Category Archives: God Delusion

Beyond Belief

Buddha Head Profile

Religion, I feel fortunate enough to say, was never a part of my home life when growing up. My mother, although refreshingly open-minded, had far more pressing concerns: there were fish-fingers to fry and muddy football kits to wash. And my father (who lived elsewhere) not only looks a little like Richard Dawkins but has views and a tongue to match – though he never once tried to persuade me one way or the other.

My primary school, on the other hand, was Church of England. And so that meant the usual humdrum of hymns, church outings, nativity plays, and even a cantankerous old Welsh pianist who, during choir practice, would threaten to have our guts for garters if we failed to squeak to his satisfaction. I never saw any intestines dangling around his shins, so I assume it remained an unfulfilled fantasy.

Anyway, since none of this was reinforced at home the religious indoctrination slid off me like a nob of butter from a warm knife. My mind thus remained free to wander the hallways of thought, asking and questioning and probing as it pleased, with no restrictions, no ‘KEEP OUT’ notices, and certainly no reference to an all-seeing, all-knowing God.

That’s not to say I didn’t try believing in God. I did. Once. I have a vague memory from when I was about eight of standing in my bedroom and asking for help. But I quickly gave it up as a bad job and returned to my Lego castle. Perhaps I didn’t try hard enough. Perhaps he was on the other line. Perhaps my request that he help with finding the last little plastic brick that completed the draw-bridge didn’t meet connection criteria. Or perhaps I instinctively knew that it was a waste of time and that the answers to the existential questions (and locations of important Lego pieces) are not to be found in dogmatic belief systems that are devoid of evidence.

And so I quickly found that I was an atheist. At weddings or funerals (memories of the two slide into one for some reason…) I would sooner have gone naked wearing only a red bow-tie than have closed my eyes as the vicar conversed with the Almighty on behalf of us all. And I would argue about Jesus with my grandmother, who would then pull out her trump card and suggest that I, as an unbeliever, stop receiving Christmas presents. Ha!

But being an atheist was not about rejecting Christmas presents or adopting another viewpoint; it was an act of rebellion. I hated being told what to believe, especially when there was no evidence. I wanted to know, but I wanted to find out the answers for myself. And I wanted to question, without being told when to stop.

Science at secondary school always left me cold, too. It just didn’t relate to my actual experience of being alive and aware. And the little knowledge I did acquire made no difference whatsoever to my dissatisfaction with life. It was all about Petri dishes and Bunsen burners and Thingamebob’s Second Law of Thermowotsits. It was second-hand knowledge and had no bearing on how I understood – in an experiential way – myself and the world.

Of course the study and advancement of Science is essential, and often fascinating (I am partial to a little astronomy myself – all those light-years and super-massive black holes boggle the mind; and quantum physics is intriguing). Through Science diseases get cured, planes get in the air, and atom bombs get developed (oops). But it’s all so far removed from actual first-person immediate experience. Who am I? I don’t mean the ‘I’ reflected in the mirror – the cells and atoms and chains of DNA – but the ‘I’ asking this question. The thought. The awareness. I think all of my questions boiled down to this one, and science was looking the other way.

After the Dark Night of High School (the less said the better) my inquisitive tendencies crawled back out of hiding and I found myself captivated by the nature of mind and its potential. I devoured books on philosophy, anthropology and mysticism (with a sprinkling of an illegal chemical or two), and it all seemed to point to the fact that our reality – our world – is to a large extent determined by our minds. And so it seemed that any attempts to understand the nature of reality that did not focus on the mind missed the point. After all, what else do we actually have apart from our mind and the experiences fashioned by it? Furthermore, it struck me that this knowledge was not to be gained from text books or holy books or any kind of books, but through direct personal experience. But how was this to be achieved?

Luckily I found my truth-seeker’s tool of choice while perusing the shelves in my local library. It was the practice of Buddhist meditation. This simple exercise awoke something within me, something which had been present all along but which I had never stopped to look at. It awoke the knowing aspect of the mind – that which is aware but which is not part of the myriad thoughts and mental states that splash through our muddy heads, and which is therefore able to observe and investigate the nature of experience. These new-found meditative ventures were simultaneously satisfying and exciting. There was pleasure and there was a sense of discovery. Questions were beginning to be answered and suffering was easing its grip.

So I had found a method that requires the suspension of all belief and preconceptions, a method which regards the mind as the ultimate laboratory, a method which concerns the training of the mind so that it is able to directly perceive the nature of reality. But its focus is also the experience of suffering; indeed, in Buddhism it’s the very problem of not understanding the nature of things that is the root cause of suffering.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. These are just words, and grand and exciting ones at that. You may have suffering and questions in equal measure but no amount of nodding your head at sentences such as these will solve them. The journey begins and ends on the meditation cushion, and so it is what we do on that piece of cotton and kapok that matters.

 

 

Rebirth, Alms-bowls and Pets: Some Questions and Some Answers

Alms-bowls

(Freshly fired alms-bowls)

Just before I left for Thailand towards the end of last year I visited a school in Coventry and spoke to three classes of 10/11 year olds. The school was in quite a deprived part of Coventry but the children turned out to be some of the most inquisitive and mature I have met in my long and varied experience of teaching Dhamma in schools. Following the visit I received an email with some questions from the children but as I was about to jump on the plane I didn’t have time to answer. So, being back in Blighty and having finally responded, I thought I’d share the questions and my answers here.

Did you live near the monastery before you became a monk?

Yes, I lived in a village about 9 miles away. Even though I lived so close to the monastery I didn’t know it existed until shortly before I came to live here (when I was about 19 years old). I even used to walk my dog and camp in my tent by the river Avon about 1 mile away, but I still didn’t know!

What happens if you break one of the 5 Precepts?

You get struck by a bolt of lightening. Only joking! Remember that the five precepts are not commandments laid down by a god who will punish you if you break them; they are rules to help you live happy and harmless lives. Really the question should be: What happens if you kill someone? Think about it: the victim suffers, their family and friends suffer, and you suffer. Everybody suffers! The same is true for the other precepts. So by breaking one of the five precepts you cause suffering for yourselves and others. If you keep the five precepts then you help one another to be happy and peaceful.

I should say a little bit about the monks’ rules. We live by many more than 5 precepts – 227, in fact. The first four of these, called the Parajika, are very important. If we break one of these we are immediately expelled from the Sangha (the community of monks) and we can never be a monk again in this life. The four rules include not killing another person, not stealing, and not lying about having reached enlightenment.

Are you allowed to have a pet?

Most monks don’t have pets, partly because they move from monastery to monastery quite frequently. It is common, though, especially in Thailand, for Buddhist people to rescue animals such as chickens, fish and monkeys and set them free in a forest monastery. There is one monastery in Thailand that looks after a lot of animals, including wild pigs. I heard a story that one day a wild pig turned up at this temple because there had been a fire in the forest in which he lived. Not long afterwards he left; but he soon returned – this time with all of his friends! He obviously loved it there! If you think about it, a monastery is a very safe place for an animal to be in.

At this monastery we do have animals, though we don’t like to call them pets. A pet is something that belongs to you, but can we really own another creature? So, we just call them our friends. Here we have two dogs, two tortoises and a cockerel; these all live with the Abbot. We used to have many more animals including goats, a parrot, ferrets, a duck, rabbits, a goose, etc. Most of them have been rescue animals, including Ben and Jimmy, the two dogs, and many were given to us.

As we love animals so much we are also vegetarian. We regard all animals as our friends, and obviously we don’t like to eat our friends…

Is it true that you are not allowed to open a door if you are holding your alms bowl?

Wow! I’m surprised you know about that rule. Yes, it’s true. We do this so that we don’t risk dropping the bowl and breaking it. We first put down the bowl before opening the door and walking through. Then we have to put the bowl down again to close the door! It’s a time consuming process but it makes us very mindful. Actually, this is one of the main reasons behind many of our rules: they make us mindful. Mindfulness means to be aware of what we are doing and thinking at all times.

If you read the Buddhist scriptures you will understand why we have a lot of rules. When the Buddha was alive he had many, many monks, and sometimes these monks would make a mistake. So I think that one day a monk must have opened a door while carrying his bowl and then – smash – he dropped it! So the Buddha made it a rule that we shouldn’t open a door while carrying our bowl.

As monks we are taught to be careful and respectful of our alms–bowls both for practical and symbolic reasons: as we don’t have any money we must look after our possessions and make sure they last for as long as possible (my teacher had his cast iron alms-bowl for almost 30 years!); and as the alms-bowl is a symbol of the life of a monk we are taught to be respectful of it. When I was a new monk I was told to treat my bowl as if it were the skull of the Buddha. If I ever knocked it on something – clangggg – I felt terrible!

When you die will you come back as another living creature?

This will take a little time to explain as it’s a complicated subject, so please be patient. I will try to keep as simple and as brief as possible!

The Buddha taught that this life we are living now is just one in a very long chain of lives. He called this chain of lives Samsara, and he said that it has no beginning and that, if we don’t reach enlightenment, it has no end. Can you imagine that? This means that we have all lived many lives before and that when we die we will be reborn again (if we aren’t enlightened). But people aren’t just reborn as humans; we can be reborn as animals and other types of beings, too.

You might ask why an enlightened person doesn’t get reborn. Well, first of all we should ask: what is it that makes us come back after we die? The Buddha taught that it’s our greed and desire that bring us back. The thing that makes an enlightened person special is that they don’t have any greed or desire (or anger or hatred) in their mind. They are free. That’s why they’re so happy, and it’s why they don’t come back.

You might also ask why one person is reborn as a rich and handsome prince that lives in a palace and why another person is reborn as an ugly rat that lives in a sewer. It’s a good question, and to understand it you need to know a little bit about the law of karma.

The word karma means action – it’s what we do. When we say something: that’s karma; when we do something: that’s karma. Now, everything that we say and do has an an effect on us. If the karma, the action, is helpful – such as saying something kind or helping an old lady to cross the road – the effect will be pleasant and we will be happy. But if the karma is harmful – such as bullying someone or killing an animal – then the effect will be painful and we will suffer. So, to put it very simply: good karma (helpful actions) brings happiness; bad karma (harmful actions) brings suffering.

The most important thing about karma, however, the thing that really makes it good or bad, is our intention. Our intention is what we mean to do. It’s whether we mean to hurt someone or mean to help them. So, if you step on an ant accidentally, that is not bad karma because you didn’t mean to harm it. But if you saw that ant and thought, ‘Right, you!’ and then – crunch – you squashed him, that would be bad karma because you meant to kill it. So, good karma happens when we mean to do kind, generous and wise things. Bad karma happens when we mean to do selfish, cruel and stupid things. Got it?

So, back to that question:  why will someone be reborn as a rat and another a prince? Well, it all depends on their karma, on what actions they do in this life. For example, if you say and do harmful things all of the time then you might be reborn as a creature that suffers a lot, like a rat in a sewer; whereas if you have been very generous and virtuous then you might be reborn as someone who is comfortable and privileged, like that rich and handsome prince (though princes can be unhappy too – the Buddha used to be one and he got fed up with it!).

Now we must remember that it isn’t a god that decides whether we will be reborn as a prince or a rat. If we are reborn as a rat: that is just the result of our karma; if we’re reborn as a prince; that too is just the result of our karma. It’s like if you plant an acorn in the soil: you know that it will produce an oak. It doesn’t need a god to make the oak, does it? So it is with our karma: the karma is like the acorn; the result is like the oak. So if we plant good actions in our life our rebirth will be a good one; if we plant bad actions, it won’t be. Can you understand? I’ve tried to make it sound simple, but it’s actually much more complicated than this!

You might think this idea of rebirth is very strange, but there is actually a lot of evidence for it. This mostly comes from children who remember a previous life. For instance, there might be a four year old girl called Sally who keeps describing her former life. She says that she used to live in Nottingham, on a street called Smith Street, in a big blue house with a red front door. And she says that she was married to a man called Jim and that the neighbours were called Ted and Molly. Now the parents think she’s making it all up, as you might imagine! But after a while they go to visit Nottingham and – do you know what? – they find that everything she said is true! There is a big blue house, with a red front door, on a street called Smith Street, with neighbours called Ted and Molly. And, to top it off, living in the house is a man called Jim whose wife had died five years before (remember – Sally is four). Everything that Sally said is true, but she had never been to the house, or even Nottingham, before! Now I just made up that story about Sally, just to help you to understand. But there are many, many stories just like this one, except they are all true, and some of them are even more amazing than this!

We should remember that the goal of Buddhism is to free ourselves from this chain of being born again and again and again by becoming enlightened. After all, who wants to keep going back to school! And even if you do get reborn as a prince or princess you will still get old and die again. The only true happiness is to free ourselves from Samsara, this endless chain of birth and death.

Phew!

When someone becomes a monk and gives up their personal possessions what happens to them?

That all depends on the individual. Some monks sell all their things and give the money away to friends and family; some monks don’t have anything to give away! Other monks will just go to the monastery and leave their friends and family to tidy up after them (like me!).

With no money, how do monks get robes and clothes?

This is a good question. As monks we don’t have any money, we can’t grow food, and we can’t cook for ourselves… We’re pretty helpless! And so we have to depend on what people give us.

In Buddhist countries like Thailand monks go out every morning with their alms-bowls to collect food. We walk through the local village or town, keeping our eyes downcast, and people line the streets waiting to put some food into our bowls. By the time we get back to the monastery we have plenty to eat. Regarding robes, the material is also given to us and then we usually sew the robe ourselves. You might think we are a burden on people, but they actually love to give things to monks. If we don’t go out to collect food they aren’t happy! Buddhist people, you see, love to give.

In England we don’t really go out to collect food and so instead people come to the monastery to cook food for us. I did once go on a 7 day walk by myself with no money or food, just relying on what people put into my bowl every morning. People were very kind and I had enough to eat every day. It was amazing!

So we depend upon people for material things, like food, robes, a place to live in, and medicine; and the people depend upon us for spiritual guidance and teaching. Or you could put it the other way around and say that people give us material things; and that we give them our example, guidance and teachings. And that, in fact, is just what I’m doing now!

 

Full Moon Day: Buddhas Only Point The Way

The other day I came across a book review of a Western forest monk’s commentary on the Buddha’s First Sermon (1). What the Buddha set out in this discourse forms the framework for every teaching that he was to give during the remainder of his life, that is: the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. A commentary on this sermon is thus a commentary on the full depth and breadth of Buddhist practice.

At the very beginning of the piece I was pleased to read the reviewer pointing out that we Western monks are at pains to offer this ‘full picture’ of the Dhamma to our fellow Westerners, and not just meditation. In light of the current and disconcerting trend of people, and especially teachers, extracting the bits of Buddhism they like: mindfulness, vipassanā/insight, etc., and leaving behind those that they don’t: precepts, traditions, renunciation, Nibbāna (!), etc., I took it as a compliment. Her words also fired up my determination and sense of responsibility to strive to present this ‘full picture’ of the Buddha-Dhamma. In other words: to keep it real.

Understanding the integrated nature of the Noble Eightfold Path is imperative. Like an eight-stranded rope, each part combines to create the whole; not one is superfluous. Each has its own particular function but at the same time both supports and nurtures the others. Thus, if this ‘rope’ is to be used as intended – to provide a means for us to climb out of our suffering – every thread must be in place. Neglect Right Action, for instance, and soon enough you’ll hear the rope start to fray, ‘plink, plink, plink’, then snap, and before you know it you’ll find yourself once again wallowing at the bottom in the muck. Cultivate and maintain each of the eight threads, however, and the rope can be relied upon as you focus on your sole responsibility: to climb to the top.

Although every thread in this rope is vital, it should be borne in mind that pre-eminent among them is Right View: it is the very core of the rope around which all the other threads are wrapped.

Without a degree of Right View – that is, without some insight into dukkha and the ‘problem of life’ – we wouldn’t even set foot on this Path. Why would we want to if everything was tickety-boo? So Right View forms the beginning of this Path: every other factor has it as its pre-condition. But it is also the culmination: its perfection is the goal, the objective, the destination towards which every effort flows. All eight factors are pointing us in this one direction: to see things as they really are. It is Right View that stands between us and freedom from suffering. It is Right View that brings the beginningless cycle of birth and death to a halt.

So Right View is the Daddy. But we wouldn’t climb very far up this rope, let alone reach Nibbāna, if it wasn’t for one other rather crucial factor: Right Effort.

So much of what the Buddha said can be summed up in his final words: ‘All conditioned things are impermanent: work out your own liberation with diligence’ (2). Personal responsibility; the transiency that is the hallmark of this mundane life; the desirability of ‘the far shore’, Nibbāna; the urgency of the task ahead in light of the brevity of existence; and, especially, the need to make a constant effort while we are still unenlightened – all of these principal themes that permeate his teachings sparkle like gems in these final words. Open a copy of the Pāli Canon at random and there’s a good chance you’ll find the Buddha exhorting his listeners to strive, to make an effort, to not delay ‘in case you regret it later’ (3). That was one of his main responsibilities: to inspire us to make the effort. After all, ‘Buddhas only point the way.’ (4)

This central tenet of personal responsibility and the fact that we can only depend on our own efforts is not palatable to many people. So what better way to shirk this solemn proposition than to lump all of your hopes onto an imaginary deity or ‘other power’? This is why the drug we call religion holds the vast majority of the planet in its sway, and it’s why these fanciful elements have been slipped into various forms of Buddhism over the centuries: it is a great comfort to imagine some smiling dude in the sky looking after us, or some all-pervading benevolent force that we can tap into for help. Wouldn’t it be great if these things were true? Wouldn’t it be so much easier? Who wouldn’t want to sit in a deck-chair and slurp pineapple juice all day while something else did all the work? But for a true follower of the Buddha it’s all nonsense. It is a blatant, yet understandable, attempt to hide from the weighty and often lonely reality that if we want to be free we have to turn to ourselves to make the effort, and not any old effort, but the Right Effort.

Before we look at how the Buddha defined Right Effort, it is important to recognize how he, speaking as plain as ever, divided actions of body, speech and mind straight down the middle: that is, into right and wrong; harmless and harmful; skilful and unskilful; those that conduce to Nibbāna and those that don’t. Many people imagine the Buddha to have been a passive hippy who floated around with a flower in his hair telling people, ‘you can do whatever you like, maaan.’ The truth, of course, is far different. He never shied away from telling someone they were a fool for doing something stupid, and he certainly never minced his words when it came to defining what is right and what is wrong.

To know whether an action of body, speech or mind is skilful or not we must trace it to its root. What is driving this thought? What is fuelling these words and deeds? If you find the defilements of greed, aversion and delusion, or any of their derivatives: pride, jealousy, restlessness, etc., then it is unskilful and the result will inevitably be suffering for oneself, for others, or for both. If, however, we find non-greed, non-aversion, and non-delusion, or, put another way: generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom, then the action is skilful and the result will be happiness.

A word of caution: while we remain blinded by delusion we are not always in a position to know on which side of the fence some actions sit. How often have we been led to believe that a certain course of action is skilful, when in fact it is not, or vice-versa? There is no better example of this aspect of delusion working than when a so-called Buddhist endorses the armed forces. ‘It’s all right to kill with a kind heart’, I read one Tibetan man saying… (I hope your jaw just hit the floor, as mine did.)

So how can we be sure? By turning to the Buddha’s words, of course! Killing is unskilful, stealing is unskilful, sexual misconduct is unskilful, lying is unskilful, taking intoxicants is unskilful, Wrong Speech, Wrong Livelihood, Wrong Mindfulness and so on are unskilful. Harmlessness is skilful, generosity is skilful, restraint is skilful, truthfulness is skilful, clarity of mind is skilful, Right Speech, Right Livelihood, Right Mindfulness and so on are skilful.

By understanding in this way which actions of body, speech, and mind lead to suffering and which lead to Nibbāna we can effectively employ the Buddha’s formula that constitutes Right Effort: to prevent the unskilful that has not yet arisen in oneself, and overcome that which has; to develop the skilful that has not yet arisen in oneself, and maintain that which has.

Having thus lowered the rope down to us by making known how liberation is reached, the Buddha has done all he can. Now it’s for us to make that effort and climb.

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*****.


1. Review: Turning The Wheel of Truth

2. DN 16

3. MN 8

4. Dhp 276

The Cat among the Pigeons

(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.
I am beginning to see that it might be a useful thing to have Buddhism presented along with the other religions, since it provides a singular and sorely needed voice of reason and truth amongst all the other delusion. One sometimes feels like the cat among the pigeons.)
Buddhism
Introduction
Buddhism is the Teaching and Practice that originated from the Buddha’s experience of Enlightenment. Over the centuries his teachings spread throughout the world, resulting in a diversity of schools and traditions that all have at their core the Buddha’s preoccupation with suffering and its end.
The Buddha
The man who was to become the Buddha was born Prince Siddhattha Gotama in India over 2500 years ago. Brought up in total refinement 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 intense striving, 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. Just as all the spokes of a wheel centre on the hub, so too all the teachings of Buddhism centre on the hub of the Four Noble Truths. Essentially they concern suffering and its cause, and happiness and its cause.
1. Suffering; Unsatisfactoriness
Life is inherently unsatisfactory: we are born, we grow old and we die. All things of this mundane world are transient and unable to fully satisfy us.
2. The Cause of Suffering
Craving, according to the Buddha, is the root of suffering. If we take into account the First Noble Truth then craving can never be satisfied. With craving present in our minds we live at odds with the true nature of things.
3. The End of Suffering; Happiness
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.
Free Inquiry
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 in that is does not recognise an all-knowing, all-loving creator God. The Buddha actually stated that to hold such a belief is a delusion. In contrast to relying on forces outside oneself, Buddhist teaching emphasises personal responsibility (see Kamma).
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.
Kamma
Kamma (or Karma) means action, and it is the intention behind an action that determines the result (Vipaka). 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 Kamma highlights the fact that we alone are responsible for our own happiness and suffering.
Loving-Kindness and Compassion
The Buddha taught that we should try at all times to act out of loving-kindness and compassion for ourselves and all beings everywhere.

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(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.

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Buddhism

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Introduction

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 Buddha

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.

Free Inquiry

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.

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New Moon Day: To be Happy or not to be Happy: That is the Question

To be Happy or not to be Happy: That is the Question
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. Looking back at my own life prior to finding the Dhamma I can see an understanding of dukkha was firmly in place. It is what propelled me into this life. My grasp of dukkha had long been with me. In fact, he is my oldest friend!
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 to give him the ‘news’. “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. How could we know 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 in that situation later on. 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 work. With every twitch and nudge and caress the potter shapes the supple clay. At every moment that clay is the perfect record of the movements of the potter’s hand. 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 generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. We find the six roots (mula) of action – the architects of suffering and happiness.
It’s pretty simple really! Avoid what is wrong and cultivate what is right. Avoid acting on greed, hatred and delusion, and be generous, compassionate and wise. Exercise your right view: look at your mind before you are about to say or do anything, and also when you are doing something, out of the six roots of actions, what is there in your mind? If it’s harmful – stop; if it’s helpful – carry on.
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 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, and non-greed – a wholesome root of action – takes it place.
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.
A Reward
I think it would be fitting to conclude by reminding ourselves that 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. Indeed, 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. And so we should not throw this opportunity away.
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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.

Mmmm… Pringles

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).

A Reward

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.

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The next teaching will be on:

the full moon day, Thursday 6 August

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Note: ‘The Sangha’ and ‘Links and Books’ pages have been updated.

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Full Moon Day: Buddhism: No God; No Soul

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rupa-snow1.

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:

Continue reading Full Moon Day: Buddhism: No God; No Soul