Posts by Vajradevi

“Beyond Happiness” by Ezra Bayda

Ezra Bayda is a Zen teacher and former student of Charlotte Joko Beck. He has written four other books, including At Home in the Muddy Water: a Guide to Finding Peace within Everyday Chaos. With his wife, Elizabeth Hamilton, he runs the San Diego Zen Centre, which, as their web-site says, is not affiliated with any particular religious denomination. This is a book that doesn’t talk much about Buddhism and has only a handful of references to the Buddha and his teachings. So is it “secular Buddhism,” with a watered down yet more widely palatable message promising that happiness is easily within our grasp, or something more?

Title: Beyond Happiness
Author: Ezra Bayda
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-825-7
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.co.uk Kindle Store Amazon.com, and Amazon.com Kindle Store.

In the very first sentence Bayda tells us there is no quick fix to unhappiness, and his title, “beyond happiness,” suggests that his interest is not in soothing our neurosis and giving easy answers. In some ways his message — which I found deeply inspiring — goes strongly against the current of our “instant rewards” culture.

The book is divided into three main sections: “What blocks happiness?,” “The Roots of Happiness,” and finally “Cultivating Happiness.” In the introductory chapter, he makes a distinction between “personal happiness” — based on our individual disposition or “set point” for happiness and the pleasure we gain from externals, success, praise and things generally going well for us — and what he calls “genuine happiness.” Genuine happiness is not dependent on positive conditions such as good health, promotions at work or being in love but on “being fundamentally OK with life as it is,” however that is.

One of the few Buddhist teachings he refers to is an early sutta called The Sutta of Two Arrows. This teaching spells out our deeply ingrained tendency to demand that life give us what we want and that it never deal up what we don’t want. Both these tendencies cause us suffering (the first arrow). Our habit of complaint and protest about this first arrow causes the second arrow to strike — the pain of our refusal to accept things as they are.

Baydas’ first section details the ways in which we cause ourselves pain — through our sense of entitlement (that things should go the way we want them to) and how we get stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking and behaving. Our expectations, negative emotions, and judgements all prevent us from deeper happiness. Before we can be happy he says we have to see how we cause our own unhappiness. Not only that but we tend to have a distorted view of ourselves so we have to learn to see ourselves more clearly. The view in the mirror is not flattering but our work is to learn to look with kindly awareness.

The “Roots of Happiness” section encourages us to be curious and open to who it is we are. The quality of present moment awareness is the first chapter but its flavour permeates the whole book and gives a real beauty to the following chapters — which focus on generosity, loving-kindness and gratitude — helping create an attitude of freshness and tenderness towards experience, whatever it is. He gives us several tools, in the form of questions, meditations, reflections and stories from his own life and teaching career, to aid awareness and help cultivate genuine happiness. I particularly liked the suggestion to reflect every evening on what has happened during the day (increasing awareness) and noticing what we can feel appreciative of (increasing gratitude).

The section on meditation gives instruction in formless practice and developing loving-kindness, compassion and forgiveness. The loving-kindness practice may seem a little limited or lacking in guidance compared to the traditional practice, which explicitly includes cultivating friendliness to those we have no interest in or actively dislike. He uses the breath throughout various practices as an aid to breathe different people or qualities into the heart.

Bayda makes it clear that the spiritual life is not easy or cosy, at one point, talking about ‘the blue collar work of practice’. I was reminded of vipassana teacher Joseph Goldstein who talks about “work days” (of which there are many) and “fruits of practice days” (of which there are few!). The most prized quality according to Bayda is the un-showy perseverance that keeps us steady through the unrewarding but vital ‘work days’.

The final section and last five chapters focus on how our growing self knowledge and sense of aliveness is expressed in the world through our work, relationships and the many ways we can express a “generosity of the heart.” Giving, or dana, he writes, confronts us with our own fears. This confrontation is necessary to for the heart to learn how to be free. Altruism is obviously strong in Bayda. Practice is not about increasing self-interest. Happiness, he says, ultimately comes from lessening our own grip on what we desire and doing whatever we can to benefit others.

This is a book about serious practice written in an accessible and engaging way. It would be easy to underestimate the value of it, due to the style and focusing as it does on the currently fashionable topic of happiness. To really put into practice what Bayda says, however, requires commitment, patience, faith and, yes, as he says, perseverance.

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“Guilt: An Exploration” by Caroline Brazier

Guilt: An Exploration, by Caroline Brazier A leading Buddhist teacher writes about the knotty problem of guilt, but chooses to do so through a blend of fictional narrative, autobiography, and commentary. Vajradevi reveals all.

Caroline Brazier is a Buddhist practitioner and a psychotherapist of many years standing. She is a course leader of the Amida Psychotherapy training program and lives in a Buddhist community in England. She brings these two aspects of training and experience to bear in her book, Guilt: An Exploration. The Buddhist aspect is implicit in the kindness and perceptiveness Caroline Brazier brings to her subject. You will find this book in the “Psychology” section of your bookstore and it is this perspective that frames the story she tells.

Unusually, Brazier has decided to approach this nebulous and pervasive topic through a blend of fiction, autobiography, and commentary. She deliberately relegates theoretical ideas to the far margins of her book. There is not a study or survey result to be seen. We don’t get to hear anything of how guilt generally affects human beings or who is most susceptible to its influence. Instead she focuses down on a group of young children and, to a lesser extent, their parents and tells their fictional story letting us witness the complex emotions that form part of growing into adolescence and adulthood.

Title: Guilt: An Exploration
Author: Caroline Brazier
Publisher: O-Books
ISBN: 978-1-84694-160-3
Available from: Amazon.com.

She places her characters in south London of the 1960’s. Not the England of the Beatles and mini-skirts and beehives but “a time of transition where traditions were still respected and radical new ways of thinking had yet to reach the majority of the general population.” A world characterized by freedom for children to roam away from familiar adults and create a realm of their own.

Brazier brings to rich and colorful life many of the ordinary events that provoke guilty feelings.

Through these characters and particularly “Joanne,” a spirited 10 year old tomboy when we first meet her, Brazier shows the nuances and subtleties of the feeling of guilt. When feelings, thoughts and actions conflict how does a child make sense of them? What affects the decisions we make to act? How do we feel when we want to act in a way we think is wrong and will be disapproved of by those we love or are scared of? How do we grow and explore our world when it means pushing against the boundaries of those who love us, or keeping secrets from them? Brazier explores Joanne and her friends’ responses of guilt in relation to ethics. How does a child work out what is the “right” or “wrong” thing to do? What of the “moral uncertainty” of different value systems a child is exposed to? Or, she asks, does the child have a deeply felt sense of what is the correct way to be?

Some of these questions Brazier leaves open while she answers others by painting a picture of great delicacy. What I appreciated most about her book is that guilt is not made into a heavy, static entity but something that arises in the intersections of emotions and impulses to act, and that guilt can be seen as almost a natural part of maturing.

The book captures the fear, doubt, anger and sheer uncomfortableness of many moments of a child’s everyday life. It is in these moments that guilt seems to lurk as well as in times that thrill and fascinate with new experiences. Through the story Caroline Brazier brings to rich and colorful life many of the ordinary events that provoke such feelings. A boy who loses an expensive new coat is thrown into agonies of confusion and guilt by the unexpected forgiveness from his strict mother. A girl unable to understand her new desire for intimacy is unkind to a school friend. Another child feels “different” and ashamed because of family secrets about her mother’s affair and her own racial background. Parents’ religious values conflict with each other and their child is caught in the middle, guilty at his ability to play one parent against the other. Sexual exploration is one of the main themes in the book evoking a whole cocktail of strong emotions — especially guilt — for the pre-adolescent Joanne to get to grips with.

The book captures the fear, doubt, anger and sheer uncomfortableness of many moments of a child’s everyday life.

Often these occasions are a doorway to a new freedom, a new step in understanding and maturity that enrich a child’s life. Caroline Brazier’s story paints a powerful picture of the complexities of growing up. I am of a similar age to the author and brought up in the UK so there were many parallels to our experience as children. She evokes the world of a child in this period very well. I found many of my own memories and feelings re-surfacing, of times spent with my brothers and sisters building dens in the local woods and playing vivid adventure fantasy games alongside a meandering stream, coming home wet, muddy and happy.

The life of a child and teenager in 2009 is radically different to that of a child growing up in the 60’s and 70’s. Multiculturalism has given rise to many different ways of child-rearing within one society. Society itself is a more complex organism and children are at the same time more protected by parents but more exposed to danger especially from other young people. I have a question in my mind as to how well this book would translate to a reader from a different generation or culture. I suspect something would be lost but perhaps the central exploration would remain clear.

At times I would have appreciated a little more theory which would have helped to give the book more of a framework. As it stands, without many “hooks” from which a structure could hang, a cursory reading might lead to underestimating the value of “Joanne’s” story. This would be a shame as many areas such as independence, projections, conscience, choosing and testing loyalties are woven in to the book in a natural and informative way.

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Vajrapani: Breaking free

VajrapaniWrathful Vajrapani, the bold blue Buddha of energy, is helping Vajradevi to transform her demons.

A few years ago I was sitting in a London office one winter day as the rain came down in slick sheets. Lightning flashed across the low sky and, as the thunder suddenly crescendoed, a half-dozen car alarms shrieked out to the surprise of pedestrians. No-one had touched the vehicles. The unseen power of the thunder had set the alarms off. It seemed a mischievous reminder from nature of the power at her disposal.

It also brought to my mind Wrathful Vajrapani, the Bodhisattva of energy or power. This is the figure I took on as a focus of my visualization meditation practice when I was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order. Vajrapani means “bearer or holder of the vajra” and one translation of the word vajra is thunderbolt. In Indian mythology the thunderbolt was the weapon of Indra, the chief of the gods, who used it to destroy spells or charms. Vajra can also be defined as: “denunciation in strong language – compared to thunder.”

It is easy to see how associations with thunder and with nature in general come to be associated with Vajrapani. When I try to sense the Transcendental that he embodies, all sorts of physical comparisons come to mind. I think of wild cyclones sucking up the earth and throwing down everything in their way: volcanoes vomiting boulders and liquid heat and submerging whole islands in their fiery spew; roaring waterfalls that are terrifying and beautiful in equal measure. These images make me aware of my smallness and insignificance, but something inside me is also thrilled at the possibility of meeting that power and eventually becoming it. In An Introduction to Tantra Lama Yeshe writes: “the West has discovered how to tap many powerful sources of energy in nature, but still remains largely unaware of the tremendous force, even more powerful than nuclear energy, contained within each of us. As long as this powerful internal energy lies undiscovered, our life is doomed to remain fragmented and purposeless, and we will continue to fall victim to the mental and emotional pressures so characteristic of our age.”

Vajrapani’s energy is not mere force, nor even power in a neutral sense. It is what the Buddhist tradition calls virya: “energy in pursuit of the good.” This means energy that is directed towards the goal of Enlightenment for all beings. It is energy that sees things as they really are rather than through the lens of the ego.

My connection with Wrathful Vajrapani started soon after I had begun to meditate, on a week-long retreat dedicated to him. I found Vajrapani visually intriguing. His body is heavy-set and he is deep blue. With his angry bulging eyes, matted brown hair and aura of flames, he was hardly beautiful but he was compelling. I remember being particularly fascinated by his huge blue belly.

Up to this point my knowledge of Bodhisattvas was limited to beautiful and refined peaceful deities, such as Tara and Amitabha. Vajrapani seemed unconventional to say the least. He wore a tiger skin (or sometimes an elephant hide) around his body. A live snake coiled around his neck. He held a vajra high above his head ready to use as a weapon. Vajrapani seemed to be “the Bodhisattva as Transcendental Thug” and I did not know what to make of him. His companions were a bunch of unlikely-sounding goddesses — Vajra-Hook, Vajra-Chain, Strong-Armed and Vajra-Army. He seemed more likely to have been at home in a heavymetal band or riding a 1,000 cc motorbike than residing in the sky, waiting to be visualized!

But the stories about him from various Buddhist scriptures caught my imagination. Through them come a sense of Vajrapani’s personal history. Unlike most Bodhisattvas his beginnings are humble. In his first canonical appearance (in the Pali Sutta Nipata) he starts out as a lowly yaksa (a kind of coarse sprite). In later texts he has been promoted to “the great general of the yaksas.” And later still he becomes one of the bodily forms of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. Eventually he emerges as a Bodhisattva in his own right and in some scriptures he is also referred to as a fully Enlightened Buddha.

I like the progression of Vajrapani’s “life story.” As well as his associations with power, Vajrapani, like Vajrasattva, is connected with purity But while Vajrasattva represents purity achieved, or the essence of purity, Vajrapani is “the process of becoming pure.” The fallibility and humility in the stories about Vajrapani appeal greatly to me. He makes occasional mistakes, bears the consequences, and then continues his quest in service of “the good.”

According to one story, at one point Vajrapani was pure white. But while guarding the elixir of life for the peaceful Buddhas he became unmindful for a second, and the demons stole it. He wrestled back the elixir but the demons had defiled it by urinating in it. As a punishment Vajrapani was made by the Buddhas to drink the now poisonous liquid, and this turned him dark blue. Hence also his mudra (hand gesture) of “warding off demons.”

The first tale I ever heard about Vajrapani comes from The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava. Vajrapani’s role is comparatively minor but he manages to make a strong impression.

Tarpa Nagpo (or Black Salvation) was a monk who was full of pride and arrogance. He used the Dharma to his own advantage, deliberately miscommunicating the teachings to amass power for himself. After he was found out and stripped of his robes, he joined his friends (ogres, brigands and demons of the twilight) and travelled around Tibet causing wars, famines and other calamities.

By doing all this, he created terrible karmic consequences for himself, and suffered highly unfavorable rebirths. These included 500 rebirth as, respectively, a nimble worm, a wandering mastiff, a sucker of toes and an eater of vomit! Finally he was reborn “with neck and shoulders rotten” as a “pus ghost” named “Eager to make inquiry.” He took rebirth again as Rudra (or “He who devoured his mother”) and, not in the least deterred by his three-headed vile form, he continued spreading chaos and devastation throughout the world

The peaceful deities were at a loss to know what to do. Rudra was beyond their reach. They decided that Rudra needed to be dealt with by “force and restrain” so Vajrapani and Hayagriva (also known as Horsehead and Swine-face) were called up. Vajrapani climbed up Rudra’s urethra and Hayagriva into his anus. They met somewhere in the middle, and Rudra, the force of negativity and destruction, was subjugated and brought under the power of the good.

In his lecture Breaking through to Buddhahood (MP3 or PDF), Sangharakshita comments that the spiritual life may involve inner forcefulness. This idea, he suggests, is not a popular one. But if we are to break through to the Unconditioned, sometimes violence towards recalcitrant aspects of ourselves is necessary. At these times, love is just not enough. This is where Vajrapani comes in. He is not going to seduce us into the spiritual life with his beauty. He is there to help us to force our way through intractable bad habits and psychological traps. Whatever demons we have within us, Vajrapani is equal to them all. He presents a fierce, raw face of reality, and something deep within me resonates with that. He often shocks me — sometimes into laughter that opens me up to seeing myself a little more clearly.

In another text Vajrapani’s unconventional methods are described in a teaching to Tsong Khapa and Karmavajra. He gives a long discourse on dealing with hindrances to meditation, which ends with a vivid and unexpected tip. “If you want to avoid the pitfalls (of distraction) whack the pig on the snout with a club!”

Vajrapani’s mantra — om vajrapani ah hum — is deep, untuneful and resolute. It has a mysterious sound. Sometimes when I chant it, I imagine that the mantra is hurtling along the corridors of the universe, revealing glimpses of his immeasurable power. Perhaps, I feel, I can hear an echo of his heartbeat, or see a faint blue light that will pass within light years of his huge, golden vajra. When meditating on his figure, I listen for the sound of the dust that is moved by his magnificent footsteps.

Vajrapani is unpredictable. You never know what he might do, because he is associated with the wisdom that goes beyond the rational mind. He is also associated with the Tantra. Tantra means both the movement of energy and direct experience. The tantric tradition of spiritual practice is concerned with looking beyond the realm of the conceptual to the non-rational. Through the non-rational we can experience ourselves directly as pure energy or pure awareness that is unmediated by concepts.

Most of our energy is unconscious. We are like icebergs — largely submerged, with just a visible tip. In opening up to Vajrapani we look to make the remainder conscious, awake, and working in support of our desire to grow and change.

Vajrapani is sometimes portrayed as the Buddha’s protector — or the protective aspect of the Buddha. Some sutras recount people arguing with the Buddha, or insulting him. Vajrapani can be found hovering in the air above the Buddha, his vajra raised threateningly, just waiting to split open the person’s head.

Vajrapani mourningEven Vajrapani’s tenderness is frequently portrayed in terms of his might. When the Buddha died, it is said that: “letting fall his vajra in despair, Vajrapani rolled himself in the dust.” It is as if the earth shuddered from the weight of the fallen vajra — and from Vajrapani’s grief.

Sometimes I find things that help me to deepen my connection with Vajrapani in unexpected places. Recently I was in Barcelona and was introduced to some buildings designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi. The spontaneity, creativity and freedom in the buildings brought Vajrapani to my mind. The exultant playfulness in Gaudi’s placing of a bunch of grapes or an ice-cream cone in marble perched on top of a fish-scaled roof is reminiscent of Vajrapani’s willingness to go anywhere or do anything in pursuit of the good.

A friend, who was formerly a Quaker and is now a Buddhist, told me of a label that was given to her by Quaker friends: Holy Boldness. I immediately thought of Vajrapani. It is him to a tee. I love the contradiction in the words and their suggestion of irreverence. Holy Boldness is vigorous, brave and pure. I want to develop Holy Boldness. I want to be like Vajrapani.

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