and what we’ll become tomorrow. All of this is an unfortunate by-product of self-consciousness. But there are ‘wholesome roots’ or tendencies as well that are an inherent part of our nature. In a sense they are deeper still, because karmically they have resulted in us being born as humans. The Buddha considered this as highly fortuitous. He likened the probability of being born human to the probability of a small turtle rising from the floor to the surface of a vast sea just as a piece of wood with a hole in it floated by. Imagine the probability that as the turtle stuck its head out of the water it emerged through the hole in the wood. That’s the probability of being born human, said the Buddha.
Because humans have self-consciousness we can look into and control our minds if we choose to. In other words, part of our karmic conditioning is that we have self-awareness and volitional choice itself. Thus the human potential for growth is unlimited from a Buddhist point of view. The fact that we can all also potentially be very evil means that the matter can’t be left to chance-the stakes are too high. From a Buddhist perspective it’s crucial to accept the challenge of consciously encouraging our good impulses and transforming the negative.
However, people tend to be overly cynical about the ability of humans (including themselves) to grow and be skilful. As stated last week the western view of the self tends to be a fixed one. The Buddhist view is that we can transcend the ‘self’, the self that is causing the problems and our own suffering. This ‘petty’ self is actually a fraction of our total being and our potential. In the Mahayana schools of Buddhism this potential became described as our inherent ‘Buddha Nature’. We all have it as our birthright-it is the ’embryo’ of Enlightenment. The latter may be a long way off but spiritual change (a movement toward Enlightenment) can start immediately if we so chose. We can thus see that the Buddhist perspective on our basic human nature is profoundly optimistic.
We need to take heart in the Buddha’s message that all obstacles, no matter what they might be, really can be overcome. That we, whoever we may be, are capable of overcoming them. In the longer-term course of one’s life, there is no limit – absolutely none, according to the Buddha-to what men and women can make of themselves. This is the objective potential of being human. We all have this enormous potential. It’s worth reminding ourselves of this objective fact often; otherwise our cynicism can undermine our natural self-confidence. Confidence that we can change ourselves, at least by degrees, is the foundation of the whole spiritual life.
Buddhism distinguishes between ‘worldy desire’ (kammachanda) and spiritual desire (dhammachanda) – the aim isn’t to eliminate desire, but craving.
The Four Noble Truths
The distinctly human trait of self-consciousness, as we have seen, has positive aspects to it and negative ones. It enables us to experience ourselves as a separate self and thus enables creative activity such as autonomous decision-making, reasoning, imagination and manipulation of the surrounding environment through the manufacture of tools and technology. However, it also produces a sense of discomfort, of existential tension. This may be at such a deep level that we are largely unconscious of it (maybe we have hidden it from ourselves). We experience ourselves as alone, as separate from the environment (including other people). Hence we feel incomplete. Many a western tradition, biological, psychological and spiritual, recognizes that only a sense of connection with the surrounding environment, a sense of union with the Other (usually described as Love) can provide a feeling of completeness for us. Buddhism agrees entirely.
The Buddha started his teaching (the Dharma) by addressing this peculiarly human situation. The most concise exposition of the Dharma that he gave is probably the Four Noble Truths. The First Noble Truth states that dukkha, variously translated as suffering, pain and unsatisfactoriness, is an inevitable and universal part of life for all sentient beings. The Second Noble Truth is that the origin of dukkha lies in craving. The Third is the Truth of the end of suffering through the extinction of craving. The Fourth Noble Truth is the Path leading to the extinction or cessation of craving and thus suffering. It’s known as the Noble Eightfold Path.
The First Truth is saying that all sentient beings, all beings aware of things through the senses, are subject to suffering in their lives. It’s an inevitable by-product of being born into a body. The Buddha stated that birth is painful, disease (and accidents) is painful, aging is painful and death is painful. Not all sentient beings are thinking beings but they share with us the pain of old age, decay and death. They also feel pain as we do, especially the more evolved, because of their senses. That is why Buddhists traditionally avoid harming, if possible, other living beings and indeed feel a bond with them.
Some of this suffering is unavoidable. Disease, old age and death are unsatisfactory situations that arise unavoidably because we are born into these bodies. However, humans also create for themselves ‘avoidable’ forms of suffering and this is because we are thinking beings. These types of suffering or unsatisfactoriness are the products of craving, as in the Second Noble Truth. According to the Buddha they are to do with being united with what one dislikes, or separated from what one likes and not getting what one wants. They are mental or psychological forms of unsatisfactoriness based on our craving things and not having that craving satisfied. Furthermore these types of bodily and mental suffering overlap with each other. We crave to be, to live on and on, but we don’t, we die. We get sick or depressed but we crave not to be sick or depressed thereby doubling up the suffering.
However, according to the Buddha, these forms of suffering are avoidable. With the extinction of craving they end. Thus Buddhism is again a profoundly optimistic teaching. It faces up to the toughness of life, it doesn’t run away from it, or seek an answer in an afterlife. The Third and Fourth Noble Truths say that suffering can be overcome and offer a detailed Eightfold path to achieve this in this lifetime. With the end of suffering comes permanent, lasting happiness. So the Four Noble Truths are one of the most positive teachings ever formulated.
The Law of Conditionality:
Underpinning the Four Noble Truths outlined last week is a concept of conditionality. An essential part of the Buddha’s Enlightenment was insight into what has become known as the Law of Conditioned Co-Production (Pratitya Samupada). According to this law everything in the phenomenal world comes into existence dependent upon a set of conditions complexly interwoven with each other. When these conditions cease the phenomena ceases. The Buddha himself expressed it thus: This being, that becomes, from the arising of this, that arises; this not becoming, that does not become; from the ceasing of this, that ceases.. In many ways this is why Buddhism is so clear in its teachings. Some have likened it to an almost scientific way of viewing things.
In relation to the Four Noble Truths the law of conditionality works as follows. The first Noble Truth says that a thing exists or event occurs. In this case that the occurrence of dukkha, suffering or unsatisfactoriness, is a universal characteristic of life. The second Noble Truth says that this thing or event (dukkha) exists or occurs in dependence upon particular causes or conditions-the occurrence of craving. The third states that in the absence of these conditions or causes (craving) the thing ceases to exist or occur. The fourth Noble Truth says that there is a way (the Eight Fold Path) to ensure that the phenomenon in question (suffering in dependence upon craving) is not produced and, therefore, no longer exists.
This is pretty easy to understand at the intellectual level. However, to solve the problem it’s not enough to just understand it at this level. Instead the truth of dukkha, that suffering, anguish and unsatisfactoriness are ‘part and parcel of life’, and originate from craving, has to be understood at the emotional level, in our hearts. Then its origins have to be let go of, its cessation has to be realised, and the path leading to its cessation has to be cultivated. So in one way the four truths are challenges to act, to undertake a course of action. In this sense the Buddhist path is one of effort not to be lightly undertaken.
Practitioners clarify their views through understanding the teaching; but then must use their own self-awareness to observe these processes in their own minds. They need to see if the teaching is correct or true and if it is, and they really wish to end suffering, they need to commit themselves to the course of action necessary to end it. The Dharma has often, throughout its long history, been likened to a healing process. But to achieve the healing the medicine needs to be taken. It’s like that old saying Physician heal thyself! Next week we’ll investigate the nature of craving, the cause of the problem, in more depth.
A Healing Process (2/7/99):
Last week we saw how the Four Noble Truths related to the Law of Conditionality or Causality that underpins the Buddha Dharma (Teaching). Suffering, pain and anguish (dukkha) come into existence because of the presence of craving. When this condition or cause is removed suffering ceases. The Fourth Truth states that the Path leading to its cessation is the Noble Eightfold Path (wrongly referred to as the ‘right’ Fold Path, in last week’s article-a typing error).
The Teaching has often, throughout its long history, also been likened to a healing process. The Four Noble Truths are based, according to this view, on an ancient Indian medical formula. The First Noble Truth is the disease or its symptoms (dukkha). The Second is the deep underlying cause that needs to be diagnosed. The Third identifies the cure and the Fourth prescribes the treatment and provides the medicine. The cure is to extinguish or to ‘let go off’ of craving. The complete removal of craving is one meaning of the word Nirvana, meaning literally blown out. At a deeper level it means a mind beyond all conditioning including the way craving conditions the mind.
Now a crucial distinction between ‘desire’ and ‘craving’ needs to be made. Buddhism is not against all desire as is misconstrued in many quarters. Many of our natural desires, such as hunger and thirst, serve the purpose of ensuring our survival. If neglected or repressed we will die. Also desires such as ones like the wish to help others, to become educated and to grow psychologically and spiritually are considered very healthy in Buddhism.
There is a world of a difference between healthy desire and craving. The latter is selfish, self-centered and implies a neurotic clinging to the object desired. The problems start when our inner, psychological hungers and thirsts get caught up with our normal physical hungers and thirsts. When we are stuffing ourselves with food or pouring alcohol down our throats because of a feeling of inner emptiness and confusion. When this is happening our attachment to things like these as well as drugs, gambling, sexual partners and all sorts of material things is neurotic. It’s neurotic when we are projecting onto the thing far more than it can possibly satisfy. There is also a world of a difference between healthy self-interest and unhealthy and destructive selfishness. People seemed confused about the distinction these days. Or perhaps they are just conveniently hiding it from themselves?
If we feel hunger or thirst and desire for food or drink and when consumed feel satisfied and leave it at that, then it’s normal health desire. If we go completely to pieces when our partner leaves us, or the thing is taken away from us, then this is a sign that we have been neurotically attached. Our relationship with it has been based on craving. Also there is the issue of are our motives based on health self-interest or selfishness? How many of us can pass this test? Much of our craving is largely unconscious and quite subtle. It needn’t be a gross addiction.
If you don’t pass the test don’t worry. From a Buddhist perspective we are all considered more or less neurotic, some more, some less, till we become Enlightened. The Buddha himself is actually on record as saying we’re all mad till we’re Enlightened! To overcome the illness, to achieve healing, medicine needs to be taken. And we can only take it ourselves and willingly. It’s a bit like the old saying Physician heal thyself. The medicine in Buddhism is the comprehensive Eightfold Path.
The Threefold Path (9/7/99):
The Fourth Noble Truth, as we have seen, is a comprehensive prescription (to continue the medical analogy) for the overcoming of suffering. It is the cure, the process necessary for healing known as The Noble Eightfold Path. However, it does require effort and it is challenging because it’s the methodology to be deployed to extinguish craving. It is so named because if trodden it guarantees the practitioner the permanent end of suffering and residence in the Noble realm of Nirvana. This is a state of everlasting peace, freedom and happiness considered by Buddhism as attainable in this life itself.
The Eightfold Path describes a way to live, think and meditate which will enable a person to bring the unsatisfactoriness inherent in life (dukkha) to an end. It’s accomplished by a gradual and interconnected practice of eight aspects of mainly mental training. The Path could be described as one of ‘living meditation’ that leads to a gradual slowing down, calming down and eventual cessation of a person’s delusions that cause suffering in the first place.
Each of the stages of the Eightfold Path are prefixed with the Sanskrit word Samyag which means ‘proper’, ‘wholesome’, ‘thorough’, ‘integral’, ‘complete’, ‘perfect’. However, it is very commonly translated as ‘right’, which has the unfortunate implication in the west of right versus wrong, which it is not meant to have. So I’ll use both translations. The Path is not so much a series of steps that must be followed one after the other, as a set of limbs each of which augments all of the others. They are 1) Right View/Complete Vision, 2) Right Intent/Complete Emotion, 3) Right/Complete Speech, 4) Right/Complete Action, 5) Right/Complete Livelihood, 6) Right /Complete Effort, 7) Right /Complete Mindfulness and 8) Right Meditation/Complete Concentration (Samadhi).
There are two ‘short-hand’ versions of the Path as well. One is twofold breaking it into the Path of Vision and the Path of Transformation. The Noble Eightfold Path starts with a View or Vision, without which it simply can not start. Unless a person has some sort of insight into the unsatisfactoriness of this life and the desire to end it, they won’t start on the Path. For this reason not everyone comes to Buddhism. Once they have a heart-felt desire to end suffering then the Path of Transformation, which incorporates the seven other limbs, can begin to unfold. Not surprisingly this transformative path starts with the stage of Right Intent or Complete Emotion.
The Threefold Path, which will be elaborated over the next few weeks, consists of 1) Ethics, 2) Meditation and 3) Wisdom or Insight. Ethics subsumes the stage of Complete Speech, Action and Livelihood in the Eightfold Path. Meditation subsumes Complete Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration and Wisdom, Complete Vision and Emotion. Again all three stages of this Threefold Path augment and reinforce each other.
The Path of Ethics (14/799):
The Threefold Path mentioned last week starts with ethical practice. Buddhist ethics is concerned primarily with the motivational states of the mind. The Law of Karma, which states that any conscious mental decision will result in repercussions – the fruits of karma, governs this realm. Actions cause consequences. This type of karma is to be distinguished from the Hindu version where any act has repercussions on the individual. In Buddhism only consciously motivated volitional decisions have consequences. If one accidentally runs over a dog in a car (as opposed to consciously deciding to) it doesn’t generate karmic consequences whereas in Hinduism it does. Any thought, word or deed that is motivated by ‘the three poisons'(craving, ill will and delusion) is considered unskilful (akausalya) because it will not be conducive to spiritual development or self-transcendence. Motives and actions grounded in loving kindness, generosity and clarity of mind, in so far as they are conducive to self-transcendence and thus spiritual development, are considered ethically skilful (kausalya). The words ‘skilful’ and ‘unskilful’ are used rather than ‘right’ and ‘wrong’, which imply a divine absolute.
Buddhists everywhere practice a minimum of five basic ethical precepts (panca-sila). Put simply they consist of refraining from killing, stealing/exploitation, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication from drugs to the point where mindfulness is lost. The opposite traits of loving kindness, generosity, contentment, truthfulness and clarity of mind are encouraged and also taken as precepts. The basic ethical principle threading through all the precepts is non-violence (ahisma). The first three cover the deeds or acts performed by the physical body, the fourth covers speech and the fifth covers the mind; thoughts, words and deeds. They also address the three poisons in the sense of undertaking to avoid craving, aggression and confusion and cultivating the opposite states of mind. The ethical precepts in Buddhism are aimed to encourage the unenlightened, developing practitioner to behave as an enlightened being. They also act as safe guards for them because they may not have yet developed the clarity of mind through meditation to distinguish clearly just what the real motives and volitions are that are going on in their minds. It must be emphasized, however, that the ethical precepts of Buddhism are recommendations and guidelines rather than a set off commandments delivered by a God which must be obeyed or else! By adhering to them a person is giving himself or herself a fighting chance of not acting unethically.
Another important reason the ethical code is practiced is, as in accordance with the Law of Conditionality, because they help set up the conditions necessary for successful meditation. A mind dominated by craving, anger or confusion can’t achieve the calmness, happiness and concentration (psychological integration) necessary for successful meditative absorption (dhyana).
Ethics and Happiness (26/7/99):
The five ethical precepts practised by Buddhists (discussed last week) in a sense imitate the spontaneous, virtuous behaviour of an Enlightened being. The two primary virtues in Buddhism are Wisdom and Compassion. So the ethical precepts reject violence and the Power Mode, which uses other people and beings. Instead they endorse the Love Mode, which empathises with and cares for the Other. In English the five precepts are as follows:
1) I undertake to abstain from taking life. 2) I undertake to abstain from taking the not-given. 3) I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct. 4) I undertake to abstain from false speech. 5) I undertake to abstain from becoming intoxicated.
The positive counterparts are stated as follows:
1) With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body. 2) With open-handed generosity, I purify my body. 3) With stillness, simplicity and contentment, I purify my body. 4) With truthful communication, I purify my speech. 5) With mindfulness clear and radiant, I purify my mind.
As you can see the positive precepts endorse the opposite mental states to those found in the negative form of the five precepts (negative in the sense of undertaking not to do something).
So the practice of the ethical precepts in Buddhism results in sensitive and harmonious behaviour toward the Other as the result of skilful mental states. Ethical behaviour, in turn, produces skilful mental states. In Buddhism an ethical lifestyle is seen to be a necessary prerequisite for happiness. Happiness doesn’t necessarily mean feeling elated with joy (which can easily collapse into the opposite)-it seems to have more to do with an absence of inner conflict and guilt, and a feeling of contentment. Ethical behaviour in this sense is about doing things that promote positive states of mind. As part of the Threefold Path, Ethics therefore also sets up the right conditions for Meditation. It really is only possible to concentrate with ease when you are happy. A concentrated person is a happy person; a happy person is a concentrated person. So there are important connections between ethics, happiness and concentration. These factors also effect your effectiveness in life.
Ethics and Happiness (30/7/99):
As we saw last week, the practice of the ethical precepts in Buddhism results in sensitive and harmonious behaviour toward the Other as the result of skilful mental states and motivations. However, the practice of ethical behaviour, in turn, helps produce skilful mental states. In Buddhism an ethical lifestyle is seen to be a necessary prerequisite for happiness. Happiness doesn’t necessarily mean feeling elated with joy (which can easily collapse into the opposite)-it seems to have more to do with an absence of inner conflict and guilt, and a feeling of contentment.
Ethical behaviour in this sense is about doing things that promote positive states of mind. Behaviour or action in Buddhism is thought of as involving the body (eg., hitting someone, taking something), speech and the mind. If you look at the five ethical precepts that all Buddhists practice as a minimum, they cover the body, speech and mind. Sometimes this is rendered as thoughts, words and deeds. Precepts one to three cover actions with the body, the fourth speech and the fifth the mind. Even if you do not actually hit someone, therefore, but still give rise to the ill will toward that person behind it in your mind, then you have acted unskilfully in Buddhism. All actions have consequences. For example, an angry mind is not happy or peaceful. Thus it is hard for it to concentrate or meditate.
As part of the Threefold Path, Ethics therefore also sets up the right conditions for Meditation. It really is only possible to concentrate with ease when you are happy. A concentrated person is a happy person; a happy person is a concentrated person. So there are important connections between ethics, happiness and concentration. These factors also effect your effectiveness in life.
Going Back to Spiritual Kindergarten
As part of the Threefold Path, Ethics sets up the right conditions for Meditation. It really is only possible to concentrate with ease when you are happy. And we tend to be happy and guilt free when we practice an ethical lifestyle. The next stage of the Threefold Path is meditation. Meditation in turn sets up the right conditions for Insight into Reality or Wisdom.
Many Westerners come into the Buddhist Path in a back-the-front type of fashion. They tend to start with the Wisdom/Insight aspect, but only at the intellectual level, most commonly by reading books on Buddhism. There are so many books on Buddhism these days. Despite being very interested in the philosophy, and reading widely in it, they find that they aren’t changed by it. So they start to meditate but, because they are partying to all hours, over indulging in intoxicants, giving into hedonistic craving, sleeping in, and so on, their meditation practice is irregular and going nowhere. Their minds aren’t peaceful and contented enough to make effective concentration possible. It’s not until some form of disciplined and ethical lifestyle is established that progress in meditation becomes possible. This has been referred to this as going back to the spiritual kindergarten!
Buddhism teaches many forms of meditation, there are literally thousands of practices. Traditionally, Buddhist meditation is divided into two types, samatha and vipassana, or tranquillity and insight. Tranquillity meditation practices prepare the mind for insight by purifying, integrating and refining it. Insight meditation is the application of the mind, made subtle and concentrated by tranquillity meditation, to perceive the true nature of reality. To see things how they really are. Our ordinary mind is unconcentrated. In Buddhist texts there is frequent reference to the idea that ‘one who is concentrated sees things as they really are.’ This is how meditation sets up the right conditions for the third part of the Threefold Path.
Meditation in Buddhism (12/8):
Continuing our review of the Threefold Path in Buddhism, we’ve seen to date that the first stage, Ethics, sets up the right conditions for successful meditation. Meditation is the second phase of this path. It subsumes Right or Perfect Effort, Mindfulness and Concentration-the last three aspects of the Eightfold Path. We’ll return to them in a future issue.
In essence meditation in Buddhism is working directly on one’s own mind. Remember the starting point of Buddhism is the human mind. So we do not meditate just to relax or cope with stress, although these are welcome by products of the practice. Last week we talked of the two great traditions in Buddhist meditation of samatha (tranquillity) and vipassana (insight). Samatha practices aim at making us more calm, tranquil and concentrated so that we can see things as they really are and thus gain insight into Reality.
The reason we don’t see reality, or things as they really are, is because we are un-concentrated. Our minds are preoccupied and chronically distracted by discursive thoughts and a cavalcade of emotional reactions to things and events. Most of these if dug into reveal themselves to be concerned with our desires and longings and the frustrations of not satisfying them. There is thus a subjective filter, based on our egocentric view and our likes and dislikes, between us and how things actually are. Our view of things is clouded.
The aim of meditation is to purify the mind in the sense of clearing away these clouds of subjective distortion. To do this all the scattered energies within our psyches have to become integrated so that they are pulling together. The chaos in our conscious mind is mightily reinforced by the turmoil in our unconscious and all of this erupts in the mind to cloud it. These scattered energies can’t be integrated until we become aware of them, or conscious of them. This is the aim of meditation.
Once we’re aware or conscious of what’s going on in our conscious mind and in the unconscious we’re in charge of ourselves. Things calm down and a hitherto unknown state of tranquillity can be experienced. Once this happens we’re on the way to seeing things as they are.
Meditation-a Unity Experience (20/8/99):
We established at the beginning of this series of articles, that as human beings we experience ourselves as separate from everything else. This is a by-product of the unique human faculty of self-consciousness. We are in fact not separate from the environment and human society so the experience of separation is apparent rather than real. To mistake it for a reality, as we tend to do, is a fundamental delusion from a Buddhist point of view. When we do, it creates a deep sense of existential unease in us and that’s why we get caught up in craving for pleasant things to secure ourselves. We feel incomplete and deep down seek a unity with all things.
One function of meditation is to help overcome this experience of separation and achieve unity. But ironically it starts off based on the experience of separation. The fact that we can reason and make choices is because we can separate ourselves out from ourselves-there is the ‘reasoner’ and what is being reasoned about. So we use this ability to convince ourselves of the desirability of meditating and then choose to sit down and meditate. Without this meditation cannot begin, so again it’s a uniquely human enterprise. Once we start meditating on an object-the breath, an emotion, a candle-we are actually in an acute state of separation. There is you sitting there observing and concentrating and there is the thing you’re concentrating on.
Paradoxically, if we persist then the separation disappears and we become ‘one’ with the object. So human beings are capable of both giving rise to an experience of separation and of unity. Furthermore, once enlightened they are capable of experiencing both of these states simultaneously. Next week we will talk about how the unity experience in meditation is one of integrating all our scattered conscious and unconscious energies and how this in turn gives rise to higher states of consciousness.
Meditation and Integration (26/8/99):
There are two aspects to integration in meditation-a horizontal and a vertical one. Horizontal integration refers to the collecting together of our psychic energies in the conscious mind. Vertical is about integrating the energies of the unconscious with the conscious mind.
Usually we are in a chronic state of distraction in our conscious minds. Our thoughts and emotions are all over the place and we are not very aware of them. So horizontal integration is about developing more self-awareness of what is going on in our conscious minds. In this way we become more aware of what we’re feeling and thinking. Usually our energies are scattered and we are driven from one mental state to another at the mercy of our thoughts and emotions. They in turn are usually simple reactions to external stimulants of one kind or another. In this state we are scattered and reactive; in what you might call the guest rather than the host position in our own minds.
Meditation practices like the ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ (annapanna sati) help to develop more calm, more integration and self-awareness. In Buddhism this is called mindfulness and is very important indeed. It helps us become the host in our own minds by creating a strong centre of self-awareness that is, as it were, the master of ceremonies, or the shepherd that rounds up the rest of the herd and moves them in the right direction. Mindfulness helps to focus and channel our previously scattered mental energies. In this way we can become creative in our response to circumstances instead of merely reactive.
Given that the unconscious is the bulk of our psyche it is incredibly important that we also integrate that into our conscious minds. It has been likened in psychology to an iceberg. The vast bulk of it is under the surface of the water (unconscious). The small bit above the surface is the conscious mind. Often the energies of the unconscious are pulling us in a very different direction to the one in which we want to go in our conscious minds. So, from a Buddhist point of view, no real psychological or spiritual growth is possible unless we harness these energies behind our conscious aspirations. More about the role of meditation in achieving this next week.
Meditation and the Unconscious 3/9/99:
Last week we looked at the notion of meditation and horizontal integration. This means the shepherding together of our scattered mental energies in the conscious mind so that we are more self-aware or mindful, and capable of more concentration and focus. Today we look at vertical integration, the process of bringing more and more of the depths of our unconscious mind into consciousness.
It’s not easy. The Buddha himself acknowledged that control of the mind is the most challenging and the most rewarding of human tasks, and did not underestimate its difficulties. The mind has a depth, he suggested, far greater than the deepest sea, and all the way down it churns with powerful emotional currents and vortices of which we are barely conscious, but which virtually dictate thought and behaviour. In its depths lie untapped sources of great power: desires and drives of such magnitude that the mind is rarely under any control; it simply moves about as it likes. To train these forces to obey the conscious will is the only way to be free of the mind’s evolutionary inherited urges and predisposition’s. The method for training the mind is meditation, said the Buddha.
As the forces of our conscious and unconscious minds become integrated through the process of focused, conscious self-awareness (which is meditation) we experience higher states of consciousness. These traditionally are known as the dhyanas or levels of meditative absorption in Buddhism. They are higher levels of concentration in the sense of being beyond our normal waking consciousness, which is scattered, un-integrated, full of discursive thought and a kaleidoscope of emotions. The dhyanas are much more lucid, concentrated and peaceful. In a word they’re more integrated. Indeed they result from our psycho-physical energies becoming more integrated. The level of meditative absorption or the state of higher consciousness is a function of this.
More about these next week. But one last point is that meditative states are not to be confused with child-like states, trances, blank or induced hypnotic states where there is a total absence of self-awareness. They can’t be because they are states of greater and more concentrated self-awareness.
Higher States of Consciousness (9/9/99):
The levels of meditative absorption you get into when you meditate, as we saw, are known as the dhyanas. They are levels of progressively higher states of consciousness because our psycho-physical energies have become more integrated and focused compared to our normal, ‘waking’ level of consciousness. A great deal of mental and physical tension is released as our energies begin to flow together and hence they are accompanied by intense rapture, bliss and equanimity. Traditionally there are considered to be eight dhyanas.
The Buddha used four symbolic descriptions to characterise the first four dhyanas. The first he likened to a situation in which soap powder and water are mixed to make a cake of soap. The soap powder is completely suffused with water and all the water is absorbed into the powder. The second he likened to a calm pool of water with a deep subterranean spring bubbling up into it. The third was like a perfectly still pond in which a lotus plant had fully blossomed so that its petals were completely permeated by water at the surface of the pond. The last was like a person who had stepped out of a tank of water after bathing and was wrapping themselves in a dazzling, white towel.
I wonder if you can deduce what the symbols represent? Maybe just close your eyes for a moment and call up the images and reflect on their meanings. The first represents what we have been calling horizontal integration – the coming together of all the conscious mind’s energies. The second is vertical integration as the unconscious wells up into the conscious mind, which is now like a still pond. The third is a state of complete permeation of the mind conscious and unconscious as their full integration has flowered. The last reflects the fact that when such total integration of psychic energies has occurred there is a palpable radiation of energy from the person out into the environment.
The next six week Introductory Buddhist meditation courses commence at the Buddhist Centre at 23 Bridge Street on Tuesday night the 21st of September 7-9pm and during the day on Thursday the 23rd September 10-12am.
Mental States in Meditation 16/9/99:
Last week we looked at the Buddha’s symbolic description of the first four levels of meditative absorption. These higher levels of consciousness are referred to traditionally as the dhyanas. Again tradition enumerates five positive mental states accompanying the dhyanas known as the ‘dhyana factors’ (dhyananga). Dhyana does not consist only of these factors but contains other positive qualities too.
All five are present in the first dhyana and they are initial thought, applied thought, rapture, bliss and one-pointedness. One-pointedness is present in all the dhyanas because it is our ability to concentrate, focus and pay attention. It becomes much stronger in the dhyanas. Initial thought is thinking ‘of’ something and applied thought is thinking ‘about’ something. However, unlike our normal scattered, discursive thinking, this type of thought in the first dhyana is very lucid and completely under our conscious control.
Rapture is the experience of the physical enervation’s accompanying the process of integration of our psycho-physical energies. It’s sometimes referred to as tension release. As the body releases its tensions we experience ‘goose pimples’, hairs standing on end, shocks of rapture and then intense waves of rapture. Bliss is more subtle than rapture and occurs as the enervation’s of rapture calm down. In it’s own quite way it is even more intense.
From the second dhyana on there is no more thought. In the second there is rapture, bliss and one-pointedness present. In the third there is bliss and one-pointedness. In the fourth there is only one-pointedness but because this complete concentration is suffused with bliss it becomes known as equanimity. So the dhyana factors are both ‘cool’ in the sense of increased concentration as in one-pointedness, initial and applied thought and ‘warm’ in the sense of positive emotion-rapture, bliss and equanimity.
An introduction to traditional Buddhist meditation class has started this week at the Buddhist centre (23 Bridge Street) on Tuesday evening 7-9pm and Thursday morning 10-12am.
A Good Meditation 24/9/99:
If we experience the dhyanas or higher states of consciousness whilst meditating then obviously this is a good or successful meditation. We become aware that our normal, ‘taken for granted’ level of consciousness is not the full story. That our normal, ego-centric experience is not the definitive one. In other words, we become aware that there is something to us way beyond the usual experience of self. The possibility of self-transcendence arises.
However, more often than not, we do not experience the dhyanas; we do not become absorbed in the object of concentration as we meditate. We do not experience the higher states of consciousness. This is because certain unskilful mental states arise that prevent or ‘hinder’ us from becoming absorbed or concentrated. Traditionally they are known in Buddhism as the ‘five hindrances’.
Before we describe them the main point to be made in this article is that if we spend the whole of our meditation sit wrestling with these hindrances, applying the traditional antidotes, this is also considered a good or successful meditation. In this way, Buddhist meditation-the mind working directly on the mind-is quite different from other forms of meditation. If we become absorbed, concentrated and experience the dhyanas that’s good. If we don’t and spend the whole time working with the hindrances that’s also good.
The five hindrances are craving for sense pleasure, ill will, restlessness and anxiety, sloth and torpor and indecision and doubt. In a way they are an elaboration of the three poisons-craving, ill will and delusion (or confusion). Inevitably as we become more aware of what is going on in our conscious and unconscious minds (horizontal and vertical integration) we will experience these hindrances. They are there in us inherited from our past actions and habit tendencies and they underpin the mental states that distract us from becoming concentrated. We are the hindrances and will have to deal with them through meditation if we are to progress.
Next week we investigate the traditional antidotes to apply to the five hindrances.
The Five Mental Hindrances (1/10/99):
The last couple of weeks we’ve been talking about the higher states of consciousness known as the dhyanas accessible through meditation. The first level of meditative absorption (dhyana) is characterised by the absence of negative emotions. We’re going to elaborate on the nature of the five mental hindrances shortly. Unless the mind is clear not only of the five mental hindrances but also of fear, anger, jealousy, anxiety, guilt, remorse, at least for the time being, there is no entry into the higher states of consciousness. They have to be eradicated or suspended to achieve them. That is why the path of ethics described over preceding weeks is the necessary prerequisite for effective meditation.
The first of the five hindrances is desire for sense experience (kamma chandra). Our minds instead of concentrating on the meditation object (say the breath) keep getting drawn to sense objects through any of the six senses such as, sounds, smells or colours. But it also includes images and attractive thoughts, which are objects of what in Buddhism is known as the sixth sense, the mental sense. The traditional image of this hindrance is again water obscured by coloured balls.
The second hindrance is ill will (vyapada). This is actually the reverse side of desire for pleasant experiences because it wills or desires ill for something. Our minds this time get caught up in some painful experience. They are drawn towards some irritating event or person and we can’t stop thinking about it or resenting it. Perhaps there is some external sound or smell that is irritating us. It’s practically impossible to get away from sound when one meditates so it’s a common experience to find one’s mind reacting irritably to sounds. The traditional image is of water boiling and hissing. In these two hindrances we are strongly caught up in the object; this is less the case in the next three.
Over the next couple of weeks we’ll outline the next three hindrances, investigate the traditional antidotes to apply to the five hindrances and how the hindrances are there outside of meditation as well.
The Hindrances Continued (8/10/99):
As we saw last week the first two hindrances to becoming absorbed or concentrated in meditation are desire for sense experience (kamma chandra) and ill will (vyapada). The third hindrance is restlessness (uddhacca) and anxiety (kukucca). Restlessness is physical restlessness and turbulence; anxiety is more mental-usually some form of irrational, discursive thought. Together they make us too ‘speedy’ and obviously distract us from being able to concentrate.
The traditional image is water chopped up into waves by the wind.
The fourth hindrance is sloth and torpor, the two aspects being physical sloth (thina) and mental torpor (middha). The body feels heavy and the mind vacuous. The combined result is drowsiness and before we know it we’ve tipped forward off our meditation cushions as we briefly fall asleep. When sloth and torpor gets a grip on us it feels almost impossible to shake off. The traditional image is stagnant water choked with mud and reeds. Again both these hindrances are two sides of the same coin and we can oscillate between them.
The final one is doubt (vicikicchai) and indecision. We start to doubt ourselves, the meditation practice, and whether we really can get anywhere in terms of our spiritual growth. As a result we have very little conviction or commitment to meditate. We sit there caught up in a crisis of doubt and lack of involvement in the practice. This image is turbid water, water with a great deal of sediment in suspension.
So these negative mental factors prevent us from becoming concentrated in our meditation session. They will inevitably arise for all who meditate because they are originate in mental tendencies, impulses and predispositions that have become habitual because they were built up over long periods of time. However, there are in Buddhism traditional antidotes to the five hindrances, but before we can apply them we have to recognise or acknowledge that we are caught up in a hindrance. This is a crucial step and failure to do it means the antidotes cannot be applied.
The Antidotes to the Hindrances (15/10/99):
The first step in working on the hindrances is to acknowledge that the hindrance is actually there. It’s no good carrying on meditating regardless, trying to ignore it or wish it away. In meditation you need to acknowledge each new mental state as it arises-that’s what self-awareness is. So in terms of the hindrances this means to recognise which of the five mental hindrances (discussed over the last two weeks) it is.
Is it desire for sense experience, ill will, restlessness and anxiety, sloth and torpor, or doubt and indecision that is preventing you from deepening your concentration? To be able to recognise which hindrance is present in your mind takes time and practice. Meditation like any other skill requires practice and the more you do it the better you become at it. You will become not only more adept at concentrating but more aware of the nature of the mental events arising in your mind and whether they are skilful or unskilful.
It is after all a process of gaining self-knowledge by looking within. But for most of us this type of activity is unfamiliar, we are chartering unfamiliar waters, and so inevitably it involves a learning curve. It’s a bit like the situation alluded to in the old western mottoes of ‘Know thyself’ and ‘Physician heal thyself’.
The traditional Buddhist antidotes that are used to work with the hindrances, after the all-important step of recognition (self-awareness), are fourfold. They are 1) to consider the consequences of remaining in that state, 2) cultivating the opposite, 3) developing a sky-like attitude and 4) suppression. We’ll elaborate on them next week.
A combined ‘drop in’ introductory Buddhist meditation class and brief introductory talk on Buddhism will be held at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre on Saturday the 23rd of October. The meditation will be between 11am and 12am and the talk between 12 and 1pm.
The Antidotes to the Hindrances (22/10/99):
After acknowledging the existence of the hindrance, that it is actually present, interfering with our meditative concentration, we can apply the traditional antidotes. The first of these is to consider the consequences of allowing the hindrance to continue unchecked. What if we simply do nothing and allow the tendency to distraction, to hatred or to doubt to remain? Clearly, it would increase and our character would become progressively dominated by that trait. If we reflect on this, the importance of what we’re trying to do will become clearer and we’ll be more inclined to ignore the hindrance and turn our minds back to what we’re concentrating on.
The second antidote is to cultivate the opposite quality. If there is anger cultivate loving-kindness (metta). If there is doubt cultivate confidence. If there is sloth cultivate energy. If there is restlessness, cultivate contentment and peace. If the mind is too tense relax it; if it’s too loose sharpen it. So we try and cultivate the opposite quality to the negative mental state that’s interfering with our concentration to overcome or neutralise it.
The third is to cultivate a sky-like attitude. Sometimes the more we resist a hindrance the stronger it gets. If the previous two methods don’t work, we try the ‘sky-like’ attitude. We accept that the hindrance has ‘got in’ and we simply observe it like a cloud in a vast blue sky. In this way we give it some space and allow it to play itself out. By watching it and not getting involved we allow the fantasies, worries, the images to arise and dissolve. Gradually they lose their power and disperse.
Finally there is suppression. We simply push the hindrance out of our minds or ‘leap frog’ over it back to our concentration.. This is different from repression, which is unconsciously pushing something down into our unconscious. This antidote is a last resort. We are convinced of the pointlessness of playing host to the hindrance and we simply say ‘no’ and push it aside. It’s best used with weak hindrances. With stronger ones, even if we suppress them, we eventually have to come back and deal with them.
Effort and Mindfulness (29/10/99):
The stage of meditation in the Threefold path subsumes the stages of Perfect Effort, Perfect Mindfulness and Perfect Meditation in the Eightfold path. Over the last few weeks we’ve been looking at meditation and this would not be complete if we didn’t refer to effort and mindfulness.
Of course, any attempt at growth requires effort-unremitting effort. We may fail again and again, but that doesn’t matter so much. The important thing is that we make the effort, we try. Each time we fail we just have to pick ourselves up and try again. Apparently there is a n old Sufi poem that goes something like this: Come, come, no matter how many times you’ve broken the precepts, come, come.
Often when we fail we tend to wallow in irrational guilt and shame. The danger with this is that we end up reinforcing a fixed view of ourselves that will prevent us from trying to grow. Then the gravitational pull of inertia comes in and pulls us down. If we don’t continue to make the effort, despite having failed, no growth is possible. We have to realise that thinking we are a failure and dwelling on a negative view of ourselves is just as fixed and conceited as thinking that we’re great and having an over-inflated view of ourselves. There is potentially a much larger self we can experience, however, we never will if we stick to these lesser fixed views of our self. We have to get beyond them.
It is difficult work. But it’s a bit like the speck of dust in an oyster that becomes a pearl. In the same way these irritating (dukkha) aspects of life can provide the stimulus for personal evolution. In many ways it’s the same thing as working with the hindrances-each time we become distracted we have to work with the hindrance and then return our attention to the object of concentration. That requires effort.
Right Effort (5/11/99):
At the moment we are talking about Right or Complete Effort. This is the sixth stage of the Eightfold Path and part of the Meditation section of the Threefold Path. Traditionally in Buddhism the formula for Complete or Perfect Effort consists of the following four dimensions. 1) The prevention of the arising of unskilful mental states that have not yet arisen. 2) The eradication of unskilful mental states that have already arisen. 3) The development of skilful mental states that have not yet arisen. 4) The maintenance of skilful mental states already arisen.
These days sometimes the first and second steps are reversed because more often than not we find ourselves already in unskilful mental states. Just to remind you unskilful mental states are those motivated by greed, anger and confusion (the three poisons). Skilful ones are based on generosity, loving kindness and mental clarity.
Traditionally the first effort is carried out by ‘guarding the gates of the senses’. Through mindful self-awareness we attempt to maintain awareness of what is coming in through our six senses (in Buddhism the mind is considered to be the sixth sense and mental factors the objects of this sense). It’s often likened to the historical role of a sentry at the city gates observing what is coming in. The main thing is to be aware of how our minds are reacting to these sensory stimuli and whether they are unskilful reactions or skilful, creative responses.
We achieve the second effort of eradicating unskilful states that have arisen by applying the antidotes to the hindrances discussed over the last couple of weeks. The best way to perform the third effort of developing skilful mental states is considered to be by meditating. The fourth effort of maintaining these is achieved through perseverance. That is, to use a fashionable word, by sustaining a regular practice.
I think the Threefold Path is an excellent formula for the practice of Buddhism in contemporary society. It consists of the practice of Ethics and Meditation with a view to gaining Insight into the nature of Reality. Mindfulness is the next aspect of the Meditation part of the Threefold Path. It is a very important part of this path, in my opinion, and yet it can be neglected by practising Buddhists.
The Buddha is on record as saying that if you can maintain Mindfulness uninterrupted for seven days you will achieve nirvana (the extinguishing of craving-the goal of the Buddhist path) here and now, or at least the point of non-return (from which you cannot slip back and so are guaranteed to gain Enlightenment). A pretty potent recommendation for practising mindfulness.
In formal, sitting meditation you’re deepening your knowledge of yourself and developing more integration and tranquillity. This is known as samatha. With mindfulness you then spread this samatha (tranquillity, calmness and integration) into your daily activities and encounters with the environment (human and non-human). So it’s like broadening the vertical work of meditation into a more horizontal spreading out of peacefulness and sensitivity into the world. You’re creating a ‘ripple-like’ effect.
However, too often people who meditate tend to ‘clock-off’ after the formal sit. They become just as un-mindful as other people do. Being unmindful could be described as being forgetful, distracted, having only weak powers of concentration and no sense of continuity of purpose in what you’re doing. The word for mindfulness in Pali is sati and as well as having the connotation of ‘awareness’, it also means ‘recollection’ and ‘memory’.
So to be mindful means to be in a state recollection as opposed to forgetful. You remember who you are and what you’re doing and why you’re doing it! Furthermore, it’s a state of undistractedness, concentration and steadfastness of purpose. One could say that it is also a state of more true individuality because these elements of mindfulness when present allow one to take responsibility for their lives and thus to grow as an individual. When being unmindful we are merely a bundle of conflicting selves reacting to the world.
An Introduction to Buddhist Philosophy course of six weeks starts at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre, this Thursday morning (18/11/99) at 10am in lieu of the SQIT course, which was cancelled this term.
The Four Foundations of Mindfulness (19/11/99):
In traditional mindfulness practice we start with the self. We bring the self to the self. So often these days, because of the pressure of work, stress and stimulus overload, people get so ‘speedy’ that they by-pass themselves. The traditional practice of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness (sati) is a way of bringing us back into contact with ourselves.
Let’s take an every day example. We come home from work, or looking after the kids, and we feel at one and the same time completely exhausted and yet ‘het up’. I’m sure we’ve all experienced this condition. People in this condition often head straight for the pub after work to relax and wind down. Studies have shown that, because they’re not really in touch with themselves, they tend to throw back the drinks, their blood sugar levels rise and as a result, after awhile, they feel energetic, even ‘high’. They feel that now they’ve wound down and relaxed. Actually it’s just the raised blood sugar levels and the studies conclude that this type of situation could lead to problem drinking.
Let’s say that instead we come home and ‘do’ the four foundations. We sit down or lie down and start with being mindful of the body. We deliberately become aware of our body, its position and movement. We scan through it with our awareness and relax any tension we discover, perhaps starting with the forehead, eyes, mouth, jaw and gradually work our way through the whole body. By doing this we’re getting out of our heads and our fast moving thoughts and emotions and contacting the slowest moving part of ourselves, the body. In this way we ‘ground’ ourselves back in ourselves.
The second foundation is to then become aware of physiological sensations or feelings and whether they are painful, pleasant or neutral and whether they’re strong or weak. The third is to spend a few minutes becoming aware of our emotional tone by directly experiencing it (not analysing it). Are we happy, unhappy, tired, anxious, frenetic and so on? So now we’ve shifted our awareness to the faster moving parts of ourselves. Finally we become aware of our thoughts and what is going on in our thinking mind.
To go back to our example, by doing this, by bringing ourselves to ourselves, we usually discover that under the speedy, het up feeling we’re actually exhausted. We may even start to feel sleepy and actually have a rest or nap. If, after doing this, we still feel inclined to go to the pub for a drink (in moderation), we find that we don’t feel the need to throw them back. Instead we have a few in a steady, mindful way and avoid the problem drinking.
Mindfulness in Everyday Living (26/11/99):
Generally speaking our actions are impulsive. Desires are immediately translated into deeds, without a thought being given to the consequences or whether they’re skilful or not. When we act with mindfulness, however, we analyse our motives before allowing them to determine conduct. What follows from this are not only the abstention from unskilful courses of action but also the acquisition of an undisturbed and tranquil state of mind.
If we undertake even the most commonplace activities of life in a clearly conscious manner, we introduce space or a pause between our thoughts or intentions and the execution of the deed. Within this interval our unwholesome impulses expend their force. With the practice of mindfulness the tempo of our day to day existence slows down. Behaviour becomes smoother, slower, more sensitive and more deliberate. These days people are under too much pressure and rush too much. One of the secrets of longevity is not to rush through life but to slow down and keep the mind peaceful. One result of mindfulness is bodily composure and gracefulness. This in return conduces to an ever-deeper quietness of spirit.
Through the practice of mindfulness and self-possession the most trivial occasions of life
become part of a spiritual practice. Eating, drinking, dressing, the processes of excretion and urination even, are transformed from hindrances into aids to concentration, from interruptions to the spiritual life to its continuation in another form. The distinction between things sacred and profane becomes obliterated.
When one is behaving ethically and clear consciousness is established in all activities, then not a minute is wasted from dawn till dusk. From morning till night the current of spiritual development continues uninterrupted. Even in sleep, if the practice is intense enough, the clear consciousness still shines even as the moon does in the darkness of night.
Ways of Practising Mindfulness (3/12/99):
We can extend the practice of mindfulness into the daily arena of living in many ways. The Buddha, for example, spoke of practising mindfulness and self-possession whilst advancing or withdrawing; in looking forward or around; in bending and stretching the limbs; in dressing and wearing clothes; in eating, drinking, masticating, and tasting; in answering the calls of nature; in walking, standing and sitting; in sleeping and waking; and, in speaking and keeping silence. One could also add in dealing with objects.
In this way even the most mundane activities can become delightful routines of incredible precision. These days their exists a modern terminology that talks of body ballets, time-space routines, place choreographys and place ballets. Body ballets are sets of gestures and movements which sustain a particular task, such as, washing up, dressing, sweeping the floor, ploughing, house building and gardening. Time-space routines are habitual bodily behaviours in time and space like bathing, sewing and cooking. Place ballets extend time-space routines and body ballets into all types of environments – indoors, outdoors, streets, neighbourhoods, market places, cafes and transport depots. Most of the time these activities are carried out in a mechanical and distracted fashion, yet in all them there are opportunities for practice.
Another model speaks of four levels of awareness. 1) Awareness of ourselves using the four foundations of mindfulness to bring ourselves into contact with ourselves. That is awareness of the body and its movements, of sensations or feelings, of our emotional state, and of our thoughts. Then we can extend the mindfulness to 2) awareness of Things or the Environment. Then there is 3) awareness of Others. Finally, there is 4) awareness of Reality. We’ll talk more about these four levels next week.
A ‘drop in’ meditation class consisting of a led practice of the Metta Bhavana practice which is about generating loving-kindness (metta) for oneself and others will be held at the TBC on Saturday the 11th of December at 11am.
Awareness of the Self (13/12/99):
As one’s practice of the Buddha Dharma deepens one attempts to maintain a degree of self-awareness and self-possession all the time. Traditionally it’s spoken of in terms of awareness of the body and its movements, of sensations or feelings, of our emotional state, and of our thoughts. So a practising Buddhist is continuously monitoring their psycho-physical states. This is the only way we can transform our mental, verbal and bodily actions from mere, unskilful reactions to circumstances to creative responses. This is the only way we can break out of the reactive pattern of conditionality that drives us round and round in circles-what Buddhists refer to as the ‘Wheel of Life’.
To maintain self-awareness like this may sound a tall order. However, the more you practise it the easier it becomes; as with any skill in life it takes practice. Buddhism is an applied practice; it’s a voluntarily undertaken, personal training or education program. One reason why we recommend ‘Mindfulness of Breathing’ as a foundation meditation practice is simply because it helps you to become more mindful, to be able to focus your mind and concentrate. Something people are finding increasingly difficult to do these days. One of the main objectives of starting a daily meditation practice is to simply develop more concentration and mindfulness!
So we try and be aware of ourselves all the time. But not in an alienated way! Not by stepping outside of ourselves and watching ourselves from the outside. The danger of this is that we do not experience ourselves-this is alienation. To be mindful means to fill what we are observing or what we are doing with our mind.
Some people set the alarm on their watch to go off hourly to remind them to be mindful. Some times it’s a good idea to do the practice of mindfulness more systematically. For example, just choosing to be mindful of the body and its postures for a day. This can actually be done as a formal meditation practice known as Mindfulness of Walking. Or you might decide on one particular day (or week) to concentrate on awareness of your emotional states, or speech or thoughts. In other circumstances it might be more appropriate to maintain a more panoramic form of mindfulness.
Domains of Mindfulness (14/2/00):
I’ve been away for the whole of January hence the non-appearance of this column for that month. For a large part of that time I was on a long retreat in New Zealand. It was an intensive study retreat (although there was lots of meditation too) and provided me with a wonderful opportunity for spiritual nourishment and the chance to deepen spiritual friendships.
The theme of the retreat was the ‘Transcendental Principle’-in many ways the goal of Buddhism. No doubt we’ll touch on this issue in ensuing weeks. But for the time being we need to finish off our treatment of mindfulness.
Another four fold model of mindfulness consists of 1) awareness of oneself, through the four foundations of mindfulness-posture, sensations, emotions and thoughts. Then extending this awareness to 2) awareness of people, 3) awareness of things or the environment, and finally 4) awareness of Reality.
In this way the increased concentration and sensitivity developed in formal sitting meditation practice is extended out into the world and informs one’s relationships with people and the environment. A practising Buddhist does not ‘clock off (or ought not to) at the end of the period of sitting practice. Instead the awareness is carried over into these relationships making them more sensitive and ethical. Indeed it’s possible to relate to one’s immediate environment, defined as what one is conscious of from moment to moment, in this fashion. One could describe this as the bottom line of an individual’s environmental responsibility. Because if everyone was doing this, that is relating sensitively, mindfully and ethically with other people and the environment, we wouldn’t have social and environmental problems!
An Practical Buddhism course starts at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre, next Tuesday (22/2/00 from 7pm-9pm) in lieu of the cancellation of the SQIT course ‘The Buddhist Way of Personal Growth’.
The Path of Wisdom (18/2/00):
To continue our treatment of the Threefold Path in Buddhism (Ethics, Meditation, Wisdom) we now turn to the Wisdom or Insight stage. Over the last few months we’ve investigated Ethics and Meditation. We saw how the practice of ethics sets up the right conditions for successful meditation. Meditation in turn sets up the right conditions for Insight or Wisdom. Complete Wisdom in Buddhism is of course expressed as Enlightenment or Nirvana and involves what is often referred to as Transcendental Knowledge.
Prior to Enlightenment more partial Insights can occur building up to the bigger picture. Insight is an experience, and it yields experiential knowledge, not mere intellectual knowledge; it’s known in the heart and as such is ineffable. The knowledge it brings cannot be denoted or captured through concepts or the words of any language. So in that sense the experience is impossible to describe or capture in words.
The Buddha did use language to indicate the nature of the experience. Also Buddhism itself has developed elaborate philosophies over its history that attempt to articulate the knowledge of Enlightenment. However, the approach is to gain the experiential knowledge first and then attempt to articulate it, albeit in a necessarily limited way at the conceptual level. One can’t gain enlightenment by reasoning or intellectualising about it alone. This is one of the major differences between Western and Eastern philosophy, with the former believing it’s possible to completely comprehend Reality through reasoning and the latter considering it impossible.
According to Buddhism one has to rise to a higher level of consciousness through meditation and use intuition to directly encounter Reality and know it. Thus meditation is the necessary step to see Reality (hence ‘in’ ‘sight’ – intuitive seeing). In fact Insight and even Enlightenment itself is most simply described in the tradition as ‘seeing things as they are! We will elaborate on this theme next week.
Due to popular demand there is a possibility that an Practical Buddhism daytime course will start as well at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre, next Thursday (24/2/00 ) in lieu of the cancellation of the SQIT course ‘The Buddhist Way of Personal Growth’.
Seeing Things As They Are (25/2/00):
Traditionally Insight and Enlightenment have been described simply as seeing things as they are! The implication being that we don’t perceive things as they are. As the result of a mixture of physiological and socialisation factors we ‘construct’ the world we perceive from an early age. For example, at the physiological level, we have two eyes at the front of our heads and so binocular vision is ‘hard-wired’ into us and as a result we can see three dimensionally. Through socialisation we are taught to label and thus separate things with names like ‘me’, ‘you’, ‘table’, ‘chair’, and so on.
The end result is that we perceive a world of seemingly separate phenomena spread out in space. We perceive ourselves as one object separate and apart from all the others. Furthermore we ‘essentialise’ things – we attribute permanent essences or a sense of solidity to the perceived phenomena. Finally, subjectively, we prefer certain things to others. Some give rise to pleasant sensations when we perceive them, others unpleasant repulsion, and others still neutral feelings.
Now in reality nothing is, as it seems. As modern ecology demonstrates, nothing exists independently of anything else. We cannot be separated from the air we breathe the water we drink or the food we eat. If we are for too long we actually go out of existence. We can’t be separated even from other people. We depend on them for psychological support and guidance. Our education, our personalities and our self-image are all derived from our interactions with other people. Modern physics also demonstrates that far from being a world of solid objects it’s all just a constant, dynamic, interactive flux of energy and matter.
The views of modern physics and ecology are congruent with those of ancient Buddhism. According to the latter, nothing is permanent and nothing is separate from anything else. All there is in Reality is impermanence and interrelationship. Moreover, nothing is actually better (in the subjective sense) than anything else, just different. But we try and live in the other world that we have constructed thinking we are separate and independent like other objects and pursuing the ones we like and trying to avoid the ones we don’t and hoping for permanence in all our activities. As a consequence, because we have mis-matched Reality and the perceived world, according to Buddhism, we suffer – that’s Reality. More next week.
The Three Characteristics of Conditioned Existence (3/3/00):
The real world of phenomenon, of which we are a part, is a conditioned world according to Buddhism. As we saw last week, modern ecology agrees in demonstrating that nothing exists independently of a set of conditions (eg., nutrients, air and water). These conditions ultimately link everything in the natural world together. According to the Teaching (Dharma) of the Buddha this conditioned existence has three characteristics (laksana): unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and insubstantiality (anatta).
Let’s deal with them in reverse order because the second and third explain the first. Insubstantiality follows on from what we’ve just been saying. It means that in so far as no thing (nothing) or phenomenon can exist independently of anything else it has no separate, unchanging, inherent quality. Nothing is discrete in the sense of having an independently existing, self-subsistent, inner essence. Everything (including us) arises in dependence on a network of interconnected conditions. When these conditions cease the phenomenon ceases. It is all a process in space, if you like.
Impermanence is like the process of conditionality in time. Things/phenomena arise in dependence on conditions, exist for awhile, and then cease when the supporting conditions cease. Nothing lasts forever independent of this process of conditionality through time. According to the Buddha, human beings are no different; they do not have a permanent, everlasting ‘soul’ at the core of their being. They are simply an impermanent and insubstantial flux of mental and physical conditions arising and ceasing. Self-conscious awareness of these processes (which is also a process) deludes us into thinking we have some permanent essence at the centre of our being.
As we saw last week, we try and secure the self we are conscious of by clinging onto what we perceive as the pleasant and repelling the unpleasant. And we don’t want to die; we’d rather last forever (or at least a bit longer). But because of impermanence everything pleasant we cling to doesn’t last, and we can’t forever avoid what we perceive as unpleasant or threatening. Also there is ultimately nothing solid or substantial that we can cling onto. And so we suffer, which is the third characteristic of conditioned existence. Conditioned existence, by its very nature (impermanent and insubstantial), can’t provide lasting happiness, and so is inherently unsatisfactory in that sense. But that doesn’t mean, according to Buddhism, that there is nothing, just annihilation at the end of life. More next week.
The Gaining of Insight(10/3/00):
As we have seen the purpose of meditation is to learn to concentrate so that we can see things as they are. The world we perceive as reality is an illusion because we see it as consisting of separate fragments, whereas (in Reality) it is all interconnected. Furthermore, there is a subjective distortion overlaid on this perception, which is our seeing of the world as divided into pleasant things and unpleasant things. Another person may see what you perceive as pleasant or unpleasant as entirely different; it is subjective in that sense.
In meditation we go beyond our normal ego-centric form of consciousness by becoming absorbed in the object of meditation. In going beyond the normal self-centred, subjective way of perceiving things we have the opportunity to see things more as they are. In this way Insight may be gained. We can see that conditioned existence has three characteristics (laksana) mentioned last week: unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), impermanence (anicca) and insubstantiality (anatta).
We see through our clear perception that all conditioned or worldly things by their very nature cannot give permanent and lasting satisfaction. For that we’ve got to look elsewhere! We also see that all worldly things are impermanent; we can’t possess any of them forever. Also all conditioned things are insubstantial, only having relative existence. They have no absolute, independent existence. Now contemplation of these three characteristics can give Insight into Nirvana, the Unconditioned. Thus they’re also known as the three gateways or entrances to liberation (vimoksa-mukha).
Penetrating unsatisfactoriness one gains knowledge that is Unbiased (apranihita) or objective if you like. Things are not perceived on the subjective bases of greed and aversion, but simply as they are. Fathoming impermanence and emerging as it were on the other side one gains knowledge of the Unconditioned as Imageless or Signless (animitta). This means that nothing can be frozen and delineated by words, labels or concepts. Plumbing insubstantiality leads to knowledge of the Emptiness or Voidness (sunyata) of all things. Though the three characteristics are ultimately inseparable, one can begin by concentrating on any one of them.
Nirvana – The Unconditioned (17/3/00):
The conditioned world is known in Buddhism as Samsara. As we have seen it has the characteristics of unsatisfactoriness, impermanence and insubstantiality. As conditioned beings ourselves we can never find lasting happiness as we try and inflict our subjective view of the world on this shifting mass of conditions in an attempt to secure ourselves. The goal of Buddhism is, however, to achieve lasting happiness and this is to be found in Nirvana.
Samsara is, according to the technical terminology of the Dharma, ‘put together’ or ‘compounded’; which are expressions of the fact that ordinary existence is the result of conditions. With the cessation of these conditions the phenomena they support cease. So things come into existence or have a birth, live, and then cease or die. The Wheel of Life, which we travel around in dependence on these conditions, is often depicted in Buddhism as being in the jaws of the Lord of Death. This is because it involves a never-ending cycle of birth, life and death.
Nirvana is therefore described variously as the ‘not put together’, ‘uncompounded’, unconditioned and ‘the deathless’! But Nirvana or Enlightenment is not something completely or absolutely separate or distinct from Samasara. In fact it is stated in the teaching that Nirvana is in Samsara and Samsara in Nirvana! Buddhism is not about, as mistakenly assumed in many circles, some sort of search for and re-acquaintance with an absolute, Universal Consciousness. That is far too abstract and vague.
It is about finding the Unconditioned right in the midst of the conditioned. It doesn’t exist anywhere else. In the words of the Heart Sutra Form is no other than Emptiness, Emptiness no other than Form; Form is only Emptiness, Emptiness only Form. Just as, according to Chinese Buddhism, one can only delineate fingers as solid forms because of the spaces between them and the spaces as such because of the co-exiting forms of the fingers; one can’t have the conditioned without the Unconditioned. So Nirvana in Buddhism is no further away than within your own, everyday, conditioned mind.
Human Enlightenment (24/3/00):
With this article we finish our coverage of the Buddhist Threefold Path-Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom (new directions in buddhism next week). To finish off the Wisdom section it seems appropriate to say a few words about Enlightenment. Notice that I have used the expression ‘Human Enlightenment’ in the title. Humans need ideals from which to gain inspiration. The ideal person for a Buddhist is an Enlightened Buddha. But we can relate to the Buddha because he was born human and became enlightened by his own efforts.
Enlightenment is described in terms of firstly, pure, clear, radiant, awareness – knowledge of Reality which transcends sense-based awareness – it is continuous, non-dualistic and free of confusion. Secondly, it consists of an intense, profound, overflowing feeling of love and compassion for all living things. Thirdly, it’s an experience of inexhaustible mental and spiritual energy.
These qualities of awareness, love and energy are considered to be germinal in all of us. Thus Enlightenment is considered to be a natural, ideal, human state. It’s what we’re all striving for to complete ourselves. In the Mahayana traditions of Buddhism it’s spoken of as the Buddha-Nature within all of us, which is simply obscured by our subjective desires and delusions. It is like the sun or moon obscured by clouds. We need to clear the clouds away or pierce through them to discover our true nature.
The principle tool to achieve this in Buddhism is meditation. By learning to concentrate and break down the dualism of self and other, and to penetrate through our subjective, desire-based distortions of how the world is, we can reveal this inner nature. For most of us, so externally oriented, this inner journey is one into unfamiliar territory. That’s why we often avoid it. An Introduction to Traditional Buddhist Meditation course will be starting at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre the first week of April.
A Buddhist Easter Message (10/4/00):
Easter dates back to pre-Christian, European pagan associations. This time of the year in Europe is spring, so Easter was a sort of ‘spring festival’ symbolizing a new ‘life’, a quickening after the ‘death’ of winter. This type of spring festival occurs in many different cultures (eg. China). Also early Christianity was not so much a religion of dogma as one of the celebration of ‘mysteries’ (the Eastern Orthodox traditions still speak of these mysteries). The mystery celebrated is of course Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. From a Buddhist point of view, whilst accepting that the crucifixion may have occurred, the resurrection and ascension (physically into heaven) of the Son of God are considered to be myth.
The primary significance of such a myth (again found in many different cultures, including the intiation rites of Australian aborigines) is the notion of spiritual rebirth after a spiritual death. In the Zen tradition of Buddhism it’s spoken of in terms of dying the great death before one can gain Enlightenment and experience the ‘mystery’ of Nirvana. In fact the word ‘resurrection’ means re-birth. The word ‘Easter’ in the English language is traceable back to the Anglo-Saxon word oestre, the name of a pre-Christian British goddess of fertility (as in estrogen). The Easter ‘egg’ is also a universal symbol of fertility. The unbroken egg symbolizes new, renascent life and again is found in most religions.
The Buddha spoke of the Bodhisattva emerging from the eggshell of ignorance. The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order in Britain often used the egg as an image in its advertising accompanied with the admonition to ‘break out’. So there’s no harm in celebrating Easter from a Buddhist viewpoint as a triumphant emerging of a new mode of awareness, or of Being, from the old!
Buddhist Easter Eggs! (14/4/00):
Last week we talked of the universal spiritual symbolism of the egg. The unbroken egg is a universal symbol of a new life found in practically all religious traditions. For example, in Etruscan tomb paintings dating back to 1000 BC the dead are often depicted on the walls of tombs reclining in couches holding an egg in their outstretched hands, a symbol of their belief that death wasn’t the end, but would be followed by a new life.
Last week we established that notions of spiritual death and re-birth are a very common form of myth in many different religions and cultures. And often such myths are celebrated in association with spring festivals after the death of winter. The timing of Easter in our Southern hemisphere calendar coincides with spring in the Northern hemisphere. From a Buddhist point of view, the Christian celebration of the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection are mythical rather than literal. The symbolism of the myth is one of simply breaking out of the old and being re-born in the new. In other words it’s a symbol of spiritual growth.
In Buddhism we encourage people to break out of a sort of karmic egg! The eggshell symbolises the well-worn habits we have built up over our lifetime that act to define us and confine us. It represents a ceiling, or a set of limitations we have placed on ourselves. And there we stay, inside, perhaps pretending to be asleep. The Tibetans say it’s harder to wake someone up who’s pretending to be asleep than someone who really is asleep!
One thing a regular practice of ethics and meditation does is bring us to a fuller awareness of the unskilful patterns in our life that prevent our growth. Ultimately meditation itself is a type of spiritual death because it takes us beyond our normal experience of ourselves. It helps us to take the risk of breaking out of the eggshell and moving beyond our self-imposed limitations. Easter is a fitting time of the year to reflect on this process of spiritual renewal.
Consumerism and Greed (21/4/00):
The tendency for greed in human beings is, from a Buddhist point of view, deeply rooted. We have established in many previous articles that an unfortunate by-product of our distinctly human trait of self-consciousness is a sense of aloneness. In a very deep sense this comes from the experience of separation from everything and everyone else that accompanies consciousness of being a distinct self. In an attempt to overcome our basic feeling of insecurity we crave the things we perceive to be attractive and pleasurable. We try to incorporate these things into the world of our ego-identity to secure it. This tendency is hard-wired into all of us as human beings. This constant under-current of desire and craving leads to attachment and defines in many ways what we become.
Ultimately from a Buddhist point of view, these desires and cravings can not lead to a lasting sense of satisfaction and so they’re referred to as unskilful. They are destined to founder on the rocks of impermanence-nothing, in the conditioned world, lasts. Craving just leads down deeper and deeper into a vortex of never-ending temporary pleasure and frustration. In the famous words of ‘The Stones’ song, I can’t get no satisfaction. But still we struggle on looking for one more hit, preoccupied with gaining more and more pleasure to make ourselves feel comfortable.
Unfortunately, the late capitalist societies we live in reinforce this tendency toward craving for pleasure in the external world. They reinforce this already deep and unskilful tendency. Consumerism, which is so fundamental to the unfortunate economic machine we’ve inherited from the past, is all about stimulating unnecessary wants as opposed to satisfying necessary needs. The advertising (or persuasion) industry, using the concepts of Western psychology, plays a powerful role in stimulating these wants. The Government itself endorses the use of consumerism as one of the major driving force of the economy. We’re made to feel guilty if we don’t spend more and more. There seems to be no limit to what human beings can want. But there does seem to be a limit to what the environment can assimilate from our discarded consumerables and the by-products of their manufacture!
The Greedy Society (28/4/00):
Last week we talked of the insidious force of consumerism reinforcing our deep tendency toward craving and greed. We are all prone to craving from a Buddhist point of view because we feel insecure and attempt to secure our ego-identity by feeding it with what we perceive to be pleasant things. Of course these ‘things’ include material possessions. It’s well known in Western psychology that we actually identify with a lot of these possessions like cars and clothes; we adopt roles and respond to fashion trends. At base these all help us to establish our status and sense of belonging amongst our peers and the wider community. The advertising industry actually plays upon these human traits and psychological needs.
Greed is defined in one dictionary I looked at as excessive desire for acquisitions, power, fame, wealth, etc. It’s worth going back to basic definitions like this because people seem confused about these issues these days. Partly this is due to the rise of the New Right and economic rationalism in the last few decades, which has so stressed individualism and competition, as an almost ‘noble’ pursuit There’s nothing wrong with healthy self-interest and healthy competition, but there’s a lot wrong with them when they become outright selfishness. Not long ago a Harvard professor of economics coined the phrase greed is good. We live in times that emphasise selfishness – looking after number one (numero uno). People have forgotten that in our traditional Christian societies greed was always considered fundamental to the seven deadly sins (gluttony, envy, covetousness)!
An unfortunate part of our modern, Western, materialistic societies is that they do emphasise excessive desire for what is often described as ‘unnecessary wants’ as opposed to satisfying our basic needs. The central place of consumerism and materialism in our societies reinforces a trend toward an external, pleasure-seeking orientation in people and a neglect of the inner world. A sense of inner impoverishment is a characteristic of modern humans in the so-called ‘developed’ countries. Sooner or later external gratification fails to satisfy these inner needs and people are left with a ‘black hole’ consuming them from within-angst, unhappiness, restlessness, confusion, suicide-are rife. According to the Buddha Dharma, it needn’t be like this at all!
Inner Impoverishment (5/5/00):
The emphasis on materialism and consumerism in our modern, Western societies (and more and more in the rest of the world), to continue the theme of the last couple of weeks, can encourage inner impoverishment. They promote an irresistible orientation toward external pleasure-seeking activity as we grasp for more and more material things, be they possessions or substances. This external focus is all about sense pleasure, about gaining pleasure through the stimulation of the five senses.
Take TV for example, one of the most prized of material possessions these days (and the bigger the better). It stimulates our strongest two senses (vision and hearing) in a most powerful way. The result is that some people literally become addicted to it (the well-known ‘couch potato’ syndrome). At the same time it is a very powerful advertising agent that stimulates our desires for more and more material possessions. They dance before our eyes presented in the most alluring fashion to this strongest of the five senses.
So we tend to live ‘out there’ in the external world of sense perception, known traditionally as the kamaloka in Buddhism. This literally means the realm of sensuous desire, or the territory in which we try to secure ourselves through the desire for sense pleasure. This becomes so habitual and so familiar, reinforced continuously by the pressures of our materialistic society, that our ‘inner worlds’ or territories become neglected, unfamiliar, and thus impoverished. There’s no one at home there anymore and so it becomes dark, dusty and full of cobwebs-deserted and neglected.
In fact, because we are so used to the world of sensory stimulation to secure ourselves, to shut this down and journey inwards is perceived to be (or even experienced as) uncomfortable. And yet, from a Buddhist viewpoint, whilst external pleasure-seeking undeniably produces pleasures of one form or another, they don’t last, they don’t take us anywhere. Lasting happiness in contrast is an inner experience. Buddhist practice, especially meditation, is a direct way of building this and freeing us from outer addiction.
Buddhism and Sustaining the Self (12/5/00):
The word ‘sustainable’ is very fashionable these days-it basically means to maintain or to make last. It may seem strange that Buddhism could be interested in building a sustainable self. People often think of it as being about going beyond the self, or even destroying the self (in the sense of the ego). But actually it’s very much about building and becoming a healthy, sane self as well. Yes, Buddhism is in many ways about self-transcendence-but how can you transcend yourself if you’re not a self in the first place?
More to the point, in terms of recent articles, there are a lot of unsustainable selves around these days. People are confused, uncertain, depressed and suicidal. Australia along with countries like the UK and USA vie year in and year out for the highest youth suicide rates in the world. And this is occurring in the industrialised, late capitalist, so-called, ‘more developed’ countries. Along with other symptoms it indicates that all is not well in our societies in their current form.
To commit suicide is the opposite of sustaining the self! The reasons for it amongst the young (and old) are of course complex. The issue of inner impoverishment mentioned in the last couple of articles is undoubtedly one of the factors involved. We’ve spoken of how a materialistic, consumerist society encourages an external form of pleasure-seeking, which in turn leads to a neglect of the inner world. Sooner or later the pleasure seeking becomes stale and leads nowhere. When it does people have nothing to fall back on, nothing inside to sustain themselves. In such an externally orientated society we have lost the skills of how to enter within ourselves, to communicate within and to engage within. We aren’t trained in developing a positive, fulfilled ‘inner’ sense of self.
This need not be the case. The Buddhist Teaching (Buddha Dharma), for example, is very practical about this issue. In many ways Buddhism is a form of training or education that shows you how to enter within and build a very positive, stable home capable of withstanding all the fluctuating and insecure currents that break against us in this (or any other) period of uncertain times. More on this issue next week.
Buddha Day (19/5/00):
Last Thursday the Toowoomba Buddhist Society (TBS) celebrated Wesak, the major Buddhist festival of the year. It commemorates the birth, Enlightenment and death of the Buddha and is usually held on the first full moon day in May (Wesak, or Visakah, being the name of the month in the Indian calendar). Regarding the birth of the Buddha the TBS noted that it is a relatively rare event for a Buddha to be born into a world system considering the enormous time span involved in the evolution and destruction of these systems, which is counted in aeons (kalpas). So for us to be born within a mere 2,500 years of one is fortunate indeed.
Note how I said ‘one’, because traditionally the historical Buddha (usually referred to as Gautama or Shakyamuni Buddha) is not considered to be the only one to have been born in the past. It’s also considered that there will be Buddhas arising in future times and worlds. Furthermore, the teaching of Gautama Buddha, the Dharma, which he discovered through his Enlightenment experience, is considered akin to a universal law that each Buddha ‘re-discovers’. Gautama Buddha, in his own words said: Even so, monks, have I seen an ancient path, an ancient track traversed by the perfectly Enlightened ones of the past.
The scriptures have described the Buddha’s personality as a unique combination of dignity and affability, wisdom and kindliness, majesty and tenderness. His serenity was unshakeable, his self-confidence unfailing and he was always mindful and self-possessed. He faced opposition and hostility, even personal danger, with the calm and compassionate smile that has lingered down through the centuries. In debate he was urbane and courteous, but not without a vein of irony. The Buddhist Centre at 23 Bridge Street is holding an open day, combined with a garage sale, next Sunday (28th May) from 10am on.
Buddhist Theory and Practice (27/5/00):
Many of us in the West are attracted to the philosophy of Buddhism. We are the products of a culture that has extolled the intellect in the last couple of centuries as the principle way of ‘knowing’. And yet it is an axiom of Buddhism that one must go beyond the intellect to fully comprehend the Truth. The philosophy or teaching is meant to act just like a raft, according to the Buddha. Its sole purpose is to ferry one across the river, to help one negotiate the currents of life to get to the safe refuge of the other shore (Nirvana). It’s a means to an end.
Just as it would be foolish to stay in the raft being buffeted by the river currents, if one is truly seeking safety and peace, so too it’s silly to just play around with the philosophy. To get to safety, to ‘see’ the Truth, one must activate a different mode of knowing. Our intellect or reason works by fragmenting, dividing, delineating, labelling and conceptualising. It cannot see the whole picture because by its very nature it focuses and fragments and replaces ‘things as they are’ with words, thoughts and concepts. These latter are constructs of the thinking mind that borrow the ideas and mental formulae of the culture we have been conditioned by to model the reality of the world.
A model is not the reality. To see the reality we have to go beyond the intellectual mind to the intuitive mind that enters into what it’s addressing and knows it directly from within. Intellectual knowledge is ‘second-hand knowledge’, intuitive ‘first-hand’. This requires practice and it is this practice, this applied work that all the Buddhist philosophy and teaching is pointing toward as the necessary prerequisite to gain safety and peace. We are so enamoured with the intellect that we find it very difficult indeed, even when we have understood the intellectual message, to go beyond it and put the message into practice. In essence, according to Buddhism, we need to practice ethics and to meditate. Only the pure in heart and the concentrated can see things as they are.
A new four-week course on bringing together philosophical theory and practice in Buddhism is starting next Tuesday night (7-9pm) the 6th June at the Toowoomba Buddhist centre.
Drugs, Ecstasy & Buddhism (2/6/00):
The word ‘ecstasy’ is commonly associated these days with a drug of that name. However, the word itself has much more ancient origins and much more profound implications than the modern day association. It derives from Latin and Greek roots (like ‘ex’ and ‘stasis’) basically meaning to ‘be outside where you stand’ or ‘stand outside’ your normal state of being. The modern meaning of the word implies being overwhelmed or uplifted by pleasurable emotion so strong that you feel you’ve gone beyond your normal sense of self (in this sense, outside of it). So its use can still be related back to the original meaning.
Why do people take drugs? Is it because they are seeking this intense pleasure, seeking ecstasy? Is the attraction so strong that they’re willing to turn a blind eye to the obvious negative effects that will flow on from drug taking? If so, why is that the case? Doesn’t that imply that they’re not happy with their present circumstances, their present state of being? And why is that? These are the sorts of questions that a Buddhist perspective raises on this issue. Buddhism is about ending suffering and to do this seriously, completely and successfully (in other words, to be ‘fair dinkum’ about it), the deep underlying origins of the symptoms must be addressed.
Over the next few issues we are going to explore some of these questions. The first thing Buddhism does not do is ‘write people off’. This is because it knows that no matter how unskilful you have been, if you put the right conditions in place, you can change-completely! It does not have a fixed view of human nature. Human nature, like everything else in this conditioned world, is subject to change. Great anger can be transformed into great love.
Furthermore, Buddhists themselves are actively seeking to go beyond their present state of being. Defined in this way there is nothing wrong with seeking ecstasy. One could argue that deep down we all are. However, it all depends where and how you seek it. To seek it in a chemical, the effects of which quickly wear off, and which damages (poisons) your body, is not satisfactory from a Buddhist point of view. We’re interested in a more permanent, less damaging form of ecstasy. More next week.
Addiction and the New Buddhist Centre (9/6/00):
From a Buddhist perspective, all human beings are troubled by a deep insecurity. This is because we experience ourselves as separate from everything else – an unfortunate, but inevitable, by-product of human consciousness. Self-consciousness, that distinctly human trait, gives us all our wonderful creative powers, but it also makes us feel incomplete. We experience ourselves as ultimately alone, split-off, fundamentally ill-at-ease and vulnerable.
This underlying existential dilemma is deep, so deep in fact we may be unaware of it, but it’s there nonetheless and it drives us on and on in a quest to find some sort of ultimate security. External factors may exacerbate and deepen this insecurity-how we’re brought up (for example, our self-esteem), our education, social forces like pressure from our peers, the speed of change, uncertainty, unemployment and so on. But in the end the insecurity is inside us and it acts as a powerful, but largely unconscious, driving force.
We can’t escape this force-we’re all driven by it, including Buddhists. But, according to Buddhism, there is a genuine way and a bogus way of satisfying it! The bogus way is to become attached to, dependent upon, and eventually addicted to external pleasure-seeking. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying pleasure, the problem is when our need for it becomes neurotic, driven by the deep insecurity. Some things we get addicted to, like chocolate or clothes are relatively harmless, others like drugs are very dangerous indeed. Also the pleasure is short lived, stimulates further neurotic desire and sucks us into a vortex of never ending frustration.
The genuine way forward to achieve security in Buddhism is to solve the problem at its source. To begin by learning to ‘enter within’ and build a sound, unshakeable platform of calmness, positive emotion, serenity, confidence and security that can withstand the external buffeting and enjoy pleasure without becoming neurotically attached to it.
Entering Within (16/6/00):
Addiction can be thought of as a misguided seeking. As mentioned in previous articles, we’re all seeking a type of joy that transcends everyday reality (ecstasy). Human beings have a deep need for this type of experience. We turn to it for security in this uncertain world and times, and to fill the spiritual vacuum within. The mistake is that we seek it in the external world and in material substances. The more we do this the more we neglect the inner world and the more unfamiliar it becomes. Ironically, the more we look for pleasure and happiness in the outside world the more intense the vacuum or emptiness within becomes.
Running from the void within, engaging in ‘displacement activity’, leads nowhere, except ‘up the garden path’. Also the pleasures of the external world are short-lived, tend to increase desire (and therefore frustration), and if dependent upon drugs are downright dangerous. In stark contrast, it is possible to enter within, to become familiar with our inner world, to build a positive felt-relationship with ourselves, to feel calm, peaceful, content and strong. It’s even possible to start liking yourself! And not only that but to feel this self-like quite strongly, even in a hot-blooded sort of way.
Out of this can come a sense of inner fulfilment and nourishment. As it does the vacuum within, the ‘gnawing’ sense of emptiness, disappears. The word ‘fulfilment’ suggests filling the emptiness till it becomes full – fulfilled! Gradually we become at ease within ourselves and our dependency on external things and ‘cheap’ thrills lessens. As with anything worthwhile this does not happen overnight and it requires guidance (as opposed to mis-guidance). Meditation is a very powerful aid to this process and thus overcoming addictions.
Addiction versus Happiness (26/6/00):
We are all seeking happiness aren’t we? But what is happiness? From a Buddhist viewpoint happiness doesn’t necessarily mean feeling elated with joy. All too often elation is not only short lived but it collapses into its opposite-we go to extremes. Happiness seems to have more to do with a lack of inner conflict, an absence of guilt, and a feeling of inner contentment-a more balanced, serene state.
Perhaps that’s too tame, not intense enough? But what would you rather have, intense thrills now and then that inevitably disappear and leave a craving for more, or a more steady, persistent state of serenity, calmness and contentment? Buddhism does not deny that there is pleasure to be had in life, but simply points out that it’s transitory, ephemeral. If you get attached to it, dependent upon it, addicted to it, you are going to get frustrated and suffer because it is transient, it doesn’t last. So in the Buddhist tradition one is advised to enjoy pleasure like licking honey from a razor’s edge! To be fully aware of the dangers that come from being addicted to something that doesn’t last.
The pleasure is undeniable but it doesn’t lead anywhere. If you do become attached or addicted you become a slave to the object of desire, sucked into a vortex of craving, frustration and unfulfilment. The more we give into these cravings the stronger they become and this leads to a state of agitation, restlessness and anxiety. One needs more and more and you get angry when the desire becomes frustrated. One begins to compromise one’s ethics and morals and the end result of all of this is guilt, inner conflict and restlessness-a state of constant discomfort.
It’s actually the opposite of what we defined as happiness. A more lasting state of happiness is achievable by entering within and building it up within the core of one’s being by practising meditation and ethics. Courses in ‘entering within’ (meditation and mindfulness) are held regularly at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre (TBC). The Centre is looking for bigger premises at the moment as demands for it services grow.
Buddhist Retreats (5/2/01):
I’m just back from retreat. Most serious Buddhist practitioners go on long retreats regularly. I try and make a point of going at least twice a year, in the middle of the year and in January. They represent an opportunity, as the word “retreat” implies, to leave the “mundane” world behind for awhile to give yourself the opportunity to renew your practice in ideal conditions and to experience where youíre at yourself more deeply. Usually the retreat centres are in quiet, natural settings, which in themselves are conducive to spiritual renewal. The retreat I went on was for two weeks and because it is for people who have asked for ordination involved quite a lot of study as well as meditation.
For beginners we usually run weekend retreats that start on Friday night and finish on Sunday afternoons. They’re designed to be a gentle introduction and usually emphasise a particular theme associated with meditation and/or reflection. We have run several of these in Toowoomba at one of the local Catholic schools retreat centre. They’ve been very successful. Other retreats are longer, usually ten days, for people who feel up to it, and tend to be run in other centres including Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand. These retreats may be mixed or single-sex.
Again, when one is ready for it, solitary retreats are highly recommended to experience oneself even more deeply; at the moment we are looking for a suitable site in the Toowoomba region. Just being on retreat in a lovely situation, meditating daily and mixing with spiritual friends has an uplifting effect. One definitely experiences a higher, more refined state of consciousness. Iíve certainly come back feeling more relaxed and inspired. Of course, then the art is to try and maintain this as you renters the mundane world, for you are hit by the coarseness of this world as soon as you leave the retreat. The speed, the noise, the aggression, the rampant consumerism and so on. The practice of loving-kindness towards self and other (metta bhavana ) is very valuable in this regard.
A new six-week Practical Buddhism course is starting at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre (TBC) within the next two weeks.
Inquiries regarding courses and activities can be directed to the TBC at 4659 7760 or our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Entering the Stream (12/2/01):
A model for spiritual practice I often suggest at the Toowoomba Buddhist centre (TBC) is known as the Threefold Path – the Path of Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom or Insight. Each of the stages depends on each of the others they supplement each other – you really need to practice all of them, not just one of them. Of course the aim of Buddhism is to become Enlightened to escape the delusion that binds us through attachment to the conditioned world. Only by fully de-conditioning ourselves can we achieve total freedom Nirvana. Then we can live in the midst of the conditioned world unconditionally, not dependent on the condition of attachment to desires that we use to try and maintain our security.
Whilst Enlightenment may be a fair way over the horizon, in the meantime we can plunge into the stream that will inevitably lead us there. As has been pointed out in the last several articles in this column, once our regular practice begins to break us out of the pull of the conditioned, we can increasingly rely on being drawn on spontaneously by the pull of the Unconditioned, the spiritual. This pull is often likened to a great river emptying into the ocean. We’re standing alongside that river and in the beginning of our spiritual journey usually just tipping our toes in the water.
We could say that the distance from the point where we are standing to the edge of the river corresponds with the first stage of the path, the stage of ethical practice. This needs to be traversed before we can dive or (wade) into the river. Once we’ve taken the plunge the distance from the edge of the river to midstream corresponds to the second stage of the path, the stage of meditation. Once we’ve reached midstream and begin to feel the mighty force of the current flowing toward the ocean, we just have to abandon ourselves to it; this is the point of Stream-entry, the point of no return. And the distance form there to the ocean itself is the third stage of the path, the stage of wisdom. A new six-week Practical Buddhism course is starting at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre (TBC) on Tuesday evening the 19th of February 2001. Inquiries regarding courses and activities can be directed to the TBC at 4659 7760 or our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
A new day-time, six-week ‘Practical Buddhism’ course starts at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre (TBC) on Thursday the 21st February 10am-12noon. These courses are for people who want ‘to know’ more about Buddhism before perhaps exploring it more. It’s clear that interest in Buddhism is increasing in the West. Our centre is part of a pioneering movement that is helping Buddhism spread and adapt to Western culture – and adapt it must, as it always has when it moved into a new culture. For example, it adapted quite significantly when it moved from India into China, because the Chinese civilisation was so developed.
Similarly, as it moves into the West, it is encountering for the second time a highly developed civilisation. To survive in this Western context Buddhism has to evolve past its traditional Asian forms. As they exist at the moment they are too difficult to assimilate for the vast majority of Westerners, who tend to see them as curiosities, or are attracted to their exoticness. But if you want to really change and grow psychologically and spiritually you cannot bypass your own Western psychological and cultural conditioning. All of us brought up in Western cultures have been deeply, unconsciously, conditioned by its cultural forces such as Christianity, scientific rationalism, utilitarianism, materialism, commercialism, democracy, intellectualism, individualism and the doctrine of rights, to name a few.
Part of the spread of Buddhism into the West involves an information explosion on it (for example books, TV programs, the internet). Where there is lots of information there is the also the danger of ill-informed views and opinions and simply ‘getting the wrong end of the stick’. So the ‘Practical Buddhism’ course offered at the TBC goes back to the core teachings of the Buddha (which have become known as ‘Basic Buddhism’), that all major traditions share at their heart. These include formulae like The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path, The Three Characteristics of Conditioned Existence, The Law of Conditioned Co-production, the nature of the human condition and the origin of suffering. The course is primarily designed to clarify views and clear up misconceptions through discussion and exposure to people’s different points of view. It is also taught in a clear Western style of expression and English. For information please contact us on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Buddhism and Society (23/2/01):
The teachings of Buddhism have always been applicable to society at large as well as the individual. You can’t ever really fully separate the individual out from society, so you can’t talk about individual growth without taking into account the state of the society. The historical Buddha himself had much to say on these matters and was what we would call today a social reformer.
Just as the ultimate aim for the individual in Buddhism is to seek Enlightenment, so too Buddhist social policy (if we can call it that) is centred around creating societies that foster spiritual development. This is the bottom line; this is where society should be heading. This may sound overly idealistic but I would argue that its not. In fact I would say that to have such an aim is realistic because it equates with what, perhaps at a pretty deep level, people really want, and need. The institutions of government and policy ignore this at their own peril. It is dangerous for them to do this because human nature will rebel if their needs arent met!
So the ultimate aim is to create a society that helps spiritual growth, or at least recognises this as a core value of society. Moving back from this ultimate ideal, an ‘enlightened’ society at least recognises the importance of facilitating the psychological and cultural growth of its citizens. However, it is no use talking about these lofty ideals if people’s basic needs of water, food, clothing, shelter, hygiene, health, education and meaningful work are not being met. There is a hierarchy of people’s needs and you can’t satisfy the higher ones when and if the basic ones are not being met. This is where Buddhism starts.
When we examine current political and social policies in Australia (and in many other so called ‘developed countries’) we have to say that from a Buddhist perspective they are sadly lacking. They certainly lack an ideal vision for the society for a start. Also I think its fairly safe to say that they have become overwhelmingly and unhealthily obsessed with economic matters. They emphasise and concentrate on matters solely that pertain to the ‘economy’ – that abstract entity that no one, from leading economists to politicians, really understands anymore – and neglect the more concrete, basic needs of human beings. People, citizens, the electorate (being human beings) will not put up with this. The signs are everywhere that they are indeed very ‘fed up’ with the current economic obsession. More next week. For enquiries about courses and activities at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre (TBC) can be directed to the TBC at 4659 7760 or our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba. An open day/garage sale is planned for sunday March 11th.
Buddhist Social Policy (2/3/01)
In the last article we introduced the idea that Buddhism has a social perspective as well as a spiritual one. In fact you can never really separate these two aspects from each other. We pointed out that the focal point, therefore, of a Buddhist social policy is to try and create social conditions that foster Enlightenment or at least spiritual development. However, it is recognised that people’s more basic (survival) needs have to be met as a necessary condition before spiritual development can be a realistic goal.
The trouble with the overwhelming orientation towards economic policy that seems an ‘obsession’ of contemporary government policy is that it doesn’t recognise these broader needs of human beings. Karl Polyani in his book The Great Transformation (published in the 1940s) pointed out that one of the unfortunate by-products of capitalism is that it turns people into mere commodities and resources to be apportioned at the whim of market forces. Prior to the industrial revolution and the advent of capitalism, Polyani claims that earlier European societies were organised more around co-operation and stability (eg. the guild system).
With the advent of international trade, industrialisation and laissez-faire capitalism in the 17th and 18th centuries, the market place became the dominant forces within society. The European countries and the Americas had to deploy capital and labour into their new industries and market their products through trade to maintain their comparative economic advantages over each other. This is what Polyani meant by The ‘Great Transformation’. A transformation from a situation where societies were organised to meet human needs on a more cohesive, co-operative basis to one in which competition dictated by market forces was emphasised.
Looking at contemporary society one can only conclude that nothing much has changed. Competition and market forces alone, from a Buddhist perspective, do not create societies that meet peoples broader human needs, let alone foster their spiritual development. Enquires about courses and activities at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre (TBC) can be directed to the TBC at 46597760 or our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba. The open day/garage sale mentioned in last week’s column has been postponed till April due to the Toowoomba Show where we hope to have a stall.
The Unfamiliar Self (9/3/01):
The other night, in the Practical Buddhism class that is being run at the TBC currently, we were discussing the nature of self. We were talking about how people become overwhelmingly identified with their interactions and relations with things in the ‘outside’ world. Things like possessions, belongings, fashions, friends, groups, beliefs, roles, qualifications, status, our profession or job, and so on. We use these external orientations or interactions to define ourselves, in fact, to define our identity.
Furthermore, we use their qualities or characteristics to distinguish us from others, to set ourselves apart. Creating our identity also involves actively ‘identifying’ with these things; that is, equating our ‘self ‘ with their qualities. To put it simply, we use these external relations to give our self an identity, and then ‘identifying’ with the identity becomes a powerful way of creating and maintaining that sense of self.
But aren’t we ‘inside’ too? Isn’t there an inside world too and where is our self there? Here I think we become less certain, less sure of our ground. We know the external dimension of ourselves quite well because we identify so completely with them they’re more familiar. But trying to define or describe ourselves from the inside is a lot less familiar. The situation has been likened to trying to describe a hole in a piece of wood. The easiest way is to describe it in terms of the colour, texture and shape of the wood that surrounds it “it is a brown, round, smooth hole”. The hole’s identity (so to speak) is derived in this way from the wood around it. But is this really the hole? The hole is actually just empty space!
So it is with our self. Is the self really all those external things we identify with? Or is it what is inside of them? How familiar is that to us? We all agreed in our chat at the TBC that the inside part of ourselves was not very familiar to us and like anything unfamiliar perhaps a bit frightening! In some ways it is like a hole a sort of emptiness or space or even a vacuum. How easy it is for our consumer-driven economy and society to play on this and drag us along with it as we fall prey to all the advertising, because we identify with it. Less so if we are quite comfortably at home or resident within. The Chinese have a saying: “Are you a guest in your own house; or are you the host?” For enquiries about courses (on entering within) and activities at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre (TBC) can be directed to the TBC at 4659 7760 or our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
How We Create Our Self (16/3/01):
As well as maintaining our ‘self’ by identifying with our external relationships with things – possessions, professions, friends, fashions, beliefs and so on – we create ourselves from within with our own minds. The human mind is capable of looking into itself or bending back on itself Technically this ability is known as reflexivity. This term shares its meaning with the more common use of the word ‘reflex’ describing the process of nerve impulses moving from a stimulus to the central nervous system and then back out to a muscle.
Humans are not just aware, they’re aware that they’re aware! This is the mind bending back on itself or looking into itself. The awareness of something being aware produces our experience of self-hood – it is in fact self-awareness. Whenever we think, our minds retreat inwardly in a sort of self-referencing arc. We can close our eyes and consciously think about ourselves or analyse ourselves. We can look back into our memories and construct a sense of our past, or we can imagine ourselves in some future situation (try it). This is often called ‘reflection’, another word that shares its meaning with reflexive.
Actually, our mind is doing this bending back on itself or referring back to itself all the time. You could describe it as a process of self-referencing. This self-referential process is happening continuously and very fast so that it is largely unconscious. We’re not aware that we’re doing it (unlike when we’re consciously reflecting). We’re continually remembering our self, imagining our self, thinking about our self, generating feelings about our self, forming attitudes toward our self, and so on. That is why we have expressions like ‘positive or negative self-image’ or ‘low self-esteem’. They refer to personal experiences produced by these self-referencing arcs within our own minds.
In this way, according to Buddhism (and other Eastern traditions), the mind ‘manufactures’ its sense of self. But actually there is no real self! No self, that is, in the sense of some independently existing entity, outside of this process. There is simply the process of continuous self-referencing, which is happening so fast that it’s analogous to a cinematic film. The film actually consists of a great number of single snap shots which when projected onto a screen give the impression of a continuous event. Each of our mind’s self-referential arcs is like a snap shot which form a series happening so fast we think that what they’re projecting (the experience of a self) is a continuity – a solidly existing and independent entity. But, actually, ‘Who am I? The one who asked the question, or the one about whom I asked the question?’ For enquiries about courses (on entering within) and activities at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre (TBC) can be directed to the TBC at 4659 7760 or our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Goals in Buddhism (23/3/01):
The goal of Buddhism is usually described as Enlightenment or Nirvana. These are profound states of being because they involve complete freedom or emancipation from the process of conditionality. You are no longer at the mercy of these conditioning forces, which are acting on us all the time. It’s difficult to imagine being completely free from the process of conditionality in a conditioned world. This is one of the reasons Nirvana and Enlightenment are described traditionally as states of being that are incomprehensible to the ordinary, intellectual mind. You can only experience them.
In this sense, therefore, Enlightenment may be thought of as a long way off. In articles over the last couple of weeks we’ve described another, more proximate goal known as Stream-entry. This is where you have actually broken away from the forces of conditionality to such an extent that you’re guaranteed to eventually achieve Enlightenment. This in itself is a pretty major goal. But what about in the meantime? Well Buddhism makes this guarantee: if you practice it sincerely and correctly then you will see results immediately, or at least within five minutes! Buddhism teaches that you will definitely see results in this lifetime. You don’t have to wait until after death to reap the fruits of your spiritual practice.
For example, if you are uptight and you sit down and do a meditation practice like the mindfulness of breathing you will become calmer. If you start to meditate and practice ethics on a daily basis, and you keep it up, you will definitely experience a change for the better in your overall state of consciousness: you’ll become more tranquil and happier – guaranteed! In fact for most people coming on the courses offered at the Buddhist centre this is a realistic, initial goal: to become a saner, healthier and happier human being. Most people agree that this is a worthwhile starting point. The TBC is running a stall at the Toowoomba Show next week and then after Easter we’re starting a new Introduction to Meditation course. Enquiries can be directed to the TBC at 4659
Last week we talked of a basic aim of Buddhism in the West being to help people become saner, healthier human beings asa first step on the way to Enlightenment. The old proverb springs to mind that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Enlightenment may be a thousand miles away, but whatever you do you won’t get there till you take that first couple of steps. The Insight into Reality that is at the heart of Enlightenment doesn’t arise till you have become a more concentrated and happier person. So the first steps are usually about doing things to help you become more tranquil and emotionally more positive.
That is why in Buddhism the practical path starts with ethics. If you practice an ethical lifestyle you become happier. This sort of happiness isn’t a ‘high’, or an extreme state like elation. It’s much simpler. It’s the feeling tone associated with the absence of inner conflict, guilt or shame. You have peaceful mind and experience contentment. Unethical lifestyles produce the opposite: inner conflict, guilt, remorse and usually the restlessness associated with compulsive craving. Serious Buddhists practice a minimum of five ethical precepts in their lives. But the Buddhist path often starts with something even simpler still.
The first step is often the practice of ‘giving’ or generosity. So if practising say five ethical precepts is too much for you can start with this simple principle of dana or giving. This quality of generosity is something that strikes Westerners when they visit traditionally Buddhist countries in Asia. People are always giving each other gifts. This ‘giving’ is something sadly lacking in our societies. We try and teach children to share, but don’t do it ourselves as adults. We often feel embarrassed and don’t know how to respond when someone gives us something: it’s unfamiliar to us. Our lives have become so individualistic, so insular that, if anything, we try and rescue ourselves from the insecurity this has produced by hoarding our own material possessions, which is virtually the opposite to giving and sharing.
The beauty of giving is that it is something you can do easily and straight away. It’s not complicated and it’s something practical that anyone can do. And it will have an uplifting effect on your mind. It also sets up and prepares the ground for a more thorough practice of ethics. Give it a try. A new Introduction to Meditation course is starting at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre on Tuesday evening (7-9pm) April 24th. Enquiries can be directed to the TBC at 4659 7760 or our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Simply Happy (6/4/01):
Through the practice of Buddhism it is possible to change from an unhealthy, neurotic, unhappy state to a healthy, happy, human one. Often just to achieve this is the starting point for many people who walk through the doors of a Buddhist centre. Later it’s possible to climb past this point and become a ‘very’ happy human being experiencing an uninterrupted stream of higher levels of consciousness. Actually it’s interesting to reflect on this a bit more. There is the suggestion in Buddhism that we accept far too low a level of consciousness as our normal one, and that in fact this low level is not the normal, natural, human state.
Children are often seen to be in a very happy state, and indeed in many traditions it is encouraged to ‘become like a child again’. That is not to say that this is a particularly ‘spiritual’ state because, even though happy, children are often, if not usually, very self-centred. No, what we are talking about here is simply a natural, human state of happiness that is available to all of us. This state is often romanticized, as well, as perhaps typical of earlier humans in the so-called primal societies. When we talk of happiness in these senses we’re usually talking about things like being care-free, spontaneous, taking joy from living in the present, playing, laughing and so on.
The higher states of consciousness accessible through meditation are known as the dhyanas in Buddhism and traditionally there are eight of them. Not only can one experience them through meditation but also you can live in the first one as your normal everyday consciousness. They are spoken of as ‘higher’ simply because they are happier, more concentrated and more refined than our normal consciousness, which tends to be distracted, emotionally stormy, and prone to craving and aversion.
A new Introduction to Meditation course is starting at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre on Tuesday evening (7-9pm) April 24th. Also a daytime course Practical Buddhism is being proposed to start on Thursday 26th April 10am-12noon for those of you at home during the day. Enquiries can be directed to the TBC at 4659 7760 or our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Buddhist Easter Message (16/4/01)
According to the dictionary ‘Easter’ was named after the Old English Goddess of Dawn. Dawn or sunset occurs in the east, and in fact the origins of the word share this connotation of the word ‘east’, as in East-er. Dawn is obviously the start of a ‘new’ day and the ancient festival of Easter is associated with fertility and renewal. In the northern hemisphere the timing of the festival is spring – the period when new life appears after the death of winter. So implicit in the celebration are ideas of fertility, rebirth, new-ness and change.
According to Buddhism we tend to have a fixed view of our self and this is one of the biggest hindrances to growth. The ideas associated with Easter can challenge this. Our fixed view of our self is our habitual acceptance of our present experience of ‘our’ self as being unchanging and ultimate. We can’t believe that we can change, can become a new self. Our whole culture is based on the materialistic view that things are fixed and unchanging. Applied to ourselves we have sayings like ‘an old dog can’t change its spots’ and so on.
We are so familiar, so used to ourselves, so used to thinking of ourselves in a certain way. We think, ‘This is Me. I’ll always be like this: I may change a bit but I’ll still always be the same old me.’ We just can’t believe that this Self, this Me, this ‘I’ as we are experiencing it here and now, can ever be completely changed, transformed, transfigured – consumed as it were by fire, so that out of the ashes of that old self a new self can arise. We refuse to accept that this can happen even once: let alone many times. Ancient celebrations like Easter challenge this way of thinking. They are, therefore. a useful opportunity to ‘celebrate’ the fact that self change is possible.
A new Introduction to Meditation course is starting at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre on Tuesday evening (7-9pm) April 24th. Also a daytime course Practical Buddhism is being proposed to start on Thursday 26th April 10am-12noon for those of you at home during the day. Enquiries can be directed to the TBC at 4659 7760 or our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Buddha Day (3/5/01):
This month we celebrate Wesak a major festival celebrated all over the world by Buddhists. It usually happens on the day of the full moon in May (Wesak or Veask is the name of the month in the Indian calendar). During this day people celebrate the birth, Enlightenement and death of the Buddha, thus it is also commonly known as “Buddha Day” – we’ll be celebrating it at the TBC on Monday night next.
Usually we tend to think of “the Buddha” as Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha born in our time (c.563BCE). But actually he is “a Buddha” indicating the fact that that there is not one Buddha but many. In fact Gautama Buddha himself said to his followers: ‘Monks, it is just as if a person wandering through the jungle, the great forest, should see an ancient path, travelled along by men of former times … So also monks, have I seen an ancient path, travelled along by fully Enlightened Ones of former times … And what is that ancient road, that ancient path travelled along by fully Enlightened Ones of former times? It is just the Noble Eightfold Path …’ (Sanyutta Nikaya, 12, 65).
It is quite commonly known in Mahayana and Theravadin Buddhist countries that Gautama Buddha, although historically unique, cosmologically speaking is just one of a long line of Buddhas, past present and future. In fact it is considered that this particular kalpa (Aeon) – an infinitely long period incorporating the existence of a universe (infinite numbers of universes coming and going according to Buddhist cosmology) – that we live in happens to be a “Greatly Auspicious” one (mahabhaddha-kappa) in which five Buddhas come into the world. Those of the past were Kakkusandha, Konagama, Kassapa, Gautama, and the future Buddha being Metteya (Skt. Maitreya). The attainment of Enlightenment is a constantly reoccurring event in the universe – the rediscovery of a universal law. A Buddha is someone who rediscovers it and teaches it to others.
An Open Day/Garage Sale will be held at the TBC (4 Thorn Street, Toowoomba) on Sunday the 27th May 10am – 2pm. All are welcome. For enquiries about courses and activities being run at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre contact the TBC on 4659 7760 or our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Becoming More Positive (10/5/01)
In an article a couple of weeks ago we mentioned the fact that through the practice of Buddhism it is possible to change from an neurotic, unhealthy, unhappy state to a healthy, happy, human one. Often this is the starting point for many people who walk through the doors of one of our Buddhist centres; and this is often a provisional aim of the courses we offer at the centre. If you keep up a basic Buddhist practice, namely the practice of Ethics and Meditation, then you should get happier – guaranteed. If you are not, you are doing something wrong, something that is not a truly Buddhist practice.
Usually it is a case of simply not keeping it up on a regular, daily basis. Sometimes it’s because we want sudden, dramatic changes and we’re not being patient enough with ourselves. The practice works slowly and incrementally and maybe we don’t notice the changes, but they are happening. We live in times where the ‘quick fix’ and gross highs are emphasised. It is well known in natural healing that it often takes a slow, incremental process over time for us to become unwell. To heal ‘naturally’ also takes a slow, steady, small step-by-step process. So we have to be patient with ourselves and not unrealistically expect dramatic, overnight results.
If you do keep up a basic practice you will definitely experience results for the better. Some of the symptoms are the following: an experience of an inner peace characterised by an absence of inner conflict, guilt and more contentment; loss of interest in ‘sitting in judgement’ on yourself and others; an unmistakable ability to enjoy the moment; a loss of the tendency to worry; taking delight in the ordinary; a tendency to think and act more spontaneously; prolonged periods of feeling happy for no apparent reason. Later it’s possible to climb past this point and become a ‘very’ happy human being experiencing an uninterrupted stream of higher levels of consciousness. Increasingly we find ourselves having to make allowances for unforseen positive events.
An Open Day/Garage Sale will be held at the TBC (4 Thorn Street, Toowoomba) on Sunday the 27th May 10am – 2pm. All are welcome. For enquiries about courses and activities being run at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre contact the TBC on 4659 7760 or our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
BUDDHISM NOT A PANACEA:
With the fashionable interest in Buddhism these days one gets the impression that there is a perhaps overly-romanticized perception of it out there – that Buddhism is a panacea or cure-all; a sort of magic potion. Some of the books on Buddhism tend to paint a rosy, ‘sugary-sweet’ version of the teachings. What they say about the Dharma is true but there is usually not much real practical guidance on how you put it into effect in your life. So the writings seem somewhat platitudinous and superficial.
For the Dharma to work it has to be put into effect in one’s life. It’s not enough to just read books about Buddhism and to think how interesting or profound the philosophy is, or how comforting the noble sentiments are that it espouses. In reality the practice of Buddhism requires a lot of effort and quite hard work. Conventional religion has been criticised as an ‘opiate of the masses’ as something we can drug ourselves with, as it were, or comfort ourselves with instead of facing up to reality. Traditional Buddhism is the direct opposite to this; it’s about facing reality squarely in order to truly escape from suffering. So it is not for the faint-hearted, or those deluding themselves by projecting onto it something that it’s not. In the West we are all too good at first unrealistically putting something up on a false pedestal and then, when it doesn’t live up to our projections onto it or our miss-perceptions of it, we tear it down, usually having totally missed the point.
The practice of the Dharma requires effort, work, training, study, education, meditating a lot of ‘doing’. One who ‘practices’ the Dharma practices ethics as training principles, takes precepts, and keeps up a daily meditation practice day in a day out. Of course this work is not without its rewards and pleasures; if it wasn’t we wouldn’t keep it up. But it does require constant effort a life without effort is ultimately one of escapism.
New six week courses starting in June at the TBC are, Practical Buddhism on Tuesday evening 12th June 7-9pm and Traditional Meditation during the day Thursday 14th June 10am-12noon; enquiries to 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Aims Of the Buddhist Column (17/5/01):
I thought it might be a good idea to discuss some of the aims of this column on Buddhism, as it’s been going a couple of years now. By and large the feedback from readers has been positive and supportive. People have reported things like, for example, the articles sparking of some hope or a bit of inspiration for them when life has seemed somewhat meaningless of late. When the ‘Star’ ran a competition not long ago for a book on Buddhism they said the response was good. Of course, inevitably, from time to time one also gets negative comments.
An obvious aim of this column is to inform people about the nature of Buddhism, what may be for many an ‘alternative’ traditional of spiritual development. To do this we draw on ‘Basic Buddhism’. This is the core teaching or philosophical formulae that are shared by all Buddhist traditions and go back to the Buddha himself. Related to this is a concern to clarify the Buddhist teaching, known as the Buddha Dharma, because there are all sorts of mis-conceptions about the teachings out there. A lot of people read books about Buddhism (indeed it has become quite fashionable) or study it on their own, and it’s possible for misunderstandings to arise, or to read into it a meaning, which isn’t actually there. Discussing these ideas in a study group with someone who has more experience than you can help bring such matters to light. To foster this type of interaction is one of the main functions of our study groups and they seem to go quite successfully in this regard.
A more fundamental aim is simply to try and help people. To provide the reader with some practical advice on how to draw on traditional Buddhist teachings in a way that makes them relevant to dealing with the complex and problematic aspects of living in modern, Western societies. So the aim is to help people grow psychologically – in a word become happier – and spiritually. May all beings be happy!
An Open Day/Garage Sale will be held at the TBC (4 Thorn Street, Toowoomba) on Sunday the 27th May 10am 3pm. All are welcome. For enquiries about new meditation and philosophy courses starting in June at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre contact the TBC on 4659 7760 or our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Spreading the Dharma 31/5/01:
To spread the Dharma (the Teaching of the Buddha) has always been considered important in Buddhism. But this is not trying to convert people to Buddhism; actually you can’t convert people to the Dharma, they can only convert themselves. This is because it emphasises trying the teaching out in your own life to see if it works, not blindly believing in some doctrine. It is offered to people as a gift, because it can help people clarify their thinking and guide them in their practice.
We’ve just finished another six-week meditation course at the TBC attended by sixteen people and five people doing a daytime course on Buddhist philosophy. The feedback from both courses has been very positive indeed. On the Queen’s birthday long weekend we’re running a three day retreat for a mixture of beginners and those more experienced in meditation. Our weekend retreats are usually from Friday nights to Sunday afternoons, so this one will be a little longer (by request).
Our approach on retreats is not to overload people with too much meditation initially; also we rise at around 6.30 am or 7am for the first sit of the day. We feel that meditation must be enjoyable otherwise people won’t keep it up. Doing too much too intensely on a retreat can end up with people barely surviving the retreat rather than coming away inspired to keep up a practice. Later on as they become more experienced the length and intensity of meditation is built up on ten day and two week retreats in other centres.
The TBC is also running its first in-service training seminar for some dozen or so teachers of the Study of Religion in Toowoomba schools next Monday afternoon at the centre. The theme is ‘Issues in Contemporary Buddhism in the West’. It’s quite common for high school students to do a project in year 12 on Buddhism these days and as a consequence we’ve had a lot of students visit our humble centre over the last couple of years. So the Dharma spreads. New six week courses starting in June at the TBC are, Practical Buddhism on Tuesday evening 12th June 7-9pm and Traditional Meditation during the day Thursday 14th June 10am-12noon; enquiries to 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Self-Awareness Not Just Thought (14/6/01):
We were discussing in one of our classes recently just how much we identify the mind, or self-awareness, with thought. In other words, we tend to equate self-awareness with thinking about ourselves. In the West we seem less used to moving our awareness inside in a non-thinking way, whereas in the East there is a long tradition of this. Basically we think a lot about everything about ourselves and about other things. It has become a sort of filter through which we relate to the world – analysing, interpreting, and making judgements.
In fact there is a point of view that we think too much. I seem to recall that it was R. D. Laing who coined the phrase the ‘pathology of over-thinking’. We also live in a culture that has elevated the intellect to the main, or even the only, way of gaining knowledge. So it’s no wonder that we are prone to using the intellect as our way of relating to everything. However, the intellect is limited. For example, can you really ‘know’ yourself by reasoning about yourself alone. The reasoning mind by its very nature splits itself into the ‘reasoner’ and the thing being reasoned about. Ask yourself the question “Who am I?” Are you the one asking the question or the one about whom the question was asked; or are you the one who just asked that question?
In reality thinking is only one aspect of self-awareness; furthermore, it is possible to be self-aware without thought. It is possible to direct one’s self-awareness, or mind, within (or onto anything for that matter) and experience oneself directly. You can experience your felt bodily sensations and your emotions directly without reasoning about them or analysing them. You can even experience your thoughts without thinking about them! The practice of meditation deepens an individual’s ability to use this other, non-thinking aspect of self-awareness. Courses on Buddhist meditation and philosophy are running regularly at the Toowoomba Buddhist centre (TBC) please direct enquiries to 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Buddhism in the West (21/6/01):
The Buddha Dharma must express itself through the culture in which it finds itself neither compromising with it nor ignoring it. At the same time it must remain Buddhism, faithful to the spirit of the tradition. Throughout its history this has been its way. As Buddhism spread from India to Southeast Asia, Sri Lanka, China, Japan, Korea and Tibet the essential teachings were expressed in new ways in the new language and culture. Its different schools are not so much exclusive, rival sects but the response of the Buddhist tradition to new climates and temperaments.
What is essential about Buddhism is beyond specific times and circumstances. It is universal in application, capable of expressing itself wherever there are conscious beings. In this sense it is no more Eastern than Western and is as relevant today as at any time in the past. However, the modern west presents circumstances never encountered by it before. Apart from its entry into China, Buddhism has never encountered such a highly developed culture. It would be naïve of it to ignore this heritage and if it did it would have little appeal. Few would be prepared to discard their own culture completely to adopt that of a Japanese, Thai or Tibetan wayof life. Indeed those who do perhaps hunger after the exotic and are disenchanted with their own culture.
There are also other features entirely new to Buddhism in the West. For example, in Asia Buddhist institutions, practices and teachings evolved within agrarian monarchies. This form of established Buddhism can’t be directly transposed into Western civilisation, which is so thoroughly secular, industrialised and urban. Real Buddhism in the West must express the essentially timeless, traditional teaching in a way that communicates to people in the West today. Courses on Buddhist meditation and philosophy are running regularly at the Toowoomba Buddhist centre (TBC) please direct enquiries to 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Non-Existence of Self (28/06/01):
At the heart of the Buddha’s Enlightenment was his insight into the Law of Conditionality. The fact that every single phenomenon in the universe has evolved through a gigantic network of causes and conditions. Everything we encounter is but a temporary perturbation of energy and matter in a vast web of interconnected conditions stretched out infinitely over time and space. One phenomena depends for its existence on the properties of another phenomena. Everything we encounter can be analysed and reduced to the conditions that produce it, spread out over space and time.
For example, this computer I’m word processing on doesn’t work with out the electricity it is using, and that comes from a coal-fired electricity plant, which burns coal that comes from the earth and was formed three hundred thousand years ago by vast geological events in the earth’s history. It also comes from the glass and plastic and the human ideas that invented and created this technology, and it doesn’t work without human fingers dancing around on the key-board and mouse. Everything in this conditioned world is contingent. Everything we know IS NOTHING in itself; it has no existence apart from the many conditions that make it possible it IS those conditions. Modern physics and ecology says much the same thing as the Buddha said two thousand five hundred years ago.
However, because we have self-consciousness we experience ourselves as separate from everything. As a result we feel incomplete, alone, insecure. But actually we are inseparable from the environment around us. Taken to its extreme implication this means we do not exist as we think we do that is, we are not a completely independent existing self. In fact the implication is that we, as we normally think of our selves, do not ultimately exist! Deep in our hearts we seem to know this but we repress it and crave to be. So on the one hand we feel separate and incomplete, on the other, we know we’re not separate and therefore don’t ultimately exist. The result is a very deep sense of existential anxiety and discomfort that fuels a quest for security. As Shakespeare said: “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Courses on Buddhist meditation and philosophy are running regularly at the Toowoomba Buddhist centre (TBC) please direct enquiries to 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Dharma Day (4/7/01):
Last week we celebrated Dharma Day at the TBC whilst it’s was being celebrated around the world on or near the night of the full moon in July. This festival celebrates the first public utterance by the Buddha of the Dharma after his Enlightenment. The discourse he gave is now known as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta ‘Setting the Wheel of the Dhamma in Motion’. The significance to the Buddhist is that in his First Discourse the Buddha made again available the Highest Truth, a Universal and Transcendental Teaching.
A Buddha is actually someone who re-discovers the Dharma and reveals it again for the first time in that particular era. The recent, historical Buddha (Gautama Buddha born c.563 BC) described it as like finding an ancient rack that had been overgrown in the jungle, and that others had trodden this track before him. The Dharma itself is based on a universal law the Law of Conditioned Co-production that all things arise in dependence upon a complex nexus of conditions. Although what is rediscovered is perennialthat particular Buddha expresses it in his own terms. Other Enlightened beings that follow become enlightened as a result of learning from the Buddha. So although they share the enlightenment experience, a Buddha is different in that he has discovered the truth for himself. But all enlightened beings can become Buddhas. We use the festival to personally reflect on the significance of the Dharma coming into the world. Many people in the sangha and many people who come to the courses we run at the TBC are very drawn to the Dharma. I have seen it inspire them, answer questions, give them peace of mind. Many people report that when they encounter the Dharma it’s like coming home. I have seen the Dharma have a soft, steady and profound impact on people and bring about unmistakable positive change, right here in the Toowoomba community. On occasions people express gratitude for the opportunity of having been introduced to the Dharma. I have experienced the benefits of the practice of the Dharma myself and simply can’t go past it!
Whenever the Dharma has entered into a culture it has had a profound effect on it for the better. This can give hope to us as we witness its rapid spread now in the West with all its social and environmental problems. We consider it fortunate to be born so close to the advent of the Buddha and to be pioneers in the spread of the Dharma in Australia. Courses on Buddhist meditation and philosophy are running regularly at the Toowoomba Buddhist centre (TBC) please direct enquiries to 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Right Views (11/7/01):
One of the ways we secure ourselves is with our views. By this I mean our opinions, beliefs and values. We often completely identify with our beliefs and blindly believe in them. The fact that people use their beliefs, say religious beliefs, to maintain their ego-identities is one reason why people are so defensive about them. If we criticise or question their beliefs it’s as if we’re attacking their very existence.
One of the important teachings that the Buddha is credited with is the recognition that most of our views, beliefs and opinions are actually at base simply rationalisations for us following our sense desires. In other words, they are in fact elaborate constructs, which we create and use to justify to ourselves our doing just what we want to do. So for this reason the clarification of views is considered very important in Buddhism. Also, when we study the Dharma on our own it is possible to misunderstand it, or read something into it that isn’t there, or twist it around to suitourselves.
This is particularly the case these days with so many books around on Buddhism and the fact that it has become quite fashionable in the West. One often encounters, when teaching the Dharma these days, the fact that people studying Buddhism want it to be what they want it to be. Rather than taking it on its own terms they twist it into something that suits them. Another example of rationalisation and what we call wrong views in Buddhism.
So group study and discussion (even debate) is an important part of the Buddhist practice to try and dig out and gradually eradicate these wrong views, which can lead to confusion and suffering. Right views help lead to clarity and happiness. Traditionally, views are evaluated in Buddhism by seeing if they make reasoned sense, elicit an intuitive response, and if their validity can be tested out in experience. Courses on Buddhist meditation and philosophy are running regularly at the Toowoomba Buddhist centre (TBC) please direct enquiries to 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
The Benefits of Practicing Ethics (2/8/01):
One of the reasons a Buddhist practices ethical precepts is so he or she can concentrate effectively in meditation. You see there is this simple relationship recognised in Buddhism between being happy and being able to concentrate. The happier you are the better you can concentrate and vice versa. One way of keeping happy is practising an ethical lifestyle of non-violence, generosity, loving kindness, contentment, skilful speech and mental clarity.
The type of happiness this produces is not some form of suspect elation, but rather a steady peace of mind with an absence of conflict and guilt. The mind of a person living unskilfully, dominated by craving, anger, aggressive speech and mental confusion, is not at peace – it’s not calm and still, it’s stirred up by these mental states. You can’t describe such a mental state as a happy one.
The more you practice ethics the more at ease you feel with yourself. You’ve overcome unskilful mental states, you feel happy, triumphant, more ‘together’, more balanced, more satisfied with yourself. The Buddha said in one of his discourses you would feel within yourself “an unmixed ease”. And this sense of ease just gets deeper and deeper. You feel more whole, more complete in yourself. You’re able to cope better; you feel you have more strength, more confidence, and more integrity and so you are less fearful.
You now act in a consistent way, you’re not carried away by distractions or unskilful mental states, or unskilful actions or words you’re in control of yourself. You feel that you are the host in your own house, not a guest. It’s very simple really this connection between ethics and happiness. A new six-week Practical Buddhism starts at the TBC on Thursday morning August 9th 10am-12noon please direct enquiries to 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Money and Buddhism (9/8/01):
The Buddha in his time gave lots of practical advice on social relations. One of the most famous accounts is the Sigalaka Sutta: ‘To Sigalaka Advice to Lay People’. Some of the material in it indicates that in Buddhism there is no prohibition against accumulating wealth. In one part the sutra says; “The wise man trained and disciplined gathers wealth just as the bee gathers honey, and it grows like an ant-hill higher yet. With wealth so gained the layman can devote it to his people’s good.”
The key thing in Buddhist ethics is your motive. So making money is OK, or not, depending upon whether your motive is greed, power, delusion, on the one hand, or generosity, helping others and clarity of purpose, on the other. Traditionally in Buddhist Asia the heads of the family accumulated wealth to help support the family, and this in situations in which there was no social service system as a back up. This is still very much the case today and often wealthy Asian businessmen lead quite frugal lives.
There is nothing wrong in earning money, for example, by providing a genuine service for people. Thus Buddhism is not necessarily against business, as I suspect some people may assume. It certainly is of course critical of greedy, exploitative business; but there is certainly a role for ethical business. Society couldn’t work without businesses playing a role. We’re interested at the TBC in setting up team-based Right Livelihood businesses that give Buddhists (and others) the opportunity to earn a living and at the same time practice ethics.
In the same Sutra the Buddha also gave advice on dividing one’s wealth (or income) into four parts: one part to “enjoy at will”; two parts to “put to work”, for example to run the home; and one part should be “set aside as reserve in times of need (in modern terms to earn interest or invest)”. There are still vacancies for anyone interested in joining the Practical Buddhism course that started this week on Thursday morning 10am-12noon; contact the TBC at (07) 46597760.
Habit Tendencies (16/8/01):
The Dhammapada is a collection of practical advice from the Buddha gathered it seems from direct disciples to preserve what they’d heard. It’s a sort of ready reference guide or handbook on a whole range of issues and is very widely known and read in the Buddhist world. It’s only fitting that we should draw on its advice from time to time. Verse 121 says: “Do not underestimate unskilful actions, thinking, ‘They will not effect me.’ A water-pot becomes full by the constant falling of drops of water. Similarly the spiritually immature person little by little makes himself unskilful.”
That’s what happens according to the Buddha Dharma. Little by little our everyday actions accumulate and cut a track in our consciousness building up habit tendencies upon which future reactions to similar circumstances tend to run. These habit-tendencies are known as the samskaras or karmic tendencies. For example, a person who repeatedly gives way to anger gradually builds this into their character and this has consequences for others and back on the person, such as, anxiety, risk of heart disease and other ailments.
Verse 122 says: “Do not underestimate skilful actions, thinking, ‘They will not effect me.’ A water-pot becomes full by the constant falling of drops of water. Similarly the spiritually mature person little by little makes himself skilful.” Because it is easy to follow a well-worn reactive path of stimulus and response, harmful samskaras are easy to form and get trapped in. So the Buddha exhorted people to actively encourage the responses that do not come easily love, forgiveness, patience, compassion in the face of hatred. Unskilful habits are strong but skilful ones are just as strong this what the two verses are saying. We always have a choice. If we do not shape our own lives our samskaras will shape them for us. Courses on Buddhist meditation and philosophy are running regularly at the Toowoomba Buddhist centre (TBC) please direct enquiries to 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Stop and Realise (23/8/01):
Meditation in Buddhism is classified into two main types Samatha and Vipassana. Samatha practices aim to develop tranquillity, concentration and integration. Vipassana aims to develop Insight into reality. The relationship between the two is that to see reality or, as it is traditionally expressed, “to see things as they are”, you need to achieve concentration. In our normal, everyday level of consciousness we don’t see things as they are. We see the world dualistically, our self as separate from everything else, and everything disconnected from each other.
We also find some objects pleasant and other unpleasant (what is pleasant or unpleasant for one person may be different for another) and this leads to a subjectively distorted way of seeing things. In reality, nothing is separate or disconnected from anything else and things are neither pleasant nor unpleasant they just ‘are’. So our minds are actively engaged in creating this dualistic, fragmented and subjectively distorted view of the world. They are stirred up with thoughts analysing and interpreting the objects and they are reacting with subjective emotions of craving and aversion toward the things that are perceived as pleasant or unpleasant.
Such a mind is not calm or concentrated; it tends to be agitated and distracted. So concentration is the first step in seeing things as they are and this is the function of samatha practices like mindfulness of breathing. They get you to ‘stop’. The next thing is to ‘realise’ and this is the function of the vipassana practices. A typical vipassana practice is to become very concentrated and then to focus on an aspect of reality such as impermanence and to really ‘see’ this happening around you and in your own mind. If you do really ‘see’ it then Insight arises and goes deep into your heart and changes you forever. This is realisation. Courses on Buddhist meditation and philosophy are running regularly at the Toowoomba Buddhist centre (TBC) please direct enquiries to 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
We at the TBC have just been on a weekend retreat the study theme of which was karma. What we discovered was that karma is a complicated topic. There is also a lot of misunderstanding around about just what it really is. Often the word is employed to make it mean both action and the results of action. But technically the word karma means action, and a separate expression, karma-vipaka or karma-phala, is used to indicate the results of action.
The basic principle is that actions have consequences. But it is not a form of fatalism or divine retribution in the Buddhist tradition. Only willed actions of body, speech or mind have consequences for us; involuntary actions do not constitute karma and thus will not bring about the results of karma. This doesn’t mean that such actions produce no results at all; the unintentional act of dropping a brick on your foot certainly hurts as much as if you did it intentionally. What it does mean is that unwilled actions do not modify character.
Karma, or acts of will, in the past (including past lives) inevitably results in pleasant or painful results. However, and this is one of the most common misunderstandings, a pleasant or unpleasant experience in this life is not necessarily the result of karma. According to the Buddhist law of conditionality it may have been produced by other causes, for example, operating on the inorganic, organic or psychological level. It also may have been the result of karma; but this is only accepted if it cannot be explained by conditionality operating in these other areas. Courses on Buddhist meditation and philosophy are running regularly at the Toowoomba Buddhist centre (TBC) please direct enquiries to 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Actions have Consequences (5/9/01):
One of the people in our current meditation course at the TBC raised an interesting point the other night. We were talking about dealing with the hindrances mental states that arise whilst meditating which hinder becoming concentrated. There are certain traditional antidotes you can apply and the very first one, once you’ve become aware that you’re caught up in a hindrance, is to consider the consequences. Consider the consequences, that is, of staying in that unskilful state of mind, for example, anger or ill will. This person said that she thought that we did not tend to do that much in Western culture consider the consequences of our mental states.
It’s an interesting point really. The whole of the Buddha’s teaching hinges around the notion of conditionality or causality. We in the West can happily apply this principle of conditionality or causality to the observable world around us, in the realm of physics, chemistry and biology/ecology. But Buddhism says it also applies at the psychological level and the volitional level, the latter being the mental area of decision-making, choices, and so on. That is not so familiar to us in the West.
Really that is all the antidote to the hindrance is saying. That if you create certain mental states and motivated by them you make certain choices and decisions and act on that basis then this chain of mental conditions or causes is going to produce further conditions or consequences, like actions, which will come back on you. So it is a good idea to consider what the consequences will be on you and others before acting on the basis of a certain mental state. Anger can have dire consequences on you ranging from unpopularity and heart disease through to revenge, feuds and prison. New courses on Buddhist meditation and philosophy will be starting at the Toowoomba Buddhist centre (TBC) after the school holidays; please direct enquiries to 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
On Hatred (13/9/01):
After the dreadful events of last week it seems unavoidable to make some sort of relevant comment. In Chapter 1 of the Dhammapada, the words of the Buddha are expressed as follows: “Hatred can never put an end to hatred in this world only loving-kindness can. This is an unalterable law. People forget that their lives will soon end. For those who remember, feuds come to an end (verses 5-6).” An unalterable (eternal) law, says the Buddha. Look to wherever long running feuds and wars are occurring (Northern Ireland, Middle East, Yugoslavia) and one can only conclude this is true. Generation after generation is brought up on hatred and perpetuate it along with death and destruction over centuries.
This is not to say that those who kill should not be brought to justice. Of course not you can’t have people going around exterminating people on a mass scale anymore than murdering individuals. But to look at the situation truly objectively, that is, free of subjective distortions like hatred and prejudice, one becomes aware of all the conditions that mix together and produce the never ending cycle of death, retaliatory strikes (revenge), more death/revenge and so on. After initial reactions of anger and shock many people in civilized countries do seem capable of reflecting on the bigger picture and seeing the complex origins of these situations, usually in which their own country has played a role in contributing to the problem.
The enormous reparations (monetary payments) that the Allies forced on Germany after the First World War impoverished the country to the point of common people being reduced to eating horseflesh. This laid the grounds for the rise of Hitler and the Second World War. To solve the problem at its root the solution based on loving-kindness, as some politicians already ‘seem’ to be saying, is not just military. It is also diplomatic, political and economic. “The world will never be the same again” has been said many times before. Conditioned existence by its very nature is impermanent, uncertain and insecure; the way out of this according to Buddhism is to face this fact squarely. New courses on Buddhist meditation and philosophy will be starting at the Toowoomba Buddhist centre (TBC) after the school holidays (Tuesday 9th October 7-9pm and Thursday 11th October 10am-12noon). Please direct enquiries to 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
New Buddhist Courses (21/9/01):
Our next six week ‘Practical Buddhism’ course starts on tuesday night the 9th of October from 7-9pm. In this course we teach what is known as ‘basic Buddhism’. These are the core teachings of Buddhism that are common to all traditions (although they may be buried under a great deal of cultural accretion). They are also ‘core’ in the sense that they are the teachings that Buddha himself taught from the beginning. They consist of The Principle of Conditioned Coproduction, the Four Noble Truths, the Eight fold Path and the Three Characteristics of Conditioned Existence.
Many people are learning about Buddhism these days from books and the internet. There is a plethora of information out there; never before has so much been published in English on the subject. It is very easy to pick up misunderstandings or to read a certain meaning into something which isn’t actually there. So the beauty of these courses is that you have the opportunity to discuss these core teachings with someone more experienced than yourself and also, through discussion, to hear other people’s points of view and queries. People tend to enjoy these courses very much.
We’re also starting an ‘Introduction to Meditation’ six week course on thursday morning the 11th of October from 10am to 12 noon. In these courses we emphasize two main meditation practices – the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Cultivation of Loving Kindness (Metta Bhavana). The practices are led, which means you are guided through them, and last about 20 minutes. The group discusses how they find each practice and raise any questions they wish to. A comprehensive set of notes is provided and these are studied to help people to set up the right conditions to make a daily meditation practice successful. There is also plenty of information on the higher states of consciousness accessible through meditation (known as the dhyanas) and advise on how to handle the mental distractions that inevitably arise. Both courses are $85 (or $62 conc.). If you’d like to enrol please contact the TBC on 46597760.
Study and Practice at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre (TBC) (27/9/01):
Buddhism has always stressed both study and practice. Nothing can substitute for practice as in meditating; but study can play an important role in clarifying mistaken views and influencing the depth of insight gained from meditating. The ‘Practical Buddhism’ course starting next week (Tuesday 9th October 7pm) at the TBC is for people ‘who want to know’ to inform themselves more about Buddhism. After describing the human condition and looking at the core teachings (‘basic Buddhism’) it focuses on the Threefold Path of Ethics, Meditation and Wisdom.
The ‘Introduction to Traditional Buddhist Meditation’ course starting next week (Thursday 11th October 10am) is for people ‘who want to do’. It’s more practical and is open to anyone wishing to learn how to meditate. It does of course adopt a Buddhist approach, which mainly recognises how important it is to set up the right conditions to meditate. If you get these conditions right meditative states should arise as spontaneously as an apple dropping off a tree when it’s ripe. We emphasise two practices that the Buddha himself particularly emphasised the Mindfulness of Breathing (annapanna sati) and the Cultivation of Loving Kindness (metta bhavana).
Finally on Saturday the 13th of October a senior order member of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO), Devamitra, who has been ordained for 27 years, is giving a series of four, forty-minute talks on the first chapter of the Dhammapada, which is open to the public. The Dhammapada is an anthology of verses attributed to Buddha long recognised as one of the masterpieces of early Buddhist literature. It starts by saying that everything is led by the mind and points out that a wise person heedful of this makes the necessary effort to train the mind. Devamitra is a very experienced speaker who has given hundreds of talks throughout Europe, USA, SE Asia and India. For details of these events please call the TBC on 46597760 or visit our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Last week we had a series of talks presented at the TBC by a senior order member of the Western Buddhist Order, Devamitra. The ethical teaching of the Dhammapada is expressed in the first pair of verses, often entitled “Pairs”, although Devamitra preferred rendering it “Choices”. The main point being made in this very early Buddhist literary masterpiece, is that the mind, through its actions (karma), is the chief architect of one’s happiness and suffering both in this life and beyond. The first three chapters elaborate on this point, to show that there are two major ways of relating to this fact. A wise person is heedful enough to make the necessary effort to train his/her own mind to be a skilful architect. An unskilful person is heedless and sees no reason to train the mind.
The Dhammapada elaborates on this distinction, showing in more detail both the path of the wise person and that of the unskilful one, together with the rewards of the former and the dangers of the latter. The path of the wise person can lead not only to happiness within the cycle of death and rebirth, but also to total escape into the Deathless, beyond the cycle entirely. The path of the unwise leads not only to suffering now and in the future, but also to further entrapment within the cycle. The purpose of the Dhammapada is to make the wise path attractive to the reader so that he/she will follow it. The choice posited by the first pair of verses is not one in the imaginary world of fiction. It is the dilemma in which the reader is already placed by being born. We can make of ourselves what we want. Or be dragged around the wheel of life in endless reactive fashion. The choice is ours. For details of courses being offered at the TBC please call 46597760 or visit our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Healthy versus Neurotic Desire (25/10/01):
Craving is neurotic desire. Healthy desire is not a problem in Buddhism. We all have healthy desires, for example, hunger, thirst and sexual desire. They’re instinctive and as such if we didn’t satisfy them we wouldn’t continue to exist either individually (food and drink) or as a species (sexual reproduction). These desires are rooted in our basic needs for sustenance as well as affection, intimacy and love. We need them satisfied and they can be satisfied quite simply – when we’re hungry we eat, or thirsty we drink and then the desire is fulfilled and it disappears.
Desire becomes neurotic, or turns into craving, when we ‘project’ onto the objects of desire a role beyond what they’re actually capable of performing. In other words, when we want them to satisfy far more, say, than simple biological hunger or thirst or sexual desire. When we’re seeking to satisfy strong, unfulfilled psychological needs and desires by using the drink, or food (or substance), or sexual partner for this end. In this way our inner (psychological) hungers and thirsts tend to become mixed up with our physical ones. More often than not this process happens unconsciously and these tendencies become habitual.
The end result is that we become attached and addicted to these ways of trying to satisfy our neurotic desires. But of course the underlying desires aren’t really being satisfied. The physical satisfaction is temporary and doesn’t satisfy the psychological nature of the underlying desire. And so we need more and more. One test of whether we’re neurotically attached to something is whether we can do without it or not. If we find this difficult then that’s usually a sign we’re dependent in some fashion.
Buddhism accepts that we’re all prone to this tendency, because of our basic insecurity, till we’re Enlightened. Recognising this fact, the practice of Buddhism involves developing sufficient self-awareness to know whether we are simply satisfying our natural desires in a healthy way, or being driven by neurotic desire, which is leading to attachment and dependency. For details of courses being offered at the TBC please call 46597760 or visit our website at www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Getting Stuck (2/11/01):
Someone picked up on the notion of getting stuck in ourselves in a meditation class this week. Traditionally in Buddhism there are ten fetters or chains that bind us to the conditioned world and prevent us becoming enlightened. They have to be broken to escape into Nirvana. The first of them is fixed view of yourself or personality view. This is what we get stuck in. We think that at the core of our being that we are what we think we are. In actual fact we’re simply referring back to ourselves or keeping up an inner commentary on this idea of ourselves all the time. There is no real core self or nucleus separate from this process of constant introspection.
As we’ve said many times human consciousness is reflexive – it can bend back on itself – and it’s this process of continuous self-referencing that gives us the illusion that a solid self exists. It’s a bit like a cine film – we see solid moving objects on the screen but actually the film consist of a series of still photographs that are moving very fast to create the illusion of solid moving objects. In the same way we keep up a process of continuous reflexive arcs or inner commentary – we think about ourselves, have feelings about ourselves, we create images of our self, memories and so on – and really that is all we are, a mental process.
This is not to say that the illusion of self is not useful. Of course it is. Without it we could not be self-directing, purposeful beings. We couldn’t make choices about where to take our lives. But to become overly attached to this sense of self, to really believe it exists as a solidly existing, independent entity at the core of our being and to fully identify with it and cling to it is a dangerous delusion from a Buddhist point of view. The reality is as Buddhaghosa, the great teacher of the Theravada), put it: “No doer of the deed is found; No one who ever reaps their fruit; Just bare phenomena roll on Dependent upon conditions all.” For enquiries about activities at the Toowoomba Buddhist centre please phone us on (07) 597760 or visit our website www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Learning to Meditate (9/11/01):
The Toowoomba Buddhist Centre will be holding a daytime meditation course on Saturday the 17th of November. It will be run as part of a weekend retreat stretching over the weekend of 16th 18th November and held at the local retreat centre we use in Toowoomba. The idea is that beginners can attend the whole weekend retreat if they wish (cost $100 or $80 conc.) or just for the Saturday (cost $30). The Saturday activity will consist of two, two-hour sessions from 10am-12noon and 2pm-4pm. These will consist of led meditation practices, discussion and study on setting up the right conditions for a successful mediation practice. In between there will be lunch and an opportunity to explore the surrounds and meet people.
The two meditation practices that will be taught are the Mindfulness of Breathing and the Metta Bhavana the Cultivation of Loving-kindness (metta). These are two meditation practices that the Buddha himself emphasised. They aim to develop increasing mental clarity, tranquillity and positive emotion qualities badly needed in the world today. Thus the practices can also help establish a basis for starting the process of becoming a sane, healthy human being and more of a true individual. The calm and concentration the practices yield also provide a basis for developing insight into reality “seeing things as they are” a process sometimes summarised as ‘stop’ and ‘realise’. If you’re interested in booking in for either the day course or the weekend retreat please phone the TBC on 46597760 or visit our website www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Religions are not all the Same (15/11/01):
From time to time it is important to clear up mistaken views. Buddhism and the Buddha put a lot of importance on this. The Buddha himself said that most of our views are rationalisations of our desires how we want things to be. These days we live in societies where there are a great deal of beliefs, values, attitudes and opinions being expressed through the various media. In can be quite confusing for young and old a like.
A common view I come across these days is that all religions in essence are the same. This is just demonstrably not true. They may have some similarities like some aspects of their moral codes but there are fundamental differences. For example, the Buddha was not a God. Buddhism does not start from the premise that a creator God started this world and is all-powerful. The Semitic religions are based on this notion – that their God is the one and all mighty. Some people would point to this as a fundamental cause of war and conflict throughout Middle Eastern and European history and it is still going on right up to the present. The Hindus have a totally different notion of God again.
In fact Buddhists consider that there is a fundamental problem with the God-idea and the God-religions, as the one Buddhist author describes them (K. Sri Dhammananda). In essence they fail to encourage people to take responsibility for themselves and their own moral lives. Instead they hand this over to some external agent. This single point alone has very deep and profound psychological implications on how an individual conducts their lives, which it would take some time to elaborate upon.
Some religions try and depict the Buddha as just another prophet of God, like Jesus or Mohammed or certain Persian mystics in more recent history. This is of course a ridiculous notion to Buddhists who don’t believe in the existence of a creator God in the first place. There have been many attempts to portray the Buddha like this in attempt to incorporate Buddhism into other religions. There are also many other important differences between the religions, which we will touch on from time to time. For example, the Buddha explicitly said his teaching was a means to an end; many religions become ends in themselves. The notion of Enlightenement is the hallmark of Buddhism and just what Enlightenement consists of is very clearly outlined. The path to it that the Buddha outlined is also very clear and is simply not found in the theistic religions. If you’re interested in courses on Buddhist philosophy and meditation we offer at the TBC please phone 46597760 or visit our website www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Other Realms (22/11/01):
We were discussing ‘other realms’ the other night in our Practical Buddhism course. The fact that there are considered to be other invisible realms and beings according to Buddhism came as a surprise to some of the students. The Buddha mentioned that there are thirty-one planes of existence in the universe. One can be reborn into any of them depending on one’s meritorious or unmeritorious deeds. Right at the bottom you get the duggatis or ‘woeful courses’, which consist of a hell realm, the animal realm and the realm of the hungry ghosts. These are states of unhappiness and are also known as the apayas or ‘downfalls’. Next comes the human realm and after that the realms of the gods or devas (literally ‘shining beings’).
Six of the god realms (devalokas) are in the same realm of sense experience that we humans experience known as the kamma-loka, but are infinitely more blissful states than normal human existence. Then above these are sixteen realms of fine-material forms (rupa-lokas) and above that four formless realms (arupa-lokas). All these higher states are known as the suggatis or ‘happy courses’. When the Buddha addressed human beings to give his teachings he was also addressing the beings in these thirty-one other realms. Thus the Buddha is known as a teacher of gods as well men.
All of these worlds or planes are still in the conditioned world or Samsara. Nirvana, the goal of the Buddhist life is in another dimension entirely. Given that six of the god realms are in the same plane that we as humans share it is considered that we could all be dwelling in a higher level of existence if we but made the effort – we settle for too low a level of consciousness. These god realms are also accessible through the levels of meditative consciousness known as the dhyanas, and practitioners do talk of encounters with the inhabitants of these realms on occasions. If you’re interested in courses on Buddhist philosophy and meditation that we offer at the TBC please phone 46597760 or visit our website www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba. New course will now be running in February of next year. An open evening consisting of a led meditation practice and question and answer session will be held at the TBC on Monday evening the 3rd of December 7-9pm.
Becoming Integrated (30/11/01):
One of the key ‘operational concepts’ in relation to psychological and spiritual development we use at the TBC is that of integration. The idea is that we consist of a bundle of selves or several sub-personalities encompassed in the same physical body. One self decides to meditate the next morning but then another self comes on line in the morning and rolls over and goes back to sleep. These selves can also reveal themselves, for example, in how differently we behave when at work, when at home and when we are with particular sets of friends. The sub-personalities are revealed in the paradoxes and oppositions in our character.
Usually these different selves are not pulling together. This is a state of being ‘un-integrated’ our energies work against one another. To harmonise them or galvanize them requires some element of discipline and regular meditation practice supported by the observance of an ethical lifestyle. The aim of a regular meditation practice is to achieve first of all what we call ‘horizontal integration’ so that the various selves we are aware of in the conscious mind are pulled or shepherded together. Once this happens we attempt to achieve ‘vertical integration’, which involves bringing the unconscious together with the now integrated conscious mind this is more difficult.
If we persist there is a gradual build-up of energy, which gains momentum until finally we are capable of breaking free of all habits whatsoever, especially the negative and unconscious ones. The very fact that our energies are not integrated means it is certain that we are in conflict about how much effort we want to put into our spiritual practice, a lot of us just says “Why bother?” So we have to continuously remind ourselves of why we are on the path and of what we want to become we have to find ways of continuously motivating and inspiring ourselves. Mixing with spiritual friends at a centre is one good way of doing this. The Buddhist philosophy and meditation courses that we offer at the TBC will now be running in February of next year. Please phone 46597760 or visit our website www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Buddhism and Uncertainty (9/12/01):
Buddhism is of course about spiritual development and this is normally thought of in terms of growing beyond the normal conception of self in other words, self-transcendence. The first fetter that holds us back from this growth is fixed self-view. This can be defined as our habitual acceptance of our present experience of selfhood as being fixed, unchanging, and ultimate. We are so familiar to ourselves, so used to ourselves, so used to thinking of ourselves in a certain way, so used to feeling a certain way about ourselves. And our habitually patterned lifestyle is dedicated, as it were, to maintaining this familiar, felt-sense of ourselves.
We think, ‘This is Me. I’ll always be like this I may change a little but I’ll still be recognizably me.’ We just can’t accept that this self as we experience it now can be completely transformed, consumed, transcended. Indeed we are afraid of this possibility because it involves entering a realm of uncertainty. A well known paradox of self-growth is that someone who wants to grow is not happy with how they are at present, by definition, but they find it hard to accept that there are aspects of themselves they’re not happy with. Also we’re afraid of the unknown potential we have simply because it is unfamiliar. So we shrink back from growth to the safety and security of the familiar, the habitual.
Practising Buddhists accept that they’re not satisfied with how they are and use this as incentive to keep striving. They are prepared, as daunting as it may seem, to enter into uncertainty, to face insecurity and the unfamiliar. It’s hard work, but what’s wrong with hard work? This is another major difference between Buddhism and the other religions. It deals with uncertainty and faces up to insecurity. Other religions try to comfort the insecurity of their followers by providing certainty, usually through blind belief. As a guest speaker at the TBC recently commented you don’t fly jets into sky-scapers unless you are certain you’re going to paradise! We had a very successful open evening at the TBC recently. The centre will close on December 15th and reopen late January 2002 with new six-week courses starting in February. For information contact us on 46597760 or visit our website www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
The Age of Anxiety (23/1/02):
Sometimes we hear this age we are living in described as an age of anxiety. There are many reasons for this feeling of anxiety in our societies. The speed of change, increasing complexity of technology, social disruption and crime, the disappearance of ethics in a climate of greed where the market and economics has become all, increasing gaps between rich and poor, terrorism one could go on and on. In many ways these are all symptoms of deeper, underlying cultural forces – the ideologies driving our current approach to politics, economics, science and technology, social issues, education, international relations and the environment.
The dominant ethos in our Western societies at the moment could be described as materialistic and techno-managerial. With it have come the de-sanctification of Nature and the disappearance of what I call the mystery-principle of life, the magical quality of existence. People no longer have any connection with these qualities, with a deeper underlying mythology. The emphasis on the intellect as the superior faculty has destroyed this. What this means is that people are bereft of anything that engages their imagination, their intuition, their hearts. There is no faith or trust in anything and where there is no faith or trust there is no confidence. The word confidence derives from the Latin roots of ‘with’ (con) and ‘faith’ (fide). This includes no self-confidence. We are anxious.
On my last ordination retreat we explored the importance of discovering one’s own personal myth; the unconscious journey you are already on. From a Buddhist point of view this myth (if it is a healthy one) is inevitably about a yearning for self-transcendence. If you analyse most of our cultural myths or stories they usually have this at their core, maybe wrapped up in a lot of symbolism. Learning to tap into this myth rather than dismiss it (as ‘a bit of a myth’, which our overly-intellectual contemporary culture tends to encourage) is really important. It helps open you up to a larger universal myth and can help fire up the imagination, inspire and bring confidence. The word for faith in Buddhism is sraddha and is better translated as confidence-trust. The emotional security it brings is always based on intelligent analysis and testing in Buddhism, not blind belief. If you’re interested in reading more of these articles you can do so on our website. New Buddhist Philosophy and meditation classes start in April. For information on courses and activities, or to enrol, please contact us at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Practical Buddhism (14/2/02):
A new day-time, six-week ‘Practical Buddhism’ course starts at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre (TBC) on Thursday the 21st February 10am-12noon. These courses are for people who want ‘to know’ more about Buddhism before perhaps exploring it more. It’s clear that interest in Buddhism is increasing in the West. Our centre is part of a pioneering movement that is helping Buddhism spread and adapt to Western culture – and adapt it must, as it always has when it moved into a new culture. For example, it adapted quite significantly when it moved from India into China, because the Chinese civilisation was so developed.
Similarly, as it moves into the West, it is encountering for the second time a highly developed civilisation. To survive in this Western context Buddhism has to evolve past its traditional Asian forms. As they exist at the moment they are too difficult to assimilate for the vast majority of Westerners, who tend to see them as curiosities, or are attracted to their exoticness. But if you want to really change and grow psychologically and spiritually you cannot bypass your own Western psychological and cultural conditioning. All of us brought up in Western cultures have been deeply, unconsciously, conditioned by its cultural forces such as Christianity, scientific rationalism, utilitarianism, materialism, commercialism, democracy, intellectualism, individualism and the doctrine of rights, to name a few.
Part of the spread of Buddhism into the West involves an information explosion on it (for example books, TV programs, the internet). Where there is lots of information there is the also the danger of ill-informed views and opinions and simply ‘getting the wrong end of the stick’. So the ‘Practical Buddhism’ course offered at the TBC goes back to the core teachings of the Buddha (which have become known as ‘Basic Buddhism’), that all major traditions share at their heart. These include formulae like The Four Noble Truths, The Eightfold Path, The Three Characteristics of Conditioned Existence, The Law of Conditioned Co-production, the nature of the human condition and the origin of suffering. The course is primarily designed to clarify views and clear up misconceptions through discussion and exposure to people’s different points of view. It is also taught in a clear Western style of expression and English. For information please contact us on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Fixed Self-View (21/2/02):
We usually have a fixed view of ourselves in the West. Quite often it’s a negative one, such as, that I am bad, no good, stupid and won’t ever be able to change. It’s interesting to reflect upon where in our culture this negativity springs from, this problem with appreciating ourselves. We even have a saying about it that an old dog can’t change its spots. The following words from Buddhaghosa, one of the earliest Buddhist sages after the Buddha, put quite a different slant on it: ” No doer of the deed may be found; No one who ever reaps their fruit Just bare phenomena roll on, Dependent upon conditions all.”
This is the idea that we are not fixed, that instead we are an ever-changing flux of conditions mental, physical, biological and chemical. The fixed view of the self is just mental phenomena and if we ever stop to observe our minds we discover that those phenomena are just changing all the time minute to minute and day to day. They are certainly not fixed. They change in dependence upon conditions and are thus impermanent. Just like all conditioned phenomena in the world.
We can use this fact to help us. If we set up the right conditions it will change our mental states, for example, from negative to positive ones. Instead of a fixed view of yourself you can develop a more fluid one, such as, that you can make of yourself whatever you want by putting the right conditions in place. Some of the best conditions you can build into your lifestyle from a Buddhist viewpoint are the practice of ethics, daily meditation and study. For information on courses and activities at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre please contact us on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
The Buddha’s Death:(28/02/02):
On last Thursday evening (28th February) we celebrated Para nirvana day at the TBC. This festival celebrates the passing away of the Buddha, which is traditionally known as the Paranirvana. Yes, we ‘celebrate’ the Buddha’s death. This is because it represented the attainment of supreme nirvana, the extinguishment of all craving and conditioning, the ultimate freedom and peace, beyond all conditioned things, eternal and complete and self-illuminating. The aim of the Buddhist life is to go completely beyond conditioned existence (samsara). It’s easy to keep coming back because we are so attached to the world. It’s much harder to stay away.
But where has the Buddha gone – where does an Enlightened being go? This is part of the mystery aspect of Enlightenment central to the Buddhist teaching. Traditionally the Buddha having experienced Nirvana is spoken of as neither existing nor not existing! Also Nirvana is spoken of as in Samsara, and Samsara is in Nirvana. These are mysterious words because they cannot be grasped, let alone understood by the intellect. These notions are a mystery to the reasoning mind (this is a root meaning of the word ‘mystical’). And yet we need mysteries because without them the world becomes a dry, arid place if the only way we can relate to it is through the intellect.
We need the mystery principle to enchant the world, re-establish its magical qualities. We need these dimensions to kelp open up our imagination and to stimulate the emotions of awe and reverence that can inspire and motivate us. What Buddhism seems to be saying is that we are trapped in the conditioned world in time and space but at the same time we are part of something much larger beyond time and space. Sometimes we can sense this. The more we open up our imagination to this mystery, this Cosmic Myth, the more we become spiritual beings that can rise into the unknown. For information on courses and activities at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre please contact us on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Spiritual Friendship: (7/3/02)
All Buddhists go for refuge to the Three Jewels. That is they seek security in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The Buddha represents the ideal condition of human enlightenment. The Dharma is the Teaching all the operational concepts of Buddhism and its methods and practices of self-growth. The Sangha is the fellowship of all the enlightened masters and sages of the past that have occurred in the Buddhist tradition and who give us confidence that the goal is attainable. The Sangha also involves all those Buddhists striving to practice the path and this includes our spiritual friends. This is where we can find real security or refuge in the Buddhist view.
We particularly stress spiritual friendship in Buddhism in the West, even as a practice. It is wonderful to have friends with whom one can fully and frankly discuss one’s ideals. So often our friendships are based on more mundane factors, such as, wanting to belong to a group, or simply physical attraction, or because we perceive that they’re popular and we want to be with someone like that. Spiritual friendship is often with people who aren’t like that at all and it is such a relief and release of the heart to be able to talk and open up about our spiritual ideals, which we often hide in the ordinary world.
Another really important aspect of spiritual friendship is that human communication works on our emotions and can transform us. Often after discussing the Dharma with an order member friend I feel very inspired and emotionally uplifted. So the sangha can provide support for members when they’re down or struggling, as all do who attempt the spiritual life. Also there is a role for criticism from our friends when we stray from the path or act unskilfully and can’t see it. For information on courses and activities at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre please contact us on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Contacting Our Emotions (11/4/02):
To manage ourselves skilfully it’s important to know how we’re reacting emotionally to events and circumstances. However, in the West we tend to be not very good at this. A popular book published not long ago called “Emotional Intelligence” was all about this. About how intellectual intelligence is not the only component of intelligence and how important it is to educate the young from an early age in developing emotional intelligence. Buddhism has always seen intelligence to be a combination of reason and emotion a combination of intelligent feelings and ‘feeling-full’ intelligence.
One of the ways into our emotions is to acknowledge the basic feeling of pleasure and pain when they arise. These are strong, simple signals that are often ignored or covered up. But it’s important to ‘own’ them because they are the originating point of emotional reactions. You can make it a practice to ask yourself throughout the day whether you are enjoying this experience or not, whether you feel something or not. And if you can feel something is it a pleasant feeling or a painful feeling?
This is a very good habit to get into and it will develop emotional accuracy, truthfulness and mindfulness. If you’re truthful with yourself about how you feel, then you’ll become more clear-minded and self-confident. You’ll not be pretending that you’re enjoying something when you are not, or convincing yourself that some experience will be unpleasant when you know that you’ll enjoy it. If you don’t pretend, you give yourself more freedom of choice in your emotional reactions. More about emotions next week – if you’re interested in reading more of these articles you can do so on our website. The new six-week course on Introductory Meditation is starting at this stage on thursday April 18 10am 12. For details please contact us on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Going Deeper into Emotions (18/4/02):
Last week we talked about being able to contact our emotions by being aware of the primary feelings of pleasure and pain. One of the ways into our emotions is to acknowledge the basic feelings of pleasure and pain when they arise. Another way to get into them, is not so much to label and analyse them, but to ‘experience’ them directly. Initially it may be useful to label them, but to really get into them it’s best to drop any attempt at analysing them along the lines of “what type of emotion is this that I’m feeling?” Try and communicate with them using a different language to that of the conceptual or intellectual. Use sensory language. Try asking yourself what colour they are, what temperature, texture, even what sound and smell they have? Are they hot or cold, smooth or rough that sort of thing. Really try to “feel” them; what do they feel like, what shape and where in the body. Get a felt sense of them and stay with the felt sense for a while. As with meditation as your self-awareness goes deeper and deeper into them they can begin to change. Eventually you can experience them as raw energy and you can ‘unhook’ them from whichever part of your personality they’re stuck with. This way they can be transformed. The raw energy of depression can be changed into a warm, compassionate feeling for yourself. Great anger can be transformed into great love. This is the wonderful thing about self-awareness, it’s like bringing heat to water, which changes it from liquid to a gas. It’s a transforming agent. Next time you’re in a mood try and sit with it, go into it and explore it and let it ‘be’. Then after awhile it will have ‘been’ and you’ll feel different. If you’re interested in reading more of these articles you can do so on our website. The next six-week course Practical Buddhism is now starting on Tuesday 30th April 7-9pm and the next Introductory Meditation is starting on thursday May 2nd 10am 12. For details please contact us on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Unconditional Being (27/4/02):
There are many schools of Buddhism in the West these days. In a way the western cultures have become heirs to the whole tradition because never before in the past were all the schools present in one country or culture. It seems to me that whether they are vipassana (insight), Zen, Tibetan, Hinayana or Mahayana schools of Buddhism they all seem to be emphasising some common themes as they adapt to the West.
One of these is that if through the practice of meditation and mindfulness we can break through or break out of our fixed, confined, mechanical mind we experience a state of unconditional being. Our mechanical mind is reactive in the sense that it reacts with pleasure or pain, attraction or repulsion to whatever it encounters. Through mindfulness practice we learn to just watch these reactions and not get caught up in them. We create spaciousness in our mind in which these impulses-to-act just die out like aircraft vapour trails in the sky. This way we get to know ourselves in greater detail.
Also through meditation we become more and more familiar with this fundamental quality of spaciousness within our mind. Sometimes it is described as a basic sanity or our potential Buddha-nature within. It’s the region of our creative potential that can allow us to respond rather then react to events. It has nourishing qualities of freshness, openness, and goodness. It’s beyond our normal, limited egoistic view of ourselves, which we struggle so hard to maintain through desire and aversion. Because it is unfamiliar territory and beyond our normal sense of self it takes patience and courage to learn to dwell in it.
When we can, we discover a bravery within that potentially exists within everyone without exception. It is our unconditional, pure being and it is where Nirvana lives. If you’re interested in reading more of these articles you can do so on our website. The next six-week course Practical Buddhism is starting on Tuesday 30th April 7-9pm and the next Introductory Meditation is starting on Thursday May 2nd 10am 12. We also have a retreat over the May long weekend. For details please contact us on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Sources of Inspiration (2/5/02):
Meditation is a direct way of raising your level of consciousness. Higher levels of consciousness have qualities like mental clarity, tranquillity, one-pointedness, bliss and joy. There are also many indirect ways of raising your level of consciousness and these can also be sources of inspiration. One of them is to get away from it all for a while in a beautiful, natural setting for a retreat from the world. Some of us are going on a long weekend retreat this weekend in Toowoomba and the theme of the retreat is ‘Sources of Inspiration’. It’s being led by one of our women order members this time her name is Vimoksalehi.
Other ways include leading a regular and disciplined lifestyle practicing moral precepts, having regular hours for meals, work, recreation, study and observing moderation in things like eating, sleeping and talking. Yoga, tai chi and related disciplines like flower arranging can also help uplift the mind. Then there is enjoying works of art poetry, music, literature, and paintings. These can work on developing and refining the emotions. Living in clean, healthy, aesthetic environments with good feng shui and communing with Nature are also helpful.
Association with spiritually minded people and spiritual friendship can be very inspiring. Helping other people and even our means of livelihood can be indirect ways of raising our level of consciousness. Chanting and ritual worship, devotional practices, lighting candles, sticks of incense, making offerings of flowers and other things, bowing, all of these can also have a powerful effect on our emotions. In fact, if our everyday lifestyle can incorporate a lot of these indirect ways, as well as include formal meditation, we could be experiencing a higher level of consciousness as our normal one all the time. They would arise as naturally as an apple falling off a tree when it is ripe. If you’re interested in reading more of these articles you can do so on our website. For details of classes and open evenings and other activities at the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre please contact us on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Clear Mind (9/5/02):
One of the root, skilful mental states in Buddhism is clarity of mind or lack of confusion. The Buddha encouraged his followers to question and clarify their unexamined beliefs and opinions. He said not to believe in his teaching or any teacher’s, just because of the teacher. He was about the only religious leader in history who said not to blindly believe in what he taught. His teachings were a means to an end, not an end in themselves. He advised that we examine everything, including his teachings, and if after due examination they were found to conduce to happiness, the good, the welfare of yourself and others, then to accept and practice them.
Some of the key questions that Buddhism raises are: how does one become happy? How does my behaviour affect me? What does the best in me long for? It’s good to put aside some time to reflect on such matters and to search for meaning in your life. You can ask yourself whether it’s objectively possible to grow and develop. The answer has to be ‘yes’! Then you can ask yourself, well do you yourself want to grow? If the answer is again ‘yes’, then the obvious thing to do is to decide to make a little effort towards it. If the answer to either one of the questions is ‘no’, you haven’t thought it through clearly!
Or perhaps you’re stuck at the moment and right now you’re not in the mood. But even that is really evading the issue, because in the long term, if you understand what personal development is, you’ll surely want it. Or perhaps that’s the problem; you don’t know what it means to ‘grow and develop’. But that could be doubt and you need to work at it again and again until you see it more clearly. It can also be good to talk to friends about the issues the reflection raises. For details of classes in meditation and philosophy, open evenings, our calendar and retreats please contact us on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
To Be or Not To Be (16/5/02):
We do not exist as separate entities. We are not disconnected to everything else. This is the topic we have been wrestling with this week in our Practical Buddhism course. As I’m sure you are aware there are certain conditions that we depend on for our existence and without them we’d cease to exist – air, water and food to name three of the most basic. We are completely immersed in or enmeshed with our environment; without its inputs into out biological system we wouldn’t exist. If we leave this planet we have to take an artificial environment with us to survive.
So in this sense there is no self separate from everything else. Yet we have a very definite experience of self and part of that experience is that we are separate from other things. What a puzzling position to be in. The Buddhist teaching on self that describes this paradoxical situation is that we as self neither exist nor do not exist. In other words ultimately we do not exist as something disconnected and completely separate and self-sustaining; and yet we do exist as a self that is thrown up by various conditions. Our existence as self is contingent on these conditions.
The principal condition is that our brains are capable of reflexive consciousness a consciousness that can bend back on itself and be aware that it is being aware. It is this continuous awareness of something being aware that gives us the sense or feeling of being a self. But actually it is just a continuous process like a series of snap shots strung together that give the illusion of solid reality just as a film does. When the film is playing we see what looks like solid independently existing entities. But when we stop the film and look at the reel we find that it consists of a whole lot of single photographs.
This sense of self from a Buddhist point of view is very important. Without it we would not have autonomy and the ability to make choices, like choosing to grow and meditate. But we don’t take it too seriously. We accept that the experience of separation it bestows on us is apparent not real. Meditation reveals to us how the self has no real substance and makes it transparent. We use it to help us mange life but we don’t take it to be the centre of the universe. Meditation also overcomes the sense of separation and reveals something beyond the illusion of self. For details of classes in meditation and philosophy, open evenings, our calendar and retreats please contact us on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
The Buddha’s Enlightenment (23/5/02):
Last Sunday we celebrated the Buddha’s Enlightenment along with Buddhists throughout the world on Wesak, the full moon day of the month of May. Before the Buddha became Enlightened he had to conquer the demons within himself. This was a very important stage and he said that many famous sages of the past failed to proceed past this point. In early accounts of this incident the demons attacking the Buddha were personified as all sorts of frightening and ferocious beings attacking the Buddha. They also included the seductive daughters of Mara the Evil One.
In the Life of the Buddha according to the Pali Canon (the earliest collection of the Buddha’s teachings), Mara is said to have sent nine squadrons of demons. It is when we see the list that we realise these forces are actually personifications of the Buddha’s own mental states. They included sense desire, boredom, hunger and thirst, craving, sloth and torpor, cowardice or fear, indecision and doubt (uncertainty), ill will and obstinacy, gain, honour and renown, ill won notoriety, self-praise and denigrating others. I think we can all relate to these mental states and the fact that they threatened the Buddha before his Enlightenment makes him less of an abstract figure to us; he was just a human being like us.
What happened next is often depicted in Buddhist art. All the monstrous beings or forces attacking him when they encounter the Buddha’s aura are transformed into flowers that fall at his feet. At this point Mara departed in defeat. This highly symbolic image shows how the Buddha’s totally imperturbable calm self-awareness was able to identify and transform these negative energies into positive ones. Thus we find in the Buddhist tradition a lot of emphasis on not running away from one’s negative mental states but patiently working with them and capturing their energy in order to transform them into positive ones.
In fact in the Abidharma, often referred to as a massive treatise on the psychology of ethics in Buddhism in the Pali Canon, there is a list of twenty factors of instability or negative mental emotions that we can use to help us identify the demons we create for ourselves, some of which we didn’t even realise existed. Once we identify them we can work with them. So don’t run away from them. Indeed as one Buddhist writer has put it, without them, without Mara, the Buddha wouldn’t have awakened! So she says, weren’t they his best friends? For details of classes in meditation and philosophy, open evenings, our calendar and retreats please contact us on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
Buddhism and the Environment (3/6/02):
Last Sunday we had a stall at the World Environment Day celebration at Lake Annand Park – so I thought I’d say a few words about Buddhism in relation to the Environment. I’ve seen Buddhism referred to as ‘spiritual ecology’ in the literature on Buddhism and the Environment what does this mean? Well, ecology studies organisms and their relationship with the environment, in contrast to biology, which tends to study organisms in isolation. What ecology reveals in its study is that everything is interconnected with everything else and knit together by a complex web of conditions and causal chains occurring on the biological, physical and chemical planes.
Buddhism has always accepted that all phenomena are interconnected and mutually conditioning. However, it considers that this occurs not only at the material level but at the immaterial level as well. In other words at the level of the psychological, volitional and spiritual as well as the physical, chemical and biological. Thus, just as the biophysical environment for example, the landscape, the weather can affect human mental states, human mental states can also effect the environment. The three poisons of greed, aggression and delusion operating in the collective human mind can actually manifest as poisons or pollution in the biophysical environment. This is one way Buddhism can be interpreted as ‘spiritual ecology’ it factors the human being into an intimate cause and effect relationship with the environment. So the Laws of Conditioned Co-production and Karma (that actions have consequences) are very relevant to the analysis of environmental issues and problems and their relation to human ethics.
Next Saturday week the 15th of June, a Womans’ Dharma day is being led by an order member from Sydney. Her name is Satyaghandi and she will be further exploring the theme of ‘The Elemental Path to Insight’ after giving a talk on the Thursday night the 13th June at the TBC. We are made up of the elements earth, water, fire, air and space and by understanding how the elemental energies manifest in us we can develop greater awareness and equanimity. The theme will be explored through meditation, guided imagery and discussion. For details of this and other classes in meditation and philosophy, open evenings, our calendar and retreats please contact the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre (TBC) on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba
Mysteries of the Human Psyche (6/6/02):
The human psyche is a mysterious thing! Anyone attempting to grow spiritually sooner or later discovers this. One of the strengths of our teacher, the Ven. Sangarakshita, is (in my opinion) that he has gone to great lengths to point out how important it is for us to become psychologically integrated before we can make spiritual progress. It’s almost like psychological growth is necessary before spiritual. He was one of the first teachers in the West to realise how important an issue this is for western people.
In the early days people jumped in at the deep end with approaches like Zen Buddhism and tried to appropriate experiences like their own ultimate non-existence, when they weren’t sufficiently psychologically integrated or ‘together’ to assimilate the experience. In such circumstances these experiences can be psychologically destabilising or even downright dangerous. In more recent times this danger has become increasingly recognised as in the West the discipline of psychology and Buddhism explore what they have in common. In fact this danger has now become known as ‘psychologically by-passing’.
We are a bundle of different selves all inhabiting the one body. Have you ever noticed how one self might decide to get up early the next morning and another comes on duty when you wake up and decides to have a sleep in? Often as well these different selves or sub-personalities are in conflict with each other and sabotage each other, often unconsciously as illustrated by the fact that, even though we wanted to do one thing, before we’re fully conscious of it we’ve done the opposite. How can we grow or assimilate spiritual experiences whilst this state of affairs exists?
One of the main aims of meditation is to pull all these scattered energies together. To harmonise them, or balance them, and this is what psychological integration means. Once drawn together then we have a chance to galvanise them in the direction of our best interests. One of the most painful aspects of growth is facing just how un-integrated we are. We want to change, so we’re not happy with how we are, but we don’t want to face this fact or the demons within in any real depth. The next Introduction to Buddhist Meditation course starts on Tuesday 23rd July 7-9pm and the next Practical Buddhism course Thursday the 25th July 10am-12noon. There’ll be an open evening preceding them at the TBC on Tuesday 16th July 7-9pm. For details please contact the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre (TBC) on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba
Buddhist Centres in Toowoomba (20/6/02):
We have received some inquiries lately that suggest that people don’t realise that there are now two Buddhist Centres in Toowoomba. Our centre, simply known as the Toowoomba Buddhist centre or TBC, opened in July 1999 at Bridge Street and then in July 2000 moved to 4 Thorn Street where we are currently located. The other centre, known as the Pure Land Learning College, opened in 2001 in West Street. Although both are Buddhist Centres there are very big differences in their approaches to Buddhism and their style.
The Pure Land School is a form of Chinese Buddhism that developed in China in the third and fourth centuries C.E. (Common Era 3rd century A.D.). Their teaching is that if you conscientiously chant the Amitabha Buddha mantra you can be re-born in the Pure Land and proceed from there to enlightenment. The College is a training centre attended by mainly Chinese monks and nuns (and some American ones) who wear traditional robes and study the works of their teacher Master Chin Kung and Pure Land texts in Chinese. They aim to train their people to spread the Master’s teaching, including over the internet. Like many Asian forms of Buddhism, because of their longer history and support from Chinese communities, they have considerable financial assets.
Our centre is an example of the ‘new’ Western style of Buddhism pioneering its development in the West. It’s only been around for the last four decades. The centre is very ‘grass roots’ – a simple rented premises with a shrine room and other rooms. The centre runs classes in Meditation and Introductory Buddhist teachings as well as retreats and workshops, including for the local schools. We tend to follow the teachings of the Venerable Sangharakshita who is an Englishman ordained in the East and who has been one of the pioneers in adapting traditional Buddhist teachings to be relevant to the modern Western cultural context. His movement known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist order (FWBO) has order members rather then monks and nuns and is very much lay-oriented.
The TBC is autonomous and part-time in the sense that most people attending and running it also work. We rely on the generosity of our members for our existence and some times struggle to pay the rent. Our classes are attended mainly by Western people (but not only) and have been of considerable help to the community. The Buddhist courses (in English of course) have helped the healing and psychological and spiritual development of community members, as well the overall development of physical and mental well-being. The feedback we have received has indicated that our preliminary aim of helping people to become happy, sane, healthy individuals has been successful.
To help pay the rent we are looking for people interested in hiring out some of our rooms. We already offer classes in Tai Chi and Karate but are interested in other indirect ways of working on consciousness-raising like yoga, massage, Alexander technique and related alternative practices. If you’re interested in this issue give us a call. The next Introduction to Buddhist Meditation course starts on Tuesday 23rd July 7-9pm and the next Practical Buddhism course Thursday the 25th July 10am-12noon. There’ll be an open evening preceding them at the TBC on Tuesday 16th July 7-9pm come and have a look. For details please contact the Toowoomba Buddhist Centre (TBC) on 46597760 or www.fwbo.org.au/toowoomba.
A Healing Meditation
Sometimes, if we are not completely swamped under, problems can indirectly bring about a deepening of our own wisdom and compassion for others. This can occur if we remember that life is a mixture of both good and bad circumstance, and that there are many others who have very similar–or worse–problems with just the same issues that we do.
One thing that you can do is to offer up your own pain for the benefit of others. A good technique derived from Tibetan Buddhist practices is as follows:
1) Acknowledge the problem and your pain; open to being with it; you don’t have to approve of pain, but to best handle it, you need to experience it fully so that you are in a position to let go of it.
2) Realize that pain–along with pleasure–is a fundamental aspect of this world that we live in: it’s a package deal–they come together.
3) Understand that lots and lots of folks have it as bad, if not much worse, than you do with exactly the same problem.
4) Muster up a little (or as much as you can) empathy for all those other folks; wish that somehow you could help them too.
5) Develop the wish to take on their sufferings with this problem through a kind of transference. Imagine that your very real pain now somehow includes a portion (if even only a tiny one) of their sufferings and thereby relieves them of some of their pain.
6) Visualize that, as well as taking on some of their suffering, you also give them some of your happiness to help them as well. You can imagine their problems coming into your heart as thick black smoke, and your goodwill streaming out to them as pleasant white light.
7) You should feel that the black smoke also helps to utterly destroy your own confusion and unhealthy relationships with your problem. This should lead to a feeling of joy.
8) If you would like, you can coordinate this visualisation and imagination with your breath. Breathe in their problems and breathe out your happiness. Breathe naturally throughout.
9) Continue with this for a while until you feel a sense of completion.
It is a wonderful practice and can help balance out the personality. And don’t worry, it won’t bite! It may seem practically ludicrous to go asking for more trouble on top of all that one already has, but due to the interconnected nature of the world at physical and metaphysical levels, this practice helps to open the heart and can literally contribute to physical and emotional recovery.
A new perspective on suffering
I write as a physician, not as a moralist, but any physician working in modern civilization cannot help noticing our cultural deafnss to the wisdom of the body. The path to health, for an individual or a society. must begin by taking pain into account. Instead, we silence pain when we should be straining our ears to hear it …
– Dr Paul Brand
By Gilles Bédard
Christine Longaker has been a student of Sogyal Rinpoche (author of The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying) since 1980, and served for nine years as the principal coordinator of Rigpa Fellowship, the association sponsoring Buddhist teachings under Rinpoche’s guidance in the United States. Her direct experiences of caregiving, and of healing her grief after her husband’s death twenty years ago, led her to become a pioneer in the hospice movement; she helped to establish the Hospice of Santa Cruz County in California, and became its president.
Since ceasing her hospice work, Christine has given hundreds of training seminars on the care of the dying throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. She has taught college courses on death and dying, provided training for nurses, ministers, and hospice caregivers, and counseled the dying and their families for many years.
Currently, she is working closely with Rinpoche to develop the comprehensive education and training program Spiritual Care for Living and Dying, which applies the compassion and wisdom of the Buddhism teachings to the needs of people today: living, dying, and bereaved. In addition to Christine’s seminars, the program supports a growing network of study and practice groups for health-care professionals who are integrating the teachings into their life and work.
Q: You wrote in your book – Facing Death and Finding Hope: “In truth, facing illness, suffering or death is a fall into Grace.” How can we see death as a gift, a very special gift, indeed?
A: We often go through life half-asleep.
We don’t really know what we are doing, or what we want to accomplish.
We haven’t clarified what our values are.
We often take our life and our relationships for granted.
We get lost in so many distractions and interesting things.
We always have a sense that there’s something important and special about life and even about death but we fail to really take the time to look at it.
And normally, from that point of view, when we fall ill, go through some sort of crisis or are facing death, we think that this is the worst thing, that it’s a tragedy. But if we keep our mind open when we enter an experience that I would call “falling out of the healthy world”, we can ask ourselves:
What benefit can this bring me? Can I find a gift in this illness?
I don’t believe there is a gift or a lesson already given in suffering. But if we ask ourselves: How can I learn or grow, even as I go through this change or this loss, we often find very unexpected wonderful treasures that come to us.
We realize how precious every day and every relationship is, how important our choices are, how important it is to remember our true values and really make the time to live according to them. And as we do, we find a richness and meaning that we hadn’t even suspected were there before.
Q: You also said “Pain is inevitable but suffering is optional”. What is the difference between the “unavoidable suffering” and the “unnecessary suffering” we experience through our life?
A: Because we are born into this life, we obviously will have experiences, for example, of physical changes and suffering, in the process of aging or with illness or even with a very dramatic accident. We can experience discomfort and even a massive amount of pain. As we are facing death, our body begins to deteriorate and we lose our power to do the things that we enjoy in life.
None of this is personal, it’s not happening to us as some sort of punishment or as a sign we have the wrong kind of personality, because in fact, suffering is universal. Every human being goes through unwanted physical pain as well as the deterioration of aging. All of us experience losses in which we either don’t get something we want or what we most cherish is taken away from us, for example, when the people we love leave or die. And this is not easy to go through but it’s part of human life.
What becomes unnecessary suffering, the optional part of that pain, is if we don’t learn from the losses that we go through in life, if we continue our old habits of grasping, or neediness, feeling that we have to have certain things in our life to be happy, then we build for ourselves inescapable cycles of suffering that keep us going round and round.
Our needs can never be satisfied and even if they are, it’s only temporary. Everything that we grasp after eventually changes, dissolves or dies; thus we keep setting ourselves up for disappointment, pain, anger and hurt.
Yet experiences of suffering can open doors for us, and help us to see there is another way to approach life besides cycling from grasping to loss and disappointment.
Instead of looking to the external world for lasting happiness and peace, we can turn our mind inward and discover the part of our being that is beyond change, loss and grief – our skylike essence that is already whole, peaceful, radiant with compassion and love.
Then the losses and deepest pain in our life can become a gift, propelling us forward in our spiritual path and helping us feel richer as we go through life, because we become more and more free, at ease, and naturally happy.
Q: How can we change our suffering into a positive action and see the possibility of liberation in our life?
A: When we are in the midst of very great suffering, sometimes it is hard to get another perspective, to find a feeling of spaciousness or kindness towards ourselves as we go through the suffering. But in fact even though it’s hard, we must find a way to do it. Otherwise we just become more contracted and more frightened as we go through our life, resisting and having an aversion to the different changes and losses we go through.
So, what I found helpful in my own life was to approach through meditating, through listening to teachings, through talking with friends, always keeping this question in mind: “How can I understand my suffering in a different way? How can I shift my perspective and find spaciousness, freedom and peace again in my being?”
If we really keep asking this question and try to learn from life experiences, from stopping and spending the time to just look at a beautiful flower or sit on a hillside gazing into the sky, we start to realize that there are other possibilities.
We can let each moment of joy nurture us and remind us that there is another way to approach life. And slowly, when we keep these questions in mind, more and more gifts come into our life that will enrich us and help us to find a spiritual path.
Q: You started your spiritual path through a dramatic event, the death of your husband. Could you tell me about it?
A: In a sense, that was a perfect example – when you get really stuck and there is no way out – then sooner or later, you have to open yourself to realize that there is another reality, another way to see the meaning of your life and go through it.
When my husband was first diagnosed with acute leukemia, we were both very young, I hadn’t had any direct encounters with death before and I realized that we were facing the very real possibility of his death. I remember thinking to myself that all I ever heard about death is that it is something very tragic and unfair, it’s the worst thing that can happen to you. I said to my husband, “If that’s all that death is, then no matter how long you have to live, we’re just going to be in this tragic story and we’re going to feel helpless and victims of our circumstances.”
Neither of us, at that time, had a spiritual path, but I remember saying to my husband, “I don’t know exactly what death is or if there is anything after death but maybe we can try to view the fact that we’re facing death as a gift in our life.”
So, even though it seems like a huge package of unwanted suffering, if we view death as a gift maybe we can find out what the gift is. We didn’t have an answer at the beginning. But we knew that we had been taking our lives for granted, not communicating well in our relationship and not really appreciating that our life had any meaning or direction.
By deciding to view death as a gift, even though during that year we still had a lot of suffering, we made mistakes and often still hurt each other unconsciously in the things that we did, we had to work through those mistakes very quickly. We had committed to our intention to change and live in a more meaningful and loving way.
So, just changing our view point about death was an incredible gift for us; even the mistakes that we made became gifts because they forced us to connect with our love and communicate more genuinely.
At the time my husband died, I felt that part of the relationship was complete, that we had done the best we could. Even before he died, we were able to apologize to each other for the hard times we’d given each other and also express our gratitude for the year that we’d had, the love that we’d shared and how much we had grown. So when he died, I felt very peaceful and I could really let him go with all my love because I knew we had lived his last year of life really well, even with its mistakes.
At the same time, I sensed that there was another, deeper dimension to death, and that something important was happening in that transition. And I didn’t have a clue what to do for him, how to support him spiritually, both before and after he died. My desire to understand the deeper dimension of death launched me into doing hospice work as well as finding an authentic spiritual path.
Q: You mention an aspect which I found very significative: “Gazing continually into the mirror of death during the year of his illness encouraged us to find and commit to a meaningful direction in our lives. Rather than feeling we were helpless victims, we committed to creating the kind of life we truly wanted in our final year together. This change came about in the way we decided to view death on that very first day in the hospital.”
A: It is making that commitment to life. That’s what I found beautiful in this quote by Brother David Steindl-Rast: “You’re not just given life, you have to actually choose life, you have to make a commitment to live and to find a meaning and a direction.” And until you do, you’re just half alive, you just feel like you’re wandering around. I felt that way as a young person. I thought life was just to enjoy and to have fun. It didn’t really matter what you did, what you valued. You could just fool around, nothing really counted.
But suddenly, when you are face to face with death, you realize that this is a really precious time, this chance that we have in our life is not going to last.
What we do in this life is very significant.
We can bring a lot of benefit into this world, we can heal a relationship with somebody we’ve had a hard time with or change things and give ourselves meaningful direction. I still make mistakes and am sometimes very unaware, but I know that its possible to contribute and make a difference in other people’s lives.
Q: Dying can be a way to share some very precious moments with our family and loved ones, and develop a special commitment in our lives. Is there a way to see death as a guide to bring a sacred environment into our life?
A: Yes, there is a way. Many of us who follow a religious tradition tend to fragment our lives, keeping the spiritual part of our life for one part of the day or one day of the week. Then our life looks like small, unrelated pieces – our social life, work life, family life, spiritual life, and so on – which is why we feel so scattered and exhausted most of the time. We have no unifying principle or sacred context that gives our lives and our choices meaning.
So, if we are already on a spiritual path, we can learn to see that everything we do in life is part of that path, every act, every communication and choice we make helps to form the meaning of our life. Every experience we have, whether happy or painful, and how we understand and go through our experiences is an expression of the ultimate meaning or destiny of our life.
As we become more aware of the sacred context of our life, we start to realize that even talking with a stranger on the street or washing dishes could be a sacred act if we do it with a motivation of compassion, with all our presence and awareness and authenticity. We need to establish this integrity in our mind and heart, seeing that everything we experience can become part of our personal and spiritual evolution.
There are many people who don’t have a religious path yet have an intuitive feeling that there is a deeper dimension to death as well as to life. One way of making a deeper contact with the sacredness of life is to contemplate every morning on the suffering unfolding on a daily basis to so many people throughout the world, on the suffering we witness in our friends and family, and even on our own suffering.
As we contemplate on all of this suffering and allow it to touch our hearts, then we feel more of a connection to others, more compassion, more committed to making our lives meaningful and evolving personally and spiritually, so that we might be of service to others. So, that is another way to begin experiencing the sacredness of what we do.
We can actually contribute to other people’s happiness or to relieving their suffering by living in a meaningful way, by giving to life rather than just taking.
Q: Being aware of our journey through a spiritual path could also be a way of surrendering and learning impermanence?
A: That’s true. We constantly experience change and loss, and impermanence. Our normal attitude towards these situations is that they are only negative, or we conclude we are somehow being personally tortured and punished.
When we react with negativity or helplessness to change and impermanence, we are creating more emotion, more grasping and thus more suffering. Alternatively, if we really use these losses to contemplate on our own eventual death, and ask ourselves: what can I take with me when I die, we find that each experience of impermanence and loss is a chance for us to rehearse our death.
Instead of blaming our circumstances, we can look inside and ask:
What is the most important thing, what am I really doing with my time and my energy that will make a difference?
Slowly we understand that our worldly situations and pleasures are not lasting, and that we cannot ultimately hold onto them or take them with us. This realization helps us learn to let go with grace, and to begin grasping less in the first place, which is even better.
This is how we become more and more free The most important thing is discovering the deathless, unchanging, innermost essence of our being, which is already whole, peaceful, open and free. Looking within and getting in touch with this essence, which is perfect wisdom and infinite compassion, is the source of the true happiness and well-being for which we have been yearning.
Q: Over your years of working with death and dying, you developed the Four Tasks of Living and Dying – Understanding and Transforming Suffering, Making a Connection, Healing Relationships and Letting Go, Preparing Spiritually for Death and Finding Meaning in Life. Could you summarize them and tell us how we can integrate them not only into our work but also into our daily life?
A: It’s an interesting story how I came to describe these four tasks. I was starting to give some in-service workshops for hospice caregivers and I realized that they were already experts at understanding the needs of the dying and the family dynamics.
What they needed was to talk about the really tough situations: how to deal with angry family members, what to do in cases when nobody will let the persons know that they’re dying, how to help somebody who feels depressed and hopeless and has no spiritual faith, how to support a parent leaving behind young children, and how to connect with a patient who has dementia or is comatose.
In examining the source of these problems, I started by naming them The Four Principal Difficulties or Fears of Dying. And then I slowly realized that actually, these problems reveal what we need to do in order to conclude our lives well; so I re-named them the Four Tasks of Dying.
Dying is not a passive time where you give up and give in, it’s actually a very active time, our last possibility for growth. I realized that they were only the tasks of dying if we never took care of them when we’re living, which is why I now call them The Four Tasks of Living and Dying.
We face these same tasks when we are told we have a life threatening illness and are still working toward healing, when we are going through bereavement, or experiencing a major life loss; these are the same tasks for caregivers as well as for those who are facing death. They include the need to understand and transform our suffering, because we experience suffering, pain and loss, throughout our entire life – not just when we face death.
We need to have a more positive context or way to understand why we suffer, and what opportunity lies in suffering.
One of the worst parts about an experience of suffering is our fear that it is meaningless, and that we are helpless to overcome it. The Buddhist philosophy of connectedness and compassion helps us see that we are not alone in suffering. By reflecting on the suffering of others and dedicating our own suffering or spiritual practice for their benefit, we can dispel much of our own misery, and give a deeper meaning to our suffering.
As we generate deeper feelings of love and compassion this way, it opens and heals our heart, helping us evolve as we go through life, and ultimately, by connecting us to our innermost essence, which is wisdom and compassion, we can remove the causes of suffering and attain liberation.
The second task, the need to heal our relationships, make a connection and let go, refers to our need to have authentic communication with others, based on mutual respect, acceptance and understanding. The dying especially need frequent and genuine reassurance of other’s love and affection – but unfortunately, they often get the opposite. During life, but especially before we die, we need to heal past wounds in our relationships, drop all the conditions we normally tack onto our love, and learn to accept and love each other exactly as we are.
The third task, the need to understand death and prepare spiritually for death, shows us that death in fact mirrors the meaning of our life. What have we really come into this life to do? What is the most important thing, after all, when we come to die? All the religious traditions of the world describe that there is an aspect to our being, a spiritual essence, which is deathless. And the nature of our existence after death is connected to two things – whatever we do in our life, and how we are just at the moment of death.
Finally, whether or not we have a religious or spiritual orientation, each of us needs to find a meaning in our life.
We must find a thread or context which allows us to know that we are using our life well.
That context might be a wish to evolve into becoming more whole, a better human being, the wish to heal the wounds from our life, or to give something back to life, and to our community.
We need to feel our existence has meaning to at least one other person. that we are cared for, or that we are capable of giving love to others. This is possible, with good communication and connection, at any stage of life, regardless of our physical or cognitive limitations. And it is vital to find a meaning in our life as we face death, so that we will not die empty-handed.
Q: Could you tell us about the Tonglen and Self-Tonglen?
A: True compassion, known in Sanskrit as Bodhicitta, is unconditional, limitless and unbiased in any way, shape or form. Bodhicitta means “the heart of our enlightened mind.” The wisdom and compassion that radiates from our true nature is compared to the sun: the radiance of the sun is wisdom and the warmth of the sun’s rays are the compassion and love which are given out freely toward all creation. That is the way the compassion of our wisdom nature really is.
The compassion practice known as Tonglen, which means “giving and receiving,” encourages us to connect with our wisdom nature, with this pure and profound compassion that is the core of our being. As we connect with that indestructible wisdom in our meditation, we slowly find the courage and the joy to relieve the suffering of other beings.
In the Tonglen practice, with each in-breath, we imagine taking in the suffering of other beings in the form of a dark cloud, and as it touches the radiant, sun-like bodhicitta in our heart it is transformed. Then, with each out-breath we give out, in the form of light, all of our love, all of our forgiveness, all of our happiness and joy. The Tonglen is an extraordinary practice of compassion which enables us to become fearless and confident, because we start to trust in our true nature rather than our ordinary fearful conditioned mind that is always trying to keep suffering at bay.
When we first begin doing the Tonglen practice, we may not have this confidence yet, so it might be helpful to train in the Self-Tonglen first, to practice taking in our own suffering, our negativity, judgments or aversion of pain and give out all of our love, happiness, understanding, and forgiveness.
The best thing we can do is to realize that we are facing death right now. We have to engage in our spiritual practice very meaningfully, as though it were our very last day. In this way, we are training ourselves, allowing our spiritual practice to fully enter our being and become part of our flesh and bones, so it becomes our whole way of perceiving and being in the world. And if we were to die unexpectedly or to find out that we have an incurable illness, our practice would really be there for us as a support. But what if a person is very close to death and doesn’t have the chance to develop such a dedicated spiritual practice – what can they do?
It is very good to just call out for help, to invoke the sacred presence of whomever you believe in: God, Buddha or Christ. Then, pray to this Presence that you might be supported in your illness and your suffering, pray that he or she may guide and protect you fearlessly through the process of dying and help you let go of your attachment to this life and turn towards the truth.
Even if a person has no spiritual path, the bottom line in helping them to die well is to die not feeling empty-handed but knowing that their life has had meaning, that they have contributed to us in their life, or in their process of dying. So, as we relate to a dying person and give our love and invite them to tell us the story of their life, what they suffered and what they learned, we are actually helping them to not die empty-handed.
Q: How can we help someone who have difficulty communicating with his family or loved one? How can we express them our love and deep feelings when they are near death and sometimes unconscious?
A: Well, there are two things. First, people sometimes have a hard time communicating their very deep feelings as they approach this coming loss. They might find it easier to open up this communication first with a counselor or social worker. That may help them understand what is most important about their connection, and how to express this to the dying person.
I encourage caregivers and family members to remember that if they keep procrastinating and putting off saying what they need to, the person that they love might become unconscious and unable to communicate. Then they will lose this precious opportunity they have now; they will feel doubly bereft, from losing their loved one and the possibility they had had to enjoy the relationship and communicate fully. So, I encourage them to make this genuine connection early on and not be afraid of the natural sadness that will come because that’s part of their love, it’s all right for it to be there.
There are other people who, as you said, have lost the ability to communicate verbally, though we must remember that on many levels, communication is happening all the time. Through touch, being together even in silence, the communication is really what we are feeling in our heart. If we have a hard time using words to express our feeling, we should slow down, be more peaceful and with awareness try and see what is really true and then express this to the person – even if he or she has dementia.
We must try to also listen with our heart and feel what the other person may be expressing in a non-verbal way.
Some family members told me that they really had to push their loved one, before he or she died, to simply say “I love you”. But what an extraordinary gift it is! For the dying person’s children or partner, hearing “I love you,” “I am sorry,” or, “thank you for all you’ve done” one more time is a memory they can carry with them for the rest of their life.
Q: How can people deal with the death of a child?
A: I myself don’t have direct experience with dying children but I’ve learned a lot about it from others who do. Children pick up the feeling and the view point about death from their parents.
If they have a very negative or frightening view of death, this is what the child will feel. If the parents have a more positive, life-affirming, or spiritual view of death, then a dying child will feel more secure. Thus it is vital to support the parents, because when they can come to terms with the loss of their child, then the child will have an easier time as well.
It is important to acknowledge all of the layers of the parent’s pain, to allow it to be expressed and released. Of course, there are no words to describe how difficult it is; there’s nothing, in this life, like seeing a child in pain without being able to do something. But we can also help parents to see that their own attachment and fear may make the child’s pain worse.
So it is vital for parents to find sources of support and release — perhaps through a parent’s support group, with a counselor, or by writing out and releasing their fears and attachment. We are naturally afraid to let go, afraid that by accepting the death, it means we do not love our child. But beyond our attachment, there is still a pure love there. As Elizabeth Kübler-Ross says, “Your child may die, but real love doesn’t die.”
Q: It seems easier for children to die because they don’t have a lifelong habit of attachment and grasping as we do.
A: That’s true. If children are given good support in their process of being ill and dying, if they have really caring caregivers and a good communicative family, for them dying is not so difficult. They have often a natural trust or confidence in life and a very natural spirituality. It makes sense for them to pray or to call out for help.
So, letting go, as you said, is not so hard for them. The pain they often suffer is worrying about their siblings or parents. Of course, we have to be kind to ourselves. It’s natural to have an attachment for children. It’s equally important to realize that when it’s time to really let somebody that you love go, we need to think about what is best for them in that moment, and not make them suffer more on our account.
Q: You personally experienced two aspects of death: first, facing it with the death of your husband and then doing hospice work and giving workshops and lectures. What did you learn from death?
A: I’ve learned that our failures are wonderful fuel for us to change and become better human beings. The more I keep my own death in mind, the more I’m forced to change and grow and pay attention to what it is I’m taking refuge in, what my real values are. Because of not knowing how to fully support my husband at the time of his death, I entered a spiritual path.
I’m very grateful now to the suffering that my husband and I went though because it brought something far richer and more meaningful in my life. Because of the spiritual path I found after his death, I now feel a deeper confidence – not just intellectual but a confidence born from my meditation practice – that death can be something wonderful.
And the gift for me now is that as I travel and teach and give seminars and present my book, I can assure other people that there is a spiritual dimension to death and to life. Knowing this is extremely helpful. In whatever spiritual tradition we follow, if we deepen our connection to the truth and make it part of our being, we can really give strength to other people when they suffer. And the joy this brings is beyond words.
©1998 Gilles Bédard
Abbot John Daido Loori’s Presentation
Suffering Caused by Sickness and Aging
Sr. Mary Margaret Funk, OSB, John Daido Loori
from Gethsemani Encounter II, April 2002
Mary Margaret Funk: Good morning. Today we have a full day to stretch our boundaries for the sake of our own transformation and the transformation of others on the theme of the suffering caused by old age and sickness and even death. We had marvelous psalms this morning. Let me quote two verses out of Norman Fischer’s new translation of Psalm 102: “Let my cry come before you. Don’t hide your face from me now. When suffering overwhelms me, bend your ear toward my wailing and answer me swiftly. The days of my life have gone up in smoke. My bones are smoldering like hearth fire logs, and my heart is as dry as desert grass. I can’t eat. My groaning bones chatter inside my flesh. I am like a scavenger bird in the wilderness, like an owl amidst the ruins. All hungry. I am like a lone bird on a nighttime rooftop.”
When Father James Wiseman and I were in Tibet, we were staying at a hotel near Mt. Everest, although because of the different names given by the Chinese, Tibetans, and Nepalese to the area we weren’t quite sure where we were. So I said to the Chinese clerk, “Where are we? Where are we?” And she said, pointing to the ground, “Here, here.” Of course, that didn’t satisfy Meg Funk, the leader of the band, so I went to the map and pointed to it. “No,” I said, ‘Where are we?” “I don’t know,” said the clerk. “I’ve never been anyplace else.” So, here we are.
It is my privilege this morning to introduce a new friend for me and probably an old friend for many of you-but a great discovery, a jewel in this dialogue, John Daido Loori Roshi. He is the spiritual leader and the abbot of Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York. Trained in koan Zen as well as in the subtle school of Master Dogen’s Zen, he is a Dharma heir of Haku Taizan Maezumi Roshi. He has received transmission in both the Rinzai as well as the Soto lines of Zen Buddhism. Abbot Loori lives at the monastery year-round and is very active in its day-to-day activities, making him highly accessible to students. Devoted to maintaining authentic Zen training, he has developed a distinctive style called Eight Gates of Zen, based on the Eightfold Path, involving both monastic and lay practitioners in a program of study that embraces every aspect of daily life. Zazen and a strong teacher-student relationship form the core of the training, supported by art practice and other areas of study, as was traditional during the Golden Ages of Chinese and Japanese Zen.
John Daido Loori: I’d like to begin by just expressing my appreciation to everyone who’s here, to the organizers of this conference, but mostly to the participants. I normally don’t do well at conferences, so I came prepared to be bored senseless. Instead, my heart has been ripped open by what’s taken place here. I’ve been touched deeply by the openness and honesty of all the participants, and I deeply appreciate it. Thank you. One other thing I wanted to mention for future conferences is language. Sometimes I’m not sure if we’re talking about the same thing. There are many words in Buddhism that are translated into English to the closest equivalent, and they don’t convey what’s really behind the word-like prajna into “wisdom,” karuna into “compassion,” and dukkha into “suffering.” For instance, there is much more to the word dukkha than the English word “suffering” encompasses.
As I see it, there are different ways of dealing with suffering due to old age and sickness. Of course, the basic Buddhist way is that the extinguishing of suffering is essentially the definition of Nirvana. Then there is alleviation of suffering, which is a different approach. Then there is the transformation of suffering, and I’d like to look briefly at all three of those.
The extinguishing of suffering forms the whole basis of training at our monastery. People who enter come with a statement: “I come here realizing the question of life and death is a grave matter. I wish to enter into training.” These novices are essentially saying that they want to resolve those ultimate questions: “Who am I? What is life? What is death? What is truth? What is reality?” They enter a training program that takes place in eight different areas, and moves through ten successive stages. It’s clearly defined; each day and each week these ten areas of practice are engaged. Zazen is at the core of everything that we do. A student tries to develop a single-pointedness of mind, to deal with the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that come up. It’s a very slow process that takes place over years.
A second area of training is the teacher/student relationship. Because we are an ancestral lineage, the teachings are conveyed one to one from teacher to student rather than through scriptures or study. It’s mind-to-mind transmission. For that we use koan study. In our lineage there are 750 of those koans that a student needs to go through over a period of between fifteen to twenty years, or sometimes more. These koans are designed to short-circuit the whole intellectual process. They essentially frustrate linear sequential thought. They try to open up another aspect of consciousness, which is direct, immediate, and intuitive. That’s where religious experience and artistic expression takes place. It’s not linear and sequential. Unraveling these koans each day, the teacher and student meet face to face during periods of zazen.
Another area of training is liturgy. Liturgy punctuates our entire day-not only the services that take place in the Buddha hall, but services that we use to begin work practice, or before we take a meal, or before using the bathroom. Each event of the day has a liturgy that precedes it to remind us what that activity is about. Another area is moral and ethical teachings-the precepts. It’s not just in the precept ceremony where people receive the precepts and become Buddhists, but a continuum that moves through each of those ten stages of spiritual development. Because American students have no grounding in historical Buddhist teachings-we come from a Judeo-Christian tradition-the tendency is to equate what we are doing with the Judeo-Christian counterpart. So services are misinterpreted as being worship services, and they are not. Buddha is not a God, and the process is not a worship service. Buddhism is nontheistic. It’s not atheistic; it doesn’t say there is no God. It’s not agnostic; it doesn’t say, “I don’t know if there is a God or not.” It simply doesn’t take up the question of whether there exists a God or not, which keeps the whole question open in a very interesting way.
Work practice is another important aspect of life and how to take it into the activity of the world. One of the things that happens during that period of spiritual development is that some may get to that place of the extinguishing of suffering, and some may not. But a spiritual maturity does indeed occur. That happens at the monastery, and it doesn’t deal with the problem of what takes place outside the monastery. We have a very broad sangha of lay practitioners, and here is where we get into the question of alleviation of suffering. When people are sick, they turn to our lay sangha, and the monastery responds. We respond with the classical kind of response that any kind of a religious organization would make-for example, each day we do a healing service. I remember years ago, when we first started doing this and people wanted to know what it was, I said, “Well, we are sending out healing energy.” Everybody chuckled. This was twenty-two years ago. Since that time, with the studies that have been going on on the role of prayer and healing, the chuckling has stopped. There is pretty clear evidence that there is a healing that can take place when a community directs their energy to helping people. The priestly services, bedside services, counseling the family, particularly where death is imminent, last rites, deathbed vigils-those are all of the normal things that any religion would do. Then we try to do more than that, and call upon the broad sangha to give support to people who are housebound and handicapped. Sometimes we provide legal aid and financial support. Sometimes people need their bills paid, transportation, food, baby-sitting, and housecleaning. All those things are responded to with the 10,000 hands and arms of great compassion.
There is the extinction of suffering, which is realization. There is the alleviation of suffering, which is the physical and spiritual support. Then there is another aspect. There is the transformation of suffering. The great Master Dongshan, who is the founder of our lineage, the Soto lineage, was not feeling well-there is a koan that emerged out of this-and a monastic said, “Master, you are not feeling well. Is there anyone who doesn’t get sick?” Dongshan said, “Yes, there is.” The monastic said, “Does the person who doesn’t get sick take care of you?” Dongshan said, “I have the opportunity to take care of that person.” The monastic said, “What happens when you take care of that person?” Dongshan said, “At that time I am unable to see my sickness.”
This is an actual event that became a koan, right before Dongshan died. Seeing that his end was near, he shaved his head and bathed himself, put on his robes, and sat cross-legged, preparing to die. As he began to expire, his very large congregation started wailing and carrying on, and the wailing went on and on. Finally, he opened his eyes and he said, “For those who have left home, a mind unattached to things is the true practice. People struggle to live and make much of death. But what’s the use of lamenting?” Then he ordered a temple official to prepare what he called a banquet for stupidity, and everybody celebrated, and he joined in the celebration. The negativeness didn’t stop, so he continued it for seven days. Finally Dongshan said, “You monks have made a great commotion over nothing. When you see me pass away this time, don’t make a noisy fuss.” Then he retired to his room, sat upright, and left his body.
This sort of a thing not only happens with great Zen masters. My grandmother, who was a peasant from the mountains of Italy, was in her late 80s when she was getting ready to pass away. My mother was with her, lying in bed, and she expired. My mother told me the story. My grandmother had just expired and her fingernails and lips started turning blue. My mother started wailing-she was, you know, a very passionate Italian daughter. And my grandmother sucked in air again and sat upright. Then my mother calmed her down again, and she laid back, and again she expired, and again my mother started wailing. Once more, my grandmother returned. Her daughter was crying out to her. She couldn’t go. Then my mother realized that she was preventing her mother from leaving her body. She told her, “It’s okay, Mom. It’s okay to let go.” And finally she expired.
I think that’s the great heart of compassion that resides in every one of us. We all in this room come from different lineages, all incredible lineages back through history. If we look at the people we represent, that we hold the banner for now-the great saints and masters, Jesus, Buddha-we need to realize that it is now in our hands. As I have said a couple of times during this retreat, it’s a hopeless task. Yet we vow to do it. I look at the four vows that we chant every day: “Sentient beings are numberless. I vow to save them.” It can’t be done by definition. They are numberless, yet I vow to save them. “Desires are inexhaustible. I vow to put an end to them.” They are inexhaustible. You can’t put an end to them, but I vow to do it. “The Dharmas are boundless. I vow to master them.” To master them means to put a frame around them. It can’t be done, yet I vow to do it. “The enlightened way is unattainable. I vow to attain it.” Impossible, the impossible dream. All we can do is turn and bow to our ancestors and take up their call to heal, to administer. We bow to them, and turn and enter the fray with that vow that no matter how long it takes, how impossible it is, we vow what needs to be done.
An Instruction to daily Training In Meditation and in Activity
Given In Dharma-Tor by Ingrid Hupfer-Neu
This text is a translation of the German teaching.
This practice, which is demonstrated here, has four parts. It is based on the traditional mindtraining. It is a preparation for development of Bodhicitta and works to dissolve our habitual tendencies, which cause so much sufferings.
To work on our habitual tendencies and karmic concepts we must reach the deep and subtle levels of our mind. It is not enough to think about suffering and our entanglement in suffering. It is not enough to see the impermanence of happiness, which we lose again and again, and which we in vain try to hold onto. Of course first we have to think on the intellectual level, to comprehend and understand these things, to get a clear view. But then the training follows. After an intellectual understanding there must be experience, and after the experience realisation. This is liberation from wrong view and from a state of mind which causes suffering.
All situations, which entangle us in the world, are ultimately painful, and all happiness, which we meet in the world is impermanent. The more we hold onto happiness and the more we refuse suffering, the more we become entangled in painful experiences. Happiness dissolves, because all is impermanent and changes all the time. And we cannot stop suffering, because everything that appears is changing and dissolves some time. This is a natural process. But a human being searches for happiness and doesn’t want to suffer, all beings search for happiness and don’t want to suffer. Therefore they react by holding onto happiness and they repress suffering. In this way everything becomes painful. Also happiness essentially becomes painful, because there is the fear that happiness will diminish. This is Samsara, the circle of suffering, in which all beings are entangled.
The path to liberation is to try to change our reactions in a way, so that we no longer suffer. Suffering is always there as long as we are in the world, because everything is always changing. But we can learn how to suffer no longer from this changing process, from this impermanence. There is nobody who does not experience great suffering during life, nobody who does not lose dear ones, nobody who does not experience illness and the suffering of old age. But we can stop to suffer from this suffering. We have an impermanent body. Everything we meet in our life is impermanent because it has developed interdependently and is composed of different parts. This we have to understand deeply, to experience and to learn to accept. Then suffering will dissolve. But the causes of our behaviour are even stored on a very very deep level of our mind. So, to become free from suffering we cannot do very much to change the mechanism of our reactions, our concepts, by working on the level of the day-consciousness and with intellectual thinking. Therefore we must work on ourselves very much with skillful means, with mindtraining, to change the mechanism of our reactions. The focal point is how we react on situations. The ‘how’ is important. The situation is not the problem but our kind of reaction. If it was the situation, different human beings would not react in different ways to the same situation. And if the situation was the cause, no being could become free from suffering. But because the Buddha and other beings were able to become free from suffering, free from Samsara, this path out of suffering exists.
We have to work on ourselves with patience and diligence to cause a change. On doing so we should create our practice in a joyful way. And what can bring us more joy than a path to liberation from suffering?
Let your breath flow in and out softly till you experience a comfortable calmness.
Visualize a small radiant light in the middle of your body.
By breathing out let the air flow through this light. After some time it begins to radiate more strong.
1. Accept suffering
Now remember a situation which was painful for you.
Don’t try to push away this experience or to run away from it. Look at it, go into the painful feeling. Accept it.
Think about all beings who have to experience the same suffering. Think about your suffering as the suffering of all beings.
Now look at the light in your body. Let it radiate more and more by breathing out. It begins to dissolve the suffering as the light of the sun dispels all darkness.
Let love and compassion arise in yourself and send out light, love and compassion.
Wish from your heart that all suffering of beings may dissolve. Send them your light, your love, and relax in a liberated, joyful state.
2. Share happiness and joy
Remember a situation which has brought happiness and joy to you.
Then go totally into this feeling of happiness and joy.
Now open your mind widely and fill it with this experience.
Think about all the many beings who also want so much to be happy. Wish from your heart that they may experience the same happiness, the same joy.
Now share your happiness, send it out together with your light to all beings. Be open and free and give.
Experience joy and happiness of giving and sympathetic joy.
3. Experience the ego as cause of suffering
Remember a situation where you have been disagreeing with somebody, where you have quarrelled.
Look at this situation as a neutral observer. Especially look at yourself, your own reaction.
And then take the sting out of this situation. Take out the ego, which wants to be absolutely right.
See that you cannot force circumstances to change. See that you cannot change the other person. If you try it, the sting goes deeper.
But you can change your own behaviour. This is the chance for calmness and peace. It is the chance to dissolve suffering. Let go your expectations and then you become free. Then you become peaceful. And the situation dissolves.
Don’t seek to change the other person. He cannot change himself, but you can change yourself.
Develop compassion for the other who causes suffering for himself.
4. Become free from expectations
Remember a situation where you had great expectations which then were not fulfilled.
Go into the feeling of disappointment. Look at the senselessness of the attitude of expectation.
Dissolve it, become free from it. – Be as you are, open and free.
Enjoy the state of not having to have expectations.
This training shows us very directly that we ourselves are causing the suffering. We can prevent much suffering for ourselves and for others if we become familiar with these practices. We cannot change the world, we cannot change other human beings, but we can work on ourselves and change ourselves. If many people do this, the world will change too. But we cannot expect and wait for the others to begin. We have to start in ourselves.
If we let go our expectations, if we reduce our ego-thinking, and if we take the sting out of difficult situations, we plant the basis for peace in ourselves and in our environment. If we stop being so much vulnerable, we no longer hurt others. We can choose our behaviour. We have a choice in every situation, in every moment. We will learn to develop compassion and wisdom. Our meditation helps us, the circumstances in everyday life are our training ground. This is the practice. This is Dharma practice for our own well-being and for the well-being of others too.
To practise in this way gives us the gift to go to liberation. It is the greatest gift we can receive in this life. There is no greater gift.
“Do not forget the Lama,
Pray to him all the times.
Do not be carried away by thoughts,
Watch the nature of mind.
Do not forget death,
Persist in Dharma.
Do not forget sentient beings,
With compassion dedicate your merit to them.”
H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche
Are Buddhism and Unitarian Universalism Made For Each Other?
by Gene Gibas
Fox Valley Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
2600 E. Philip Ln.
P.O. Box 1791
Appleton, WI 54912-1791
July 22, 2001
This morning I’d like to talk about how I think basic Buddhism could enrich Unitarian-Universalists as a personal salvation or redemption scheme.
Now, in my lexicon, a salvation scheme is both a set of beliefs about human nature and the human condition and the actions and practices that stem from these beliefs. Redemptive beliefs and practices deliver us from negative or disabling conditions having to do with our finiteness, with our own personal deaths. They deliver us from a gnawing sense at the core of our beings that our lives and deaths occur against a background of apparent nothingness and are without meaning. They deliver us from feelings of existential emptiness, separation, and isolation. A salvation scheme also helps us try to determine what behaviors harm people and the sustaining web, and are thus evil, and should be combated. A salvation scheme helps us to define and choose that which is good. A salvation scheme frees us from self-seeking. We can turn away from the self and pour our abundance on others and on the world as a healing balm.
I suggest that the need for a salvation scheme, for redemption, is a human universal and that there are two main ways UU’s respond to this universal need. One way is distraction. You can so thoroughly distract yourself with activities of any sort, all of the lures of the modern world, that you have no time to feel that gnawing anxiety at your core. Modern, complex professional disciplines, for example, are so consuming that they have the effect of distracting us from existential angst. Or your basic temperament may be such that you are indifferent to these issues, you just don’t feel existential angst at all, and you slide through life blissfully indifferent to them, i.e., you’re automatically distracted. .
But for many modern people, people who cannot accept fundamentalist religions and outlandish beliefs, the route to salvation is good works. Many of you here today have professional lives where you are actually paid to contribute to the welfare of mankind. You do so splendidly and can rest in the conviction that you are contributing to realizing a grand vision of the good. You can ultimately lay your head down at the end of life with a sigh of satisfaction needing no further salvation scheme.
That vision of the good, the utopia that UU’s and other religious liberals strive to bring about, thereby redeeming themselves, is well summed up in UU’s seven principles. The utopia we work to bring about supports 1) the inherent worth and dignity of every person; 2) justice, equity and compassion in human relations; 3) acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth; 4) the free and responsible search for truth and meaning; 5) the right of conscience and the use of the democratic process; 6) the extension of these principles to the whole world, and an ecological 7) respect for the interdependent web of all existence. I have heard UU’s joke that working to bring about this utopia is doing “the Lord’s” work.
If you doubt the primacy of works in the UU approach to life, just read the UU World! UU’s are urged to do good works, to become advocates and activists as much as their time, energy and gifts permit. But they’re not told to do works as their way of becoming saved or redeemed. Yet my observation is that the effect is there. Social activism is a form of salvation by works. I’ve seen too much behavior among UU’s and liberals in general that can only be explained this way.
But there are a number of problems with salvation by works. One is that despite all of our pretensions, we never really know what the effects of many of our actions will be over the middle and long range. Another is that we can never fully predict who will rise in opposition to our ideas. And when people rise to oppose us, our self-esteem tends to push us into Manichean thinking. We easily convince ourselves that there are forces of good and forces of evil in existence, and, of course, the UU’s are on the side of the good forces and those who oppose us are the evil, benighted, unrighteous ones. Redeeming oneself through works also subtly tempts one to objectify the very people one sets out to help. Me.. big wise person, you, object of my caritas… some sort of failed person who can help me feel good about myself.
But a bigger problem with salvation by works is the wounded healer issue. Catholicism recognized not long ago, agreeing with Luther, that works are not the route to salvation, but should proceed from a heart and mind that is already redeemed. Works should pour from abundant hearts, hearts that no longer feel that it is all empty and meaningless, but that life is a wonderful gift, a bestowed kindness to which any normal human being must reciprocate. When this isn’t the order of things, we get into a strange circularity: feeling the emptiness of life, feeling life is without meaning, a person goes forth to help those bogged down in life in some way or other, so that those helped then have the time and ease to feel the emptiness of life, and then try themselves to escape their own existential suffering by going out to help others bogged down in the emptiness of life, and so on.
>From what I have seen, UU is pretty much silent for those of us who are not so fortunate as to already have achieved a full and abundant heart. Run-of-the-mill mortals need a religio, a methodology of rebinding oneself into the web of existence. They need an art of living, some sort of extended metaphor that doesn’t ask us to make assertions that insult our intelligence. After reading my way through a dozen or so books on South Asian Buddhism over the last 15 years, I’ve become convinced that Buddhism, stripped of reincarnation doctrine, is that religio. It think Buddhism’s understanding of human nature and the human condition and the redemptive practices it has developed can help skeptical modern people be religious and… develop the full and abundant hearts that overflow into works and living for others.
But I also realize there are considerable barriers for Westerners to really appreciate how Buddhism could help them lead a religious life..
Barrier number one is the tendency of Westerners to force Buddhism into the terminology and categories of Christianity. If you want to have the slightest chance of understanding Buddhism, if you want to become partially Buddhist, you must resist this tendency. You have to forego the idea that the Buddha is the Buddhist Christ, that humans are basically evil and tainted by Original Sin, that the goal of religion is salvation in the sense of accepting a Jesus-like figure as savior and being drawn up into some heaven at death. You should set aside terms like sin, faith, belief, grace, and spirituality. I’ll try not to use them at all in the rest of this talk. In fact it’s best to start out saying that Buddhism really isn’t a religion at all. Rather it is an “art of living,” or as a Japanese businessman once told me, “Buddhism is mental health.”
The second barrier to approaching Buddhism arises from some initial mis-translations by the first Western writers about Buddhism. One of these is the use of the term “enlightenment” for the culminating experience of Buddhist practice. For Westerners Enlightenment means that you figure out some problem or set of problems so that you can better understand or control your life and circumstances. That’s absolutely not the goal Buddhism strives to reach.
More confusion arises from the terms: meditation and nirvana. South Asian Buddhism does not totally reject Hindu forms of meditation but just does not consider them uniquely useful. To understand what Buddhism does consider useful, we should abandon the term meditation itself. Buddhism preaches bhavana. Bhavana is mental culture and mental discipline aimed at achieving right mindfulness. Right mindfulness is proper awareness of the world and your place in it. This is an awareness not distorted by various forms of delusion, prideful self-assertion, and self-centered craving. Nirvana is nothing more than achieving this relationship to the world.
The fourth barrier arises from the difference between orthodoxy (right teachings) and orthopraxis (right practice). Much of Christianity is preoccupied with orthodoxy, that is, with right beliefs and teachings, right creeds. In Christianity, having faith and being admitted to the Kingdom of Heaven is based on adherence to correct statements about God and his relation to humans. Think of the Nicean Creed. “I believe in God the Father, maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son our Lord….” Buddhism on the other hand is a religion of orthopraxis, of right conduct. And the point of the right conduct one struggles to achieve is to see things as they are, and not to busy oneself with unanswerable questions like… Is there a God? Is there life after death? Am I doomed to return in another reincarnation?
But the biggest barrier to understanding Buddhism is the direction of regarding in Western religion and life. It boils down to this. In the West we think the individual should be the focus of regard and concern. As far back as Greek times the acquisition of knowledge, wealth, power, and fame were seen as the keys to happiness. (Pindar) They still are the main motivations for achievement in modern life. Western religions have not been terribly successful as an antidote against this tendency. God had a chosen people, the Jews. Christ came into the world to redeem you, not to provide you a model of self-forgetting in service of your fellow man. You, the individual, are the focus of regarding and concern. The West is basically narcissistic.
In modern times Rene Descartes’ idea that “I think, therefore I am” further reinforced this direction of regarding. According to Descartes the unique personality is the one undoubtable reality and all truth starts there. The more the modern person is able to develop his consciousness as an agent separate from everything else, the more he can manipulate objects outside the self for his own selfish purposes. That includes other people. Buddhism calls this sort of knowledge avidya…which means ignorance or not-knowing.
This ignorance, this alienated manipulative standoffishness by a fortress self was labeled dualism by Taitetz Suzuki, one of the greatest interpreters of Buddhism to Americans. Since this form of dualism is the standard operating mode of Western Life, Buddhism sees virtually everything about Western Life as maya, delusion, fundamental error.
Buddhist practice leads to the experience of another sort of consciousness. It starts from an intuition that everything that exists is one, and everything is an element in the existence of everything else. For example, your friends and the people around you are the content of your life and make you what you are. You would be unthinkable without others. In Buddhism the rule of life is interrelatedness and interdependence, as in the UU interdependent web of all existence.
Buddhists develop the intuition of oneness through study and mental discipline to the point where awareness of self seems to melt away. Barriers between you and other people melt away. Regarding is turned outward. All of existence is experienced as an infinite gift or kindness that normal people want to respond to in kind. Self is forgotten.
As Buddhists go deeper and deeper into this intuition, they can be said to be living more and more in Nirvana. The distinction between personal needs and compassionate involvement with others is overcome. Buddhism in South Asia as we saw in the Vietnam war is not self-centered otherworldly navel-gazing. It is a deep, moral, caring, self-forgetting participation in the interdependent web of all existence.
Now those are the most significant barriers I can see that keep Westerners from making sense of Buddhism. So let’s look beyond them at the few core beliefs that Buddhism, especially Southeast Asian Theravadan Buddhism, does hold. Some of these beliefs have already been spelled out.
1. …You cannot make an art of living out of propositions you have to take on faith, like the existence of God, the divine nature of Jesus, or life after death. The Buddha purposefully maintained what the commentators call a ‘noble silence’ in response to such unanswerable questions. Proper living is to see things as they are in the concrete here and now.
2. There may be some ultimate force or power, but it will remain forever unknowable to mankind. That ultimate reality has no attributes or characteristics we can identify or grasp. Thus speculation about the nature and existence of God is viewed, in Buddhism, as idle and pointless. It’s a diversion from the real task of life, which is to become aware of the infinite interrelatedness of things and find oneself within it.
3. Buddhists know that the world as taken in by the five senses is really there. But what is really real and really important is not what we can know through our senses and manipulate with our minds and hands. The only thing that is really important is to attain a gentle, open, submitted relationship to the world around us.
4. There is no original sin. But there is a flaw, and that is the tendency to become deluded about the nature of things. The goal of Buddhist practice is to see things as they are, to walk away from delusion. When we set deluded ways of thinking and acting aside, we discover our true nature: Buddhists say that is joy, compassion, harmony, peace, and wholeness, a sense of fitting in, a submittedness and openness of the person.
So how do we escape delusion? How do we become the fully open, submitted personality? The original preaching of Buddha was that we achieve undeluded, submitted living through mental discipline and effort (bhavana).. The Buddha’s role in this was only to point out the way based on his own experience. He never claimed to be anything but an inspired teacher. He is the awakened or newly budded one, budded as in a flower’s unfolding. His teaching in a nutshell is that the ultimate good is to do no harm, by omission or commission, and that selfish desire and pride of intellect is the root of human suffering, or dukkha..
The nearest thing to original Buddhism, called Theravadan Buddhism, is still practiced in Southeast Asia, and Sri Lanka. It is very clear about what it thinks deluded views are. It’s a good place to start the study of Buddhism.
The Southeast Asian core catechism says ..to not live in delusion you must accept: the Three Basic Facts of Life, the notion of the two selves, the Four Noble Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path. It also asks people to accept the notion of Karma, the way past actions influence you here and now, and the merciful doctrine of reincarnation.
What are the three Basic Facts of Life we should hold in the front of our minds at all times?
ANICCA (impermanence). Everything is impermanent. Like each one of us, everything comes into being; it matures; it grows old and worn; and it dies. Not to see every aspect of life at every moment through this filter is delusion. To fight this is delusion.
ANATTA (insubstantiality). The second fact of life is that nothing in existence has any permanent features that distinguish it from anything else. There is no core enduring substance in anything. To understand ANATTA think of yourself and what you think you are. With your aging and death you will be stripped of everything you have, everyone you know. What is the reality of your personality, interests, links to others and skills? If you’re an athlete, an accident could make you a paraplegic. Live long enough and time will make your expertises outdated and you may or may not learn new ones. Will you still remember who you were or are?
When you peel away all the changeable distinguishing features of yourself, Buddhism says, the only thing that is permanent is the peaceful sea of consciousness, free of thought and distraction, at the center of our being, a void identical in every person. This is the real and permanent Self with a capital ‘S’, as opposed to the personal you, the mortal individual, the self with a small ‘s’.
DUKKHA. Basic fact #3 is that all of life is at bottom suffering, a series of necessary losses ending in the loss of our very selves in death. Dukkha or suffering does not refer mainly to outright pain or disease, or even minor stuff such as discomfort, irritation, and friction. It means that most people are aware at some deep level of their incompleteness and even helplessness in the face of the fleeting nature of life and the ultimate absurdity of death. Suffering also means that most people frequently experience gnawing dissatisfaction and discontent; that they constantly want things to be different than they actually are.
So how does a Buddhist construct a happy and fulfilled life in view of these rather austere and harsh facts of life? The Buddhist answer is to accept the Four Noble Truths and their implications.
..The first noble truth is dukkha. Life is dissatisfaction. Life is suffering.
..The second noble truth is that suffering comes from our deluded efforts to deny and hide from the facts of anicca and anatta, impermanence and insubstantiality. We try to deny these facts of life by endless self-centered craving, such as the craving of the senses for experiences and the greed of the everyday person for wealth, power and recognition.
But there is an even more subtle craving in the realm of ideas. People try to deny anicca and anatta by conceptualizing about the nature of things. This makes the world seem more solid, enduring and predictable than it really is. In fact, says Buddhism, it is not solid, enduring and predictable at all.
..The third noble truth is that you can end suffering in yourself by eliminating its cause: self-centered craving and the pride of intellect. (Pelagian heresy.)
..The fourth noble truth is that there is a methodology to accomplish this: the Noble Eightfold Path.
Note that the path to the end of suffering is not through being redeemed by someone else’s sacrifice. The whole emphasis in Buddhism is on the mind and will of the individual, on self-reliance. Despite the fact that mind and will are some of the temporary facets of an individual, and this is a contradiction, it is through them that the individual determines to follow the Eightfold Noble Path to enlightenment.
Before examining the eightfold path, we should examine the way in which the Buddhists solved the question of free will versus determinism and relationship of this to the doctrine of reincarnation. The word KARMA means volitional action. Buddhists speak of the fruits of KARMA to indicate the influence and weight of past deeds and events.
They say that your past deeds, the deeds of others, the events of history, and just plain raw chance do indeed affect your options now. But what you choose to do at any given moment adds a new layer of the fruits of Karma (weight of past deeds). Your choice thus opens up new possibilities. And these include striving for and attaining the open yielded way of life. So to follow the Eightfold Noble Path is to lay down new layers of the results of karma, volitional action. That leads eventually to openness, yieldedness , submittedness, the prerequisites to getting off the endless cycle of rebirth and suffering..
But disciplining and perfecting yourself is very, very difficult. So Buddhists and Hindus drew upon their experience of sub-tropical plants and animals to find a way to grant a person more time to develop better Karma. They did this by developing a doctrine of reincarnation. If you could not attain the open yielded way of life in one lifetime, the wheel of existence would come around and your elements would eventually be reconstituted again for another try. Sophisticated modern Buddhists tend to see worrying about reincarnation as a form of idle speculation like wondering if there is a God and what our relationship to God is.
So what is methodology, the Noble Eightfold Path, that makes it possible to achieve gentleness, openness, yieldedness? Well, it’s very prosaic:
Right Understanding Right Purpose or Desire Right Speech Right Action Right Occupation Right Effort Right Concentration Right Meditation
“Right” means “highest and best imaginable.” The Buddha taught that all of the stages of the path were originally viewed as equally necessary to attain. All of the rest of Buddhist literature can be understood as an attempt to give meaning to this core doctrine of the eight parts of the path to openness and yieldedness. So what is the eightfold path like?
THE NOBLE EIGHTFOLD PATH
The first “fold” of the path is Right Understanding or View, which means seeing life as it is. This means getting an intellectual grasp of the basic teachings …what the 3 Basic Facts of Life are, what the Four Noble Truths are…what the 8 stages of the Noble Eightfold Path are…what the self is and is not…and what Karma is…it means holding these teachings in the forefront of our minds and interpreting life through them.
The first fold is Right Purpose, Motive or Desire, the desire to slay the selfish and base within us, to take the love of humanity to heart, to use one’s gifts in the service of others, to forget the impermanent little self, to experience oneself, others, and everything else as an interrelated web of cause and effect. There are four states of mind in Right Purpose.
(If you listen up, you’ll realize you are hearing one of the few real paradoxes in Buddhism. You must want to follow the religion that views self-centered wanting as the primary cause of suffering.)
Right Purpose means to constantly and consciously cultivate love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. People should work to cause thoughts of love to pervade and suffuse their world. People should struggle to strip selfish desire out of their loving, they should act on these thoughts through selfless giving, trying to develop the ability to give without even being aware one is giving. To foster compassion, or sympathetic sorrow, people should constantly strive to see the common core they share with others so as to be able to identify with them and to imagine oneself in the place of those who suffer…and act on their compassion.
People have an equal obligation to cultivate sympathetic joy or gladness, which means to practice rejoicing in the success and good fortune of others. You should practice filling your heart with the rejoicing of others so that their joy is your joy. You should also practice cutting feelings of joy and gladness free from any specific persons and events, in effect practicing the experience of free floating gladness. There are texts full of meditation techniques that help the practicing Buddhist bring about the four states of mind that comprise Right Purpose.
People also have an obligation, after experiencing the excitement of the world, to learn how to discover and return to the impersonal serenity at the core of their beings… to see all others impartially without self-centered aversion or attraction… to see all others as a constituent parts of themselves and their actions.
All of this is Right Purpose and Buddhists clearly believe that all this is possible for humans to achieve. We have the mental capacity to strip ourselves of selfish desires and the pride of the intellect. And when we do so we discover that what is left is love, compassion, joy, and equanimity. You should note that this an extremely positive and optimistic view of human nature. It’s essentially “original goodness.”
The 3/4/5 folds of the path are: Right Speech, Right Action, Right Occupation. All are elaborations of Right Purpose. These are very important elements in the development of a Buddhist art of living. Most everyday people spend more of their lives pursuing these stages of the Eightfold Path than the mind discipline stages. There is nothing here about escaping or denying this world.
The sixth fold, Right Effort, is the practice of constant and strenuous endeavor to train oneself to fulfill the first five stages just outlined. It means to live, breathe, and eat the basic teachings. It means to train oneself in these practices as a champion gymnast would train for the Olympics.
Unlike some American schools of Buddhism and New Age teachings, meditation techniques are not the sum total of South Asian Buddhism. The Buddha taught that each of the eight stages of the eightfold path was as important as any other. Consciously and intentionally working to become a selfless, altruistic, compassionate, joyous social being, dedicated to reducing the suffering of others, comes first. In fact, my impression is that South Asian Buddhists view these first six stages as prerequisites to the mental self- control techniques that make up the last stages of the Noble Eightfold Path.
If the person doesn’t become socially oriented, the last two stages of the path, the mind-control stages, easily degenerate into self-centered pleasure seeking, a way to avoid the moral life or build up the self. I think that is why so much of Buddhism in the U.S. seems to start and stop with the meditation technique of attentiveness to breathing. Americans practice this form of meditation for relaxation. It is just another skill or technique to make their Western egos more powerful. It’s just a fragment of a full religious ethical system.
Right Mindfulness, Concentration or Attention is the seventh fold or element of the Eightfold path. It is the first of the mind techniques presented in the Eightfold path for blending the individual into the unity that underlies the world. The goal of the technique is to learn through mental discipline how NOT to experience the world as a set of tools to grasp and manipulate. Satipathana, or mindfulness training, trains you to be harmlessly present in the world and compassionately aware. It teaches you how to apprehend the world without scheming to make use of it, or distorting your awareness of what actually exists with some preexisting map of what the world is supposed to be like.
I have found different interpretations in different books as to what the eighth fold of the eight-fold path is. Some call it Wisdom training or prajna. These are techniques to attain transcendental awareness of emptiness. The sense in which the world is “empty” is that is is empty of our purposes. This is very close to mindfulness, attending the to world that is without subjecting it to your willfulness or intentions.
Now why should we be interested in seeing the world this way? When we learn to sense the emptiness of the world, the givenness or suchness of the world, we are more open to perceive it as a vast set of interrelations without beginning or end, something we’re only a small part of. Achieving this perspective allows us to set aside the claims of our own little personalities and wants and puts us in a position to become the person who lives for others.
Some see the eighth stage as Right Meditation as bodhi, awareness techniques designed to carry us into the moments of consciousness which lie between thoughts. We become aware that consciousness is a sea. Thought is a wave upon the sea. Pure consciousness is like a still lake, clear, calm, and full of joy. You glimpse even deeper consciousness. The glimpse is called bodhi… awareness of the ultimate unity. It is said to come like a blinding glimpse of pure light accompanied by a flood of joy. Continued practice of meditation and the repeated experience of bodhi lead to the ability to live for long periods of time in complete selfless unity free of suffering. The elements of separate personality fall away. This is part of what is meant by Nirvana.
Trouble is that everyone returns to everyday life from these mental activities. When such persons who have achieved bodhi or prajna return to the the everyday world, they are said to pick up the appearance of personality and slip it on again. But it is the personality of a new person, purified of separateness and reborn in the love of all life. Those few who have reached this stage of spiritual development have, according to Theravadan, or South Asian Buddhism, achieved the purpose of life and could live out their days in meditative retreat.
But that’s where the Mahayana or northern school of Buddhism arose. Mahayanists objected, saying “Wait a minute. What do you mean, meditative retreat? That’s selfish. After the Buddha attained full awareness and openness, he didn’t run off to be alone like a rhinocerous snorting in the bush. Rather he chose to become a bodhisattva, an enlightened being who returns to everyday life, dedicated to relieving the suffering of others by helping them achieve the goals of Buddhist living.
When Buddhism came to China, the Chinese mahayanists further elaborated the bodhisattva ideal. They saw spending the huge amounts of time required to achieve wisdom or awareness through mental exercises as selfish and immoral. The Mahayanists favored the Bodhisattva notion and gave it a new wrinkle. They said that you achieve nirvana right here in the hustle and bustle of everyday life pursuing the goals of the first seven stages of the Noble Path.
It should also be noted that centering attention on life here and now finesses the issue of reincarnation. If you are a Buddhist who believes in reincarnation, you believe that at death a person will experience reincarnation again and again until he or she succeeds in achieving bodhi. When that happens the person, or whatever, goes on to dwell forever in undifferentiated unity, in the bosom of the Lord, so to speak. But if you have truly absorbed the spirit of Buddhism, you find this irrelevant. For you death and impermanence have lost all meaning. You have already merged in this life with the timeless, boundless and undifferentiated.
So how is all of this taught to a mass audience? You need scriptures, doctrines, meditation practices, observances, rituals, ceremonies, festivals, saints of some sort, monasteries, convents, common sayings, art, song, philosophy to provide many pathways to the basic insights and to keep things from getting boring. Fully developed Buddhist cultures have this in abundance.
All of this is usually unavailable to the American who might like to follow the Buddhist way of living. What we are left with in America are by and large books and articles about doctrine, philosophy, and above all meditation practices. Most of this is adapted to the U.S. culture of liberalism (feminist Buddhism is one such fusion). Buddhist ideas of self-forgetting get lost as the whole thing becomes yet another self-help scheme designed to make the ego more competent to win out in the competition of American life. . It becomes another form of therapy to achieve empowerment and not a full religio, or much of a religio at all. .
Buddhism as a fully developed religion has always emphasized that religion has not only an intellectual dimension, but also a volitional dimension (you have to will to believe), an emotional dimension, and a social dimension. Before closing, I’d like to briefly explore these dimensions.
The notion of “faith,” or shraddha in Buddhism implies a determination, an act of will to concentrate the powers of the mind on an ideal after one has chosen that ideal as a life goal.
When one has looked at the Buddhist art of living and willed it to be one’s ideal, the intellect follows. One then is willing to give assent to the very few propositions or assertions that we have already talked about, such as the three basic facts of life, the four noble truths, karma, belief in the efficacy of the eightfold noble path. Additionally there is a call for confidence in what Buddhism calls the three refuges: the Buddha as teacher, the Dharma, or doctrines of Buddhism, and the Samgha, or community of Buddhists.
Emotionally, Buddhist faith is an attitude of serenity and lucidity, the opposite of being troubled by many things. A person who has achieved shraddha is said to have lost the five terrors of life. He or she ceases to worry about the necessities of life, to worry about looking foolish in front of other people, about loses such as reputation and socio-economic status, about death, life after death, reincarnation, and so forth. If there is only the vastness of space and existence, and if we are woven into that, what is there that should disturb us, except for the suffering of others?
The emotional slides imperceptibly into the social in Buddhism. Socially, shraddha or faith is trust and confidence in the Buddha, in the dharma or doctrines, and in the samgha, or community of Buddhists. As happens in the great religions, the person who fully gives him or herself to the practice of Buddhism breaks to some degree with the normal social environment.
The religious Buddhist joins the family of the Buddha, the community of mahasattvas and bodhisattvas. The Buddha himself is the father, the dharma or doctrine is the mother, the community of fellow seekers are one’s brothers and sisters, relatives and friends. It is with this community that satisfactory social relationships must be established.
It is in this matter of emotional and social relationships to the Buddha and the Dharma that some Buddhist schools in Japan clearly go beyond providing a cool mental discipline and a collection of meditation practices. They begin to talk of the person Buddha as an expression of a larger Buddha. The universe is Buddha, the power that may stand behind the universe or merely be expressed in it, is Buddha, the concrete individual, the Buddha himself, is an expression of that larger Buddha.
One clings to the Buddha not only as a human teacher, but through the teacher to the ultimate power of the Universe. One also renders devotion to the bodhisattvas and allows oneself to be inspired by them. Now, in case you’re not seeing the resemblance, this is father, son, and holy ghost plus saints.
But how can one have the same social relation to the dharma? Well, Dharma means not only the teachings of Buddhism, but the underlying sustaining power of the universe. The purpose of the dharma as doctrine is to help you align yourself with the total interrelatedness of the power of the universe. You are to take refuge in the dharma, whether universe or doctrine, you are to cling to it as you cling to a human friend. This matter of the Buddha and the Dharma as refuge is as close as Buddhism comes to positing a personal relationship to personal God. You relate to the mystery of the Universe as if it were a comforting and protecting person.
All of this prepares you to fulfill the wishes of the Metta Sutra, the Sermon on Lovingkindness. Let’s end with a reading from that sutra. If you wish, close your eyes and try to visualize yourself living out these ideals….
May all beings be happy.
May all be joyous and live in safety.
Let no one deceive another, nor despise another, as weak as they may be. Let no one by anger or by hate wish evil for another.
As a mother, in peril of her own life, watches and protects her only child, thus with a limitless spirit must one cherish all living beings.
Love the world in its entirety — above, below and all around, without limitation, with an infinite goodness and with benevolence.
While standing or walking, sitting or lying down, as long as one is awake, Let one cultivate Loving-Kindness.
This is the Supreme Way of Living.
Copyright © 2001 by Gene Gibas
The books that have helped me most in my studies of Buddhism:
ChristmasHumphreys, Buddhism, An introduction and Guide
Thomas Merton, Zen and the Birds of Appetite
Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught
Edward Conze, Buddhism: Its Essence and Development
Edward Conze, Buddhist Thought in India
Paul Reps, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
Nyanaponika Thera, The Heart of Buddhist Meditation
D.T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism
J. Krishnamurti, Think on These Things
Easwaran, Dammapada Nyanaponika Thera, The Vision of Dhamma
Raymond Blakney (trans.), Meister Eckhart
Charlotte Joko Beck, Everyday Zen
Trogyam Chungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
Thich Nhat Hanh, The Miracle of Mindfulness
Dainin Katagiri, Returning to Silence
Robert Sohl & Audrey Carr (editors) The Gospel According to Zen
Christmas Humphreys, The Buddhist Was of Life
Nyanatiloka, Buddhist Dictionary, A Manual of Terms and Doctrines
Joseph Campbell, Myths to Live By
D.T. Suzuki, An Introduction to Zen Buddhism
Are You Willing To Be Surprised?
The Shambala Warrior
From a talk given by Joanna Macy at Manzanita Village on July 21, 1995 during a weekend workshop she led.
Manzanita Village has been living inside me, an important part of my interior landscape. It holds down southern California in my geography. The desert. The sky. The plant beings. The stars. The fragrances. Have you noticed how wonderful this feels at night? Sitting here by lamp light, the light on the warm colors of the floor, the low ceiling, the brown earthen walls. This room reminds me of the Buddhist cave temples and western ghats of India. They are among the earliest places of Dharma practice. They’re carved out of the living rock. Along the front are great figures and pillars. Inside could be a space like this. Sitting here I feel how ancient the heritage is that we are part of. The heritage of the Buddha Dharma, of our ancestors who practiced the spiritual discipline to awaken to the sacredness of life. To serve the sacredness of life. To be awake. To see connection.
We come out of different places and walkways of our world in the closing years of the twentieth century. Out of the tumult and hectic pace of cities and towns. You don’t even need to be in a city to feel driven in this culture of ours. We come from lives of responsibility. Now we take distance from our daily life. In order, perhaps, to see it more clearly, to embrace it more lovingly, to find inspiration for its deeper, larger meaning. And so that we can feel held by our world, our real world, our living planet.
In this time, when the life of our planet and all beings are endangered, I feel honored to be here with you, with Christopher and Michele and the kangaroo rats. And also with the feelings of the ancestors, those who walked this part of Turtle Island, those who tended the living earth of our planet. In this shadowy room, I can imagine other beings among us. They would include beings of the future. One of my teachers, Rosealie Bertells, says all the beings that are ever going to be born on planet Earth are present on planet Earth now. They are present in our DNA. In the stuff of our living organism that we pass on. Just as we have been present, in that sense, from the beginning.
So I imagine and I call on the presence of the future ones to be with us. I do that a lot in my life – for courage, for endurance, for joy. This is so critical a moment, this time of turning, at the end of the twentieth century, at the end of this millennium. How dicey things are for us now, for life on Earth, for complex forms of life. Part of the reason for our being here this weekend is to find guidance and inspiration, ways of being present to our world that can help us take part in healing our world.
I am going to tell a story. A story that accompanies me into most workshops because it has been for me so deep an inspiration for the kind of work that we do – to prepare to be part of the self-healing of our world. It comes from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It’s twelve centuries old. It is not a story as much as a prophecy.
In 1980, I was in northwest India. I heard people referring to the Kingdom of Shambhala. They said it’s prophesied in the Kalachakra-Tantra. It caught my interest because it was talking about a time of great hardships and difficulties. I had been working on issues around nuclear power and nuclear energy, and feeling very much the critical nature of the dangers we faced militarily, ecologically, politically. So I was very curious about this prophecy.
They said that it prophecies a hard time, and although it was made twelve centuries ago, it has to do with this twenty to forty year period, now, in this generation, in which we are living. I got three different versions. In the first, the coming of the Kingdom of Shambhala was internal and had to do with our own awakening, our own inner spiritual journey. That didn’t interest me all that much.
The second version was almost the opposite; it was governed by what was happening externally. It didn’t matter what our role was. A Lama wanted to know why I wasn’t ready to go into a three-year retreat in a cave. I said I couldn’t because I had to stop nuclear war. I knew I couldn’t do it alone, but I felt I needed to participate in the effort. And he said, “Joanna, don’t you know that the Kingdom of Shambhala is coming?” As if it could come independently of anything we do, and we could therefore just lie back.
Then I talked with my dear Dharma-brother, friend, and teacher, Chujow-Rinpoche. He recounted to me the third version that has had such an impact on my life. These are pretty much his words:
“There comes a time when all life on Earth is in danger. At this time great powers have arisen, barbarian powers. Although these powers have wasted their wealth in preparing to annihilate each other, they have much in common: weapons of unfathomable devastation and technologies that lay waste to the world. It is just at this point, when the future of all beings seems to be hanging by the frailest of threads, that the Kingdom of Shambhala emerges.” “You cannot go there,” he said, “because it’s not a geopolitical entity. It exists in the hearts and minds of the Shambhala Warriors.” That is the word he used, ‘warriors.’
“You can’t recognize a Shambhala Warrior by looking at him or her,” he said, “because they don’t wear uniforms – no insignias. They wave no banners, they don’t even have barricades on which to climb to threaten the enemy or hide behind to rest or to regroup. They don’t have any home turf. Ever and always they move on the terrain of the barbarian powers.”
“Great courage is required of the Shambhala Warrior. Moral courage and physical courage. Because the Warriors are going right into the heart of the barbarian powers to dismantle the weapons. They’re going into the citadels and the pits and pockets where the weapons are stored. Weapons, in every sense of the word. They’re going into the corridors of power where decisions are made, in order to dismantle the weapons that threaten all life on Earth.”
“The Shambhala Warriors are able to do this because they know these weapons are mind-made. The dangers that confront us in this time are not visited upon us by some extraterrestrial force, or some satanic deity, or even by a preordained fate. They arise out of our choices, our relationships, our life styles. Made by the human mind they can be unmade by the human mind. In this time the Shambhala Warriors go into training.”
Well, as you can imagine, I asked Chujow how they train. And he said, “they train in the use of two weapons.” That is the term he used, ‘weapons.’
“What are they?” I asked. He said, “One is compassion, and the other is insight into the interdependence of all phenomena.”
“You need both,” he said. “Compassion, because it provides the fuel that is the motive power. That is what moves you to engage, to take part in the healing of the world. That openness to the pain of our world is essential. Not to be afraid of it. But by itself it is not enough. By itself it can just burn you up, burn you out. You need the other, you need that insight into the interdependence of all beings and all things. With that you know that the battles we face are not battles between good and evil, but that the line between good and evil runs through the landscape of every human heart. Insight by itself is a cool knowledge; it must be married with the heat of compassion.”
This prophecy is an insight into our true nature, into our interconnectedness, into our deep ecology. It is good to share it while sitting below the figures of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, and Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. They represent the two powers, the two resources, the two weapons of the Shambhala Warrior.
Brothers and Sisters, lovers of our world, you have come from so many different journeys and such different lives to visit Manzanita Village in the chaparral-covered hills of southern California, of planet Earth. Our coming together is in service to the sacred life of this planet. We have come for our own spiritual growth but also in service to the larger whole, to our people. In our practice we can discover how to fit together our personal pain and the planet’s pain, our personal healing and the planet’s healing – a deeper integration which brings a release of intentions, energy and insight. Be willing to hear the Earth speaking through you and to each other. Be willing to be surprised, especially to be surprised by what you hear from within yourself.
Copyright (c) Joanna Macy
Ask the Lama
Lama Surya Das
The Saints of the Dharma
They’re not canonized, but Buddhism’s masters and miracle workers have all the right stuff
Are there saints in Buddhism? If so, who are they and how are they recognized?
The term “saint” is more commonly associated with holy persons in Catholicism, but there are certainly saints in Buddhism. But because Buddhism is not centrally organized, as is Catholicism, there is no official sanctioning body to designate sainthood in the various schools of Buddhism.
But there are many sages, masters, and wonder-workers, both historical and contemporary, who are referred to as Buddhist saints. And each Buddhist tradition and country has its own set who are recognized not by an official process of canonization but through popular recognition of their attainments. What they all have shared, according to the hagiography and lore grown up around their lives, are the universal spiritual virtues of extraordinary humanity–including love, compassion, morality, generosity, and selflessness–and extraordinary “otherness”–that is, wisdom and access to a transcendental, non-dual perspective. In Buddhist terms, they are often referred to as bodhisattvas or “selfless spiritual awakeners.”
The earliest example of Buddhist saints were the arhats (“liberated sages” in Pali, the language of the earliest Buddhist texts), the enlightened disciples of the Buddha who had completed their spiritual path. The tradition began with the Buddha’s two principle disciples, Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, who are often represented in Buddhist art as standing on either side of the seated Buddha. Sariputra was known for his extraordinary wisdom and discernment, and Maudgalyayana was renowned for his psychic powers and abilities. In the intervening millennia, holy men and women who were masters with remarkable sagacity and powers in keeping with the first arhats, have been recognized as what we in the West would call saints.
Even the Buddha performed miracles, such as when he filled the sky with myriad perfect replicas of himself during a debate with a Hindu miracle worker. But the Buddha always taught that miracles and supernatural powers were the showy side effects of spiritual development, and should not be used or displayed except to further the faith of doubters or to help those in dire need.
In the later Tantric tradition of India and Tibet, beginning in the first centuries after Jesus’ time and spanning a period of 1,500 years, ascetics who have come to be known as the mahasiddhas (realized and accomplished masters), lived saintly lives distinguished by magical powers. The best known lived during the Middle Ages, and have been sanctified as the 84 Mahasiddhas. What marked them, apart from their enlightenment, was that they came from wildly divergent backgrounds and social classes and used unorthodox methods to show that supreme liberation can take many and sundry forms. The adept Tandhepa, for one, started out as a compulsive gambler who lost all his money but became enlightened when he grasped the notion that the universe was as empty was his pockets.
Even today, there are teachers in the Tibetan tradition who fall into the mahasiddha category. I have had the extreme good fortune of meeting and studying with some of them, such as my late root guru, the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, who was clairvoyant and a miracleworker, and the greatest lama I have ever met.
And then there is the 12th-century saint Milarepa, Tibet’s greatest yogi, poet, and miracleworker who could reportedly fly as well as keep himself warm while wearing nothing but a cotton robe. He also reportedly turned green from decades of ascetic Himalayan cavedwelling, subsisting mainly on boiled wild nettle soup,sd which lent him his fabled hue. One of Milarepa’s contemporaries was Machik Labdron, the only female founder of an extant Tibetan Buddhist practice lineage, Chod (literally “cutting,” which refers to ego cutting through radical meditation practices). The two preeminent 14th-century scholar and yogi saints Longchenpa and Tsongkhapa remain among the most highly venerated Tibetan sages today. In the same category is Atisha, the 11th-century Indian abbot who brought the lojong, which means “mind training” or “attitude adjustment,” techniques to Tibet, stressing the awakening of “buddha-mind” (bodhicitta) in both ethical living and contemplative life.
One of my personal favorites is the 15th-century sage and renaissance man Thangton Gyalpo, known as the “Master of the Mountain Wilderness.” In addition to being a yogi, alchemist, and meditation master who reputedly lived to the age of 125, he was also an engineer who invented a process for refining iron ore and designed and built iron chain-link bridges that still span valleys and chasms throughout Tibet. As a lama, he disseminated his own visionary revelations on how to practice Tantric meditations of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Love and Compassion, which were taught to me by the Lama Kalu Rinpoche and are still widely practiced today.
As I mentioned, each Buddhist tradition has its own set of saints, holy persons, and spiritual exemplars. One of the most prominent of saints in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism is the sixth-century Indian patriarch Bodhidharma, who founded the Zen or Ch’an school in China. In the 13th century, Dogen Zenji helped bring Zen from China to Japan, and widely disseminated it through his lucid, poetic teachings, writings, and with the establishment of monastic traditions; he remains that country’s greatest religious personality. Others in Japan who are considered extraordinarily masterful and loving sages include Kukai (Kobo Daishi), 774-835, who was the founder of the Tantric Vajrayana “Shingon” sect and opened the first school for peasant children in Japan; Shinran, the 12th-century founder of the Japanese Pure Land (Amitabha) school; Nichirin, father of the eponymous Nichiren sect or Lotus School School in 13th-century in Japan; and Fuji-san, the living head of the Nichiren today.
In the Theravada Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia, the notion of sainthood is not so readily embraced–most practitioners look to the historical arhats as exemplars, and there is no tradition in Theravada such as that of the mahasiddhas. But some lineages have developed cults around the relics of such great masters as Ajaan Lee Dhammadaro, a great Thai adept and monk in the Forest tradition. Moreover, there are countless stories of great Theravadin monks and teachers performing miracles, healings, and mind reading. But they are not canonized in the way that, say, saints in Tibetan culture have been.
I still feel somewhat skeptical about miracles, though I have witnessed events for which there is no other explanation. Once, in the early 1980s, my guru, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, performed longevity empowerments for my French monk-brother’s father, who was in the final stages of cancer, and he remarkably enough lived another 10 years. My friend’s father was not a believer but was converted to faith during the years when this miraculous healing became obvious. The 16th Karmapa also healed a Tibetan lady I knew in Gangtok, Sikkim, in a similar fashion; on another occasion in the 1960s, at the consecration of his newly rebuilt monastery in Rumtek, Sikkim, the Karmapa also reportedly raised a large flagpole, using telekinesis.
Tibetan Buddhist history is peppered with historical saints. One was the Indian adept Shantideva, who in the eighth century C.E. wrote the classic Mahayana Buddhist text “Entering the Bodhisattva Path of Enlightenment” (Bodhicharyavatara). Still widely used as a teaching text in Tibetan Buddhism, it is a guide for beginners and lay students to developing the aspiration to free all sentient beings. Another, Padma Sambhava, whose name means “Lotus-Born” and refers to the legend of his birth from a lotus blossom, is said to have walked from India in the eighth century to help found Buddhism in Tibet and create its Dzogchen tradition.
Throughout the Buddhist world, the cremated remains of enlightened beings are said to leave extraordinary relics, and many can be seen in reliquaries at monasteries and temples in Asia and the West. Extraordinary events often occur at their cremations and funerals, too. The late Dzogchen master Dudjom Rinpoche displayed countless rainbows around his embalmed remains, known as kuding, at his funeral in Nepal in the late 1980s. I was among the witnesses, along with one of my most doubtful friends, who came away with a very different attitude!
The Dalai Lama of Tibet and the Vietnamese master Thich Nhat Hanh are among the most saintly Buddhist sages we have today.The 14-year-old Gyalwa Karmapa, who escaped from Tibet to India in January, is one to watch, too. They say that if you chant his name-mantra, “karmapa Khyenno,” you will generate auspicious karma, increase your spiritual aspirations and devotion, and meet him in this lifetime (I’m sure that this is true). By chanting their mantras and invoking their presence, Tibetans pray to Buddhist saints for blessings, inspiration, and guidance–a graceful, devotional practice known as guru yoga.
Ask What We Want and Be Consistent
— The Buddhist Way to Single-handedly Build a Successful Relationship
by Jeanny Chen
All my essays are aimed at the goal of sharing my personal experiences and understanding of a narrow area of this great Buddhist practice. They are not intended to replace any of the study materials. Please read them as a reference only. For a profound and thorough understanding of this Buddhism, I would strongly urge you to study the Gosho, Sensei’s guidance and all SGI published materials, if at all possible. Thank you!
Relationships are probably the number one problem that all human beings have to deal with, besides birth, old age, sickness and death. As long as there are two people involved in an issue, it will rarely be simple and straightforward. This is even truer between a husband and a wife whose lives are tightly bound in almost every aspect. Therefore, a married couple easily finds the need to improve their relationship by seeing a marriage counselor. Eventually, many still have to file for separation or divorce due to their failure to manage a healthy and vital marriage.
As practitioners of Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism, we are so blessed to have the opportunity to learn the profound teachings of this Buddhism. As long as we thoroughly understand and truthfully apply those teachings, we will be able to single-handedly build a successful relationship with confidence and joy but without feeling the need to make concessions, repress grievances or experience resistance. That is a privileged benefit inherent to our practice, but most of us are not aware of it. Seemingly, it doesn’t occur to many practitioners that they hold the key to turning around their situation. This reminds me of the parable in the eighth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. A poor man’s friend sewed a priceless jewel in the lining of his robe without his knowledge.
“He journeyed here and there to other countries, seeking food and clothing to keep himself alive, finding it very difficult to provide for his livelihood. He made do with what little he could get and never hoped for anything finer, unaware that in the lining of his robe he had a priceless jewel.”
— The Lotus Sutra, translated by Burton Watson, p. 152
It may sound too good to be true, but it isn’t. However, it is true only if we are determined to dissolve conflicts by taking on the responsibility and transforming ourselves first. When we reckon our situation as our sole responsibility and not someone else’s fault, then we bear absolutely no grievances inside. In this way, we actively hold the total control of our lives. With such an attitude, we willingly make inner transformations. Hence, our environment and the people who surround us will respond to our lives with positive energy. But if we choose to indulge ourselves, and always resent, complain, blame things on others and demand others to give in, both our partners and we will for sure suffer to no end.
Of course, everyone would pursue a happy ending if one knew that one could single-handedly turn around a relationship that involves two souls. To reach this goal, the premise is that whatever we think, say and do, we have to make sure they all contribute to the fulfillment of the goal. Anything that will divert us in the slightest from our goal, we have to cast aside without giving it a second thought. If we watch and guard very strictly our thoughts, words and deeds, our task is literally half done. What is left is for us to work on our human revolution, goal setting, chanting, praying and taking necessary actions, based on our correct understanding of several Buddhist philosophies such as karma, three poisons and Buddha nature. All efforts we put forth will benefit our whole being, not just our relationship.
A member and I practice in the same SGI Region. She has asked that I not use her name in this document to protect the privacy of her family, so I will call her Ann. It all started when she finally determined that she had to do something to breakthrough her forever-suffering life. Then, we had a long talk to review every aspect of her life, centering on her then very gloomy marriage.
In an effort to effectively share the results of my kosen-rufu missions, I humbly think that it would demonstrate best if I record item by item, to the limits of my ability, the entire meeting and her efforts and struggles towards human revolution; exactly as how it went, straightforwardly, truthfully and openly:
1. Determining Which Way to Go
My first question was whether she wanted to overturn her situation or to give up. Her answer was to win. The decision thereby determined how the rest of the conversation would go. We then discussed only the approaches that would lead to her goal of victory. She agreed from then on to by no means think, say or do anything that would contribute to the results in the opposite realm.
2. Understanding Karma and Taking on Full Responsibility
As Buddhists, we should learn how to perceive the real aspect, in terms of karma, of every occurrence that we encounter throughout our lives. There is plenty of resource for us to learn from. The Gosho, President Ikeda and the SGI publications all talk about karma. If we understand its underlying truth and squarely face it with such wisdom in the right attitude, nothing on earth will ever become a problem to defeat or trouble us. In other words, by implementing this knowledge alone, we can minimize the impact of our suffering of any kind.
I have been given various opportunities to help members figure out how to overcome their challenges. No matter what their problems are, my experiences have convinced me that starting with a thorough explanation about their karma essentially paves the solid foundation which leads to their victory.
I therefore, strongly recommended her to seriously look into this matter and become the master of her karma, transcending it instead of being enslaved by it. Strengthening her efforts in faith, practice and study would lift her life condition and bring her the wisdom and strength she needed to turn around her situation. Using the story of my own karma and suffering, I explained to her the real aspect of hers. In the past, those causes she made through her thoughts, words and deeds had become the script of the play of her karma. She needed people and occurrences to play out her karma, in the exact accord with her script, so that she could face it and eradicate it.
Throughout their marriage, she has been blaming her husband for everything not to her liking. Nothing positive came out of her efforts of forever wishing and forcing him to change. As time went by, her frustration deepened and their relationship worsened to the extent that she eventually kicked him out for several days. Now she had to realize, from the viewpoint of her own karma, that it was not his responsibility. It has been and will be her problem deeply rooted in her life. To eradicate one’s karma through one’s Buddhist practice is not a mere abstract concept or passive wish. It is a realistically concrete action item that if one works on with scrutiny, one will harvest the desired result. Only through practicing Nichiren Buddhism, working from her end and from within could she initiate and lead the process of changing her karma to turn around the relationship. After all, it is already a huge task to change oneself, let alone to change others. She had to quit relying on his actions. This way, she could take the total control of her destiny.
The truth is, because of her husband’s mission on her life, he had to play a role exactly according to how she had written the script of her karma. He had no other choice in terms of his association with her karma. Living his life as an unsuccessful husband and so on, he suffered too. I therefore suggested her to open up his and her Buddhahood, and then communicate with him in her mind and heart, through her chanting.
In her prayer, she could apologize to him that he had to use his life to go through the struggle due to his association with her bad karma of having several failed marriages. For the same reason, she also needed to appreciate him. Because otherwise, her karma could never be played out, and could not be eradicated. Furthermore, in reality and in their daily lives, there were plain facts that she could detect with sincerity and compassion, and include in her prayer of appreciation and apology to him.
From Buddhist perspective, her deadlock struggle is in fact an impetus for her to seek the solution and to determine to change. Her suffering is also essential for her to develop her capacity to fulfill her mission of spreading this Buddhism. In other words, her husband functions as a “zenjishiki” (good friend). With the realization of her true mission, a diligent practice would come naturally. Suffering would no longer be a trade-off. In this case, she had put an end to her suffering from karma. Her apology and gratitude for her husband’s mission to manifest her bad karma had therefore in a sense released him from acting the role of an inadequate husband. By changing her own attitude to embrace her husband, she had now stopped perpetuating her bad association with him. Instead, she had started to create good causes, out of their existing shared bad karma, to benefit their relationship. It was so clear what she could expect for their relationship in the near future. She could then take a further step to rewrite their collective destiny by:
3. Reflecting on The Three Poisons
I then helped her reflect on herself based on the three poisons – greed, anger and foolishness. Here are some examples:
To me, it would be hard for her to find another man whose strength and interests so perfectly supplement her weakness, but whose weak points compliment her merits. He is a handyman. He loves to cook gourmet food and takes good care of house chores, things that she has no interest in. Because of such traits, he might have somewhat neglected to develop his ability for career advancement. As a result, he lost his job several times over the years.
At the same time, shortly after Ann took this faith, her primary goal to improve their financial situation had resulted in amazing benefits. She got a big raise, was recruited as an executive at a new company and of course, multiplied the amount of her paycheck. Her husband’s unsuccessful career contrasted with her newly claimed triumph so sharply that she failed to see and acknowledge his contribution especially at home. Instead, she became arrogant, thinking that she was superior to him.
Her smaller self was being greedy, demanding him to be a near-perfect human being. But frankly, was she perfect herself? Should he have been a perfect guy, he might have gone out to look for another equally perfect woman. In the final analysis, though in the wrong attitude, she had been lucky to be able to take a “superior” stance because of the fact that he was far from being perfect.
Nichiren Buddhism teaches us to change poison into medicine and to create value no matter what. How we respond to our environment and people around us becomes the substance of our life. As practitioners of Nichiren Buddhism, we should be confident that we have all the wisdom, power and means it takes to not let any situation spoil or upset our life. This should be the minimum benefit that we can bring to and protect our own lives through this Buddhist practice.
Her husband was very obsessed with sports programs on TV. He did not want to give up his favorite entertainment. There was no way for her to regulate his free time. She could not stand it, therefore, and made it a big issue to argue with him. What good is it to put the relationship at a stalemate and to jeopardize it over a matter of little or no significance?
If she looked at it from the bright side, wasn’t it great that he preferred to stay within her sight for hours, sitting on the couch, watching TV? It was actually a healthier hobby for him to vent his frustration and pressure with than to go out to fool around with other women or to get drunk at the bar, not uncommon for men. If she had compassion and wisdom to embrace him, she could either sit with him and try to learn from him about those sports, or simply read her own books or do something while keeping him company at home, but leaving him alone.
Instead, she responded with anger against the thing that he enjoyed doing, being a mature adult, a man with dignity and the head of the household. She seemed to be acting out of her domineering character without much respect or consideration for him, her supposedly equal counterpart in life. Feeling hurt, belittled and unworthy, her husband chose to self-destruct. He had become a man of low self-esteem but acted passively, confrontationally, rebelliously and resentfully. Inevitably, he took it out on her children from her second marriage.
Children from both of their respective previous marriages were one of the major sources of the conflict in the family. Due to the poison of foolishness, she had no wisdom to see the true aspect of their sufferings: her past bad causes. Her deluded mind urged her to solve the problem by taking her own children’s side in order to protect them. Unbeknownst to her, she was antagonizing her husband, which also harvested his deeper hostility toward them all.
Now she understood that the confrontational family dramas were none other than the manifestation of her bad karma. Through her chanting, she wanted to appreciate and apologize to her children that, because of her karma, they had to be born to her, living in such a family of complicated marriages and struggling amidst the sensitive, cold and unfriendly atmosphere at home. Her sincere prayer to her husband based on the same viewpoint also showed her spirit of taking on the responsibility of the family discord and suffering. She then vowed to practice this Buddhism to transform her life, change her karma and bring happiness to the entire family.
4. Putting Buddha Nature to Work
Since she married her husband, she had shared his karma and vice versa. She could easily choose to desert him in order to run away from her failing marriage, but it would never help her escape from her marriage karma this way. Because her husband’s destiny meant everything to her, besides chanting and doing human revolution to change her own karma, it was to her best benefit that she also nurtured his life by practicing this Buddhism on his behalf, since he had not had the fortune to embrace this Buddhism. Such a transformation from both within and without could only be achieved by chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. And it wouldn’t be hard if she knew how to put her Buddha Nature into full play.
Fortunately, from one of President Ikeda’s books (Faith into Action) alone, we could easily find plenty of guidance regarding the traits of Buddhahood that she could apply to carry out her exciting new goal.
“Buddhism is wisdom. As long as we have wisdom, we can put all things to their best use and can turn everything in the direction of happiness.”
— President Ikeda, Faith into Action, p. 170
Viewed with Buddha wisdom, the real aspect of all phenomena was crystal clear to her. Therefore, self-attachment was renounced, the three poisons quarantined and karma transcended and eradicated. There was no more self-centered unfair judgment or damaging criticism, no one-sided opinion and no irresponsible imputation against her husband. Her wisdom enabled her to embrace all occurrences in life and “Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. REGARD BOTH SUFFERING AND JOY AS FACTS OF LIFE, and continue chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, no matter what happens.” (WND p. 681) Any time now she could begin with her endeavor of reconstructing a healthy and solid relationship, willingly and joyously without any hang-ups.
“Compassion is the very soul of Buddhism. To pray for others, making their problems and anguish our own; to embrace those who are suffering, becoming their greatest ally; to continue giving them our support and encouragement until they become truly happy-it is in such humanistic actions that the Daishonin’s Buddhism lives and breathes.”
— President Ikeda, Faith into Action, p. 19
With tremendous Buddha compassion, it is natural that she respect and embrace her husband for who he is, and put herself in his shoes to understand where he’s coming from and defend his behaviors, discover and praise his good deeds and virtues, enhance and assist his ability for self-development, inspire and guide him for the correction of his flaws, look after and pray for his well-being and happiness, cherish his company, and live joyously together under all circumstances. He was a dear ally, an intimate comrade and a sweetheart along their shared journey of destiny. His struggle is her pain, his suffering her wound, his confidence her pride and his success her fortune. The two lives of a couple are as close as a body and shadow. By overthrowing her selfish and destructive attitude and ill feeling toward him, he would no doubt respond with parallels, according to the principle of oneness of life and its environment. Thus, she was now altering the drama of her karma from bad to good, sour to sweet, holding his hand, directing him to act out his part according to the revised script.
“Buddhism teaches the principle that earthly desires are enlightenment. To explain this very simply, earthly desires refers to suffering and to the desires and cravings that cause suffering, while enlightenment refers to attaining a vast, expansive state of absolute happiness… But Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism teaches that only by igniting the firewood of earthly desires can the flame of happiness be attained. Through chanting daimoku, we burn this firewood of earthly desires.”
— President Ikeda, Faith into Action, p. 39
Her greatest fortune was to encounter and embrace Nichiren Buddhism in this lifetime. The fortune her practice alone builds up is immense enough to benefit her entire family seven generations front and back. From her chanting Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, all her sufferings turn into absolute happiness. Knowing what she is getting into and how she can come out of it no matter what, she is therefore able to encompass and embrace any situation in life. Her husband, though not a practitioner of this Buddhism, is endowed with the equal Buddha Nature. He should never, in her eyes of wisdom and heart of compassion, be a problem, a pain-in-the-neck or a stumbling block in her way to leading the whole family to attain absolute happiness.
“We can attain a happy life state that shines like a diamond, solemn and indestructible under all circumstances. And we can do so in this lifetime. The Lotus Sutra exists to enable all people to attain such a state of life.”
— President Ikeda, Faith into Action, p. 97
Accompanied with Buddha wisdom, compassion and absolute happiness, her life force is unshakable and undefeatable because every occurrence is within her perfect control. The issues with her husband, children, parents and work; nothing is ever frustrating, upsetting, irritating or destructive any longer. She sees the light of infinite progress and holds the strength for the unlimited advancement in every aspect of her life, everything that is associated with her. Armed with such a diamond-strong life force, it is justified only if she takes courageous actions to bring out its amrita and fruits.
5. Taking Unprecedented Actions
In conclusion, she had determined to take action on every area we had discussed. We both knew that ACTION was the ultimate solution. Without solid action, hope, dreams, promises, desires, and goals were all merely an illusion. It is absolutely empty and meaningless.
She has since been painstakingly following through with her detailed plan to transform her life which of course extends to her environment and people associated with her. Here’s a brief outline of her action items:
A. Exert herself on faith, practice and study.
B. Plunge into the development of her SGI group. (After half a year, now turning into a district)
C. Earnestly execute her grand project of human revolution.
D. Seriously set a complete goal for her life and work on it.
E. Compassionately practice this Buddhism on her husband’s behalf to change his karma:
1. Inject daimoku into his life to elevate his life condition and add fortune to it.
2. Set his desired goals specifically and chant for them.
3. Communicate with him through her chanting to purify their relationship.
Her communication with him by opening up both of their Buddhahood and dialogue with him in her mind during her chanting covered the following aspects:
a. Apologize and appreciate him regarding everything in his life having to do with her bad karma.
b. Apologize in specific details for her misbehavior and deluded attitude towards him in the past.
c. Activate her Buddha compassion to list his good merits and dig out all his contributions to the family and to anyone else, no matter how trifle and insignificant they are. Acknowledge, praise and thank him wholeheartedly to strengthen his self-confidence.
d. Reflect on his childhood and his life in the past, namely, his karma. It explains where he is coming from. Share with him her understanding and care. Tell him in details her resolve and actions to help him change his destiny by practicing this Buddhism on his behalf.
e. Let him know specifically all the efforts she is going to put forth on her own improvement and development. Present to him what she prepares to offer for the benefit of the entire family.
f. Promise him that she will make him the luckiest and happiest man in the world. As his fortune and happiness are her very own, she will then enjoy the same state of life.
The power of daimoku and prayer chanted out of people’s Buddha nature is unfathomable. Her sincere message is guaranteed to reach and touch his life, and consequently, inspire his positive response. When she sees fit, she will also communicate with him face-to-face and heart-to-heart. If she does so, he will be so overjoyed to start to wonder whether it is real or merely a dream.
Ten days after our meeting, I received her first update. It read in part:
I just wanted to write to update you on my progress. I went to work immediately, increasing my time chanting, and focusing on a prayer that included everything we talked about. In just a few days of chanting in this new way I have felt and seen a profound change in my environment. The change in my life state when I chanted my apology to my husband for the way he has had to suffer because of my karma was amazing. I set goals for him and have been chanting for them. Here are my short-term results:
1. He was offered a job at a great company. My prayer was for him to find a job by December 1 that would fit him like a glove. It had to make him so happy and everyone at the job must look up to him. It had to be a job where he could help people and feel a sense of fulfillment. It also had to eventually earn an income greater than mine so he would have self-confidence and pride.
2. I have been chanting my apology to my son as well. I realized that the major problem in my marriage had been his issues with my son. I sent my appreciation to my son as well for the role he has chosen to play in my troubled marriage so that I could work out my karma. After the first week of chanting in this way I saw dramatic changes in my son and my husband’s relationship. They have begun talking more and both are being very considerate of the other. This was not the situation in my home before.
I am facing my negative aspects and chanting about them daily. I have asked for input from my family and friends about what they see as my negative tendencies. I am resolved to only create positive causes in my life going forward. I feel for the first time in my life that I am on the path to become happy, no matter what happens.
Things are not perfect, my husband still gets angry at me, but my reaction is much different. I have compassion for him when he gets in this state. I see his anger as my BAD karma coming out. We have to bleed the poison out so we can turn it into medicine. So I face each of these episodes as a benefit for me to practice my new GOOD causes for kosen rufu. I am dedicated to fulfilling my mission in this life.
Hence, her “progress reports” kept flowing in non-stop:
I look forward to my total victory in this matter and I am very excited about using my human revolution to encourage others. The idea that I might be able to help others find happiness in their marriages after I have experienced so much failure in this area of my life seems amazing.
In fact I met with a friend on Sunday who is having real marriage problems. She was drawn to me because she knew I was having similar problems. I was able to relate exactly to her suffering. She was surprised to hear that my husband was back at home and we were doing much better. She wanted to know how we did it. I said it was my Buddhist practice that had made the difference. She asked to come to an SGI meeting with me. I told her that through chanting she could overcome any obstacle. She asked for some information on our organization and she has already visited our web site and started learning about our philosophy. She lives in another district…I am going to try to take her to a meeting in her area since my group won’t meet this month…
I just wanted to share with you some progress. This past weekend I had a few setbacks in my progress towards changing my relationship karma. My husband got angry about everything and spoke in some harsh words to me. I really tried not to react to his anger with more anger. It took all my courage. I kept thinking in my mind that I needed to defend his bad behavior like a lawyer. I told myself he was nervous due to his new job and stressful over a party we are having for his whole family in a couple weeks. Once when he yelled at me I got so upset that I went to my room and sat on the floor and just chanted. He came in then and said he was sorry. All in all things went much better than they would have before I began to change my karma. Before we would have fought and yelled and he would have slept on the couch. This time the problems just went away when he realized I loved him even if he was upset and angry.
On Sunday I started to spend more time in my chanting focusing on his feeling love for my children and feeling that it was his blood running through their veins. I also chanted for the kids to feel the same for him. Last night I came home and my husband had dinner cooking. The kids were in the kitchen talking to him and helping. Even my son, who usually hides in his room was out talking and laughing. As we were dishing the food onto our plates my husband said “I love you.” Thinking he was talking to me I said, “I love you too.” He then said, “I was talking to the kids, I love you kids”. They looked so surprised. He had never been one to tell them he loved them, especially to my son. Then both kids said: “we love you too.” I was shocked. This was exactly the scene I had pictured in my mind as I was chanting.
This practice holds so many benefits. I must continue to challenge myself and realize that it is always darkest before the dawn.
A member emailed me today, she seems to be in a lot of pain. I hope this process of mine can help her as much as it has helped me.
I sent a short email to the member I told you about, giving her some report on my benefits from this new approach you showed me towards my life. I just gave her my results without any advice. She did say she was chanting 30 minutes each day with little progress. I responded that when I felt like I was making little progress with 1 hour I pushed myself to chant more. Always when I made this effort I realized quick benefits. I hope she will see some benefits soon so she will be encouraged. Healing her relationship would bring such happiness to her life.
I realize that the way I used to chant for my relationship was not delivering results. When I changed my focus from fixing my husband to fixing me, all the benefits began to flow. This is a powerful practice, but determination is the key…
A woman came to me at work today and confided that her relationship with her husband is very bad, and her 10-year-old daughter is screaming and crying and yelling all the time…
There are so many people in the world who live in a state of hell because of their relationships with those closest to them. I am convinced this is the major suffering for people in our world. I am determined to show actual proof of this process so that my experiences will encourage others who need help… This work must be brought to people so our homes will be filled with the peace, love and harmony.
I am chanting heavily for my husband. He takes a major exam at work on Feb 19! He must pass to move forward with his company. I am chanting that each minute he studies has the effect of anyone else studying for 100 minutes. I hope it is consistent with his own karma to attain this goal. Wish me success.
I just had to email you to share the results of my chanting campaign for my husband to pass the test. As you know he has been studying for the test for 3 months. If he did not achieve a grade of 70 or above on the test he would be immediately fired. He had only one chance to pass the test. As you suggested, I chanted that one minute of study would equal 100 minutes of a normal person. I chanted that all the questions would be from material he had studied. And I chanted for him to make the highest score of all the people who started the program with him. He got a bad cold on Monday and I was worried that this would affect his test. He took the test yesterday for 6 and 1/2 hours. He called me half way through the test and said he didn’t think he was doing well. I encouraged him that if he cleared his mind of doubt and opened himself to the knowledge he had stored from all those hours of study that he would triumph.
The result is that he passed the test with a score of 89! This was the highest score of all the people in his group. He knew of my chanting campaign and I think he is believing that there is really something to this practice.
I was so happy that so many people showed up at our WD meeting. My hope is that the enthusiasm and sincere efforts of my group will draw many new members to this practice. I continue to chant for my husband’s success in his new venture. He took another test last Friday and I chanted for him to make a high A on the test. He scored 97 out of 100 points! He continues to challenge himself and win. I am focusing my chanting on creating income from his job as soon as possible.
I just had to share with you… my husband has just completed his final test towards his goal at work. He has passed all the tests with flying colors. It is a clear victory for him.
He has many obstacles yet to face before turning around his negative professional karma…but I am confident that he will succeed. I am taking him out for a special dinner tonight to celebrate. Thank you for helping me see the ultimate power of the Gohonzon and to direct my chanting for his life so that my karma could be eradicated. His self-esteem is absolutely shinning on his face. I was the first person he called after the test and I felt such warmth and compassion for him and his accomplishment.
Faith equals daily life…. I am sure of it.
I went to the introductory meeting last night at the SJCC and my shakubuku received her Gohonzon. It was a great moment. Several people from her district were there to support her. I am thinking of supporting a new member in my group in setting up her Gohonzon at her house and helping her in beginning her practice. I feel she is very studied and may need some support in taking the practice literally (meaning; you have to chant) and not just intellectually. Should I take the lead here?
I am also going to try to get another member to come to my house on Saturday to chant for a couple hours. I need the daimoku and I think if I am chanting she will as well.
I am doing great, very busy with my group. I am so happy to be connecting with members of my group. It is my benefit that I can be part of their life. I feel like I am finally really living President Ikeda’s guidance to make my first priority to support my group members. If I can help create strong group members filled with happiness, who are armed with the mystic law, then this practice will surely propagate to others and kosen rufu will be realized. It seems so clear now…how to do it. I thank you for showing me how to do my human revolution so I could overcome my karma and my own suffering and open myself to helping others.
Now all I have to do is find more time so I can visit more people. I am filled with energy to do kosen rufu.
Have a great trip. Be safe.
My chapter leaders want my group to become a district. They have asked me to be vice district leader. I said great.
I am doing great. My husband continues to advance and hit all his goals. I am so excited about this approach to the practice. I feel working for this new district will make my practice even stronger.
Hope you had a safe and fun trip. Looking forward to seeing you and hearing all about it.
I just wanted to write and share another benefit of this great karma changing process you have taught me. Last weekend my husband and I were getting ready to go to a birthday party for a member of his family. I was getting ready and he came in the room very upset. He started complaining about my son who had left some dirty dishes in next to the computer. My husband had gone to use the computer and found the mess. He was very upset and wanted to know what I was going to do. I immediately went to the room and cleaned up the mess. But this didn’t reduce my husband’s anger. He kept complaining and asked how I was going to make sure this never happened again. I tried to calm him by saying that I would speak to my son and make it clear that this was not to happen again or he would lose his computer privileges. My husband’s face still burned with anger. As we were getting in the car to leave my husband said, “If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to.” I was surprised; I never said I didn’t want to go. I explained that I really wanted to go to the party. My husband then got out of the car, slammed the door and walked into the garage. I sat for a few moments to try and figure out what was happening. In the past we had often had these types of “blow up” fights. They usually contained a lot of yelling and ended up with one of us leaving the house for several hours. Normally when my husband behaved like this I would become very angry and start telling him how mean and unfair he was behaving. But this time I didn’t feel any anger. Instead of blaming him for treating me badly I immediately tried to think of what was causing this anger within him. I became his attorney again trying to defend his poor behavior by identifying the cause, like finding the thorn in the lions paw.
I realized that it was Sunday, my husband’s only day off work. He was feeling frustrated that he had to give his only free day to the family party. He loves his family but he was feeling a lot of stress over getting chores done around the house. My son’s mess just made him see one more chore for him to do. With this in mind I went into the garage. He was still very mad. He said to me, “Maybe I should just pack up my stuff and move out”! I couldn’t believe he could even think this way. I ran to him and held his hands and told him that I loved him deeply, that what ever needed to be done around the house I would do, that he should just take the day and relax in anyway he wanted. He then looked at me and his whole face changed. I had given words to the frustration he was feeling. At that moment his love for me was so clear. He gave me a big hug and said he was sorry. We went to the family party and spent a restful afternoon beside the pool.
This experience really made clear for me how the ten worlds could appear in our lives. Because of my raised life state, I was able to see my husband suffering in the world of Hell. He felt trapped by all his responsibilities. But instead of joining him in Hell and fighting with him in that world, I was able to stay firmly fixed in the higher world and at the same time connect with him. Once he listened to my message of love and compassion from this higher state, he immediately joined me there. The happiness he felt as he exited the world of Hell was visible on his face. It is really true that where the Buddha resides will become the Buddha land. I had an immediate affect on my environment! In fact I never felt anger or judgment or resentment towards him. I felt only compassion and love. I can see now how Nichiren Daishonin was able to meet even his executioners with love. He saw their hate and anger from his elevated life state of Buddhahood and felt only compassion.
This really works…. I must chant, chant, and chant to keep my life condition high.
All my love,
With her continual updates, Ann’s advancement in her practice and her life has unfolded gracefully but astonishingly. On the day when she opened up her life to discuss with me, I knew very clearly what her results would be because I have the absolute faith in Nichiren Buddhism based on her sincerity. However, each time I received her email updates, my heart still pounded with excitement and cried with joy.
Thanks to her tremendous compassion, she has agreed to share her above process in great details, on her way to become happy and bring happiness to her family and many others. After all, this is how her life long struggle finds its ultimate meaning.
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Biographical Notes on Lama Gangchen Tulku
The Healing Lama Lama Gangchen.was born in Western Tibet in 1941. He was recognised at an early age to be a reincarnate lama healer and was enthroned at Gangchen Choepeling monastery at the age of five. When he reached the age of twelve he received the ‘Kachen” degree which is usually conferred after twenty years of study. Between the ages of thirteen and eighteen, he studied medicine, astrology, meditation and philosophy in two of the major monastic universities of Tibet: Sera and Tashi Lhumpo. He also studied in Gangchen Compa, Tropu Gompa, and Neytsong Monastery. His root guru was HH Trijang Dorje Chang, the junior tutor to HH, the Dalai Lama. Other main teachers were HH Ling Rinpoche, the senior tutor of the Dalai Lama as well as HH Zong Rinpoche, who was one of his major gurus for healing and astrology.
In 1963 he went into exile to India where he continued his studies for the next seven years at the Varanasi Sanskrit University (Bishwa Vhidhyiana) in Benares. In 1970 he received the Geshe Rigram diploma from Sera Monastic University situated in South India. After his graduation, he worked as a reincarnate lama healer among the Tibetan communities in Nepal, India and Sikkim, during which time he saved the lives of many people and was named private physician to the Royal family.
In 1981, Lama Gangchen visited Europe for the first time. In the same year he also established his first European centre: Karuna Choetsok in Lesbos, Greece, where he is known to have planted a bodhi tree in the ‘Buddha Garden’, and in the centre of which he consecrated what was to become the first of a long line of World Peace Buddha statues, thankas and images.
Since 1982 he has travelled extensively, both healing and teaching in Italy, Spain, Greece, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Belgium, France, England, Ireland, U.S.A., Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Nepal, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India, Mongolia, China, Tibet, Russia, and Buriyatia. During these years he has lead many pilgrimages to some of the most important holy places of the Buddhist tradition, in India, Indonesia, China, Thailand, Mongolia, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Tibet, guiding large groups of friends and disciples from all over the world, the majority of whom have reported many physical and mental benefits from the experience. In addition to these pilgrimages to Buddhist holy places, Lama Gangchen has visited many holy sites in Europe, including that of Assisi, Italy the home of Saint Francis; the ancient temples of Delphi and Athens in Greece. In England he has visited the sites of Stonehenge and Avebury as well as visiting many Western Buddhist centres and temples. During all these pilgrimages he has met many high lamas, both in the East and the West. In 1988 he opened his first residential dharma centre outside of Asia: ‘Shide Choe Tsok’ Peace Dharma Centre, in Sao Paulo, Brazil. At present he has 85 Inner Peace Education Centres worldwide.
Since coming to the West in 1982, and later becoming both a resident in Italy and and eventually an Italian citizen, Lama Gangchen’s activities have taken on an ever increasing worldwide scope towards the achievement of World Peace. Mainly, it began with the founding of: The Kunpen Lama Gangchen Institute for the propagation and preservation of the Tibetan Medical Tradition in Milan, Italy in 1989. Here Lama Gangchen has initiated the first extensive programmes of Himalayan medical and astrological studies for Western students. Also concerned with the preservation of the Himalayan culture, the centre holds courses in Buddhist philosophy, thanka painting and other arts. Lama Gangchen has invited many groups of Tibetan monks to Europe such as the Ganden Shartse monks, the Sera-Me monks, the Nyalam Phengyeling monks and the Segyupa monks to make sand mandalas and perform sacred Cham dances; all of their activities are dedicated to world peace. The Institute is also the Western Headquarters of Lama Gangchen’s activities and his Western residence. The Lama Gangchen World Peace Foundation (L.G.W.P.F.), International Friendship for the Support of Tibetan Medicine, Vajrayana Buddhist Philosophy and Self Healing to Develop World Peace, established in 1992 following an International conference of doctors, healers and therapists held in Milan, Italy. The Foundation has its main seat in Spain and was officially recognised by the Spanish government in November 1993. Each year the L.G.W.P.F. holds an International congress m Madrid, Spain, which provides a forum for discussion between scientists, doctors, therapists and philosophers. One of the major aims of the Foundation is to provide documented scientific evidence about the benefits of ancient Tibetan Himalayan healing methods, other natural healing methods and the energetic qualities of spiritual healing. The Foundation also gives a base for constructive dialogue between different cultures in order to create and promote educational methods to develop Inner Peace and World Peace.
The Himalayan Healing Centre in Kathmandu, Nepal which provides minimal cost Western medical care alongside traditional Tibetan and Ayurvedic medical care for local inhabitants. The Healing Centre offers many different facilities enabling the use of many therapeutic systems, space to hold residential courses in Tibetan medicine, lectures, conferences and so on, with the aim to create a base for the exchange of verbal information and clinics for the actual medical practice between the Eastern and Western medical sciences. In 1994, the Kunpen Lama Gangchen Institute and the Himalayan Healing Centre jointly financed a one year project of a leprosy station in Kathmandu and another station which is linked to the Sanku hospital, 20km outside of Kathmandu. Lama Gangchen financially supports the construction and upkeep of schools, clinics and monasteries in India, Nepal and Tibet/China, supplying them with different therapeutic systems, trained Western doctors and facilities, materials and medicines. In 1994, Lama Gangchen founded Peace Radio ‘La Radio della Pace’ and Lama Gangchen Peace Publications, both situated in Milan, Italy. Their aim is, respectively, to broadcast and spread positive information about Inner and World Peace Education, Self-Healing, self-responsibility and self-morality; natural therapies, environmental awareness and inter-religious cooperation.
Gangchen Tulku, A Great Yogi and Tantrician
– Some Personal Remarks by Champa Legshe
Being fascinated by a special and very rare Buddhist deity called Nagaraksha Manjushri (a wrathful naga-king emanation of Manjushri) we asked several lamas if they would know somebody who could give teachings and empowerments on this tantra. Through the mediation of Lama Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche we came in contact with Lama Gangchen Tulku, who just had established a Buddhist centre in Milano/Italy, and who finally agreed to come to Ireland (June 1990) to give a series of tantric empowerments and teachings at our home (Manjushri Mandala). It was his first visit to Northern Europe and everybody was very excited to meet this outstanding tantrician, healing lama and astrologer. With him he brought some of his closer students, a translator and a whole pharmacy shop of Tibetan medicine. For a few days Thomas’ physiotherapy clinic was transformed into a Tibetan healing centre and many came to see for the first time in their life a Tibetan Healing Lama and to get medical advice. For us it was nothing new. But imagine the Irish people, living in rural Donegal, and coming to a doctor, who not just made a pulse diagnosis and prescribed herbal medicine pills but also performed strange rituals, spoke some magical mantras on them and on top of all they had to repeat Buddhist prayers and to memorize the mantra of Shakyamuni Buddha as the most important part of the healing process! But due to their Celtic past and living in a country full of magic places, haunted houses and holy wells, they behaved quite naturally.
The healing sessions took part in the morning. Afternoon, evening an nights were reserved for teachings, empowerments and occasionally for sightseeing tours and discussions. It was not easy to keep a tight time schedule for a group of 30-40 students arriving for this event from various places of the world and getting lost in a welter of languages. It was the first time in Europe Rinpoche gave such a series of high empowerments and teachings and acting predominently as a tantrician and yogi, which he is by nature and by his special education, trained by highly experienced Tibetan gurus. Two of his major gurus, HH Zong Rinpoche and HH Kyabje Ling Rinpoche were also my teachers during the seventies and early eighties, and being also an astrologer (even though from the Western tradition), having worked as a ‘healer’ in the mid-seventies (homoeopathy, acupuncture, herbal medicine), and being a tantrician and Buddhist by heart, we had something in common which made this event so special for me. -Anyhow, the outer preparations kept us all busy: getting the ritual objects together, making heaps of photocopies with the various sadhana texts and illustrations and taking care to capture all those events on video, audio and photo, organizing private interviews or preparing refreshments and snacks etc. This usual Dharma-craziness I knew so well from living at different Buddhist monasteries and running a Buddhist centre for many years, creates a special flair and feeling of being part of a real and lively experience and it trains the art of improvizing and enhances the anticipation 🙂 In addition, reaching the extremes of one’s capacity helps to enforce the necessary sensitivity for receiving some ‘out of the normal’ esoteric teachings. So there is even some wisdom behind all this! It is an important part of the Tibetan mentality to improvize and to make spontaneous decisions, using the energy and temporary ‘weather situation’ of the mind instead of a strict and fixed kind of planning. In this context I remember a situation where a teacher of mine mentioned incidentally and just an hour before a major teaching, that he needs a rosary with 108 green beads as if it would be the most normal thing that every household has a depot of green beads. So in no time I organized several expedition teams which swarmed out all over the town to find that 108 green beads. Sweating all over, close to a hysterical fallout and having searched at least a dozen shops, one team discovered the beads in a warehouse nearly risking a car accident to bring them in time. – The astrological informed reader may be reminded that this airy disposition may come from Tibet’s libra influence. Many old sources assign Tibet to the cardinal air element sign libra, which mirrors also in Tibet’s natural attachment to art, beauty, esotericism and the loving kindness of it’s people.
But it was worth all this. After giving a short introduction into the basics of Buddhist philosophy, the nature of mind and of Buddhist tantra, he transmitted the empowerment of the black Nagaraksha Manjushri (Jampel Nagaraksha), a wrathful emanation of the water-element (Akshobhya family) and a powerful naga king with ten heads, eighteen arms, a snake’s tail and adorned by the eight great Nagas (serpent kings) of the four major directions and four sub-directions (Northwest, Southeast etc.), standing amidst a mass of wisdom flames. (- see also Nagaradja and Lama Yeshe, A Milestone in My Life) The purpose of this deity yoga is to overcome magical hindrances of lower spirits and nagas disturbing the meditator’s concentration or causing various diseases. Than he gave the initiation of White Tara (Dölma Kharpo), a peaceful emanation of the fire element which generates a calm mind, tranquility, fearlessness and longevity. Spread over the next days Rinpoche gave empowerments and explanations on the mandala of the 6-armed and three-headed yab/yum aspect of Mahachakra Vajrapani (Chana Dorje Khorlo Chenpo), a wrathful emanation of the water-element, transforming hate energy into wisdom activity, the two-armed form of Yamantaka (Dorje Jikche), a wrathful emanation of Manjushri (water element, transforming hate into wisdom-knowledge activity), Orange Manjushri (Jamyang Marser), a peaceful emanation of highest wisdom knowledge and wisdom activity (water element), White Dzambhala riding on the turquoise dragon (Dzambhala Kharpo), generating wealth and magical powers (siddhis) as well as the Medicine Buddha, King of Aquamarine Light (Bhaishajaguru or Mänlha), pacifying all kind of naga diseases and patron of Tibetan medicine. Assisted was Gangchen Tulku by Lama Panchen Ötrul Rinpoche, his former friend from India, now a resident in Northern Ireland and a teacher and friend of Thomas, me and Manjushri Mandala, who gave additional empowerments on White Manjushri and Dzambhala. Some short blessings on Chenrezig and Green Tara as well as blessings to every single room of our house, garden and our grounds completed the official part of the visit.
For a few days we enjoyed the vital and unique energy which goes along with all Tibetan festiveties of this kind. In Gangchen Tulku we had found not just an enthusiastic and powerful Healing Lama, but also an experienced and souvereign tantrician and magician, well aware of his secret talents. A man full of energy and vision, complete dedicated to keep the Buddhist spirit of Tibet alive and using his power to help wherever help was needed. Not a theoretical scholar but a man of action, combining the charm of a young boy with the dignity of a Buddhist master. A mixture I discovered in most Tibetan teachers I came in contact with. Also generous in giving, with a good sense of humor, and a bit of crazy wisdom, a ‘by-product’ of so many tantric practitioners. Due to the short visit I couldn’t test his medical, healing or astrological talents, but I certainly know that he was honestly devoted to tantric reality. Just a little story to illustrate this. During a walk together with all course participants we passed a holy well, situated directly beside a street, and decorated by the Irish with all kind of little souveniers (from childrens combs to handkerchiefs to some coins or personal wishes, written on a piece of paper). People say that the Irish Saint Glencolumkill gave some teachings at this place in 600 AD. It must have reminded Gangchen Tulku on Tibet, where all wells are seen as special magical places. Anyhow, after having inspected the well very carefully, he spoke a long series of mantras to honor or enlighten the nagas and spirits of this place and than started a twenty minute ritual and puja, blocking complete the street. But all cars waited patiently, watching this crazy group of Buddhists, chanting and praying to the spirits of this historical spot. One could feel that Gangchen Tulku was completely in his element and not pretending. He simply did his best to bless and honor the well or even communicate with it. He did the same in blessing our grounds, not missing a square yard and even climbing up the highest point, which is very difficult to reach, because it’s heavily overgrown with gorse. We felt relieved when he finally stated that our place is free of magical hindrances. It’s great to know that in a time of hi-tech and computer-magic people like Gangchen Tulku remind us of even finer and further reaching realities which we are in danger to ignore or even forget. May this old knowledge, once known by so many cultures have a continuation and may the wisdom and practice of Buddhist tantra stay alive, presenting itself in a modern language and acceptable for a wider audience. The archetypal essence of tantra will never change, but we can try to find new words and allegories to attract more people. Vajrayana should never become a curiosity or cultural nature reserve for curious Westerners, who stare at some exotic lama dances as part of a tourist attraction, getting a kick by watching some monks, creating a sand-mandala or listening to some overtone chantings of sacred mantras as an exotic spice to pop up a second class techno album.
– Additional personal remark:
– Beside the classical education in Buddhist monasteries I personally think, that a wise, guided and legalized handling of psychedelics (LSD-25, to be exact), later replaced by more traditional methods still has the potential to keep tantric Buddhism alive. Just a few will find time to do the traditional three year retreat to come in contact with the magic reality of one’s own mind. I think Buddhist tantra ‘could’ get a fresh start again by setting-up of some kind of ‘Nature of Mind Research Centre’s’, in the framework of spiritual and religious freedom. Here the spiritual and honest seeker of the 21st century should get the legal chance for psychedelic experiencees under the supervision of experienced spiritual teachers, tantricians, Tibetan lamas, depth psychologists etc. But under no circumstances in a clinical environment! From my own biography I know that it is much easier to come from live-experiences, acting like eye-openers, than starting from mere beliefs. I think that the purpose of enlightenment justifies all means. – It would give me a bad feeling if I would keep this important message back. – Anyhow, the future will show.
For Non-Buddhists the importance of this tantric deities and empowerments are often difficult to understand. For those just a *very* short explanation: All these deities should be understood as spontaneous emanations of our enlightened mind, evoked by sound (seed syllable), which then transforms into formless light (in the color of the according element) and having the potential to manifest into a special rainbow- or dreambody-like form (deity) by speaking a special mantra (sound composition). By identifying with the body, speech and mind of those magical forms of our higher ‘self’ one is able to increase the special qualities of those wisdom-emanations to speed up the process of enlightenment. They don’t represent the ultimate goal of Buddhahood but have to be understood as precious vehicles towards the nondualistic mahamudra state of mind. Tantric Buddhism states that there is no final enlightenment possible without overcoming our inner magical universe of powerful illusions without temporary magical protection and wisdom transmission of the higher mind deities. A bit confusing, but logical, as soon as you exept the magical nature of your ‘self’, being composed of a vast amount of magic forces, fighting against there relativation and depolarization of the spiritual seekers mind. In principle all this is similar to astrology where we also deal with deities (Jupiter, Mars etc.), zodiacal forces etc., trying to channel their archaic energies using our wisdom and will power. Even before the Greeks astrology was always a tantric religion In Tibetan tantrism those wisdom powers just have a specified name, a sound, a form etc. Easy, isn’t it? 🙂 I just would like to add, that, like in astrology, also tantra understands the microcosmos as a mirror of the macrocosmos and vice versa. So it is possible to envoke or experience certain deities (or energies) also in the outside. Both methods are common practice in Buddhist tantra, even though the advanced practitioner works more on harmonizing his inner magical reality and as a result of synchronicity he experiences the outer reality according to his inner realizations. So if he developed inner harmony he will experience automatically the outer world as being in complete harmony and beauty too. If he realized the nature of emptiness of all phenomena, he will experience also the outer world as empty and illusionary…and so on.
To overcome our so-called evil forces or karmic hindrances it needs corresponding, extremely powerful antidotes to magically transform those hindrances and that’s why in tantric Buddhism you find various wrathful deities like Yamantaka, Vajrapani etc. which offer their powers, wisdom and magical ‘know-how’ to help the spiritual seeker. So even looking devilish and terrifying their motivation is based on love and compassion. Peaceful deities have the function to stabilize the inner pureness and harmony etc. So the Buddhist pantheon is like a huge pharmacy shop, giving the practitioner the choice to select his special deities, custom-tailored to his individual karmic reality. The pharmacist is the according teacher or yogi. That’s how the tantric ‘psycho-therapy’ or ‘karma-therapy’ works. During an empowerment you not just get the recipe and allowance to handle the tantric ‘medicine’ but also the magical transmission of the teacher resp. the initial treatment. To make all this work, a mutual trust between teacher and student (doctor and patient) is essential. – There is another thing one should understand. Even though it is fundamentally possible to reach Buddhahood in one life-span, it is more the exception. But by practicing a special deity yoga like Yamantaka or White Tara and making progress on this path one could reach a rebirth in their higher magical realms (or realms of our own mind) which allows a quicker realization in just a couple of lifes. So an initiation is always just a start or possibility for a better karmic career. It depends complete on the motivation of the student if and how he handles this chance by using the magical medicine on a regular basis. If not, a magical transmission can’t harm and can be understood as a blessing, initiating a seed into the mind stream, which can show a result in a much later life-form. Tantra goes even so far to postulate, that just seeing a deity or Buddha image will have some positive results in a later life. So, just surfing through our Buddhist pages may once have some wonderful effects, a magical transmission by millions of pixels, coming through your telephone line. Now, that’s what I call an electronic tantra experience of a new dimension!)
Tibetan Astrological Prayer – From the Outer Kalachakra Tantra
– Excerpt from Gangchen Tulku’s Book ‘Self-Healing II’ Please, Lama Action Vajra, great Rigden,
– Bless me to realize my body is the mandala of the universe, and to transform it into a pure container of spiritual and life energy like a pure crystal.
– Bless me to realize that the birth, life and death of my body is the birth, life and destruction of the cosmos.
– Bless me to realize that my spine is Mt. Meru and that the five colors of my skin and organs are its five colored faces. May my body and mind become a pure container for this positive elemental energy. (*)
– Bless me to realize that the flow of the vital energy, drops and winds rotating in my channels and chakras is the cosmic energy flow and the rotation of the celestial bodies. May my body and mind become a pure container for this positive, pure celestial energy.
– Bless me to realize that my right and left channels are the Sun and Moon. May my body and mind become a pure container for this positive solar and lunar energy.
– Bless me to realize that my central channel (tsa uma) is Rahu (=rising Moon Node). May my body and mind become a pure container for this positive, deep and profound, essential life energy.
– Bless me to realize that my 28 vertebrae are the 28 constellation divinities (=lunar mansions). May my body and mind become a pure container for this positive, divine celestial life energy.
– Bless me to realize that my seven facial parts (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, tongue, chin and forehead) are the seven planets. May my body and mind become a pure container for this positive planetary energy.
– Bless me to realize that my twelve left and right ribs are the twelve zodiac houses in the lunar and solar aspects. May my body and mind become a pure container for this positive archetypal energy.
– Bless me to realize that my countless millions of atoms and cells are the stars of the heavens. May my body and mind become a pure container for this positive stellar energy.
– Bless me to realize that my chakras are the great rotating galaxies. May my body and mind become a pure container for this positive universal energy.
– Bless me to realize that the year is the Shambhala King, that the twenty-four solar and lunar months are his twenty four ministers, that the days are the army of Shambhala warriors and that the hours and seconds are their powerful weapons.
Thus, may we become free from linear time, experience the past, present and future in the eternal now and dance in the sphere of timelessness.
p.s. Rigden = King of the mystical kingdom of Shambhala, also called ‘Lama Action Vajra’.
Annotations by Gangchen Tulku based on the outer Kalachakra tantras:
Our own body, the microcosm contains all the energies and elements of the universe, the macrocosm. All outer and inner phenomena are manifestations of our own consciousness and subtle wind energy (- air element), so they are naturally related. Our subtle energy winds, upon which our mind is mounted, is five colored and contains the subtle five elements. Due to ego grasping and collective karma of living beings, this subtle wind energy manifests the outer and inner universe in stages, e.g. the formation of a baby in the mother’s womb and the formation of the world in space.
Formation of the universe due to the collective karma of living beings:
1. The space element allows the outer four elements to dance and interact. This is called the ‘Space Vajra Mandala’, formed by the sound EH.
2. Due to the collective karma of living beings, the wind energy (air element) rises, called the ‘Wind Vajra Mandala’, formed by the sound YAM.
3. Due to the circulation of the wind, friction produces heat, called the ‘Fire Vajra Mandala’, formed by the sound RAM.
4. Due to the fire element rising and then cooling, water vapour forms the ‘Water Vajra Mandala’, formed by the sound BAM.
5. Due to the solidification of the water, a cream forms which then transforms into the ‘Earth Vajra Mandala’, formed by the sound LAM.
Formation of a human body due to contaminated karma:
1. In the space of the womb there is the ‘Space Vajra Mandala’, formed by the sound EH.
2. Due to the force of karma, the subtle energies and consciousness of the bardo is entering the parent’s sperm and ovum and the ‘Wind Vajra Mandala’ forms by the sound YAM.
3. Due to the friction of the consciousness inside the sperm and ovum, union heat is produced: the ‘Fire Vajra Mandala’ forms by the sound RAM.
4. Due to the fire energy rising and cooling, liquid is generated: the ‘Water Vajra Mandala’ forms by the sound BAM.
5. Due to the liquid quality solidifying, the physical body begins to form: the ‘Earth Vajra Mandala’ forms by the sound LAM.
– Thus there is an exact relationship between our body and mind, and the cosmos.
Our five inner elements are space, wind (air), earth, fire, water and our five organs correspond to the outer five elements.
Our spine is Mt. Meru. (=the axial cosmic moutain of Buddhist mythology)
Our 28 vertebrae correspond to the 28 constellations (=28 stars or star constellations, also known as ‘lunar mansions’).
Our 24 ribs relate to the twelve lunar and solar half-months of the year.
Our seven facial points correspond to the seven planets (in Tibetan astrology the Moon Node Rahu is understood as a planet).
Our body is a mandala of the universe!
We can find the outer samsaric universe within our own body and mind.
Due to the rotation of the celestial bodies, energy is flowing in the cosmos. – Our vital energy, subtle drops and winds are flowing through our channels and chakras at the same frequency, but our body must consent to the energetic flow of the cosmos, because the greater is more powerful than the lesser.
Sometimes we are in harmony with the celestial bodies, and we experience their influence as beneficial, but at other times, we may be in opposition with them and experience this as obstacles or problems.