Beyond Belief

Buddha Head Profile

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

February Blues

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Six Ways to Improve Mindfulness – Part 5 and Summary

6. ORIENTATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Summary of the Six Ways

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Half Moon Day: Investigate

sleuth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Where is the pain?

It’s in my knee.

But where exactly in my knee?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(2) Autobiography of a Forest Monk Chapter 22.2

(3) A Taste of Freedom ‘On Meditation’

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The next teaching will be on

The Half Moon Day, Thursday 10 December

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New-Moon Day (+1): Beyond Belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The next teaching will be on:
The half-moon day, Wednesday 25 November
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Full Moon Day: The Four Protections Part 4: Mindfulness of Death

All is Vanity.

Death is the single most important thing we can contemplate. Understandably, people would rather not, but to do so is foolish. Blind to the vanity of life, people lose perspective; they hold grudges; problems overwhelm them; they waste time; they act stupidly; they are distraught when they lose something or someone close. Contemplating death ensures these things do not happen. The most important reason for contemplating death, however, is that it gives us a vital kick up the backside: ‘I have this precious opportunity, but it won’t last for long. Don’t waste it!’
When young Prince Siddhattha saw the dead man on his tour of his father’s capital, some accounts state it was the very first time he had seen such a thing. There is naturally some speculation over whether this really could have been the case. But even if he had seen a dead body before it does not matter; because it was as though it was the first time he had seen one. We have all seen dead people, either on the television or in the flesh. But have we ever really seen a dead body? Have we seen one and realised: ‘One day I will be like that!’?
This is the thought that jolted the Prince from his slumber. He woke to his predicament: whatever I experience, whatever I achieve, however wealthy or famous or loved I become – it is all impermanent and must end in death.
When we see, as the Prince did, the reality of our situation, we cannot help but ask: ‘What is the point? What is the purpose of it all?’
Well, there is no point. There is no master plan, no integral purpose to our being here. We are born because of the coming together of our father’s sperm, our mother’s egg, and the stream of consciousness propelled by craving. Having been born we are then bound to die. In the lightning-flash of an interval between these two points we participate in the pantomime of life – loving and hating, laughing and crying, gaining and losing, being young and being old – all the time developing habits in thoughts, words and deeds that shape the course of events. And then we die and the whole charade continues. It is a blind process for which no beginning can be found; a process that has been going on, and will continue to go on, forever – that is if craving and ignorance remain rooted in the mind.
Our situation is thus a difficult one: to have no purpose; to be born only to die. This state of affairs is not so much a pantomime as it is a tragedy: the tragedy of life.
Now, there seem to be number of ways people respond to this tragedy.
Firstly, they are blind to it. They don’t see further than their Big Mac.
Secondly, they peer above their Big Mac and catch a glimpse of something else. They see there are some serious questions hanging over their head. They do acknowledge that death will take place. They recognise their possessions and relations will not be with them forever. And they wonder if there is some other way to live their life. But then they snap out of it, and plunge their nose back into the gherkins and ketchup.
Thirdly, there are those who have a clear understanding of their situation. They find the pretence of the masses sickening. They are aware of the suffering inherent in life. But they allow this angst to overwhelm them, and they do not search for a solution. They simply rock back and forth in their metaphorical crib, banging their head against the sides – overcome by the purposelessness of it all.
And fourthly, there are those who also have their eyes open, but who, instead of wallowing in the mire of suffering, give their life a purpose. This is what Prince Siddhattha did and it is what we should do. That purpose is not any old purpose. It is the most important of them all: to wake up to the true nature of things and be free from suffering.
This sense of purpose that comes from following the Noble Eightfold Path goes a long way to reducing our suffering. Never mind where we are on the path; what matters is that we are on it. And knowing that we are heading somewhere – a knowing that is based on what we have already experienced owing to the practice – brings a tremendous sense of relief.
The danger for us, then, is not that we succumb to the purposelessness of it all, but that we get complacent. The layers of trivia easily overlap our sense of purpose. The pantomime quickly engulfs us. And the winner of the X-Factor really begins to matter to us. This serious problem is countered in one way: by reminding ourselves that we will die.

The single most important thing we can contemplate is death. Understandably, people would rather not. But to sweep it under that all too familiar carpet is the golden road to suffering. Blind to the vanity of life people lose perspective: they hold grudges, problems overwhelm them, they waste time, they act stupidly, and they live intoxicated with anger, desire and attachment. Contemplating death ensures these things do not happen. The most important reason for contemplating death, however, is that it gives us a vital kick up the backside: ‘I have this precious opportunity, but it won’t last for long. Don’t waste it!’

When young Prince Siddhattha saw the dead man on his tour of his father’s capital, some accounts state it was the very first time he had seen such a thing. Whether this was really the case we do not know. But even if he had seen a dead body before it does not matter; because it was as though it was the first time. We have all seen dead people, either in the newspapers, on the television, or in the flesh. But have we ever really seen a dead body? Have we seen one and realised: ‘One day I will be like that!’?

This is the thought that jolted the Prince out of his stupor. He understood: whatever I experience, whatever I achieve, however wealthy or famous or loved I become – it is all impermanent and must end in death.

When we see, as the Prince did, the reality of our situation, we cannot help but ask: ‘What is the point? What is the purpose of it all?’

Well, there is no point. There is no master plan, no integral purpose to our being here. We are born because of the coming together of our father’s sperm, our mother’s egg, and the stream of consciousness propelled by craving. Having been born we are then bound to die. In the lightning-flash of an interval between these two points we participate in the pantomime of life – loving and hating, laughing and crying, gaining and losing, being young and being old – all the time crafting habits in thoughts, words and deeds, shaping what will come later on. And then we die, and the whole charade is repeated. It is a blind process for which no beginning can be found; a process that has been going on, and will continue to go on, forever – that is if craving and ignorance remain rooted in the mind.

Our situation is thus a difficult one: to have no purpose; to be born only to die. This state of affairs is not so much a pantomime as it is a tragedy: the tragedy of life.

Now, there seem to be number of ways people respond to this tragedy.

Firstly, they are blind to it. They don’t see further than their Big Mac.

Secondly, they peer above their Big Mac and catch a glimpse of something else. They see there are some serious questions hanging over their head. They do acknowledge that death will take place. They recognise their possessions and relations will not be with them forever. And they wonder if there is some other way to live their life. But then they snap out of it, and plunge their nose back into the gherkins and ketchup.

Thirdly, there are those who have a clear understanding of their situation. They find the pretence of the masses sickening. They are aware of the suffering inherent in life. But they allow this angst to overwhelm them, and they do not search for a solution. They simply rock back and forth in their metaphorical crib, banging their head against the sides – overcome by the purposelessness of it all.

And fourthly, there are those who also have their eyes open, but who, instead of wallowing in the mire of suffering, give their life a purpose. This is what Prince Siddhattha did and it is what we should do. That purpose is not any old purpose. It is the most important of them all: to wake up to the true nature of things and be free from suffering.

This sense of purpose that comes from following the Noble Eightfold Path goes a long way to reducing our suffering. Never mind where we are on the path; what matters is that we are on it. And knowing that we are heading somewhere – a knowing that is based on what we have already experienced owing to the practice – brings a tremendous sense of relief.

The danger for us, then, is not that we succumb to the purposelessness of it all, but that we get complacent. The layers of trivia easily overlap our sense of purpose. The pantomime quickly engulfs us. And the winner of the X-Factor begins to matter to us. This serious problem is countered in one way: by reminding ourselves that we will die.

.

New Moon Day: The Four Protections Part 3: Contemplation of the Body

In early 2002, just weeks before we were going to fly to India for our unforgettable tour of the Buddhist holy places, I happened to glance inside my passport. That was a fortunate decision: it was due to expire in the middle of our trip! Being very keen to go to India, but also to return, I hopped on a train with my brother and we bolted down to the Passport Office to get it renewed.

As the train raced through the winter countryside on the way to London, I gazed out of the window while Tim perused a glossy magazine. The first stop for him was the cover, which was graced – naturally – by a pretty woman. Turning and seeing her I asked him:

‘Do you think she’s pretty?’

‘Yup,’ he replied.

‘Imagine her without any eyeballs.’

Silence.

And so we see how easily the illusion of beauty is shattered. One little alteration and a pretty spectacle turns into an abhorrent one. And even if those lovely blue eyes were still nestled into those lovely sockets – what lies two inches behind them? A lovely brain.

The way of the world is to be infatuated with the body. But the way of the world is also the way of suffering. The Buddha’s only concern being suffering and its end, he taught us to take a good and sober look at this body to see what it is actually like. Not what we want it to be like, or what we perceive it to be like, but what it is actually like.

This body is not the desirable thing that our delusions tell us it is: it is a bag of flesh and bones with a large range of other slippery bits and pieces that cause us nothing but trouble. We have to feed it, clean it, wash it, empty it, rest it, keep it warm, keep it cool, keep it out of the rain, keep it out of the sun, keep it free from sickness, care for it when it does get sick, fix it when it’s broken, make it look presentable…

Now can we rely upon a thing such as this? Is it really a good idea to be obsessed with and attached to the body? Can such attachment bring anything but mental suffering and anguish? No. No. And no. But our delusions don’t respond to reason, which is why it is important that we contemplate the other side – to address the balance, to straighten our view.

When we remove the blindfold of delusion we view the body as simply an aspect of nature – not as a self, or a me, or mine – but as an amalgamation of a variety of organs, that each fulfil a particular function, but which will one day break down and fall apart just like an old wooden cart. Seeing in this way obviously goes against the worldly way. But it does not produce suffering, and that is what matters.

Whether we are ordained or lay, if we care for our well-being we will cultivate a more disenchanted relationship to the body. Although some of us may be young and our bodies are in reasonable working order, there will come a time – sooner or later – when they won’t be. And if we are attached to the body when it fails then our mind will fail too.

The Practice

It is a very good idea to include a period of body contemplation in our formal practice. In the method below we imagine parts of the body in neat little piles around us. Don’t worry, we don’t have to get too gory here; let’s just stick to the external bits – the first five in the traditional list of the thirty-two parts. And we don’t need to spend too long on it either; just a sweeping review will cause a sense of dispassion – and therefore peace – to arise.

Before we go any further an important point needs to be made: one must be sensible when approaching this practice, and not everyone will find it beneficial. A person with an angry temperament, for example, may find themselves experiencing strong aversion when focusing on the body in this way. This is obviously not what we are aiming for and in such cases that person would be advised to concentrate on more neutral and supportive practices such as mindfulness and breathing and loving-kindness.

For most people however, a sober perspective is sorely needed. But be careful, or that perspective might just lead you to the monastery gate…

(Forty or so years ago a certain young Thai man was preparing to get married. Dutifully following Thai custom he entered a local monastery to ordain for two weeks. Naturally he followed the routine of the monks – going on alms-round, studying the rules, doing the sweeping, learning the chanting. One of the morning chants in Thai monasteries focuses on the parts of the body. It is a kind of discursive meditation: ‘Head hair, body hair, nails, teeth, skin…’. So there was this young monk, soon to be married and full of the joys of spring, chanting away. However, after going over and over these parts he inevitably began to put two and two together: these body parts, and his fiancé!

Two weeks came. And went. But the new monk didn’t leave the monastery. Forty years later and he’s still in robes. I wonder if the not-so-young lady is still waiting?)

Five Heaps

Back to imagining those five heaps.

Firstly we have head hair. In front of you is a pile of your head hair. Oh, how much trouble people go to over their hair! And yet when you imagine it in a pile in front of you can you say it is beautiful?  What about when you are sitting in the hairdresser and you watch those flowing locks tumble off your shoulders and on to the floor? Do you care for it then?

To the right of that delightful spectacle is your body hair. Here it is – a heap of little hairs of varying lengths, thicknesses and degrees of squigglyness. Would you like to find some of those in your soup?

Next we have nails. Again, often dressed up, sometimes with quite extravagant designs. But what about when they are just lying there – semi-transparent, lifeless pieces of skin-cum-bone. When someone cuts their nails do they feel anything for the cast-offs? Do they think – ‘Oh, what a beautiful bit of nail!’ as it drops into the bin?

And next to the nails we have the teeth. Along with adverts telling you how to lose several inches of flab from your belly, I keep seeing ones for whiter teeth. It’s certainly true that we must care for our appearance. (Indeed, I was a little concerned when I was recently asked by a school kid if I brushed my teeth. I’ve been careful to brush them vigorously ever since to try to counter the effects of strong tea!) But we must remember they’re only teeth. Little oblong pieces of yellowing bone, with a jagged top where they are connected to the gum.

And lastly we have the skin. If there is one part of the body towards which so much lust, desire and delusion is directed it is skin. ‘Oh what soft skin!’ ‘Oh what smooth skin!’ ‘Oh what tanned skin!’ ‘Oh what moist skin!’ ‘Oh what young skin!’. And on and on it goes. But what about if it were heaped up next to you, stripped off like a discarded snake skin? On a typical Forest monk’s day out a few years ago we went to an exhibition in London called ‘Bodies’. It was fascinating. A technique has recently been developed whereby plastic is injected into body parts to preserve them. This was an exhibition of those parts, among which was a complete human skin, lying there, full-length, empty of everything else. It was remarkable. But it wasn’t attractive.

Just a Body

So that’s the body. And, as Ajahn Chah taught us to frequently repeat: ‘It’s just a body’. Very bland, purely functional, nothing special. An aspect of nature that is born, is aging and will die soon enough.

But the way of the world is to not see this. Watch the young models and actors dominating our screens and newspapers. They are principally there because of their looks. But can they depend on those looks? Or will those looks one day fail them? And if those looks do fail them will they suffer? The answer can be found by observing the people who were in exactly the same position as these youngsters 30 – 40 years ago – the Sophia Lorens and Elizabeth Taylors. Here they are, with aging bodies, but still clinging on to the illusion of beauty – getting a lift here, a little tuck there – desperate to retain a fraction of what they once had in abundance. But now it has gone. And they are suffering. Why not just let go?

Full Moon Day: The Four Protections Part 1: Contemplation of the Buddha

When full moon day was a distant memory: The Four Protections: Part 1
Picture a brilliant rainbow in a clear sky. Now cast your eyes over that great arc and you’ll see a tremendous range of colours: from deep blues, to violets, to scarlets, to oranges, to yellows, to greens. In the same way when we cast our mind over the Buddha’s teachings we find a comprehensive array of meditation techniques: from mindfulness of breathing, to contemplation of the body, to loving-kindness and compassion, to contemplation of one’s moral purity. Why did the Buddha teach such a range? Because he understood the diversity of people’s temperaments: their different tastes, tendencies, abilities and obstacles. As such we require different methods to nurture our strengths and extirpate our faults.
Ajahn Chah’s approach to teaching, as with many of the forest masters, respected this refreshing openness. He compared himself to someone who takes round a bowl of fruit: one person takes an apple, another takes a pear, another takes a banana. In this way, he said, ‘everyone gets fed’.
In contrast we sometimes hear of teachers saying that the method they teach is ‘the only way!’ This approach may inspire confidence in their followers but for some of us it seems quite dogmatic and belies the Buddha’s own approach.
The Four Protections
The Four Protections is the name given to a group of some of the most important meditation objects. Taking time to nurture each one will ensure our practice matures into a well-rounded, balanced and effective one. The four are usually developed together, often as a preliminary to mindfulness of breathing, though at other times one or two will take centre stage when a particular benefit is required. They are called protections as they protect the mind’s welfare and happiness. They guide us away from delusion and towards wisdom. The four are: Contemplation of the Buddha, Loving-kindness, Contemplation of the Body, and Contemplation of Death.
Contemplation of the Buddha
It is common for newcomers to Buddhism to have misconceptions regarding the presence of Buddha statues in our shrine rooms. They may even be reluctant to go into such a room, thinking that we worship these images as idols. This is understandable, but – as we know – far from the truth.
Go into any teenager’s bedroom and you’ll no doubt find his walls plastered with posters. There will be Wayne Rooney tearing across the turf, Usain Bolt in a flash green and yellow lycra, Neil Armstrong gliding across the moon. The child has these posters for obvious reasons: to encourage him, to inspire him, to show him what can be achieved through effort and determination. And if he wants to be a famous footballer or runner they continually remind him of his goal.
And this is exactly why we have statues of the Buddha, and also why we contemplate the Buddha: to encourage us, to inspire us, to show us what can be achieved through effort and determination, and to remind us of our goal.
When we contemplate the Buddha we consider what made him the Buddha, what it was that set him apart. Physically he was really no different from you and me: once a person entered a hall full of monks and among them was the Buddha. The visitor could not recognise him. So it was not his physical appearance that made him the Buddha; nor was it his voice or the many unusual happenings that we associate with his life. What distinguished him was his mind. When we contemplate the Buddha we consider a mind that is very different to our own. But also one that we have the potential to emulate.
The Mountain Peak
We can approach this contemplation from a number of angles, in the same way that you might admire the peak of a great mountain from a variety of positions: each view may be slightly different, but they are all of the same peak.
Perhaps our first view of this lofty peak of the Buddha’s mind should be this: its total absence of greed, hatred and delusion. His epithet, ‘Arahant’, means ‘one who is far from defilement’. We can consider this first as it puts before us a very tangible vision of our goal.
Try to imagine a mind where every shade of desire has been abandoned, where each corrosive form of aversion relinquished – a mind that no longer knows these poisons. When we do this we are beginning to understand the Buddha’s experience. At this point it needs to be said that it wasn’t, as some people seem to think, that he still experienced remnants of desire and aversion but owing to his powerful mindfulness was able to immediately dissipate them, as if his mind were a red-hot metal plate and the defilements drops of water falling on that plate; it was that these corruptions did not arise at all. Indeed, they could not arise, for their root had been destroyed.
A mind free of greed and hatred, and consequently of fear and all other derivatives, is a mind that cannot be overcome by any sight, sound, smell, taste or feeling. It remains unperturbed and detached under all circumstances. There is a story of a Brahmin who went to see the Buddha in order to provoke and anger him. Hurling harsh and abusive speech he only managed to exhaust himself while the Buddha calmly sat there, patiently watching the whole charade. Eventually the Brahman gave up and exclaimed how amazing it was than even as he unleashed this torrent of nastiness the Buddha’s face remained clear and bright.
We can begin to grasp what it might be like to have a mind where greed and hatred are no longer active. This is because we know and see them. But of delusion most of us know very little. We cannot see it as we see with it. It is this total absence of delusion that truly set the Buddha’s mind apart. Greed and hatred would still have been operating had he not uprooted the Big Daddy of Dukkha that is delusion. The word ‘Buddha’ literally means the ‘One who Knows’. What did he know? He knew that all things of this world, of all conditioned existence, from the mountains, trees, and stones, to palaces, bricks and mortar, to every component of his mental and physical makeup, was, without exception, impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self, soul or substance.
It is this comprehension of last of the Three Characteristics – the absence of any self, soul or substance in anything – that I personally find very inspiring. When contemplating the Buddha I might imagine being in the presence of someone whose mind was free of all notions of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’. What would that be like?You would see his body; yet in his state of knowing there would be no delusion that that body possessed, or was possessed by, a self. You would know that in his mind there would be feelings, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness; yet in his state of knowing there would be no delusion that these mental factors possessed, or were possessed by, a self. What would his mind have been like? – I wonder. If any goal is worth pursuing it is this one: to be free of all notions of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’.
“The greatest happiness of all is to be rid of the conceit: ‘I am’.”
The Ten Perfections and Mastery of Mind
Gazing at the peak from another angle we can consider his mastery of each of the Ten Perfections. For those of you who don’t know, they are: generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, truthfulness, energy, patience, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity. When contemplating the Buddha from this perspective we reflect that in terms of developing these perfections there was nothing left for him to do. In other words he could be no more generous, no more wise, no more patient, no more determined, no more virtuous, no more loving, no more equanimous. Think about that.
And then we can consider his mastery of the practice of concentration. There is an account of when he was staying in a barn on retreat. While meditating in a doorway a violent thunderstorm tore across the sky. Great claps of thunder pounded the atmosphere and tremendous bursts of lightning electrified the sky. After it had passed a man went to find the Buddha to see if he was all right. The Buddha, on being approached, replied that he hadn’t noticed the storm. Such were his powers of concentration.
And we witness his mental dexterity as he was about to pass away. Entering the first jhana he quickly passed through to the second, the third, the fourth, all the way up to the ninth – which is the cessation of perception and feeling. It is said this final attainment is accessible only to the Non-returner and Arahant. It is the epitome of mental concentration. At this point Ananda declared that the Buddha had passed away. But the Venerable Anuruddha exclaimed the Blessed One was still alive, but had attained the cessation of perception and feeling. He then arose from that attainment and glided though the preceding eight back to the first, from where he again moved through to the fourth. He then attained Final Nibbana.
These states of concentration, it must be said, are extraordinary achievements in their own right. And the Buddha traversed them with the agility of a young child skipping through the playground.
To have a mind like the Buddha’s
We have admired the mountain peak from a number of view points. There are of course others but I think these are the most breathtaking.
When it comes to actually contemplating the Buddha as a meditation object we can simply recite: ‘The Buddha, the Buddha, the Buddha’, or ‘Buddho, Buddho, Buddho’, or we can imagine a favourite statue or picture, or even what it would be like to be in his presence. And while we do these things we allow our mind to explore and investigate the nature of the Buddha’s mind. Doing this can cause determination and rapture to arise – rapture at the prospect of having a mind such as his, a mind totally free from all defilement, from all sense of me and mine, from all suffering.

From the elements, to compassion, to loving-kindness, to mindfulness of breathing, to the contemplation of one’s purity of virtue: the spectrum of meditation subjects taught by the Buddha is diverse. But why did he teach such a range? For two main reasons, it seems.

Firstly, because people are different. We have different tastes, talents and tendencies, and different obstacles to overcome. As such, one size does not fit all.

In line with this approach, Ajahn Chah’s way of teaching – as with many of the Thai forest masters – was refreshingly open. He compared himself to someone who takes round a bowl of fruit: one person takes an apple, another takes a pear, another takes a banana. In this way, he said, ‘everyone gets fed’.

And secondly, because of our need to work on the mind from a number of different angles; to gain the benefits of a number of different fruits.

The Four Protections

Four of the most popular and nourishing fruits that the Buddha offered us were grouped together in later years and designated the ‘Four Protections’. They are Contemplation of the Buddha, Loving-kindness, Contemplation of the Body, and Contemplation of Death.

Taking time to develop each one of these meditation objects will ensure our practice matures into a well-rounded, balanced and effective one. They are often cultivated as a preliminary to mindfulness of breathing (or whatever our central practice is), though at times we may decide to devote an entire session to them. An individual protection can also be called upon when a particular benefit is required. They are called protections because they protect the mind’s welfare and happiness and ensure that we remain firmly on course for freedom from all suffering.

Contemplation of the Buddha

It is common for newcomers to Buddhism to have misconceptions regarding the presence of Buddha statues in our shrine rooms. They may even be reluctant to go into such a room, thinking that we worship these images as idols. This is understandable, but – as we know – far from the truth.

Venture into any teenager’s bedroom and you’ll no doubt find his walls plastered with posters. There will be Wayne Rooney tearing across the turf, Usain Bolt in a flash of green and yellow Lycra, Neil Armstrong striding over the moon. The child has these posters for obvious reasons: to encourage him, to inspire him, to show him what can be achieved through effort and determination. And if he wants to be a famous footballer or runner they continually remind him of his goal.

And this is exactly why we have statues of the Buddha. And therefore why we contemplate the Buddha: to encourage us, to inspire us, to show us what can be achieved through effort and determination. And to remind us of our goal.

When we contemplate the Buddha we consider what made him the Buddha. Physically he was really no different from you and me: once a person went into a hall full of monks. The Buddha was among them but the visitor couldn’t recognise him. So it was not his physical appearance that made him the Buddha; nor was it his voice or the many unusual happenings that we associate with his life. What distinguished him was his mind. When we contemplate the Buddha we consider a mind that is very different to our own. But also one that we have the potential to emulate.

The Mountain Peak

We can approach this contemplation from a number of angles, in the same way that you might admire the peak of a great mountain from a variety of positions: each view may be slightly different, but they are all of the same peak.

Perhaps our first view of this lofty peak of the Buddha’s mind should be this: its total absence of greed, hatred and delusion. His epithet, ‘Arahant’, means ‘one who is far from defilement’. We can consider this first as it puts before us a very tangible vision of our goal.

Try to imagine a mind where every shade of desire has been abandoned, where each corrosive form of aversion relinquished – a mind that no longer knows these states. When we do this we are beginning to understand the Buddha’s experience. At this point it needs to be said that it wasn’t, as some people seem to think, that he still experienced remnants of desire and aversion but owing to his powerful mindfulness was able to immediately dissipate them, as if his mind were a red-hot metal plate and the defilements drops of water falling on that plate; it was that these corruptions did not arise at all. Indeed, they could not arise – they had all gone, for their root had been destroyed.

A mind devoid of greed and hatred is a mind that cannot be overcome by any sight, sound, smell, taste or feeling. It remains in a state of non-attachment and freedom in all circumstances. There is a story of a Brahman who went to provoke and anger the Buddha. Hurling harsh and abusive speech he only managed to exhaust himself while the Buddha calmly sat there, patiently watching the whole charade. Eventually the Brahman gave up and exclaimed how amazing it was that even as he unleashed this torrent of nastiness the Buddha’s face remained clear and bright.

The ‘One Who Knows’

Greed and hatred we know and see. It is therefore within our reach to begin to contemplate a mind which is no longer disturbed by them. But delusion – the root of those two and of all suffering – is a different kettle of fish altogether. Unlike greed and hatred we cannot see delusion because we see with it. It is only once we begin to lift this veil that we can turn around and say ‘Aha! I was deluded!’, in the same way a fish who has spent his life under water comes up, tastes the air, and says: ‘Aha! I was in water!’ Delusion is not knowing and seeing things as they really are.  It is precisely the absence in his mind of this one thing that made the Buddha the ‘Buddha’ – the ‘One who Knows’.

What, then, did the Buddha know? He knew that all things of this world – of all conditioned existence – from mountains, trees, and stones, to palaces, bricks and mortar, to every sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling and thought, to his own body and mind, was – without exception – impermanent, unsatisfactory, and without self, soul or substance.

It is this comprehension of the last of the Three Characteristics – the absence of any self, soul or substance in anything – that I personally find very inspiring. When contemplating the Buddha I might imagine being in the presence of someone whose mind was free of all notions of ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’. What would that be like? I wonder.

“The greatest happiness of all is to be rid of the conceit: ‘I am’.”   (Vin. Mv. 1:3)

The Ten Perfections and Mastery of Mind

Gazing at the peak from another angle we can consider his mastery of each of the Ten Perfections. For those of you who don’t know, they are: generosity, virtue, renunciation, wisdom, truthfulness, energy, patience, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity. When contemplating the Buddha from this perspective we reflect that in terms of developing these perfections there was nothing left for him to do. In other words he could be no more generous, no more wise, no more patient, no more determined, no more virtuous, no more loving, no more equanimous. Think about that.

And then we can consider his mastery of the practice of concentration. There is an account of when he was staying in a barn on retreat. While meditating in a doorway a violent thunderstorm tore across the sky. Great claps of thunder pounded the atmosphere and tremendous bursts of lightning electrified the sky. After it had passed a man went to find the Buddha to see if he was all right. The Buddha, on being approached, replied that he hadn’t noticed the storm. Such were his powers of concentration.

And we witness his mental dexterity as he was about to pass away. Having made a prior determination he entered the first jhana and quickly passed through to the second, the third, the fourth, all the way up to the ninth. It is said this final attainment – the epitome of mental concentration – is accessible only to the Non-returner and Arahant. At this point the Venerable Ananda declared that the Buddha had passed away. But the Venerable Anuruddha exclaimed the Blessed One was still alive but had attained the Cessation of Perception and Feeling. Arising from that attainment the Buddha glided through the preceding eight back to the first, from where he again moved through to the fourth. It was here that he attained Final Nibbana.

These states of concentration, it must be said, are extraordinary achievements in their own right. And the Buddha traversed them with the agility of a young child skipping through the playground.

To have a mind like the Buddha’s

We have admired the mountain peak from a number of view points. In the course of contemplating the Buddha you may find other views that are just as breathtaking.

When it comes to actually contemplating the Buddha as a meditation object we can simply recite: ‘The Buddha, the Buddha, the Buddha’, or ‘Buddho, Buddho, Buddho’, or we can imagine a favourite statue or picture, or what it would be like to be in his presence, or we can read his words and the stories about him. And while we do these things we allow our mind to explore and investigate the nature of the Buddha’s mind. Doing this can cause determination and rapture to arise – rapture at the prospect of having a mind such as his, a mind totally free from all defilement, from all sense of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, from all suffering.