Category Archives: Kamma

The Young Monk and His Sleeping Bag

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(Lucky bunnies. Imagine having a built-in sleeping bag.)

The other evening a student at Warwick University asked me a now familiar question: Were your early days at the monastery difficult? Yes, I answered, they certainly were. And I admitted that during those unforgettable first few weeks, in that particularly chilly September, I plotted my escape several times. My home was within walking distance; I could have been shovelling down one of my mother’s speciality hot-pots within three hours. But the desire to not give up (and to not be seen giving up) kept my freshly shaven head and flip-flop toting feet within the monastery hedges. It was a close call, but I survived.

A few months later all had changed. And I looked back at those first weeks of manic wobbliness and scratched my head. Had that really happened? Had I really been such a baby? It was embarrassing to think of it. I know that to other people living at the monastery at the time I had borne no small resemblance to a petrified rabbit caught in the raging headlights of a tank.

But still, though teething problems had passed, life as a young and inexperienced monk continued to be challenging and at times downright uncomfortable. Of course, it is precisely this element of difficulty that is the rich and fertile soil in which the full spectrum of virtues – from patience to insight to letting go and peace – will flourish (or so they told me). To a nineteen year old young man, however, the promise of those supreme mental states is taken on trust (with the odd glimmer here and there), and the hard graft of getting through each day is the reality. Up early, sit cross-legged for one hour, cuppa, sweep, go for a walk, sit cross-legged again, one meal of the day, work, sit cross-legged again, cuppa, sit cross-legged one final time. And bed.

Ohhh, my bed. My sweet, sweet bed. And my sleeping bag. My puffy, silky, slidy blue and orange Arctic-weather-give-me-all-you-got sleeping bag. Ohhh, to be warm. To be without crossed legs. To be as secure and untroubled as a little worm curled up a mile down inside Mother Earth. The day was done; the night was ready to swallow me up. And there I was, lucky enough to be blissfully suspended between the two. Ahead of me lay nothing but six whole hours of oblivion, and I hovered in that awareness with divine relief. It was truly sublime. But it was soon over. And I woke up feeling crap.

You see, going to bed, for many of us, is not just about recharging our bones and brain cells for the following day’s adventures; it’s about escape. It’s about throwing ourselves under the covers and waiting for sleep to draw its black velvet curtains between us and this exhausting business of life. That’s certainly how it was for me, and that’s why I looked forward to it so much. But the mental state that was behind it all, the overwhelming force that twiddled and tugged at my strings as I raced through bedtime preparations (barely getting undressed sometimes), was destructive. Destructive, because it was, as the Buddha termed it, craving-not-to-be. And that’s what I craved: not to be. To be or not to be, it was an easy question. I had had enough. I wanted nothingness. I wanted not to be, not to be, if you get my drift.

But it was no good. Where there is craving there is suffering; and the suffering from the craving-not-to-be is intense. If I ended the day under its influence I would invariably wake up with the same two words on my lips: ‘Oh God!‘ The craving-not-to-be hadn’t disappeared in the night; it was the morose face staring down at me when I woke up. Although the problem and the cause seem so obvious now, it took me a very long time to actually do anything about it. Each day the prospect of said day’s ending dangled in front of me like a fat juicy carrot and I couldn’t help but drool in anticipation. I’d slog it out with the day, crave the night, drown in sleep, and wake up feeling terrible. And then I’d do it again. It was a viscous cycle from which it was difficult to extricate myself.

Thankfully, however, I did eventually learn the lesson. And it is this: sleep is a journey, and its destination is waking up. And most importantly, as with any journey, it is all about the preparation; if you don’t get that right, you’re done for. If you don’t pack enough oxygen before you scale Everest, you’re done for. If you don’t load up enough food on your round-the-world boat trip, you’re done for. And if don’t pull your suffocating mind out of the craving-not-to-be before you go to bed, you’re done for.

To prepare well, then, is what is called for. So what should we do before we hit the sack? Well, ideally we drop the craving, the regret, the depression, and lift up the kindness, the calmness, the letting go. We drive out the dark; we bring in the light. We might do that by meditating with the breath for a few minutes, or by focussing on loving-kindness, or by reflecting on an inspiring text, or by chanting a few words from the Suttas.

Or we might spend a few minutes casting our minds back through the day and recalling the meritorious deeds, words and thoughts that we performed.

It is precisely this last contemplation that I have used since I recognised the need to prepare well before sleep. It is easy to do, it doesn’t have to take long, and, most importantly, it works a treat. It is the simple and deliberate recalling of our own actions that were good, wholesome, and helpful, and then rejoicing in their goodness. Sound strange? Well, let me ask you this: in a world that is collapsing under the strain of all the hate, harm and rampant selfishness, don’t your little moments of good deserve some praise? Of course they do, and it’s you that’s going to do the praising.

Over here in the West (it’s a bit different in parts of Asia) we are not used to praising ourselves. Modesty and ‘thinking of others’ are the order of the day; and these are not, of course, without their merits. But the flip side is that we often fail to generate a good and helpful relationship with ourselves. We freely praise our best friend and love them to bits, but perish the thought that we might ever utter as much as an ‘it was ok…’ to ourself. It’s no wonder we want to grab the big red switch that says ‘AWAKE’ and flick it off as soon as we get the chance. Spending 16 hours a day with a person who’s always critical and judgemental is bloody hard work. Praising our own genuinely praiseworthy deeds is foreign, it’s unnatural, and it’s something that we absolutely must, must do. Especially before we go to bed.

As I mentioned, it doesn’t have to take long. I suggest that you set aside five minutes before you flop onto the feathers. It helps if you’ve done everything that needs to be done before you do retire: say goodnight to your dog, brush your teeth, don pyjamas, nighty, Bat Man suit, etc. Then sit quietly, close your eyes, SMILE (very important – it will send signals to your brain saying, ‘Be happy!’) and try to recall at least five of your actions that were wholesome. These are the things that you said, or did, or thought that were rooted in kindness, in compassion, in wisdom, in restraint, in patience, or in any of the wonderful qualities with which you are endowed.

So, maybe you removed a snail from the busy footpath; or you passed over the bigger slice of Victoria Sponge; or you donated some of your hard-earned pennies to a charity. Or perhaps you steered a conversation with friends away from harmful back-biting; or you diligently kept the precepts for yet another day; or you considered the angry colleague who barked at you, and you realised that he was suffering, and that it wasn’t about you, and that he deserved your sympathy and compassion.

Now good actions bring good results, and with this contemplation we are intentionally drawing a little of the sweet nectar that we deserve. So we recollect, and we praise, and we say ‘Well Done!’ and ‘You’re doing well!’ and ‘That was great!’ And we feel good and we feel happy and then we go to bed.

And then we wake up. And, if we’re well practised, the morose face of craving-not-to-be is nowhere to be seen. He’s gone. But where? Well, how could he be present when he didn’t even go to bed with us?

There is one other wonderful and unexpected habit that you might observe forming in your mind if you persist with this practice. You might just start looking forward to the end of the day. But, hold on! I don’t mean when you melt into the memory foam and say ‘Enough!’, as you did once upon a time; I mean precisely those concluding moments when you will rejoice in your merit. And if you look forward to that, you will concentrate on picking up even more vulnerable snails, and on being even more dedicated to the precepts, as anticipation for the joyful reflection that awaits hovers at the edge of your mind.

And at last it arrives: the time to say ‘Well Done’. Then, with a glowing heart and a smile to meet your closing eyes, you push gently away from the shores of wakefulness and into the healing depths of a Good Night’s Sleep.

 

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.

.

*****.


1. Review: Turning The Wheel of Truth

2. DN 16

3. MN 8

4. Dhp 276

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: Asalha Puja: Lights, Camera, Kamma

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Lights, Camera, Kamma

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Kamma or Karma means ‘action’. More specifically, intentional action. “Intention is kamma” said the Buddha (A.III,415). Kamma Vipaka is the result of action. Kamma is of two types: kusala and akusala – skilful and unskilful, respectively. Skilful actions are beneficial to oneself and others, unskilful actions are harmful to oneself and others. Skilfulness, of course, is understood in regard to the development of the Buddha’s path to freedom from suffering.

What are some of the effects of an actor’s or performer’s actions, both on the audience and on himself? Are their actions kusala or akusala?

One of the most famous comedians in England of recent times was Tommy Cooper. He made a lot of people laugh, but at what cost?

His final performance, I believe, was initially successful. People rolled about in their familiar bouts of hysterics. But then came an extraordinary sketch which at first proved to be uncannily real. It turned out it actually was. The flailing figure on the stage, with his characteristic red Moroccan fez, was in the middle of this piece when all of a sudden he slumped to the floor, clutching his chest. The audience roared with laughter. He was having a heart attack; they thought it was part of the act. So there was this dying man, gasping for breath and desperate for help, and the only response he got was pointing fingers and howls of laughter.

Doesn’t this make you think? That nightmare was his own creation.

Continue reading Full Moon Day: Asalha Puja: Lights, Camera, Kamma

(the day after) New Moon Day: Playing with Toys in a House that's Burning Down.

I’ve decided not to continue with the series of five posts on meditation that I’d planned. I’ve learnt that it’s not always a good idea to say you’ll be writing / talking about something several weeks from now. It can kill spontaneity. (Plus I’m fed up of talking about the plane!)

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Playing with Toys in a House that’s Burning Down

Before I became a monk I had an experience which caused an earthquake in the depths of my being and which undoubtedly turned me in the direction of devoting my life to the practice of the Dhamma.

Continue reading (the day after) New Moon Day: Playing with Toys in a House that's Burning Down.

Day after Full-Moon Day: “I promise…”

I love teaching kids. Several years ago I visited a school in Warwick to speak to ninety eight-year-olds. I sat in this big sport’s hall, surrounded by the climbing bars and ropes, with this little sea of small wide-eyed faces in front of me. I talked about Buddhism: I talked about why we suffer when we don’t get the latest Nintendo (or whatever) for Christmas; and I spoke to them about generosity – “Is it better to share your sweets, or keep them all to yourself?”; and I talked about morality. I also let them in on one of the perils of being a monk: being given ice-cream when all your food has to go in the same bowl – “Urrrgghhh!” Continue reading Day after Full-Moon Day: “I promise…”