Category Archives: Precepts

The 2 Minute Meditator

2 min 22

It’s the classic mistake: we resolve to do something, set the bar too high, smash into it, and give up.

We do it with food: Not one chocolate Hob-Nob will pass my lips ever again! And exercise: I will somersault off my mattress at four every morning and perform one hundred Sun Salutations! And writing blogs: I will write at least one post a day, and always have ten in reserve! And Hardcore Himalayan Hermit meditation programmes: I will meditate for three hours every morning before work, and every evening before bed, sitting full-lotus… Without moving… Or scratching… Or breathing…

Now I am exaggerating a little here for dramatic effect, but I don’t think that these examples are too far off the mark. We tend to make these grand determinations, without much thought for how realistic they are. The enthusiasm for transforming our sherbet-slurping, sofa-slumping, monkey-minded selves grips every atom, obliterating common-sense, and we leap out of our armchairs and leg it to the nearest Holland and Barrett to spend all our money on spirulina and Jane Fonda exercise manuals.

Of course we know that we need to eat healthily, and burn at least as many calories as we consume, and that it’s good to write a blog on Buddhist practice. And we also know that if we really want to change ourselves and be free of suffering a solid meditation practice is imperative. But the need to Do Something often becomes an all-or-nothing decision. Then we either do nothing, or we dive head-first into an elaborate, unsustainable scheme, only to crawl back out not long afterwards looking sheepish and feeling thoroughly disheartened. Thus we find ourselves once again slumped in the sofa – Coke in one hand, pizza in the other – while the X-Factor sucks all clarity and calm from our minds.

It’s like we’ve been zooming along on our very own habit motorway. It’s wide, and smooth, and easy driving. But it’s a bit meaningless, and we’re not happy. And so, seized by a desire for change, we veer sharply to the left. We crash through the metal safety barrier, plunge into the undergrowth, and tear through the snagging bushes, trees and brambles. But it’s all so difficult and unfamiliar. ‘Damn this changing lark!’, we think, ‘I’m going back to my motorway!’

But what about the slip roads, and roundabouts, and other motorways? There are plenty of those to choose from. Changing direction doesn’t have to be dramatic. These new roads may not at first be familiar, but they are gentle, and the views can be great, and they often lead to better motorways – motorways that are as smooth as the first, but which are composed of skilful and meaningful habits that will lead us on towards enlightenment.

So change doesn’t have to be a violent revolution. Revolutions have a habit of fizzling out and giving way to the old order. If change is gradual, and systematic, then it will put down roots and gradually become the norm.

I should note that once in while a dramatic change may be required. Never mind bashing through the safety barrier; we’re talking about rearranging life’s tectonic plates. This kind of change heralds initial friction and uncertainty, as well as deep long-term alterations to our personal landscape. That’s what going forth into the monk-hood, for instance, is all about; Siddhattha Gotama did it over 2,500 years ago, and it’s what men and women have been doing ever since. You will also feel the need to shake up things in your own life from time to time. Perhaps you can no longer tolerate the shaky ethics of your employer and you decide to leave; or you move abroad; or you end a damaging relationship. Even just establishing a dedicated Buddhist practice and keeping the precepts in your particular circumstances (like pressure from friends and family) can be a bit of an earthquake in itself.

But, aside from these examples, for the most part we try to find a balance. We eat our sprouts and the odd piece of chocolate; we do a dozen Sun Salutations at a sensible time in the morning; we write a blog post every one or two weeks. And we establish a meditation practice that is effective, flexible and, most importantly, sustainable.

Now it’s none of my business how many bags of crisps you eat, or what your heart-rate is when you’re puffing and panting up the stairs. But I have two suggestions about meditation. Firstly: Do it every day. And secondly: Aim to meditate for two minutes.

Two minutes? Yes. If we determine to meditate (or exercise, or write, etc.) for just two minutes then we bypass the most difficult part of achieving the thing itself: starting. Two minutes is nothing, and so we think nothing of it. ‘Oh, I’ve got a few minutes to spare’, we say to ourselves, ‘I might as well do my two minute meditation.’

The Two Minute Rule actually requires us to meditate for at least two minutes. That’s the minimum. So, before we start, we say to ourselves that if, after two minutes, we want to stop, then we will. That’s fine. There is no compulsion to continue. If, however, we reach two minutes and find ourselves in the groove, we are free to simply carry on. It’s an achievable daily practice that becomes as easy as checking our email. And just as habitual.

And that’s the point. It’s not so much about the act of meditating for two minutes as it is about establishing a habit. Meditating for two minutes will of course help you, even though the mind may not settle much during that time. Just the act of pausing, of breaking the momentum, of stopping the snowball of stress and tangle of thoughts from squashing you, is a powerful and fruitful practice. Taking those two minutes out to meditate will refresh you, even if you spend the whole time wrestling with your errant thoughts. But in the background a habit will be quietly forming; and habits are difficult to break.

And here we see how the Two Minute Rule is really a decoy, a Trojan Horse of Transformation. Because before long you will have established a daily meditation practice. And, what’s more, you will be consistently mowing down the 120 second marker. You’ll naturally extend it to five minutes, or ten, or fifteen, and you will hardly notice. Let’s refer to Newton’s Law of Motion to prove it: ‘An object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion…’ Once you’ve started, it’s actually difficult to stop.

And you will start, because it’s only for two minutes.

 

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!

 

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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New Moon Day: To Drink, or Not to Drink: That is the Question

No other precept is the subject of such lengthy and tiring debate as the fifth. The Twitterverse, blogs, web-sites, periodicals, discussion groups, and the nether-regions of online Buddhist forums continually pulsate with it. To drink, or not to drink: that is the question.

But why, we are right to think, is this question even being asked? It isn’t because of any ambiguity in the Teachings; take one look at a decent translation of the Pāli Canon and you’ll see the Buddha unequivocally said ‘avoid intoxicants which are the basis of heedlessness’*. Nor is it because the precepts belong to a different time and culture; we are no less in need of moral guidance and sobriety than people were in the Buddha’s day – if anything, we are more in need.

So why? Because people would rather follow their defilements than the Path.

Now I know that there are people reading this who are partial to the odd tipple, including two in particular to whom I am very close. And I know that Buddhism means a great deal to them and that they try to follow it as best they can – cultivating concentration, mindfulness, truthfulness, non-attachment, loving-kindness, patience and so on. But I also know that they fully understand: what the fifth precept is; that they are not keeping it; that a Buddhist is one who does; and that it would be unskilful to claim that they are as long as they’re still drinking alcohol.

If you aren’t ready to give it up then this is the skilful approach: an honest admission that the precept is such and that you’re not keeping it… yet.

And then there are those who have made the commitment to abstain but who genuinely slip up. Having been trumped by temptation, however, they recognise their error and resolve to do better in the future. We are, after all, unenlightened beings in training, and so the occasional hiccup with one of the precepts is understandable.

The problem is that some people who purport to be Buddhists simply disregard the precept. They dredge up a slew of excuses as to why they shouldn’t keep it; reel off a million reasons why it’s all right to drink; or worse: claim the precept doesn’t mean abstention at all, and re-write it because it’s not the way they want it to be, calling theirs an ‘interpretation’ when it’s just a distortion in fancy dress. And to top it all off, some of them are intent on broadcasting their opinions to the world:

It’s all right to drink in moderation!

The precept doesn’t mean avoid it completely; it means don’t get drunk!

If I can still stand after a night out I’m not breaking it!

If I drink mindfully I’m OK!

It’s only the monks and nuns who are meant to be tee-total!

And, after all, the Buddha taught the Middle Way! The wise approach is to find that mindful balance between abstention and alcoholism!

Plus, times have changed! The precept was laid down over two thousand years…

Blah, blah, blah, blah.

See – Defilements. That’s what’s talking there. Plain and simple. Crafty, cunning, conniving defilements, sniffing and scratching and searching for a loop-hole in this precept.

What many people don’t realise is that it’s precisely these reactions, resistances, and desires to have things our own way that we as Buddhists are meant to observe and understand – not follow. If we honour the precepts we can do this; if we don’t, we can’t.

I’ll never forget the time when a certain man came here to talk about becoming a Buddhist prison chaplain. During these interviews the candidate is always asked what their take on the fifth precept is. As a chaplain, virtually every prisoner they’ll see will be locked up because of crimes relating to alcohol and drug abuse. It is thus essential that the chaplain himself abstains completely: what kind of moral example would he be setting if he was using the very same substances that had landed his charges behind bars?

So this man was asked the question and an impassioned reply followed. He related how he was from a certain country where drink is a vital thread in the fabric of the culture. And how at Christmas, when he’s sat around the family table, it would be unthinkable to refuse a glass of the sacred nectar. Can we imagine the suffering that would be wrought if he passed over the punch? Is it possible to comprehend the anguish that would arise if he glugged not the Guinness? So he couldn’t abstain. No: drinking alcohol at such a time, was, he assured us – and I quote – ‘the most skilful thing’ he could do.

Pull the other one.

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* Suramerayamajjapamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, “I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.”  (“Going for Refuge & Taking the Precepts”, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight, October 3, 2010, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/bodhi/wheel282.html )

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New Moon Day + 1: A Stitch in Time Saves Nine

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Kids meditating

(Five and six year olds meditating. Not the ones who feature in this piece.)


Over the past three weeks a lot of my time has been spent teaching Buddhism to school children. Sometimes I go to see them; sometimes they come to the monastery. Sometimes they’re rich; sometimes they’re not. Sometimes they’re your regular snotty-nosed, bruised-knee whippersnappers; sometimes they’re autistic, but with equally snotty noses and bruised knees. And very often you end up with some very memorable, and sometimes moving, stories to tell…

You learn many things through teaching the Dhamma, and some things especially so when teaching it to children. As any teacher will testify teaching is one of the best ways for you to understand your subject. In the case of Buddhism, to teach it you must understand it. To understand it you must practise it. And so in order to teach it well you must practise it well. This is how the teaching of the Dhamma is of benefit.

Now, when it comes to children clarity is the key. They force you to be clear. Because if you’re not they punish you with the worst things that they can: wandering eyes, yawns, nose-picking and general rowdiness – in short: lack of attention. So you learn to get straight to the point. You don’t waste a word, you don’t ramble, you aren’t vague. You distil the fundamental themes that underpin Buddhism in order create an easily digestible package, where every word counts but where you don’t skimp the crucial points. Repeatedly doing this leaves you with a clear vision of what Buddhism actually is: avoiding that which is wrong, cultivating that which is right, and purifying the mind; the path that deals with the pursuit of true happiness.

And so it was that on the Wednesday before last I found myself in a Mercedes being driven through the maze of derelict industrial areas and shoddy estates to a primary school nestled somewhere in the sprawling metropolis of Coventry. My driver, the husband of a woman who works at the school, and a very nice man, gave me a little priming: most of the children had troubled home lives. Many were from broken homes – a child’s mother living with two men was not unusual. Some fifty percent or so were Polish, from families who had fled their home country as a matter of survival. I asked if the children wore uniforms. “Some do.” He replied – “It’s not compulsory.” This is because some families couldn’t afford them. In short, this school was no Eton.

First up were the four to six year-olds. There were about sixty of them – some in uniform, some not. As they plonked themselves down it took me about two seconds to realise that these rambunctious ankle-snappers were not going to be taught without a fight. Then about a quarter of a second after that thought came another thought: ‘If these toddlers are like this, what the hell are the older ones going to be like?’! I could see the headlines: ‘Monk Mauled in Primary School Punch-up’.

Now these very young children had a certain unnatural maturity to them; you felt it wasn’t one that they should have had. I suppose that’s what comes from having two men living with your mother. Added to that they had the freedom from inhibition that’s the right of every six year-old. These two qualities made them quite formidable, and teaching them rather a challenge. But I kept things clear and simple and survived to tell the tale.

Now, as a general rule, I usually begin by briefly telling the kids about myself; not because I want to but because I understand that before they hear about someone who lived two and half thousand years ago they want to know who I am! After that I tell them the story of the Buddha’s life, how on seeing the four sights he left his palace in order to find true happiness, and how after finding it he spent forty-five years teaching others how to find it too.

“Do you want to know how to be happy?“ I ask them. “YES!” They reply. “Well, the Buddha taught that we must do three things to be happy. Do you want to know what they are?” “YES!” “Right. The Buddha taught that we should be kind, that we should be harmless, and that we should meditate and be wise.”

How many of you share your sweets?” — “MEEEE!!!” x 20. “Good!” “Now when you don’t share your sweets how do you feel?” “Unhappy… Not very good…. Miserable” “That’s right.” I say. “What does one + one equals?” “TWO!” “What does being selfish equals?” “SUFFERING!” “What does being kind equals?” “HAPPINESS!” Then I invariably tell them the story of me refusing to let my brother have a go on my surfboard when I was about ten, and how it still makes me feel a little bad eighteen years later.

“But there is another way to be kind as well.” I say. “That is being kind, not only to each other, but to all animals and creatures. How are we unkind to the little creatures like ants?” “We kill them.” They reply. “Yes. So the Buddha taught that to be happy we must also be harmless.” Then I teach them the five precepts. “And what kind of world do you think we’d live in if everyone kept those precepts?” I ask. “A HAPPY ONE!” They reply.

I then tell them that to be truly happy there’s a third thing we have to do and that is to meditate and develop wisdom.

Back to the four to six year-olds. I didn’t manage to squeeze all that in, but I think a good number of them were left with a taste for being kind, and hopefully for being harmless.

Then it was time to finish with them. And that meant the staff room and a glass of water. And, of course, the two groups of nine, ten and eleven year-olds, presumably at that very moment sharpening their knives and loading up their Oozies. I hadn’t brought my bullet-proof robe. Was my metta up to the test?

But they were great. In fact, they were two of the best groups I’ve ever had. Both were very quiet. They listened extremely well. They were mature. They were ready to hear some Dhamma. So I taught them about the Buddha and what we have to do to be happy. And after that we meditated and had questions. It was incredible.

During the questions at the end of my last session a young boy asked me something and I answered. I thought nothing of it at the time – there appeared to be no reason to. Then, as I emerged out of the classroom into a swarm of children in the corridor, a teacher from the class I was leaving rushed up from behind and stopped me. She was clearly very moved by something. That boy, she said, whose question I had thought nothing of, was a very troubled Polish boy. And she wanted to thank me. Because it was the first time he had spoken since he had arrived at that school.

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The Next Teaching will be on:

The Full Moon Day, Tuesday 7th July

Which is Asalha Puja – when we celebrate the anniversary of

the Buddha’s First Sermon – the Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth,

and the beginning of the annual monastic Rains Retreat


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Full Moon Day: Five Great Gifts

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Walking meditation on the Bhavana Dhamma new year retreat.

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Five Great Gifts

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It was a Sunday in July, 2006. A Burmese couple who visit the monastery from time to time had come to offer food, and as Luangpor was in Thailand I was left in charge. After I had finished my characteristic meal-fit-for-a-king I sat in the reception conservatory for what was to be a refreshing conversation. The couple spoke about their passion for the Dhamma and their unwavering commitment to the precepts, and they spoke about their eighteen-year-old son and his commitment to the fifth precept. Pardon me? – Eighteen and committed to the fifth precept? That’s right! – It was a joy to hear! But they said his friends call him a wimp. Yes, a wimp.

Continue reading Full Moon Day: Five Great Gifts

Full Moon Day: Three Questions

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Cripes! Is it that time already?

The following are slightly modified versions of my attempts to answer some important questions that were put to me in an email. So you’ll have to remain restless and worried for another two weeks until we look at the fourth of the five hindrances to meditation.

The questions were roughly as follows:

Continue reading Full Moon Day: Three Questions