Design company uses Buddhism to create happy place to work

Liz Day, WalesOnline.com.uk:

You Buddha believe it!

This group of Welsh workers are meditating away the stresses of office life with Buddhism – and they hope their practices will make their company reach a state of Nirvana.

The Newport web and development agency Mettaengine was established in June last year by three kindred spirits, who met at a Buddhist centre.

Creative director Graham Shimell said: “We usually try to meditate together every morning – it’s a good way to start the day.”

The staff meditate three times a day in a specially-adapted shrine room, which contains a statue of Buddha, along…

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How Buddhism differs from other religions

Lisa Jensen, Demand Media: For its followers, Buddhism is more than a religion; it is a way of life. While Buddhists take vows that are similar to those taken in other religions, including the vows not to kill, lie or steal, Buddhism does not prohibit its practitioners from following other religions. Additionally, it gives its followers autonomy in choosing the depth of practice. Buddhists may individually make certain commitments — like reciting a mantra a certain number of times or fulfilling the requests of a teacher — but they are not required; instead, they are self-imposed. Unlike many religions, a Buddhist nun or monk…

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Three forms of suffering, reinterpreted

Photograph of Buddhist figure holding a trident

From time to time one of the teachings from the Buddhist tradition will niggle at me for one reason or another. Often it’s because my mind, on some level, is dissatisfied with the traditional interpretation.

Even some of the most common teachings of Buddhism, like the four foundations of mindfulness or the twelve links of dependent origination have sometimes struck me as being a bit off, and I’ve ended up reinterpreting them in a way that makes more sense to me.

This recently happened with a teaching on “Three forms of suffering (dukkha)” The traditional interpretations struck me as being a bit random, and I could feel that niggle deep in the belly.

Here’s one interpretation of this teaching (edited for length):

Suffering or Pain (dukkha-dukkhatā). Ordinary suffering, as defined by the English word, is one form of dukkha. This includes physical, emotional and mental pain.

Impermanence or Change (vipariṇāma-dukkhatā). Anything that is not permanent, that is subject to change, is dukkha. Thus, happiness is dukkha, because it is not permanent.

Conditioned States (sankhāra-dukkhatā). To be conditioned is to be dependent on or affected by something else. According to the teaching of dependent origination, all phenomena are conditioned. Everything affects everything else. This is the most difficult part of the teachings on dukkha to understand, but it is critical to understanding Buddhism.

The last form of suffering is often described as “the suffering of conditioned existence,” meaning that unenlightened life is inherently unsatisfactory.

I wasn’t sure at first what was bothering me about this teaching, but eventually I realized that it was repetitive. The third category of suffering encompasses the other two. Impermanence or change (this isn’t change as such but change in the sense of “reversal of fortune”) is just an example of “conditioned states.” So is ordinary suffering.

I dislike this untidiness.

Also adding to my unease is the fact that the author I’ve quoted above has done something that’s common when there’s some uncertainty about the meaning of a Buddhist formula; she’s changed the order of the terms. (Actually, it’s not strictly speaking her that’s switched the order around; she’s just following a tradition of earlier teachers who have done the same thing.)

In the scriptures the order is always dukkha-dukkhatā (ordinary pain), sankhāra-dukkhatā (“conditioned states”), and then vipariṇāma-dukkhatā (the pain of reversal of fortune). The later commentarial tradition, including this about.com author, has flipped the last two terms, presumably since “conditioned states” is the most general term, referring to some supposed “universal” kind of suffering. It makes sense that the most universal form of suffering should go at the end. Remember, though, that that’s not what happens in the scriptures, so that’s a puzzle.

As it happened, this teaching of three forms of suffering and another teaching on dukkha collided one day in my mind. In the Sallasutta (Discourse on the Arrow) the Buddha talked about two “arrows” of suffering: our initial pain and the pain we give rise to in response to that by resisting, whining, and wishing things were otherwise.

As the Buddha put it:

When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical and mental. Just as if they were to shoot a man with an arrow and, right afterward, were to shoot him with another one, so that he would feel the pains of two arrows; in the same way, when touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, & laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught. So he feels two pains, physical & mental.

The first of these forms of pain is unavoidable. The second is not. So as they say, “pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.”

But the same passage talks about how clinging to pleasure can be another response to the first arrow, and how this too leads to suffering:

…the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person does not discern any escape from painful feeling aside from sensual pleasure. As he is delighting in sensual pleasure, any passion-obsession with regard to that feeling of pleasure obsesses him. He does not discern, as it actually is present, the origination, passing away, allure, drawback, or escape from that feeling…

So it seems to me that we have here three forms of suffering.

  1. We have initial pain, the first arrow, which is dukkha-dukkhatā. This can be physical or mental. In the teaching of the two arrows, the first pain is physical, of course, but much of our pain is mental. For example when we have “hurt feelings” we feel physical pain, but it’s mediated by the mind. In other words we need to have interpreted some experience as being harmful to us before we can feel this hurt.
  2. Then we have constructed pain — the second arrow. This would be sankhāra-dukkhatā. Sankhāra can certainly mean “conditioned” but the most basic meaning of sankhāra is “that which has been put together.” Hence it can mean “fabricated” or “constructed.” So this is the suffering that we construct through our reactions to physical or mental pain. As the Buddha puts it, “When touched with a feeling of pain, the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person sorrows, grieves, and laments, beats his breast, becomes distraught.”
  3. Then we have a third form of pain, which is delayed. Someone experiences something painful, and then, “Touched by that painful feeling, he delights in sensual pleasure.” So we avoid pain by pursuing pleasure, but there’s a “but” … the “but” being that the pleasure arising from clinging must come to an end. That in itself is painful, but we will almost certainly have to deal with the pain that we were initially running from. This is the pain of reversal — vipariṇāma-dukkhatā.

To give an example of these three forms of dukkha: I feel lonely right now because my wife and kids are away for the weekend on a family visit. The loneliness is “dukkha-dukkhatā.” It’s what we would call “mental” pain, but it’s experienced as heart-ache and a sense of emptiness in the pit of my belly, so it’s really what the Buddha is talking about as “physical”.

But then I find myself moping around, telling myself how sucky my life is, or perhaps telling myself I should be more “detached.” Either way I suffer again. This is fabricated suffering, or sankhāra-dukkhatā.

Alternatively, I might try to suppress my loneliness by eating too much potato salad (confession: this is exactly what I did!). And while I’m spooning the potato salad into my mouth, I experience pleasure. (It’s really delicious — flavored with shallots.) But the potato salad comes to an end, and I’m still feeling lonely. That’s the suffering that comes when our avoidance mechanisms reach the end of their course: vipariṇāma-dukkhatā.

There’s one fairly well-known discourse that illustrates these three forms of suffering using examples, much as The discourse is the Cūḷadukkhakkhandhasutta, or “The Shorter Discourse on the Mass of Suffering.” In this sutta the Buddha teaches his fellow countryman, Mahānāma the Sakyan, about the importance of finding skillful alternatives (in the form of meditative happiness) to the pleasures of the senses. And at one point he explains who suffering arises from sensual pleasures.

[1] And what is the drawback of sensual pleasures? It’s when a gentleman earns a living by means such as computing, accounting, calculating, farming, trade, raising cattle, archery, government service, or one of the professions. But they must face cold and heat, being hurt by the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, sun, and reptiles, and risking death from hunger and thirst. This is a drawback of sensual pleasures apparent in this very life, a mass of suffering caused by sensual pleasures.

[2] That gentleman might try hard, strive, and make an effort, but fail to earn any money. If this happens, they sorrow and pine and lament, beating their breast and falling into confusion, saying: ‘Oh, my hard work is wasted. My efforts are fruitless!’ This too is a drawback of sensual pleasures apparent in this very life, a mass of suffering caused by sensual pleasures.

[3] That gentleman might try hard, strive, and make an effort, and succeed in earning money. But they experience pain and sadness when they try to protect it, thinking: ‘How can I prevent my wealth from being taken by rulers or bandits, consumed by fire, swept away by flood, or taken by unloved heirs?’ And even though they protect it and ward it, rulers or bandits take it, or fire consumes it, or flood sweeps it away, or unloved heirs take it. They sorrow and pine and lament, beating their breast and falling into confusion: ‘What used to be mine is gone.’ This too is a drawback of sensual pleasures apparent in this very life, a mass of suffering caused by sensual pleasures.

The first of these paragraphs (I’ve added numbers for convenience) corresponds to dukkha-dukkhatā. It’s the inevitable suffering that a businessperson, looking for happiness through there work, would experience. It’s very simple things like being too hot, being too cold, being bitten by insects, and so on. This is the first arrow.

The second paragraph corresponds to sankhāra-dukkhatā. Here the businessperson is seeking wealth through their work, but sometimes that’s not going to arise. And the result is the self-pity that was described as being the second arrow.

The third paragraph corresponds to vipariṇāma-dukkhatā. Even if the businessperson is successful in gaining wealth, there will be fear involved, because they might lose it. And if they lose their money through a reversal of fortune, any pleasure they’d had would be replaced by suffering. This is the suffering of reversal.

You might notice that the concept of sensual pleasure is broader than we might think. It’s not just being surrounded by nice things, eating tasty food, or having sex. It’s the pleasure we get from wanting material things, and the pleasure we get from possessing them.

These teachings in the parable of the two arrows and the three forms of suffering from the Sallasutta and the Cūḷadukkhakkhandhasutta match up perfectly. The terms are in the same order in both teachings. The redundancy of having the pain of “conditioned states” as well as two specific kind of painful conditioned states is removed. And we are able to take sankhāra to have its very basic sense of “constructed” rather than taking it to refer to the entirety of the phenomenal universe, which makes the whole teaching more practical and down-to-earth.

I think this interpretation makes more sense than those commonly given, and in fact I suspect that the teaching of the two arrows and the teaching of the three forms of suffering were originally related. Perhaps the parable of the two arrows was given as a way of illustrating the teaching of three forms of suffering, or perhaps the three forms of suffering were a distillation and explication of the essence of the parable. But to my mind they are the same teaching, expressed in a different fashion.

It’s a minor realignment of the teachings rather than any kind of deep insight, but it’s good to get rid of these niggles.

There’s a lesson in here about how our exposure to commentarial literature (including contemporary books and websites) can make it hard for us to appreciate what the Buddha taught. Most of us first learn about Buddhism from books about Buddhism, which are often based on other books about Buddhism (and so on, and so on). We believe that there are three forms of suffering, with the third being “the suffering inherent in conditioned existence.” That’s not what the Buddha taught, but because we’ve been indoctrinated we either don’t look at his teachings or we fit what we see into what has become a preconception.

Note how this phenomenon of the commentaries blinding us also happens with the teaching of the “two arrows.” Dozens of books explain these, but neglect to mention the third form of suffering. And so even if we read the sutta we’ll likely not pay as much attention to the third kind of suffering as we do to the other two.

Finally, I find it a relief, in this instance, to get rid of the rather slippery teaching of “the conditioned.” This term makes me very uncomfortable because people use it as if it refers to a kind of metaphysical realm which is opposed to another metaphysical realm called “the unconditioned.” If the Buddha, in the Sallasutta was not speaking metaphysically, but was simply saying “there is suffering that we fabricate for ourselves,” then I wonder in how many other places we’re misinterpreting the terms “conditioned” and “unconditioned” (which are really “fabricated” and “unfabricated”? Maybe in other places those terms simply mean “something is created” or “something is not created”? Maybe those teachings too are not metaphysical?

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Discovering the four noble truths

Buddha statue

I was brought up in Essex in an orphanage run by Church of England Christians. Many of them had given up their lives in the material world, to work for the Lord, and looked after poor orphans. There, I learned several Christian truths, including the following three:

  • There is a heaven, and if I am “good” I will end up there.
  • There is a hell, and if I “mess up” I will end up there.
  • I can repent, and the Lord will forgive me.

Reflecting on these three truths, coupled with praying to a God that never came to my rescue when I needed Him, initiated a spiritual crisis within me.

By the time I was 19, I had broken six of the ten commandments. I had killed insects, stolen, committed adultery, worked on the Sabbath, taken the name of the Lord in vain, dishonoured my parents by hating them, and had considered — for a fleeting moment — Hari Krishna to be a god. I had no idea how to repent, and I did not have the desire to repent, either.

I found myself in the Holy Land a year later, where I parted for once and for all with my childhood savior, Jesus Christ, in Bethlehem. I had hoped to receive a sign that I was on the right path. The bible was my savior during the time I lived with my biological mother between the age of 11 and 12 and half. I had grown up in foster homes and orphanages until the age of 11. Then came a new culture of thinking. Children should not grow up in institutions all their life, if they were babies they should be adopted out. If they were old like me and already living in an institutions social workers tried to track their parents down and place children back with their families.

The Four Noble Truths

Needless to say it was a disaster for many, I saw many leave with their single parent mother, and return in months. When my turn came I expected the same. My mother had been tempted with a two bedroom apartment. They would give her this if she took her daughter back. Of course she didn’t want to raise me, she had given her first two children away to grand parents in Africa, put me in an orphanage and the youngest was adopted.

How could she refuse such an offer? An immigrant from Africa living in awful accommodation for eleven years; she accepted. From day one I was abused, and am lucky to be alive to tell my story. I prayed every night to God to take me away from her awful place. I read the bible daily and found solace in the stories, while living a tormented and tortured life. Finally one day I believed God had answered my prayers. 18 months later I was met by the police and social workers at school, and removed, and she was taken to court. However God had come to late, I was already damaged. I had lost faith in humans.

I was angry. Why had Christ allowed so much suffering during my childhood? Surely, if he cared, he would have come to my rescue? Why hadn’t he come to the rescue of the people of Israel, Palestine?

I was disgusted with what I saw in Bethlehem. It was as if I was witnessing Jesus entering the temple courts, driving out all who were buying and selling there. I, too, wanted to overturn the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling candles and tack. I did not want a cross; I wanted Jesus’ love and compassion. Yet, I could not feel it. I returned home bereft, went off the rails for a while, and fell into spiritual drought.

Night clubbing, intoxicants and sex became my spiritual path. Through intoxicants I experienced states of being that transformed me momentarily, but blew holes in my brain. Through sex I experienced a surrender I was unable to do in any other part of my life, but that was because I was always under the influence of something. Dancing saved my life, I lived for night clubbing, it was through the freedom of dance without intoxicants that I experienced something greater than me, I glimpsed integration……..

The lesbian, black, and dance communities filled the void. I sought refuge in each of these communities, placing them at the centre of my life. I chose my friends and social life from this pool of people and activities, but still, there was something missing.

Feminism, Womanism, Leftism, Separatism, Pan-Africanism, and Afro-centrism clearly were not the answer. While aspects of the theories and lifestyle spoke to me, I still found myself alienated from my spirit. I had become emotionally impoverished as a black lesbian, because the world in which I grew up denied my existence. Black people weren’t queer, neither were we feminists or separatists, that was what white people did. It did not exist in African/Caribbean communities, that was the claim. And so I could not bring all of myself into black political organizations, through fear of being physically attacked. This was the early 80s Britain.

However neither the communities in which I found myself, nor the theories I studied, spoke to every part of who I was. The black lesbian community chastised me for having white lovers, because it was considered sleeping with the enemy. The black heterosexual community were in denial about homosexuality. The white feminist and lesbian communities often denied the black experience. We were even denied entrance to some night clubs because of our skin colour.

I knew I needed to heal, but I did not know how. I knew I needed something that could make sense of the life I was living, and why I was living it. Banishing people from my life because of their sexuality, gender, race, or class was not the answer. Separate spaces where I could be all black, all lesbian, or all woman helped me to heal some of my wounds, but I needed more. I wanted to go out into the world and be all of me at the same time.

I was fortunate to have friends who meditated with the Triratna Buddhist Order, formerly known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. And within this sangha, or spiritual community, I found I could attend separate retreats for women or lesbians, and people of colour. I’m not sure I would have come across the four noble truths if I had not discovered the sangha. Unconsciously, I was an angry black lesbian woman, and I needed a safe space where I could take off some of my armour. These retreats for different aspects of me allowed me to heal, but I needed to integrate myself take of my armour full of labels and learn to trust.

When I first heard the four noble truths, tears came to my eyes. They resonated within me and presented me with the opportunity to work with my life differently. The truths and meditation also changed my life profoundly. They shook me awake. They were the most exciting things I had learned in all my years of education. The four noble truths turned everything around in my psyche. They made sense of my life. The truths taught me that I was interconnected with all beings, not much different from anyone else. I was no longer alone with my labels that I had become so attached to, that had become my fixed false self. I realized that although I had experienced my fare share of suffering from the reality of the conditions I was born into, I had also piled a whole lot more suffering into my life, from the choices I had made. The truths presented a freedom from that suffering. For the first time in my life, I could see a way out of my suffering. I could step onto the eight fold path.

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“When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over.” Thich Nhat Hanh

Thich Nhat Hanh

I grew up in a family dominated by alcoholism, narcissism, illness and dysfunction. There were four of us, my mother, my father, my older brother and myself.

From a young age, I had a lot of responsibility. I was a parentified child, caring for my older brother who was epileptic and also caring for my parents whose main focus of concentration was on themselves.

Growing up I was filled with confusion, dissatisfaction, and suppressed anger.

As a child, I did not know other children were busy playing and being cared for. For me it was all about caring for others. I was left alone while my father worked, my mother shopped, and my brother was taken where he needed to be.

As a result of these dynamics, I grew up trying to please my distracted parents. I wanted nothing more than to win their approval and affection.

Expectations of me from my parents were many and grew in number as I did in age, until, as an adolescent I became rebellious as a response to a domineering father and a controlling mother.

My parents tried to enforce who were my friends, the young men I dated, my thoughts and my behavior. As a result, I married a man they disapproved of, who, (un)surprisingly was very much like them – narcissistic, unable to show love and affection and cut off from his feelings.

As I went out into the world, worked, married, became a mom, talked with others, read a few books and practiced Buddhism, I realized that my upbringing was filled with dysfunction and there were reasons that I had issues with trust, felt “different”, turned myself inside-out to win approval, had anxiety and suffered with depression. And as I worked with all of this in meditation and keeping a dream journal I realized I had lots of anger – even rage.

People work with anger in different ways. My way was to repress it. As I worked with my dreams, I realized I felt rage at the man I married and later I realized I also felt rage towards my parents. It was safer, when I was younger, to repress the rage as a way of “holding onto” my husband and my parents. Repressing anger, however, is not such a healthy thing to do – it takes a toll on the body, the mind and the spirit.

Marshall Rosenberg teaches nonviolent communication, and writes “You can feel it when it hits you. Your face flushes and your vision narrows. Your heartbeat increases as judgmental thoughts flood your mind. Your anger has been triggered, and you’re about to say or do something that will likely make it worse.  You have an alternative. The nonviolent communication process teaches that anger serves a specific, life-enriching purpose. It tells you that you’re disconnected from what you value…”

Rosenberg’s quote on anger helped me to realize that anger serves an important purpose. The quote helped me to understand my reactivity.   And, understanding my reactivity and that my parents were suffering, allowed me to transform the anger to compassion.

I realized that no matter how much I gave to my parents, it would never be enough. No matter how many times I flew across the country to visit, or stayed for weeks to help them recuperate from surgery, or help them move to an assisted living situation, they would always let me know that it wasn’t good enough.  This caused me suffering, and they suffered as well.  They suffered by being unable to accept the love and care I offered them.  They suffered by wanting more than is reasonable to expect.

As I started saying “no” to unreasonable parental expectations and abuse I felt a huge sense of loss. Because I understand unconditional love, the love I have for my children, I realized that I never had unconditional love as a child.

Finally I realized that the anger I felt was telling me that I valued kindness, fairness, respect, and unconditional love. I finally realized that I value myself as a human being worthy of respect, love, kindness and concern.

Along with the loss comes relief, clarity, positivity and strength. Realizing that I no longer need to put myself in situations of abuse has helped the anger subside and compassion arise.

I have found Thich Nhat Hanh’s quotation “when another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over” to be true and when I keep it in mind I can let go of anger and embrace compassion.

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Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh

Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh

Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh is a prolific writer, with over seventy books to his name. ‘Your True Home’ is his latest: a compilation of 365 short teachings, one on each page.

The format means we can take the book’s subtitle ‘everyday wisdom’ literally, and visit the book daily for a nugget of this much-loved Buddhist teacher’s lore.

And nuggets they are, never taking up more than half a page in a book which has a short, chubby format to begin with (though too heavy to be pocket size – unless you have very big pockets).

Title: Your True Home: The Everyday Wisdom of Thich Nhat Hanh
Author: Melvin McLeod (editor)
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-926-1
Available from: Shambhala, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com Kindle Store, and Amazon.com.

The teachings fall into two broad categories: instructions and insights.

Day 144, for example, gives us a mindful breathing practice culminating in the lines, ‘Breathing in, I am aware of my body. Breathing out, I smile to my whole body.’

There’s an emphasis on positivity in Thich Nhat Hanh’s instructions. Our natural state is joy, he suggests, and we’d save ourselves a lot of trouble if we could appreciate that.

That emphasis isn’t there as strongly in his insight teachings. For example, on day 173: ‘When conditions are sufficient, something manifests. That is what we call a ‘formation’. The flower is a formation, and so are the clouds and the sun. I am a formation, and you are a formation.’

Similarly, on Day 62, he compares life to a kaleidoscope of changing patterns. ‘Should we cry every time one of these manifestations comes to an end?’

Core Buddhist tenets are being emphasised here: that life is contained in the present moment, and that the material world is constantly changing and unstable.

These truths may strike the reader as stark, presented as they are without back-up explanation. It makes the book an interesting mixture of comfort and challenge. Perhaps this reflects the two main practices within Buddhist meditation, Samatha (calming) and Vipassana (insight).

Editor Melvin McLeod is at pains to point out that the insight teachings are not ‘mere aphorisms to cheer us up or inspire us (though they do both). They are transformative insights and instructions, and we need to let them seep below the surface level of our intellect into our heart and guts, where wisdom gestates and real change happens.’

That would obviously be a fantastic outcome, but I’m not sure that reading this book on its own is enough to make it happen.

Having said that, who knows? Even if this is the only Buddhist book you ever read, bite-sized wisdom is a lot better that no wisdom at all. And even if we do take the teachings as aphorisms, at least they are thought-provoking ones.

Thich Nhat Hanh is sometimes criticised for endlessly presenting old teachings in new formats (and it’s possible to see this latest offering in that light, too).

But different formats undeniably make Buddhist teachings available and acceptable for the first time to a wider variety of people. Furthermore, re-presenting old ideas in new contexts can also be very powerful for those who are already familiar with them.

And so it is with ‘Your true home.’ While the meditation suggestions calm and focus us, the insight pages exert a ‘drip-drip’ effect. One day next year or in years to come (unlike a calendar, the pages are not dated, just tactfully numbered), we may read the right words at the right time and suddenly and unexpectedly recognize the living truth they are pointing to.

In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, ‘When conditions are sufficient, something manifests.’ Putting the word out there in different ways is one method of helping establish them.

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More Latinos choose a less travelled road to spirituality

Cristina Pinzon: Ruben Lambert was educated in Catholic schools and grew up as a faithful Roman Catholic. As he grew older, the first generation Cuban-American decided to adopt a religion more rooted in meditation and enlightenment.

Now he follows the practices of Zen Buddhism and has assumed the name Venerable Mooh-Sang Sunim.

Like Lambert, many Latinos are shedding their traditional spiritual beliefs for non-traditional, non-Christian religions. Whether it involves praying five times a day or forsaking a suit and tie for long robes, these people are firm believers in the doctrines of their chosen convictions.

While the numbers of Latinos converting to these religions …

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What makes someone a Buddhist?

From time to time I get emails from people who wonder how to become a Buddhist. Often they’ve been practicing meditation for a while, and want to call themselves Buddhists, but they’re not sure if it’s — and please pardon the miscegenation of religious terminology — “kosher” to call themselves a Buddhist.

Traditionally, the starting point of regarding yourself as a Buddhist is known as Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels. The Three Jewels (Triratna, or Tiratana in Pali) are the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha. The Buddha isn’t just the historical individual we call the Buddha, but the ideal of enlightenment itself, which I’d characterize as the attainment of a state of deep mindfulness and compassion that arises from an insight into the non-separateness of the self. The Dharma is the path, the teachings, and the practices that lead ultimately to the realization of that insight, and to the attainment of that state of deep mindfulness and compassion. The Sangha is the spiritual community of all those who are treading that path and putting those teachings into practice, using meditation and ethical observance in order to deepen their mindfulness, their compassion, and their insight.

So what does “Going for Refuge” (saraṇa-gamana) mean? The word “refuge” unfortunately has associations with the word “refugee,” which is so redolent of failure and weakness that the displaced millions during Hurricane Katrina were rarely described in the US media as “refugees.” But seeking refuge is something we all need to do. As Jim Morrison said, “No one here gets out alive.” We live in an uncertain world. We all need a source of security in life, something that gives life a sense of meaning and purpose.

The Buddha observed people doing this all around him:

People, driven by fear, go for refuge to many places:
mountains, forests, gardens, trees and shrines. (Dhp. 188)

He pointed out that these are false refuges, because they’re unable to provide true security. What can provide security in a world marked by change and loss? Only complete non-attachment: the deep realization that everything, including ourselves, is subject to change, and the profound peace that accompanies that realization. Those who are enlightened stand confident in the midst of the flow of change, because they do not fight that which cannot be fought. They see others vainly trying to find something stable to grasp onto, and feel compassion for them.

Ultimately the Refuges are not external. Some of the Buddha’s last recorded words were:

Be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no external refuge; with the Dhamma as your island, the Dhamma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.

(Attadīpā viharatha attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā.)

This may sound a little contradictory — “seek no external refuge” and “take the Dhamma as your refuge” — but the Dhamma is the truth that is to be found by closely examining our own experience, so it’s not, in the end, something external. We find the truth by looking within.

Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels involves taking this awakened stance of compassionate non-clinging as its goal. When we Go for Refuge we say in effect that we are dedicating our lives to the pursuit of spiritual awakening.

So how do we do this?

Going for Refuge is something that you can do for and by yourself, simply by reciting the words:

To the Buddha for Refuge I Go
To the Dharma for Refuge I Go
To the Sangha for Refuge I Go.

In Pali this is:

Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi
Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi
Saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi

(You can hear this formula being chanted on this page about the Refuges and Precepts. Although many people talk about “taking refuge,” the verb in the original refuge formula is definitely “to go.”)

Actually, chanting these verses is more of a verbal acknowledgement — to yourself — of your already-existent Going for Refuge, since Going for Refuge fundamentally is an act of the heart, rather than an act of speech. Repeating the words without a sincere wish to commit oneself to the Buddhist path changes nothing.

It can be more meaningful to chant these words in the presence of others, since there’s something powerful about having our Going for Refuge witnessed by others. And in any event, since Sangha is one of the refuges, it makes sense to actually participate in one! However, depending on where you live, there may not be a spiritual community for you to join, or those that you find may not be compatible with your own style of practice. But essentially, it’s reciting the words above with a sincere heart that marks the transition to being a Buddhist.

That’s not the end, of course. While reciting the Going for Refuge verses could be looked at as a kind of initiation into Buddhism, actual Buddhist practice requires a life-long process of self-examination and of self transformation. We need to bring Buddhist ethical principles (as expressed in the five precepts, for example) more and more into our lives, and need to meditate in order to reduce the amount of craving and ill will in our hearts, and so that we can cultivate mindfulness, compassion, and insight. Going for Refuge is not a one-time act, but an ongoing act of “steering” our being toward awakening.

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Feed the mouse: using appreciation to generate inner nourishment

As the nervous system evolved, your brain developed in three stages:

  • Reptile – Brainstem, focused on avoiding harm
  • Mammal – Limbic system, focused on approaching rewards
  • Primate – Cortex, focused on attaching to “us”

Since the brain is integrated, avoiding, approaching, and attaching are accomplished by its parts working together. Nonetheless, each of these functions is particularly served and shaped by the region of the brain that first evolved to handle it.

Petting your inner lizard was about how to soothe and calm the most ancient structures of the brain, the ones that manage the first emotion of all: fear. This article continues the series by focusing on how to help the early mammalian parts of your brain feel rewarded, satisfied, and fulfilled: in a word, fed.

This has many benefits. For starters, when you feel fed – physically, emotionally, conceptually, and even spiritually – you naturally let go of longing, disappointment, frustration, and craving. The hungry heart gets a full meal; goals are attained and the striving for them relaxes; one feels lifted by life as it is. What a relief!

Feeling fed also helps you enjoy positive emotions such as pleasure, contentment, accomplishment, ease, and worth. As Barbara Fredrickson and other researchers have shown, these good feelings reduce stress, help people bounce back from illness and loss, strengthen resilience, draw attention to the big picture, and build inner resources. And when your own cup runneth over, studies have found that you’re more inclined to give to others; feeling good helps you do good.

Last, consider this matter in a larger context. Many of us live in an economy that emphasizes endless consumer demand and in a culture that emphasizes endless striving for success and status. Sure, enjoy a nice new sweater and pursue healthy ambitions. But it’s also vitally important – both for ourselves and for the planet whose resources we’re devouring like kids gorging on cake – that we appreciate the many ways we already have so, SO much.

So, in everyday life, draw on opportunities to feel fed – and as you do, really take in these experiences, weaving them into the fabric of your brain and being. For example:

  • While eating, be aware of the food going into you, becoming a part of you. Take pleasure in eating, and know that you are getting enough.
  • While breathing, know that you are getting all the oxygen you need.
  • Absorb sights and sounds, smells and touches. Open to the sense of how these benefit you; for instance, recognize that the seeing of a green light, a passage in a book, or a flower is good for you.
  • Receive the warmth and help of other people, which comes in many ways, including compassion, kindness, humor, practical aid, and useful information.
  • Get a sense of being supported by the natural world: by the ground you walk on, by sunlight and water, by plants and animals, by the universe itself.
  • Feel protected, enabled, and delighted by human craft, ranging from the wheel to the Hubble telescope, with things like glass, paper, refrigerators, the internet, and painkillers in between.
  • Be aware of money coming to you, whether it’s what you’re earning hour by hour or project by project, or the financial support of others (probably in a frame in which you are supporting them in other ways).
  • Notice the accomplishment of goals, particularly little ones like washing a dish, making it to work, or pushing “send” on an email. Register the sense of an aim attained, and help yourself feel at least a little rewarded.
  • Appreciate how even difficult experiences are bringing good things to you. For example, even though exercise can be uncomfortable, it feeds your muscle fibers, immune system, and heart.
  • Right now – having read this list just above – let yourself be fed . . . by knowing that many many things can feed you!

Then, from time to time – such as at meals or just before sleep – take a moment to appreciate some of what you’ve already received. Consider the food you’ve taken in, the things you’ve gotten done, the material well-being you do have, the love that’s come your way. Sure, we’ve all sometimes had to slurp a thin soup; but to put these shortfalls in perspective, take a moment to consider how little so many people worldwide have, a billion of whom will go to bed hungry tonight.

As you register the sense of being fed, in one way or another, help it sink down into yourself. Imagine a little furry part of you that’s nibbling away at all this “food,” chewing and swallowing from a huge, abundant pile of goodies that’s greater than anyone – mouse or human – can ever consume. Take your time with the felt sense of absorbing, internalizing, digesting, There’s more than enough. Let knowing this sink in again and again.

Turn as well into the present – the only time we are ever truly fed. In the past there may not have been enough, in the future there may not be enough . . . but right now, in what the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh calls the Pure Land of this moment, most of us most of the time are buoyed by so many blessings. Falling open and into the Now, being now, fed by simply being, by being itself.

Being fed.

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Meditation helps inmates reach ‘natural awareness’

Allan Turner (Houston Chronicle): Hung. Or gyen yul gyi nub jang tsam.

Barefooted, eyes closed in reverie, bodies folded into lotus position, the men in white chanted the ancient Seven Line Supplication to Guru Rinpoche, who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the eighth century.

As their voices swelled, their leader, Galveston artist Terry Conrad, swayed with the cadence. Pe ma gey sar dong pol la. Yam Tsen chog gi ngo drub nyey

This could have been a scene from a 1960’s love-in, with college-age acolytes – decked out in exotic garb – paying fervid homage to the wisdom of the East. But these men were not students, and…

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