Why do we bow?

I had an email from a chap who has attended a few meditation sessions at the Hermitage. He asked why we bow. Here’s my brief answer:

1. To show respect. In Asian countries, this is the traditional way of doing it. Again, as with the chanting, there is no actual Buddha to receive our respect, though we may imagine that we are bowing to him, as a kind of contemplation of him and what he represents. Who benefits from showing this respect? Oneself. The Buddha said that to respect those deserving of respect is a great blessing. One of the reasons why this modern world is deteriorating (spiritually and morally) is because there is a distinct lack of respect for elders, teachers, deserving religious figures, and so on. Respect is an integral part of monastic life and whenever we meet a monk who is senior to us (even by only a few minutes) we bow to them.

2. It helps us to develop mindfulness. We put down what we are carrying – both physically and mentally – and concentrate purely on the act of bowing. We try to be aware of the whole process. This is especially helpful before we begin to meditate. As with the chanting, it helps to prime and uplift the mind. In the Thai Forest Tradition, of which we are a part, we are taught to bow frequently: when entering and leaving our dwelling, our room, the shrine room, and so on. This practice provides us with frequent opportunities to pause and bring ourselves right back to where we are and what we are doing.

3. It helps us to develop humility. When we bow we lay down a part of our self, our ego. We let go of our views, opinions and conceit so that the mind becomes more open, receptive and thus in a more suitable state for seeing things truly. I know a young Hungarian man who studied philosophy at Warwick University and who attended the Buddhist meditation sessions there, as well as some retreats at our monastery. To begin with, he really didn’t like to bow. He loved the meditation and teachings but felt that the bowing and chanting were unnecessary cultural relics. But as time passed his view changed and he began to see them as ‘part of the whole package’. Eventually, bowing became important to him. Later on he told me how, before he would bow, he would imagine that the top of his head had been cut off. Then, as he bowed, he would imagine all of his views, opinions and beliefs pouring our of his head. When he came back up he felt quite open, refreshed and ready to learn.

Oh, and why three times? Firstly, to the Buddha; secondly to the Dhamma – his Teachings; and thirdly, to the Sangha – the order of monks and nuns. We call these three the Triple Gem or the Three Refuges.

Attachment: a Tale from Great Ormond Street Hospital

Young nuns with their breakfast at the Shwedagon Pagoda. January, 2018

Several years ago a friend told me about a certain documentary he’d seen that had featured the famous Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital In London. I can’t remember what it was called, and I’m not sure I ever knew what the whole thing was about, but part of it focussed on the relationship between the doctors and the nurses on the one hand and the children on the other. What it revealed about the effects of this relationship upon the welfare of the children was both fascinating and troubling

As you might have expected, the doctors and nurses naturally grew to become very fond of the children under their care. How could they not? Imagine being surrounded by dozens of toddlers with leukemia, brain tumours and meningitis – to name but a few of the illnesses with which they would have been contending. It must have been heartbreaking. And so the adults devoted their lives to helping these children. They weren’t just doctors and nurses, but friends and surrogate aunties, uncles, and parents, too. In many cases they loved these children as if they were their own.

But when the time came for some of those children to move on – perhaps to another ward, another hospital, or even to their homes – the doctors and nurses couldn’t let them go. They kept hold of them, even though to do so wasn’t in the best interests of the children. A child needed the new treatment; it needed the latest medical equipment only available in the next hospital; it needed to go home. But the doctors and nurses had, unwittingly, become emotionally dependent upon those children. They had become attached.

The love that those adults unquestionably felt for their charges had become tainted. It was no longer simply about the well-being of the children, but about the wants, feelings and desires of the doctors and nurses. Thus, when it came to say good bye, the feelings of the latter took precedence and the children were held back. By behaving in this way, not only had they hindered the children’s progress, they may even have caused them harm.

Did they realise what was happening? Could they see that their attachment was hindering their ability to judge what was best for the children? Were they aware that the children might be harmed? I can’t be sure, but it’s very likely that they didn’t realise. This is the nature of attachment: it blinds us.

This is why we emphasise the point that metta – loving-kindness – is free of attachment. Some people struggle with this. I remember speaking to my cousin about this very subject when he came to visit me in the monastery for the first time about ten years after I had arrived. He was sympathetic to Buddhist teaching and expressed interest in the monastic lifestyle and in particular meditation. But when I mentioned the problems caused by attachment, and that according to Buddhist teaching real love is free of it, he simply couldn’t understand. I don’t remember his exact words but he more or less equated love with attachment. Love is attachment.

But, as we can see from the story above, it isn’t. Attachment is about me. It’s about what I want, how I feel, what I think you should do. Loving-kindness is the very opposite. It’s free of me. That’s why we tack -kindness on the end. I know some scholars translate metta otherwise – goodwill being an example – but that word kindness is, I think, crucial. It reminds us that love is about giving and letting go.

Death: Questions and Answers

Following on from the recent post Meditation: Questions and Answers for 11-14 year olds, here are the ones on death. These will be used in a new textbook on Buddhism being published for schools.

How do you view the idea of death? 
The idea of death is very important to me. It’s actually one of the main reasons why I became a monk. I can remember one Sunday night lying in bed at home, when I was nineteen years old, suddenly realising how quickly my life was passing. It was like being struck by a bolt of lightning! And so I made up my mind there and then to do something of value before I die. I didn’t want to reach the end of my life and think: ‘What a waste!’ Some people don’t like to think about death, but that’s a mistake. After all, it’s the only certainty in life. If we ignore death then sooner or later when it does happen to us or those around us we will suffer greatly.

What is important to remember about death?
That it’s going to happen; and that it could happen at any time! It’s easy to forget this and live as if we’re immortal. But we’re not, and that big door marked ‘Death’ is gradually moving closer. One of the first things I like to do in the morning is say to myself: ‘Today could be my last day.’ Doing this makes me realise that time is precious. It helps me to be kind and to make an effort with everything I do. I also remind myself that, according to the Buddha, death is not the end and that there will be rebirth for those of us who aren’t enlightened. Because I accept this teaching it makes me more careful about what I say and do. For instance, if I’m angry, I’ll remind myself that if I were to die right now my rebirth might not be a happy one.

As a Buddhist how do you prepare for dying?
Buddhists sometimes say that living is preparation for dying. This might sound weird, but it actually helps us to live in the best way possible. You see, according to Buddhist teaching, our last moments in this life will affect the first moments in the next life (it’s a bit like when you go to sleep with a good or bad thought in your mind: it’ll often be the first one that appears when you wake up). But what affects the way we think and feel just before we die? How we live our life now! We often hear of people seeing their life flash before their eyes when they’re close to death. Imagine if you’d spent your whole life being selfish and hurting others. How would you feel? Pretty terrible. But if you’ve been kind, patient and thoughtful then your last moments of this life, and the first moments of your next life, will be good.

Are there any key Buddhist texts or stories about death that you find helpful?
One of my favourites is the story of Kisa Gotami. She refused to believe that her young child had died and in desperation asked people for a cure. Eventually she went to the Buddha, who told her to bring him a mustard seed. ‘But’, he said, ‘It has to come from a house where no one has ever died.’ So, she went from door to door, but everywhere received the same response: ‘I have a seed, but Mother died yesterday… Brother last week… Grandma a year ago…’ Finally, she got the message: death is universal and no one can escape it; and she overcame her grief. Another favourite is a sutta that teaches us to strive to reach enlightenment. The Buddha asks us to imagine a person with his head on fire – how much effort would he make to put out the flames? A lot! He’d think of nothing else! Then the Buddha said that we should make the same effort to free our minds of greed, hatred and ignorance because we can’t be sure when death will come.

Ajahn Chah’s Teachings: “Same for Me!”

Rock solid: Ven. Ajahn Chah in the Hermitage’s shrine room

By the time you read this I’ll be in Thailand. The 16th January will mark the twenty-sixth anniversary of Ajahn Chah’s passing, and, as usual, I will be accompanying Luangpor as he and fellow monks, nuns and lay followers from Thailand and abroad gather at Wat Pah Pong to remember their teacher.

Far from the annual event fading over time, as you might expect, it actually seems to be growing. Indeed, it’s now one of the biggest events in the province of Ubon. Just think about that for a second: tens of thousands of people gathering to celebrate virtue, kindness and wisdom – the qualities which Ajahn Chah both taught and embodied. How often does something like that happen in this world?

To add to the occasion, in June it will have been Ajahn Chah’s 100th birthday. Over the last few years, in readiness for next week, monks from Wat Pah Pong have led the construction of an Ashokan-style solid limestone carved pillar at the place of his birth, just a mile or so from the monastery; and, to ensure that people find their way, the road that links the two has been lined with about 10,000 sunflowers. By the time devotees arrive at the column, there’s no way they won’t be smiling.

As is the case with countless people, Ajahn Chah’s teachings have had a profound impact on me. In fact, I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I were to say that had it not been for his words I wouldn’t have made it this far as a monk. Confused, despairing or full of doubt: whenever I’ve been at a low ebb I’ve picked up Food for the Heart or Living Dhamma or one of the other slim, unassuming books with no price tag and sat down and flicked to a random page. Five minutes later and I’ll be grounded and sure of my purpose. Together with Luangpor, I regard him as my main teacher.

Of course, I never met him. He passed away in 1992 and because of illness hadn’t taught for 10 years before that. But when I read him I feel I know him. And, what’s more, it’s as if he knows me and what I’m going through, because, judging by all accounts, it’s likely he went through something similar himself. And even when I’ve put down the book, and I’m sweeping out in the cold, or sitting impatiently waiting for the meal, or becoming frustrated with my meditation practice, he’s still there in my mind: nagging me, encouraging me, advising me. His similes and stories occupy their own little corner of my head, and whenever I’m confronted with a particular problem: out pops the relevant quote to the rescue.

There are countless gems to be found in his Dhamma talks – from a quote of three words, to an epic tale about his experiences confronting tigers in the forest. And there’s the endless list of accounts passed down by his students. But here and in some future posts I’d like to mention just a few teachings that have been particularly useful to me. I should also add that I haven’t actually read anything of his (except for the odd quote that has appeared somewhere) for quite some time; and so what follows are stories and teachings which, owing to their relevance to my own practice, have percolated to the top.

Same for me!
Luangpor spent over five years living close to Ajahn Chah – either with him, at Wat Pah Pong, or in one of the many branch monasteries in the North East of Thailand. And so, as anyone who has spent some time here at the Hermitage will testify, he is not short of classic Ajahn Chah stories. And because I’ve spent most of my seventeen monastic years living with Luangpor, I know most of them off by heart. This is one.

It’s common – indeed expected – for new monks to struggle from time to time. Doubt, lust, boredom, restlessness, homesickness, sitting all day dreaming of bananas: far from being a peaceful existence, the early stages (and sometimes the latter ones, too!) can be, as Ajahn Chah said, like ‘walking into a raging storm’. Consequently, if a junior monk is seen to spend his days floating around the monastery, bestowing beatific smiles upon his fellows in the holy life, it can be guessed that he’s not doing it right. Anyway, on one occasion Luangpor was – as we say – going through it, and somehow word of his struggles got to Ajahn Chah.

Thus, one evening, when the community was gathered beneath Ajahn Chah’s kuti, Luangpor, a junior monk who had been sitting inconspicuously in the outer rows, was suddenly called forward into the spotlight. Ajahn Chah wanted to know what was wrong. And so Luangpor tried to describe, as best he could in his halting Thai, what he was experiencing. When he had finished, Ajahn Chah leaned forward from his trusty rattan seat, beaming at Luangpor and pointing to himself, and simply said, ‘Same for me!’

That was all he said, and it worked. Luangpor’s troubles didn’t vanish on the spot, but the knowledge that this great monk with the unshakable mind had been through the wringer gave him a much-needed boost in patience, determination and, most importantly, hope.

Rock Solid

Hanging on the wall of Luangpor’s kuti is a rare photograph of Ajahn Chah sitting on that very same rattan seat. His bare feet are on the concrete, his hands are flat on the seat either side of his hips, and he’s leaning forward slightly while looking at the photographer. It’s an unremarkable photo in all respects except for one: his expression.

When I first saw it my immediate impression was that this was a man who could have handled anything. Don’t get me wrong: he isn’t flexing his muscles and scowling. On the contrary, he looks utterly relaxed and at ease – like there’s absolutely nowhere else he’d rather be than sitting on that simple seat on the plain concrete floor in the middle of the forest. But there’s something else in his expression, something immovable and unshakeable. It’s an expression that says, ‘Try me,’ knowing full well that to do so would be futile. And somehow you can also tell that this unassailable peace of mind was hard-won; that it was a product of unremitting perseverance and dedication; that it arose as a direct result of having been through, and having seen though, it all.

Caramel Surprise!

Well, it wasn’t actually a Caramel Surprise –  the famous Caramel Surprise, from Sainsbury’s, which good old Rose used to bring to the monastery on a Thursday morning – but it looked mighty similar. A light coffee-brown sludge with a topping of whipped cream was visible through the side of the plastic pot. Yes – it was the spitting image. As for the most important question: did it taste the same? I don’t know, because I didn’t have one.

There were only two, you see. Not enough to go around. Nevertheless, there they were, perched next to each other on a tray, ready to be presented to Luangpor as part of the meal offering. They weren’t the only desserts: there were two chocolate versions sitting right beside them as well. But who wants chocolate when there’s caramel? Anyway, two caramel desserts there were, and the tray upon which they rested was placed into Luangpor’s hands.

He took one – naturally – and slid the tray along the floor to me, where I was confronted with one caramel dessert and the two chocolate ones. Desire for the caramel arose. I like caramel. I had eyes only for the caramel. But, exerting my will and bringing to mind the wisdom of sages past, I held back the twitching fingers of one hand and pushed along the tray with the other. Yes – I had resisted my desire for caramel so that some other fortunate being might partake of the heavenly nectar.

However, for some inexplicable reason, the person next in the line didn’t take it. I repeat: he didn’t take it. I’m not even sure he took a chocolate one. What on earth is this? I thought; and I looked on, perplexed, as it disappeared out into the kitchen, no doubt to be pounced upon by an ecstatic guest. ‘You’ve done well, Manapo,’ I reassured myself – not without a twinge of regret.

Twenty-four hours later and I’m sitting in the small shrine room – the room in which we eat – but this time I am at the head of the line. Luangpor is unwell and will be eating in his kuti. I will therefore be receiving the offerings, and putting food into his bowl as well as my own. Before the process begins, I cast my eyes across the dozen trays of food – from the white rice and baked potatoes at the front, to the soy milk and collection of condiments at the back – and what do I see in the middle, alone among the chocolate digestives? The caramel dessert.

It’s impossible, I thought. Why did no one take it? And then I paused, looked to my left, and, remembering that I was at the head of the line, realised that my time had come. I had, after all, forfeited my opportunity yesterday. Why should I not be rewarded today? The rice came and went. The baked potatoes passed. And all the while it moved nearer, until, there it was before me, in all it’s High-Density Polyethylene and tin foil-topped glory.

I put it in Luangpor’s bowl.

‘But he’ll never know!’ part of me protested. ‘And even if he did, he wouldn’t mind. He’d be happy for you!’ That’s not the point’, I replied. ‘It’ll be two seconds of pleasure followed by two days of wishing I’d given it to Luangpor. I’m giving it to him.’ There was no argument, and once the blessing had been given, Luangpor’s bowl was delivered to him in his kuti, complete with… you know what.

But, and let me be serious now, when I think back to that occasion – when I remember fighting my own greed for the sake of someone else – I feel pleased. I am glad that I did it. The few minutes of disappointment that I may have felt at being denied that little pleasure simply pale in comparison to the bright, uplifting memory that I can recall at any time.

If, on the other hand, I had followed my cravings and taken the caramel for myself, I would, as I told myself on that day, have experienced a few fleeting moments of pleasure before succumbing to remorse. Of course, we’re only talking about a pudding here, for goodness sake. It’s not as if I wanted to kill someone. But still, to have given into my greed, to have not taken that opportunity to have shared, especially when the recipient would have been unaware of the sacrifice I’d made (which is the best kind of giving), would have left me feeling weak and disappointed.

It’s kamma-vipāka – actions and their results. The law of kamma and its workings is, in many ways, exceedingly complex – so much so that the Buddha cautioned us against attempting to fully comprehend it as doing so could well send us mad. However, it does follow certain principles, and these principles we must understand.

To put it simply, when a particular action is rooted in greed, aversion and delusion, the fruit of that action will correspond to the defiled nature of that intention: in other words, it will be experienced as unpleasant. Bitter seed = bitter fruit. Conversely, if an action is rooted in the opposites, that is of non-greed, non-aversion and non-delusion (or generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom) then the result will be experienced as pleasant. Sweet seed = Sweet fruit.

Of course, our lives are an intricate web of good and bad actions and their results, and so in some instances it can be difficult – perhaps impossible – to link up one with the other (and that’s not even taking into account actions that may have been performed in previous lives). Thus we can appreciate the Buddha’s warning. But, nevertheless, it’s not difficult to look back at our lives and see how certain actions have affected us.

Which brings us to memory. Because how we feel when we remember an action is a portion of its fruit. How do I feel when I remember giving away that caramel dessert? Good. How do I feel when I remember an occasion over twenty years ago when I refused to allow my little brother to have a go on my new surfboard, purely out of spite? Not so good. It some respects, it really is this simple.

And so, the next time you’re sitting down to eat with two friends and there are only two caramel desserts, you know what to do.


Freedom from Grief?

A little while ago I came across an article on the Buddhist concept of ‘dukkha’, by a prominent lay-teacher, at tricycle.org. It went reasonably well until the following paragraph. I highlight the point in question in bold.

‘Dukkha is different from pain. Buddhist thought makes a distinction between pain and suffering. Pain is part of our human experience. For example, getting sick is painful, as is grief at the loss of a loved one; this is natural and appropriate. However, we then tend to generate a whole extra layer of suffering, through our difficulty in accepting how things are. When we resist the natural flow of life we create suffering, stress, and struggle.’

Firstly, and before we get to the meat of the issue, the way she separates pain from dukkha is wrong. Although illness (which she classes as pain and not as dukkha) is certainly unavoidable, it is still, according the First Noble Truth, dukkha, as we’ll see in a minute.

What she is attempting to say is that there are some kinds of suffering which we cannot avoid, such as aging, physical pain and illness, and some that we can. She doesn’t provide examples for the second kind, but it would include greed, fear, anger, frustration, jealousy, and so on.

One of the Buddha’s clearest teachings on unavoidable and avoidable suffering is the simile of the two darts: the first dart is the physical pain, the second dart is the mental pain that arises when we react with aversion to that physical pain. The first dart we cannot escape; the second we can.

However, and this is the main point here, she includes grief in the first kind of suffering – that which is ‘part of our human experience’, ‘natural and appropriate’. In other words, it’s not the kind of pain and suffering that we are aiming to overcome.

But this goes against what the Buddha taught. Grief, according to the Buddha, is part and parcel of this ‘whole mass of suffering’. As he said in the First Sermon: ‘Birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, & despair are dukkha.’

It is precisely this dukkha that we are trying to end by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

She says that dukkha arises because we ‘[have] difficulty in accepting how things are.’ But why doesn’t she apply this principle to grief? Isn’t the fact that things die ‘how things are’? And don’t we grieve when we can’t accept this?

If we truly see the way things are then grief will simply not arise, because we understand, as the Buddha pointed out to a distraught Ananda shortly before he, the Buddha, was going to pass away, that: ‘Whatever is born must die. How can it be otherwise?’

Cold and Uncaring?

People have difficulty understanding this teaching on grief, as they do with the one on non-attachment. I remember another Western Buddhist teacher saying that when he discovered that arahants don’t grieve he decided that he didn’t want that kind of enlightenment. It’s as if to give up our attachment and grief is to remove our love and compassion. But it’s not like this at all.

I often tell the story of when my mother dropped off my younger brother at the airport. He was going to New Zealand for the long-term, and she wouldn’t be seeing him again for some time. At this point she had been meditating for a few years, as well as paying attention to the teachings.

As she was driving back to her home from the airport ( a good 90 minute journey) she suddenly realised something: ‘Hold on a minute’, she thought to herself, ‘I’m not crying’. It shocked her. She realised that had she not found meditation, nor the Buddha’s teachings on letting go, it would have been a very emotional, and painful, parting. She’d have been reluctant to let him go. But she also realised that that reaction would have been a purely selfish one, and unbeneficial to both her and my brother.

She hadn’t stopped loving him, of course, but she had let him go. There was no loss of warmth, just a loss of selfish clinging.

Meditation: Questions and Answers

Last Tuesday on Copdock Hill – first proper snow in years!

I was recently asked to answer some questions on meditation and death for a new Buddhism text book that’s being written for 11 – 14 year old school children. The word limit was 600 for each topic. Thought I’d post the meditation questions and my answers here. Death ones to follow.

Tell us a little about yourself
I was born in 1981 and grew up in Warwickshire. Although I was never religious I always had lots of questions: Why am I here? Was I anything before I was born? What’s the point in all this? Who am I? I also found life quite difficult and was often unhappy. Then, when I was eighteen, I tried meditation and within a short space of time it became the most important thing in my life. It seemed the best way to find happiness and to get answers. About seven months later, after having read about Buddhism and finding a monastery near my home, I decided to become a monk.

What Buddhist tradition do you follow?
I follow the Theravada School of Buddhism, and in particular the Thai Forest Tradition, which was founded at the turn of the Twentieth Century and was driven by a desire to get back to the original teachings and practice of the Buddha. It emphasises strict observance of the monastic rules (such as not using money), the practice of mindfulness and meditation, and the observance of certain challenging practices (such as eating one meal a day).

What types of meditation do Buddhists practise?
There are many meditation techniques and although they might appear quite different they all enable us to concentrate, observe and develop the mind. The most widely practised in Theravada Buddhism is Anapanasati (mindfulness of breathing), which is suitable for most people. Metta Bhavana (development of loving-kindness) is also very popular and is great for overcoming hatred. Some Buddhists concentrate on repeating certain words in their minds, such as ‘Buddho’ or ‘Arahang’. And there are a number of contemplations, such as Mindfulness of Death, which reminds us to make the most of our time.

Describe one that you practise regularly
Mindfulness of breathing has always been my main practice. After sitting down in the half-lotus position and closing my eyes I’ll usually begin with a brief ‘body scan’. This helps me to notice physical tension and let it go. Once I feel relaxed and alert I’ll focus on my breathing, allowing it to come and go naturally. Some people like to focus on one point where they feel the breath, such as the nose tip, but I like to be mindful of the whole body breathing. When thoughts and feelings interrupt I try to observe them, without reacting to them, so that I can understand their nature. A typical session will last anywhere between 30 minutes and an hour.

What are the challenges of meditation as a practice?
One of the biggest obstacles is the monkey mind! This is the mind that doesn’t want to be still. It jumps all over the place – from thoughts, to feelings, to sounds – like a monkey jumping from tree to tree. There are also the Five Hindrances, which the Buddha often spoke about. They are: desire for pleasure; aversion and anger; dullness and drowsiness; restlessness and worry; and doubt about the teachings and your own ability to reach enlightenment. These hindrances stop the mind from becoming concentrated and clear.

What is the purpose of meditation as a practice?
The purpose of meditation is to calm the mind so that we can see things as they are.  We call the practice of stilling of the mind ‘samatha’, or tranquillity, and the clear seeing ‘vipassana’, or insight. Developing a calm, still mind brings great happiness; but it’s only when we see things clearly that we can be truly free and at peace. When our mind is clear we can see that everything that we experience – our body, feelings, thoughts, and so on – is anicca (impermanent), dukkha (unsatisfactory), and anatta (without self or soul). Once we understand this, our craving and selfishness will disappear and we’ll live at peace. This is what we mean by Enlightenment.