Motorbike Crash

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.

Broken Blog

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(Picture: at Wat Pah Nanachat, Thailand, 19 January 2014, with Luangpor and Tahn Maha (now Tahn Chao Khun), my preceptor and chanting acariya respectively.) 

For quite some time now Dhamma Diary has been rather poorly. And unfortunately I haven’t done much to make him better. Several months ago our main website, foresthermitage.org.uk, and the various attached blogs were seriously hacked and were only just rescued from the abyss thanks to backups (which didn’t include any images) and David Davies’ hard work.

For one reason or another my backups only went as far as 2011 (not that I’d written much since then because of my sixteen month stay in Thailand), and so my more recent posts were vapourised.

If I had been desperate to continue blogging on returning from Thailand I’d have fixed it by now. But I wasn’t and so I didn’t.

I’ve actually just returned from another stay in Thailand (this time I was away for two months). While over there I often reflected on the freedom we have over here to express the Dhamma in various ways to a new and eager audience. I relish this opportunity and am restless when I’m not taking it. So, it’s my intent to get back on this blogging platform.

As you’ll see (if you’ve been here before) I’ve been fixing the design. But there’s still a lot of work to do. You’ll notice none of the page or post links take you anywhere very interesting. I’ve no idea why this is but hope to straighten it all out in the next few days. (FIXED!)

On a side note, being a perfectionist I often put myself off doing things because I fear they won’t be good enough. But that’s something that will be overcome (note use of word will, not must!). I was recently treated to one of Winston Churchill’s classic quotes that sums up a healthy approach to succeeding in our endeavours. It goes for writing, but especially for meditation and progression on this challenging path.

“Success is nothing more than stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”

A Wonderful Release? The Assisted-Suicide of Peter Smedley

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Televised Suicide

Films, plays, television and listening to Lady Gaga go gaga are out of bounds for monks. However, if, on a rare occasion, a suitably themed documentary is aired then it’s generally considered acceptable to watch it. By suitable we mean something that might promote virtue, meditation and wisdom, and not the usual greed, aversion and delusion. As you’ll know, such a programme doesn’t come around too often.

One contemporary issue that is calling for the attention of anyone concerned with moral and spiritual matters is assisted-suicide. The subject has attracted heavy coverage recently, not least because of a documentary called ‘Choosing to Die’, hosted by the famous author and now Alzheimers sufferer, Sir Terry Pratchett. I thought it might prove insightful viewing and so the other night I tuned into the BBC’s iPlayer and watched it.

For those of you who didn’t see the programme, Sir Terry followed the journey of Peter Smedley, a charming 71 year-old millionaire with motor neurone disease who had made up his mind to travel to the controversial Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end his life. His condition wasn’t particularly severe but, with the support of his wife, Christine, he chose to intervene before it got any worse. The documentary began with Peter sitting in his palatial home on Guernsey, and more or less finished with him slumped in a Swiss sofa, dead.

Dignitas, you will probably know, is an assisted-dying organisation that helps those with terminal-illnesses and severe mental and physical difficulties commit suicide with the aid of trained doctors and nurses. At a cost of £10,000 this non-profit organisation proposes to arrange for a peaceful death – from the initial consultations to check, among other things, that you are of a sound mind and that you are firm in your intentions, to the glass of poison administered some weeks later. The actual suicide takes place in their purpose-built blue and grey house situated next to a factory on an industrial estate in Zurich. It is not the most pleasant location, but the establishment and what goes on inside is legal and that is what matters for those people choosing to go down this route.

Which may soon include Mr Pratchett himself. With Alzheimers gradually taking its toll on his once brilliant mind, his interest in Peter’s experience was personal. As a potential Dignitas customer he wished to observe the entire process, not least the final moments when the poison takes effect. Was this something he’d be willing to go through? His reaction to it all was overwhelmingly positive (according to him Peter’s death had been ‘a happy event’) and so Sir Terry may well decide to follow in Peter’s footsteps in the not-too-distant future.

Now, the moral and spiritual issues surrounding assisted-suicide are very great in number. But here I would like to be fairly brief and focus on one particular element of the documentary: the quality of Peter’s final moments and their possible implications for him.

Was there the sense of ‘wonderful release’ that his doting wife had spoken of not long before?1 Was it to be as simple and as painless as falling asleep and not waking up? Obviously only he can have fully known the nature of his own experience as he took the poison and waited, but, even so, what was seen on screen was, I thought, very telling.

Approximately twenty minutes before his death, as the documentary neared its climax, he, his wife and an assistant called Erika sat around a circular table in the living-room of the blue and grey house as the pair chatted over a cup of tea, before he swallowed a chemical that would stop his stomach rejecting the poison he was about to take. The mood was jolly. He and Christine looked comfortable. He seemed to have no doubts whatsoever about what lay ahead. If you had only just tuned into the programme you’d have been forgiven for thinking it was a good-natured soap-opera as man and wife discussed which chocolate would taste best (with the poison).

A few minutes later the couple were nestled into a plump red sofa. The assistant, complete with poison, was perched on a chair to his side. For the final time she asked him if he was sure he wanted to go ahead. Not a hint of uncertainty was detectable as he confirmed his decision, confidently took the glass from her, and poured the contents – the barbiturate Nembutal – down his throat in one go. Now it was a matter of waiting.

Peter had been warned beforehand that after swallowing the poison he would become thirsty but that on no account should he drink any water as this would dilute the poison and therefore either prolong the dying process or prevent it altogether. After several minutes of becoming increasingly drowsy the thirst struck and quickly the viewing became, as he did, very uncomfortable.

With his wife fighting back tears he suddenly grabbed her arm, began to choke and was heard gasping, ‘Water…. Water…’ ‘No more water, just sleep.’ replied the ever-cool Erika. His struggle then subsided as he began to fade, and with the side of his head coming to rest on the assistant’s shoulder his eyes closed and he began to snore very loudly – a sign of respiratory failure.

‘He’s sleeping very, very deeply now,’ Erika told his wife. ‘Soon his breathing will stop and then his heart’.

And so they did.

Some Perspective

I did not view Peter’s death as ‘a happy event’, as Sir Terry had put it. On the contrary, I found those last one or two minutes made for difficult viewing. This is not because I am averse to seeing a man die – far from it – but because I felt for him.

It was plain to see, in my view, that Peter, as he choked and strained and gasped, was terrified. Just look at his final words: they were not tender expressions of love for his wife, nor of his elation at being very nearly ‘free’; they were harrowing pleas for water.

But this is not the end of the matter. If we stop to consider just what his chronic thirst implies we find a potentially significant and uncomfortable truth. Because what is it that underlies this desire for water? It is of course the innate desire to live.

Peter had made a rational decision to kill himself. To him, since severe discomfort and immobility would soon come to dominate his life, it seemed only sensible to put an end to it. And, he assumed, it would be as simple as swallowing some poison, going to sleep, and not waking up. But it appears that having taken the poison and set the process in motion, once the mortal thirst arrived the desire for death was rapidly eclipsed by the far more powerful intrinsic desire to live. All rationales behind his act were swept aside like autumn leaves before a gale; the cool and charming personality of twenty minutes before had gone. All that remained was this raw will to survive.

In the depths of his being it wasn’t death that he truly craved, but to live free of pain. Now, however, he had brought both pain and death upon himself, only to expose his innate urge to resist them. He craved life yet he had just taken his life. Can you imagine a more difficult experience than this?

So I would contend that Peter’s last conscious moments were by no means peaceful. On the contrary, they appear to have been characterised by intense physical discomfort, fear, distress and confusion. And by the intense desire to preserve his life.

But then he fell asleep. Was this the end of his mental anguish? We cannot be sure but it’s quite possible that the turmoil continued into a dream-like or semi-conscious state. Perhaps he was even fully conscious as his respiratory system and then heart failed, in the same way that people in comas can sometimes be aware of their condition. And so what of his dreams, if he had any? Taking into account his life-threatening thirst, and the various forms of anguish we suppose he was experiencing, it’s reasonable to say there would have been no dream – just a nightmare. And what if he had been conscious of the whole process up until the point of death? One can only imagine his suffering was acute.

Whether he was truly asleep or not, however, the snoring, and his heart, did finally stop.

The Implications

As for the implications, for him2, of his troubled final moments, our take on what these could have been will depend on our view of what happens after the moment of death.

For a materialist, that is someone who believes that only matter exists and that death heralds the complete end to everything about a conscious being, all talk of implications for the individual is meaningless. The last few minutes of suffering experienced by Peter would probably be seen as a small price to pay for the months or years of discomfort of which they suppose him to be now relieved.

For the person who reserves judgement over what, if anything, follows death until they reach that point, I think they might be cautious of entering the great unknown under such negative circumstances.

And for those of us who do accept the doctrine of rebirth? For us, the taking of ones life is viewed as a deeply unskilful act, with grave implications for the individual. Let me try to explain why this might be so.

According to Buddhist teaching, the thought-processes that immediately precede a person’s death are highly significant for it is precisely these that determine the first thought-processes of the next life. It is not dissimilar to how a thought obsessing the mind before sleep will often be the first to appear when one awakes.

Furthermore, it is the moral nature of the thought-objects which constitute these processess which determine both the nature of the new physical form and the station of rebirth.  By thought-object we mean a memory or some kind of vision.*

So, the serial-killer, because of his habitual deeply immoral acts, will experience a thought-object expressing the grave nature of those deeds – for instance a horrific memory or the image of a bloody knife. This thought-object will thus condition an unfavourable rebirth. The philanthropist, on the other hand, may experience a memory that embodies the joy and happiness he so often felt and gave. Thus he can expect a favourable rebirth.

Central to all of this is the doctrine of kamma – the moral law of intentional action and result. Briefly put, our wholesome actions – that is those rooted in generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom – produce pleasant results; our unwholesome actions – those rooted in greed, aversion and delusion – produce unpleasant results.

Who we are now, and the happiness and the suffering that we experience, is nothing but the result of these wholesome and unwholesome deeds of body, speech and mind performed in the past. Likewise, who we will be in the future is determined by the wholesome and unwholesome deeds of body, speech and mind of the present. Death, for us, does not interrupt this process; the individual stream of consciousness, driven by craving, merely latches on to a new physical form and this conditioning process continues.

Bearing all of this in mind we see that, since birth follows death, suicide is no solution to the problem of suffering. And, as a weighty act born of strong aversion directed towards oneself (or one’s condition), it will have serious consequences for the next life.

Apart from the doctrine of rebirth being a logical theory that explains many things about our lives, it is backed up by compelling evidence: thousands of accounts of young children with memories that indicate beyond reasonable doubt they had lived before. Even the famous sceptic and debunker Carl Sagan, aware of some of these children’s memories, admitted they could only be understood through the theory of ‘reincarnation’3, and that it was therefore a subject worthy of ‘serious study’.4

And so what of Peter? With the trauma caused by his own act of suicide dominating his final moments, his dying thoughts were no doubt fixed upon that destructive deed. Thus it seems likely that the thought-object would have been intensely undesirable and therefore his rebirth will have been too.

Peter, if the doctrine of rebirth is correct, appears to have made a terrible mistake.

 

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1. I am 90 per cent certain this is what she said. If it wasn’t then what she did say was very close to it and meant the same thing.

2. As for the wider implications of assisted-suicide, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. I would agree with the many who say assisted-suicide should have no place in civilised society, no matter what your view on rebirth. For more of a Buddhist overview of the subject I recommend this article.

* It is important to note that when this dying thought-process takes place, we will have no control over what the thought-object is. It will either be related to an act habitually performed (which is why Buddhists say that life, in a way, is preparation for death, and hence why we try to cultivate good habits); a vision of the realm that awaits; or, and here our attention returns to Peter, to a weighty act – good or bad – done just before the moment of death.

It is also worth pointing out that the final thought-object will arise no matter what the dying person’s condition or how quickly death takes place, i.e. whether he drowns, dies instantly in a car crash, falls from a cliff, is fast asleep, or is blind drunk.

3. Buddhists should use the term ‘rebirth’ to distinguish it from ‘reincarnation’ as the latter involves the transmigration of an immortal soul. Buddhism teaches that the belief in such an entity is a delusion. The term ‘rebirth’, however, is not entirely satisfactory, as it still implies that ‘something’ or ‘someone’ is ‘re-born’; in reality there is only a chain of mental and physical causes and effects.

4. Further reading on the topic of Rebirth and Kamma:

Rebirth and Questions on Kamma (Two excellent short and succinct introductions)

The Case for Rebirth (includes a case history)

Rebirth as Doctrine and Experience: Essays and Case Studies (See Part 2)

Rebirth Explained (Includes a detailed analysis of the actual process)

Dhamma Without Rebirth?

Kamma and its Fruit

Fundamentals of Buddhism: Kamma and Rebirth

Articles by and about Dr Ian Stevenson, who collected thousands of cases of rebirth

‘Born Again’, an article from the Bangkok Post

‘Could a Little Boy Be Proof of Reincarnation?’

‘Science and the Near-Death Experience’ Compelling evidence undermining materialism.


 

Let’s Get this Show Back on the Road!

Blimey! It’s been almost a year since I said ‘normal service to resume shortly’. Just before that I said I’d write a post a week, which kind of put me off. Then I decided to do the wise thing and post as an when. But looking at the evidence that hasn’t really been successful either. So, I have a cunning plan. I will DISCIPLINE myself to write one for every full- and new-moon day – just like the old days – remember?

PS – You’ll have noticed I’ve been promoted. It’s Ajahn Manapo now. The word ‘Ajahn’ is a Thai word derived from the Pali ‘Acariya‘, meaning teacher. While in Thailand it is used quite freely to refer to monks – not necessarily of ten years standing or more – and lay-people, among the Western followers of the Forest Tradition it is only used for monks who have lived through (survived) ten or more consecutive Vassas (Rains retreats).

With Robes and Bowl on The Cotswold Way: My First English Tudong

Three weeks ago today, at 8 o’clock in the morning, I was about to leave the field where I’d spent the night and walk down into the town of Cheltenham for alms. I didn’t think I’d get any food, as I thought on most mornings of my first tudong in England. You can read the story here, or you can download the pdf. Caution: it’s an epic (and you might need your tissues).

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Normal service to resume shortly

Pheew, it’s been a busy few weeks insulating and converting my kuti and now holding the reigns while Luangpor attends the WAM in Thailand.

Hopefully I’ll settle back into a routine next week and resume normal service. That’s the plan, anyway…

We have lift off!

Hope you like the new site.

Now the Forest Hermitage site, Luangpor’s blog and Dhamma Diary are all clearly of the same family, with each address on the Hermitage’s domain, and each having the same theme but different colour schemes.

One good thing here is the Categories bar on the right.

Another is that the text of the posts is much more legible.

Now I’ve just got to write something…

Full Moon Day: End of the Rains Retreat

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It’s been a busy two weeks building the new stage for the shrine room, preparing for the end of vassa celebrations, getting the new novice Samanera Jotiko ready for his ordination, preparing the new blog sites (you’ll see…), talking to school children, and maintaining my formal practice. So, alas, Dhamma Diary must be put back two weeks.

When I teach the kids about the Four Noble Truths I usually ask them for their marks out of ten for life. This week I had a few zeros! Plus one kid gave it a ten. He looked a sandwich short, if you ask me…