Thursday, December 27, 2012

Forest Walking IV


Walking the forest path in Wat Pa Nanachat ('International Forest Monastery') always reveals something new, something fresh. In fact, each moment is new & fresh, as long as the mind remains alert in the present, open to its environs. And what environs! Trees form a dramatic canopy that protects against the tropical heat (to a degree or two, at least!), and the path itself winds in-between them, leading these feet always to somewhere interesting. 
Full of life, the forest is never still for a second, although it sometimes seems that way if we're not so alert. Even when its contents visually merge into one, green blending to black, there are sounds that infiltrate the stillness. Birds, insects, and other, less easily identifiable creatures call for attention, and the trees themselves rustle with the massaging of the wind. The creaking of giant bamboo is a sound frequently heard in the forest, a sound unfamiliar to these western ears that takes a few seconds to identify. 
But even the enormous bamboo plants that prod upwards are not invincible. Along the forest path there are several arches, formed from fallen bamboo, almost as if a giant ogre has been at work forming gateways amongst the trees. They are extremely impressive, demanding attention and not a little wonder at nature's ways. But to stop too long is to invite the close attentions of the mosquitoes that hunt in this environment. So, feet march on to new sights and sounds.
It isn't only small objects that catch the eye on the forest path. In fact, more often than not it is small, even tiny things that stand out. Leaves are particularly good at demanding contemplation. Not the mass of leaves that continually fall to the forest floor, of course, for they tend to blend together due to their sheer numbers. There are, amongst them however, individual leaves that are unusual in some way, either in their colour or condition. Sometimes intricate patterns are formed by the eating habits of unseen insects, other times a specific leaf may allure the eye. 
Gazing upwards, branches & leaves are silhouetted against the sky, which is often a few specks of light piercing the darkness. This reflects the denseness of the mind's contents in relation to the clarity of awareness that lies 'behind' them. The cool blue of the firmament is the personification of that quality of mind that is without bias or attachment. So often in the heat of daily activities we lose sight of it, perhaps for years - but then it appears from nowhere, like the heavens bursting forth into the earth. 
This isn't to say that only the sky of the clear mind is the Dharma ('the truth of the way things are'). Truth manifests in the entanglements of the woods also. Those little things referred to earlier can also be the very arising of wisdom in this present moment, in the form of birdsong or a golden leaf. And there are depths of meaning to be gleaned here, too. A golden leaf may speak to us of something shining akin to a golden buddha statue, or it may equally be the embodiment of impermanence; a fading away of the green of life into the gold-brown of death. Alternatively, beauty may demand recognition, showing us that from the dirt of delusion may grow the flower of wisdom.
Forest walking is a wonder. But then, to walk anywhere can be wondrous with the correct attitude. Right attitude is one of the eight aspects of the noble path that leads to enlightenment, and it is something that we can all cultivate, whichever particular path we may be traversing. To develop thoughts free from lust, ill-will & cruelty is right attitude, according to the Buddha. On the forest path, we can learn to let go of these negative qualities that prevent the growth of wisdom, and attend to the insights gained through mindful walking. But, we can also do this on any path, and if we do, we will be awakening step by step.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Forest Tanka

damp forest
spider trees weave
a web of leaves
fluttering foliage
interdependent

light burns
the forest path
patches of sun
tree trunks reach
up for heaven

shadowed leaves
brush over this track
the briefest breeze
ants march single file
winding pindabat

beneath entwining 
branches and grass
something glistens
soft grass underfoot
ouch! an ant bites

brightest yellow
discarded on the floor
a butterfly wing
only after the rain
a wet forest path

bent bamboo
drunkenly hangs
damp forest air
sun piercing gaps
in the green canopy

after vassa
a solitary leaf
hangs forlorn
mosquito buzzing
seeking breakfast

Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: Bankei Zen, by Peter Haskel


Bankei Yotaku (1622-1693) was a great Zen master. He was also original and somewhat iconoclastic in his approach to the teaching of Zen. Perhaps this latter trait has denied him the fame and acclaim that other Zen masters have received both in the east and the west. Or perhaps it's in the very essence of his teaching of the Unborn Buddha Mind that his directness is uncomfortable for more conventional Zen enthusiasts. Bankei deserves or attention as much as any other of the better-known Zen masters, and in this book Peter Haskel presents us with the means to do so. 

Bankei Zen contains a superb mixture of translations from the original Japanese, containing sermons, poems and letters by the 17th century master. Haskel also includes an illuminating introduction which describes Bankei's unique path to awakening and subsequent career as an incredibly popular teacher of Zen. We learn of his rebellious nature when he rejected established ideas about the 'Bright Virtue,' a concept he learned with a Confucian teacher, and instead sought to experience it for himself. The accounts of Bankei's struggles with various hardships and illnesses in pursuit of truth are among the most inspirational this reader has read regarding the correct attitude towards attaining enlightenment. And the occasion when he realized it is…bizarre! 

Haskel explores the above-mentioned 'Unborn Buddha Mind,' a concept found in other Buddhist teachings, but presented by Bankei in a way that many of his contemporaries found accessible and appealing. Rather devoting ourselves to complex rituals and philosophical studies, Bankei encourages us to "Abide in the Unborn!" This is done by letting things be as they are, and allowing our self-centeredness and attachments to drop away. He used simple, everyday language to convey the Unborn to his listeners, which Haskel has translated well into modern English. The following extracts from Bankei Zen should illustrate the above points succinctly.

"With the dynamic function of the marvelously illuminating Buddha Mind, every object that comes before your eyes is individually recognized and distinguished without your doing a thing. So, even though you're not trying to do so, you recognize thousands of different impressions by sight or sound. All these are things with form - the things in people's hearts that can't be seen - are precisely reflected. Even with the different sorts of faces you encounter, their good or evil thoughts are reflected by the marvelously illuminating Buddha Mind."
(Bankei Zen, p.79)

"I can tell you something about this matter of women's Buddha Mind. I understand that women feel very distressed hearing it said that they can't become buddhas. But it simply isn't so! How is there any difference between men and women? Men are the Buddha Body and women are the Buddha Body too. You shouldn't entertain any doubts of this sort. When you thoroughly grasp the Unborn, then, in the Unborn, there's no difference whether you're a man or a woman. Everyone is the Buddha Body."
(Ibid. p.35)

"For one who at all times conclusively realizes the Buddha Mind, when he goes to bed, he goes to bed with the Buddha Mind; when he gets up, he gets up with the Buddha Mind; when he stays, he stays with the Buddha Mind; when he goes, he goes with the Buddha Mind…At all times he abides continually in the Buddha Mind, and there's not a single moment he isn't in the Buddha Mind.
(Ibid. p.92)

"Don't hate the arising of thoughts or stop the thoughts that do arise; simply realize that our original mind, right from the start, is beyond thought, so that, no matter what, you never get involved with thoughts. Illuminate original mind, and no other understanding is necessary."
(Ibid. p.136)

The above quotations are just a taster of the Buddhist wisdom found in the pages of Bankei Zen, by Peter Haskel. The book is chock-a-block full of interesting and inspiring teachings that we can all benefit from reflecting on. As a document to Bankei's life & teachings, it is beautifully put together, full of scholarly notes for the more erudite reader and is illustrated with photographs pertaining to Zen master Bankei. If there's one book on Zen Buddhism you buy yourself (or someone else) this year, make it this one - you can't be disappointed. After all, you are the marvelously illuminating Unborn Buddha Mind!

The the publisher's page of the book at Grove Press, click here: Bankei Zen

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Metta Bhavana (Loving-Kindness Meditation)


Ajahn Brahm: full of metta

A wonderful exponent of metta (goodwill, or 'loving-kindness') is Ajahn Brahmavamso, an Englishman who is abbot of Bodhinyana Monastery in Australia. Ajahn Brahm (as he is affectionately known) is a very popular teacher amongst Buddhists in the Thai forest tradition, and is very skillful in his descriptions of the meditative life - his book, ‘Mindfulness, Bliss, and Beyond’ is the main source of inspiration for my own meditation practice these days. He has taught extensively on Buddhist teachings including meditation and many other topics such as everyday mindfulness. But here, I want to focus on his directions on how to practice metta meditation.

Ajahn Brahm advises starting off by visualizing a kitten, puppy, baby or any another helpless creature or thing (even a young plant), imagining it as needing our care, our love and attention, as it is not doing so well. We see that it is in a sorry state, and we imagine holding it, feeding it, and caring for it, perhaps telling it how we will look after it and protect it. With the feeling of kindness that we’ve developed, we next turn our attention to someone close to us; our partner, a friend or close relation. Extending the feeling of loving-kindness to this person, we wish them well, extending positive thoughts of goodwill towards them. When this feeling fills the mind, the next subject to receive our careful attention is an acquaintance whom we know but not as well as the previous person. Thirdly, metta is directed to someone that we don’t like, someone that causes us displeasure; an enemy, even, if we have one. No matter what bad things they have done to us, or bad habits they have that we dislike, we overcome our negative thoughts by wishing them well.

Ajahn Brahm next instructs us to emit loving-kindness to the people that we live with or work with, or to our neighbors, before sharing such positive feelings with all beings, as in the Metta Sutta quote: “May all beings be at ease!” Lastly, he tells us to extend metta towards...our own self. For, as Ajahn Brahm points out, how many of us, particularly in the West, have bad or guilty feelings towards ourselves? The one person that many of us don’t really like, at least subconsciously, is our own self, and this is why Ajahn Brahm instructs us to develop metta towards all beings first, filling the world with loving-kindness before turning our attention upon our own being. Having wished goodwill towards all others, we then do the same for ourselves, overcoming any latent self-criticism with the strength of well-developed metta. Ajahn Brahm has taught that metta meditation softens the mind, making full of goodwill as the meditator becomes more selfless and peaceful towards others. He has stated that metta is an emotion that is full of delight and pure in nature. When developed, it takes residence in the heart and the meditator becomes more compassionate with their kindness a source of great joy to all.

Footnote: Years back, I was experiencing difficulties getting to sleep at night. I’d read, or heard, somewhere that practicing metta meditation upon retiring to bed could help such a condition, enabling one to fall asleep and have a sound and comfortable night’s sleep. So I tried it, and it worked beautifully, really quickly. (In fact, I rarely got to extend loving- kindness to myself, as I’d fall asleep long before I got to that point of the meditation.) So,whether for the benefit of others or for oneself, or both, metta bhavana can have great results. Why not try it?

For more on metta, see the following;
Metta / Loving-Kindness

Friday, December 7, 2012

Metta / Loving-Kindness

A very popular Buddhist sutta (scripture / discourse) is called the Karaniya-metta Sutta, or the Metta Sutta for short. Metta is one of those Pali Buddhist terms difficult to translate accurately into English, but is usually rendered as something like ‘loving-kindness’ or 'goodwill.' Well over a decade ago, when attending a meditation retreat in England, I listened to two Buddhist forest monks recite the above sutta in English. The words stirred something subconscious in me, and I noticed much to my surprise tears trickling down my cheeks in recognition of the profundity of the words. I say recognition because there’s always been something inherently familiar in the essential Buddhist teachings from the earliest times that I encountered them in my teens, almost as though I was rediscovering them rather than coming across them for the first time. Anyhow, in the said sutta, the following words are to be found:

“In gladness and in safety, 
May all beings be at ease. 
Whatever beings there may be, 
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none, 
The great or the mighty, medium, short, or small, 
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away, 
Those born and to be born, 
May all beings be at ease.”

Now, these words are central to the Buddhist form of kindness, which is not a reciprocal thing; it is the undertaking that I will be kind to you whether or not you’re nice to me. This is not a kindness born of friendship, family, or personal love, but an impersonal feeling that is projected to all and sundry, whatever one may think of them. But is it practical? If I think you’re an idiot, or worse still, an evil so-and-so, is it possible (or desirable) to wish you well? Well, yes and yes! For, in developing an over-riding impulse to feel loving-kindness to all beings (and that even includes those pesky mosquitoes that constantly want to feast on our blood!), we not only make life more pleasant for others, but also for ourselves.

If I go around feeling resentment and ill-will to various people (and other creatures), then I’m creating negative mind states in myself, as well potentially offending the recipients of my negative attitudes. But, if I let go of my attachments to how I think others should be, and feel kindness towards whoever they may be, I’ll not only be more relaxed in myself, but I’ll also avoid those negative frames of mind that sow the seeds of future unhappiness.

Sounds all airy-fairy and impractical? Not in the least! What’s more practical or down- to-earth in the long run: disciplining one’s mind to be more positive and kind, or dwelling in enmity towards those one doesn’t take to? The path of developing metta is not pie-in- the-sky, nor is it necessarily an easy one, but it is most certainly worth while, for in cultivating positive, generous states of mind, we create a better world for ourselves and those we come into contact with. Now, that’s got to be a good thing, hasn’t it?

For more on the Metta Sutta see here:

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Dependent Origination / Paticca-samuppada


"'Monks, I will teach you dependent origination. Listen to that and attend closely, I will speak.'

'Yes, venerable sir,' those monks replied.

The Blessed One said this:
'And what, monks, is dependent origination? With ignorance as condition, volitional formations [come to be]; with volitional formations as condition, consciousness; with consciousness as condition, name-and-form; with name-and-form as condition, the six sense bases; with the six sense bases as condition, contact; with contact as condition, feeling; with feeling as condition, craving; with craving as condition, clinging; with clinging as condition, existence; with existence as condition, birth; with birth as condition, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair come to be. Such is the origin of this whole mass of suffering. This, monks, is called dependent origination.

'But with the remainderless fading away and cessation of ignorance comes cessation of volitional formations; with the cessation of volitional formations, the cessation of consciousness; with the cessation of consciousness, cessation of name-and-form; with the cessation of consciousness, cessation of name-and-form; with the cessation of name-and-form, cessation of the six sense bases; with the cessation of the six sense bases, cessation of contact; with the cessation of contact, cessation of feeling; with cessation of feeling, cessation of craving; with the cessation of craving, cessation of clinging; with the cessation of clinging, cessation of existence; with the cessation of existence, cessation of birth; with the cessation of birth, aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, dejection, and despair cease. Such is the cessation of this whole mass of suffering.'"
(The Buddha, from the Samyutta Nikaya 12:1, Pali Canon)

Note: Elsewhere on Buddha Space, paticca-samuppada is translated as 'dependent arising.' This is an alternative rendering of the original Pali into English that I prefer, but in the above text the translator Bhikkhu Bodhi has chosen 'dependent origination.' Both translations are valid, but the latter can appear somewhat cumbersome, and can also imply that the process has already occurred and ceased. In actuality, dependent arising is a continual, moment-to-moment process that only ceases after the realization of nirvana. For a review of the book by Bhikkhu Bodhi that the above translation is excerpted from (p.353), please click here: Review: In the Buddha's Words.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review: The Poetry of Zen, by Sam Hamill & J.P. Seaton

Want a small, concise yet decent collection of Zen poetry? Then this is what you're looking for. The translator & editors of The Poetry of Zen, Sam Hamill & J.P. Seaton, have produced a work worthy of any bookshelf (or pocket). In it, they have translated poems by Lao Tzu, Han Shan, Li Po, Tu Fu, Saigyo, Dogen, Basho, and Issa, not to mention many, many other greats of oriental verse. Here's an example of Hamill's efforts in rendering the original Chinese of Lao Tzu into English:

"Heaven is eternal. The earth endures.

The reason for heaven's eternity and eat=rth's endurance
is that they do not live for themselves only,
and therefore may live forever.

The sage steps back but remains in front,
the outsider always within.

Self is realized through selflessness."
(The Poetry of Zen, p.23)

The book is divided into two parts covering Chinese poems and Japanese poems respectively. The poets themselves were not all of the Zen school of Buddhism (Saigyo was a member of the Shingon sect and Issa was a Pure land Buddhist, for example), and some not even Buddhists  (Tu Fu was a Confucian, and Lao Tzu the founder of Daoism). But, this does b=not mean that the spirit of Zen is not to be found in their poetry, and as they argue in the introduction, "Zen is Taoist Buddhism. Or: Zen is Buddhist Taoism." (Ibid. p.11) This broad approach to their subject matter has enabled Seaton & Hamill to include much wonderful poetry in this current volume which otherwise would have been omitted merely because it didn't come from the Zen school itself. The reader should be grateful for this decision, as the verse by Lao Tzu above illustrates, as does the one below by the lesser know poet Liu Ch'ang Ch'ing (710-785?), translated by J.P. Seaton:

"Searching for the Taoist Monk Ch'ang at South Creek

The way is crossed by many paths,
the moss by sandal tracks.
White clouds lean, at rest on the silent island.
Fragrant grasses bar the idle gate.

Rain past, observe the color of the pines.
Out along the mountain, to the source,
flowers in the stream reveal Ch'an's meaning:
face-to-face, all words gone."
(Ibid. p.49)

So, in the first section of The Poetry of Zen, the poets are Chinese, and cover a timespan from Lao Tzu (4th century BCE) to Po Ching (1884-1918). Obviously, in all that time there have way more poets writing on Zen themes than could be included in a small book like this one, but the authors have done an excellent job in sifting through this great tradition and coming up with gems from recognized poetical giants as well as less well known figures. These include Buddhist monks (Hui Yung, 4th to 5th centuries), Confucianists (Tu Fu, 712-770), and  less easily classified poets such as the "Zen tramp" Han Shan (8th century). The following is a poem of the latter's, translated by Seaton:

"Idly, I wander to the flowering peak.
Morning sun: its glory blazing
All around, in sunlit emptiness
White clouds, and cranes, fly."
(Ibid. p.34)

In the second part of the book we are introduced to the Zen poetry of Japan. This, again, covers a long period of time, 8th century (the Priest Mansei) to the 19th century (Kobayashi Issa). In its introduction, this section of the book leads the reader through the history of Zen and its poetical expression in Japanese history in a concise and interesting manner. It uses the work of Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), the most famous of Zen poets and promoter of what became known as the haiku, to show how Japanese Zen & poetry differ from their Chinese origins. Basho is given center stage among the Japanese poets with a full twenty pages of the book, including prose as well as the poetry which it often accompanied in his work:

"It was mid-Autumn under threatening skies when I made up my mind to begin a journey. Windblown leaves reminded me of all the uncertainties a wanderer faces.

A wanderer,
let that be my name - 
the first winter rain."
(Ibid. p.143)

The Poetry of Zen is  a tremendous book that is quite likely to be the definite work of its size and scope. The two translator / editors deserve all the credit going for presenting such a rich & inspiring collection of poetry to the world. And, you don't have to be a Buddhist, or even a Zennist, to appreciate the poems in The Poetry of Zen. For, as the six excerpts in this review illustrate, Zen poetry can be beautiful, even sublime. The poets that composed these verses may or may not have been enlightened - and it seems that most were certainly not - but their poetry is most enlightening to say the least…and most worthy of our attention. Let's finish with two typically delicate pieces, the first translated from the Japanese, the second from the Chinese:
Soin (1604-1682) translated by Sam Hamill:

"Settling, white dew
does not discriminate,
each drop its home"
(Ibid. p.132)

Yuan Mei (1716-1798), translated by J.P. Seaton:

"Sitting at night by the west window,
rain everywhere.
Before my eyes the rule of nature's bitter,
hard to fathom.
The lamp's gentle gleam becomes a pyre:
from all about, moths come,
flight upon flight,
into the fire."
(Ibid. 79) 

The above book is published by Shambhala Publications, and can be viewed here: The Poetry of Zen

Thursday, November 22, 2012

It's Raining Dharma

"When the rain comes, they run and hide their heads..."

Sitting here in our house in the Northeast of Thailand, my wife and I gaze out at the falling rain. ‘Falling’ isn’t necessarily the most accurate word to describe this monsoon rain, however, as it cascades down from the heavens. Maybe ‘a deluge of rain’ might be a better description, or perhaps ‘a blitz of rain.’ (If you're someone who’s into his biblical tales, you might prefer the word ‘flood.’) All this might invite the question “What’s this obsession with the fact that it’s raining, anyhow?” And one answer could refer to my being British, and a national preoccupation that comes from living in a country where the weather consistently changes on a minute-by-minute basis. And there’s probably some truth in that explanation: but there is another reason.

A short time ago, it was a bright, sunny afternoon, and my wife and I had ideas to go out and enjoy our day off together around the city. But, as with all things, the good weather wasn’t to last, and now we’re stuck in the house, watching the torrent of water spilling from above, flooding the street. (It often floods in our street if it rains really heavily – the sewers overflow into the road, and the water rises to ankle level or higher.)

Still haven’t worked out where I’m going with this? Well, in a word, anicca. For any readers not familiar with this Pali term, we can use impermanent, instead. The sudden wet weather is indicative of a world where anything can change any moment, and on some level, constantly is changing. This is a basic insight that Buddhists endeavor to consistently cultivate moment to moment. Everything in is flux; nothing stays the same forever.

So, looking up at the grey sky with its watery invasion of the land, we live in the knowledge that this will change too, at some point, for it is impermanent like all else. One moment it’s sunny, the next cloudy, then it begins to rain. But, soon enough, the sun will break through the cloud, and the rain will dry up, and we can think again of venturing out into this beautiful city that we call home. True, enough, nothing stays the same forever, including ourselves. There’s something to ponder there as the rain starts to let up, and thoughts turn to the daily process of this body ‘drying up’ like the rain, and one day ceasing for good. What will we do with each moment, in the meantime?

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Forest Haiku III


Observing leaves in the forest can be an enlightening experience...

scattered leaves
are thoughts
discarded

green canopy
enveloping
awareness

birds chirping
sunlight rested
on the leaves

language of trees
wind-whispered
a rustling of life

a monk sweeps
the temple floor
falling leaves

crumpled leaf
stiffened with age
and faded

his words fade
into those leaves
fluttering

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Third Experiment in Awareness


In recent posts, two experiments in awareness have been presented, the first centered on sights, the second on sounds. In this third experiment in awareness, the focus will be on thoughts. This will reveal that what the British philosopher called ‘seeing-who-we-really-are’ isn’t dependent upon the physical senses, despite being so efficacious when applied to them. So, as with previous experiments, please follow the instructions whilst keeping an open mind along the way.

This experiment can be done with eyes opened or closed, although the latter method will probably work best for most experimenters, particularly at first. Take a few moments to quieten down and withdraw attention from the physical world. What are you thinking at this precise moment? Is it a quick succession of thoughts or is your thinking quite slow and steady?

When awareness loses touch with the thinking process gently bring it back to the thought(s) arising at present. Again, analyze the nature of the thinking process; is it fast or slow, is it constructive or rambling? Try to remain with the present train of thought for a minute or so, maintaining aware of its nature. Note that thoughts, although not physical, still have particular ‘shapes’ or forms, and that they are things.

Next, turn attention to that which is conscious of thoughts. Is it classifiable in the same way as its contents are? Is it fast, slow, systematic or rambling? Can it be said to have any shape or form? Here, I find a clear awareness that is awake to the thoughts that arise in it, but isn’t one of them. In fact, it is nothing like them, because it is not a thing – it is no thing at all!

In response to the previous experiments, the question arose, “What’s the point?” This question is very important, for if there’s no reason to experiment with awareness, then why bother? Well, speaking from my own experience with these techniques, I can vouch that they can be very effective in loosening the bonds of identifying with, and attachment to, the ego-self that I normally take myself to be. Not only is this a more accurate understanding of what we truly are, but it is also conducive to an increase in happiness or contentment.

Allied to the above benefits, which could be seen as somewhat selfish, even though they involve a reduction in self-identification, is the fact that other people may well benefit as well. This is because to practice this form of mindfulness results in the crumbling of the self-made barriers that usually separate human beings. Looking back here and finding nobody home means that there’s no self interest to get in the way of the perception of others. In fact, they are experienced as part of this awareness, and as such are not recipients of the usually self-centered attitudes that color our attitudes and actions towards other people.

These three experiments have featured three different elements of the human experience: vision, hearing, and thinking. There are other senses that can be explored in the light of awareness, which include touching, tasting and smelling. The Buddhist satipatthana mindfulness practices supply more potential subjects for us to view in relation to awareness, which encompass feelings (positive, negative and neutral), the state of the mind (greedy, generous, hateful, loving, etc.), The Four Noble Truths (suffering, its cause, its ending, and the Path to its ending). No doubt you can think of other ways to experiment with awareness and its contents yourself. (For more on satipatthana, click here: 4 Focuses of Mindfulness)

So, all in all, ‘seeing-what-we-truly-are’ (my variant of Douglas’ well known description of this technique quoted above) can be an effective way to practice insight. It can transform our relationship to the world and the myriad beings that we encounter in it. Above all, it gives us a valuable, simple, and direct method to let go of greed, hatred, and delusion, leading to a more awakened life. Give it a go and let me know how you get along.

To view the two previous similar posts click below:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

What is Essential, by Dr. Rahula Walpola


"The question has often been asked: Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? It does not matter what you call it. Buddhism remains what it is whatever label you may put on it. The label is immaterial. Even the label “Buddhism” which we give to the Teaching of the Buddha is of little importance. The name one gives it is inessential.

In the same way, Truth needs no label: it is neither Buddhist, nor Christian, nor Jewish, nor Hindu, nor Moslem. It is not the monopoly of anyone. Sectarian labels are a barrier to the independent understanding of Truth, and they produce harmful prejudices in men’s mind.

This is true not only in intellectual and spiritual matters, but also in human relations. When, for instance, we meet a man, we do not look on him as a human being, but we put a label on him, such as English, French, German, American, or Latino, and regard him with all the prejudices associated with that label in our mind. Yet, he may be completely free from those attributes which we have put on him.

People are so fond of discriminative labels that they even go to the length of putting them on human qualities and emotions common to all. So, they talk of different “brands” of charity, as for example, of Buddhist charity or Christian charity, and look down upon other “brands” of charity. But charity cannot be sectarian; it is neither Buddhist, nor Christian, nor Hindu, nor Moslem. The love of a mother for her child is neither Buddhist nor Christian — it is motherly love. Human qualities and emotions such as love, charity, compassion, tolerance, patience, friendship, desire, hatred, ill-will, ignorance, conceit, etc., need no sectarian labels; they belong to no particular religion.

To the seeker after Truth, it is immaterial where an idea comes from. The source and development of an idea is a matter for the academic. In fact, in order to understand Truth, it is not necessary even to know whether the teaching comes from the Buddha, or from anyone else. What is essential is seeing the thing, understanding it."

The above extract is from a wonderful book by the Venerable Doctor Walpola Rahula. To download a free pdf copy of the book, click here: What the Buddha Taught
For a review, click here: Review: What the Buddha Taught

Friday, November 2, 2012

A Second Experiment in Awareness

Following on from a previous post that featured an experiment in awareness, here’s another (albeit brief) exploration of what the British philosopher Douglas Harding called ‘seeing who we really are’. The previous experiment focused on awareness in relation to the visual sense, this one features the auditory sense.

Close your eyes. Listen to an external sound, maybe a dog barking or traffic passing by. Notice its volume level, its pitch, and whether it’s constant or intermittent.

Next, focus awareness on another noise, this time something closer to you; perhaps music, voices, or a whirling fan. Again, take note of the specific characteristics of the sound, observing them one by one.

Now listen to a sound emanating from yourself. Your breath will do, as it enters and exists from your body. How loud is it? What’s its tempo: is it long and slow or short and swift.

Finally, turn your attention to that in which all these various sounds occur in. Can this said to be loud or quiet? Intermittent or constant? Is it fast or slow? Here, all audible phenomena arise in a silence. That they have particular qualities is the very stuff of what they are made of, but the silent awareness in which they are born, live and die is peace itself, a tranquility that hosts everything.

So, as with the experiment in awareness in the last post, if you don’t do it, but merely read about it and think about it, you’ll miss the whole point. If you did do it, but still appeared to miss the whole point, there’s no harm in repeating the exercise, is there?

This experiment is one of many pioneered by Douglas Harding, a wonderful man that I had the pleasure to meet several times in the Nineties. He himself continued to tour the world promoting ‘seeing who we really are’ to anyone who showed an interest well into his own Nineties, passing away at the ripe old age of Ninety-seven in 2007. His vigor and enthusiasm for what he also called ‘in-seeing’ – in this instance ‘in-listening’ might be more appropriate – reflect some of the benefits of practicing this technique in mindfulness.

Buddhists, if we are open-minded to the experiments and their results, can find great use in them. They naturally lend themselves to everyday mindfulness, enlivening each and every moment that the space here is paid attention to, as well as being conducive to meditation practice. Sitting and just looking at the spacious awareness to all that is seen, or listening to all that is heard, is a simple and insight-producing activity. It reveals something about our nature, as it is in this very moment, rather than from reading a book or philosophizing (as useful as these endeavors can be).

What exactly does it reveal, however? It shows that beneath (or alongside) all the things that exist in human experience, whether they be visual, auditory, mental or whatever, there is this peaceful knowing that not only is aware of everything, but is also somehow one with them. This means that whatever distracting or upsetting things are happening in awareness, awareness itself remains no such thing; it is the no thing that is host to all things. Isn’t it worth a look – or a listen?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Review: What the Buddha Taught, by Dr. Walpola Rahula


This tremendous little book was this reviewer's introduction to Buddhism many, many moons ago. Upon reading it, he immediately found a connection with the Buddha's teachings that was absent in his exposure to other faiths and philosophies. In fact, it was more like remembering facts previously known that lurked in the subconscious. It was a reacquaintance with familiar truths. And, like a lot of its readers, rereads the work every few years or so to refresh his memory, as well reflect on the text to see if any new insights arise, which they invariably do. 

In simple yet detailed language the Sri Lankan monk-scholar Dr. Walpola Rahula presents his reader with the basic teachings of the Buddha as found in the earliest extant texts, the Tipitika (or Pali Canon). He covers the four noble truths, not-self, and meditation, as well as the relevance of what the Buddha taught to the contemporary world. This is all followed - in later editions - with an excellent choice of original Buddhist texts from the Pali Canon translated into clear modern English.

After an extremely brief (one page!) introduction to the person of the Buddha, the second chapter focuses on the Buddhist attitude of mind. This emphasis on the actual teachings of the Buddha rather than his person is a strength of What the Buddha Taught. In doing so, its author avoids mixing the two up in the mind of the reader, which is easily done. And the reason to steer clear of this mixing up is that unlike most religions which encourage their followers to worship a god or gods or other such divine figures, in the Pali Canon the Buddha wants us to worship no-one. Instead, he points us to take a good hard look at the mind, and to thereby understand it, this being the path to enlightenment.

The tools to make this journey into truth are contained in the Buddha's four noble truths. Dr. Rahula commits four of the eight main chapters of the book to these truths, leading his reader through each one in turn enabling the step-by-step comprehension of them as traditionally taught in Buddhist countries. Following on from the four noble truths the book covers a commonly misunderstand aspect of the Buddha's teachings: anatta, or not-self. Here, the author goes to great pains to establish exactly what the Buddha meant by anatta, which is often different to what many commentators think. This is done in some detail, and the reader new to Buddhism may find this chapter a little hard going in places as a result, but subsequent readings (and experience) will no doubt help to make this difficult section of the book clearer.

A strength of What the Buddha Taught is that despite its emphasis on what the Buddha taught, it does not shy away from the techniques he developed to put the Buddhist teachings into practice. This is especially true in the chapter that covers meditation, also referred to as 'mental culture' by Dr. Rahula. In it, he acquaints the reader with anapanasati ('mindfulness of breathing'), the central meditation method found in the Pali Canon. Another important aspect of this mental culture is to develop mindfulness in all our actions, including those we might consider 'secular' or insignificant. Not only techniques but teachings for reflection during meditative mind states are included, such as the five hindrances and the seven factors of enlightenment.


In the final chapter of the book, Dr. Rahula discusses the role of the Buddha's teachings in the modern world. And, despite being originally published in 1959, the author's insights still ring true today. An interesting section of this chapter is where the author explores the Buddha's teachings regarding the perfect king, and uses this as a template for modern world leaders. If only the prime ministers, presidents & the like would take heed of these teachings, what an improvement in international relations there would be! Us ordinary folk aren't spared the Buddha's wisdom here, however; What the Buddha Taught contains priceless advice for our everyday lives too.

In summation, then, in this book Dr. Walpola Rahula has given the world a wonderful introductory resource to the Buddha's teachings. It is also a work that is worthy of returning to again and again as a stimulus for deeper reflections. This reviewer cannot recommend highly enough, for whatever faults it may contain - and all conditioned things are imperfect - What the Buddha Taught has much to inspire its readership. And for that, not only should we grateful to the Buddha, but also to Dr. Rahula, who skillfully condensed the essence of the Buddha's teachings into such a fantastic little book.

For a free pdf copy of the above book, minus the section of translated texts, please click here: What the Buddha Taught. Many thanks to the people at the Charleston Buddhist Fellowship for their meritorious deeds in supplying us with this wonderful resource.

Monday, October 22, 2012

An Experiment in Awareness


Look at what Arnie's pointing at...and be 'terminated!'

The central way to establish mindfulness in Theravada Buddhism is through the various satipatthana, or ‘frames for mindfulness’, which comprises focusing attention on one of four types of phenomena: the body, feelings, the mind and mind objects. Contemplation of the body includes the well known practice of anapanasati, or ‘mindfulness of breathing’, where one keeps attention on the in and out breaths, developing concentration and insight into the nature of the breath. Another long-established type of meditation is zazen, as promoted in Zen Buddhism. As with mindful breathing, zazen has become a very popular form of meditation in modern times.

An alternative to the above traditional awareness practices, is to turn attention around 180 degrees and look at who or what is experiencing the world right now. This technique, though surely not unknown prior to the twentieth century, was discovered and developed by the British philosopher and writer Douglas Edison Harding. It’s a startling simple and direct way to cultivate mindfulness and insight, and probably for this reason is often overlooked or undervalued.

To have any understanding of this technique does not come from reading about it, however, but arises from actually doing at least one of the experiments promoted by the late Douglas Harding. Here’s one of the simpler experiments:

Point at the scene in front of you, taking note of the size, color, shape and opacity of an object you can see. Next, point to another object near to where you are, answering the following questions: how big is it? What color is it? What shape is it? Can you see through it, or is it opaque?

Next, point at your own feet, asking and answering the same questions as above, before moving on to focus on your legs. Take a look at your torso, also taking the time to analyze its size, color, shape and solid nature.

Now, point your finger at your face – or at least where others see your face. What do you see? How big is it? What color is it? Does it have a shape? Is it an opaque thing, or the exact opposite? Pointing at where others see my face, I see no such thing. Right here, right now, this finger is directed not at a face or head, but at...no thing whatsoever!

All the different sized things on display are in stark contrast to what I see here: they appear in the absence of any such thing here. Ditto colors – there are no colors here other than the colors of the objects arising in awareness. The same is true of shape – the ‘no thing’ here has no shape, as only things have shape, and there’s no thing here to have a shape! As to opacity, all the opaque objects that can be seen right now occur in this invisible no thing: its absence is their being. What do you see when you point at your ‘face’?

Hopefully you did the experiment above, rather than just reading the instructions and intellectualizing about them. Douglas Harding’s experiments are entirely based on doing them, otherwise they probably sound like so much gibberish! If you did do the experiment, but didn’t quite ‘get it’, you can always do it again, this time making sure to accept only the facts of this moment rather than what you imagine to be where ‘you’ are.Why do this particular form of mindfulness? Well, over the years, I’ve found it to be a pretty good technique for getting beyond many of the ego-based emotions and hang-ups that can dominate much of human thought. Looking back here and seeing that nobody’s home, when practiced over years, can alleviate much personality-produced angst, as well as the kind of self-consciousness that blighted my own youth. Also, with less of me here to get in the way, there’s a natural openness to all the people that appear in this naked awareness, with nothing between us to separate 'me' from 'them.'

As I’ve written before, some of the insights that have arisen in this mind in relation to what Douglas called ‘in-seeing’ do differ from some of his conclusions, along with many of his ‘followers’. Being brought up in a strict Christian environment, Douglas later related ‘seeing-who-we-really-are’ to a theistic view of life, describing this experience as seeing (and being) God. As you might expect of a Buddhist, I don’t experience the space here as any kind of deity, as such, but that’s not to say that Douglas’ ideas are completely at odds with my own views. One man’s God might be another man’s Zen, or one woman’s Brahman could well be another lady’s Nirvana. Enlightenment ain't to be found in words!

An important point that I would make as a Buddhist is that ‘the Headless Way’, as this technique is widely known, is not a stand-alone practice. Douglas and his many friends have often seen it as such, referring to religious tradition when it fits in with the ‘headless’ experience, but rejecting conventional spiritual life when it seems to suggest that there’s more to enlightenment/salvation than merely looking ‘home’. Seeing the void at the centre of ‘G’ is only part of the Buddhist Way that I practice however, and many insights have arisen over the years that have come from traditional Buddhist teachings and endeavors, rather than from ‘in-seeing’. The two complement each other nicely, and that’s the Way it works out here.

So, if you got the point of the experiment and saw what Zen Buddhists call “Your Original Face (before you were born)”, why not stick at it for a while and see what insights arise. If you wish for further information on this efficacious mindfulness technique, please click here: The Headless Way.

See also: A Second Experiment in Awareness & A Third Experiment in Awareness

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Question and Answer in the Mountains, by Li Po


Ask me how it is I've come to perch in these blue-green hills,

and I'll smile with no answer; I'm happiest with heart-and-mind just so, may be….

Peach blossoms float by here, gone into the quite definite shadows.

There is another world, other than this one we choose to live in.

The above poem by Li Po (701-762) is excerpted from a book by J. P. Seaton. For a review of this fabulous collection of poetry, click here: Review: Bright Moon, White Clouds.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Ajahn Brahm & Dependent Arising


Ajahn Brahm... singing the Dharma!

“This dependent arising, Ananda, is deep and it appears deep. It is through not understanding, not penetrating, this teaching that this world resembles a tangled ball of thread, a bird’s nest, a thicket of sedge or reed, and that people do not escape from the lower states of existence, from the course of woe and perdition, suffering from the round of rebirth.” 
(The Buddha to his cousin the Venerable Ananda, Digha Nikaya 15)

One thing that I really like about the teaching style of the British Buddhist monk Ajahn Brahmavamso (‘Brahm’ for short) is his detailed analysis of Buddhist teachings. He excels, for instance, at explaining the central teaching of the Lord Buddha called paticca-samuppada, or ‘dependent arising’. He has explained that dependent arising is only thoroughly known by a noble person (ariya-puggala), someone who has reached one of the four stages of enlightenment. This is why, he says, there is so much misunderstanding regarding paticca-samuppada - and why so few contemporary Western and Eastern Buddhist ‘masters’ teach it!

Ajahn Brahm is often asked how there is rebirth when Buddhism teaches that there is no soul to be reborn. He replies to this question by stating that the answer is dependent arising, for it is an empty process which flows from life to life, conditioned by the twelve forces that direct a life this way and that. In sequence, the twelve links of paticca- samuppada are: delusion (avijja), volitional formations (sankhara), consciousness (vinnana), name-and-form (nama-rupa), the six sense bases (salayatana), contact (phassa), feeling (vedana), desire (tanha), clinging (upadana), existence (bhava), birth (jati), aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair (jara-maranam- soka-parideva-dukkha-domanassupayasa).

The venerable forest monk has explained that it is deluded karma (actions) and tanha (craving) that supply the ‘fuel’ for existence and rebirth in the form of the ‘stream of consciousness’ entering a new life. The Buddha explained this process in the following way:

“Karma is like a field, craving like moisture, and the stream of consciousness like the seed. When beings are blinded by delusion and fettered with craving, the stream of consciousness becomes established, and rebirth of a new seed takes place in the future.” 
(Anguttara Nikaya III, 76)

Ajahn Brahm teaches that when one’s mindfulness is empowered by jhana (deep meditative concentration), the stream of conscious is revealed as ‘granular’, as tiny moments of consciousness, that like grains of sand are very close together but not actually touching. It is karma and craving that produce the impersonal forces that direct the journey of consciousness, much like the autopilot in an aircraft. Insight into this process enables one to see with certainty that consciousness is independent of the body and therefore can survive upon its demise, in the impersonal and soulless progression of paticca-samuppada. This is how rebirth occurs without a soul.

But what exactly is the process by which awakening to the way things are (the Dharma) is achieved? As Ajahn Brahm is keen to point out, it is not by the various methods and philosophies that many modern teachers like to espouse each according to their own personal (and personality-dependent) opinions. It is in the Buddha’s teaching on dependent arising that we find the answer to this question. The Buddha taught that it is with the ending of delusion that volitional formations cease, and that with the ending of the latter that conscious ceases, all the way down the chain of twelve links to the ending of aging-and-death, sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair. This ‘ending’ (nirodha) is also known as *nibbana (extinction), and bodhi (enlightenment or awakening) along with many other synonyms.

Moreover, the way to establish this process of awakening in our lives is what the Buddha called ariya-atthangika-magga, or the 'noble eightfold path.' This path entails the cultivation of right understanding, right attitude, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration. Correct understanding of paticca-samuppada constitutes part of right understanding, and on the intellectual level forms part of the basis for walking the path. Ultimately, however, it is not in doctrinally-accurate understandings of Buddhist concepts that nirvana is realized, but through transcending all forms of clinging that bind us to our desires, which in turn create suffering. Then, and only then, will we truly, fully comprehend dependent arising as a living fact, that when reversed through Buddhist practice, is the very process of enlightenment.

To end this very brief description of dependent arising, a quotation from the classic Visuddhimagga:

“Mere suffering exists, but no one that suffers; 
The deed is done, but no doer of the deed; 
Nibbana is, but no one that enters it; 
The Path is, but no traveler on it is seen.”

*Note: The Pali word nibbana is its equivalent of the Sanskrit term nirvana. Both may be translated as 'blowing out,' as in the blowing out of greed, hatred & delusion. More often the term is rendered 'extinction,' or left untranslated due to being easily misunderstood…by the unenlightened!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Paticca-Samuppada (Dependent Arising)


One who sees dependent arising sees the Dharma; 
One who sees the Dharma sees dependent arising. 
(Majjhima Nikaya 28, Tipitaka)

Recently, I’ve been drawn to reflecting on the important Buddhist teaching of paticca-samuppada, variously translated as ‘dependent origination’, ‘conditioned genesis’, ‘conditioned co-arising’, or ‘dependent arising’. It explains the conditioned nature of the self, without reference to a permanent soul or essence. It also explains life without recourse to a creator god, describing how various factors combine to influence present circumstances. A typical description of paticca-samuppada can be found in Anguttara Nikaya 3:61:

It is with ignorance (avijja) as a condition that formations (sankhara) come to be; with formations as a condition, consciousness (vinnana) comes to be; with consciousness as a condition, name and form (nama-rupa) come to be; with name and form as a condition, the six bases (salayatana) come to be; with the six bases as a condition, contact (phassa) comes to be; with contact as a condition, feeling (vedana) comes to be; with feeling as a condition, desire (tanha) comes to be; with desire as a condition, clinging (upadana) comes to be; with clinging as a condition, being (bhava) comes to be; with being as a condition, birth (jati) comes to be; with birth as a condition, aging and death (jara-marana) come to be, and also sorrow and lamentation, pain, grief and despair; that is how there is an origin to this whole mass of suffering (dukkha). This is called the Noble Truth of the Origin of Suffering.

We are conditioned beings. Looking at myself as an example, I can see that my thoughts and reactions to certain events are conditioned by my responses to similar previous situations. I respond to the world from the conditioning of my past, influenced by others, but grounded in my habitual responses. Even my being Buddhist is a conditioned state, dependent upon my personality, personal history, intellect, books, and some wonderful teachers, the first of which was the Lord Buddha. Physically, I am conditioned by my parents, by my diet, exercise (or lack of it), and my species.

Extending this insight to others, I can see that my dogs are conditioned by their genes, too, and by the relationships they have with human beings, as well as other animals. They been trained, for instance, to perform certain tricks when they want to eat treats. This is a kind of conditioning. They have been conditioned to go into the garden and heed the call of nature around six-thirty in the morning, which causes smelly problems if there is any major delay in this routine. 

Looking further afield and casting our gaze at a figure like Barack Obama, we can see that he too is a conditioned being; conditioned by birth, his life experiences and beliefs to become a Democrat, a liberal - by American standards - and to fear Islamic terrorism. In a sense, we can’t condemn President Obama for being himself – he was made that way. So too was Osmana bin Laden, but he was conditioned very differently from the American President – born in a conservative Islamic state, with very different genes to Barack Obama, and influenced by what he saw as the aggressive acts of foreign (‘infidel’) governments in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. Both men could be said to be doing what they’ve been conditioned to think is best for their respective peoples – yet look at the results! Mixed in with all this conditioning is the will (cetana in Pali). It too is conditioned, of course, but does retain an element of individual choice. After all, you could have two identical twins with near-identical histories but one will decide to eat strawberry ice cream, while the other has chocolate ice cream. Of the will, the Buddha said:

Will (cetana) I call action (karma).
(Anguttara Nikaya 6:63)

According to Buddhist teachings, action (karma) always has a result, whether it be positive, negative or neutral. Our actions, whether mental, verbal or physical, will have future consequences for us, the nature of which will be dependent on the type of act and the state of the mind, of the will, when we did them. If one is motivated by greed, hatred or delusion, the results of one’s actions will no doubt hurt others, but it will also (eventually) hurt oneself. As many Buddhists chant daily: I am the owner of my karma, heir to my karma, born of my karma, related to my karma, abide supported by my karma. Whatever karma I shall do, for good or for ill, of that I will be the heir.

So, dependent arising doesn’t relieve us of responsibility for our actions, but it does explain much about why we are predisposed to this and not that, preferring this response to any given situation and not another. I am the way I am because of conditions, one of which is being influenced by some great forest teachers – thankfully! Barack Obama is conditioned by his previous circumstances and actions, as was his nemesis Osmana bin Laden. My dogs are conditioned by their canine genes and the training they have received from my wife and I. And you, my dear reader, are conditioned by so many, many things and events, all of which together go to make up the person you are.

The choice that we face now, in the knowledge of all this conditioning, is how we respond to this knowledge. We might become fatalistic, like many Buddhists do, and think that it’s all been decided and that there’s nothing we can do to alter how things pan out. But this is belief in predestination, and the Buddha taught against this kind of fatalism, classifying it as niyativada (the doctrine of fate), which was a teaching that existed in India during the Buddha's lifetime, expounded by a certain Makkhali Ghosala. (It’s interesting that some modern scientists and Christian sects hold the view that everything is predestined, either due to natural conditions or the will of God.)

Most scientists, Christians, Buddhists and others accept that we do have some level of free will; although just how free this will is can be debated. Knowing paticca- samuppada assists our efforts to develop wisdom with regards to ourselves and others. It is, actually, a kind of positive conditioning itself, laying the foundations for further insights to arise in relation to the Dharma.