October 15, 2009
October 7, 2009
It’s been a busy two weeks building the new stage for the shrine room, preparing for the end of vassa celebrations, getting the new novice Samanera Jotiko ready for his ordination, preparing the new blog sites (you’ll see…), talking to school children, and maintaining my formal practice. So, alas, Dhamma Diary must be put back two weeks.
When I teach the kids about the Four Noble Truths I usually ask them for their marks out of ten for life. This week I had a few zeros! Plus one kid gave it a ten. He looked a sandwich short, if you ask me…
September 21, 2009
To say that loving-kindness is an important teaching in Buddhism is a monumental understatement. Without loving-kindness Buddhism would not exist. Loving-kindness is, of course, a million miles from what most people call love; the latter being possessive, wrapped up with attachment, and often sullied by lust. Loving-kindness, on the other hand, is free of all attachment. It does not discriminate. It is not undermined by any word or action – no matter how abusive. It is not, as Ajahn Chah said while pulling a soppy face and rolling his head from side to side, all “Kutchi, kutchi, kutchi,” but is capable of administering the bitter medicine. It is therefore strong, fearless and, most importantly, steeped in wisdom. Indeed, without wisdom there can be no loving-kindness. The benefits of possessing a mind resplendent with loving kindness are, it goes without saying, innumerable, and its position among the Four Protections needs little explanation.
Before we contemplate loving-kindness we should spend a moment considering the dangers of anger and hatred. Experiencing hatred is the mental equivalent of swallowing a red-hot iron ball. It burns, it is painful, it is destructive. Blood pressure rises, the heartbeat quickens, the face contorts, the stomach tightens. And if we allow it even an inch it will take a mile and we find ourselves rapidly metamorphosing into a demon, lashing out with our words and fists. How many times has a person got into an argument with somebody when a hammer was a little too close to hand? And then forty strikes and one smashed skull later he’s sitting in a cell contemplating a life-sentence. Hatred kills our own happiness. It kills the happiness of others. It kills.
Which is why I found myself somewhat shocked the other day after coming across an interview between a devout American Christian and the well known and controversial atheist Christopher Hitchens. Ignorant of the extent of Hitchens’ materialistic views I was looking forward to a juicy and intelligent bit of creationism dismantling. Unfortunately I didn’t get it. (It might have come later in the interview but I didn’t stay around to find out.) Hardly had the conversation begun when he launched into a vitriolic attack on the injunction to ‘love your enemy’. Not only did he strongly disagree with this sentiment, insinuating its immorality, but he said that we should actively hate the enemy. I was alarmed. How can an intelligent man think this? Well, intelligence is not the same as wisdom, and the latter is what Mr Hitchens clearly lacks in this respect. If he wants to make the world a better place he’s on the wrong track.
“Hatred does not cease though hatred, only through not hating does hatred cease. This is an an eternal law.” Dhp.1.5
Thus as we remind ourselves of the destructive nature of anger and hatred our mind turns away from them as a hair recoils from a flame. We then reach towards the soft, warm, and healing light of loving-kindness.
Loving-kindness is Steeped in Wisdom
Ajahn Chah’s loving-kindness was legendary. Luckily, we are the inheritors of a vast fund of stories that testify to this…
There was once an English monk staying at Wat Pah Pong who had been teaching English in Thailand prior to ordaining. After having been in robes for some time he received a letter notifying him of the tax he owed on the money he had earned while teaching. Not knowing what to do he mentioned his situation to various people in the monastery and their reactions were as you might expect: they moaned and grumbled and fobbed the tax collectors off. Then he went to Ajahn Chah to see what he thought. I doubt the monk was expecting this classic response: “You must help them,” said Ajahn Chah. “They have a job to do. You must help them.”
So his loving-kindness was all-encompassing. But how often do we read about Ajahn Chah actually teaching us to develop it? I cannot think of many instances at all. What we do find him constantly teaching, however, is the need to cultivate wisdom. This is because loving-kindness depends on wisdom. Without wisdom there can be no real love. Our loving-kindness will only go as deep as our wisdom, no deeper. And what is wisdom? It is insight into the Noble Truth of Suffering.
Some people feel that the term suffering is a little strong as a definition of dukkha. It’s true, we may want to refrain from using it too much when we introduce Buddhism to newcomers. But when we really begin to look at life, when we really see what life actually is, then we find that suffering is a pretty accurate description! We are born, we age, we get sick and we die. We balance precariously on the crest of the wave of impermanence, where every experience rushes by never to be seen again. We cannot hold onto any possession or person no matter how dear, for they are also swept away by this inexorable law of change. And at any time our life or the life of one close to us can be lost in an instant. How often do we see in the news a story about a family who were on their way to the seaside but never arrived? Did they ever think that could happen to them? Do we think that could ever happen to us? On seeing how all beings are oppressed by this same suffering loving-kindness wells up in us and we cannot help but think “May all beings be happy and free from suffering!”
And because loving-kindness sees that we are all of the same kind: vulnerable beings caught in the whirlpool of ignorance, craving, hatred and suffering, it is unconditional. It does not pick and choose. It does not think ‘I will love this person but not that person’. Just as the sun shares its light and warmth with all beings irrespective of race, religion, sex, gender or class, so too loving-kindness shares its warmth and light with all.
Seeing that genuine loving-kindness arises from wisdom, it must therefore be free of attachment. Attachment is a bar to real love. Some people new to Buddhism jump up and down when they hear this. Not long after I went to the monastery a woman whom I had known previously came to meditate with her friend. During tea-time she asked Luangpor this question: “Isn’t it irresponsible to not be attached?” This old chestnut arises because of a lack of understanding of what we mean by non-attachment, as if it is cold, heartless and uncaring. I’ll give an example that involves my mother to show how this isn’t the case.
Naturally she had a hard time accepting my move to the monastery nine years ago. At one point she went as far as saying that I might as well have been dead! But gradually the tables turned and she began to venture here on the odd occasion when I was giving a talk. “Tell me when you’re on,” she’d say. I suspect her interest was not initially in the Dhamma: I don’t imagine she heard a word I said since she was too busy watching me! But her eyes soon closed and the teachings settled in. That, combined with the meditation, inevitably meant changes took place. Then, last November, while driving back from the airport after having said goodbye to my brother before he took off to find work in New Zealand, she was struck by one of those changes. “This is extraordinary,” she thought to herself. “I’m not upset.” She had intuitively grasped the pointlessness of holding on and not letting go. Consequently her attachment had been reduced, and with it her suffering.
Can we say this was an uncaring reaction? Can we say it was cold? Of course not, because it wasn’t. It was a wise and sensible reaction that benefitted both herself and her son. After she had told me this we discussed the nature of attachment and how unhelpful and selfish it is. It is founded on what I want, what I need, how I want to feel, what I want you to do. Attachment is a bar to real love because it centres on ‘me’ and ‘mine’. Loving-kindness in the ultimate sense is blissfully devoid of all notions of self and other.
Under All Circumstances
Are there any circumstances when loving-kindness is to be exchanged for anger and hate? No. The Buddha went as far as to say that even if bandits were to sever you limb from limb with a two handled saw you should maintain a mind of compassion, and that whoever gave rise to a mind of hate would not be following his teaching. This is obviously a tall order: most of us might be slightly put out if we found ourselves in that position! But at least we know where Buddhism stands in terms of retaliation, violence and, especially, WAR. At least we know where to aim in even the most difficult circumstances.
There is a powerful story of the Chinese Master Hsu Yun showing loving-kindness and compassion even in the face of the most brutal of attacks.
He was in his 113th year when his monastery was besieged by a gang of hooligans. Monks were beaten and even murdered as the monastery was raided for money and weapons that the assailants wrongly believed were stored there. The master himself was dragged into a small room and interrogated as to the whereabouts of the booty. Determined to extract a confession the thugs laid into him with their heavy boots and steel poles. As the blows rained down and the old master’s body crumpled to the floor he withdrew into a deep state of samadhi. Thinking the master was dead, the group departed. Immediately his attendants rushed in, and, detecting warmth in his cheeks, sat him up in the meditation posture. On returning the following day the thugs were furious to see him sitting up and so once again the master was pummeled into the ground. When they came on the third day and found him again sitting in meditation they became frightened and ran away. A week or so after that first attack, while patiently watching for a change in the master’s state, his attendants heard a groan. He had emerged from samadhi, only to become painfully conscious of his bruised and swollen body. Later on he was asked why he had come back, why he had not just renounced his life and attained Final Nibbana. His motives were born of loving-kindness and compassion: he couldn’t allow himself to die for it is a terrible karma to kill an enlightened being.
And WAR. Does it really need to be said that Buddhism does not condone WAR? Apparently, yes. Okay, soooo…. the case for a just WAR. On your marks. Get set….
A Buddhist country is under attack.
The very existence of the beacon of wisdom and peace hangs by a thread.
Aware that Buddhism will be destroyed if they do not fight the persecutors, the Buddhists take up weapons.
The enemy is thus destroyed and Buddhism saved.
Or was it?
NO..Of course it wasn’t. It was destroyed along with the enemy.
To die with loving-kindness in mind is better than living with blood on your hands.
The next teaching will be on
The full-moon day, Sunday 4th October (or thereabouts)
From the elements, to compassion, to loving-kindness, to mindfulness of breathing, to the contemplation of one’s purity of virtue: the spectrum of meditation subjects taught by the Buddha is diverse. But why did he teach such a range? For two main reasons, it seems.
Firstly, because people are different. We have different tastes, talents and tendencies, and different obstacles to overcome. As such, one size does not fit all.
In line with this approach, Ajahn Chah’s way of teaching – as with many of the Thai forest masters – was refreshingly open. He compared himself to someone who takes round a bowl of fruit: one person takes an apple, another takes a pear, another takes a banana. In this way, he said, ‘everyone gets fed’.
And secondly, because of our need to work on the mind from a number of different angles; to gain the benefits of a number of different fruits.
The Four Protections
Four of the most popular and nourishing fruits that the Buddha offered us were grouped together in later years and designated the ‘Four Protections’. They are Contemplation of the Buddha, Loving-kindness, Contemplation of the Body, and Contemplation of Death.
Taking time to develop each one of these meditation objects will ensure our practice matures into a well-rounded, balanced and effective one. They are often cultivated as a preliminary to mindfulness of breathing (or whatever our central practice is), though at times we may decide to devote an entire session to them. An individual protection can also be called upon when a particular benefit is required. They are called protections because they protect the mind’s welfare and happiness and ensure that we remain firmly on course for freedom from all suffering.
Contemplation of the Buddha
It is common for newcomers to Buddhism to have misconceptions regarding the presence of Buddha statues in our shrine rooms. They may even be reluctant to go into such a room, thinking that we worship these images as idols. This is understandable, but – as we know – far from the truth.
Venture into any teenager’s bedroom and you’ll no doubt find his walls plastered with posters. There will be Wayne Rooney tearing across the turf, Usain Bolt in a flash of green and yellow Lycra, Neil Armstrong striding over the moon. The child has these posters for obvious reasons: to encourage him, to inspire him, to show him what can be achieved through effort and determination. And if he wants to be a famous footballer or runner they continually remind him of his goal.
And this is exactly why we have statues of the Buddha. And therefore why we contemplate the Buddha: to encourage us, to inspire us, to show us what can be achieved through effort and determination. And to remind us of our goal.
When we contemplate the Buddha we consider what made him the Buddha. Physically he was really no different from you and me: once a person went into a hall full of monks. The Buddha was among them but the visitor couldn’t recognise him. So it was not his physical appearance that made him the Buddha; nor was it his voice or the many unusual happenings that we associate with his life. What distinguished him was his mind. When we contemplate the Buddha we consider a mind that is very different to our own. But also one that we have the potential to emulate.
The Mountain Peak
We can approach this contemplation from a number of angles, in the same way that you might admire the peak of a great mountain from a variety of positions: each view may be slightly different, but they are all of the same peak.
Perhaps our first view of this lofty peak of the Buddha’s mind should be this: its total absence of greed, hatred and delusion. His epithet, ‘Arahant’, means ‘one who is far from defilement’. We can consider this first as it puts before us a very tangible vision of our goal.
Try to imagine a mind where every shade of desire has been abandoned, where each corrosive form of aversion relinquished – a mind that no longer knows these states. When we do this we are beginning to understand the Buddha’s experience. At this point it needs to be said that it wasn’t, as some people seem to think, that he still experienced remnants of desire and aversion but owing to his powerful mindfulness was able to immediately dissipate them, as if his mind were a red-hot metal plate and the defilements drops of water falling on that plate; it was that these corruptions did not arise at all. Indeed, they could not arise – they had all gone, for their root had been destroyed.
A mind devoid of greed and hatred is a mind that cannot be overcome by any sight, sound, smell, taste or feeling. It remains in a state of non-attachment and freedom in all circumstances. There is a story of a Brahman who went to provoke and anger the Buddha. Hurling harsh and abusive speech he only managed to exhaust himself while the Buddha calmly sat there, patiently watching the whole charade. Eventually the Brahman gave up and exclaimed how amazing it was that even as he unleashed this torrent of nastiness the Buddha’s face remained clear and bright.
The ‘One Who Knows’
Greed and hatred we know and see. It is therefore within our reach to begin to contemplate a mind which is no longer disturbed by them. But delusion – the root of those two and of all suffering – is a different kettle of fish altogether. Unlike greed and hatred we cannot see delusion because we see with it. It is only once we begin to lift this veil that we can turn around and say ‘Aha! I was deluded!’, in the same way a fish who has spent his life under water comes up, tastes the air, and says: ‘Aha! I was in water!’ Delusion is not knowing and seeing things as they really are. It is precisely the absence in his mind of this one thing that made the Buddha the ‘Buddha’ – the ‘One who Knows’.
What, then, did the Buddha know? He knew that all things of this world – of all conditioned existence – from mountains, trees, and stones, to palaces, bricks and mortar, to every sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling and thought, to his own body and mind, was – without exception – impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self, soul or substance.
It is this comprehension of the last of the Three Characteristics – the absence of any self, soul or substance in anything – that I personally find very inspiring. When contemplating the Buddha I might imagine being in the presence of someone whose mind was free of all notions of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’. What would that be like? I wonder.
“The greatest happiness of all is to be rid of the conceit: ‘I am’.” (Vin. Mv. 1:3)
The Ten Perfections and Mastery of Mind
Gazing at the peak from another angle we can consider his mastery of each of the Ten Perfections. For those of you who don’t know, they are: generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, truthfulness, energy, patience, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity. When contemplating the Buddha from this perspective we reflect that in terms of developing these perfections there was nothing left for him to do. In other words he could be no more generous, no more wise, no more patient, no more determined, no more virtuous, no more loving, no more equanimous. Think about that.
And then we can consider his mastery of the practice of concentration. There is an account of when he was staying in a barn on retreat. While meditating in a doorway a violent thunderstorm tore across the sky. Great claps of thunder pounded the atmosphere and tremendous bursts of lightning electrified the sky. After it had passed a man went to find the Buddha to see if he was all right. The Buddha, on being approached, replied that he hadn’t noticed the storm. Such were his powers of concentration.
And we witness his mental dexterity as he was about to pass away. Having made a prior determination he entered the first jhana and quickly passed through to the second, the third, the fourth, all the way up to the ninth. It is said this final attainment – the epitome of mental concentration – is accessible only to the Non-returner and Arahant. At this point the Venerable Ananda declared that the Buddha had passed away. But the Venerable Anuruddha exclaimed the Blessed One was still alive but had attained the Cessation of Perception and Feeling. Arising from that attainment the Buddha glided through the preceding eight back to the first, from where he again moved through to the fourth. It was here that he attained Final Nibbana.
These states of concentration, it must be said, are extraordinary achievements in their own right. And the Buddha traversed them with the agility of a young child skipping through the playground.
To have a mind like the Buddha’s
We have admired the mountain peak from a number of view points. In the course of contemplating the Buddha you may find other views that are just as breathtaking.
When it comes to actually contemplating the Buddha as a meditation object we can simply recite: ‘The Buddha, the Buddha, the Buddha’, or ‘Buddho, Buddho, Buddho’, or we can imagine a favourite statue or picture, or what it would be like to be in his presence, or we can read his words and the stories about him. And while we do these things we allow our mind to explore and investigate the nature of the Buddha’s mind. Doing this can cause determination and rapture to arise – rapture at the prospect of having a mind such as his, a mind totally free from all defilement, from all sense of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, from all suffering.
In Part 2 we will look at the second Protection: Loving-kindness
which will hopefully appear on:
the new moon day, Saturday 19th September
September 6, 2009
I’m currently teaching a retreat and so Dhamma Diary will be up later today or tomorrow. It will be the first post of four on the Four Protections: Contemplation of the Buddha, of Loving-kindness, of the Body, and of Death.
During the retreats people are free to write down questions and put them in a box. I then collect them up and try to answer them. Sometimes hardly any are asked, at other times it’s the opposite. Last night, before the evening sitting, I picked up the box and gave it a shake. ‘Oh my god,’ I thought. It felt like half a tree was in there. So I sat down and proceeded to empty it. But I was pleasantly surprised as many of them were not technical and obscure but were inquiries about 1. a display in the sitting room that outlines the essential teachings of Buddhism – she wants a copy; 2. the winter retreats, and 3. (my favourite) an enquiry concerning the procedure for taking the five precepts here! If there is one thing that makes me happy it is when someone asks to take the five precepts.
The way to a man is through his stomach. The way to a monk is by asking to take the five precepts!
August 31, 2009
(This is not my Dhamma Diary entry.)
I am the Buddhist rep’ on the Warwick District Faiths Forum and I was recently asked by the Secretary to provide an introduction to Buddhism which will feature in an ‘Introduction to Faiths’ booklet. I was limited to 2 A5 sheets. Here it is. If you’d like to print it off or copy it feel free, but please acknowledge the source.
Writing this introduction has made me think it might actually be a useful thing to have Buddhism presented with the other religions. I’ve had my doubts: seeing that they all have been the cause of inestimable trouble and have such a bad name wouldn’t it be better to keep Buddhism well clear of them? Possibly. But being up there on the same platform, Buddhism provides a singular and sorely needed voice of reason, free-inquiry and truth amongst all the primitive, superstitious and mind-shrinking nonsense espoused by the others.
As a Buddhist on these multi-faith things one feels very much like the cat among the pigeons. I hope they all read the part on Buddhism in this leaflet, especially the words on free-inquiry, God, the soul and creation! (That is if the editor doesn’t omit those juicy bits…)
Although I’m critical of the other religions I must say it strikes me that many people on this Forum are very well-intentioned, genuine, caring and friendly people. It’s better to be friends than to fight, though of course whilst acknowledging our differences.
I finished the piece with a sentence on harmlessness, loving-kindness and compassion as they are so badly needed in this world. If everyone could just stop harming each other wouldn’t things be so much better? To love all beings is a tall order, but to stop harming is less so. So let’s stop harming and maybe love will come afterwards.
Buddhism is what we call the original teachings and discipline established by the Buddha, as well as the family of separate but related movements that have grown out of those early beginnings and spread in a vast and complex diversity of forms throughout the world. They all have at their core the Buddha’s preoccupation with suffering and its end.
The man who was to become the Buddha was born Prince Siddhattha Gotama in India over 2500 years ago. Brought up in royal splendour it wasn’t long before an awareness of the inevitability of old age, sickness and death took root in his mind and lead to him abandoning his palaces in search of truth.
One evening, at the age of thirty-five, after six years of searching, he seated himself beneath a great tree and focused his mind on his breathing. When his mind had reached a sufficiently deep state of concentration and clarity he focused on investigating the cause of suffering. As the dawn drew near he penetrated to the fundamental level of reality and came to know suffering’s cause and thereby its end. It is from this point that we know him as the Buddha – the ‘One who Knows’, the ‘Awakened One’.
For the next forty-five years until his passing he wandered the dusty roads of Northern India teaching people how they too could be free from suffering.
The Four Noble Truths
At the heart of the Buddha’s teachings are the Four Noble Truths, and it is from these that all of his other teachings stem.
1. Suffering; Unsatisfactoriness
Life is inherently unsatisfactory and experienced as suffering: we are subject to birth, aging, sickness and death. Even the happiness and pleasant experiences are unsatisfactory since they all must pass.
2. The Cause of Suffering
Craving, according to the Buddha, is the root of suffering. We crave for pleasure, to exist, to not exist and for things to be other than they are. With craving present in our minds we continually live at odds with the true nature of things.
3. The End of Suffering
This is the goal of Buddhist practice. The Buddha used the term ‘Nibbana’ (Nirvana) which literally means ‘extinguishing’, i.e. the extinguishing of the fire of craving. Nibbana is freedom from all greed, hatred and delusion. Nibbana is neither annihilation, nor an eternal heaven.
4. The Path Leading to the End of Suffering
This is the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Acton, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration. In other words, the path of Morality, Meditation, and Wisdom.
Blind faith is anathema to Buddhism. The Buddha cautioned his followers against merely believing his words, instead encouraging them to actively probe and investigate. Scriptures may point the way to truth but it is down to each individual to realise it for his or herself through direct knowledge.
God, the Soul and Creation
Buddhism is a non-theistic religion that does not recognise a creator God. The Buddha held that such a belief is a deluded one. In contrast to relying on forces outside oneself, Buddhist teaching emphasises personal responsibility.
Regarding the origin of things, he taught that no beginning can be found, and that to search for such is the way to madness.
Central to the Buddha’s teaching is the doctrine of ‘anatta’ – ‘no-self’, ‘no-soul’, which states that beings are an ever-changing, evolving combination of mind and matter, within which no permanent entity or essence abides.
Karma and Rebirth
Karma means action, the results of which depend upon the intention behind the action. Actions that are rooted in greed, hatred and delusion bring about suffering; whereas those rooted in generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom bring happiness. The Law of Karma highlights the fact that we alone are responsible for our own happiness and suffering. Rebirth is conditioned by the actions that we perform through our life.
Loving-Kindness and Compassion
The Buddha taught that we should try at all times to be harmless, and to act out of loving-kindness and compassion for ourselves and all beings everywhere.
August 20, 2009
We monks are half way through the annual three month ‘Rains Retreat’ (Vassa). As I’ve said before we often use this period to undertake special practices, focus more intently on our formal meditation, and develop certain skills in a concentrated and systematic manner.
Over the past few days I have been honing my throwing snotty tissues into the bin abilities whilst lying in bed. I have the flu, possibly of the swine variety. So, bye for now. Time for another three-pointer.
(All being well, I’ll get something up in the next few days.)
And with the Blessed One’s attainment of final Nibbana, some bhikkhus who were not without [passion] stretched out there arms and wept, and they fell down and rolled back and forth: “So soon has the Blessed One attained Final Nibbana! So soon the Sublime One attained Final Nibbana! So soon the Eye has vanished from the world!” But those who were free from [passion], mindful and fully aware, said: “Formations are impermanent. How could it be that what is born, come to being, formed and bound to fall should not fall? That is not possible.”
Then the [arahant] Venerable Anuruddha addressed the bhikkhus: “Enough, friends, do not sorrow, do not lament. Has it not already been declared by the Blessed One that there is separation and parting and division from all that is dear and beloved? How could it be that what is born, come to being, formed and bound to fall should not fall? That is not possible.” (D. 16*)
Several years ago someone told me about a certain blog post written by a fairly prominent English Buddhist teacher and author. In this particular piece he related how he had been sifting through the Pali Canon when he discovered something about the state of an arahant (an enlightened being): they don’t grieve.
“Oh,” he thought. “I don’t want that kind of enlightenment.”
The above statement comes from somebody whose grasp of the Dhamma is seriously weak. What kind of enlightenment does he want? Enlightenment with a sprinkling of grief? How about a squeeze of pain and despair for good measure? Surely you wouldn’t want enlightenment without some mental pain and despair?
It’s not as if just when you’re about to attain enlightenment you go and take your seat in a restaurant and have a waiter hand you the enlightenment menu. “Now, Sir, what kind of enlightenment will you be having?” “Well, gosh. There’s so much to choose from… Let me see…. There’s enlightenment with a side serving of pain. There’s enlightenment with grief. There’s enlightenment with despair. And then there’s the full works: enlightenment à la birth, aging, sickness and death. I think I’ll have enlightenment with grief.” “Very good, Sir. Enlightenment with grief it is.”
What is the purpose of Buddhism? To be free from dukkha. What is dukkha? To find this out we can refer to the Buddha’s stock definition of dukkha:
“This is the Noble Truth of Dukkha: birth is dukkha, ageing is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha. Association with the loathed is dukkha; dissociation from the pleasant is dukkha. Not to get what one wants is dukkha. In short, the five aggregates affected by clinging are dukkha.”
What is the Buddha describing here? Life! That life is, by its very nature, bound up with suffering. The purpose of Buddhism is to be free from dukkha; to abide in a state of perfect wisdom that is beyond these experiences, where these experiences do not occur. That, of course, is the peace and freedom of Nibbana. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Better than all this birth, death and grief business. No?
So the teachings of the Buddha are very clear. They start with the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the Path. And from there the various more refined expressions of the Truths open out. The Dhamma serves as a clear guide to a specific goal.
Which brings us to the main point here: the need to study the Dhamma; to know what the Buddha taught. For the practice of Buddhism to lead us to the goal it must be supported by, as Bhikkhu Bodhi says, ‘a clear understanding of the basic principles of the teaching’. To learn the Dhamma we don’t need to study the whole Pali Canon though; too much reading and our minds will be so full of words it will be difficult to meditate. In the Forest Tradition we say ‘study a little, practise a lot, realise everything’. But that little bit of studying goes a very long way. Without it, we are like someone climbing Everest without a compass or a map.
As well as a compass and a map, we could say that following the Dhamma is like following a recipe. If we are to bake a delicious cake then we must follow the instructions carefully and closely. If we don’t, then all sorts of things can go wrong: if we forget the yeast then it won’t rise; forget the sugar and it won’t be sweet; forget to oil the tray and it’ll get stuck; add too much salt and it’ll be inedible, etc. etc.
Practising the Dhamma is the same. We need to read the instructions, get to know the recipe, and then follow it carefully. If we don’t then the cake won’t rise.
It goes without saying that we should know the Four Noble Truths off by heart. The same can be said for the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. And we should be familiar with the threefold division of the Path: morality, meditation, and wisdom. Looking further into the Buddha’s teachings we will find that he defined each of the parts of the Path in short, concise and easy to remember terms. I won’t list them now, but it would be sensible for people to know them.
The teaching on Kamma should also be studied. Many people have confused ideas about this quite logical, sensible and direct teaching. Some equate it with fate. Others refer to it simply as the law of cause and effect. The first is wrong, the second is misleading. Of course Kamma is an expression of the law of cause and effect, but it is also much more than that: The term kamma literally means ‘action’. But more importantly it means ‘intentional action’. “Intention is Kamma”, said the Buddha. “Having willed, one acts by way of body, speech and mind.” (AN 6.63). It is these intentional actions that shape our future and lead to rebirth.
The Three Characteristics, too, are unique teachings of the Buddha that we should learn and cherish. The third of these perhaps requires the most attention (and protection): anatta – the teaching that there is no permanent soul of self, or any abiding entity in anything.
And Nibbana. Often, and understandably, we shy away from defining it. After all, what could we possibly know about it? But the Buddha spoke of it in quite concrete and concise terms that we can remember and bring up if we are asked about it. Nibbana is freedom from craving. Nibbana is freedom from greed, hatred and delusion. Nibbana is liberation from the five aggregates. Nibbana is freedom from dukkha.
Crucially, we should know what Nibbana is not. Nibbana cannot be said to be eternal: eternity being in the realm of time; Nibbana is beyond time. Nor is it annihilation. It is not a physical place. It is certainly not a fairy tale land of enlightened beings and their castles… (I once heard of a highly respected teacher in the East who taught that when an enlightened being dies he or she goes to Nibbana. And there they live in a castle. And the size of that castle depends on their accumulated paramis (perfections); those with the most paramis having the biggest castles… (I wonder if you get double glazing if your paramis are really strong!) This view could have been avoided if he’d have learnt some basic Dhamma.)
The above list has by no means exhausted what is to be learnt, but it’s a start.
So where do we look to study the teachings of the Buddha? Usually in books. But there are sooo many books on Buddhism. And unfortunately 99.9% of them tell you more about the author than the Dhamma. And not a few are as stuffed with errors as a bean-bag is with beans.
And then there’s the double-edged sword that is the Internet. I read a quote by the philosopher AC Grayling the other day:
“The democracy of blogging and tweeting is absolutely terrific in one way. It is also the most effective producer of rubbish and insult and falsehood we have yet invented.”
This can be extended to the web in general: there’s certainly no shortage of rubbish and insult and falsehood written about Buddhism in the great ether. Therefore one must be very selective. A newcomer trawling the web for information on Buddhism can be likened to someone reaching blindly down into a barrel of water teeming with piranhas but containing only a few pearls.
Good books are hard to come by
One day, when I was a lay-man, I strolled into a flashy Waterstone’s book shop, headed to the appropriate sections, grabbed about six colourful Buddhistish books, did the business at the till, and sauntered out. Four of those books I would not now recommend. That leaves one that was all right and one that was very good. The latter was ‘What the Buddha Taught‘, by Walpola Rahula.
It was a revelation. It’s one of those books that, when reading, you frequently pause after a sentence, lift your head from the page, slowly close your eyes, breathe in deeply, and savour the moment as a piece of the jigsaw sinks into place. Then you open your eyes again, pause, and lower your head for more. Leaving the scriptures aside, this book sets the benchmark as a relatively pure expression of the Dhamma, simply because it stays so close to the scriptures, with little or no interference from the author’s opinions. It is a reasonably short, concise, but also thorough exposition of the essential teachings of the Buddha, laden with quotes to boot. And it is well written. To read a book such as this is highly advisable.
However, if we really want to know what the Buddha taught then there’s only one place to look: the Tipitika – the Pali Canon (and also the Mahayana equivalent) – the oldest record of the Buddha’s actual words (Buddhavacana). Reading books about Buddhism, as opposed to the Buddhavacana, is similar to riding a bike with stabilisers. At first, it might be sensible; we become accustomed to the act of riding. But pretty soon those stabilisers are going to be a hindrance and so they have to go. Then we can experience the act of riding in its pure form. So too, once we have a reasonable grasp of the Dhamma through reading about Buddhism we shouldn’t hesitate to plunge into the vast treasure trove of the Canon. (This isn’t, of course, to say that we shouldn’t read the suttas right from the beginning of our practice; it’s just that if we have only read books about Buddhism, then we will need to look at moving on to the Canonical works.)
As a starter, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology ‘In the Buddha’s Words’ is an ideal guide to lead its reader by the hand into this sublime world of the Buddha’s words. Nyanatiloka’s and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology ‘Numerical Discourses of the Buddha‘ in some respects is even more approachable. It is not set out in such a systematic way as ‘In the Buddha’s Words’, but it contains a host of brief and pithy suttas, many addressed to the Buddha’s lay-disciples. Bhikkhu Nyanamoli’s anthology ‘The Life of the Buddha‘ is one of my favourite books, largely because it reads so well. If you want to dive head first into a complete text then the Majjhima Nikaya is perhaps the best.
The Buddha famously likened the Dhamma to a raft that – once it has carried us to the further shore of Nibbana – should be relinquished. But until we reach that point the raft of the Dhamma must be learnt, remembered, investigated, and put into practice.
*From Bhikkhu Nyanamoli’s ‘The Life of the Buddha’. I use ‘Passion’ instead of the original ‘lust’.
The next teaching will be on:
the new moon day, Thursday 20th August
July 24, 2009
This is not my main Dhamma Diary entry – that can be found below. This is a copy of my revised ‘The Sangha’ page.
What is the Sangha?
It is the order of ordained Buddhist monks (bhikkhus) and nuns (bhikkhunis), founded by the Buddha over 2500 years ago.
Why did the Buddha establish it?
To provide a means for those who wish to practise the Dhamma full time, in a direct and highly disciplined way, free from many of the restrictions and responsibilities of the household life. The Sangha also fulfils the function of preserving the Buddha’s original teachings and of providing spiritual support for the Buddhist lay-community.
What is the relationship between the Sangha and the Buddhist lay-community?
It is one of reciprocal support. The Buddha ensured that his monks and nuns maintain daily contact with the laity by forbidding them to keep money and to store, grow, cook, or procure in any way their own food. Thus monks and nuns depend on the laity for material support. On the other hand, the laity depend on the Sangha for inspiration and guidance in matters concerning the Dhamma.
“Monks, householders are very helpful to you, as they provide you with the requisites of robes, almsfood, lodgings, and medicine. And you, monks, are very helpful to householders, as you teach them the Dhamma admirable in the beginning, in the middle, and in the end. In this way the holy life is lived in mutual dependence, for the purpose of crossing over the flood, for making an end to suffering.” (Iti. 107)
How is the life of a member of the Sangha different from that of a lay-Buddhist?
The most significant difference is that a monk must live according to the Vinaya – the body of rules laid down by the Buddha. This code of conduct dictates in great detail how a monk is to live his life. At the heart of the Vinaya lies the Patimokkha – the set of 227 precepts. The rules of the Patimokkha are graded from heavy to light: the breaking of the heaviest (of which there are four) entails expulsion from the Sangha; the breaking of the lightest results in a short confession.
Why did the Buddha lay down the Vinaya?
He was asked this question and gave ten reasons:
“For the welfare of the Sangha, for the comfort of the Sangha, for the control of unsteady men, for the comfort of well behaved bhikkhus, for the restraint of the pollutions of this present life, for guarding against pollutions liable to arise in a future life, for the pleasure of those not yet pleased with Dhamma, for the increase of those pleased, for the establishment of true Dhamma, for the benefit of the Vinaya.” (AN. v.70. From a copy of the Patimokkha translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Mahamakuta Press, Thailand.)
A recent development
During the 2500 years following the Buddha’s passing, across all legitimate schools of Buddhism, the term Sangha referred to the order of monks and nuns. However, in the West, in the past 60 years or so, the term has come to include not only all Buddhist people – ordained and lay, but sometimes even those who attend Buddhist meditation classes who have not actually taken refuge in the Triple Gem themselves. So misappropriated has this term become that we now find the likes of the ‘Buddhist Military Sangha’!!!
Being deeply ingrained in Western Buddhism it is hard to see this aberration being rectified. So for those of us who do know the correct meaning of the term Sangha, we should strive to preserve it, and with it the Triple Gem.
July 22, 2009
May you soon attain freedom from all suffering.
Right View as the First Step on the Path
Right View, the raison d’être of Buddhist practice, the antidote to all suffering, lies not at the end of the Noble Eightfold Path, but at the beginning. Why so? Because without a small degree of it we wouldn’t even consider walking this path. Indeed, we would see no reason to.
What is Right View? It is wisdom. It is seeing things clearly – as they really are. On the ultimate, transcendent, level it is the total comprehension of the Four Noble Truths. In its initial stages it comprises an understanding of these truths to a lesser extent, and in a sometimes indirect way; and of the law of kamma – of how our actions result in either happiness or suffering depending on the intent behind them. Both of these truths will no doubt have had a bearing on our own decision to tread this path.
Appreciating the Law of Kamma
So one very important aspect of right view concerns the law of kamma. Put simply we can say that to possess a modicum of right view one must have some appreciation of the fact that good actions bring happy results and bad actions bring unhappy results.
Just over nine years ago I phoned my father. “I’ve got some news for you Dad.” “I don’t mind if you’re gay.” He said. “No, I’m not gay (but thanks anyway!).” “You’re going to join an ashram?” (he knew I meditated). “Warmer…” “What then?” “I have decided to become a Buddhist monk.”
Then over the course of the following weeks we had a number of lively conversations. On the whole he was fairly relaxed about the whole thing; after all, he left home when I was five, so it wasn’t as if he would see a lot less of me. Having said that, he wasn’t going to let me go too easily.
During one of our characteristically demanding chats I told him that one of the reasons I wanted to ordain was in order to invest in my future. “The future? You should be living now!” he retorted. “Make the most of your life now!”
Of course he had a point. A very big point. When are we ever going to live our life if we don’t live it now? But what we do now has consequences; our present actions are continually shaping our future state. And dependent on what lies behind these actions is nothing less than our own happiness and suffering. Considering the future with right view in this way we cannot help but live fully now.
I had always been very aware that however I might live my life, barring following this path, I would only find myself being unhappy. How could I possibly end up being happy? What was I doing that would bring happiness? I distinctly remember going out for a drive with my brother not long after I had passed my driving test, stopping in the countryside somewhere, and having a deep and not so jolly conversation with him. We both came to the conclusion that we would never be truly happy. Why would we think that? Well, I guess it boiled down to a smidgen of right view: an understanding that maybe we weren’t providing the conditions for that happiness to arise in the future; that the paths we were currently treading could not lead to that happiness.
So it was an investment, I told my father. I had often looked at older people and observed how they were just not happy. I did not want to be like that. But why this path? Well, I had been practising Buddhist meditation seriously for a good half a year or so and it had opened up two appealing avenues for me: happiness and wisdom.
When we consider that we are – at this moment – creating our future, then it makes us take stock. If we project our mind into the future and consider what kind of life we want to be living, what state of mind we want to have, what level of wisdom we want to possess, and how happy we would like to be, then we shine the light of right view on our thoughts and actions now and see whether they are leading us in that direction, or whether they are not. If they are not then we make an effort to change that.
Think of a potter at his wheel. There he sits with the lump of clay poised ready before him – its future shape entirely in his hands. Around spins the wheel and the potter begins to shape the supple clay. At every moment that clay is the perfect record of the movements of the potter’s hands. No movement will go unnoticed; each one will be unfailingly recorded in the clay. And so it is with our life. In every moment, with every intentional action, we are shaping our future state. And consequently, at every moment, our life is a record of our actions that have gone before.
This is one reason why it so crucial that we as Buddhists feel able to reject outright the existence of a creator God as wrong view. As soon as we lay the responsibility for our existence elsewhere we undermine this fundamental aspect of right view: that we are our own creators, that we alone are responsible for our present and future happiness and suffering; that the reasons for our existence are none other than our own ignorance and craving. These two things are the causes, the conditions, for us being here, now. And it is by uprooting them – which is done by gaining a direct insight into the Four Noble Truths – that we are able to free ourselves, through our own efforts, from this realm of birth and death.
So it all comes back to what we are doing now, and most importantly to what is behind what we are doing now. We trace these actions and our thoughts to their roots. And what do we find when we do this? We find six things: greed, hatred and delusion, and non-greed, non-hatred and non-delusion (put positively, the last three are generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom). These are the six roots (mula) of action – the architects of suffering and happiness; those that lead to happiness should be nurtured; those that lead to suffering – starved.
It is often very difficult, however, to simply begin being generous, loving and wise. There needs to be a bridge between the three unwholesome and the three wholesome roots. That bridge is restraint. Without restraint there can be no development on this path. There is a famous account in the suttas of the Buddha speaking to young Rahula the novice. The Buddha tells him that if, before, during or after an action, he sees that it will cause himself, another, or both himself and another harm, he should stop and refrain.
We as monks naturally depend on others to provide and cook our food. Being thoroughly unenlightened this sometimes leads to a stirring of the three unwholesome roots in my mind, and therefore the potential to heap more suffering upon myself.
For instance, say I’ve observed that a lovely fresh pack of ready-salted Pringles has been given. There they are, taste bud tinglers in a tube, destined for my tongue. But they don’t appear at the meal time. Concern arises. Why aren’t they being offered? And so the desire to make a subtle hint manifests: ‘I noticed some Pringles were offered the other day…..’ – Just a casual, just thought I’d mention it in passing, type comment – you know the kind. ‘But hold on!’ I say to myself. ‘What is there in my mind right now? Why do I want to say this? What is the root of this potential action?’ Well, I give you three guesses: greed, hatred and delusion!
So there we have them: the architects of suffering; the enemies of happiness; the seamstresses of the veil of darkness before my very eyes. I then consider that if I am to act on these contemptible corruptions I will create future suffering for myself and possibly others. Just as if I were to throw a stone into the sky it would surely come back down, so too if I were to act on these unwholesome forces I would suffer in the future. Considering in this way and teaching myself to be careful, I refrain (usually).
As humans who have access to the Dhamma we are very fortunate indeed. To have an affinity with the Dhamma, and to possess a healthy degree of right view, shows that much work has been done already. Furthermore, we should look upon this opportunity that we have as a reward, a reward for countless lifetimes of striving and struggling towards the light in this beginningless cycle of birth and death. So let’s not throw this opportunity away. It’ll be gone before we know it.
The next teaching will be on:
the full moon day, Thursday 6 August
Note: ‘The Sangha’ and ‘Links and Books’ pages have been updated.
July 8, 2009
By the time I write this Dhamma Diary it will be New Moon Day! So, I think I’m going to leave it until then. Sorry about that.
I’ll have to make a Rains Retreat determination to be promt with my Dhamma Diary posts.
See you next time, all being well…
July 7, 2009
It’s Asalha Puja today, when we remember the occasion of the Buddha’s First Discourse: The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta – ‘The Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma’.
The Rains Retreat (Vassa) begins tomorrow. I won’t be determining to drink just one cup of tea a day. I am planning on determining to read the first four nikayas of the Sutta Pitika: the Digha, Majjhima and Samyutta (plus an anthology of the Anguttara).
I’ve just come back from Banbury where I gave a talk on the Buddha’s First Discourse. It’s late now so I think Dhamma Diary will have to wait until tomorrow.
Until then,we should contemplate the Four Noble Truths, the focus of the Buddha’s first discourse:
1. The Noble Truth of Dukkha: Birth is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, old age is dukkha, death is dukkha; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha; association witht the loathed is dukkha, dissociation from the loved is dukkha, not to get what one wants is dukkha; in short, the five aggregates affected by attachment are dukkha.
2. The Noble Truth of the Origin of Dukkha: the craving that produces renewal of being, accompanied by passion and lust, in other words: craving for sense pleasures, craving to be, craving to not be.
3. The Noble Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha: the fading and ceasing, giving up and letting go of that same craving.
4. The Noble Truth of the Way Leading to the Cessation of Dukkha: The Noble Eightfold Path, that is: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.
June 23, 2009
(Five and six year olds meditating. Not the ones who feature in this piece.)
Over the past three weeks a lot of my time has been spent teaching Buddhism to school children. Sometimes I go to see them; sometimes they come to the monastery. Sometimes they’re rich; sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re your regular snotty-nosed, bruised-knee whippersnappers; sometimes they’re autistic, but with equally snotty noses and bruised knees. And very often you end up with some very memorable, and sometimes moving, stories to tell…
You learn many things through teaching the Dhamma, and some things especially so when teaching it to children. As any teacher will testify teaching is one of the best ways for you to understand your subject. In the case of Buddhism, to teach it you must understand it. To understand it you must practise it. And so in order to teach it well you must practise it well. This is how the teaching of the Dhamma is of benefit.
Now, when it comes to children clarity is the key. They force you to be clear. Because if you’re not they punish you with the worst things that they can: wandering eyes, yawns, nose-picking and general rowdiness – in short: lack of attention. So you learn to get straight to the point. You don’t waste a word, you don’t ramble, you aren’t vague. You distil the fundamental themes that underpin Buddhism in order create an easily digestible package, where every word counts but where you don’t skimp the crucial points. Repeatedly doing this leaves you with a clear vision of what Buddhism actually is: avoiding that which is wrong, cultivating that which is right, and purifying the mind; the path that deals with the pursuit of true happiness.
And so it was that on the Wednesday before last I found myself in a Mercedes being driven through the maze of derelict industrial areas and shoddy estates to a primary school nestled somewhere in the sprawling metropolis of Coventry. My driver, the husband of a woman who works at the school, and a very nice man, gave me a little priming: most of the children had troubled home lives. Many were from broken homes – a child’s mother living with two men was not unusual. Some fifty percent or so were Polish, from families who had fled their home country as a matter of survival. I asked if the children wore uniforms. “Some do.” He replied – “It’s not compulsory.” This is because some families couldn’t afford them. In short, this school was no Eton.
First up were the four to six year-olds. There were about sixty of them – some in uniform, some not. As they plonked themselves down it took me about two seconds to realise that these rambunctious ankle-snappers were not going to be taught without a fight. Then about a quarter of a second after that thought came another thought: ‘If these toddlers are like this, what the hell are the older ones going to be like?’! I could see the headlines: ‘Monk Mauled in Primary School Punch-up’.
Now these very young children had a certain unnatural maturity to them; you felt it wasn’t one that they should have had. I suppose that’s what comes from having two men living with your mother. Added to that they had the freedom from inhibition that’s the right of every six year-old. These two qualities made them quite formidable, and teaching them rather a challenge. But I kept things clear and simple and survived to tell the tale.
Now, as a general rule, I usually begin by briefly telling the kids about myself; not because I want to but because I understand that before they hear about someone who lived two and half thousand years ago they want to know who I am! After that I tell them the story of the Buddha’s life, how on seeing the four sights he left his palace in order to find true happiness, and how after finding it he spent forty-five years teaching others how to find it too.
“Do you want to know how to be happy?“ I ask them. “YES!” They reply. “Well, the Buddha taught that we must do three things to be happy. Do you want to know what they are?” “YES!” “Right. The Buddha taught that we should be kind, that we should be harmless, and that we should meditate and be wise.”
How many of you share your sweets?” — “MEEEE!!!” x 20. “Good!” “Now when you don’t share your sweets how do you feel?” “Unhappy… Not very good…. Miserable” “That’s right.” I say. “What does one + one equals?” “TWO!” “What does being selfish equals?” “SUFFERING!” “What does being kind equals?” “HAPPINESS!” Then I invariably tell them the story of me refusing to let my brother have a go on my surfboard when I was about ten, and how it still makes me feel a little bad eighteen years later.
“But there is another way to be kind as well.” I say. “That is being kind, not only to each other, but to all animals and creatures. How are we unkind to the little creatures like ants?” “We kill them.” They reply. “Yes. So the Buddha taught that to be happy we must also be harmless.” Then I teach them the five precepts. “And what kind of world do you think we’d live in if everyone kept those precepts?” I ask. “A HAPPY ONE!” They reply.
I then tell them that to be truly happy there’s a third thing we have to do and that is to meditate and develop wisdom.
Back to the four to six year-olds. I didn’t manage to squeeze all that in, but I think a good number of them were left with a taste for being kind, and hopefully for being harmless.
Then it was time to finish with them. And that meant the staff room and a glass of water. And, of course, the two groups of nine, ten and eleven year-olds, presumably at that very moment sharpening their knives and loading up their Oozies. I hadn’t brought my bullet-proof robe. Was my metta up to the test?
But they were great. In fact, they were two of the best groups I’ve ever had. Both were very quiet. They listened extremely well. They were mature. They were ready to hear some Dhamma. So I taught them about the Buddha and what we have to do to be happy. And after that we meditated and had questions. It was incredible.
During the questions at the end of my last session a young boy asked me something and I answered. I thought nothing of it at the time – there appeared to be no reason to. Then, as I emerged out of the classroom into a swarm of children in the corridor, a teacher from the class I was leaving rushed up from behind and stopped me. She was clearly very moved by something. That boy, she said, whose question I had thought nothing of, was a very troubled Polish boy. And she wanted to thank me. Because it was the first time he had spoken since he had arrived at that school.
The Next Teaching will be on:
The Full Moon Day, Tuesday 7th July
Which is Asalha Puja – when we celebrate the anniversary of
the Buddha’s First Sermon – the Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth,
and the beginning of the annual monastic Rains Retreat
June 9, 2009
The first few weeks of my life at this monastery were not the easiest I have ever experienced, to put it mildly. The difficulty was by no means a result of ‘outside’; it was what was going in ‘inside’ that hurt. But I can tell you now, I am glad I am still here to tell the tale. Who knows what a troubled human being I might be were I not in robes.
On the 3rd of September 2000, with my soon to be lopped locks, blue jeans and beloved guernsey jumper, and not the faintest idea of what lay ahead, I stepped through the monastery gate armed with a pot plant, a colossal old-fashioned all-hell-breaking-loose alarm clock, and my brother. But he wasn’t staying.
After a few days word got back to me that some residents thought I had begun to resemble a startled rabbit. It was an accurate description. After three weeks I had planned my escape several times (my home was only ten miles away); fantasised about living on a desert island with my mother, a deck-chair and a book; turned from taking ¼ of a teaspoon of sugar in my tea to taking ¼ of a teaspoon of tea in my sugar; dreamt of the next meal as soon as I had finished eating the last (it was a mere 23 and ½ hour wait); and I was walking around in those same work-tired jeans, a once white tea-shirt, a bald head, and green flip flops – waiting for October 14th, the day I was to become a novice. In short, it had been a turbulent time for me.
But it was a test. And I passed it. Because I am still here. I was there for the meditation, and I knew that there were no other options open to me – if I was to be happy, that is. So my survival was down to a devotion to my meditation practice, a firmly entrenched disillusionment with the world, exemplary support from my fellow strivers, tea that contained so much sugar it actually made me giddy, and a few words from Luangpor that I will never forget…
One day after the meal it became very apparent to all present that the startled rabbit was not a happy bunny. There was Luangpor heading the line, followed by the two novices, and myself sitting in the corner in front of the glass doors where the cold draft used to remind me that I wasn’t wearing anything but a white sheet. And boy was I going through it. Now, I’m not sure what the expression on my face was but Luangpor was clearly concerned for me: “Are you all right?” he asked. Then, without restraint, I exclaimed: “It’s HORRIBLE!”
Then those three immortal words fell upon my ears, three words which in my mind now are spaced well apart to relay their significance: “….It ….will ….pass….“
And it did. Two months later and it was all gone. The despair, the escape plans, the Mach 4 emotional roller coaster: it seemed now to have been just a dream. Did I really go through all that?
But when I was clinging on to my little plank of wood for dear life in the throes of the raging ocean that was my experience I couldn’t see how it would ever be different. It all seemed so REAL – the despair, the self-pity, the longings – they were rushing in at me from all angles as I tried to stay afloat. Why did I stick it out? Why didn’t I run?
Well I didn’t run, and it passed.
The next teaching will hopefully be on:
The new moon day, Monday, 22 June
June 8, 2009
Hello? Are you still there….?
I feel like a one monk army sometimes and unfortunately Dhamma Diary doesn’t get the attention I’d like to give it. Hopefully tomorrow morning….
May 22, 2009
It is said that during the Bodhisatta’s training for Buddhahood over an inconceivable number of lifetimes he was unable to tell a lie, such was his commitment to truth.
We often hear people saying that there are instances when lying is skilful, even compassionate. But lying is never skilful. As soon as we lie we are deserting the path to truth.
And once we say, “Well, it’s all right to lie for this reason…” where do we draw the line? And what kind of example are we setting for others? If a teacher says you can lie for reasons of compassion then that neatly defined boundary that kept unskilful actions at bay suddenly becomes blurred: “Well, is it all right to lie for this reason?…”
It’s funny that some people think that if you can’t lie then you’re going to be blunt and hurt people’s feelings. That it’s black and white. But just because we don’t like our wife’s new dress doesn’t mean we have to tell her so! There is such a thing as tact: we don’t have to tell her it’s the most abominable creation that’s ever come within our field of vision.
These precepts are like threads which, when compromised, wither and eventually snap. They are then incapable of helping to pull us out of our suffering; incapable of enabling us to see the truth.
Unfortunately we see the precepts being compromised a lot these days. I heard of a prominent member of a famous Buddhist organisation in London talking about ordering a bottle of brandy while he was on holiday. And he said that in a Dhamma talk! Another nail in Buddhism’s coffin.
That’s all for now. I’m off to the Trossachs for a solitary retreat. Och eye the noo.
In 1977 Ajahn Chah came to England and while here he visited many meditation groups. One particular group invited him to teach but stated beforehand that they wouldn’t bow. They didn’t do tradition. “Well,” said Ajahn Chah, “If they don’t bow, I don’t teach.”
So, relenting, the group bowed, and Ajahn Chah taught.
Now, Ajahn Chah was not being proud or conceited, and it wasn’t that he was offended by their tone. He simply felt that if practitioners of the Dhamma are not able to humble themselves – to show respect, and to resist the demands of the ego – then there would be little point in teaching them. It would be a waste of time. For how can someone who proclaims: “I don’t bow.” be in a fit state to even begin to comprehend a teaching which leads in the direction of freedom from all notions of self? If we refuse to humble ourselves then we are turning our backs on the Dhamma; we are abandoning the path to freedom.
Bowing is an incredibly powerful practice. And, for that matter, all demonstrations of respect and humility are too. In this monastery we maintain the small gestures of respect such as putting the palms together when addressing a senior monk, not standing over a senior monk when they’re sitting down, and generally being mindful of the nuances (which many Buddhists in the West are quick to abandon), knowing that these surface gestures nurture the deep roots of concord, mindfulness and wisdom.
Monastic life is bound by a precise code of respect. Respect holds the thing together: it keeps order, it gives strength and it maintains stability. Look at the state this country is in. The lack of discipline, the lack of morality, the lack of respect. It is disturbing. It hasn’t always been like this. Respect was once an important part of life here too, though not to the same degree as, for instance, Thailand and Burma.
So bowing is firstly an outward expression of respect; a putting down of a part of one’s attachment to self; a letting go. But it is also a profound practice in a number of other ways. For bowing composes us; it helps us to establish mindfulness. And it serves to remind us of the goal.
Humility and Respect
I was thinking about the above incident involving Ajahn Chah and I realised that there is a very potent message to be found in the life of the Buddha that shows how fundamental humility and the showing of respect are as we follow the Path.
Seven weeks after his Enlightenment the Buddha spent some time considering who he might first teach. He thought of Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta – the two great teachers whose doctrines he had mastered during his six year search – but found they had died only days before. “That is a great loss for them.” He reflected. “They would have understood.” Then he thought of the five ascetics who had attended on him whilst he had been engaged in severe asceticism; they had ‘little dust on their eyes’ and were capable of understanding. So he set off in the direction of the deer park at Benares – the place where they were staying.
Now, as far as the five were concerned the Buddha had given up the search for enlightenment. Previously – through his fasting, privations and extreme self-torment – he very nearly died. Having thus realised the futility of his bitter practices, and the need for a strong body if he was to conquer the defilements, he took solid food to replenish his strength. But, still well and truly mired in the view that the way to liberation was through self-torment, the five turned up their noses and abandoned the Buddha-to-be, thinking he had ‘reverted to a life of luxury’. The truth, of course, was far different.
So, when the newly enlightened Buddha arrived at the deer park and appeared to them in the distance, the five were not pleased. “What does he want?” they thought. And they spoke in hushed tones amongst themselves, glancing sideways in the Buddha’s direction, and they made a pact that they would not observe the duties of pupils to a teacher: they would not receive him, nor take his bowl, nor wash his feet. They wanted nothing to do with him.
But as the Buddha approached them it was clear that something had changed. It is impossible to imagine what effect on the mind seeing a Buddha walking towards you would have, but clearly the five were awestruck: their pact fell apart and they rushed to attend on him. One took his bowl, another set up a seat, and another washed his feet. They humbled themselves. They showed respect. They lowered the ‘I’ and primed their minds ready for the Dhamma.
Then of course the Buddha delivered the First Sermon and on hearing it one of the five attained to the first stage of enlightenment. Thus the Matchless Wheel of Dhamma was set in motion.
Now, that wheel would not have been set rolling, nor would it still be rolling, if it wasn’t for those five having humbled themselves and having shown respect. Imagine they had kept their pact. What effect do you think that teaching would have had then? None at all. So it was this priming of the mind with humility and respect that allowed their minds to absorb the Dhamma.
The Castle of Ego
Generally people are very protective of their ego. It’s how we are brought up. We build a great castle around it, with thick, impenetrable walls, and towers and turrets, to ensure that nothing is able to harm or undermine it. When the ego does come under attack we fire out nasty little arrows through the slits in the towers: the harsh words, the excuses, the boasting, the lies, the punch in the face, etc.
But what sits smack bang in the middle of the front of a castle? The drawbridge. It is through the opening of this drawbridge that things are able to enter the castle.
Showing respect lowers the drawbridge. When we humble ourselves and show respect and perform the various duties and disciplines of respect, then we lower the drawbridge of the castle of the ego. We lower it to allow inside that which can help us – that which can cure us. We lower it to the Dhamma. The Dhamma then comes in and does the work, the work of liberation.
On that night when the Buddha gave his First Sermon those five ascetics lowered their drawbridges and the Buddha’s words entered. Those teachings went straight to the heart of the castle of one – Kondañña – and blew his sense of self to smithereens.
So to bow to the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha is to lower oneself and open one’s mind to that which is higher and better and able to lead one out of suffering and into happiness.
Bowing Stabilises Us in the Present Moment
As monks in the Forest Tradition we are taught to bow all of the time. Ajahn Chah was very fussy about it. On waking we should bow. Before sleeping we should bow. And as often as possible in between these two times we should also bow. Why is this? Well, apart from the reason just covered, it helps us to constantly reestablish our mindfulness.
We enter out kuti, put down our robes, kneel down, put our palms together over our chest, close our eyes, and bow three times. This putting down of what we are carrying is an excellent metaphor. Because when we stop to bow not only are we putting down our physical possessions but we are putting down past and future. We recollect: “Where am I? What am I doing?” And then we mindfully and graciously bow.
Bowing is Beautiful
It is such a shame that the showing of respect is disappearing out of Britain’s door faster than you can say Jack Robinson. When I get on the plane back to Blighty after our annual pilgrimage to Thailand I’m quickly made uncomfortably aware of how privileged I have been to have experienced the undercurrent of respect that floods Thai culture from top to bottom. How’s this then? Well, what can I say? Because I’m reintroduced to Westerners! To be frank, most of the Westerners I encounter on the plane have abysmal manners. They’re rude, they push and shove, they’ve about as much finesse as an ostrich on stilts. It’s not that they aren’t aware of how to treat monks: how should they know? It’s simply that they don’t seem to show much courtesy to anyone. It really does underline the style, manners and respectful nature of the people of the culture I have sadly just left behind.
And of course one of the central ways Thais and Asian Buddhists in general uphold the banner of respect is through their bowing. I love to see people bow. What does it say about them? It shows that they are willing to humble themselves. And this is such a profound statement. These days people are so ‘in yer face’. “Look at meeeee. I’m so wonderful.” Everybody wants to be noticed. Everybody wants to be known. I read a bit of an article the other day which stated we are in an age where one of the prime concerns of people is the wish to be known. Look at the popularity of social networking sites. How many Facebook ‘friends’ have you got? The more the better, obviously. Or Twitter: it seems that people are obsessed with how many Twitter ‘followers’ they have. They want to promote themselves. They want to be seen. They want to be known.
But this is all wrong. This is the way to suffering, suffering, and more suffering. The root of all of our suffering is this believing in the sense of self. Our suffering lies with this identification with body and mind as being me and mine. So don’t be special. Don’t be anybody. Have as few ‘followers’ on Twitter and as few ‘friends’ on Facebook as possible. Go on. Go against the grain.
Bowing can go against the grain, especially when we don’t necessarily respect the person we are bowing to. As monks it is our duty to bow to a senior monk, even if he was ordained only two seconds before us. Now sometimes we may question that monk’s integrity. We may think he is sloppy. But whether he ‘deserves’ our respect or not is besides the point. It is not him we are bowing for; it is for ourselves. We bow, and we lower the drawbridge. We allow humility to take root in our mind and we move that little closer to enlightenment.
The next teaching will be on:
The new moon day, Saturday 23rd May
May 9, 2009
Twas the day after full moon day that my true love said to me: where on earth is Dhamma Diary? Twill be with you shortly.
April 23, 2009
One of the star qualities of Buddhism is that it is definite. The goal is clear: to free one’s mind from all greed, hatred and delusion. And so is the path: to avoid all that is wrong and cultivate that which is right.
We mustn’t be afraid to use these two words: right and wrong. Some people don’t like to make such direct statements about things; they prefer to sit on the fence, not wanting to tread on anyone’s toes.
A chef asks a Buddhist: “Is it okay to cook mussels?” “Well…”, says the Buddhist. “Is it? Is it alright to cook mussels?” “Well…” “Is it right or wrong?…..” “Well…..” “Go on, don’t be afraid. It’s wrong, isn’t it?” Yes, of course it is wrong, we should say. Why is it wrong? Because it does not lead to the happiness of oneself or others. This is how wrong is defined: that which produces suffering.
The whole practice of Buddhism is about doing the right thing. Look at the Noble Eightfold Path: before each part we have that word the importance of which we should in no uncertain terms underestimate. We have the word RIGHT.
How is each part of the Noble Eightfold Path said to be Right? Well, the answer to this is simple: as well as each part being qualified in its own unique way as descibed by the Buddha, it must be practised in tandem with each of the other parts of the Eightfold Path, with an overriding aim to realise Nibbana.
Think of a mighty royal crown. In this crown are embedded eight priceless jewels. For the crown to be complete it must contain all eight jewels. If one is removed then the crown is flawed, it is not fit to be called a royal crown. So it is with the Path of Buddhism. The Noble Eightfold Path is the magnificent crown and the eight parts the jewels. This crown of Buddhist Practice is only fit to be called such if it contains all eight jewels. And if we remove one of those jewels and discard the rest then that jewel we have removed is no longer a Buddhist jewel; it is no longer ‘Right’.
Take mindfulness. Mindfulness is one of those jewels. But we are increasingly finding it stripped from the crown.
Flicking through the newspapers and magazines and looking at Hollywood’s latest quick-self-fix-solutions we find mindfulness repeatedly being mentioned. Oprah Winfrey practises it when eating. A guy with a cool name – John Kabat-Zinn – has sold tons of books on it, and he teaches the trendy guys and gals at Google how to do it. Oxford University do a mindfulness course – for only 9000 of your hard-earned pounds (we do it for free here). Mindfulness is big business, baby. One chap spent some time in Thailand practising Buddhism and now he’s raking in the loot teaching mindfulness to people here in the west.
Why is it catching on? Because it is very useful! When developed it helps us to overcome our depression, anxiety, stress, persistent negative thought patterns, obesity, anger, pain, etc. It is amazing. It is therefore totally understandable that psychologists, psychiatrists and the like are really making a push to get mindfulness mainstream, along side Prozac and five portions of veg as a means to treat their patients.
But is what Oprah and the obese man with an anxiety complex are practising RIGHT Mindfulness?
What is Right Mindfulness? Right Mindfulness is mindfulness that is embedded in the crown of Buddhism. Right Mindfulness is that jewel which sits firmly in between Right Effort and Right Concentration, and which is not far from Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Intention and Right Understanding. Right Mindfulness is supported by virtue: it is practised in tandem with the precepts; and Right mindfulness is developed as a liberating factor in the pursuit of the extinction of all greed, hatred and delusion.
Now, Oprah’s mindfulness: unless her practice of mindfulness is supported by those precepts; unless it is propelled by the Right Effort to avoid that which is harmful and cultivate that which is good; unless it is being developed in unison with Right Concentration; and unless she is honing it in order to liberate her mind from the three poisons, it is not Buddhist Mindfulness; it is not Right Mindfulness.
But isn’t mindfulness always Right? Some think it is. Of course it isn’t. A degree of mindfulness is present at all times: it is presence of mind; attentiveness; awareness.
Think of a sniper: he has his rifle and is looking down the viewfinder. He sees his target, the target is moving, it isn’t an appropriate time to shoot. With great care and mindfulness he follows the target, keeping the gun rock-steady so as to keep the fine-lined black cross over the target’s head. He is focused, he is aware, he is mindful. The target pauses, the opportunity presents itself, the trigger is pulled, the target falls dead. Could that have been accomplished without mindfulness? No. Was that mindfulness Right? No.
Opera’s eating-mindfulness is obviously a far cry from the sniper’s – much closer to the Mindfulness of Buddhism in fact. After all, one imagines she is training herself to be more watchful of her body and mind and thereby becoming less impulsive. And she is no doubt doing herself, and probably others, some good as a result…
But that doesn’t make her mindfulness Right. Stripped from its crown it is still just mindfulness, and so it must be distinguished from the Mindfulness of Buddhism.
The next teaching will be on:
The Full Moon Day, Friday 8th May
WHICH IS: VISAKHA PUJA
PS: I don’t know how many of you are aware of ajahnchah.org.
And I’m on Twitter….
April 17, 2009
I am now on TWITTER. Thought I could keep people topped up and in touch with the Dhamma.
April 10, 2009
Greetings to All and Sundry.
It’s full steam ahead here at FHHQ at the moment, so it doesn’t look like I’m going to have time to write Dhamma Diary.
I have, however, just put up three new pages: The Buddha, The Dhamma, and The Sangha. It appears that for some people (especially a few of those who come on the Bhavana Dhamma retreats) this website/page is one of their first ports of call as they delve into Buddhism. So I thought I should provide the rudimentary details, such as those found on the three new pages.
See you on New Moon Day (23/4), all being well.
March 26, 2009
Well, I’ve had one of those weeks. Dukkha. For some reason it just hits you sometimes. Anyway, I’ve been through it before and so I know what to do: hang in there, endure, and wait for it to pass. Because it does pass. It all passes*.
When you become more aware of the Noble Truth of Dukkha it is often in an experiential way. So you actually experience suffering more acutely. You become more aware of the unsatisfactory nature of life.
“WHY!!!???” I yelled in my kuti the other night.
“WHY AM I HERE!!!???…
WHAT’S THE POINT!!!???…
WHAT KIND OF SICK JOKE IS THIS!!!???…
LOOK AT THIS WORLD!!!…
PEOPLE ARE BORN, THEY GET OLD, THEY GET SICK, AND THEY DIE !!!…
WHAT A PARTY!!!…
March 10, 2009
I’m not sure how it happened, but the Forest Hermitage’s email address has been sucked up by a local new-age group and so we now have the pleasure of receiving their e-newsletter. I glanced at the contents of one and quickly decided to condemn it and its successors for ever more to the spam bucket.
It was all right, I suppose. It was full of love, light and peace, maaan. (Plus a bit of sex.) And so it could have been a lot worse – talking about love, light and peace is not a bad thing, obviously.
But so often when people emphasize the good they ignore the bad. They pay no attention to the greed, hatred and delusion that is writhing beneath the surface of their minds. And of course this is not healthy, nor is it wise, because the bad needs to be addressed. For if it isn’t it will fester and grow and end up bursting through that positive veneer with little provocation.
February 23, 2009
”It is through not understanding, not realizing four things, that I as well as you, had to wander so long through this round of rebirths. And what are these four things? They are the Noble Truth of Dukkha, the Noble Truth of the Origin of Dukkha, the Noble Truth of the Cessation of Dukkha, the Noble Truth of the Path leading to the Cessation of Dukkha.“ — The Buddha
Look at these Four Noble Truths: they are not fancy in appearance. They have no exotic terminology. Consequently some people feel that this set of teachings is too limited in its scope, too mundane, even too basic. And so they look for something else, something with a little more zing: something with deities and magical powers and auspicious stones and golden trumpets. But the initial judgment of those people is not sound. For these teachings are all encompassing in their scope, and they have the Buddha’s enlightenment as their origin and our enlightenment as their goal.
February 11, 2009
Inside Venerable Ajahn Chah’s stupa on January 16th
– the anniversary of his passing.
Doubt is the fifth of the five hindrances to the development of meditation and wisdom. Of the five doubt is in many ways the most disabling. Its milder form is easily waved aside; its most virulent is like a disease: it can spread to every part of your mind, undermining every positive thought and crippling every effort. So be careful, and keep it in check.
People new to Buddhism naturally question doubt as a hindrance: “ Surely if you are saying that doubt is an enemy to progress on the Buddhist path you’re promoting blind belief?” That’s not the case and that’s why it is very important to make the distinction between a healthy scepticism and the cancerous doubt that prevents you from doing anything at all.
February 10, 2009
January 28, 2009
The Rhino and The Monkey
There’s a great story in the Pali Canon – in the Jatakas, the tales of the Buddha’s former lives – of a rhino and a monkey.
This rhino was a very patient old beast. On the whole he did what you’d expect any rhino to do: he grazed, he slept, he grazed, he washed, and he slept some more. Sounds good!
January 10, 2009
Walking meditation on the Bhavana Dhamma new year retreat.
Five Great Gifts
It was a Sunday in July, 2006. A Burmese couple who visit the monastery from time to time had come to offer food, and as Luangpor was in Thailand I was left in charge. After I had finished my characteristic meal-fit-for-a-king I sat in the reception conservatory for what was to be a refreshing conversation. The couple spoke about their passion for the Dhamma and their unwavering commitment to the precepts, and they spoke about their eighteen-year-old son and his commitment to the fifth precept. Pardon me? – Eighteen and committed to the fifth precept? That’s right! – It was a joy to hear! But they said his friends call him a wimp. Yes, a wimp.
January 9, 2009
Cast your eyes a smidgen upwards and you will see I have added two new pages. One contains chanting (audio and text) and Dhamma Talks, and the other contains a glossary of Buddhist terms. Both are works in progress.
Dhamma Diary coming tomorrow.
December 26, 2008
The Secret of Success
The other day a man asked me how he could close the seemingly vast gap that lies between his current level of practice and something verging on substantial progress. I detected a slight air of despondency.
December 12, 2008
A couple of years ago we received a number of letters from a man seeking to give the beliefs in a creator god and a soul a home in Buddhist teaching. One of his arguments was that the available translations of Buddhist scriptures are not the ultimate reference and consequently there is room to interpret the original texts differently, i.e. to translate them in a way which validates the above mentioned beliefs.
I felt an obligation to respond to him in order to shed some light on the rather critical issues he raised. I was pleased, and admittedly surprised, when I recieved his reply: he thanked me for what I had to say.
Here is an overhauled version of the letter:
November 27, 2008
Turning Coal into Diamond
‘Insignificant is the loss of wealth, relatives and fame:
the loss of wisdom is the greatest loss.
Insignificant is the increase of wealth, relatives and fame:
the increase of wisdom is the highest gain.’ *
Let us bring that black and dirty substance coal to mind: it is coarse, it is bland, it is nothing special. We don’t want to handle it more than is necessary. True, it’s invaluable to us, but it’s still a very unrefined material. The black stuff is, putting aside its usefulness, one of the less desirable substances on earth.
But, given the right conditions, what happens to coal after a certain period of time? It turns into the most precious material on earth. It turns into diamond.
Our suffering is like coal. It is dirty, it is unrefined, we don’t like to handle it; we’d rather put it down. There’s also plenty of it.
But, being like coal, it has the potential to become something very special. This is because, given the right conditions, our suffering will eventually be transformed into the most precious thing – material or immaterial – on earth. Our suffering will transform into wisdom.
November 12, 2008
Being in the Thai Forest Tradition we naturally eat a lot of Thai Food. Sometimes Thai people bring food in the morning to offer at the meal; sometimes our resident chefs knock up a little sticky rice and chilli; and whether the above happens or not we virtually always pull out one of Yod’s curries from the freezer.
Now some of these curries I love. Sweet and Sour, MILD Green Curry, Massaman – delicious. But there are some that – when introduced to your tongue – make a volcano’s scorching rivers of lava seem like playful and refreshing streams. When you are not used to these you soon learn what it must feel like to have your tongue stretched on to a metal plate and whacked with a hammer. And if sweating is your aim, then you need go no further.
October 29, 2008
As Buddhists we view difficult people and situations as opportunities to cultivate our practice. The Chinese master Kuang-ch’in said: “Without hardships there can be no attainment in practice.”
In our monastery we have a little teacher who is particularly adept at enabling us to develop a bottomless well of patience and love. If we didn’t develop these things he might well have found himself in a new home by now.
His name’s Tommy, Ajahn Tommy. Ajahn means teacher and Tommy teaches us in ways that we don’t always immediately appreciate. Because Tommy is a Jack Russell, and he likes to pee.
October 16, 2008
The Five Factors of Concentration
In order to progress in our meditation we must be clear in our minds what exactly it is we are trying to develop. The Buddha taught that full concentration comprises five factors. It is therefore these five factors that we need to develop.
By understanding these factors and their functions we are able to see where our meditation is lacking and where it is progressing. Understanding our own practice in terms of these factors will serve to give us a definite direction; a clear path with recognisable markers along the way.
September 29, 2008
Yes, I have temporarily abandoned writing about the Five Hindrances…. (Surprise, surprise.)
Finding Your Inner Refuge
This practice really is very simple in many respects. At first it may seem complicated and at times we may become very confused and full of doubt and wonder if we really get it at all. But as we go on we come to see how there isn’t much to it; we see how it is based on just a few key principles.
At this moment in time, for me, two principles of the practice of Dhamma stand out. Time and again I keep coming back to the first one, and I’m beginning to appreciate the importance of the second. The first is patience; patient-endurance. The second is the development of ‘Buddho’ – ‘that which simply knows’, i.e. mindfulness; awareness. These two components of the Path are closely linked, and in many respects actually the same thing.
September 14, 2008
Cripes! Is it that time already?
The following are slightly modified versions of my attempts to answer some important questions that were put to me in an email. So you’ll have to remain restless and worried for another two weeks until we look at the fourth of the five hindrances to meditation.
The questions were roughly as follows:
August 30, 2008
The Five Hindrances Part III,
While pursuing the Noble Eightfold Path with commitment and diligence a sublime peace will eventually begin to establish itself within. As you see the various phenomena that appear in the mind as being impermanent then a sense of relief arises – relief due the fact that what had once caused you so much suffering – the feelings, the emotions, the regrets, the worries, the resentments – are not as real as you had thought them to be. On probing these mental events you unveil them as being “void, hollow, and insubstantial”*, and subsequently they lose their weight and the mind is relieved...(*SN 22:95)
August 16, 2008
The Five Hindrances Part II
This is the second of a series of posts on the Five Hindrances to meditation.
First, the bad news. Ill-will is more blamable than sense-desire. The good news: ill-will is easier to remove. (The Buddha stated this, though I can’t, for the moment, find its source.) So, for those of us who tend to suffer more from this particular concentration corrupter, we have some good news.
Ill-will is the second of the five hindrances to concentration. It comes in various guises such as anger, aversion, irritation and plain dislike. It covers all those states ranging from the slightest resistance to something, to full blown hatred for everyone and everything. Sometimes in our practice we go through periods where this hindrance dominates our meditation. We may at times feel utter contempt for the breath, or for whatever our object of meditation is. But don’t worry, because this is just the hindrance of ill-will and it’s trying to divert you from the path.
August 1, 2008
The Five Hindrances Part 1
Let’s say you’re planning on growing some vegetables in your garden. You’ve decided you’d like some horseradishes, cabbages, parsnips and asparagus. Now, before you embark on your voyage of vegetable cultivation you need to know that in the shadows there lurk certain beings whose sole purpose in life (it seems) is to torment you. These go by the names of rabbit, butterfly, slug and snail. These creatures will do their utmost to hinder your progression in the art of vegetable growing. So, in order for you to grow a humdinger of a horseradish, you’re going to have to work out how to overcome these charming little chompers.
July 17, 2008
Lights, Camera, Kamma
Kamma or Karma means ‘action’. More specifically, intentional action. “Intention is kamma” said the Buddha (A.III,415). Kamma Vipaka is the result of action. Kamma is of two types: kusala and akusala – skilful and unskilful, respectively. Skilful actions are beneficial to oneself and others, unskilful actions are harmful to oneself and others. Skilfulness, of course, is understood in regard to the development of the Buddha’s path to freedom from suffering.
What are some of the effects of an actor’s or performer’s actions, both on the audience and on himself? Are their actions kusala or akusala?
One of the most famous comedians in England of recent times was Tommy Cooper. He made a lot of people laugh, but at what cost?
His final performance, I believe, was initially successful. People rolled about in their familiar bouts of hysterics. But then came an extraordinary sketch which at first proved to be uncannily real. It turned out it actually was. The flailing figure on the stage, with his characteristic red Moroccan fez, was in the middle of this piece when all of a sudden he slumped to the floor, clutching his chest. The audience roared with laughter. He was having a heart attack; they thought it was part of the act. So there was this dying man, gasping for breath and desperate for help, and the only response he got was pointing fingers and howls of laughter.
Doesn’t this make you think? That nightmare was his own creation.
July 2, 2008
Ajahns Jundee, Nyanadhammo and Vimalo, and Tahn Moshe came for the meal on Saturday.
Above: Walking from the Hermitage to Bhavana Dhamma.
Above: At the top of Bhavana Dhamma drive admiring Warwick Castle on the horizon..
Above: (R to L) Luangpor, Ajahn Nyana and me in the Bhavana Dhamma room of luxury.
I’d like to share some anecdotes concerning conversations I’ve had with school children both here and in some of the schools I’ve visited over time.
This has been sparked by a little cracker of an answer I received today to a question I asked during a trip to Earlsdon Primary School in Coventry.
Here it is:
June 26, 2008
How to Open and Close Doors
Several years ago I sat listening to two senior monks having a conversation. After a while the visiting monk turned to me and he asked what was the most important thing I had learned so far in my time as a monk. Being put on the spot I was little embarrassed. I thought for a few moments before I stuck with the safe answer of ‘patience’. He then turned to the other two junior monks sitting next to me. One eventually said something like ‘that everything passes’. I don’t remember what the last monk said.
He then went on to relate a story where a very senior and respected monk was asked the same question: “What is the most important thing you have learned in your many years as a monk?”. The old monk thought a little while. And he thought some more, before the answer came:
June 19, 2008
June 18, 2008
Post under construction. Stay tuned.
June 11, 2008
The Fourth Foundation of Mindfulness
I can see why relatively inexperienced monks are encouraged to give Dhamma Talks.
Over the last few days I’ve been contemplating the Four Noble Truths as that is what I’ll be speaking about tonight in Warwick. A few years ago I was bought this really helpful book called: The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking, by Dale Carnegie. One of the points he makes is that if you start preparing for your talk well enough in advance then you have the benefit of your mind automatically turning over the subject matter throughout your waking day.
June 3, 2008
(We’ve just been given a new computer and unfortunately I can’t download clip art from Microsoft’s website… The picture on last week’s post, by the way, was all my own work.)
About two months ago I was asked to go and talk to a group of people who provide spiritual support for the dying and their families in Myton Hospice, Warwick. It was their fantastic reception and enthusiasm for the Buddha’s teachings that made me think when I got back to the monastery: “It’s a crime that they cannot easily follow up that interest. I must run a course or something in Warwick town!”
May 27, 2008
Untouched by the World
“Just as a blue or red or white lotus born in water, grows in water and stands up above the water untouched by it, so too I, who was born in the world and grew up in the world, have transcended the world, and I live untouched by the world.” AN II, 37
The Buddha was the One Who Knows. What did he know? He knew the world. Having known the world he rose above it and remained unaffected by it. When we recollect the Buddha in Morning and Evening Chanting we say he saw through the world (lokavidu). In Buddhist language the world is characterized by the eight worldly dhammas, the eight worldly conditions: gain and loss; fame and disrepute; praise and blame; happiness and suffering.
With the Buddha’s enlightenment came a perfect equanimity that lifted his mind well clear of these four pairs. People in the world whose minds are not trained are infatuated with these conditions; they are continually spun around by them. They get thrown from one to the other like a rubber dingy on a raging ocean. We must follow the Buddha and cultivate an awareness that sees these four conditions and their opposites as essentially the same: impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self. None can be relied upon; all are void of meaning.
It is a general rule that if you attach to one of the pairs you will inevitably suffer when its opposite arises. However, if we can manage to loosen our grip on these conditions, then whatever arises, be it happiness or gain, fame or praise, then when their opposites arise we do not suffer over them.
May 20, 2008
I’ve been a busy bhikkhu over the last week – since the retreat and in the run up to and over Visakha Puja. So this will be a very short (and late) post. As most of you know we celebrate the birth, enlightenment and passing of the Buddha on Visakha Puja.
I was on the hot seat for our meditation open evening last night. I spoke of the Buddha’s enlightenment and what it actually meant. I quoted one of my favourite pieces from the scriptures where the Buddha likens himself to a lotus that is born in the water, grows up in the water and eventually stands up, untouched by the water. In the same way he was born in the world, grew up in the world and eventually transcended the world. Read the rest of this entry »