Posts by Bodhipaksa

Forgiveness as a practice of compassion

A post-it note on a wooden desk, reading "sorry"

One of the emotional drivers of cruel and unkind behavior is resentment. Resentment is when we hold onto past hurt, locking ourselves into a pattern of blame. Unable to let go of the past we keep bringing up a memory of someone hurting us, betraying us, or failing to protect us. Every time we do so we experience the hurt anew. And every time we hurt ourselves we feel a renewed burst of ill will.

There’s something about this that I’d like to clear up, and that’s the misapprehension that we somehow store old emotions in the subconscious, from where they make appearances from time to time. This model dates back to Freud, at least, and is based on a model of emotion that we now know to be wrong. It’s a tempting view, however, especially given that we often, as I’ve described above, experience the hurt accompanying an old memory. But what’s actually happening, according both to Buddhist teachings on the mind and modern psychology, is that the feeling of hurt is being recreated over and over again, every time that the memory is triggered. Every time you feel the hurt, it’s a new hurt. Every time the hurt gives rise to anger or self-hatred, it’s a new emotion that you’re experiencing.

Also see:

We get trapped in cycles of resentment instinctively. It’s not exactly something we plan to do. It’s a habit we share with other animals. A favorite example of mine is crows, who develop resentment against researchers who have caged and banded them. They can maintain these attitudes—which involve scolding calls, accompanied by wing- and tail-flicking, and mobbing—for years. The signs of resentment they show spread through entire communities and can grow over time as new members of the community learn from others.

The example of the crows is a good reminder that we don’t choose to have resentment as part of our emotional make-up. It’s part of our genetic inheritance. And so it’s pointless and needlessly painful for us to blame ourselves for the mere fact of being prone to resentment.

We can also learn from the crows that resentment is about both punishment and protection. We want to punish those who have hurt us or those close to us. We want them to know they have done something unacceptable. The aim is to stop them from repeating the hurtful act. We’re trying to change their behavior. (Notice that we’re once more back to Punishment Culture.)

Resentment can be painful for those it’s directed at, but it’s certainly painful for us. In fact in many cases it causes us far more suffering than it causes the other person. There’s a saying in AA that resentment is like swallowing rat poison and waiting for the other person to die. A much older saying from the Buddhist tradition is that resentment is like picking up feces to throw it at another person; you might make them smell but the only person guaranteed to be punished is yourself.

These are useful reflections to bear in mind, because they help make resentment look less attractive. When we catch ourselves in the midst of resentful reactivity, we can help weaken the emotion by reminding ourselves of its consequences.

Forgiveness is the opposite of resentment. Forgiveness is a willingness to let go of ill will. And we can do this both because we want to stop hurting another person and because we want to stop hurting ourselves.

It can hard for us to forgive because we think that to keep ourselves safe we have to keep reminding the other person that they have transgressed so that they don’t do it again, and we have to keep reminding ourselves that this person has the capacity to hurt or harm us. For the first part of that we maybe need to ask ourselves, how much punishment is enough if we want the other person to know we’re upset that they hurt us? Do they already know? If not, will they ever? What would you need from them in order to be sure? Might you have already received it? Or received as much as you’re going to get? Is maintaining the resentment worth the pain you’re causing yourself?

It’s good to remember that you don’t need ill will to protect yourself from another person. If they have the potential to hurt you, you can simply know that, and be on the look-out for signs that they might do so. You can keep your guard up (if that’s needed) without hatred or resentment, simply by knowing. You can trust yourself on this.

However you don’t have to trust the other person. if they’re untrustworthy, remember that. Don’t give them your trust. Resentment doesn’t need to be involved.

Having talked about untrustworthy people who want to hurt or harm us, in my experience a lot of resentment is against people who have no ongoing desire to do us wrong. They may even be people we love and who love us. Especially in those cases, since loving relationships are so precious, I suggest being quick to forgive.

The self-compassion practices I’ve outlined are ideal for helping us let go of resentments:

  1. Recognize you’re causing yourself suffering.
  2. Drop the resentful story.
  3. Drop down into the body, find your pain, and accept it.
  4. Offer compassion and reassurance to the suffering part of you.

In this way you help heal the unhealed hurt, so that it ceases to ask, over and over again, to be protected by your ill will — a form of protection that can never truly protect you. Self-compassion gives our hurt the protection ill-will promises but can never deliver.

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The importance of emulation in compassion

concentric circles of bright colors

In some versions of the  lovingkindness (metta bhavana) meditation practice we start by calling to mind a benefactor — someone who has been kind to us. The significance of this is that we’re remembering what kindness is like, connecting experientially with it so that we remember what it’s like to be looked at with kind eyes, to hear kind words in a kind tone of voice, to see kind body-language, and to be on the receiving end of kind actions. This makes kindness real for us, so that we can become kinder ourselves.

The reason I think this is important is that in cultivating kindness and compassion we’re all limited, and we’re all in need of outside help in order to become less limited.

Also see:

We all have genetic and cultural conditioning that makes it hard for us to cultivate compassion. We might aspire to be kind and compassionate, and although sometimes we will succeed, we will often struggle. Sometimes we fail to notice suffering or respond compassionately to it. Sometimes we behave in ways that make people suffer. We have blind spots that prevent us from even recognizing that we are acting unkindly or harshly.

We often just don’t know how to act differently. I was brought up in a household where I didn’t witness many examples of kindness and compassion, but instead saw a lot of criticism and harshness, and where suffering was often dismissed. Those were behavioral patterns that were impressed into the substrate of my developing brain, just as they’d been impressed into my parents’ brains, and into their parents’. This kind of conditioning causes the very blind spots I was talking about.

People who had the blessings of a genuinely empathetic and compassionate upbringing have very different patterns imprinted in their neural pathways. They know what compassion looks like, sounds like, and feels like. They know how to behave when face with someone’s suffering.

Ultimately, we’re never going to figure out compassion all by ourselves. We can make a certain amount of progress on our own, but our most powerful breakthroughs and insights are likely to come from learning from other people. That learning might come from a book, course, or video, or perhaps more likely just from seeing examples of compassionate behavior in action. Witnessing compassion can be an “aha!” moment. We realize, “Oh, wow! It’s possible to act like that!” And in that way we begin to transcend the limitations of our conditioning.

So you might want to remember instances of others behaving compassionately toward you. This doesn’t have to be just in meditation. You can remember instances of forgiveness and understanding, even of someone just listening patiently to you. Repeatedly calling those memories to mind, you imprint those patterns on our neural pathways. You build the realization, Yes, I can act like that. You make it more likely that you’ll act compassionately in the future.

Compassion spreads from mind to mind through a slow virality: sometimes from parent to child, teacher to student, or friend to friend. This is why the world has, on the whole has been becoming a better place over the last few millennia. (Admittedly a pattern of progress with some ups and downs.) Compassion has been imprinting itself upon our minds.

It’s good if we remember that we are part of this process. We can be the examples of compassion that influence others, and make them realize, “Wow! It’s possible for someone to behave like that! Maybe I can do that too!”

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Why it’s important to meditate every day

Buddha meditating

I used to envy people who were able to meditate every day, because it was something I struggled with. Certain people just didn’t have a problem with meditating daily, but I found it hard.

I’d have successful runs of a few weeks, and then I’d end up not meditating one day. And that perceived failure led to me missing more days, on the dubious assumption that if I couldn’t do something perfectly there was no point even trying.

Eventually I did manage to become one of the people I used to envy, able to meditate every day. I’ve shared how I achieved that here in this blog and also in a course I created, called “Get Your Sit Together.”

Also see:

But you may wonder, why even try to meditate every day? You may experience benefits from sporadic meditation and not see the importance of becoming what I call a “rock-solid daily meditator.”

So I’d like to share some of the reasons I think it’s important.

Putting First Things First

Meditation is one of the most important things I do in my life. It changes everything. The mindfulness that I develop, the kindness that I develop in my meditation practice, the insights that I have from my practice, all change my life in many, many ways that make me happier and also make me a better person to be around.

And that for me is a very important motivation. I want to be a better person to be around and have a more positive influence on people around about me and not to be an asshole because that can happen.

The things that squeezed meditation out of my schedule were always less important in the great scheme of things. Spending time on social media, or watching TV, or working are just not important enough that we should allow them to stop us meditating regularly. No one on their death bed is going to think, “I’m glad I spent so much time at the office,” or “Looking back, I’m most proud of binge-watching Supernatural.”

Even things like family and intimate relationships shouldn’t get in the way. I’m not saying those things are unimportant. They’re very important. But the quality of those human relationships is going to be better if we have a regular meditation practice. Meditation gives us an opportunity to be better human beings: better parents, better partners, better friends and mentors. So it’s worth taking time out for practice.

Going Deeper In Our Practice

If we practice anything regularly, with the conscious intent to get better at it, then we’re more likely to see progress. It doesn’t matter whether that’s tennis, or cooking, or meditation. If we’re prepared to learn from what doesn’t work so well and what works better, then we’ll see progress. And seeing progress is encouraging.

My meditation practice doesn’t get steadily deeper and deeper. It’s more like a long, winding path with highs and lows. But on the whole it’s more inclined to be creative and enjoyable and transformative if I’m doing it regularly.

Experiencing the Benefits of Practice.

Meditation has lots of benefits.  It has social benefits, emotional benefits, and health benefits. Consistency allows us to experience those benefits more consistently. We’ll be healthier and happier if we keep our practice regular.

It’s just like if you only went to the gym or a yoga class once in a while rather than having a regular schedule; you’ll see some benefits, but not as much as you could.

Not Letting Fear Rule Your Life.

In the days when I found myself unable to motivate myself to meditate and got caught up in other things, it was often about avoidance of feelings. There was often some kind of restlessness or dissatisfaction within myself and I did not want to sit down and face that.

So there was fear involved in avoiding meditation.

Now, I don’t want my life to be dominated by fear. I don’t want my life to be manipulated by my fears. I feel good when I overcome my fears, when I face them squarely and overcome them. I feel more in control of my life. I feel more fearless.

Feeling Better About Yourself

When you see yourself as the kind of person who can’t meditate every day, you don’t feel good about yourself. It seems that other people have will-power, and you don’t. You’re lacking.

It turns out that will-power isn’t what we need in order to meditate every day. It’s about intelligently using strategies to make it easier to sit than to do something else. It literally can get to the point where it feels unthinkable to miss a day. You probably feel that way about brushing your teeth. if it can feel that way for that activity, it can be that way for meditation as well.

And once you do manage to sit every day, you feel good about yourself. You shed that view of being “lacking” and defective. You feel strong and confident.

Instead of believing you’re the kind of person who can’t meditate every day, you know that you do meditate every day. It’s just what you do. It’s part of who you are.

I feel good when I’m meditating every day. I feel good being faithful to my practice. I feel good being faithful to myself, being faithful to my intention to keep practicing.

So those are some of the reasons why I find it helpful to meditate every day. And I enjoy sharing with others how to bring that about.

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Reflections on the death of my mother

Photo from a photobooth, from 1961, showing a young woman with glasses holding a baby. She's smiling, while he's looking startled and overawed by the experience.

It’s my birthday today, and it’s unlike any I can remember from my now 63 years on this planet.

It’s the first birthday I’ve had since my mother* passed away on Christmas Eve, just 11 days ago.

My younger sister died just over a year ago, and I wrote then about how my practice helped me with the grief I felt. I’m not going to write about grief today, mainly because my primary emotions have been of relief and gratitude that she didn’t suffer longer. Her last days were pretty grim as she struggled to breathe, and things were only going to get worse. Today I want to look in a different direction.

Also see:

On previous birthdays my focus has usually been on myself: I am a year older. I have completed another cycle around the sun. Happy Birthday to me!

Now I’m more aware of the “birth” part of birthday. Today is the anniversary of the day that my mother gave birth to me. So today seems more about her than it is about me.

She carried me inside her body for more than nine months (I was fashionably late). I grew from a single cell into a baby nourished entirely by her; her body became my body.

Today I very much have a sense that I am a part of her that has, in a way, budded off and continues her existence in the world, even though she is no longer here. My life is a continuation of her life.

As I wrote in my book, Living as a River, parts of our mother often live on within us.

During gestation…

[C]ells from your mother’s body can cross the placental barrier and infiltrate your own body, in a process called “microchimerism.” These maternal cells can settle down anywhere in the body, including the blood, heart, liver, and thymus gland … These cellular interlopers have been shown to live within the offspring’s body for decades, and they may be with us for life. You are not just you, you’re your mother too.

These cells have been found in the pancreases of diabetic individuals, pumping out the insulin that the person can’t manufacture themselves. They’ve been found in damaged heart tissue, and are thought to be trying to repair it.

My mother may still be within me, trying to keep me healthy. (Admittedly, though, some autoimmune disease is believed to be a reaction to the presence of certain material cells.)

My brain and mind were profoundly shaped by her. My first experience of love was her love. We know from the horrible experiments done by Harry Harlow on baby rhesus monkeys how maternal deprivation destroys children. As one description of Harlow’s work says,

[T]he monkeys showed disturbed behavior, staring blankly, circling their cages, and engaging in self-mutilation. When the isolated infants were re-introduced to the group, they were unsure of how to interact — many stayed separate from the group, and some even died after refusing to eat.

Harlow’s experiment also proves the converse: the gift of love creates our humanity. Not our biological, chromosomal humanity, but our sense of ourselves as thinking, feeling beings connected in love with other thinking, feeling beings.

This was one of my mother’s gifts to me.

A child initially learns most of its language from its mother. The fact that I’m using language to communicate with you now is me passing that particular gift from her.

There are many character traits I picked up from her as well, not through conscious imitation but through unconscious imprinting. Some of those traits are helpful and some less so, but the point is that here too my life is a continuation of her life.

She inherited character traits from her parents, and they from theirs. As with the presence of maternal cells in our bodies, this is by no means all positive. Perhaps my task in life is to take the best of what has been passed on to me and amplify it, and to take the worst and eradicate it. And thus I can pass on the best of my mother to the world — not just through my children, but through all my contacts with other human beings.

My mother died on Christmas Eve. So I’ve now gone through one Christmas, New Year, and birthday without her. There’s a certain amount of grief been present, and there may be more to come — perhaps especially when those celebrations come around again — but that will fade. The love and gratitude, however, will remain.

*Her name was Eleanor Dorothy Stephen. She was born 16th March, 1938. Her birth certificate lists her family name as Tragheim, but she always went by Tragham, my grandad having begun to adopt a less German-sounding last name during the war.

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Made a New Year’s resolution to meditate daily? Here’s how to make it happen

Illustration of a New Year's resolution list, with one item on it: "Quit making New Year's resolutions."

It’s early January, and many people who made New Year’s resolutions are already going “Oops!” as they realize they’ve already missed a morning at the gym, binged on something unhealthy, or forgotten to meditate.

It’s very hard to change habits.

The habit I’m most interested in is daily meditation, which is something I nailed a long time ago. Mostly my interest is in helping other people to establish that habit. It’s something I struggled with for many years, until finally I had a breakthrough. I’ve shared that breakthrough with many people, and it’s helped them too.

The breakthrough doesn’t consist of just one thing. In fact the breakthrough involves recognizing that there is no one thing that will get you to the point where you’re what I call a Rock-Solid Daily Meditator. What we need is to build up an interlocking suite of tools and strategies that support daily meditation.

Also see:

None of those tools and strategies relies on willpower. In fact, willpower is fairly useless. One study showed that a six-week training course in self-control failed to help participants to change any habits whatsoever in their lives. Even worse, participants noted that the main side-effect of the training was that they felt emotionally drained. Researchers have also found that people who are good at resisting temptations are those who don’t feel tempted in the first place, meaning that they don’t even need self-control. For example, those who apparently have good self-control tend to avoid putting themselves into positions where they need to resist temptation. Rather than walk past the donut shop and end up battling themselves, they simply walk down a different street. They put the alarm clock on the other side of the room so that they aren’t tempted to stay in bed.

The theory behind willpower is that you can change a habit based on wanting it to change. If you can just wish it hard enough, then it will be so.

The Buddha offered a hilarious illustration of the absurdity of this proposition:

Suppose a man were to throw a large boulder into a deep lake of water, and a great crowd of people, gathering and congregating, would pray, praise, and circumambulate with their hands palm-to-palm over the heart [saying,] ‘Rise up, O boulder! Come floating up, O boulder! Come float to the shore, O boulder!’ What do you think: would that boulder — because of the prayers, praise, and circumambulation of that great crowd of people — rise up, come floating up, or come float to the shore?

Well, I think it’s hilarious!

What the Buddha points out is that if you want something to happen, it’s not enough just to want it. You have to do the things that support that thing happening.

So here are some of the key points that I teach people who want to meditate daily.

Set easily attainable goals

You go to a meditation class and do 30- or 40-minute meditations. And the teacher tells you that you should practice every day. So you try to fit a 30- or 40-minute meditation into your already busy lifestyle and find — surprise, surprise — that it’s hard to do this.

Yes, some people are able to carve out that amount of time each day for a new habit, but most people can’t. And it’s not because of a lack of willpower, any more than not being able to get your size 8 feet into a pair of size 6 shoes is because of a lack of willpower. You’re simply trying something that’s almost impossible.

So instead, aim to sit for just five minutes every day.

Yes, it’s not a lot of time. But that’s the point. Everyone has five minutes to spare every day. If you’re pressed, you can head to the bathroom at work and meditate in a stall. You can meditate for five minutes after you’ve finished reading your child to sleep. You can meditate in the car when you arrive at work, or meditate on the bus or train.

I’m not saying that five minutes is enough. Sure, it can be enough to bring about a little more calm, but it probably isn’t going to change your entire day.

But what it does do is to help you create and sustain a powerful habit. Because once you’re meditating for five minutes a day, you find that it’s not that hard to increase it to eight minutes, ten minutes, fifteen, twenty … and now you’re doing something that really can change your whole day, and even your whole life.

Hack the meaning of the word “day”

A day, for the purposes of meditating daily, is not the 24 hours between one midnight and the next (a “clock day”), but is the time between waking and going back to sleep again (an “organic day”).

This gets us around the problem of going to bed after midnight and realizing that you haven’t sat yet. If you’re counting by clock days, you’re screwed. If you’re on organic days, you can pull off a quick five minute sit and you’re still on track.

Plan

All the above is vital, but even more vital is that you actually do need to have the intention to meditate daily. I don’t mean simply having a vague thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if I meditated every day, instead of just every now and then.” I mean “It would be good to meditate every day; how can I make that happen?”

So we’re back to doing the things that support the habit of daily meditation, rather than trying to “wish” it into existence.

To meditate daily requires planning. Planning makes manifest your intention. It takes the idea or desire, and brings it into the world as an actual thing.

So you need to plan. When are you going to meditate? For how long? How are you going to time it? Are you going to use a guided meditation? Are you going to do it with someone, even if they’re not physically present with you, but instead you’re on a Zoom call or phone call with them?

If you don’t plan, but hope that you’ll somehow fit your five minutes in sometime, you’ll fail. You’ll forget. You’ve don’t have even a wish at that point, never mind an intention.

Beware of the inner voice that says, “I don’t like planning. I want to be spontaneous!” That’s the part of you that doesn’t want to meditate speaking. It wants you to spontaneously do something other than meditate.

So be clear in your planning.

Plan again

Planning is great. But there’s a saying along the lines of “You make plans, and the universe laughs.”

Events are going to crop up that get in the way of your meditation. You’ve decided to sit before you leave for work, and one of your kids gets sick, or there’s a work emergency that means you have to leave early, or your alarm doesn’t go off, or someone knocks on the door asking you to support some cause or other. The permutations are endless.

Research shows that people who have a Plan B are vastly more likely to stick at their habits. They anticipate what they will do if Plan A is frustrated. They have a backup plan that’s just as specific as Plan A was.

One implication of this is that if your Plan A is to meditate just before going to sleep, then you can’t have a plan B. So that tells you that planning to meditate last thing at night is okay as a standby in emergencies, but it’s not good for a regular practice.

Hack your sense of self

Once you have a few consecutive days of meditation under your belt, you can bring on the most powerful strategy I know of for supporting a daily meditation practice. It’s a simple mantra, to be repeated frequently:

“I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am.”

What this does is change your sense of who you are.

If you’ve tried and failed to set up a daily meditation practice before, you build into your sense of self the idea, “I am the kind of person who can’t keep up a daily meditation practice. I lack the willpower.”

This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you believe you can’t meditate daily, you won’t. You’ll hit one of those times when you don’t really feel like meditating, and because you think of yourself as someone who can’t meditate every day and doesn’t meditate every day, you’ll cave and end up missing a sit.

When you repeatedly say “I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am,” this too becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You hit the same crisis point where you really don’t feel like meditating, but you say to yourself, “Snap out of it! I meditate every day. It’s just what I do.” And you sit.

It’s this tool more than any other that’s kept me meditating daily. And I know that some of my students have found themselves meditating for several thousand straight days as a result.

But prepare for slip-ups

I felt terrible the first time that I missed a day after many months of meditating consistently. I felt like I’d failed. Like I should give up.

With me it was the result of being very busy with work and having two young kids to take care of. I was so frazzled that I forgot to create a Plan B, went to bed without even realizing I hadn’t sat, and work up the next morning feeling the way I would if I’d accidentally driven over a beloved pet.

Fortunately I pulled myself together and kept going, although I know others haven’t.

I think of missing a day as a slip-up, not a failure.

I think of missing a day as an opportunity to learn. Have I been forgetting my mantra? Have I forgotten to plan? To have a Plan B? If a day were to come up again that was as crazy as that one, how would I do things differently?

Other strategies

I have a ton more strategies, but I can’t cram them into one already very long blog post.

If you want to learn more, I have a Get Your Sit Together online course running at present, which you’re free to join. I also have a four-week live Get Your Sit Together course through the New York Insight Meditation Center coming up (it’s on Zoom), and you can register for that through their website. Both of these include community support, and if I’d had time to write about one more strategy above, it would have been the power of friendship and community.

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“Soft eyes, kind eyes”

close-up of a stone buddha head, focusing on its soft, half-open eyes.

The Buddha said that it was possible to dislodge unhelpful thoughts (those that make us suffer unnecessarily) with the use of more helpful thoughts. He compared this to the way a carpenter could dislodge wooden peg out of a hole by hammering a smaller peg against it.

This principle is incredibly useful in meditation, and it can be employed in a large number of ways. One popular application of this is the use of mantras, which can be chanted out loud or repeated in the mind. A mantra such as Om Mani Padme Hum, when repeated in this way, leaves less mental space for thinking. The mantra is a thought that, like a small pin applied skillfully, dislodges the larger pin of thoughts that are unhelpful because they’re expressions of worry, resentment, self-doubt, and so on.

Also see:

While you’re chanting a mantra you might not notice much happening, but afterward you feel calmer and more relaxed because you’ve given your brain and body a break from habitual patterns of thought that chip away at your sense of well-being.

Sometimes the pegs we use as tools are not traditional Sanskrit mantras, but are phrases in English. I find that these are most effective when they point us toward our experience.

A set of phrases I use a lot is “Soft Eyes, Open Field of Attention; Kind Eyes, Meeting Everything With Tenderness.” I’d like to explain why and how I use those four particular phrases.

First, the Why

“Soft Eyes”: If you know anything at all about my teaching from the last ten years or more, you’ll be aware that I almost always start a guided meditation by reminding people to soften the eyes.

“Soft eyes” means letting the muscles around the eyes be at ease, and letting the focus in the eyes be soft. You can try that right now, although you might want to look away from the screen. You’ll probably find that this is almost instantly relaxing, and that your mind becomes calmer very quickly.

Our minds are often on edge, roaming restlessly, looking for some problem that we need to pay attention to. In other words they’re controlled much of the time by the sympathetic nervous system, responsible for the so-called “fight or flight” reflex. Much of this problem-seeking involves the eyes, which stay narrowly focused and which are in constant motion.

Softening the eyes (soft focus) and letting them be still (the muscles around them being at rest) triggers the parasympathetic nervous system, which brings our system back to calm, rest, and relaxation.

With tight eyes, and the sympathetic nervous system active, we find that even in meditation the mind is still problem-solving. It’s restlessly picking through various aspects of our lives, looking for those things we’re worried about, angry about, depressed about, and so on. There’s lots of distraction.

With soft eyes, and the parasympathetic nervous system activated, the mind feels safer and loses its restlessness. It no longer needs to find problems to solve. And so it does less thinking. There’s less distraction.

So this is why I say, “Soft Eyes.” It’s a reminder for us to let the eyes be soft.


(The video above introduces the practice of “soft eyes.”)

“Open Field of Attention”: The habitual tightness we carry around in the eyes, with its narrows focus, leads to us fixating on a very narrow part of our visual field. When we close the eyes in meditation, we maintain this narrow focus in our inner field of attention.

I’ve often asked meditators to “draw” over the surface of the body what it is they’re observing when they’re doing “mindfulness of the breathing.” Because they have tight eyes and a narrow focus. most indicate a very small area, which doesn’t offer enough sensation for the mind to become fascinated by and absorbed in. And so they find they get distracted a lot.

When the eyes are soft, our inner field of attention is gentler and more open. Our attention is more expansive and receptive. We find that we’re able to sense many sensations of the breathing at once. We may even find that we can be aware of the whole body breathing. This is a very rich experience. it’s fascinating and we find it absorbing. It’s easier for us to keep observing the breathing without getting distracted all the time.

“Soft eyes” triggers an “open field of attention.” One follow naturally from the other. Nevertheless, it’s good to remind ourselves to notice what’s in our open field of attention.

Saying “Open field of attention” is a reminder to let our inner field of attention be expansive and receptive, and for us to notice the incredible richness that’s arising there.

“Kind Eyes”: Saying “kind eyes” is a way of bringing kindness into our present-moment experience. We can recall a time we looked with love — at a child, a lover, a friend, a pet — and let the eyes become kind now, as they were then. After a while we no longer need to access that kind of memory. We can simply remember what it’s like to have kind eyes, and drop back into that experience.

In saying “kind eyes” we’re directing our attention back to the eyes, reminding ourselves to connect with kindness.

“Meeting Everything With Tenderness”: Just as the eyes being soft changes our inner field of attention, causing it to be more open, expansive, and receptive, so letting the eyes become kind changes the way we pay attention internally. In this case it brings warmth, patience, kindness, compassion, and acceptance into our experience. We can find that we meet our distractions, our feelings, and even painful sensations with warmth.

Saying “meeting everything with tenderness” reminds us to bring kindness deeply into our being.


(The video above uses slightly different phrasing. More about that below.)

The How

I use the breathing to pace how quickly or slowly I drop these phrases into the mind, and to help keep my mind on track.

Pacing means balancing saying and listening.

Saying the phrases directs our attention to these various parts of our experience: softening the eyes, noticing the richness that’s arising in our open field of attention, letting kindness arise, and and bringing kindness into our whole being.

But if we’re speaking all the time, we might not be allowing ourselves to actually be with those experiences. We might not really notice them. We might not be allowing ourselves to go deeply into them.

We’re basically just talking to ourselves, and not letting ourselves have a chance to feel.

So generally I’ll say one of the phrases on an out-breath, and then leave two or three cycles of the breathing where I say nothing, and instead simply observe the experience that the phrase is pointing to.

Then I’ll drop in the next phrase, and so exactly the same thing. And I’ll continue like that through all four phrases, and then repeat.

However, if I’m particularly distractible I’ll tighten up the pacing. If I’ve been dropping in a phrase every third breath and keep getting distracted, I’ll start dropping in the phrases every two breaths. If I’m really distractible, then I might say a phrase on every breath. As I said above, this has the drawback that it doesn’t leave much time for being with our actual experience. But it’s better to do that than to get continually distracted.

Conversely, if things are going well then I might drop in the phrases less often. I might get to the point where I don’t even say the phrases; I just do what they’re describing (noticing soft eyes, noticing the body, noticing kindness in the eyes, bringing that kindness to meet every experience).

So there’s scope in this practice for fine-tuning as you go, adapting to changing conditions.

I also sometimes change the phrases. Sometimes instead of “soft eyes, open field of attention” I’ll say “soft eyes, body alive.” It’s basically the same thing, except that in the second case I’m more explicitly directing my attention toward the contents of the open field of attention. And sometimes instead of “meeting everything with tenderness” it’ll be “meeting everything with love” or “meeting everything with love.”

Although people sometimes assume that all thinking in meditation is to be avoided, thinking can be used consciously as a tool. Thoughts can direct our attention toward our immediate sensory experience. Thought can help drive out thoughts and quiet the mind.

You can play around with this tool as well. Make it your own. Find out what works for you.

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The puzzle of “skillful” and “unskillful” as ethical terms

Man practicing piano in a darkened room, with the piano illuminated by a desk lamp.

One of the things that struck me as odd when I first encountered the Buddha’s teachings was the terms he used when he discussed living ethically or morally: “skillful” (kusala) and “unskillful” (akusala).

Maybe these terms are new to you. Or maybe they’re so familiar that you’ve stopped thinking about them. Either way, they are an unusual way to talk about morality.

The most common terms for describing ethical actions are good and bad, right and wrong, and good and evil. These are the terms most of us grew up hearing.

It’s not that the Buddha never used that kind language. Particularly when he was composing poetry, or when he was speaking to uneducated people, he’d use the word puñña, which means merit or “good,” and pāpa, which means bad or evil.

See also

But when he was talking technically, to serious Dharma practitioners — monks, nuns, and those householders who were dedicated disciples — he used these words “skillful” and “unskillful.”

No one can know for sure why Buddha chose those terms, but what might he have had in mind?

What is Skill?

So let’s think about what skill is. What does it mean to do something in a skilled way?

My understanding is that if you have skill you’re able to achieve something challenging that you set out to do. That’s the definition of being skilled.

So a skilled carpenter has the idea they’re going to make, say, a beautiful coffee table. And lo and behold, a beautiful coffee table appears. They have the skill to be able to create it. A skilled potter, wants to make a particular kind of pot. And because they’ve done a lot of practice, because they know what they’re doing, they’re able to make that kind of pot. They have the skill to accomplish what they set out to do. A person who lacks skill cannot do that. So that’s what it means to be skilled, or unskilled.

Skillful and Unskillful As Ethical Terms

Now, the Buddha used these terms, skilled and unskilled, in an ethical sense.

What does it mean to have skill in an ethical sense? Well, ethics is a part of practice. The Buddha talked about “the threefold training” which comprised ethics, meditation, and wisdom. These are three things we train in. Training itself is about developing skill, so there’s a consistent theme here.

What are we training for when we do spiritual practice? What is the point of practice? The point of practice is to have better lives, and to help other people to have that experience as well. It’s to liberate ourselves from suffering. It’s to become happier, more content, more fulfilled, and to have more of a sense of meaning in our lives.

Ethics Is Not About Being Good

It might sound deeply contradictory to say that ethics is not about being good, but I think that’s a faith claim to make about ethics in Buddhism. The Buddha didn’t tell us to abandon greed, hatred, and delusion because they are evil, but because they cause suffering. He said that if they didn’t cause suffering, then he wouldn’t tell us to abandon them:

If giving up the unskillful led to harm and suffering, I would not say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ But giving up the unskillful leads to welfare and happiness, so I say: ‘Give up the unskillful.’ (AN 2.19)

Skillful and Unskillful Qualities and Actions

Just as a carpenter shows skill when they intend to create a beautiful piece of furniture and are successful, so we’re ethically skillful when we have the aim of living in ways that free us from suffering and that help others be free from suffering, and are successful in accomplishing that aim.

We’re unskillful when we aim to be free from suffering but end up creating pain and confusion.

The thoughts, words, and actions that free us from suffering are skillful. Those that do the opposite are unskillful.

When the Buddha talked about ethics he pointed out that there were two trends in the mind. (See MN 19) The mind can act based on selfish craving, hatred, or a lack of understanding. And those things will lead to suffering. He called these “unskillful.”

The other trend is that the mind acts with mindfulness and exhibits qualities such as patience, courage, kindness, empathy, compassion, appreciation, and so on. These are things that free us from suffering and bring peace and happiness. He called these ethical qualities “skillful.”

So we’re acting skillfully when we’re exercising skillful qualities — that is, qualities that help us move closer to the goal of freeing ourselves from suffering. We’re acting unskillfully when we’re in the grip of unskillful states of mind that create suffering.

So this is what I think the Buddha perhaps had in mind when he was using these terms — skillful and unskillful — which seem, at first glance quite unusual.

Why This Matters

It’s an interesting shift of perspective to think about ethics in terms of skill. It’s quite different from how we might have been raised to see things. We may have been raised to see things in terms of good and bad.
We get caught up in the idea of people themselves being good and bad. But it’s only actions that can be skillful or unskillful. You can’t talk about an unskillful person because no person is entirely skillful or unskillful.

Lots of people think of themselves as being good or bad. They want to present themselves to themselves as being good, which I’ve described elsewhere as a disastrous move. And of course lots of people become convinced that they are bad, or unworthy, and usually they’re sadly mistaken. You may be one of those people, or you probably know some of them. And your impression of them is probably that they are lovely people with many fine qualities. They’re probably kind and thoughtful, and you probably benefit from being with them.

We’re all a mixture of skillful and unskillful qualities. No one is all one or all the other. And spiritual training — or at least a lot of spiritual training — is about, on the one hand, exercising and strengthening the skillful, and on the other hand recognizing and letting go of the unskillful.

Life Is Practice

And this is for me the most important implication of the Buddha’s language of ethics as a skill. Skills are to be practiced and refined. Life — our ordinary everyday actions, and even our thoughts — is where we train. Our mistakes — the times we make ourselves or others suffer — is how we learn.

We can include in our lives constant reflections: did my actions lead to suffering? How could I do this differently in the future? Is what I’m doing or saying now leading to suffering? How can I change what I’m doing? Is this thing I intend to do or say or think likely, based on my past experience, to create unnecessary suffering? How might I act differently? (See MN 61)

Our lives are lessons to be learned. As long as we keep learning from our ethical mistakes, those mistakes are useful ones, because they bring us closer to our goal of living with peace, joy, and meaning.

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Are you afraid of joy?

Image of the Buddha in the style of a colorful painting

On the way to enlightenment, the Buddha-to-be spent many years avoiding pleasure and strengthening his ability to tolerate discomfort. Along with many other people at that time, he practiced austerities, or tapas. This word literally means “heat,” because one form of ascetic practice involved meditating under the hot noon-day sun, sometimes also surrounded (just to make things even more intense) by four fires.

This kind of thing seems weird to us now, but back then it was all the rage among a certain set of spiritual seekers. They understood pleasure and happiness to be inextricably bound up with the weaknesses of the flesh, and believed that to find liberation the mind had to completely master the body. The Buddha-to-be bought into this for a while and did things like holding his breath until he was racked with pain, hauling out his hair and beard by the roots, sleeping on a bed of thorns, and starving himself with extreme fasting. According to his own account he got nothing much out of all this except for bringing himself close to death.

Also read:

After he’d realized the futility of these tapas practices, he began to reflect on where he’d been going wrong, and on what he might try next. The answer came to him in the form of a memory from childhood. As a child he’d been sitting under the shade of a tree, watching his father plow a field, and he’d slipped into a natural meditative state of calm, alert joy. Looking back, he realized that although he’d been afraid of the pleasure that can arise in meditation, this pleasure was in fact completely wholesome. He asked himself:

‘Why am I afraid of that pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures or unskillful qualities?’ Then I thought, ‘I’m not afraid of that pleasure, for it has nothing to do with sensual pleasures or unskillful qualities.’ [Mahāsaccaka Sutta, MN 36]

It struck him that there was something powerful about this state of easeful, non-grasping happiness. In fact, he wondered if this might be the path to the spiritual awakening he’d been seeking, and the moment he asked himself this question, his intuition told him in no uncertain terms, “Yes, this is the path to awakening!”

Although I said that the ascetic practices of ancient India strike us as weird, but there’s something of the spirit of the ascetics of the Buddha’s time in the modern habits of working long hours, feeling guilty about having downtime, and depriving ourselves of sleep so that we can be more productive. The ancients and many of us today both believe that a long-term goal (enlightenment in one case, and “success” in the other) can be achieved by accustoming ourselves to pain and self-denial in the present moment. It’s true that sometimes we have to do things that are challenging in the short term, because they bring future rewards. But sometimes we’re simply misguided, and the pain we subject ourselves to now is a down-payment on future ease and happiness that never actual arrives.

Now you might be thinking, “Wait! So, the Buddha was against asceticism, and yet he and his monastic disciples ate other people’s left-over food, wore rags, wouldn’t listen to music, slept under trees, and owned nothing but their robes and begging bowls? What’s that about?” Let me explain.

The way of life of early Buddhist monastics was certainly austere. They didn’t live in organized monasteries at that time — that was a development that came much later — and as I’ve described they lived very simply. The point of this, however, was not self-punishment. They were trying to keep life simple so that they could focus on spiritual practice. They weren’t afraid of pleasure or happiness as such, just the pleasure and happiness that came from sensual attractions that would draw them into family life and away from a life of full-time mindfulness and meditation.

The Buddha, remember, had come to the realization that he didn’t need to be afraid of pleasure and joy, that there were forms of these things that were skillful, and that the pleasure and joy that come from meditation are in fact the path to awakening. Speaking from my own experience, the times I’ve been consistently happiest have been those when I’ve been on retreat, living a life of extreme simplicity, very little verbal communication and plenty of opportunity to meditate, and with few responsibilities but lots of time to walk silently in nature. What a contrast that is from the stressful business of providing a taxi service for my children, paying bills, and juggling full-time work with maintaining my house and its yard.

The austere life that the early monastic community lived had its challenges. Many monks and nuns missed family life and sexual activity, and this was one of the main reasons that people disrobed. But it was for many others it was a deeply joyful life. They lived in a way that was calm, and full of love and appreciation. Meditation was a part of this.

Although meditation is meant to be enjoyable, lot of contemporary meditators don’t experience it that way. So it’s worth our asking ourselves whether we bring elements of asceticism into our meditation. Do we regard it as “work” — in the sense of a task done dutifully, where its lack of pleasure proves its worthiness? Do we regard it as one of those things that’s not very joyful but will somehow lead to joy arising in the future?

If we wonder about the lack of pleasure in our meditation at all, we may think that some sort of advanced meditation technique might be needed for our sitting practice to be enjoyable, or that perhaps we are in need of some sort of psycho-therapeutic breakthrough. In most cases all we need to do, though, is to let ourselves relax a little and stop taking ourselves so seriously. A question I often ask myself is, “Is there anything I’m doing right now that’s suppressing joy?” In the wake of that question I might notice a slight tension in the body, and let it soften. I might notice a seriousness in my attitude, or a striving after results, and let go of it. And as soon as those things happen, joy arises. It’s as if it’s always been there, waiting for me to relax enough to notice it. And it’s wonderful that joy is so easily found, because when meditation if joyful we find ourselves wanting to return to it, again and again.

Try regarding joy as being always present, waiting for you to find it. Ask yourself, “Is there anything I’m doing right now that’s suppressing joy?” Try this in meditation, and in daily life as well.

Wildmind is supported by a community of sponsors who get access to more than 40 meditation courses I’ve developed in the past, plus opportunities to practice together online. To learn more, click here.

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Four spiritual love languages

Ai-generated images of the Buddha and a nun, in a colorful style that looks like a painting.

Yesterday on Mastodon, which is the only social media site I use at the moment besides the private online community space I host for Wildmind’s sponsors, someone shared a link to a “love languages” quiz.

I’d heard of this concept of love languages before. The blurb on the official website, based on the best-selling book by Dr. Gary Chapman, says,

The premise of The 5 Love Languages® book is quite simple: different people with different personalities give and receive love in different ways. By learning to recognize these preferences in yourself and in your loved ones, you can learn to identify the root of your conflicts, connect more profoundly, and truly begin to grow closer.

The basic idea is that we don’t all have the same ways of expressing love to each other, and therefore we don’t always recognize when someone is showing us love, or understand how to let them feel loved. And that fits with my experience.

For example, if my partner’s way of showing me love is giving small gifts, but I don’t value material possessions and in fact see them as annoying clutter, I might not feel that she intends to show love when she gives me some tchotchke or other. There’s a mismatch in how we interpret the action of giving.

See also:

Conversely, if my partner wants me to show affection with touch, but I’m not a particularly physical person, then she may not feel that she’s being shown love when I give her praise, even though I might consider that to be a clear expression of my love for her. If I offer help, but the other person interprets this as their competence being called into question, then again there’s a mismatch. It is indeed very much as if we were speaking different languages.

I took the quiz, and was told at the end that there were five love languages:

  • Quality Time™
  • Words of Affirmation™
  • Physical Touch™
  • Acts of Service™
  • Receiving Gifts™

I learned that my preferred “languages” were the first three in the list.

(And yes, the quiz included those oddly obsessive trademark signs, although hopefully we’re allowed to talk about things like “quality time” without getting sued.)

When I reflected on my own experience of being in loving relation to others, it seemed to me that the most profound expressions of love were not included in the five languages offered above. So I thought I’d say a few words about other love languages.

My intention isn’t at all to criticize Chapman’s work, but to offer a wider and deeper perspective on communicating love, for those who might find it helpful.

1. Looking With Love

Looking with love and being looked at with love are profound forms of communication. As Jan Chozen Bays wrote in her wonderful book, “How to Train a Wild Elephant,” in a chapter called Loving Eyes: “We know how to use loving eyes when we are falling in love, when we see a new baby or a cute animal. Why do we not use loving eyes more often?”

Not only do we know how to look with loving eyes, but we know what it’s like to be looked at lovingly. It’s one of the most important communications that goes on in loving relationships, whether between partners, or parents and children, or friends.

Looking with loving eyes has become an important part of the way I practice and teach lovingkindness practice. But it’s something we can do anytime.

Although looking with love plays an important part in showing love, it doesn’t fit into the five-fold schema of the love languages. However, it seems to me to be a love language in its own right. And it’s another place where mismatches in communication styles can take place. Some people are more sensitive to loving looks than others. Some people express love through their eyes more than others.

2. Giving Honesty and Showing Vulnerability

Like everyone, I have bad habits. I get irritable at times, for example. When I’ve behaved badly like that I try to apologize as quickly as possible — often within moments. I usually try to explain what was going on in my being as the irritability arose — “I was stressed and tired, I misinterpreted what you said, old conditioning from childhood traumas was triggered,” and so on. I often say she doesn’t deserve to be treated badly. I do these things as an expression of love.

And she is very good herself at doing the same time, letting me know what led to her acting in unhelpful ways. She too does this as an expression of love.

This, to me, is one of the most profound displays of love we can offer. Giving honesty and showing vulnerability involves a great deal of trust. It too is a kind of love language — Look, I love you enough that I will take this risk!  — yet it doesn’t seem to fit at all in the five love languages schema.

There can be mismatches in language. Some people don’t like apologizing, because they think it makes them look weak, and they’ll see another person’s apologies as a sign of submission. Some people can’t receive expressions of vulnerability because their first instinct is to try to “fix” things by making suggestions, rather than listening empathetically.

3. Showing Patience and Forgiveness

The expressions of love that I most appreciate from my partner are when she is patient with me and when she forgives me. When she does those things I really know I’m loved.

When we accept each other as imperfect, and forgive each others’ missteps, we give each other permission to be ourselves, which is an enormous gift. We see ourselves and each other as works-in-progress, which liberates us both from being afraid we’ll never change and from having to pretend we’re perfect. And we also know that the other person is working on their stuff, which offers immense reassurance.

Patience and forgiveness are also languages through which we show love.

There could be mismatches here, too. One person might show patience and forgiveness as an act of love, while the other person takes it as a sign of having got away with something; they aren’t able to reciprocate with the humility and gratefulness that should accompany being offered forgiveness and so can’t benefit from it. Some people even see conflict as a sign of love, and think that patience is equivalent to not caring — If they really loved me they’d be angry. Some people fear being forgiving because they think it will encourage bad behavior, and so they resort to punishing, resentful behaviors, never letting the other person forget that they’ve transgressed.

4. Sharing the Path

The most powerful way I know for us to connect lovingly with each other is for us to talk about our lives and our relationships as a spiritual practice. This means sharing what we understand love to be, sharing the mistakes we’ve made and what we’ve learned, what our hopes and fears are, and in every way letting ourselves be known not just as a partner, but as a human being struggling our way through life.

It means sharing what we see our life’s purpose to be, and sharing how the relationship we have with the other person — and I’m thinking of partners here, in the main, but also some dear friendships — fits into that purpose.

This may be the deepest love language of all.

Through it, we come to see the other person in a deep way, and to see ourselves more clearly as well. We see the other person as a being who is on a spiritual journey. And we see ourselves in the same way. Sharing the path involves opening up in a deep way. It takes a lot of trust, as well as a shared commitment to growth.  Two people cannot share their paths unless they are both walking a path.

When we share in this way we become clearer about what matters most in our lives. We see ourselves in a very different way from our ordinary view of ourselves as beings who work and do chores and pay bills and relax in front of the TV in order to recuperate from all that.

Sharing the path in this way can lead to a profound sense of transcendence, where we no longer see ourselves and the other person as entirely separate, and where, even, our sense of self becomes tenuous. It is in fact a form of spiritual practice in its own right, as are the other three spiritual love languages I’ve described.

Mismatches here might arise when one person sees the point of such discussions as establishing who is “right” — who has the best philosophy, the most incisive insights, and so on. These kinds of mismatches are particularly painful, because what’s being shared and rejected is so central and important to who we are.

Four spiritual love languages

It’s possible that all this is contained in Chapman’s teaching on love languages — I haven’t read the book — but I saw not even the merest hint of it in the questions I was asked, which were all along the lines of, “It’s more meaningful for me when (a) my partner gives me a gift, or (b) my partner doesn’t check their phone when talking to me.”

It’s fine as far as it goes, but it seems to lack spiritual depth. Then again, not having read Chapman’s book, it may be I’m over-simplifying his approach.

Anyway, as someone who cares about the quality of my loving relationships, and who falteringly works at being a better friend, parent, and partner, I wanted to share a little of what I regard as important where it comes to communicating love.

These four spiritual love languages are areas where we need to learn to speak in ways that others who communicate differently can understand. And we need to learn to listen too, so that we can decipher others’ languages and realize that we are loved, and learn to respond to them, so that the other feels loved too.

Are there other things you would consider “love languages” that aren’t in Chapman’s book or in this article? Why not tell us about them in the comments below?

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The Dalai Lama, Reefer Madness, kaiju, and more!

Prop newspaper with a story headline, "New Living Buddha Reported Discovered."

New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered

What does his Holiness the Dalai Lama have to do with moral panics over “marihuana,” (sic) a backwoodsman becoming an unlikely political hero, noir skulduggery in wartime San Francisco, Ronald Reagan, a resurrected Egyptian mummy, President Taft’s bathtub, and a giant reptile terrorizing Japan? Quite a lot, as it turns out.

Several years ago, someone told me about a reference to the Dalai Lama that had appeared in fake (prop) newspapers in two old Hollywood movies: “Reefer Madness” and “Mr Smith Goes to Washington.” (Unfortunately it’s so long ago I’ve forgotten who it was that told me about this, and even a search of my emails has failed to turn up any clue.)

The newspaper story has the title, “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered.” This seems to be a reference to the discovery of the Dalai Lama’s “tulku” — his new incarnation — in Tibet in 1936.

I have to say I was a little skeptical when this was brought to my attention. I’d assumed that the prop newspapers used in old movies were entirely fake. My understanding was that to avoid incurring licensing fees, any prop newspaper used in a film would contain stories that were entirely invented. That turns out not to have been the case in the early days of cinema, because at least some of the stories were genuine — including the one about the Dalai Lama.

You can see this headline — just, if you screw up your eyes very hard and look sideways at just the right phase of the moon —  in the image above, which is from “Reefer Madness.” The main story is “Harper Verdict Expected Tonight.” This is a reference to the plot of the movie. Underneath that is the rather improbable, “Dick Tracy, G-Man, In Sensational Raid.” And tucked under that, you can just about make out, in the blur of a low-resolution image taken from a TV scan of an already low-resolution celluloid film, “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered.”

You can see the headline much more clearly in the image below, which is from “Mr Smith Goes to Washington,” starring an improbably young Jimmy Stewart. Here I don’t even have to circle the headline. In fact you can almost make out the subheading.

A newspaper prop from Mr Smith Goes to Washington, showing the headline, "New Living Buddha Reported Discovered."

This is from the pivotal moment in the film when Governor Hubert “Happy” Hopper tosses a coin to decide whether to replace a deceased senator with either a political stooge or a naive local hero. The tossed coin ends up beside this newspaper, helping him to make his decision.

“New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” and “36 Mexican Rebels Killed by Soldiers” are the filler stories.

I later discovered that His Holiness shows up in a number of other films as well.

These include “This Gun For Hire,” where our “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” appears below the main story, “Chemist and Woman Murdered.”

Prop newspaper from This Gun For Hire, with the story, "New Living Buddha Reported Discovered."

Also (and thanks to the blog, “And you call yourself a scientist!?” for this) it’s in “Gigantis, The Fire Monster.”

Newspaper prop from Gigantis, The Fire Monster.

Thanks for eagle-eyed commenter Jeff (see comments below) I know that the article also appears on a prop newspaper on episode one of “Backstairs at the Whitehouse,” which was a TV miniseries that came out in 1979. That’s the most appearance of this story that I know of, and the only one I know of (so far) that’s in color.

Still from BackStairs at the Whitehouse, showing a prop newspaper with the story 'New Living Buddha Reported Discovered'

Earlier it appeared on “Girls On Probation” (1938), which stars Ronald Reagan, and “The Mummy’s Tomb” (1942).

The Dalai Lama gets around!

I can’t say for sure who originated these newspapers, but it’s likely to have been The Earl Hays Press, which has been supplying props to Hollywood for more than a hundred years.

But is this “Living Buddha” story really about the Dalai Lama? And is it based on a story that actually appeared in real newspapers.

The answers are “yes” and “yes.”

On Wednesday, 27 May 1936, an Associated Press story with the title “New ‘Living Buddha’ Reported Discovered” was published on page 25 of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The same story was also published in other outlets under different headlines, such as “New ‘Living Buddha’ Discovered After Two- Year Search in Tibet,” in The Atlanta Journal, on the same date.

Here for the sake of completeness is the entire article, in case you were curious about what was behind the blur:

NEW ‘LIVING BUDDHA’ REPORTED DISCOVERED
Two-Year Quest Ends After Tibetan Priests Study Surface of Sacred Lake.

By the Associated Press.
SHANGHAI, May 27. Dispatches from the forbidden kingdom of Tibet reported today a new Dalai Lama, or “Living Buddha,” was discovered in the Han Jen district, northeast of Lhasa, after a search of more than two years.

The new Buddha was believed, the Tibetan advices [sic] said, to be a reincarnation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, who died Dec. 17, 1933.

The Dalai Lama is the spiritual and temporal ruler of Tibet. Tibetans believe their “living god” is immortal and that when he dies, his attributes are handed down to a child born about the time of his death.

Tibetan monks and professional “diviners” have been searching for the reincarnated Dalai Lama ever since the death of the previous ruler. Reports received earlier from Lhasa said the omens were favorable for an early finding of the new “Living Buddha.”

The Tibetan new year began in February under auspicious circumstances, reports said. Spiritual authorities sent a deputation of high priests, sages, monks and philosophers to the sacred Chugkhorgyae Lake, east of Lhasa, near which the first Dalai Lama was born, to contemplate images reflected on the surface.

The lake gazers were reported successful in their quest for indications which might lead to discovery of a new Pontiff. Visions of a house wearing the mysterious words “a ka ma” appeared, thought to bear some relation to the name of the parents of the future Dalai Lama.

The populace was instructed then to join in the search for the house and the child.

The present spiritual leader of Tibet, the Panchen Lama, has been living in exile in China for the last 12 years.

He would be unable to go back. to assume his duties as tutor to his reported new “reincarnated brother” because no invitation has been extended to him.

Since the death of the late Dalai Lama under mysterious circumstances at Lhasa, affairs of state have been in the hands of the temporal regent, Jechen Hutukehtu.

Some of the other stories, such as “36 Mexican Rebels Killed by Soldiers” and “Fire Destroys State Arsenal,” were also taken from real newspapers.

Anyway, there we have it: The Dalai Lama made appearances in a number of films, from the classic “Mr Smith Goes to Washington” to the risible — “Gigantis” and Reefer Madness.” No doubt he was in many more as well. If you notice any others, please let me know!

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