Category Archives: Insight & Wisdom

Motorbike Crash

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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.

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.

 

 

February Blues

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It’s early February and the grounds here at the Hermitage are looking rather tired, to say nothing of the soggy fields and woodland that surround us. It is all, to be frank, a bit grim. The days are mostly overcast. It’s cold. The ground is saturated with water and in many places swimming underneath it. The trees are shivering in the wind, while the blackened leaves from last year decompose at their roots. Grey. Grim. Wet. If nature here was any more tired it would be tucked up in bed with a hot water bottle.

But it is, of course, on the cusp of change. It’s early February, and next month’s March. And, if I remember correctly, April will follow that. And March and April mean Spring. Daffodils, Crocuses, blossom and buds.  So, going on past experience, we know that Spring is, at this very moment, jumping up and down and rubbing its chilly hands together in the changing room, warming itself up for a full-scale pitch invasion.

If, however, this February happened to be our very first, and we looked outside on this dour weekday morning, we wouldn’t have a clue. We wouldn’t know the significance of the odd green Bluebell shoot popping its tip through the moss and leaf mold like a little periscope checking whether or not it’s safe to come out. And so, experiencing only greyness, wetness and moldiness, we might get a bit depressed.

But this isn’t our first: we’re all hardened February veterans, and so that’s all irrelevant. Isn’t it? Well, not really.

Because even though we know that the wonders of Spring are imminent, and that there have been one or two Springs before, and that February is always a bit tired and grim, we still all too easily lose perspective. We forget, and when we forget it’s as though it has always been like this. It’s amazing how when the human mind is presented with an experience it often fails to remember that there have been others. Spring? Summer? Autumn? Don’t know anything about those! The coldness and greyness of the experience drown out the memories and knowledge of other seasons and our mood sinks with the garden bench in the waterlogged field. A depressing February morning forever. And ever. And ever.

Which brings us to our moods and feelings. Without wisdom and understanding these transient states of mind swallow us up whole and spit out all perspective. We forget that we ever felt another way. A happy mood is a cloudless midsummer day that has always been, and always will be. A bout of excitement is a brisk and bright April morning that will trumpet good news forever more. A spell of contentment is the heady August evening that will swirl and sway with the golden fields of corn to kingdom come. And depression, or despair, or anxiety – these are the eternal hours of oppressive dark, dank, coldness that eat into our bones in early February. Happiness and excitement, fear and despair: we relate to them all as real and lasting, as desirable or detestable, and so we suffer.

The trick, then, is to know the transient and ephemeral nature of these experiences – not before they arise, or after they’ve tootled off (though that’s better than nothing) – but as they are present. Here. Now. This mood will pass. And it will be replaced by another. It’s like the changing of the seasons, only on hyper fast-forward and in no particular order. Spring. Autumn. Summer. Spring. Winter. Winter…

Knowing this – not simply intellectually, but as a living, intuitive awareness that is tuned into the transient nature of things – we are able to let these moods and emotions be. We don’t grasp onto them or feed them; we don’t push them or pull them; we don’t embrace or resist, or hide or fight. We simply let them be, and let them go. They are no more our personal possessions than this miserable February morning.

Six Ways to Improve Mindfulness – Part 5 and Summary

6. ORIENTATE

Sight – check. Sound – check. Smell – check. Taste – check. Touch – check. To orientate ourselves to the present moment we can do this simple exercise. We pay attention to the doors of the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and body to see what exactly is happening there. Just as the captain of a ship checks his compass to determine his position; so we can check each of the sense-doors to determine our position – which is, of course, the present.

If we are not careful, these inner worlds of ours easily become choked with troublesome thoughts, perceptions, memories and characters. But are these private worlds we drag around a true reflection of the outside world? Aren’t they just based largely on our own mistaken perceptions? How many times do we pass judgement on something, only to have it promptly overturned moments later? Our inner worlds are – for the most part – disconnected from reality, from what is actually going on right now.

And so it is crucial that we learn to be mindful of what is happening around us; that we pause to pay attention to what is occurring, in the present, at each of the sense-doors. The sense-doors are our windows to the world, and to stop the creation of more mental proliferation we must be vigilant and learn to just observe. To be mindful of what is actually happening around us puts a break on these meanderings of the mind and we become aware of what is right in front of our noses.

We can begin with sight. Here we pay attention to the objects that occupy our field of vision and try to let there be just what is seen. Normally there is a moment of bare perception – when we simply see – before the labels, perceptions and associations come tumbling along and bury it. So, for instance, we see a teacup, and with that seeing come all manner of things such as liking or disliking, memories of good cups of tea had, thoughts of who gave the cup, etc. So, our experience of seeing the teacup largely comprises our own inner proliferations; we are not actually seeing the teacup.

If we let go of all the associations, perceptions, liking and disliking, etc., there will be the bare experience of seeing. So when this happens what do we actually see? Colour and shape – that is all. To just see is to see without labels, without commentary, without proliferation. We see the teacup as it actually is: a white upturned semi-circle with a few wiggly blue lines on the face and a little thin ear-shaped bit on the side, and nothing more. And so it is with the other things that fill our little screens, where there is no ‘dog’, no ‘tree’, no ‘miserable mother-in-law’ – just a few brown lines, a wavy green blob, a red square. As the Buddha said, ‘When seeing, just let there be what is seen.’ So we drop all of the inner-commentary and experience just seeing.

Then we move to sounds. What can you actually hear? Listen carefully and try to be aware of the various sounds around you. The longer you listen, the more you will hear. And again, try to hear without the labels and commentary; ‘When hearing, just let there be what is heard.’ There’s the sharp tweet of a bird – though we don’t label it ‘bird’; there’s the whirrr of the fridge – though we don’t label it ‘fridge’. We pay attention to how the sounds actually sound, without piling our conditioned reactions onto them. We notice the textures of sounds, the pitches, the frequencies, and so on. We are mindful of the bare experience of just hearing.

Then we do the same for tastes, odours and bodily sensations. At each of these doors we ask: ‘What is actually happening? What is being experienced?’ Bitter, sweet, bland, spicy, sour; strong, subtle, sweet, pungent; warm, cool, comfortable, painful, etc… We are mindful of the bare experiences of just tasting, just smelling and just feeling.

Not only does this orientate us to the present but it fosters a very subtle awareness. For instance, as we are mindful of what we can hear we gradually tune into sounds which would usually go unnoticed. Try it now. What can you actually hear? After a few moments the quieter sounds will begin to appear to you. You will hear the faint hum of the traffic, the rustling of the leaves, perhaps even the snoring of a mouse! And in the same way you will notice subtle experiences at the other sense-doors – experiences which had hitherto been undetected.

To begin with, this practice serves to help remind us of the simplicity of the moment. But as we progress, these sense-bases – including the sixth: mind – become the source of liberating wisdom. The more carefully we examine sense-impressions with an unclouded awareness the more we will gain insight into their ephemeral nature. We like to say that ‘Everything speaks the Dhamma’, that every experience speaks the truth. Well, if we really learn to just see, just listen, just smell, and so on, then we will hear that message. And what will these experiences tell us? ‘I am transient, unsatisfactory, and empty!’ In this way the senses cease to be substantial and a great sense of ease and relief takes its rightful place.

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Summary of the Six Ways

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1. QUIET: Convenient, efficient, rewarding. Simply take your time to do something quietly and see how your mindfulness levels immediately increase. Mindfulness turns all of our actions into an art form, and it is especially so with this method.

2. STOP: In theory simple, in practice not always, but deeply rewarding if we can really do it. As the method’s name implies our sole concern is to stop. We put down our things, and stop externally; and we put down our thoughts/worries/plans/emotions, and stop internally.

3. BREATHE: The breath is always available and it is very discreet. When a few minutes present themselves to you don’t fiddle with your phone or pick your nose – make that time count by focussing on your breathing. Even ten breaths will make a difference.

4. TOUCH: Pause and take a few moments to focus on the obvious points of contact experienced around the body, for instance your feet touching the floor: examine the sensations and be mindful of hardness, texture, temperature and movement. Don’t spend too long on one contact point before moving to the next.

5. SLOW: Often taught by meditation teachers and for good reason: not only is it devastatingly simple, it is perhaps unparalleled in its potential to enhance our moment-to moment awareness. Making a cup of tea? Do it slowly and see what happens.

6. ORIENTATE: The captain of a ship checks his compass to determine his position; so too can we be mindful of what is occurring at each of the sense-doors to determine our position – which is, of course, the present. Simply be mindful of exactly what you are experiencing at the doors of the eyes, ears, nose, mouth and body.

 

New Moon Day (+1): Precept Power!

An effective Buddhist practice is a daily Buddhist practice. Pulling out the dusty zafu once a year might give you some fleeting respite, but it’ll do little more than that. And plunging head-first into an intensive retreat every six-months might take you to heaven for a few days, but if you’re back to partying and alcopops the day after you probably shouldn’t have bothered.

It’s easy to fall into extremes: to neglect meditation and party like Keith Richards for ninety-nine percent of the time, and then go at it like a Himalayan sage for the rest. But what really counts when travelling this path is a commitment to a steady, consistent and methodical daily practice.

Formal meditation must, of course, be central to this. One or two thirty minute sittings each day, for example, will keep you gliding along nicely. If, for whatever reason, you find this is too much sometimes, then do it for five minutes… three… one… but certainly not none! If we meditate consistently we will soon reach a point where we experience withdrawal symptoms when we don’t meditate: the mind has become accustomed to being fed – when we stop, it gets hungry!

Then there’s the cultivation of mindfulness, and, in particular, mindfulness of the body. Maintaining awareness of the body provides a refuge for the mind. It grounds us, makes us less impulsive, and, crucially, enables us to quite easily step back from and observe our feelings, thoughts and mental states. To keep our mindfulness battery charged we can pepper our day with brief spells of slow-motion mindfulness exercises, for instance while making a cup of tea or folding the towels, where we closely follow every stretch, bend and turn with a precise and concentrated awareness.

To direct and inspire our efforts to cultivate our mind we turn to the words of the Buddha and those of realised (or soon to be realised) teachers – noble beings who have crossed over to the far shore and are beckoning us to join them. Reading and listening to Dhamma Talks probably won’t be something we do every day, but still we shouldn’t neglect them.

Daily attention to meditation, mindfulness and sprinklings of instruction are thus key elements of a successful practice. But at the heart of it must lie something else, something which on the surface seems quite mundane and in some cranky people’s eyes spiritually stifling, but which is actually an essential tool in our quest to understand the true nature of things and be free from suffering. That something is the observance of the moral precepts.

Harmony

Keeping the precepts brings harmony: harmony within and harmony without. Refraining from harmful actions frees us from remorse and worry – hence the harmony within; and nurtures human relationships based on respect, confidence and trust – hence the harmony without. Having as the basis of our practice this lush and fertile soil of harmony, our development of concentration, mindfulness and insight is able to flourish.

The Buddha, referring to the bhikkhu and his maintenance of the numerous moral precepts found in the Vinaya, said he experiences a blameless joy that comes from living a life ‘as pure as a polished shell’. It is a joy that arises, not from anything having been done, but from the simple fact that something has not been done – that is: harm.

It’s funny to think of the lengths that people go to in order to experience elation and joy: roller-coasters, sky-diving, horror movies, snorting cocaine… when all they need to do is purify their virtue. Try to tell them this, however, and they’ll probably burst out laughing. What they don’t understand is that their actions follow them everywhere, and that the oppressive shadow of their harmful words and deeds will be cast over every attempt they make to experience happiness. If we live a life of moral purity there will be no shadow. We can lie in bed at night and experience that pure joy welling up in our heart as we reflect: ‘I have done no harm today!’

But this harmony is not limited to our own minds: it permeates our relationships with others. Do we feel secure and comfortable when in the presence of a killer? a thief? an adulterer? a liar? a drunk? Or do we feel our personal safety threatened? On the other hand, when we are in the company of a virtuous person, how do we feel then? safe? secure? at ease? As human beings we have this kind of moral scent which others intuitively pick up on. If someone stinks we want to get away; if they smell sweet, we’d like to stay. To keep the precepts is thus to give the gift of social harmony: the harmony that comes from people feeling secure in the presence of one another.

Just for a moment imagine a world where everybody kept the five precepts. What a heavenly place it would be! But, alas, on our little scruffy patch of the universe very few people do. Even society’s role models and leaders: politicians, sportsmen and women, writers, actors, pop-stars and so on, are largely beacons of moral decadence. So if they’re at it, what about the rest of the population? The world is in a pitiful state because it’s bereft of virtue.

To bring the five precepts into your heart and let them guide you through each moment of your life is a powerful means to cultivate this sorely needed harmony – both within and without.

But the benefits that arise through keeping the precepts don’t stop here; the harmony and joy, though delicious, are merely the first fruits. As a direct result of holding fast to the precepts through the hum-drum of day to day existence we find the liberating qualities of mindfulness, concentration and insight riding in their wake.

The Precepts and Meditation

When we close our eyes to meditate we look directly at our mind. Consequently, we become very aware of how it is coloured by the moral ‘tones’ of our actions, and, more importantly, how those tones dictate how we feel. Generally speaking, people are blind to how their thoughts, words and deeds affect their minds; ceaselessly chasing pleasure and fleeing pain they never stop to look. But the honest meditator is unable to hide. He or she witnesses how each action deposits an impression in the mental stream, and, depending on whether the action was harmful of not, how it produces suffering or happiness.

The impressions left by unskilful actions are like little monkeys on our shoulders. As soon we stop to meditate they start causing trouble. ‘La la la la laaa! I’m not going to let you meditate! I’m not going to let you meditate!’, they sing, while jumping up and down, tugging our ear lobes and pulling our hair (if we have any). But if our actions have been pure then there won’t be any disturbance. The monkeys will remain fast asleep while we close our eyes and effortlessly let go of a past that is not regretted, and a future that is not feared.

The mind fortified by virtue is a mind that can let go of past and future at will and thus become concentrated.

The Precepts and Mindfulness

When we keep the precepts we must be vigilant. We must be continually observing ourselves. They bring us right into the present moment as we keep guard over what we say and do to ensure that they are not broken.

As monks, living by hundreds of precepts, we are naturally made to be mindful of even the most seemingly insignificant of actions: we can’t lick our lips when we eat (try that with a jam doughnut!), we must wear our robes in a particular way, we mustn’t twiddle our thumbs in public, we mustn’t gaze at our reflection in the mirror… To somebody who doesn’t understand Dhamma practice these rules seem a tad ridiculous; but to one who actually trains with them their value proves to be inestimable: they make you so very aware. And not only aware of what you are doing, but, more importantly, of your intentions that are bubbling beneath the surface. The precepts reveal all.

The Precepts and Insight

It is this restraint, concentration and all-encompassing awareness that are generated by the precepts which combine to offer to us on a golden platter the most important quality of all: liberating insight.

Insight comes through observation and the precepts give us a lot to observe.

When our practice has no moral structure our greed, anger and delusion do as they please. Like great powerful tigers they eat whatever and whenever they want. With a full belly they sleep, purr and saunter around, admiring their silky coats and flexing their deadly claws, all the time increasing in strength and becoming potentially more and more dangerous.

Lock them in a cage made of precepts, however, and there’ll soon start to weaken. How can they increase in strength when they aren’t getting fed?

But they don’t always go quietly: no longer able to do as they wish they start to make a fuss. And this, though sometimes uncomfortable, is actually what we want. Because when these harmful mental forces are aggravated we can see them more clearly. Seeing them clearly we are able to observe and investigate them. And it’s through investigating them that we reveal their true nature. We see how they rise and fall, how they don’t last, how in reality there is no substance to them. By understanding this they fall away.

When this three-fold process of uncovering, investigating and understanding is repeatedly practised, our insight accumulates. Gradually the defilements wither under our ever-present gaze of mindfulness, concentration and wisdom. Eventually, they disappear altogether.

In some ways this isn’t such a difficult thing to do. It simply requires patience and a consistent practice that is led by the modest yet deceptively powerful hand of the precepts.

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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

Half Moon Day: Investigate

sleuth

One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves is this: ‘What can I rely upon?’ When we look closely we will see that there is only one answer: our wisdom.
To try to depend on anything else is a recipe for disaster. Wealth, youth, health, status, emotions: they are all – by their nature – unreliable. Yet we still cling, we still attach, we still dawdle blindly along without considering that sooner or later they will fall.
But with wisdom we remain detached. We clearly perceive the undependable nature of all things in  this world. Ironically, it is this understanding that is dependable. To see impermanence, as Ajahn Chah said, is to see that which is permanent. To understand that we cannot depend on these things is to find that which we can depend on. Seeing and knowing thus we live in perfect harmony with the true nature of things – touching the moment, at ease, not forming attachments, continually letting go.
To understand impermanence is desirable; but it takes training. We can’t just decide one day: ‘Right! I’m going to start seeing things as being impermanent.’ We are heavily conditioned beings, unable to flip our views over as easily as we can turn our hand. To change our mind takes patience, perseverance, concentration and, most importantly, investigation.
Investigation is the second of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, coming immediately after mindfulness. Here we see how the development of mindfulness is not an end in itself – not just a mundane coping tool – but a preliminary step leading us into the fascinating realm of investigation and beyond.
A detective committed to uncovering the truth of a crime won’t settle for a casual look at the evidence; he will take his magnifying glass and examine that evidence – probing, investigating and considering it until he understands it. In the same way we take up the powerful magnifying glass of focused awareness to uncover the truth of our experiences – probing, investigating and considering them until we understand them.
This investigation is to be developed at all times. We should turn our awareness to whatever we experience, without taking anything for granted. When we experience depression we should take a good look and ask: ‘What is this?’ Look closely and examine it – you will see it is not a static thing. Happy moods must not escape this penetrating gaze either: ‘Is this permanent or impermanent?’ And, most importantly: ‘Can I depend on this?’ Step back, give rise to perspective and wisdom, and let go.
We can also gain insight by turning our beam of awareness to pain. When we are experiencing a painful feeling we must resist the habitual reaction to avoid it and instead direct unwavering attention towards it. Doing this we will soon see that the problem is not the pain – the problem is our mind.
What is pain? Look closely, investigate, examine. Ask yourself:
‘Where is the pain?
It’s in my knee.
But where exactly in my knee?’
You won’t be able to find it. As soon as you think you have located it, it shifts. So you follow it with the persistence of a treasure-hunter who senses gold: ‘Where’s the pain? Where’s the pain? Where’s the pain?’ But all the time it eludes your efforts, moving and shifting, expanding and contracting, appearing and disappearing. Eventually it dawns on you that there is no such thing as ‘pain’.
And this is how it is with all of our experiences. The sight of a strawberry, the sound of a blackbird, the smell of a pink rose, the feeling of joy bubbling in our veins: they are all shifting and changing and we cannot put our finger on any of them and say that is that.
But we don’t normally see this. We live in a world of labels: the sound of a car, the smell of a roast potato, the blade of grass, you, me and the dog. We put our experiences in convenient boxes. But these boxes don’t really exist. There is only the river of change.
By continually investigating our experiences insight gradually accumulates. The question of how much concentration we need in order to develop insight has been argued over for two thousand years and I don’t feel like joining in. Ajahn Chah was very clear on this, however: you do not need a great deal to begin with – just enough. Indeed, he went so far as to say it may not be wise to develop concentration that is too deep. (1)
Some people, he said, incline towards developing powerful states of peace and unification of mind, but they lack wisdom. We hear of monks soaring to the heights of the eighth jhana, but still falling for visions of women, thinking: ‘We’ve been lovers in a previous life! We were meant to be together!'(2) And then they throw in the towel and run off for a bit of rumpy-pumpy.
Of course, such high states of concentration can be used to develop liberating wisdom – the Buddha’s own experience being the prime example – and without any concentration wisdom simply cannot arise. But deep concentration does not bring wisdom automatically.
Then, said Ajahn Chah, there are those people whose minds do not easily lend themselves to deep concentration, but who have inherent wisdom. They use this wisdom to probe and investigate, to turn things over, to dig deeper and deeper into their experiences, gradually uncovering the truth of things. (3)
So probe, investigate, examine. Don’t let anything go by without contemplating change. When we understand impermanence everything else will fall into place and all of our troubles will come to an end. We don’t need to read all of the books. We don’t need to spend hours on Buddhist forums. We don’t need to listen to a thousand Dhamma talks. We don’t need to look very far – what you have now will do.
(1) A Taste of Freedom ‘The Path in Harmony’
(2) Autobiography of a Forest Monk. Chapter 22.2
(3) A Taste of Freedom ‘On Meditation’

One of the most important questions we can ask ourselves is this: ‘What can I rely upon?’ When we look closely we will see that there is only one answer: our wisdom.

To try to depend on anything else is a recipe for disaster. Wealth, youth, health, status, people, emotions: they are all, by their nature, unreliable. Yet we still cling, we still attach, we still dawdle blindly along without considering that sooner or later they will fall.

But with wisdom we remain detached. We clearly perceive the undependable nature of all things in this world. Ironically, it is this understanding that is dependable. To see impermanence, as Ajahn Chah said, is to see that which is permanent. To understand that we cannot depend on these things is to find that which we can depend on. Seeing and knowing thus we live in perfect harmony with the true nature of things – touching the moment, at ease, not forming attachments, continually letting go.

To understand impermanence is desirable; but it takes training. We can’t just decide one day: ‘Right! I’m going to start seeing things as being impermanent.’ We are heavily conditioned beings, unable to flip our views over as easily as we can turn our hand. To change our mind takes patience, perseverance, concentration and, most importantly, investigation.

Investigation is the second of the Seven Factors of Enlightenment, coming immediately after mindfulness. Here we see how the development of mindfulness is not an end in itself – not just a mundane coping tool – but a preliminary step leading us into the realm of investigation and beyond.

A detective committed to uncovering the truth of a crime won’t settle for a casual look at the evidence; he will take his magnifying glass and examine that evidence – probing, investigating and considering it until he understands it. In the same way we take up the powerful magnifying glass of focused awareness to uncover the truth of our experiences – probing, investigating and considering them until we understand them.

This investigation is to be developed at all times. We should turn our awareness to whatever we experience, without taking anything for granted. When we experience depression we should take a good look and ask: ‘What is this?’ Look closely and examine it – you will see it is not a static thing. Happy moods must not escape this penetrating gaze either: ‘Is this permanent or impermanent?’ And, most importantly: ‘Can I depend on this?’ Step back, give rise to perspective and wisdom, and let go.

We can also gain insight by turning our beam of awareness to pain. When we are experiencing a painful feeling we must resist the habitual reaction to avoid it and instead direct unwavering attention towards it. Doing this we will soon see that the problem is not the pain. The problem is our mind.

What is pain? Look closely, investigate, examine. Ask yourself:

‘Where is the pain?

It’s in my knee.

But where exactly in my knee?’

You won’t be able to find it. As soon as you think you have located it, it shifts. So you follow it with the persistence of a treasure-hunter who senses gold: ‘Where’s the pain? Where’s the pain? Where‘s the pain?’ But all the time it eludes your efforts, moving and shifting, expanding and contracting, appearing and disappearing. Eventually it dawns on you that there is no such thing as ‘pain’.

And this is how it is with all of our experiences. The sight of a strawberry, the sound of a blackbird, the smell of a pink rose, the feeling of joy bubbling in our veins: they are all shifting and changing and we cannot put our finger on any of them and say that is that.

But we don’t normally see this. We live in a world of labels: the sound of a car, the smell of a roast potato, the blade of grass, you, me and the dog. We put our experiences in convenient boxes. But these boxes don’t really exist. There is only the river of change.

By continually investigating our experiences insight gradually accumulates. The question of how much concentration we need in order to develop insight has been argued over for two thousand years and I don’t feel like joining in. Ajahn Chah was very clear on this, however: you do not need a great deal to begin with – just enough. Indeed, he went so far as to say it may not be wise to develop concentration that is too deep. 1

Some people, he said, incline towards developing powerful states of peace and unification of mind, but they lack wisdom. We hear of monks soaring to the heights of the eighth jhana, but still falling for visions of women, thinking: ‘We’ve been lovers in a previous life! We were meant to be together!’ And then they throw in the towel and run off for a bit of rumpy-pumpy. 2

Of course, such high states of concentration can be used to develop liberating wisdom – the Buddha’s own experience being the prime example – and without any concentration wisdom simply cannot arise. But deep concentration does not bring wisdom automatically.

Then, said Ajahn Chah, there are those people whose minds do not easily lend themselves to deep concentration, but who have inherent wisdom. They use this wisdom to probe and investigate, to turn things over, to dig deeper and deeper into their experiences, gradually uncovering the truth of things. 3

So probe, investigate, examine. Don’t let anything go by without contemplating change. When we understand impermanence everything else will fall into place and all of our troubles will come to an end. We don’t need to read all of the books. We don’t need to spend hours on Buddhist forums. We don’t need to listen to a thousand Dhamma talks. We don’t need to look very far – what you have now will do.

.

.

(1) A Taste of Freedom ‘The Path in Harmony’

(2) Autobiography of a Forest Monk Chapter 22.2

(3) A Taste of Freedom ‘On Meditation’

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The next teaching will be on

The Half Moon Day, Thursday 10 December

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New-Moon Day (+1): Beyond Belief

More and more of my time is spent teaching the Dhamma to school children. Not only do they benefit, but I do too. Regardless of the age, my format is nearly always the same: introduce the Hermitage and myself, explain the symbolism of the candles, flowers and incense, tell them the life-story of the Buddha, teach them about the Four Noble Truths, spend a few minutes meditating, and then walk around the grounds. Depending on their level of understanding I emphasize different aspects: if they’re younger I’ll ask them to imagine having a conversation with an ant on the floor; if they’re older we’ll talk about why we’ll never have enough Nintendo games.
The questions are always a highlight. Some, as you’d expect, are rather inappropriate: ‘What do you wear under….?’ Others move you with their profundity. ‘Why is it that wisdom can’t be found in books?’ And others require some tact on my part and some imagination on theirs: ‘Why don’t monks get married?’ (She was very concerned.) I pointed her to the First and Second Noble Truths and left the rest to her.
One of the questions I never tire of answering is this one; ‘What do Buddhists believe in?’ These children will be doing the mandatory rounds of the religions. They’ll have found out that Christians believe in this and Jews believe in that and Hindus believe in the other. And now it’s the Buddhists’ turn: ‘What do you believe in?’
‘Well’, I say, ‘Buddhists don’t believe in anything.’ That was not the answer they were expecting. ‘When you believe in something’, I ask, ‘Do you know it?’ ‘No’, they say. ‘Well, Buddhism is not about believing; it is about knowing. The word ‘Buddha’ means ‘The One Who Knows’ – not the one who believes, but the one who knows. And that is what we are trying to do too: to know.’
Say I was holding an apple. And I told you that this apple is the most delicious apple in the world. If you believed me you would say: ‘That is the most delicious apple in the world.’ Then you might go and tell your friends: ‘That lucky monk is holding the most delicious apple in the world.’ And then those people might spread it around too. And before long half of the planet would believe that I was in possession of the most delicious apple in the world! Of course, the apple might actually be utterly disgusting. But they wouldn’t know that. The reality and their belief are totally different things.
Several years ago I attended a meeting of the Warwick District Faiths Forum. It concluded with a Muslim man giving a talk on Islam. I had no idea what Muslims believe so I was curious to find out. I don’t remember much of what he said – I was too busy frowning and yawning – but I do clearly remember when he listed, by rote, like a seven-year old boy who’s reciting his ten-times table – what he and Muslims believe in: ‘We believe in God. We believe in heaven and hell. We believe in the Angel Gabriel. We believe in Adam and Eve…’ And so it went on. I could not believe my ears! How can a grown man think this? It was disturbing to consider that not only did he believe this stuff, but that he believed it without question.
How different, I thought, is Buddhism. Can you imagine giving a talk on the Dhamma in the same way? ‘We believe in the Buddha. We believe in the Four Noble Truths. We believe in the Noble Eightfold Path. We believe in impermanence…..’ The Buddha would not have been impressed.
There is a celebrated occasion when he was once teaching someone with the Venerable Sariputta in attendance. After he had finished he turned to Sariputta and asked him: ‘Do you believe what I just said?’ ‘No’, replied Sariputta. Now we may think that was rude, but the Buddha praised him. Sariputta than said that he could not believe it because he had not yet seen for himself whether or not what the Buddha had said was true.
And until we see for ourselves, neither do we. The Buddha didn’t want it any other way.

.

More and more of my time is spent teaching the Dhamma to school children. Not only do they benefit, but I do too. Regardless of the age, my format is nearly always the same: introduce the Hermitage and myself; explain the symbolism of the candles, flowers and incense; tell them the life-story of the Buddha; teach them about the Four Noble Truths; spend a few minutes meditating; and then walk around the grounds. Depending on their level of understanding I emphasize different aspects: if they’re younger I’ll ask them to imagine having a conversation with an ant on the floor; if they’re older we’ll talk about why they’ll never have enough Nintendo games.

The questions are always a highlight. Some, as you’d expect, are rather inappropriate: ‘What do you wear under….?’ Others move you with their profundity. ‘Why is it that wisdom can’t be found in books?’ And others require some tact on my part and some imagination on theirs: ‘Why don’t monks get married?’ (She was very concerned.) I pointed her to the First and Second Noble Truths and left the rest to her.

One of the questions I never tire of answering is this: ‘What do Buddhists believe in?’ These children will be doing the mandatory rounds of the religions. They’ll have found out that Christians believe in this and Jews believe in that and Hindus believe in the other. And now it’s the Buddhists’ turn: ‘What do you believe in?’

‘Well’, I say, ‘Buddhists don’t believe in anything.’ That was not the answer they were expecting. ‘When you believe in something’, I ask, ‘Do you know it?’ ‘No’, they say. ‘Well, Buddhism is not about believing; it is about knowing. The word ‘Buddha’ means ‘The One Who Knows‘ – not the one who believes, but the one who knows. And that is what we are trying to do too: to know.’

Say I was holding an apple. And I told you that this apple is the most delicious apple in the world. If you believed me you would say: ‘That is the most delicious apple in the world.’ Then you might go and tell your friends: ‘That lucky monk is holding the most delicious apple in the world.’ And then those people might spread it around too. And before long half of the planet would believe that I was in possession of the most delicious apple in the world! Of course, the apple might actually be utterly disgusting. But they wouldn’t know that. The reality and their belief are totally different things.

Several years ago I attended a meeting of the Warwick District Faiths Forum. It concluded with a Muslim man giving a talk on Islam. I had no idea what Muslims believe so I was curious to find out. I don’t remember much of what he said though, as I was too busy frowning and wincing. But I do clearly remember when he listed, by rote, like a seven-year old who’s reciting his ten-times table, what he and Muslims believe in: ‘We believe in God. We believe in heaven and hell. We believe in the Angel Gabriel. We believe in Adam and Eve…’ I couldn’t believe my ears!

How different, I thought, is Buddhism. Can you imagine giving a talk on the Dhamma in the same way? ‘We believe in the Buddha. We believe in the Four Noble Truths. We believe in the Noble Eightfold Path. We believe in impermanence…..’ The Buddha would not have been impressed.

There is a celebrated occasion when he was once teaching someone with the Venerable Sariputta in attendance. After he had finished he turned to Sariputta and asked him: ‘Do you believe what I just said?’ ‘No’, replied Sariputta. Now we may think that was rude, but the Buddha praised him. Sariputta then said that he could not believe it because he had not yet seen for himself whether or not what the Buddha had said was true.

And until we see for ourselves, neither do we. The Buddha didn’t want it any other way.

.

The next teaching will be on:
The half-moon day, Wednesday 25 November
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