Posts by Bodhipaksa

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Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, is perhaps the best-known proponent of using meditation to help patients deal with illness. (The somewhat confusing title is from a line in Zorba the Greek in which the title character refers to the ups and downs of family life as “the full catastrophe.”)

But this book is also a terrific introduction for anyone who has considered meditating but was afraid it would be too difficult or would include religious practices they found foreign. Kabat-Zinn focuses on “mindfulness,” a concept that involves living in the moment, paying

“Full Catastrophe Living,” by John Kabat-Zinn

Full Catastrophe Living

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Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, is perhaps the best-known proponent of using meditation to help patients deal with illness. (The somewhat confusing title is from a line in Zorba the Greek in which the title character refers to the ups and downs of family life as “the full catastrophe.”)

But this book is also a terrific introduction for anyone who has considered meditating but was afraid it would be too difficult or would include religious practices they found foreign. Kabat-Zinn focuses on “mindfulness,” a concept that involves living in the moment, paying attention, and simply “being” rather than “doing.” While you can practice anything “mindfully,” from taking a walk to cleaning your house, Kabat-Zinn presents several meditation techniques that focus the attention most clearly, whether it’s on a simple phrase, your breathing, or various parts of your body.

The book goes into detail about how hospital patients have either improved their health or simply come to feel better despite their illness by using these techniques, but these meditations can help anyone deal with stress and gain a calmer outlook on life. “When we use the word healing to describe the experiences of people in the stress clinic, what we mean above all is that they are undergoing a profound transformation of view,” Kabat-Zinn writes. “Out of this shift in perspective comes an ability to act with greater balance and inner security in the world.”

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“Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from Meat,” by Tsogdruk Rangdrol Shabkar

Shabkar, Food of Bodhisattvas

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Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdrol (1781-1851) is revered by all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Living mostly on retreat in the mountains surrounded by a few close and hardy disciples, or on pilgrimages to the holy places of Tibet, he lived an austere life, with no fixed abode and possessing only the most meager of possessions, attaching himself to no monastery, adhering to no school, and remaining free from dependence upon benefactors. Shabkar was famed for his concern with animals, and lived strictly by a vegetarian diet: a rare accomplishment in the harsh climate of Tibet. In fact the practice of vegetarianism is still rare not only in Tibet itself but in Tibetan Buddhism in the West despite the relative ease of adopting a vegetarian diet here, and it this incongruity that this book addresses.

This book presents two of Shabkar’s works along with an introduction by the translators. The introduction is a fascinating work in itself, which gives an account of Shabkar and offers an overview of the historical relationship between Buddhism and vegetarianism from a Tibetan perspective. The translators are anything but impartial on vegetarianism, and advocate a meat-free diet as an expression of compassion for living beings.

The first translated text, The Faults of Eating Meat, is a compendium of extracts from Mahayana and Tantric scriptures and teachings by Indian and Tibetan masters. These are of interest primarily in giving a sense of how widespread the advocacy of vegetarianism was throughout the Mahayana and Vajrayana world. Moreover, many of these texts, such as the Angulimala Sutra, the Sutra of Close Mindfulness, and various tantras, are not readily available to the average western practitioner, and any exposure to them is to be welcomed. Moreover, the wealth of material from authoritative sources may well be effective in motivating followers of Tibetan Buddhism to reexamine their relationship to meat-eating. However, because there is a bare minimum of material connecting the extracts, Shabkar’s voice and personality are only dimly heard, which led to some disappointment for this reviewer.

The arguments against meat eating found in The Faults of Eating Meat are basically the same as those in the second text, The Nectar of Immortality, which is an engaging essay addressing in a more personal way the reasons why meat-eating should be avoided by those following the Bodhisattva path. Many of these arguments are typically Tibetan, such as the idea that all beings have, at some point in the endless rounds of rebirth, been one’s own mother, and that in eating meat one is in effect devouring a parent.

Shabkar also warns of a hellish rebirth for those who consume meat and tackles the idea that one can benefit a slaughtered animal by “compassionately” chanting mantras while eating it. Arguments for or against such propositions will necessarily lack persuasive force for all but followers of Tibetan Buddhism.

However, for a wider audience there are still arguments that may sway opinions. Shabkar writes, for example, that the notion – formulated originally for bhikkhus who lived by accepting whatever was put into their begging bowls – that it’s acceptable to eat meat as long as one doesn’t see, hear, or suspect that the animal was killed especially for the recipient, is not applicable in a market economy. Instead, he argues, the meat-eater creates the demand that the butcher merely fills. Thus, he argues, it is the meat-eater who is mostly at fault and who must take responsibility for his actions if he sincerely wishes to reduce the amount of suffering his diet entails.

The fact that many arguments that Shabkar makes are framed in a Tibetan world view does not of course invalidate the book. Shabkar was a Tibetan writing for Tibetans, and his arguments will remain potent for present-day Tibetan practitioners. This book will hopefully have the effect of encouraging more Buddhists in the West (and not just the followers of Tibetan schools) to become more aware of the suffering that meat eating entails, and at least to begin moving towards adopting a diet that helps avoid unnecessary suffering by animals.

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“Finding Freedom: Writings From Death Row,” by Jarvis Masters

Finding Freedom- Writings From Death Row

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Jarvis Masters is a young black man who sits on Death Row in San Quentin. This book outlines his discovery of meditation and Buddhism whilst in prison, and the liberating effect they have had on his life, allowing him to face up to and transcend his own abusive past.

Meditating on the floor of his cell, Masters works to bring peace into the chaos of San Quentin, sometimes saving lives in skillful and courageous interventions that put his own life and well-being on the line

“Finding Freedom” is both inspiring and, at times, extremely humorous.

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“Emotional Alchemy: How Your Mind Can Heal Your Heart,” by Tara Bennett-Goleman

Emotional Alchemy Tara Bennett-Goleman

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Bennett-Goleman is a practicing meditator and therapist, and her book comes from her understanding of how mindfulness can be used to deal with disturbing emotions without rejecting them.

This is an excellent introduction to the practice of mindfulness, with clear case histories showing how a mindful awareness of our emotions can have a powerfully transforming effect — the alchemical transformation referred to in the title.

As well as bringing together an understanding of psychology and meditation, Bennett-Goleman presents the latest research in brain chemistry and neurophysiology.

I’d highly recommend this highly accessible book to anyone interested in exploring how meditation and the practice of mindfulness can transform our emotional lives.

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“8 Minute Meditation: Quiet Your Mind. Change Your Life,” by Victor Davich

8 Minute Meditation Victor Davich

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You can expect from Mr. Davich’s book a witty and engaging guide to some basic meditation techniques drawn from the world of Insight Meditation. The book outlines a systematic eight-week program of meditation, including the practices of simply following each breath, staying in the moment by “noting” thoughts as being about the past or future, paying attention to sounds, and some instructions on cultivating lovingkindness.

The guidance is clear and useful, but brief — probably totaling around a dozen pages out of almost 200. Most of the rest of the book deals with the common questions and misperceptions that teachers encounter — along the lines of meditation being the same as hypnotism, or meditation being a form of escapism — as well as some biographical material and a select list of resources.

Unfortunately you can’t, due to the unrelenting self-help-expert persona that Mr. Davich adopts, expect to be treated as an adult. We’re frequently reminded that the book contains no difficult words or complicated ideas. I don’t, it must be said, have any aversion to ideas that are expressed simply, but if you’re going to write that way just do it, and stop telling me you’re doing it! Keeping up his seventh-grade-level approach, the author even supplies us with a little “Certificate of Completion” that we can fill out ourselves. We’re also reminded that the author got an A in an exam and worked for two — not one, but two — Fortune 500 companies, although what bearing this is meant to have on his abilities as a meditation instructor is not clear.

While I felt uncomfortable with the self-help presentation, I still thought that the guidance was apt and that the instructions, although simple, were effective. 8 Minute Meditations would certainly be useful for the readership at which it is clearly aimed — those who are seeking inspiration in the “self-help” section of their local bookstore and are completely new to meditation. More experienced meditators may gain some insights that could feed their practice, but I’d recommend that readers who fall into that category seek guidance elsewhere.

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Chogyam Trungpa: “Meditation practice brings our neuroses to the surface”

Chogyam Trungpa

Trungpa said, “In the practice of sitting meditation you relate to your daily life all the time. Meditation practice brings our neuroses to the surface rather than hiding them at the bottom of our minds. It enables us to relate to our lives as something workable.”

Meditation is not escapism. In fact one could argue that burying ourselves in daily activities with no time set aside for reflection is a classic escapist activity. When we meditate we’re thrust into an awareness — often a very challenging awareness — of exactly what’s going on in our lives. There’s no escaping who we are: as we sit, thought after thought, emotion after emotion, wells up inside of us.

When we’re busy rushing from one task to the next there simply isn’t time to process our thoughts and emotions, to put things into perspective, to think things through. Our hopes and fears end up being, as Trungpa puts it, hidden at the bottom of our minds. And so we need time out: time to re-collect ourselves, time to let the hidden parts of ourselves begin to show themselves. These experiences that we have in meditation are aspects of what’s been going on in our daily lives: the fears, hopes, annoyances, dreams, and desires to which we’ve given rise but to which we all too often pay little attention.

Some of those hidden parts do start to reveal themselves very quickly indeed, although others can — because we’ve become well-practiced in keeping them hidden — take much longer to emerge. But as, in their own time, they emerge we begin to give them our attention and respond to them appropriately.

Sometimes all we have to do is acknowledge them as we watch them pass by (perhaps just a stray thought about something we forgot to do). Sometimes we need to meet them head on, as when a major volley of ill-will arrives and we respond with a counter-blast of lovingkindness. Other times we need simply to sit and explore our experiences in a kind and patient way, giving them space to reveal their stories, reminding ourselves that it’s alright to experience discomfort.

So in these kinds of ways we deal with our “stuff,” working with each thought and emotion as it arrives, and in an appropriate way. And in so doing we start to notice that the quality of our lives has improved: there are fewer conflicts with others, we’re kinder, we’re quicker to let go of grievances and less prone to take offense, and we’re more relaxed.

Often the best way to work with our lives is to take a step back and sort out what’s inside of us first. One we’ve started doing that, life seems to take care of itself.

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Robert Collier: “Any thought that is passed on to the subconscious often enough and convincingly enough is finally accepted”

Robert Collier

All too often thoughts set thoughts in motion with little or no conscious intervention on our part, creating an inner avalanche of ideation. Helplessly caught up in this endless cascade, we are swept away by the stories generated by our hopes and fears.

To change the metaphor, each thought sends forth an echoing cry, like an animal calling for its mate, and this cry penetrates the heart, evoking an emotional response. The end result is suffering, stress, depression, anxiety.

Our thoughts form consistent story lines:

  • “Nobody likes me.”
  • “If only such-and-such a thing would happen, then I’d be happy.”
  • “I just know this is going to go wrong.”
  • “I bet he did that deliberately.”

As we listen, without mindfulness, to these story lines, day in and day out (and at night too, for our inner dramatic arc does not cease with conscious thought) we remain utterly convinced that these stories are truth, not imaginings.

And yet thoughts are not facts, but merely the projections of our hopes and fears. As we develop greater mindfulness we begin to recognize this, to catch ourselves in the act of indulging in a story line whose punch line is an ache in the heart. And we start to be able to let go of these story-lines, realizing that they will bring us nothing good.

A further step in some meditation traditions is to cultivate thoughts that will enhance well-being rather than diminish it. And so, in the development of lovingkindness practice we repeat phrases such as “May I be well, may I be happy,” and in mantra practice we repeat phrases that evoke enlightened qualities of insight, compassion, and energy. Even the traditional recitation of the refuges and precepts can be seen as a way of convincing the mind of the value of committing oneself wholeheartedly to the path of awareness and compassion.

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Samuel Johnson: “The fountain of content must spring up in the mind…”

Samuel Johnson

“The fountain of content must spring up in the mind, and he who hath so little knowledge of human nature as to seek happiness by changing anything but his own disposition, will waste his life in fruitless efforts and multiply the grief he proposes to remove”

There are some things in life we can change. There are some things in life we cannot change. Knowing which is which is the key to our well-being.

Dr. Johnson was not a man to mince his words, and offers us one of his typically bracing edicts. It may strike us at first as being somewhat of an overstatement to suggest that desiring to change something other than ourselves will bring unhappiness rather than the happiness we seek, but the good Doctor, as usual, is very astute.

When we begin by assuming that the cause of happiness or unhappiness lies outside of the mind, we make a fundamental and tragic error. This is a viewpoint that has been held by religious and philosophical leaders for millennia and which is also borne out by scientific research.

It seems that each of us has a “happiness set point” — a kind of hedonic thermostat — to which the mind tends to gravitate. From day to day our happiness may fluctuate on either side of this set point, so that one day we are pleased or elated while the next we are disgruntled or depressed. But on the whole our level of happiness will tend to settle down around our hedonic set point, just as water slopping around in a shaken glass will find its own level.

So although we may direct our energies to “fixing” the outside world in order to remove sources of irritation or to fulfill our desires, in the long term this will make no real difference to our level of happiness. We may be ecstatic to win a fortune in the lottery, but a year later we’ll be back at that set point of happiness. Similarly, we may be devastated by an injury or illness, but some time later we’ll adapt and be just as happy (or unhappy) as we were before.

Our individual hedonic set point may well be influenced by our genes, but genes are not destiny and our attitudes also play a major role in how we experience life. It is within that we must look if we are to find greater levels of happiness in the long run.

Those who meditate have been shown to demonstrate long term increased levels of well-being and rewiring of the brain with increased activity in those parts of the frontal cortex associated with happiness.

We can’t choose the things that happen to us in life, but we can learn — through developing mindfulness — to respond differently to those events. By developing more patience, kindness and, perhaps above all, a greater appreciation of impermanence, we can learn to adapt to life’s challenges more elegantly and in ways that lead to less suffering. This is not to say that we can’t make changes in the outside world or that such changes will make no difference to our sense of well-being. But if we seek to change our environment without changing ourselves, then we are in for a difficult time.

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Milarepa: “When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick.”

Milarepa said, “When you run after your thoughts, you are like a dog chasing a stick: every time a stick is thrown, you run after it. Instead, be like a lion who, rather than chasing after the stick, turns to face the thrower. One only throws a stick at a lion once.”

Milarepa (1052-1135) was a great Tibetan Yogi who lived an austere life on the bare hillsides of the Himalayas, eking out an existence on donations and the few plants — principally nettles — that grow in that harsh environment. His name means “The Cotton-Clad One,” and he generally wore just a thin sheet, using the heat generated by meditation practices to keep the fierce Tibetan cold at bay.

Despite his remote living situation he attracted many disciples and visitors, and although he belonged to no school he is particularly venerated by the Tibetan Kagyus, who trace their lineage back through him.

Milarepa was a master of Mahamudra, a meditation approach that emphasizes the innate purity of the mind. In his inimitable and playful style, Milarepa compares the unawakened self to a dog running after a stick that has been thrown. When it comes to chasing sticks, many dogs have more enthusiasm than sense: I remember, for example, a friend’s dogs repeatedly charging into a Scottish loch to “fetch” the stones that I was throwing into the depths. Often our own minds are scarcely less silly than those dogs. Anyone who has sat in meditation has observed this and knows exactly what Milarepa is talking about: the mind goes chasing after any and every thought that passes through it, and often doesn’t much mind whether it suffers in so doing. So much for humans being smarter than dogs.

There are many possible alternatives to chasing the sticks of thought like a hapless hound. We can start chasing them and then bring the mind back to a point of focus, rather like calling a dog to heel. We can learn sit still and to watch the sticks fly past without reacting to them. We can even learn to examine the sticks and recognize their impermanence and the fact that they are not intrinsic to the mind. All of these techniques are useful, and even necessary. But Milarepa goes several steps beyond.

Milarepa suggests that we turn, like a lion, and look directly at the mind itself. What can we expect to find? First, we can expect to see thoughts arising and passing away, liberating themselves without us having to exert any effort to rid the mind of them. Second, we can see the space of awareness within which these thoughts arise. That awareness is pure, and unstained by the thoughts that pass through it. That awareness is your Buddha nature, your own potential enlightenment.

All thoughts arise in this stainless awareness and dissolve within it. To see the nature of those thoughts clearly, Milarepa tells us elsewhere, is to see that there never was any arising or passing away: that all thoughts are empty of self-existence and lacking in essence. Thoughts, he tells us are illusory. It’s only our delusion that makes us think of them as real, and so, over and over, we go plunging into the lake to retrieve the unretreievable.

Although we tend to think or spiritual awakening as lying at the end of a long and arduous task, it’s right here, right now, just waiting for us to stop chasing sticks and instead, lion-like, to turn and look deeply into our own mind, and its thought, and to see their nature.

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“In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Verses from the Pali Canon,” Edited by Bhikkhu Bodhi

In the Buddha's Words, by Bhikkhu Bodhi

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Bhikkhu Bodhi stands as one of the foremost and most prolific modern translators of the Pali canon. He has translated The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (the Samyutta Nikaya) and revised Bhikkhu Ñānamoli’s translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (Middle Length Sayings). Both are published by Wisdom Publications, as is the volume under review.

Bhikkhu Bodhi’s latest tour de force is this indispensible anthology — thematically arranged — of key teachings from each of the five sections, or nikayas, of the Pali discourses. The selected teachings are organized into ten themes such as The Human Condition, The Path to Liberation, and Shining the Light of Wisdom. This arrangement has the advantage of giving a more balanced view of the Buddha’s teaching than would be gained by randomly dipping into the Buddhist scriptures, due to the fact that Buddhist teachings for lay people tend to be under-represented in relation to those intended for monastics, and the fact that some important teachings, like flecks of gold on a stream bed, appear infrequently in the canonical texts.

The Pali teachings are vast in scope — the Pali Text Society’s translations would fill several shelves, for example — and moreover tend to be dry and repetitive. This anthology does an excellent job of making the Pali teachings more accessible by eliding much of the repetition that is characteristic of the orally-transmitted Pali tradition, and this volume is therefore remarkably readable. Bodhi, himself a westerner, has also done an excellent job of selecting those parts of the Pali teachings that are likely to have an appeal for Westerners and for Buddhists living in modern societies anywhere in the world. The anthology includes a greater proportion of teachings addressing the existential issues at the heart of the human condition, and a greater proportion of teachings that address social issues than are found in the canon as a whole.

A highlight of the book is Bhikkhu Bodhi’s insightful introduction and chapter introductions. These passages supply useful contextual, historical, philological, and even spiritual background to the teachings, and would make an interesting and substantial book in their own right.

Any anthology represents a subjective evaluation by the editor or translator. It could be argued, for example, that Bhikkhu Bodhi’s selection over-represents the scant social teachings in the Pali canon, or that teachings given in verse (such as the Dhammapada) are underrepresented. There is of course no way to take a small percentage of a vast body of teachings and to satisfy all readers that the texts selected are a truly representative sampling of those teaching. But this anthology most certainly works, due, it must be said, to the mastery that the translator has of his field. This collection may be subjectively made, but it is made with an unparalleled depth and breadth of knowledge of its subject matter. Anyone seriously interested in gaining a better understanding of the full range of early Buddhist teachings should purchase this book.

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