Tag: Featured

Dealing with Overeating

By AYYA SOMA

Relationships with food are often complicated. On the one hand, we need nutriment to sustain ourselves, so we cannot completely abstain from it; on the other hand, this daily consumption easily creates room for craving and clinging to appear in the mind.

Especially in these times of pandemic, when we are locked up in our homes, deprived of most sensual pleasure, food can easily become what we perceive as one of the few reliable sources of entertainment.

When this pattern manifests, it is good to start by watching our actions without judgement. This is in an opportunity to study how our mind works, to familiarize ourselves with the workings of craving. For example, how each time we open the fridge we think that eating will make us happy. While we eat, pleasant sensations arise. The craving for more pleasant sensations leads to overeating. After we are done eating, the pleasant feeling has ceased and unpleasant feelings have arisen in its place. We perhaps commit not to do this again, but then we are back at it, with the delusion that fulfilling our desire is going to make us happy and full. But what we end up being full of is Dukkha – suffering: unpleasant bodily feelings mixed with remorse and regret.

This process is quite fascinating, as it represents in a nutshell what cyclic existence is. We repeat the same action over and over again, with the delusion that the result will be different. By doing something repetitively we build such strong habits that it’s very difficult to snap out of them. We might even start identifying with these habits and think that they are who we are, and that they will always be with us.

We repeat the same action over and over again, with the delusion that the result will be different. By doing something repetitively we build such strong habits that it’s very difficult to snap out of them.

The good news is that the Buddha told us that this state of suffering is impermanent and it is not who we are. And the even better news is that the Buddha gave us the recipe on how to deal with it and ultimately transcend it, once and for all. He not only told us that this is possible, but gave us actual instructions for getting out of suffering and for replacing unwholesome habits with wholesome habits.

To address the specific habit of overeating, I would like to analyze the behavior of deer described by the Buddha in the Nivāpa Sutta (MN25).

Here at Empty Cloud Monastery we are surrounded by deer. Since in the past decades humans have gotten rid of most of the deer’s predators (coyotes, wolves, etc.), there is an overpopulation of deer – so, unfortunately, the town periodically hires hunters to lure them into the reservation close by with some food bait, and then cull them.

This setting is similar to the Nivāpa Sutta, where the Buddha describes four groups of deer dealing with food bait laid out by hunters, and draws parallels to the behavior of spiritual practitioners.

In the Sutta, the first group of deer is described as stepping right into the food bait, and after seeing the abundance of food, becoming completely overcome with craving and mindlessly indulging in eating all the food while becoming negligent of any harm that can happen to them. If you know deer, you’ll know that they’re usually very alert, always on the lookout for predators. But you can see how, when surrounded by temptation, they can – just like us – lose all sense. The Buddha tells us that, in the same way, if monks surround themselves with sensual pleasures and all their temptations – in essence, Mara’s bait – they will inevitably become engrossed with them, lose mindfulness, and ultimately get overtaken by saṁsāra. In the context of dealing with food in every-day-life, this is very similar to the approach of going to the store and mindlessly purchasing anything we desire – like ice cream, chips, and junk food of all sorts – but then expecting to not succumb to temptation when in front of the fridge. The reality is that once we see all these things in front of us, we will lose any self restraint we have cultivated and fall completely into temptation, cultivating the conditions of a hungry ghost – a small mouth with a giant stomach, never capable of being full.

The second group of deer, on the other hand, understanding the tricks of the hunters, retreats in the middle of the wilderness, eating frugally while away from all temptations and the bait. But once the seasons change and food scarcity ensues, they get closer and closer to the bait, and as soon as they see the food, they become enthralled with it, succumbing to it immediately and ending up no different than the first group. In monastic life this could be equated to living in the wilderness as a wanderer for a long period of time, without seeing anything enticing or talking to anyone interesting. When we see anything we like, we will lose mindfulness, because all we have practiced is abstinence – we haven’t practiced renunciation. This is similar to fasting for long periods of time, depriving ourselves of food, or going on very strict diets of perhaps only fruit juice, only veggies, no sugar…. Then as soon as the diet is over, we see something enticing, like a loaf of bread, or a giant pizza, and we will lose all of our mindfulness and swallow the whole thing up.

Bhante Suddhaso and Ayya Soma eating almsfood

Bhante Suddhaso and Ayya Soma eating food collected on almsround.

The third group of deer, having seen the other two groups succumb to the hunters, decides to go and live far enough and close enough to the food bait, and periodically eat small amounts in moderation while being alert and in complete mindfulness. They outsmart the hunters, until the latter, by observing them closely, discover their dwelling place and catch the deer. The parallel with the monks, is some who live not too close to the city, but not too far from the city, in the outskirts perhaps, where they can get most of their needs met, but at the same time stay away from all the temptations of sensual pleasure. Yet Mara finds its way in, and the monks start debating and attaching to views (i.e. “Theravāda is better than Mahāyāna,” “The Buddha exists or doesn’t exist after death,” etc.) instead of working to dispel suffering. This perhaps can be equated to having a balanced diet, without too many restrictions, but also not too much sensual pleasure, and eating mindfully. Thich Nhat Hanh has lots of incredible ways to support this practice of eating mindfully: using your left hand to eat if you are right-handed, or eating only one spoonful at the time, chewing thoroughly each mouthful, and only picking up the spoon again once one has swallowed. At first, we’ll see that our tendency is to start picking up the next spoonful, before we’ve even chewed and swallowed the first, but as time goes by, we’ll get better and better, and get more in sync with what our nutritional needs are rather than our desires. Yet even here one can get so opinionated with food: such as thinking gluten is bad for you, or thinking this type of cuisine is better than the other – and get very obsessed with food once again. That’s how Mara finds its way in, and then we quickly backslide.

So the goal is to STOP being obsessed with food. So how do we do it?

In the sutta we see that the fourth group of deer acts very much in line with the third group of deer, but finds a safe dwelling place where the hunters can’t find them. So the hunters decide to avoid them altogether, in order to not disturb and scare away the deer from the first three groups. In the same way, the monks find a safe space from Mara: the Jhānas. In developing Samādhi they are free from the hindrances. In this way we can see how developing a steady mind, a concentrated, a one-pointed mind, is not only useful, but indispensable for keeping our resolutions, and ultimately for transcending all suffering.

This article is an excerpt from a talk given on YouTube LIVE.

Emptiness

By BHANTE SUDDHASO * Photo by AYYA SOMA

In Theravāda Buddhism we often talk about the “Three Universal Characteristics” (tilakkhaṇā) – that all things are impermanent (anicca), unsatisfying (dukkha), and impersonal (anattā). All three of these are related to the topic of emptiness (suññatā).

First off, I should point out that there is a common misunderstanding. Many people believe that emptiness is a Mahāyāna doctrine and that it’s not found in the Theravāda texts, but this is actually not correct. While it’s true that there are many Mahāyāna Sūtras which go into incredible detail about emptiness (such as the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtras, which range from the very short Heart Sūtra and the relatively short Diamond Sūtra, to the moderately long Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, all the way up to the extremely long Mahaprajñāpāramitā Sūtra), there are also a large number of Pāli Suttas which speak about emptiness.

The main difference is that the Mahāyāna Sūtras go into extreme detail on the subject, whereas in the Pāli Suttas the Buddha usually speaks about it very briefly, without going into great detail. This is normal for the Pāli Suttas; in these texts, the Buddha rarely goes into deep detail on philosophical or doctrinal topics. What the Pāli Suttas tend to emphasize is developing a framework of understanding, which we then flesh out through practice, through meditation experiences, through contemplating and reflecting on those ideas, through recognizing them in our daily life, through living them in every moment. So, the Pāli Suttas are not really concerned with trying to explain in detail the nature of emptiness, but rather with giving us the tools through which we can come to a deep understanding of emptiness on our own. This is because, from a Buddhist standpoint, the underlying nature of reality is exactly the same for everyone, so if we just look objectively at our experience, every one of us will come to exactly the same conclusions.

From a Buddhist standpoint, the underlying nature of reality is exactly the same for everyone, so if we just look objectively at our experience, every one of us will come to exactly the same conclusions.

This is one of the reasons why people often like to analogize Buddhist practice with scientific method. There is a similar underlying principle to scientific method: this belief that there is a basic underlying reality and that any person who objectively examines their experience will come to the same conclusions.

The main difference is that, in Buddhism, we are focused on examining the nature of mind; we’re not so interested in the physical world, except to the extent that it reflects our mind, and gives us a surface through which to examine our own mind and therefore come to a deeper understanding of the nature of consciousness and of conscious experience. But there is a similar approach of carefully and objectively examining our experiences, and also a similar method of taking on hypotheses and examining them, and seeing if they’re true or not. If something turns out to be true, then we can take it on as something which is worth living in accordance with. If something seems promising but we’re not sure yet, then we might take it on as a working hypothesis – something that we’re going to act as though it’s true for the time being and see what happens. Or, if something turns out to be a bit doubtful or not so accurate, then we modify it and try again – or possibly we reject it entirely and we look for something else: another framework, another approach, or another idea.

In this way, the Buddha’s teachings can be seen as a set of hypotheses, which we are encouraged to try out for ourselves – to try out as bases for experimentation, bases for investigation, bases for living. We take these principles as working hypotheses and see what happens when we live our lives as though they were true.

Coming back to the subject of emptiness: in the Pāli Suttas, the Buddha sometimes refers to emptiness using the word suññatā (emptiness), or the world suñña (empty). However, although there are many suttas where he uses those words, there are also a large number of suttas where the Buddha speaks about emptiness without directly using either the word suññatā or the word suñña. An example of this is the Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta (SN 22.95), the simile on the lump of foam. In this discourse, the Buddha never uses the word “emptiness,” but that is exactly what he is talking about: he is talking about the inherently empty nature of phenomena – in particular, of the components of body and mind, which are what we usually identify as “me” and “mine.” And perhaps the flagship sutta on emptiness in the Pāli canon is also one which does not contain the word “emptiness”: the Kaccānagotta Sutta (SN 12.15). In the Kaccānagotta Sutta, although the Buddha never uses the word emptiness, he is talking about it in a very direct way, in a very undeniable way, which would be instantly familiar to anyone who has read the Mahāyāna sutras about emptiness.

The Kaccānagotta Sutta also provides one of the most direct frameworks for understanding what emptiness is talking about. Briefly speaking, in the Kaccānagotta Sutta, the Buddha states that phenomena cannot be described as either existing or as not existing. That is what we mean by emptiness.

One way to conceptualize this is that any object appears to exist under certain conditions, and does not appear to exist under other conditions. For example: right now you are having an experience. You have the conditions under which this current experience manifests. But in a few moments the conditions have changed, so you are having a different experience. In this moment you cannot say that the experience you had a few moments ago exists. It seemed like it existed at that time, but that time is gone. So now it seems like it does not exist. A moment ago, it seemed like it existed, now it seems like it doesn’t exist. So, which is it? The experience you had a moment ago – does it exist or does it not exist? From one perspective it seems like it does, from another perspective it seems like it doesn’t. So, is it real or is it not? Or when you are sitting in meditation, a thought flashes across your mind, so for a moment it seems like that thought is real, it seems like it exists. A moment later it’s gone: it seems like it doesn’t exist. So, is the thought real or is it not? Does it exist or does it not exist? That depends upon on your perspective, it depends upon your conditions. It depends upon the angle from which you look at it.

Another common example, emphasizing the subjective angles that we look at things: if you look at a bowl from one angle it seems to be concave, but from another angle it seems to be convex. So which is it? Is it concave or convex? Depending on how you look at it, you could say it’s both concave and convex, or you could say it’s neither concave nor convex. More precise would be to say that from one perspective it seems to be concave, from another perspective it seems to be convex, but the actual reality cannot be defined in those terms: the actual reality is just a bowl. A bowl is not concave or convex, it’s just a bowl. In the same way, when we look at a phenomenon, from one perspective it seems to exist, but when we look at it from another perspective it seems to not exist. Is its true nature existence, or is its true nature non-existence? Well, from one angle you can say it’s both real and not real – it both exists and does not exist – whereas from another angle you can say it neither exists nor does not exist. But both of those perspectives also are a little bit flawed. In actuality, what the Buddha says is it cannot be defined in terms of existence and non-existence: the concepts of existence and non-existence don’t apply.

The Buddha also says in the Kaccānagotta Sutta that, without going to either the viewpoint that things exist or the viewpoint that they don’t exist, a Buddha simply teaches dependent origination – conditional appearance (paṭicca-samuppāda). In other words, things appear to exist when the conditions are right for them to appear.

In the Pheṇapiṇḍūpama Sutta, when describing the true nature of body and mind, one of the examples the Buddha gives is a mirage. A mirage is an optical illusion that appears when the conditions are right; when you are looking in a particular direction and the sun or another light source is reflecting in a particular way, then a mirage appears – an illusion. And we take it for real because it looks real, it appears real. But it only appears real because the conditions are right for it to appear, and when those conditions change the mirage disappears. Fundamentally, can you say the mirage is real or not real? You can’t really say it’s either one. What we can say is that when the conditions are right a mirage appears to exist, and when the conditions change the mirage does not appear to exist. That’s all we can say.

One way of applying this to our practice is by recognizing that since all phenomena are inherently insubstantial (another way of saying they are empty), they don’t themselves have any absolute or eternal reality – and yet nonetheless they do appear to have conditional reality under certain conditions. It’s not that there is nothing there at all, but rather that what is there is insubstantial, it’s conditional. It appears only under certain conditions, and its appearance is incredibly fleeting – faster than a fingersnap. And actually one of the long-standing debates in Buddhism is whether anything really exists for any length of time at all. What appears to be the case from the suttas is that nothing actually exists for any amount of time – there is no length of time in which things exist, but rather they vanish the same instant that they appear: they appear and vanish simultaneously. There is no ongoing existence to anything, and things only appear to exist in relationship to other things.

This is what is meant by “dependent origination” (paṭicca-samuppāda): things appear based upon other things; nothing appears on its own, it appears based on its relationship to other things. This is also where the concept of interdependence or interconnectedness comes from. No phenomenon in the entire universe exists of its own accord. All phenomena exist (or seem to exist) in terms of their relationship to other phenomena, and all phenomena are defined in terms of their relationship to other phenomena.

It’s a bit like a dictionary. A dictionary can be a remarkably frustrating thing, because every word is defined by using other words in the dictionary. No word has any meaning by itself. Words only have meaning in terms of their relationship to other words. It’s the same with all phenomena. Any phenomenon only has meaning in terms of its relationship to other phenomena. It only has apparent existence based upon its relationship to other phenomena. And every single thing without exception is subject to change. In fact, every single thing without exception is changing.

So, the fundamental nature of reality is kind of like clay: it can be shaped into anything. It can take any shape, any form. If you give a sculptor a lump of clay, they might make a frog, or they might make a tree, or they might make a sword, or they might make a pencil, or they might make a Buddha, or they might make anything, because you can shape it into any kind of physical object you want to shape it into. But, fundamentally, the clay is not any of those shapes, it’s just a formless block of clay. But you could also say that that lump of clay is all of those shapes because it has the potential to manifest as any of those shapes, and when the conditions are right, that lump of clay then will appear to be any of those shapes. So, what is the lump of clay? Is the lump of clay a frog? Well, yes and no. Under certain conditions, yes, it certainly seems to be that way, but under other conditions, no, it doesn’t seem to be that way at all. This also is pointing to the nature of reality, the nature of emptiness.

One way of looking at emptiness is that it represents infinite potential: the basic substance of reality is infinite potential. The potential to manifest as any ‘thing’ and also the potential to manifest as the absence of things. This is another important point when we talk about emptiness. Emptiness is not bound by any particular form but it’s also not bound by the absence of forms. Emptiness is not nothingness. There is a lovely saying in Zen: “Everything is empty and that emptiness is completely full.” It’s this sense of boundless – limitless, infinite potential to appear as anything. And whichever way you look at reality you will see something manifesting, but fundamentally that’s just emptiness taking a particular form – or, rather, appearing to have a particular form.

Another great example is light in a prism. Light itself has no color. But when light passes through a prism, the light splinters into an infinite rainbow of countless different colors. Therefore, you can also say that light contains an infinite range of colors. Which statement is true? Is light colorless or does it have an infinite range of colors? Both statements are actually true; from one perspective, from one set of conditions, from one angle, either statement can be true – which also means that both statements are false. You cannot say that light has no color because it has infinite colors, and you cannot say it has infinite colors because it has no color – it’s colorless, by definition. Rather, we can say that under certain conditions the light will appear colorless, under other conditions it will appear to have many colors. This is also a way of starting to approach the nature of emptiness.

So maybe right now one part of emptiness is manifesting as a phone, another part of emptiness is manifesting as a female monk, another part of emptiness is manifesting as a clock – but these are all just temporary manifestations. In a few minutes the phone will be gone, the monk will be gone, the clock may or may not still be there because the person observing it will also be gone. The experience will change dramatically one way or the other. One way of looking at it is that reality itself – which is boundless infinite potential, unshaped raw emptiness – does not change, but the perspectives through which we view that unchanging reality do change, which means our experiences shift and change, and all of those experiences are ultimately based upon the perspective of an observer, which means the appearance of all these different objects and things and events and so on is dependent upon self-centeredness. I see a phone because I am looking through these eyes. I am looking through these eyes at that camera: me looking at that.

Fundamentally, in emptiness there is no ‘me,’ because ‘me’ is just a particular way of shaping realities, shaping objects, shaping phenomena. It’s a particular way of shaping emptiness into a particular configuration of one being looking at another being, or one being looking at an object. But fundamentally that’s not the way of things, that’s not reality. Reality has no shape, it has no form, it has no beings, it has no sight, it has no sound, it has no objects. And yet, it has every imaginable being, every imaginable sight, every imaginable sound, every imaginable object. All of that has the potential to appear when the conditions are right.

Taking on these perspectives, the mind naturally leads towards letting go, because we recognize that whatever object we are attached to is not quite real – it’s insubstantial. It is empty of inherent existence. If we are trying to hold on to it, we are going to suffer, because there is nothing there that we can hold on to.

We also recognize that no matter what perspective we have of our sense of self, it’s absurd, because our sense of self is also empty. It has no substance of its own, no lasting reality of its own, no inherent existence; it’s just a little fragment of crystallized potential, which from one angle seems to be real but from another angle can be clearly seen as not real – it just melts back into the infinite boundlessness of emptiness. It is just seen to be another tiny piece in the infinite matrix of possible realities, of possible experiences. So then we also start to drop our clinging to a sense of self, we start to let go of our rigid self-identity, we stop taking our rigid self-identity seriously. We have this identity of ‘oh I am so many meters tall and I am this gender and I have this career and I like this kind of clothing and that kind of music and this kind of food, and this is me.’ But then we realize that every single one of those components is empty of inherent existence. It is a conditional manifestation. Those phenomena, those details and aspects of who we think we are, only appear under certain conditions. Therefore, that can’t possibly be who we really are. This whole concept of self, this whole perspective of self-identity melts into utter nothingness when we look at it this way. But we also acknowledge that there is this experience, this experience is happening, because it’s one of the infinite possible apparent manifestations that occur within emptiness. It’s here, but it’s insubstantial. So, we don’t take it seriously, which means we are not caught by it, we are not trapped by it.

Practice the recognition of impermanence, know that nothing is your true self, and inevitably you will reach exactly the same realization of emptiness.

One comes to this naturally through developing the recognition of the impermanent and impersonal nature of phenomena – naturally you will come to a full understanding of emptiness. And this is probably why in the Pāli Suttas the Buddha did not bother to go into deep explanations on emptiness, because he saw he didn’t need to. If he just laid out the framework of practice, then people would figure it out on their own. Practice the recognition of impermanence, know that nothing is your true self, and inevitably you will reach exactly the same realization of emptiness. Inevitably, it will finally start to click into place.

In the Chan tradition they put this very simply. If you want to perceive emptiness, there is a very simple practice: “Let go of all forms.” (放捨諸相, fàng shě zhū xiàng) Let go of all forms, let go of all appearances, let go of all manifestations. Drop them immediately. This is also the fundamental meditation instruction for one of the meditation practices which we can do, which is called “silent illumination” (默照, mò zhào) in Chan Buddhism, or “objectless concentration” (animitta samādhi) in Theravāda Buddhism. The practice is just this one simple practice: Let go of all appearances, let go of all manifestations, let go of all forms. Don’t try to hold on to anything which is appearing as being substantial or real or persistent. Just let it melt away. The moment it appears, let it melt, let it dissolve. In this way, naturally, the mind starts to recognize this pervasive openness, which underlies and pervades all things. This is what we mean by emptiness. You can feel it in each moment.

Emptiness is a deceptive term because emptiness sounds a bit cold, but the actual experience of emptiness is more like a soothing warmth. And emptiness can sound depressing, but the actual experience of emptiness is joy; the actual experience of emptiness is safety. Like when you have been having a terrible nightmare and you start waking up from it and you start realizing that the nightmare is not quite real. Then a sense of safety comes over your mind. “Oh, there is actually nothing wrong! Oh, how lovely!” That’s what it’s like when we practice the perception of emptiness. It’s realizing that we are wrapped in the warm embrace of boundless limitless unshaped potential. We are completely immersed in the safety, the security, the harmless free-fall of formlessness.

Three Kinds of Desire

By AJAHN SUMEDHO * Art JUNGYEON ROH *

Desire or tanha in Pali is an important thing to understand. What is desire? Kama tanha is very easy to understand. This kind of desire is wanting sense pleasures through the body or the other senses and always seeking things to excite or please your senses — that is kama tanha. You can really contemplate: what is it like when you have desire for pleasure? For example, when you are eating, if you are hungry and the food tastes delicious, you can be aware of wanting to take another bite. Notice that feeling when you are tasting something pleasant; and notice how you want more of it. Don’t just believe this; try it out. Don’t think you know it because it has been that way in the past. Try it out when you eat. Taste something delicious and see what happens: a desire arises for more. That is kama tanha.

We also contemplate the feeling of wanting to become something. But if there is ignorance, then when we are not seeking something delicious to eat or some beautiful music to listen to, we can be caught in a realm of ambition and attainment — the desire to become. We get caught in that movement of striving to become happy, seeking to become wealthy; or we might attempt to make our life feel important by endeavouring to make the world right. So note this sense of wanting to become something other than what you are right now.

Listen to the bhava tanha of your life: ‘I want to practise meditation so I can become free from my pain. I want to become enlightened. I want to become a monk or a nun. I want to become enlightened as a lay person. I want to have a wife and children and a profession. I want to enjoy the sense world without having to give up anything and become an enlightened arahant too.’

When we get disillusioned with trying to become something, then there is the desire to get rid of things. So we contemplate vibhava tanha, the desire to get rid of: ‘I want to get rid of my suffering. I want to get rid of my anger. I’ve got this anger and I want to get rid of it. I want to get rid of jealousy, fear and anxiety.’ Notice this as a reflection on vibhava tanha. We are actually contemplating that within ourselves which wants to get rid of things; we are not trying to get rid of vibhava tanha. We are not taking a stand against the desire to get rid of things nor are we encouraging that desire. Instead, we are reflecting, ‘It’s like this; it feels like this to want to get rid of something; I’ve got to conquer my anger; I have to kill the Devil and get rid of my greed — then I will become …’ We can see from this train of thought that becoming and getting rid of are very much associated.

Bear in mind though that these three categories of kama tanha, bhava tanha and vibhava tanha are merely convenient ways of contemplating desire. They are not totally separate forms of desire but different aspects of it.

The second insight into the Second Noble Truth is: ‘Desire should be let go of.’ This is how letting go comes into our practice. You have an insight that desire should be let go of, but that insight is not a desire to let go of anything. If you are not very wise and are not really reflecting in your mind, you tend to follow the ‘I want to get rid of, I want to let go of all my desires’ — but this is just another desire. However, you can reflect upon it; you can see the desire to get rid of, the desire to become or the desire for sense pleasure. By understanding these three kinds of desire, you can let them go.

The Second Noble Truth does not ask you to think, ‘I have a lot of sensual desires’, or, ‘I’m really ambitious. I’m really bhava tanha plus, plus, plus!’ or, ‘I’m a real nihilist. I just want out. I’m a real vibhava tanha fanatic. That’s me.’ The Second Noble Truth is not that. It is not about identifying with desires in any way; it’s about recognising desire.

I used to spend a lot of time watching how much of my practice was desire to become something. For example, how much of the good intentions of my meditation practice as a monk was to become liked — how much of my relations with other monks or nuns or with lay people had to do with wanting to be liked and approved of. That is bhava tanha — desire for praise and success. As a monk, you have this bhava tanha: wanting people to understand everything and to appreciate the Dhamma. Even these subtle, almost noble, desires are bhava tanha.

Then there is vibhava tanha in spiritual life, which can be very self-righteous: ‘I want to get rid of, annihilate and exterminate these defilements.’ I really listened to myself thinking, ‘I want to get rid of desire. I want to get rid of anger. I don’t want to be frightened or jealous any more. I want to be brave. I want to have joy and gladness in my heart.’

This practice of Dhamma is not one of hating oneself for having such thoughts, but really seeing that these are conditioned into the mind. They are impermanent. Desire is not what we are but it is the way we tend to react out of ignorance when we have not understood these Four Noble Truths in their three aspects. We tend to react like that to everything. These are normal reactions due to ignorance.

But we need not continue to suffer. We are not just hopeless victims of desire. We can allow desire to be the way it is and so begin to let go of it. Desire has power over us and deludes us only as long as we grasp it, believe in it and react to it.


Would you like to read more? You can download Ajahn Sumedho’s book “The Four Noble Truths” for free on www.buddhanet.net


 

Laying the Foundation for Social Action

By AJAHN PASANNO * Art AUNG KYAW HTET  (Courtesy Thavibu)* 

From a Buddhist perspective, anything to do with other people can be considered social action: how we relate to the individuals close to us such as family or neighbors, to society at large, and to the world around us. The field of social action expands out, but it begins with ourselves and our relationships to others. The individual is at the core of all relationships between any parts of society. We must always return to that core, to recognize that our own actions affect other people and the society around us. This is simply the basic law of karma-anything we do affects ourselves and others. It’s not a matter of “me” and “society,” as if they were separate. There isn’t really any separation. The two are interrelated all the time.

What we bring to the society around us are simply our own qualities of mind, of heart, of being-our intentions and how they manifest in our actions. In order to understand our effects on society, we first have to understand ourselves, to see these qualities more clearly. The ability we have to help others, or to do anything to affect others, is dependent upon the clarity, intention, and integrity with which we live our lives. These things are inseparable. As such, the way we train ourselves is equally important to any actions we take outside ourselves.

In Buddhist practice, the training laid out for an individual begins with how one practices with others. This is sila, or virtue-not harming others, being honest in the way one deals with others, being trustworthy in one’s actions and speech. The practice of keeping the precepts is already social action. The precepts remind us of the ways our actions affect others. Oftentimes, people may think, Let’s get to the “real” stuff about Buddhism-the liberation, the enlightenment; keeping the precepts is just a social convention, just the basics. But this “basic” stuff has an effect. It is important. The Buddha recognized that our actions have effects for ourselves and for others.

While virtue concerns itself with actions and speech, the second aspect of the Buddhist training is meditation, or samadhi-a training of the mind and the heart, a clarifying of mindfulness, awareness, and composure. These are essential to cultivate. If we are going to take any social responsibility, it has to be done with an open heart and a clear mind. We must develop a standard for reflection. We can then start to ask, what are the effects of our words and actions? Sometimes people get enthused about social action and forget about the ordinary activities in life. How do I deal with my family? How do I deal with the people closest to me? Or even how do I answer the phone? What do I put into the universe when I am irritated or upset? These are very ordinary, everyday things, preparing the ground for how we relate to the world around us. Paying attention to these things is social action. Dealing with the circle of people around us is social action. It is not different.

From a Buddhist perspective, the next step is recognizing the quality of wisdom, or pañña. There are many different levels of wisdom, but seeing things as they truly are is its essence. With a reflective ability of the mind, we can begin to see things as they truly are and start to turn towards that. This is not simply gathering new bits of knowledge or being zapped with some sort of enlightened energy. It is a turning inward to be able to open to all the ways things truly are and allowing our lives to be guided by that wisdom. How does this affect myself? How does this affect others? What is the way to freedom and liberation? What is the way out of suffering and dissatisfaction for myself and for others? Wisdom is seeing the different ways we entangle ourselves in things and the different ways we can be free.

Virtue, meditation, and wisdom are tAung Kyaw Htet_Sun-kissed Novicehe tools we use in training ourselves in how to relate to the world around us. This training will help us to see the qualities that bring true benefit to our society-the qualities of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These are the Brahma viharas, or divine abodes. In a way, these can be considered a goal of social action: creating a way in which human beings should live. Loving kindness is the wish for another’s happiness; compassion is the wish to alleviate another’s suffering. Sympathetic joy is the happiness we feel in the success of another. And equanimity is the ability to stay centered in the midst of life’s ups and downs.

The quality of sympathetic joy is an interesting one in terms of social action. Its opposite is jealousy or envy. In many ways, envy is the foundation for competition and conflict. If a society is based upon competitive accumulation-like some societies we know-it can create conflict and a lack of appreciation and willingness to enjoy each other. Having come to the United States after living in Thailand for twenty-three years, the sense of competition here is very striking. In Thailand, there is a wide stratification in terms of socio-economic level and opportunity within society, but there is not a lot of envy or competition. People are often motivated to improve their economic lot, but they don’t resent those who already have wealth or privilege. Similarly, there is usually not a looking down on or shunning of those in economic difficulty or from a poor background. There is an acceptance that people have accumulated different tendencies and have different abilities.

This acceptance has imbued people’s consciousness. It is a sense of karma playing a role in people’s lives over many lifetimes, a feeling of “who knows?” This lifetime can change; in other lifetimes it might be different. Rebirth is an accepted part of how they perceive the world – it’s a long view on life. This takes away the edge of selfishness and competitiveness and brings a sense of appreciation for each other as human beings, a joy in each other’s happiness. By turning toward this quality of joy, we can draw on our wish to help others, to be of service.

Acceptance also brings the quality of equanimity, a non-reactive clarity that allows one to stay centered. Equanimity is not indifference. It is the ability to return to a place of stillness, to be non-reactive, and to weigh things carefully. This is an important quality especially when considering social action or social responsibility. Without equanimity, we can get drawn into our own reactiveness-our views and opinions. We can think that we’re always right, that other people are just a bunch of idiots. It’s easy to get turned around and out of balance. Not being drawn into the web of our views and opinions but being able to settle and reflect-to ask, what is the way of balance?-equanimity is essential in undertaking social action.

In the social action projects I have been involved in, the Buddhist perspective has taught me some important things. Take a particular project, like protecting the forests. The monastery in Thailand at which I was abbot was quite well-known, with a large community of monks, novices, lay men, and lay women practicing and training there. I thought it would provide a good balance to set up a more remote branch monastery. Our new location was right along the Mekong River. It was in one of the last forests in the province, and around that time, the area was made into a national park. But this was just a designation on the map, and it caused a lot of problems. The area was full of stumps. It was being logged, and many villagers had made their fields there.

The Buddhist perspective was very helpful. We couldn’t simply say, “These are awful, nasty people. The planet would be a fine sort of place if they weren’t doing this.” The reality was that they are doing this and that they are people just like us. They are trying to look after their families and to get ahead in the world. In order to do anything to protect the forest, we had to find ways to include them. How do you involve the people who are cutting down the forest? How do you include the merchants who are paying them? How do you include the civil servants who are taking the bribes to allow the cutting?

The teachings told us that problems come from people not understanding how they are creating suffering for themselves and for others. Problems and suffering come from desires and attachments. You can’t simply wish that away. You’ve got to work on the basic problems of bringing knowledge and education into their lives. Why were they cutting down the forest? Of course, they wanted to live comfortably, to look after their families. So, we had to find ways to provide for them. Otherwise, it would be like trying to build a wall to stop the tide from coming in. Good luck! It’s going to find a way. Instead, you have to think clearly and find ways to address peoples’ needs, to include them and bring them in. This takes time.

This understanding reflects our own personal spiritual practice. We’d all like to sit down, cross our legs, close our eyes, and become enlightened-just like that. Instead, we have to take the time to lay a foundation, to become patient and clear enough to develop the path in a comprehensive way. Just as the Buddha taught us the Four Noble Truths as the basis for our own practice-suffering, the causes of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path leading to the cessation of suffering-the same applies to social action. We’ve got suffering, we’ve got a problem. What are all the different causes of that problem? What kind of end can there be to that problem? If we haven’t understood the problem, we won’t be able to see the causes. And if we aren’t really clear about the goal we are working towards, we won’t really know what kinds of path to develop. It works in society the same way it works in our own practice. The more we reflect on and practice with those truths for ourselves, the more we are able to apply them in our life, in very ordinary situations, with our friends, with our family, at work, with different problems happening in the community. That is social action.

How can we work together to do this? With our project along the Mekong, we began by drawing in people affiliated with the monastery who were interested in helping. In a Buddhist society, the monastery is a foundation we could build on, a field for social action. Because the monastery is dependent on lay people to support it, there is a day-to-day connection with the neighboring society. It is a web of Aung Kyaw Htet_ Offering Rice to the Abbottsupport and interaction, so that when there is a problem in the community, we can easily recognize who is interested in helping. At first there were a few volunteers. When there was too much work for volunteers to do, we hired some people. Again, the money for their salaries came from offerings to the monastery from people in the community.

The forest project continued to grow. We even drew in people like the police. They had power, especially when it came to controlling who was taking logs out. Rather than getting into a confrontation with them, we asked how we could work with them. That was very easy at the time because one of the supporters of the monastery was the Deputy Superintendent of Police. He was a great resource for drawing in other honest police officers, who then had a few words with even more police officers and got them on our side. This takes time, it takes patience, it takes clarity. If you work in a confrontational way, it’s difficult to achieve this. By having a strong focus on one’s personal practice and integrity, by becoming more clear, centered, and pure-hearted in one’s intention for doing good, the more one starts to connect with other people. In terms of social action, this seems to be a magnet, drawing other good people. It gets its own momentum going. So far, the forest project is working.  And besides being successful in its own right, it has been adopted as a model for trial projects in other national parks in Thailand.

During one of the recent elections in Thailand, I saw a handwritten sign on the side of a building. It said something like, “The forces of corruption are given more power when good people retreat.” The “system” gains more momentum when we decide we don’t want to deal with it, that things are hopeless. With social action work, we have to be patient, discerning, equanimous. We have to be willing to try and to fail. We have to recognize that sometimes things will work and sometimes they won’t. And that they always work out in ways we may never have conceived. This is the same as returning to the foundation of one’s own practice: keeping the precepts; developing clarity, tranquillity, and peace of mind; establishing wisdom through reflective investigation; cultivating the qualities of kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. These form the foundation that allows us to move out into the realm of social action.


Would you like to read more? You can download Ajahn Pasanno’s books for free on www.amaravati.org


Guidelines for Happiness

By BHANTE SUDDHĀSO  * Art JUNGYEON ROH *

In Buddhism, everything is optional.

Faith is optional. Meditation is optional. Morality is optional.

So the question becomes: Why bother with morality? What’s the point? What is morality anyway? Where does it come from? What effect does it have? Why should we care?

Many people think of morality as a set of commandments given by a supreme being; a list of orders given by an indisputable divine authority. This is what I was taught by my parents when I was a child: God said not to do certain things, so we shouldn’t do them. End of story. There’s no arguing with God because, well, it’s God. This rationale worked perfectly well for me until I stopped believing in God – at which point I naturally stopped believing in morality as well. I was 13 at the time, and it was a stunning revelation for my young mind to discover that I could do whatever I wanted. So I embarked on a grand quest of unrestrained self-indulgence which lasted several years, guided not by any principles of right and wrong, but only by the principles of what I wanted to do.

Those were the most miserable years of my life. This seemed counter-intuitive. Shouldn’t total commitment to the self-centered pursuit of hedonistic pleasure naturally lead to happiness? Why was I so unhappy? So I branched out. Simple hedonism wasn’t doing the trick, so I started looking into more complex forms of hedonism. I kept seeing meditation mentioned in various places – such as in psychology research, on new age websites, and in pseudo-spiritual systems of various kinds. I often saw it touted as a method for becoming happier (as well as a few much more grandiose claims). So I started thinking that meditation might help me squeeze more pleasure out of life. It seemed simple enough; I just looked up meditation instructions on the Internet and started following them for a few minutes every day. Meanwhile, I spent the rest of my free time immersed in my usual reckless pursuit of sensual pleasure.

Over time, however, something began to shift. As I started to develop a limited degree of proficiency with the meditation technique I was using, my mind became increasingly peaceful and content – not the excitement of intense sensual experiences, but rather a gentle sense of subtle joy that seemed independent of what was going on in my life. This was intriguing: I didn’t have to take any drugs, or find a sexual partner, or go to a nightclub; all I had to do was sit still and focus my mind for a few minutes everyday, and my baseline emotional state would be a bit happier. This seemed worth further investigation.

With this initial experience of positive results from meditation, I gained a certain degree of confidence that meditation works. So while I was not interested in religion, the success I was getting from using one Buddhist technique led me to explore what other techniques there might be that could be of benefit to me: I figured I could just pull out the bits I wanted and leave all the rest behind. Thus at last I came back to the subject of morality, after a seven-year hiatus. Now, however, I was coming to it not out of a sense of divine obligation, but rather because I was interested in being a happier person. And as I soon found out, Buddhist morality is very different from the style of Christian morality I had been raised with.

Causality

Buddhist morality is founded on a simple principle: causality. Cause and effect. Simply put, every action produces a corresponding result. If there’s a certain result we want, we just need to find out what action leads to that result and behave accordingly. There is no authoritative deity who tells us we must act in any particular way; rather, we recognize that we have full power over our experience. All we need to do is make the choices that produce the results we want. Some choices we make inevitably lead to unpleasant effects, and some inevitably lead to pleasant effects.

It’s in the details of those choices that Buddhist morality starts to resemble the moral systems found in other religions. For example, murder is identified as a choice that produces unpleasant results. So is theft, infidelity, dishonesty, and self-intoxication. The Buddha advises us to avoid these five activities for our own sake – because these five activities inevitably lead to suffering for the person who performs them. The concordant suffering is sometimes immediately apparent, and sometimes it takes a while for it to manifest, but it will always eventually come to be experienced.

So the question is: Why should we trust the Buddha in this matter? The answer is: We shouldn’t – at least, not immediately. As the Buddha says in the Kālāma Sutta (AN 3.66), we shouldn’t believe something just because someone tells us to; instead, we should investigate it for ourselves and see if we can confirm it in our own experience. So we ask ourselves: what is the result of murder, theft, infidelity, dishonesty, and self-intoxication? Do these ultimately lead to unpleasant results for the person who engages in them? If we are honest with ourselves, then we must admit: yes, they do. A person who engages in such immoral acts tends to experience regret, remorse, self-condemnation, criticism and reprobation from others, a bad reputation, and possibly even legal entanglements – in severe cases it can result in fines, imprisonment, or even execution by the government. Conversely, engaging in acts of kindness, generosity, and compassion bring happiness and joy to the mind, praise and commendation from others, and a good reputation.

However, the Buddha says that even beyond such visible results, our choices in this life tend to create corresponding conditions in future lives. For example, in the Cūḷa-kamma-vibhaṅga Sutta (MN 135), he states that killing causes the killer to have a short lifespan in future lives; injuring causes the injurer to have many illnesses and afflictions; displaying anger causes the angry person to be unattractive; stinginess leads to poverty, and so on.

So even if we’re not sure whether or not there is karmic retribution in future lives, it’s a good gamble to act as though there is: if we choose to behave morally, we are happy and well-respected in this life; and if there are karmic results to be experienced in future lives, then we will experience the positive effects of our good choices in future lives as well. This is sometimes known as the Buddhist version of “Pascal’s Wager,” and can be found in the Apaṇṇaka Sutta (MN 60).

Morality and Meditation

A further benefit to morality is that is helps to foster two mental qualities that are very beneficial to meditation practice and to spiritual self-development: self-reflection and self-restraint. In Buddhism an action is only considered to have a karmic effect if it is intentional; thus in considering morality, we are constantly examining our mind and our mental states – looking for the intentions and motivations behind our choices. Choices based on harmful mindstates (such as anger, resentment, jealousy, contempt, and arrogance) lead to harmful effects; choices based on beneficial mindstates (such as kindness, compassion, generosity, and equanimity) lead to beneficial effects. Thus by placing importance on morality, we begin to develop a strong sensitivity to and awareness of our own mindstates. This is self-reflection. And, as we recognize that some choices are harmful, then even if we really want to do them we restrain ourselves: we let go of those desires, thus developing renunciation – which is founded on the recognition that happiness is not dependent upon always getting what we want or doing what we want. Thus we develop self-restraint and contentment; this is a direct antidote to craving, which is a very unpleasant state of mind.

Five Moral Precepts

Now that we have some idea of why morality is useful, let’s examine the five basic moral precepts in Buddhism a bit more closely.

The first one is “not killing.” This means not killing any sentient being; especially humans, but also animals of all kinds (including insects), and any spirits or non-physical beings that might exist. We develop and maintain a genuine wish for the happiness of those beings and respect their desire to live; this wish for the happiness of others is a direct antidote to hostility and cruelty – which are very unpleasant states of mind.

The second one is “not stealing.” We acknowledge that others have things which they possess, and we choose not to inflict the pain of loss on them – we choose not to steal from them. By respecting their property, we develop a sense of happiness in the prosperity of others; a pleasant state of mind that directly counters envy and jealousy – which, once again, are very unpleasant states of mind.

The third one is “avoiding sexual misconduct.” In any sexual relationship there will be certain boundaries of trust agreed upon by the people involved, and violating them – for example, by having sex with someone outside the relationship without the permission of your partner(s) – usually leads to a great deal of anguish for everyone involved. By avoiding sexual misconduct, we develop a sense of mutual trust and mutual support in our relationships with others. It’s also worth noting that Buddhism does not mandate heterosexual monogamy: there is nothing wrong with same-sex relationships, multiple-partner relationships, open relationships, or any other form of sexual relationship, as long as it is agreed upon by the members of that relationship.

The fourth one is “not lying.” Most of us have had the experience of being lied to, or of lies being told about us, or of various harmful consequences of dishonesty. Recognizing the harm that comes from such behavior, we maintain a commitment to truth. However, as explained in the Abhaya-rāja-kumāra Sutta (MN 58), it is still important to consider the effects of our speech, using the following criteria: first, say only what is true; second, say only what is beneficial; and third, speak only at the right time. So we might have a true statement that is harmful (such as “You’re ugly” or “I hate you”); or we might have a true statement that is beneficial but it is not the right time to say it (such as a reprobation for someone’s inappropriate conduct, delivered at a time when they are already angry and thus unlikely to be receptive to constructive criticism). Instead we wait for a time when our statement can be heard and received in a manner that is useful to everyone involved.

The fifth one is “avoiding self-intoxication.” Buddhist practice is based upon clear awareness of the present moment. It is this clear, unbiased awareness that gives us the information we need to determine which choices are helpful and which ones are harmful. When the mind is foggy and unclear (as when it is intoxicated), mindfulness becomes weak, and it is hard to clearly see what’s going on in our minds. It’s hard enough when we’re sober; intoxication makes it far more difficult. Further, when we are intoxicated, our self-restraint tends to be much weaker; we are more prone to acting impulsively and unwisely. We are much more likely to fall prey to our baser tendencies and engage in unwholesome behavior – such as lying, stealing, infidelity, and violence. Even small doses of intoxicants (such as one glass of wine) tend to cloud the mind and weaken our inhibitions, and thus it is best to completely abstain from such things. If one has a genuine medical reason to take an intoxicating medication, then one should still be very careful to examine one’s motivations in using that medication, and to minimize its use as much as possible – and to stop use altogether when it is feasible.

That said, we’re not required to follow any of these principles. In Buddhism there is no obligation to do anything. Instead there is a simple guideline: If you want to be happy, the Buddha explains how you can do it – meditation, self-reflection, renunciation, and moral principles. So we can take on these guidelines – as I did – and see for ourselves the contentment and joy that arises in our lives.


Would you like to read more? You can find more writings by Bhante Suddhāso on www.bhantesuddhaso.com

Taking Stock of Oneself

By BHIKKHU BODHI * Art PANYA VIJINTHANASARN (Courtesy Thavibu)* 

Though in principle the Buddhist path leads straight and unerringly from bondage to freedom, when we apply it to ourselves it often seems to take a tortuous route as imposed by the twists and turns of our own contorted mental topography. Unless we have exceptionally mature wholesome roots, we cannot expect to approach the goal “as the crow flies,” soaring unhindered through the quick and blissful skyways of the jhanas and higher insights. Instead we must be prepared to tread the path at ground level, moving slowly, steadily and cautiously through the winding mountain roads of our own minds. We begin at the inevitable point of departure — with the unique constellation of personal qualities, habits and potentials that we bring with us into the practice. Our ingrained defilements and obstinate delusions, as well as our hidden reserves of goodness, inner strength and wisdom — these are at once the material out of which the practice is forged, the terrain to be passed through, and the vehicle that takes us to our destination.

Confidence in the Buddhist path is a prerequisite for persisting on this journey. Yet it often happens that though we may be fully convinced of the liberating efficacy of the Dhamma, we stumble along perplexed as to how we can apply the Dhamma fruitfully to ourselves. One major step toward reaping the benefits of Dhamma practice consists in making an honest assessment of one’s own character. If we are to utilize effectively the methods the Buddha has taught for overcoming the mind’s defilements, we first must take stock of those particular defilements that are prevalent in our individual makeup. It will not suffice for us to sit back and console ourselves with the thought that the path leads infallibly to the end of greed, hate and delusion. For the path to be effective in our own practice, we have to become familiar with our own persistent greeds, hates and delusions as they crop up in the round of daily life. Without this honest confrontation with ourselves, all our other pursuits of Dhamma may be to no avail and can actually lead us astray. Though we may gain extensive knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures, clarify our view and sharpen our powers of thought, invest so many hours on the meditation cushion and walkway, if we do not attend to the blemishes in our characters, these other achievements, far from extricating the defilements, may instead only go to reinforce them.

Yet, though honest self-assessment is one of the most vital steps in Dhamma practice, it is also one of the most difficult. What makes it so difficult is the radically new perspective that must be adopted to undertake an investigation of oneself and the dense barriers that must be penetrated to arrive at truthful self-understanding. In attempting to assess ourselves we are no longer observing an external entity which we can treat as an adventitious object to be evaluated in terms of our subjective purposes. We are observing instead the seat of observation itself, that most elusive center from which we gaze out upon the world, and we are doing so in a mode which casts all its motives and projects in a critical light. To enter this domain of inquiry is to run smack up against our very sense of personal identity, and thus to have to pierce the thick screens of delusion and blind emotivity which keep that sense of identity intact.

Normally, in subservience to our need to confirm to ourselves our uniqueness and irreplaceable importance, we proceed to construct mental pictures — indeed, a picture gallery — of what we imagine ourselves to be. The self-image that emerges from these pictures becomes simultaneously a mainstay which we cling to in order to maintain our self-esteem and a standpoint from which we orient ourselves toward others and launch our projects in the world. To secure its tenuous status the mind employs a variety of tactics “behind the back” of our conscious awareness. It throws up blinders which keep out disturbing information, it flatters us with fantasied projections, it drives us to manipulate people and situations in ways that will seem to validate our tacit assumptions about our virtues and identity.

All these projects born of the quest to substantiate our sense of identity only increase our suffering. The more we lock ourselves into the images we form of ourselves, the more we alienate ourselves from others and close off our access to liberating truth. Thence release from suffering requires that we gradually discard our delusive self-images through rigorous examination of our minds.

The venerable Sariputta, in the Discourse on No Blemishes (MN 5), stresses the role of honest self-assessment as a prerequisite of spiritual growth. He points out that just as a dirty bronze bowl, deposited in a dusty place and utterly neglected, only becomes dirtier and dustier, so if we fail to recognize the blemishes of our minds we will not make any effort to eliminate them, but will continue to harbor greed, hate and delusion and will die with a corrupted mind. And just as a dirty bronze bowl which is cleaned and polished will in time become bright and radiant, so if we recognize the blemishes of our minds we will arouse our energy to purify them, and having purged ourselves of blemishes we will die with an undefiled mind. The task of self-knowledge is always a difficult one, but it is only by knowing our minds that we will be able to shape them, and it is only by shaping our minds that we can liberate them.

 


Would you like to read more? You can find more writings by Bhikkhu Bodhi on www.bps.lkand on Buddhist Global Relief


 

The Power of Compassion

By AYYA YESHE, Art by PABLO MEDINA 

I never grew up thinking that I would one day run a temple in the slums of Central India, or a charity for that matter. But I suppose I should have known better when my favorite movie was ‘The Sound of Music’ and my vision was of being a nun was running over hills, climbing trees, and occasionally helping people!

What first drew me to spiritual practice was the death of my father, when I was 14. That sent me into a suicidal depression and existential crisis. If life was finite (which no one around me seemed to live with the comprehension of, with their 30 year mortgages and reinsured and reimbursable spider webs of administration) what was the most important thing to do? Who are we, why are we here and where will we go? I could no longer accept mundanity, the pressing urgency of finding a way out of suffering pushed me to leave my Catholic girls school and to embark on life on the road.

After a few years as a hippie, having tried drugs, sex, relationships, mindful communities and so on, and having found nothing lasting, I headed to India where all my hippie friends said ‘You’ll really find the meaning of life there’. What I did find was life- in your face, maximum volume life in its beauty and misery. Anyone who has seen the amazing crowds, splendor and poverty of India will understand why ancient Sages went to the forest to seek inner clarity. It is too overwhelming to comprehend. I saw a book in a shop window and was immediately drawn. It was called ‘re-born in the west’ and it used a quote ‘When iron birds fly in the sky, and horses run on wheels, the Tibetan people will be scattered like ants and the Dharma will go to the land of the pink faced savages (Westerners).’ For me this was very poignant. In the back of the book was the address of a monastery that taught Buddhism to Foreigners. I went there, and never looked back. It was like coming home.

Trekking through the Himalayas, I saw people who had nothing, whose houses were regularly washed away by mudslides and who lived on potatoes and rice every day endlessly, and yet I encountered more smiles and resilience there than on the streets of an Australian city. What is it these Himalayan people, these Tibetans who have lost their country have, that we, Westerners who can fly to the moon but do not have a way to find peace, lack? I realized they had profound inner methods of transforming suffering, developing spiritual resilience and compassion. I wanted that. I wanted an end to my uncontrolled, confused and unskillful way of being. Once I got beyond all the symbolism of Tibetan Buddhism and the rituals, which I found very appealing, I saw that compassion and the exposure of the delusion of self-clinging are at the root of it all. When you just see your own delusion and pain and then let go and get a little taste of peace, you can become a little dismissive of daily life and perhaps (not always) become very inward looking. This is not a bad thing in itself, but I don’t think it was the final state the Buddha intended. It’s the beginning of spiritual practice.

In the end, our practice of exposing the rawest parts of our delusion and suffering and transforming it, should lead to a profound understanding of inter-connectedness and empathy for others. Beings who are mothers from our past life, who are so many more than us, who seek happiness, but so seldom find it, floundering in the waves of birth, sickness, old age and death, tying the noose of karma tighter and tighter around their necks. Once you see interdependence and understand that your very existence is intimately tied to others – that your food and clothes and the fact you have eyes to see a sunset or a body to embrace your loved one, or can even sign your own name and use language, is all due to the kindness of others. When you understand this, bodhicitta – the mind of transcendent compassion, wishing to become a Buddha to free all beings from saṁsāra – is born.

When bodhicitta is born, we have to do something with it. A bodhisattva is a person who has bodhicitta and is endowed with compassion. Bodhi means endowed with all good qualities, devoid of defects, and Sattva is someone with the courage to strive for the liberation of others.

“As long as space remains, as long as there are beings who suffer, May I too remain, to remove the darkness of the world.” Shantideva

The six perfections (or 10 pāramis in Theravada) become our vehicle for untying the knots of delusion that keep us so firmly tied to the wheel of existence.

Transcendent Generosity

There are three kinds of generosity:

  • Giving material things (i.e. offering food to the poor)
  • Giving fearlessness (i.e. providing protection to people fleeing war, human rights abuses, etc.)
  • Giving Dharma: giving Dharma is said to be the supreme gift because Dharma is the path that allows one to become free from suffering once and for all, but should only be given to those who express interest

Generosity should also be undertaken by implementing the other six perfections; for example, being ethical so that no one is harmed by you, practicing generosity, having patience and not expecting too much in return, making an effort to benefit others in a way that suits their needs, and finally applying the seal of emptiness (seeing deeply into interconnectedness) when you give so that there is no giver, no object given, and no receiver. By seeing that everything is interconnected and that you are just a condition in compassionate cause and effect, that there is no permanent you – only a body mind in continuum, arising, abiding, and ceasing in the luminous present – that way your giving has skill, is of benefit, and is not caused by egotism or expectation.

Ethics

Ethics mean to control one’s body, speech, and mind in such a way that no harm is done.

  • Restraining from negativities: If you are trying to liberate all beings, obviously you can’t harm them or yourself
  • Gathering virtue: Merit is like the petrol of the spiritual life, and to gain realization, virtue and good karma are necessary. Virtue here does not just mean good actions, but also developing the mind through study, reflection, meditation, and keeping precepts. This is also gaining the necessary realization to really be of benefit to others.
  • The work of benefiting and working for the liberation of all beings: This is the work of lifetimes. Whether it’s practice, service, or study, the most important thing is to have a bodhicitta motivation and do what is most beneficial.

Patience

It can be very hard to have patience when you are slandered, betrayed and hurt. But anger destroys all good karma, so patience is the guardian of merit and bodhicitta. One should develop three types of patience:

  • Patience when wronged
  • Patience to bear hardships for the Dharma: Tibetans walked across snow and ice, sometimes losing their lives to carry the Dharma, but often we won’t drive across town!
  • Patience to face the profound truth of emptiness without fear: The belief that things are truly existent is very strong and creates a separate self-identity, clinging to self, and aversion to others; but the nature of mind is pure – obscurations are adventitious.

Diligence

Diligence and exerting power and effort are essential to progress on the spiritual path. It takes courage and fortitude to face delusion and unravel it. But in the end, with wisdom, the unraveling becomes more effortless. The beginning of practice is more like pushing a big rock up hill, but in the end it goes down hill on its own.

  • Armor like diligence enables us to take on heavy burdens to benefit others
  • Diligence in action allows us to gather virtue
  • Insatiable Diligence means we can benefit beings without becoming disheartened.

Patrul Rinpoche encouraged his student to make greater effort each day, taking delight in objects of virtue. It is said that a precious human rebirth without effort is like a boat without oars – we will never reach the shore of Nirvana. There is no time to lose to practice.

Concentration 

Focus is the fifth perfection to be developed.

  • Giving up distraction means renouncing excitement and distracting preoccupations (or at least simplifying your life)
  • Actual concentration means going through the stages of concentration and developing unbroken Samādhi. In this deep concentration one can stay in meditation for a day or more and the mind is one-pointed, light, malleable and blissful.

Wisdom

Wisdom refers to the final understanding of interdependence, interconnectedness, and emptiness and is gained from:

  • Hearing (the teachings)
  • Reflecting (analytical meditation)
  • Insight (a deep non conceptual realization of things as they really are, facilitated by ethics, generosity, all the perfections, reflection, and listening you have done).

Wisdom is when the cocoon of selfhood falls away and we see the cause and effect relationship we have with all existence – that we are not one with, but also not separate from, all things. Many conditions bring about the existence of our mind body continuum, and mind, like a river, cannot be said to be the same any moment, as the moment has already flowed on in time. Thus in Buddhism we do not use the term ‘soul’ or self which implies something truly existent, but we use the word mindstream, which more accurately and lightly describes the subtle and conditional existence we have (or at least appear to have!). To understand selflessness and interconnectedness is not to find oneself in a void, but rather to see that all of heaven are contained in each other – that emptiness is fullness and fullness is emptiness. To see emptiness is to become free, but also profoundly compassionate, because one sees that what we do effects others, and that they are connected to us – we inter-are. From this understanding, compassion and skillful action are born.

THE WINGS OF THE BODHISATTVA

“It is clearly impossible to cover the whole surface of the earth in leather to avoid stepping on thorns, but if you cover your own feet in leather (transform your own mind), the whole world is thorn free.”Shantideva

It is said that because of their great compassion, nirvana will not hold Bodhisattvas, and because of their realization, they are not imprisoned in saṁsāra. Bodhicitta is to feel real love for all beings and be touched by their misery, but also have the panoramic skillful means and view to transform it. It is not the limited love that is attached to one particular person and so often leads to attachment, co-dependence, or disappointment. Since finding bodhicitta and becoming a nun I feel I have had more love and satisfaction in my life than I ever did from the conditional love of relationships. I think we all need to try to cultivate this transcendent love, no matter whether we are alone, together, married, single, monastic, or householder; we will burn with the fire of great-heartedness, and every action will bring peace, joy, and meaning to ourselves and others. When I was in Catholic school, I saw the sacred heart of Jesus with a thorn crown around it. I think it’s a pretty profound symbol for compassion. The thorns are the sharpness and wisdom that insight brings when our suffering has shown us the truth of interconnectedness, impermanence, and non-self. But these things are not dry or without love, they reveal a luminous spaciousness and richness – the burning heart of bodhicitta.

Bodhicitta is to feel real love for all beings and be touched by their misery, but also have the panoramic skillful means to transform it.

Sometimes we have romantic ideas about Dharma, that it will allow us to ‘have it all’, that we can practice without sacrifice. I know people who question whether monastics are still relevant. Why can’t we just meditate half an hour a day and work 40-50 hours a week, marry the perfect partner and build our dream home? We can, but Dharma takes time, it is about stripping away, not adding more. Sooner or later all our falsehoods and self delusions will be stripped away. Whether we are a householder or monastic, the Dharma is the stripping-paint of truth, to remove all that is not gold. For me, that means stripping life to its essential elements, living with awareness, simplicity, compassion, generosity and sustainability. The Buddha set up the four-fold sangha, and we are all in this together. To throw away one will damage the whole sangha body. We are not a threat to each other, we complete each other.

Many Teachings, One Essence

By BHANTE SUDDHĀSO  * Art AARON GLASSON *

When one first encounters Buddhism, it is not uncommon to be confused and overwhelmed by the bewildering array of seemingly dramatically different forms of Buddhism.

This is unsurprising. On first glance, it seems impossible to find common ground between the austere aesthetic of Japanese Buddhism and the byzantine visage of Tibetan Buddhism, or to reconcile the multi-stage meditation training of Theravāda with the single-step directness of Soto Zen. However, as one digs beneath the surface one begins to discern the common threads that tie them all together: the heart-essence of the Buddha’s teachings found in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

The question then becomes: How can we see all contemplative Buddhist traditions as only superficially different manifestations of the same core essence? And perhaps more relevantly, how can we form a clear picture in our minds of a complete and valid path to liberation?

The truth is that there is no easy answer to such questions. It is only through contact with experienced members of each tradition, deep study of their guiding texts, and dedicated practice of their contemplative techniques that we can begin to make sense of how the various traditions all come together as a unified whole. This is why our organization, Buddhist Insights, is non-sectarian: by encountering the orthodox teachings of each tradition as presented by monastics from that tradition, one can start to recognize the commonality of those traditions.

Exploring Buddhism

So when we start our exploration of Buddhism, it is useful to start by getting an overview of a variety of traditions. There may be one tradition which you feel strongly drawn towards; if so, then immerse yourself in it as completely, thoroughly, and devotedly as you can. Once your knowledge of that tradition is well-grounded, it can serve as a ‘home base’ from which you can venture out to explore other traditions in more detail: your root tradition gives you a solid point of reference for contextualizing the practices and concepts of other traditions.

For example, I started my own practice in Soto Zen, a form of Mahāyāna Buddhism. However, even after several years of practice in that tradition, I came to recognize that my understanding was still relatively shallow. While I knew a lot of Zen sayings, I didn’t have the proper context within which to correctly comprehend them; and without a basis of correct comprehension, my meditation practice was of limited benefit. So I started seeking further afield; I investigated other forms of Buddhism, and at the time I was personally drawn to Theravāda for two main reasons: it offered an ancient, profound, and thoroughly expounded intellectual framework for understanding Buddhist practice, as well as a wide variety of meditation techniques for dealing with the similarly wide variety of mental obstructions I was encountering in my practice.

So after five years of Zen, I went to study at Abhayagiri, a Theravāda Buddhist monastery. Living there for several years, diving deeply into Theravāda texts, and intensively practicing Theravāda meditation techniques led me to a solid understanding of the Buddhist path: at last I had a clear picture of what enlightenment was and what was necessary to reach it. Unfortunately, I also developed a dismissive attitude towards Mahāyāna; since my own experience with Mahāyāna had produced much more limited results than my experience with Theravāda, I concluded that Mahāyāna represented an inaccurate corruption of Buddhism and summarily rejected it.

And so I continued to devotedly practice Theravāda Buddhism; but as time went by and my practice deepened, I found the feeling of my practice was increasingly similar to what I had experienced during Zen training. I also began to draw parallels between the Zen perspective and the Theravāda perspective; in particular, it dawned on me that the Zen sayings which I had initially misunderstood were meant to be approximations of ultimate reality, whereas Theravāda teachings are focused almost exclusively on conventional reality. My failure to correctly understand Zen teachings was due to my misapprehension of them: and with the proper perspective established, they came into focus as representing a seemingly different approach to the same conclusion: namely, that whether it is Theravāda or Soto Zen, we are all trying to achieve enlightenment by understanding the Four Noble Truths, following the Noble Eightfold Path, perceiving the Three Universal Characteristics, and overcoming the Three Poisons (desire, aversion, delusion).

With this recognition, I began to examine the other Mahāyāna schools through a similar lens: instead of rejecting them, I sought to see how they could be understood as paths to enlightenment – the same indivisible enlightenment accessible through Theravāda and Soto Zen. And once again I found the same core essence could be found in each Buddhist tradition: the core essence of practice culminating in liberation through non-attachment. So while each form of Buddhism appears different, they are each aspects of that same essence leading to the same goal: Nirvāna – freedom from suffering paired with complete understanding.

 


Would you like to read more? You can find more writings by Bhante Suddhāso on www.bhantesuddhaso.com