Category Archives: Suffering

Motorbike Crash

Moz 80th card1 blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beyond Belief

Buddha Head Profile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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.

 

Full Moon Day: What kind of enlightenment would you like, Sir?

.What kind of enlightenment would you like, Sir?
Several years ago I was told about a certain blog post of a fairly prominent English Buddhist teacher and author. In this particular piece he related how he had been sifting through the Pali Canon when he discovered something about the state of an arahant (an enlightened being): they  don’t grieve. “Ooh,” he thought. “I don’t want that kind of enlightenment.”
The above statement comes from somebody who’s grasp of the Dhamma is seriously lacking. What kind of enlightenment does he want? Enlightenment with a sprinkling of grief? How about a squeeze of pain and despair for good measure? Surely you wouldn’t even consider having an enlightenment without some pain and despair?
It’s not as if just when you’re about to attain enlightenment you go and take your seat in a restaurant and have a waiter hand you the enlightenment menu. “Now, Sir, what kind of enlightenment will you be having?” “Well, there’s so much to choose from… Let me see…. There’s enlightenment with a side serving of pain. There’s enlightenment with grief. There’s enlightenment with despair. And then there’s the full works: enlightenment with good old birth, aging, sickness and death. I think I’ll have enlightenment with grief.” “Very good, Sir. Enlightenment with grief it is.”
What is the purpose of Buddhism? To be free from dukkha. What is dukkha? Well, to find this out we can refer to the Buddha’s stock definition of dukkha:
“This is the Noble Truth of Dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha. Association with the loathed is dukkha. Dissociation from the pleasant is dukkha. Not to get what one wants is dukkha. In short, the five aggregates affected by clinging are dukkha.”
What is the Buddha describing here? Life! That life is, by its very nature, bound up with suffering. The purpose of Buddhism is to be free from these things; to abide in a state that is beyond these experiences, where these experiences do not occur. That, of course, is the peace and freedom of Nibbana. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Better than all this birth, aging, death and grief business. No?
So the teachings of the Buddha are very clear. They start with the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its cause, its cessation, and path. And from there the various more refined expressions of the truths open out. The Dhamma serves as a clear guide to a specific goal. If someone wants enlightenment with grief that’s easily found. All they need to do is stop practising.
Which brings us to the main point here: the need to study the Dhamma. To know what the Buddha taught. It sounds stupid, doesn’t it. If someone says they’re a Buddhist then presumably they know what the Buddha taught. Well, as the above case of a published Buddhist author shows, this ain’t necessarily the case. To learn the Dhamma we don’t need to study the whole Pali Canon: too much studying is a hindrance. In the Forest Tradition we say ‘study a little, practise a lot, realise everything’. But that little bit of studying is vital. Without it, we are like someone climbing Everest without a compass or a map.
The Recipe
We could say that following the Dhamma is like baking a cake. If we are to bake a delicious cake then we must follow the instructions carefully and closely. If we don’t, then all sorts of things can go wrong: if we forget the yeast then it won’t rise; forget the sugar (perish the thought!) and it won’t be sweet; forget to oil the tray and it’ll get stuck; add too much salt and it’ll be inedible, etc. etc.
Practising the Dhamma is the same. We need to read the instructions, get to know the recipe, and then follow it carefully. If we don’t then the cake won’t rise.
It goes without saying that we should know the Four Noble Truths off by heart. The same can be said for the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. And we should be familiar with the threefold division of the Path: morality, meditation, and wisdom. Looking further into the Buddha’s teachings we will find that he defined each of the parts of the Path in short, concise and easy to remember terms. I won’t list them now, but it would be sensible for people to know them.
Then we have the all important teaching on Kamma. To say that this is key teaching of Buddhism is a monumental understatement. And yet so many supposed Buddhists do not know what it is. Confused ideas surrounding this really quite logical, sensible and direct teaching abound. Many people equate it to fate. Others refer to it simply as the law of cause and effect. The first is wrong, the second is misleading. Of course Kamma is an expression of the law of cause and effect, but it is also much more than that: ‘kamma means ‘action’, correctly speaking it denotes the wholesome and unwholesome intentions and their associated mental factors, causing rebirth and shaping the destiny of beings’. (Definition adapted from Nyanatiloka’s Buddhist Dictionary. Now there’s a book!).
The Three Characteristics, too, are unique teachings of the Buddha that we should learn and cherish. The third of these perhaps requiring the most attention (and protection): anatta – the teaching that there is no permanent soul of self, or any abiding entity in anything.
And Nibbana. Often, and understandably, we shy away from defining it. After all, what could we possible know about it? But the Buddha spoke of it in quite concrete and concise terms that we can remember and bring up if we are asked about it. Nibbana is freedom from craving. Nibbana is freedom from greed, hatred and delusion. Nibbana is liberation from the five khandhas. Nibbana is freedom from dukkha.
Crucially, we should know what Nibbana is not. It is not eternal (eternity being in the realm of time; Nibbana is beyond time). It is not a physical place. It is not a fairy tale land of enlightened beings and their castles. ‘Sheeesh’, you may say, ‘as if I’d think that!’ Well, I heard of one highly respected teacher in the East who taught that when an enlightened being dies he or she goes to Nibbana. And there they live in a castle (in the clouds, presumably), and the size of that castle depends on their accumulated paramis (perfections); those with the most paramis having the biggest castles… (I wonder if you get double glazing if your paramis are really strong…) Perhaps this view could have been avoided if he’d have learnt some basic Dhamma.
So where do we look to study the teachings of the Buddha? Usually in books. But there are sooo many books on Buddhism. And unfortunately 99.9% of them tell you more about the author than the Dhamma. And many are as stuffed with errors as a .
One day, when I was a lay-man, I trundled into Waterstones book shop, headed to the appropriate sections, grabbed about six Buddhisty books, did the business at the till, and walked out. Five of those books I would not now recommend. That leaves one that was good. That book was ‘What the Buddha Taught’, by Walpola Rahula. It was a revelation. It’s one of those books that, when reading, you frequently pause after a sentence, look up from the page, close your eyes, breathe in deeply, and saviour the shift in the depths of your mind. Then you read on for more. This book stands head and shoulders above the majority of Buddhist books as a pure expression of the Dhamma, simply because it stays so close to the Dhamma, with little or no interference from the author’s opinions. It is a reasonably short, concise, but also thorough exposition of the key teachings of the Buddha, laden with quotes to boot. And it is well written. To read a book such as this is highly advisable.
Then, of course, there is the Pali Canon – the oldest record of what the Buddha actually taught. This requires some care when approaching as its sheer volume can be daunting. But there are anthologies – very good ones – that aim to guide readers by the hand into this rare and precious world of the Buddha’s actual words. As a starter, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology ‘In the Buddha’s Words’ is ideal, as is an ‘Anthology of the Anguttara Nikaya’.
The Raft
The Buddha famously likened the Dhamma to a raft that, once it has carried us to the further shore of Nibbana, should be discarded. But until that point the raft of the Dhamma must be learnt, remembered, investigated, and practised.

.

And with the Blessed One’s attainment of final Nibbana, some bhikkhus who were not without [passion] stretched out there arms and wept, and they fell down and rolled back and forth: “So soon has the Blessed One attained Final Nibbana! So soon the Sublime One attained Final Nibbana! So soon the Eye has vanished from the world!” But those who were free from [passion], mindful and fully aware, said: “Formations are impermanent. How could it be that what is born, come to being, formed and bound to fall should not fall? That is not possible.”

Then the [arahant] Venerable Anuruddha addressed the bhikkhus: “Enough, friends, do not sorrow, do not lament. Has it not already been declared by the Blessed One that there is separation and parting and division from all that is dear and beloved? How could it be that what is born, come to being, formed and bound to fall should not fall? That is not possible.”  (D. 16*)

.

Several years ago someone told me about a certain blog post written by a fairly prominent English Buddhist teacher and author. In this particular piece he related how he had been sifting through the Pali Canon when he discovered something about the state of an arahant (an enlightened being): they don’t grieve.

“Oh,” he thought. “I don’t want that kind of enlightenment.”

The above statement comes from somebody whose grasp of the Dhamma is seriously weak. What kind of enlightenment does he want? Enlightenment with a sprinkling of grief? How about a squeeze of pain and despair for good measure? Surely you wouldn’t want enlightenment without some mental pain and despair?

It’s not as if just when you’re about to attain enlightenment you go and take your seat in a restaurant and have a waiter hand you the enlightenment menu. “Now, Sir, what kind of enlightenment will you be having?” “Well, gosh. There’s so much to choose from… Let me see…. There’s enlightenment with a side serving of pain. There’s enlightenment with grief. There’s enlightenment with despair. And then there’s the full works: enlightenment à la birth, aging, sickness and death. I think I’ll have enlightenment with grief.” “Very good, Sir. Enlightenment with grief it is.”

What is the purpose of Buddhism? To be free from dukkha. What is dukkha? To find this out we can refer to the Buddha’s stock definition of dukkha:

“This is the Noble Truth of Dukkha: birth is dukkha, ageing is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are dukkha. Association with the loathed is dukkha; dissociation from the pleasant is dukkha. Not to get what one wants is dukkha. In short, the five aggregates affected by clinging are dukkha.”

What is the Buddha describing here? Life! That life is, by its very nature, bound up with suffering. The purpose of Buddhism is to be free from dukkha; to abide in a state of perfect wisdom that is beyond these experiences, where these experiences do not occur. That, of course, is the peace and freedom of Nibbana. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Better than all this birth, death and grief business. No?

So the teachings of the Buddha are very clear. They start with the Four Noble Truths: suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the Path. And from there the various more refined expressions of the Truths open out. The Dhamma serves as a clear guide to a specific goal.

Which brings us to the main point here: the need to study the Dhamma; to know what the Buddha taught. For the practice of Buddhism to lead us to the goal it must be supported by, as Bhikkhu Bodhi says, ‘a clear understanding of the basic principles of the teaching’. To learn the Dhamma we don’t need to study the whole Pali Canon though; too much reading and our minds will be so full of words it will be difficult to meditate. In the Forest Tradition we say ‘study a little, practise a lot, realise everything’. But that little bit of studying goes a very long way. Without it, we are like someone climbing Everest without a compass or a map.

The Recipe

As well as a compass and a map, we could say that following the Dhamma is like following a recipe. If we are to bake a delicious cake then we must follow the instructions carefully and closely. If we don’t, then all sorts of things can go wrong: if we forget the yeast then it won’t rise; forget the sugar and it won’t be sweet; forget to oil the tray and it’ll get stuck; add too much salt and it’ll be inedible, etc. etc.

Practising the Dhamma is the same. We need to read the instructions, get to know the recipe, and then follow it carefully. If we don’t then the cake won’t rise.

It goes without saying that we should know the Four Noble Truths off by heart. The same can be said for the Noble Eightfold Path: Right View, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration. And we should be familiar with the threefold division of the Path: morality, meditation, and wisdom. Looking further into the Buddha’s teachings we will find that he defined each of the parts of the Path in short, concise and easy to remember terms. I won’t list them now, but it would be sensible for people to know them.

The teaching on Kamma should also be studied. Many people have confused ideas about this quite logical, sensible and direct teaching. Some equate it with fate. Others refer to it simply as the law of cause and effect. The first is wrong, the second is misleading. Of course Kamma is an expression of the law of cause and effect, but it is also much more than that: The term kamma literally means ‘action’. But more importantly it means ‘intentional action’. “Intention is Kamma”, said the Buddha. “Having willed, one acts by way of body, speech and mind.” (AN 6.63). It is these intentional actions that shape our future and lead to rebirth.

The Three Characteristics, too, are unique teachings of the Buddha that we should learn and cherish. The third of these perhaps requires the most attention (and protection): anatta – the teaching that there is no permanent soul of self, or any abiding entity in anything.

And Nibbana. Often, and understandably, we shy away from defining it. After all, what could we possibly know about it? But the Buddha spoke of it in quite concrete and concise terms that we can remember and bring up if we are asked about it. Nibbana is freedom from craving. Nibbana is freedom from greed, hatred and delusion. Nibbana is liberation from the five aggregates. Nibbana is freedom from dukkha.

Crucially, we should know what Nibbana is not. Nibbana cannot be said to be eternal: eternity being in the realm of time; Nibbana is beyond time. Nor is it annihilation. It is not a physical place. It is certainly not a fairy tale land of enlightened beings and their castles… (I once heard of a highly respected teacher in the East who taught that when an enlightened being dies he or she goes to Nibbana. And there they live in a castle. And the size of that castle depends on their accumulated paramis (perfections); those with the most paramis having the biggest castles… (I wonder if you get double glazing if your paramis are really strong!) This view could have been avoided if he’d have learnt some basic Dhamma.)

The above list has by no means exhausted what is to be learnt, but it’s a start.

Books

So where do we look to study the teachings of the Buddha? Usually in books. But there are sooo many books on Buddhism. And unfortunately 99.9% of them tell you more about the author than the Dhamma. And not a few are as stuffed with errors as a bean-bag is with beans.

And then there’s the double-edged sword that is the Internet. I read a quote by the philosopher AC Grayling the other day:

“The democracy of blogging and tweeting is absolutely terrific in one way. It is also the most effective producer of rubbish and insult and falsehood we have yet invented.”

This can be extended to the web in general: there’s certainly no shortage of rubbish and insult and falsehood written about Buddhism in the great ether. Therefore one must be very selective. A newcomer trawling the web for information on Buddhism can be likened to someone reaching blindly down into a barrel of water teeming with piranhas but containing only a few pearls.

Good books are hard to come by

One day, when I was a lay-man, I strolled into a flashy Waterstone’s book shop, headed to the appropriate sections, grabbed about six colourful Buddhistish books, did the business at the till, and sauntered out. Four of those books I would not now recommend. That leaves one that was all right and one that was very good. The latter was ‘What the Buddha Taught‘, by Walpola Rahula.

It was a revelation. It’s one of those books that, when reading, you frequently pause after a sentence, lift your head from the page, slowly close your eyes, breathe in deeply, and savour the moment as a piece of the jigsaw sinks into place. Then you open your eyes again, pause, and lower your head for more. Leaving the scriptures aside, this book sets the benchmark as a relatively pure expression of the Dhamma, simply because it stays so close to the scriptures, with little or no interference from the author’s opinions. It is a reasonably short, concise, but also thorough exposition of the essential teachings of the Buddha, laden with quotes to boot. And it is well written. To read a book such as this is highly advisable.

However, if we really want to know what the Buddha taught then there’s only one place to look: the Tipitika – the Pali Canon (and also the Mahayana equivalent) – the oldest record of the Buddha’s actual words (Buddhavacana). Reading books about Buddhism, as opposed to the Buddhavacana, is similar to riding a bike with stabilisers. At first, it might be sensible; we become accustomed to the act of riding. But pretty soon those stabilisers are going to be a hindrance and so they have to go. Then we can experience the act of riding in its pure form. So too, once we have a reasonable grasp of the Dhamma through reading about Buddhism we shouldn’t hesitate to plunge into the vast treasure trove of the Canon. (This isn’t, of course, to say that we shouldn’t read the suttas right from the beginning of our practice; it’s just that if we have only read books about Buddhism, then we will need to look at moving on to the Canonical works.)

As a starter, Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology ‘In the Buddha’s Words’ is an ideal guide to lead its reader by the hand into this sublime world of the Buddha’s words. Nyanatiloka’s and Bhikkhu Bodhi’s anthology ‘Numerical Discourses of the Buddha‘ in some respects is even more approachable. It is not set out in such a systematic way as ‘In the Buddha’s Words’, but it contains a host of brief and pithy suttas, many addressed to the Buddha’s lay-disciples. Bhikkhu Nyanamoli’s anthology ‘The Life of the Buddha‘ is one of my favourite books, largely because it reads so well. If you want to dive head first into a complete text then the Majjhima Nikaya is perhaps the best.

The Raft

The Buddha famously likened the Dhamma to a raft that – once it has carried us to the further shore of Nibbana – should be relinquished. But until we reach that point the raft of the Dhamma must be learnt, remembered, investigated, and put into practice.

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*From Bhikkhu Nyanamoli’s ‘The Life of the Buddha’. I use ‘Passion’ instead of the original ‘lust’.

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The next teaching will be on:

the new moon day, Thursday 20th August

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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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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Some time after Full Moon Day: Those three words…

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The first few weeks of my life at this monastery were not the easiest I have ever experienced, to put it mildly. The difficulty was by no means a result of ‘outside’; it was what was going in ‘inside’ that hurt. But I can tell you now, I am glad I am still here to tell the tale. Who knows what a troubled human being I might be were I not in robes.

On the 3rd of September 2000, with my soon to be lopped locks, blue jeans and beloved guernsey jumper, and not the faintest idea of what lay ahead, I stepped through the monastery gate armed with a pot plant, a colossal old-fashioned all-hell-breaking-loose alarm clock, and my brother. But he wasn’t staying.

After a few days word got back to me that some residents thought I had begun to resemble a startled rabbit. It was an accurate description. After three weeks I had planned my escape several times (my home was only ten miles away); fantasised about living on a desert island with my mother, a deck-chair and a book; turned from taking ¼ of a teaspoon of sugar in my tea to taking ¼ of a teaspoon of tea in my sugar; dreamt of the next meal as soon as I had finished eating the last (it was a mere 23 and ½ hour wait); and I was walking around in those same work-tired jeans, a once white tea-shirt, a bald head, and green flip flops – waiting for October 14th, the day I was to become a novice. In short, it had been a turbulent time for me.

But it was a test. And I passed it. Because I am still here. I was there for the meditation, and I knew that there were no other options open to me – if I was to be happy, that is. So my survival was down to a devotion to my meditation practice, a firmly entrenched disillusionment with the world, exemplary support from my fellow strivers, tea that contained so much sugar it actually made me giddy, and a few words from Luangpor that I will never forget…

One day after the meal it became very apparent to all present that the startled rabbit was not a happy bunny. There was Luangpor heading the line, followed by the two novices, and myself sitting in the corner in front of the glass doors where the cold draft used to remind me that I wasn’t wearing anything but a white sheet. And boy was I going through it. Now, I’m not sure what the expression on my face was but Luangpor was clearly concerned for me: “Are you all right?” he asked. Then, without restraint, I exclaimed: “It’s HORRIBLE!”

Then those three immortal words fell upon my ears, three words which in my mind now are spaced well apart to relay their significance: “….It ….will ….pass.“

And it did. Two months later and it was all gone. The despair, the escape plans, the Mach 4 emotional roller coaster: it seemed now to have been just a dream. Did I really go through all that?

But when I was clinging on to my little plank of wood for dear life in the throes of the raging ocean that was my experience I couldn’t see how it would ever be different. It all seemed so REAL – the despair, the self-pity, the longings – they were rushing in at me from all angles as I tried to stay afloat. Why did I stick it out? Why didn’t I run?

Well I didn’t run, and it passed.

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The next teaching will hopefully be on:

The new moon day, Monday, 22 June

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(Day after) New Moon Day: WHY???!!!

 

Well, I’ve had one of those weeks. Dukkha. For some reason it just hits you sometimes. Anyway, I’ve been through it before and so I know what to do: hang in there, endure, and wait for it to pass. Because it does pass. It all passes*.

When you become more aware of the Noble Truth of Dukkha it is often in an experiential way. So you actually experience suffering more acutely. You become more aware of the unsatisfactory nature of life.

WHY!!!???” I yelled in my kuti the other night.

WHY AM I HERE!!!???…

WHAT’S THE POINT!!!???…

WHAT KIND OF SICK JOKE IS THIS!!!???…

LOOK AT THIS WORLD!!!…

PEOPLE ARE BORN, THEY GET OLD, THEY GET SICK, AND THEY DIE !!!…

WHOOPEEEE!!!…

WHAT A PARTY!!!…

ARRRGHHHHHHHH!!!

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Continue reading (Day after) New Moon Day: WHY???!!!