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.



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s all right to drink in moderation!

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

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

If I drink mindfully I’m OK!

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

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

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

Blah, blah, blah, blah.

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

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

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

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

Pull the other one.


* Suramerayamajjapamadatthana veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami, “I undertake the training rule to abstain from fermented and distilled intoxicants which are the basis for heedlessness.”  (“Going for Refuge & Taking the Precepts”, by Bhikkhu Bodhi. Access to Insight, October 3, 2010, )


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


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

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

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

WHY AM I HERE!!!???…









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

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

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


Playing with Toys in a House that’s Burning Down

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

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

Full Moon Day: Optimism

Pheewww. Sorry folks. Optimism got the better of me. I’m all typed out after the last few days – setting things up here and what have you. Stay tuned though; we’ll have a Christmas special tomorrow!