“The actions of men are the best interpreters of their thoughts.” John Locke

November 4, 2015


One of the most radical and attractive things about Buddhist ethics is that the rightness or wrongness of an action is not to do with some arbitrary set of rules developed by a deity, but is based on the intention behind the action.

If an action is fueled by craving, hatred, or delusion, then it’s considered to be unskillful, and if it’s not based on those qualities, but instead is based on qualities such as “renunciation” (which would include contentment and generosity), kindness, compassion, and mindfulness, then it’s considered skillful.

For this reason, Buddhism is often said to have an “ethic of intention.” This, however, can be misleading. What determines the ethical status of unskillful … Read more »

Hiding from pain by pursuing pleasure

August 13, 2015

Fun fair long exposure Photo taken at the fun fair of Hoorn

There’s a famous teaching, the Sallatha Sutta, in which the Buddha discusses our suffering as consisting of “two arrows.” The first arrow is simply the unavoidable suffering that we all experience as a result of being human. We’re all going to experience loss, hurt feelings, physical pain, illness, etc. The wise person simply observes this pain mindfully. The unwise person responds to suffering through resistance: “Why is this happening to me? This is terrible!”

The Buddha called this reaction “grief, sorrow and lamentation,” and he pointed out that this was like responding to the first arrow with a second one! Our resistance to pain simply causes further pain—perhaps even more than we’d originally experienced. … Read more »

When the Buddha quit

July 8, 2015

Portrait of Lord BuddhaThere’s a discourse in the Buddhist scriptures that’s long intrigued me, and which I think can be interpreted as giving an account of a time that the Buddha quit as head of the monastic community. The discourse itself seems confused and contradictory, which suggests to me that the monks who passed it on weren’t sure how to handle it, and may have tried to tone down what actually happened. On the other hand maybe I’m reading too much into this particular sutta. You can make up your own mind.

The discourse in question is the Cātumā Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya, 67). It tells of a time that the Buddha was on the outskirts of a town … Read more »

Pop Art Buddhas

May 16, 2015


“Pop art,” Wikipedia tells us, “is an art movement that emerged in the mid-1950s in Britain and in the late 1950s in the United States … Pop art presented a challenge to traditions of fine art by including imagery from popular culture such as advertising, news, etc. In pop art, material is sometimes visually removed from its known context, isolated, and/or combined with unrelated material.”

For some reason I found myself using Google’s images search to look for Pop Art representations of the Buddha. There’s rather a lot of them out there, and I’ve included a few here, with links so that you can support the artists, if you’re so inclined. (None of these are … Read more »

The Buddha’s radical path of jhāna

September 2, 2014

Stone Buddha statueJhāna — a progressive series of meditative states of absorption — is a controversial topic in Buddhism. This should be rather amazing given that the Buddhist scriptures emphasize jhāna so strongly. In the Eightfold Path, Right Concentration is consistently defined as the four jhānas. The Buddha said things like “There is no jhāna for him who lacks insight, and no insight for him who lacks jhāna.” The jhānas are enumerated over and over again in the Pāli scriptures. They’re also implicit in teachings like the Seven Bojjhaṅgas, the 12 positive nidānas, and the Ānāpānasati Sutta, which mention various of the jhāna factors.

Despite the scriptural importance of jhāna, some teachers, like Thich Nhat Hanh, have … Read more »

Step two – seeing how we can create extra suffering in our lives

September 1, 2014

Stick with the first dartThe Buddha was asked, what is the difference between how an ordinary person and a wise person responds to pain? He replied with the analogy of the two darts. All of us experience pain – whether that is physical pain like catching your finger in the door or mental pain such as when someone rejects you. This is the first dart, which we could call primary suffering.

An ordinary person then gets caught up in trying to push away or avoid the pain; in blaming themselves or others, or feeling self-pity. This has the effect of making matters worse: the second dart, which we can call secondary suffering. A wise person just has the first … Read more »

Rebirth and radical honesty

May 3, 2014

wispThis morning I had an email from Sheila, one of our newsletter subscribers. She’d shared the article called “The Buddha’s Wager” with a Buddhist friend, and wasn’t sure how to address the points her friend had raised. So here’s what her friend had written:

i find it fascinating that ‘sceptics’ want to know how consciousness can survive the death of the brain – when we have no inkling of how consciousness arises in a living brain – to me it’s as much of a leap of faith to believe that other people are conscious as it is to believe that ‘my’ consciousness can survive the death of my body. we are all profoundly

Read more »

“The Buddha’s Wager”

April 30, 2014

Homer Simpson and GodIn the 17th century, the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal outlined his famous “wager,” attempting to make a case for why we should believe in God. Briefly, the wager rested on the assumption that their either is or is not a God, that no logical proof can be make for either proposition, and that believing or not believing is a coin toss that we can’t avoid making. Weighing up the consequences of the coin toss, Pascal pointed out that “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.” Therefore, he argued, we should unhesitatingly believe in God, in order that we might win an “infinity of an infinitely happy life.”

Better minds … Read more »

The Buddha in proportion

March 26, 2014


These rather gorgeous images are from an eighteenth-century book consisting of 36 ink drawings showing precise iconometric guidelines for depicting the Buddha and other figures. I stumbled across it today on a site called The Public Domain Review, which draws attention to non-copyright media of all sorts that are available for general use.

As the site points out, “The concept of the ‘ideal image’ of the Buddha emerged during the Golden Age of Gupta rule, from the 4th to 6th century. As well as the proportions, other aspects of the depiction – such as number of teeth, color of eyes, direction of hairs – became very important.”

It’s worth checking out the other images

Right intention

March 26, 2014

lighted candlesOf course, the first question regarding intention is, for what?

All the great wisdom traditions of the world, and all the great moral philosophers, have grappled with this question. What should we want?

There are many ways to approach this question. Some try to answer it in terms of discerning the will or desires of their sense of a Divine influence, of God. Others through resort to certain ideals or abstractions. And others through reliance on some kind of authority, such as a priestly class or a scripture.

In the case of the Buddha – and also some moral philosophers – he approached this question pragmatically, in terms of what leads to more or less … Read more »