Category Archives: Ego

Motorbike Crash

Moz 80th card1 blog

A week or two ago my brother, Tim, witnessed a motorbike accident. It was the morning rush hour in Edgebaston, Birmingham, and he was driving his van along a busy duel-carriageway on his way to a carpentry job. Directly in front of him was a stocky, middle-aged man in full leather gear riding a motorbike. This man was no doubt on his daily run to work, just like everybody else. It was a typically ordinary start to a day that would prove to be, for one person at least, devastating.

As is the case with these things, it happened quite suddenly. A woman driver – with her view of the road obscured by an approaching lorry, but being impatient to cross the main road – pulled out. She didn’t see the motorcyclist. He saw her, but it was far too late and he hurtled full-speed into the side of her car. Bones and rubber, flesh and chrome slammed into glass and steel. The momentum of a body flying at 50 mph was halted instantly and the man’s crumpled, shattered form dropped to the road. He might as well have ridden straight into a brick wall.

Tyres screeched. Car doors were flung open. A dozen horrified people dialled 999. Tim ran over to the man. He was alive, but in a state of shock. He moved around – panicking, delirious, desperate to pull the helmet from his head. But we all know that this must never be done, and he was urged to leave it on until the emergency services arrived. How badly he was hurt nobody could tell. The adrenaline that floods the system during experiences such as this appears to charge broken bodies with an almost superhuman power that causes them to run and breathe and beat. But a trickle of blood was issuing from his nose, and that’s never a good sign.

So the man was left in the care of a few, while the rest walked back to their cars to resume their journeys. We don’t know what injuries that man sustained, or even if he survived. But the image that formed in my mind as my brother recounted his experience was of a slightly overweight, unassuming man in a state of pain and shock so unexpected, so totally unfamiliar, that he personified pure suffering.

His entire world had been ripped apart in a moment. His body and his mind became something else, something alien, something terrifying. Every familiar, reassuring feature of his experience had been wiped out, and all that remained was a blank void of desperation. Such total, complete suffering! And out of nowhere! How could one mind bear the intensity of such an experience? People – healthy, normal people – were close to him, speaking to him, reassuring him – but he was far away. No one or nothing could reach him. This experience was for him, and him alone.

That evening, as I meditated, I visualised that man and radiated thoughts of compassion to him. It was easy, because his suffering had been total. There had been no compromising elements to his experience – no self-pity, exaggeration, or cries for attention – that might have diluted true empathy, empathy that welled up within me as I imagined his helpless, terrified face locked inside that helmet. And as I pictured him, I wanted nothing more than to share his pain. I wanted to take it from him and give him back relief.

And that, in effect, is what I imagined myself doing. I visualised his face and the panic in his eyes, and his confused, desperate movements. I tried to empathise with his inner experience – the wrenching pain, the suffocating fear, the mortal panic – so that I might share some small part of it with him and thereby help to soften it. I wanted him to feel that here was a friend, a friend on whom he could offload some of the burden. And then again I imagined his face: but now it was relaxing – the black fear in his eyes was fading, his panicked movements were slowing. He was letting go of the pain. He was not fighting. He was experiencing some relief.

That cold steel barrier of self dissolves when we open our minds to the suffering of others in this way. Their pain becomes ours and we desire to alleviate it as if it were our own. Then it becomes not a matter of my suffering and their suffering – or even of our suffering – but of suffering and the sincere wish to end it.

The cultivation of this heart-felt, selfless empathy is actually only half of the practice. To go further we need to become a kind of alchemist of the mind, where we take the raw experience of pain – our own and that of others – and transform its energy into compassion and letting go. In order for this to be successful wisdom is required. We must understand that pain is not something to be dismissed or feared or fought, but as misunderstood energy with the potential to be converted.

Painful experience in all its guises is inherently empty; the problem arises when we desire it to be otherwise. When we experience pain the aversion to it is so closely intertwined that the pain appears to be the enemy. There’s depression: we resist. There’s fear: we run. There’s physical pain: we fight. But fighting and running only reinforce and exacerbate these sensations. Reacting gives them a reality they do not truly possess. By letting the pain be – by allowing it, by opening up to it, by putting aside the instinctive, fearful reaction to it – we allow the mind to experience pain for what it is, just as it is. If the painful experience is left alone in this way its sting is removed and its energy harnessed and transformed.

Thus with mindfulness established we draw in our own suffering, and the suffering of others, turn its energy around, and exchange it for loving-kindness, compassion and letting go.

Doing this practice – although deeply moving – appears to be merely hypothetical. The motorcyclist remained completely unaffected as I thought of him. Or did he? In the various Buddhist traditions we do hear accounts of people in distress experiencing some relief and comfort when a person at a distance simultaneously holds them at the centre of a concentrated mind of compassion and loving-kindness. Such is the power of thought. Perhaps this phenomenon can be understood in the same vein as the effect that another’s mental state can have on us when we are in the same room as them: an angry, moody person is like a thunderous black cloud and we feel threatened; a happy person, a ray of sunshine and we feel warmed. How about we regard the world – or the universe for that matter – as a single giant room, one where our focused rays of loving-kindness and compassion can warm people wherever they are?

Well, whatever you think of that, our time spent nurturing the sublime states of empathy and compassion is never wasted. Mind, the Buddha said, precedes all things. Speech and action are merely its flitting shadows. With your thoughts bent on compassion and understanding, with your mind suffused with sympathy and concern, your words and deeds will follow suit, like an obedient pair of tiger cubs trotting along behind their mother. And not only will you be transformed, but so will those beings who come within your sphere of empathy and understanding. You will be a friend, an oasis, a refuge.

And the next time you’re with a terrified man who’s just crashed his motorbike, you will not be afraid, or nervous, or confused: you will hold his hand, look into his eyes, and let him know that his pain is yours.

New Moon Day: The Four Protections Part 3: Contemplation of the Body

In early 2002, just weeks before we were going to fly to India for our unforgettable tour of the Buddhist holy places, I happened to glance inside my passport. That was a fortunate decision: it was due to expire in the middle of our trip! Being very keen to go to India, but also to return, I hopped on a train with my brother and we bolted down to the Passport Office to get it renewed.

As the train raced through the winter countryside on the way to London, I gazed out of the window while Tim perused a glossy magazine. The first stop for him was the cover, which was graced – naturally – by a pretty woman. Turning and seeing her I asked him:

‘Do you think she’s pretty?’

‘Yup,’ he replied.

‘Imagine her without any eyeballs.’

Silence.

And so we see how easily the illusion of beauty is shattered. One little alteration and a pretty spectacle turns into an abhorrent one. And even if those lovely blue eyes were still nestled into those lovely sockets – what lies two inches behind them? A lovely brain.

The way of the world is to be infatuated with the body. But the way of the world is also the way of suffering. The Buddha’s only concern being suffering and its end, he taught us to take a good and sober look at this body to see what it is actually like. Not what we want it to be like, or what we perceive it to be like, but what it is actually like.

This body is not the desirable thing that our delusions tell us it is: it is a bag of flesh and bones with a large range of other slippery bits and pieces that cause us nothing but trouble. We have to feed it, clean it, wash it, empty it, rest it, keep it warm, keep it cool, keep it out of the rain, keep it out of the sun, keep it free from sickness, care for it when it does get sick, fix it when it’s broken, make it look presentable…

Now can we rely upon a thing such as this? Is it really a good idea to be obsessed with and attached to the body? Can such attachment bring anything but mental suffering and anguish? No. No. And no. But our delusions don’t respond to reason, which is why it is important that we contemplate the other side – to address the balance, to straighten our view.

When we remove the blindfold of delusion we view the body as simply an aspect of nature – not as a self, or a me, or mine – but as an amalgamation of a variety of organs, that each fulfil a particular function, but which will one day break down and fall apart just like an old wooden cart. Seeing in this way obviously goes against the worldly way. But it does not produce suffering, and that is what matters.

Whether we are ordained or lay, if we care for our well-being we will cultivate a more disenchanted relationship to the body. Although some of us may be young and our bodies are in reasonable working order, there will come a time – sooner or later – when they won’t be. And if we are attached to the body when it fails then our mind will fail too.

The Practice

It is a very good idea to include a period of body contemplation in our formal practice. In the method below we imagine parts of the body in neat little piles around us. Don’t worry, we don’t have to get too gory here; let’s just stick to the external bits – the first five in the traditional list of the thirty-two parts. And we don’t need to spend too long on it either; just a sweeping review will cause a sense of dispassion – and therefore peace – to arise.

Before we go any further an important point needs to be made: one must be sensible when approaching this practice, and not everyone will find it beneficial. A person with an angry temperament, for example, may find themselves experiencing strong aversion when focusing on the body in this way. This is obviously not what we are aiming for and in such cases that person would be advised to concentrate on more neutral and supportive practices such as mindfulness and breathing and loving-kindness.

For most people however, a sober perspective is sorely needed. But be careful, or that perspective might just lead you to the monastery gate…

(Forty or so years ago a certain young Thai man was preparing to get married. Dutifully following Thai custom he entered a local monastery to ordain for two weeks. Naturally he followed the routine of the monks – going on alms-round, studying the rules, doing the sweeping, learning the chanting. One of the morning chants in Thai monasteries focuses on the parts of the body. It is a kind of discursive meditation: ‘Head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin…’. So there was this young monk, soon to be married and full of the joys of spring, chanting away. However, after going over and over these parts he inevitably began to put two and two together: these body parts, and his fiancé!

Two weeks came. And went. But the new monk didn’t leave the monastery. Forty years later and he’s still in robes. I wonder if the not-so-young lady is still waiting?)

Five Heaps

Back to imagining those five heaps.

Firstly we have head hair. In front of you is a pile of your head hair. Oh, how much trouble people go to over their hair! And yet when you imagine it in a pile in front of you can you say it is beautiful?  What about when you are sitting in the hairdresser and you watch those flowing locks tumble off your shoulders and on to the floor? Do you care for it then?

To the right of that delightful spectacle is your body hair. Here it is – a heap of little hairs of varying lengths, thicknesses and degrees of squigglyness. Would you like to find some of those in your soup?

Next we have nails. Again, often dressed up, sometimes with quite extravagant designs. But what about when they are just lying there – semi-transparent, lifeless pieces of skin-cum-bone. When someone cuts their nails do they feel anything for the cast-offs? Do they think – ‘Oh, what a beautiful bit of nail!’ as it drops into the bin?

And next to the nails we have the teeth. Along with adverts telling you how to lose several inches of flab from your belly, I keep seeing ones for whiter teeth. It’s certainly true that we must care for our appearance. (Indeed, I was a little concerned when I was recently asked by a school kid if I brushed my teeth. I’ve been careful to brush them vigorously ever since to try to counter the effects of strong tea!) But we must remember they’re only teeth. Little oblong pieces of yellowing bone, with a jagged top where they are connected to the gum.

And lastly we have the skin. If there is one part of the body towards which so much lust, desire and delusion is directed it is skin. ‘Oh what soft skin!’ ‘Oh what smooth skin!’ ‘Oh what tanned skin!’ ‘Oh what moist skin!’ ‘Oh what young skin!’. And on and on it goes. But what about if it were heaped up next to you, stripped off like a discarded snake skin? On a typical Forest monk’s day out a few years ago we went to an exhibition in London called ‘Bodies’. It was fascinating. A technique has recently been developed whereby plastic is injected into body parts to preserve them. This was an exhibition of those parts, among which was a complete human skin, lying there, full-length, empty of everything else. It was remarkable. But it wasn’t attractive.

Just a Body

So that’s the body. And, as Ajahn Chah taught us to frequently repeat: ‘It’s just a body’. Very bland, purely functional, nothing special. An aspect of nature that is born, is aging and will die soon enough.

But the way of the world is to not see this. Watch the young models and actors dominating our screens and newspapers. They are principally there because of their looks. But can they depend on those looks? Or will those looks one day fail them? And if those looks do fail them will they suffer? The answer can be found by observing the people who were in exactly the same position as these youngsters 30 – 40 years ago – the Sophia Lorens and Elizabeth Taylors. Here they are, with aging bodies, but still clinging on to the illusion of beauty – getting a lift here, a little tuck there – desperate to retain a fraction of what they once had in abundance. But now it has gone. And they are suffering. Why not just let go?

Full Moon Day: The Four Protections Part 1: Contemplation of the Buddha

When full moon day was a distant memory: The Four Protections: Part 1
Picture a brilliant rainbow in a clear sky. Now cast your eyes over that great arc and you’ll see a tremendous range of colours: from deep blues, to violets, to scarlets, to oranges, to yellows, to greens. In the same way when we cast our mind over the Buddha’s teachings we find a comprehensive array of meditation techniques: from mindfulness of breathing, to contemplation of the body, to loving-kindness and compassion, to contemplation of one’s moral purity. Why did the Buddha teach such a range? Because he understood the diversity of people’s temperaments: their different tastes, tendencies, abilities and obstacles. As such we require different methods to nurture our strengths and extirpate our faults.
Ajahn Chah’s approach to teaching, as with many of the forest masters, respected this refreshing openness. 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’.
In contrast we sometimes hear of teachers saying that the method they teach is ‘the only way!’ This approach may inspire confidence in their followers but for some of us it seems quite dogmatic and belies the Buddha’s own approach.
The Four Protections
The Four Protections is the name given to a group of some of the most important meditation objects. Taking time to nurture each one will ensure our practice matures into a well-rounded, balanced and effective one. The four are usually developed together, often as a preliminary to mindfulness of breathing, though at other times one or two will take centre stage when a particular benefit is required. They are called protections as they protect the mind’s welfare and happiness. They guide us away from delusion and towards wisdom. The four are: Contemplation of the Buddha, Loving-kindness, Contemplation of the Body, and Contemplation of Death.
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.
Go 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 green and yellow lycra, Neil Armstrong gliding across 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 also 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, what it was that set him apart. Physically he was really no different from you and me: once a person entered a hall full of monks and among them was the Buddha. The visitor could not 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 poisons. 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, for their root had been destroyed.
A mind free of greed and hatred, and consequently of fear and all other derivatives, is a mind that cannot be overcome by any sight, sound, smell, taste or feeling. It remains unperturbed and detached under all circumstances. There is a story of a Brahmin who went to see the Buddha in order to provoke and anger him. 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 than even as he unleashed this torrent of nastiness the Buddha’s face remained clear and bright.
We can begin to grasp what it might be like to have a mind where greed and hatred are no longer active. This is because we know and see them. But of delusion most of us know very little. We cannot see it as we see with it. It is this total absence of delusion that truly set the Buddha’s mind apart. Greed and hatred would still have been operating had he not uprooted the Big Daddy of Dukkha that is delusion. The word ‘Buddha’ literally means the ‘One who Knows’. What did he know? He knew that all things of this world, of all conditioned existence, from the mountains, trees, and stones, to palaces, bricks and mortar, to every component of his mental and physical makeup, was, without exception, impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self, soul or substance.
It is this comprehension of 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?You would see his body; yet in his state of knowing there would be no delusion that that body possessed, or was possessed by, a self. You would know that in his mind there would be feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness; yet in his state of knowing there would be no delusion that these mental factors possessed, or were possessed by, a self. What would his mind have been like? – I wonder. If any goal is worth pursuing it is this one: to be free of all notions of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’.
“The greatest happiness of all is to be rid of the conceit: ‘I am’.”
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. Entering the first jhana he quickly passed through to the second, the third, the fourth, all the way up to the ninth – which is the cessation of perception and feeling. It is said this final attainment is accessible only to the Non-returner and Arahant. It is the epitome of mental concentration. At this point 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. He then arose from that attainment and glided though the preceding eight back to the first, from where he again moved through to the fourth. He then 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. There are of course others but I think these are the most 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 even what it would be like to be in his presence. 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.

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.

Full Moon Day (plus 1): Lowering the Drawbridge of Ego Castle

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.

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The next teaching will be on:

The new moon day, Saturday 23rd May

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PS: Thanks to David for setting up twitter.com/ForestHermitage, where you will find the Hermitage’s news, needs, info, etc. being regularly updated!