Decline of Buddhism in Thailand

Lucky Severson, Religion and Ethics: There’s a struggle going on inside Thailand. It’s between two powerful influences. One side can be found in places like this; the other in crowded spaces like this. For now it seems that one side is falling behind.

This is Professor John Butt, senior advisor to the Institute of Religion at Payap University in Chiang Mai.

PROF. JOHN BUTT: It’s a real clash with modernity, with social change, and it’s been very intense. The changes that took place in America and in Europe have been extended over a couple of centuries; here it’s been a couple of decades…

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The art of finding abundance in frugal times

In the metta sutta, the discourse on loving kindness, the Buddha teaches us how to be “skilled in goodness and know the path of peace”.

These attributes can be practiced in a number of ways including kind speech, humility and also through being frugal.

We are living at a time when prices keep going up and our income, if we are fortunate enough to have one, is not keeping up.

So, how can we live abundantly while living frugally?

Here is a list of suggestions.

1. Attitude is Everything

The way we think about things creates our reality. When we think we don’t have enough, we come from a place of scarcity. When we think we have what we need, we come from a place of abundance. We can choose which place we come from by choosing to think positively.

We may not have the latest technological toys, the biggest house, the fastest car or designer clothes, but we have abundance when we appreciate our five-year old laptop, our comfortable living space, our reliable Subaru and skill to do your own home repairs.

2. Take a Realistic Look at Our Financial Situation

If we don’t already have a budget, now is the time to create one. List what comes in and what goes out. Take a look at what is spent on wants rather than needs. Make that list of wants shorter.

3. Become Aware of What is Really Important

Think about what is really important to you. Perhaps you are saving for a college education for yourself or your children. Perhaps you are saving for a home or a car. Find ways to put money into the bank for these items that are meaningful. Each time we bring our coffee and lunch to work, we are giving up a little now to gain a lot later.

4. Meditate on What Material Things Mean to You

Take some time to sit quietly and think about what you spend money on and what those objects mean to you. Do you have high mortgage or car payments to finance because a pricey home or new car makes you feel a certain way? Do you buy rounds of drinks for your friends because you try to keep up with them even though they make more money than you do? No number of material things can increase our self-esteem — that can only be increased by intrinsic qualities like kindness.

5. Learn About Ways to Nourish Yourself Without Spending a Lot of Money

They say “the best things in life are not things”. Rather than spending money on things, spend time in natural surroundings, take a walk, and get together with friends and cook at home rather than going out to a restaurant. Read to your children or take them hiking, listen to music or create art together.

Being frugal may mean that we are giving up some material things, but it can also mean we find abundance in other ways such as spending quality time with friends and family members and finding out what is most meaningful in our lives.  One of the most meaningful Buddhist scriptures I have read is the metta sutta:

The Buddha’s Words on Lovingkindness

This is what should be done
By those who are skilled in goodness,
And who know the path of peace:
Let them be able and upright,
Straightforward and gentle in speech,
Humble and not conceited,
Contented and easily satisfied,
Unburdened with duties and frugal in their ways,
Peaceful and calm, and wise and skillful,
Not proud and demanding in nature.
Let them not do the slightest thing
That the wise would later reprove.
Wishing: in gladness and in safety,
May all beings be at ease.
Whatever living beings there may be;
Whether they are weak or strong, omitting none,
The great or the mighty, medium, short or small,
The seen and the unseen,
Those living near and far away,
Those born and to-be-born—
May all beings be at ease!
Let none deceive another,
Or despise any being in any state.
Let none through anger or ill-will
Wish harm upon another.
Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings;
Radiating kindness over the entire world,
Spreading upward to the skies,
And downward to the depths;
Outward and unbounded,
Freed from hatred and ill-will.
Whether standing or walking, seated or lying down,
Free from drowsiness,
One should sustain this recollection.
This is said to be the sublime abiding.
By not holding to fixed views,
The pure-hearted one, having clarity of vision,
Being freed from all sense desires,
Is not born again into this world.

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Korean Monks discuss Buddhism, culture

In their traditional grey monk suits with shaved heads and wearing iPods, they’ve walked Park Avenue, listened to the concerts in Lincoln Park and played football in Lyndhurst—a part of their introduction in the Western world. The monks are a group of three Korean monks and four nuns from Donguk University in South Korea, and are staying at Felician College in Rutherford while studying English as a Second Language and learning about Buddhism in the Western world.

They live under a rule of 250 precepts. And on a typical day, they’re up at 4 a.m. for meditation, have breakfast at 6 a.m., and have university studies, chant three times a day and do agricultural work until sundown. While staying mentally and spiritually active, they also stay physically active and technologically savvy.

“I like football and soccer,” says Sung Cheol Lee a.k.a. “Great Wisdom.” Their trip to the fields in Lyndhurst was also their introduction to the American game of football.

“And I use Twitter for journals and chants. I have iPhone apps for chanting, ‘I Need Coffee,’ painting and a dictionary,” says Heyjun Changeon Kim, a.k.a. “Blue River.”

Lee, 19, and Blue River, 42, noted that it is customary in Korea not to use your birth name…

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when you become a monk. At times, they spoke through a translator. Blue River has been a monk for 12 years. Lee is two years into the five-year journey.

Why learn English? “Globalization, the Internet; a lot of info is in English only,” says Blue River. “If I had the chance, I’d like to teach meditation in the United States.”

The six-week trip for the Buddhism and Meditation majors includes visiting temples, Ivy League colleges and museums in New York, Boston and Washington, D.C. They went to Dharma Drum University, Blue Cliff and Gem Mountain monasteries, Boston University, the John F. Kennedy Library, Harvard, MIT, Rubin Museum of Art at NYU, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“At Harvard, the opinions are concentrated in one study. I envy that,” says Blue River. “It made me think to concentrate more on my major, meditation,” he said, adding that he also minors in Architecture and Art History and is fascinated by scholarly writing on many religions.

In the nation’s capital, Lee said the two met with Congressman Dan Burton (R-Indiana), attending a ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the end of the Korean War.

For achieving peace, tranquility and physical fitness, Blue River reflected on Western meditation through yoga and Buddhism.

“The main point of the Western view of Buddhism is compassion,” Blue River notes, adding that he was surprised by Westerners’ vast knowledge of and interest in Buddhism.

Both men also believe that Americans lead in materialism and the science of medicine, for example. And the Western society has just begun to adopt spirituality into the mix. “I pursue spirituality. Americans sort of mix the spiritual and material and mental,” Blue River says.

He defines Buddhism as being “free from suffering.” “Buddhism began with a prince born in India 2,000 years ago. His mother died during childbirth, so he always thought about birth, age, disease and death. So he became a monk. He practiced for six years, not eating. He also realized the theory of cause/effect,” Blue River explains, adding that the reason monks never marry or have children is because marriage and child-rearing would yield material needs.

The prince found three truths, Lee adds.

“Everything is impermanent; nothing stays the same. Be selfless. Be free of suffering by erasing three poisons: greed, anger and ignorance. The key is to meditate in order to remove poisons. The goal is to be free of suffering. The idea is to achieve nirvana,” says Blue River.

Rules, however, vary between southeast regions of Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Vietnam and northeast regions, including China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia and Tibet.

“It’s stricter in the south,” Blue River says.

“The south has the same theories as the north, but different conceptions [of being a Buddhist monk],” Blue River says. “You can’t work. You can’t cook in the temple. In Myanmar, I had to go out [to ask] for food. You can’t touch money. When you take the bus, the driver has to take the money out of your wallet.”

Not quite ready to leave Rutherford for South Korea, Lee and Blue River thanked Felician staff and reflected on their stay.

“They’re like family. We have the same purpose,” Blue River says. “When we teach, we also learn. They learn about us and we learn about Western culture.”

Blue River will continue his trip in America in Maine to continue his meditation research.

[Kelly Nicholaides, North Jersey]
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Dalai Lama speaks — at Universal Studios

LA Times: The exiled Tibetan leader speaks to an audience of thousands in what some might consider an incongruous setting. But his message is unchanged: The path to happiness is not paved with stuff.

In his first major public appearance in Los Angeles in more than three years, the Dalai Lama spoke to a crowd of several thousand people Sunday about his hopes for Tibet, the need for dialogue in resolving conflicts and the importance of spurning the material world to cultivate compassion.

People today are “too much concerned with exterior material values and not our inner values,” the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader said.

Happiness, he said, touching his heart, “ultimately depends on here.”

The event was a benefit for Whole Child International, an L.A. nonprofit that trains caregivers in orphanages. It took place at Universal Studios, in the same amphitheater where the Teen Choice Awards are held, and singer Sheryl Crow performed.

Kristen Deem, sitting on a bench outside the theater practicing meditation breathing techniques before the talk began, said she found the juxtaposition strange.

“This place is like Vegas, and here is this spiritual entity,” said Deem, 45, who lives in North Hollywood. She gestured to the crowd of people streaming into the auditorium, some clutching sodas and buckets of popcorn. “A lot of these people don’t go to meditation centers,” Deem said. “They’re Hollywood yuppies.”

But Lamu Stadler, a Los Alamitos resident who was born in India to parents who were Tibetan exiles, said she didn’t find the setting incongruous. The theme park, she said, “is a beautiful, happy-feeling place where families have fun together.” The Dalai Lama’s message, Stadler said, was similarly upbeat.

“Whenever we are under the same roof, I can feel something very good,” said Stadler, 53, who was wearing traditional Tibetan attire.

Tibetans like Stadler consider the Dalai Lama both their spiritual and their political leader. “His Holiness,” as they call him, fled Tibet in 1959 after a failed uprising against Chinese rule.

In recent years, the Dalai Lama has scaled back his demands for Tibetan independence and now calls for “meaningful autonomy” for Tibet within China.

Sunday was his first public appearance since a private meeting with President Obama last week that provoked objections from Chinese officials, who accuse the Dalai Lama of trying to orchestrate a rebellion.

Sitting cross-legged in a chair onstage, the Dalai Lama did not discuss that meeting. In a meandering and at times humorous hourlong talk, he spoke about Tibet and his belief that all social change must begin on the individual level.

“External disarmament” first requires “internal disarmament,” he said.

“At the fundamental level, we are the same human being,” he said. “Mentally, emotionally, physically — same.”

Later, as attendees streamed toward the parking lot, Redondo Beach resident Ralph Cooper walked to his car with a smile.

“Right now, I feel like I’m reconnected to my purpose,” Cooper said.

His goal, he said, was to live like the Dalai Lama and to “positively affect as many people as possible.”

He put his hand on his heart. “You’ve got to start right here at the root.”

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Awareness in our technological world

monk with laptopTechnology brings a world of spiritual knowledge to our fingertips. But immersing ourselves in a world of gadgets may also distance us from more authentic connections with teachers, family, and friends. Guest blogger Justin Whitaker takes a look at the double-edged sword of our hyper-connected world.

Since you are reading this, presumably on a computer or other high-tech device, you owe a thing or two to technology. Nearly all of us in the Western world and a fast-growing number in the East live in a world molded and directed by technology. We have lived amidst changes that could scarcely be imagined just fifty years ago. We wake up, push a button or two for coffee, assemble our morning meal from plastic containers in the refrigerator, and flip open the laptop to start our day. Whether we are aware of it or not – and our goal is to be aware – technology shapes our life. Thus in practice, we need to recognize not only how we individually use or do not use technology, but also how technology affects whole communities and future generations.

 Today we face countless distractions, a ‘hedonic treadmill’ of chasing the next newest thing, and a virtual black hole for time spent waiting for computers to boot up, web pages to load, etc  

What exactly is technology? It is any human creation that has been put out into the world, thus affecting our lives, from the ancient technologies of iron tools and grain bins to the cutting edge world of nano-gadgets and skyscrapers. On the one hand all of this has allowed humanity to grow and flourish as it has. Today we enjoy extraordinary efficiency, easy travel, and abundant leisure. On the other hand we face countless distractions, a “hedonic treadmill” of chasing the next newest thing, and a virtual black hole for time spent waiting for computers to boot up, web pages to load or files to download, and so on.

Modern technology has brought countless pages of ancient texts to our computer screen and untold hours of audio and video to download to our iPods and MP3 players. It might seem that there is no need to leave one’s home to find great teachings, and, when one does have to venture out, one can have those teachings pumped into their ears the whole time. Not only do we not need to find a teacher or a community of practice, but we don’t have to sit down to read texts or set aside time devoted solely to hearing great teachings. This is great, right?

Not so fast. How do we grow in awareness at the grocery store when we’re trying to pick out the best apples, remember the three other things we need, and listen to a discourse on the Four Noble Truths at the same time? When we’re in the grocery store, shouldn’t we just be in the grocery store. Shouldn’t our full awareness be with the sights and sounds around us? When we’re driving, hiking, etc, shouldn’t we just be in that activity?

Many observers our culture describe a rise in narcissism, a decline in attention span, the disappearance of traditions, and even a loss of basic civility, all at the hands of our modern conveniences. Many people are losing touch with friends and loved ones in real life and substituting them with virtual networks and television. One study recently showed that the relationship centers of peoples brains, those that become active when we enjoy time with friends and family, were also stimulated when regular TV watchers put on their favorite sitcom. With a touch of irony, the sitcom used in the study was “Friends.” What is going on?

 I can only guess what the Buddha would say if he wandered into my cluttered house today, let alone if he used his ‘higher knowledges’ to wander into my equally cluttered mind.  

It is said that Socrates lamented the advent of the book, the cutting edge technology in his day. To him it signaled a shift from wisdom, which was a virtue that could only be embodied in a person, to knowledge: facts about the world that could be recorded and studied in books. He worried that people would stop deeply learning things and instead rely on external hard drives, as it were. At that time, roughly the same time that the Buddha was teaching in India, one had to go find a teacher with whom to study. This was often difficult, but it forged the virtues of resolution and dedication. Years and often lifetimes were spent under a single teacher perfecting one’s understanding and practice, the key ingredients for wisdom.

Simplicity, too, was a virtue of years gone by. The Buddha often scorned household life as stifled and filled with impurity and praised the monastic life for its peace, quiet, and lack of possessions. I can only guess what the Buddha would say if he wandered into my cluttered house today, let alone if he used his “higher knowledges” to wander into my equally cluttered mind. The simple pace and simple activities of the past, albeit usually much more physically demanding than today, have all but disappeared.

It is too simplistic to see technology as simply a tool, one that we can use skillfully or unskillfully, or not use it at all. The technology of the last fifty years has radically changed the way that most of us interact with the world. We need to become aware of the broader societal impacts of technology itself. As material wealth has grown, levels of life-satisfaction have not. What is missing? Or, rather, what have we lost?

With our mind on these questions it is helpful to study the lives of men and women of the past. They have accomplished our goal of happiness or awakening without the aid of computers, cell phones, and even basic conveniences like books and MP3 players. There’s little chance for many of us actually living as they did, but we can wonder what it might be like to go without our favorite gadget now and then, to consciously cultivate more face-to-face time with people as well as more simplicity and silence when we are alone.

These little things help form the very foundation for our practice. They have been taken for granted for so much of human history and have clearly been eroded in recent years. But, with awareness and determination, it is well within our power to bring them back to the center of our lives.

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“Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With” by Gaylon Ferguson

Natural Wakefulness, by Gaylon FergusonA new book by Gaylon Ferguson argues that the biggest obstacle to natural wakefulness is the materialism that has us all in its grip, and that meditation and spiritual community are the antidotes. Pam Dodd is our guest reviewer.

Gaylon Ferguson, a Tibetan Buddhist meditation master, has studied and taught meditation for over 30 years. During that time, he has probably met all kinds of people from all walks of life who have actively pursued, or fallen onto, the spiritual path. Ferguson believes that the normal human condition is natural or basic wakefulness. Wakefulness is the fundamental goodness of who we really are, independent of our circumstances, that lies dormant in each of us, waiting to be actualized.

Unfortunately most of us have learned from infancy to be distracted by thoughts and feelings that keep us reacting to life automatically, like robots. We get stuck in the past. We fantasize and daydream. We think incessantly, allowing our monkey mind to jump wherever it pleases. Ferguson calls these habitual patterns reruns. We blindly move through our lives, in prisons of our own making, and we don’t even know it. Looking outside ourselves for our inner well-being, we live with a restlessness that never goes away.

Title: Natural Wakefulness: Discovering the Wisdom We Were Born With
Author: Gaylon Ferguson
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-1-59030-657-4
Available from: Shambhala and

The way to wake up from this “sleepwalking” state is not by trying to force or fix ourselves but by gently befriending ourselves in the practice of lovingkindness that is meditation.

Meditation is a commitment to being here now, no matter what. It’s accepting ourselves exactly where we are, working with what’s available in us, and bringing ourselves back to the present again and again whenever we our minds wander. Ferguson maintains that “sitting quietly in meditation is the best research lab to observe the mind’s behavior when it isn’t being interrupted” (p.98).

Meditation is nothing special. Yet if practiced consistently and regularly, it wakes us up to the basic goodness of our lives, not while we’re squirreled away in some far off, quiet sanctuary, but in the midst of living out the ups and downs of each ordinary, busy day.

Ferguson goes to great lengths to provide useful insights and instructions to the practitioner (for the reader of this book must be an active practitioner if the lessons are truly to be learned). It’s clear he knows the ins and outs of meditation.

 Practicing awareness is a stepping stone to radical social change

After the initial chapters on wakefulness and natural training, the middle chapters cover guided exercises, reflections, stories, and student questions on the most important aspects of meditation practice. Central to the book’s approach is the idea of “bare noticing.” This is not “thinking about,” reflection, deliberation, or theorizing, but rather the application of one’s unadorned attention to what currently is. Bare noticing is the basis of mindfulness, the uncluttered appreciation of the fullness of being human.

The book’s meditation lessons start with guided training on mindfulness of the physical body and breathing and move on to mindfulness of mind and mindfulness of feelings.

Along the way we learn how important it is not to be too tight or too loose; how to touch the texture of our emotions; how to lean in to unacceptable thoughts and feelings without being hooked by them; and how respectfully to watch the inner critic or voice of judgment that continuously comments on and criticizes what we think, say, and do.

The last two chapters discuss two central contexts for awakening, the nightmare of materialism and the spirit of community.

Ferguson maintains that the biggest obstacle to natural wakefulness is the world of materialism that has us all in its grips. He traces the roots of our constant sense of inadequacy, anxiety, and feeling like something is missing to our neurotic pursuits and thinking. We “fake it,” putting on masks to compensate for what we think we lack. We constantly chase after physical comfort, security, and pleasure. We rely on belief systems and concepts to filter our perceptions. We become addicted to altered or higher states of consciousness through drugs, prayer, yoga, and even meditation.

One antidote to materialism is genuine community. Communities of sanity, generosity, and celebration help us learn how to overcome a sense of scarcity and fear. In community, we work productively with our attention, care, and concern as we learn how to be present with others’ strong feelings without running away or trying to fix things. We nurture the compassionate heart, strengthening our wishes for the well-being of others. We learn to be skillful, waking up into trust and living courageously with others. In this larger sense, “practicing awareness is a stepping stone to radical social change” (p. 170).

 Bare noticing is the basis of mindfulness, the uncluttered appreciation of the fullness of being human.  

The hopeful message of Natural Wakefulness is much needed in today’s stressful times. Unfortunately, the book’s structure gets in the way of a full appreciation of its wisdom and lessons.

First, the wording of the chapter titles is too abstract. The clearer descriptive subtitles would have made better titles. Also subheadings throughout the book are uneven; some make sense while others are too vague.

This lack of clarity carries over to the numbering of the guided contemplations and exercises, which doesn’t follow a consistent style from chapter to chapter. Also, the exercises would have stood out more if each had been put in boxes or otherwise highlighted so the practitioner could return to them easily. The same goes for the valuable question-and-answer exchanges; their inconsistent formatting is distracting, making it difficult to follow the insights meant to support the main instruction.

Other issues include the lack of a bibliography, a few muddled metaphors and analogies, and several abrupt or incomplete transitions that leave the reader hanging.

Last, teaching meditation necessarily involves using abstract language. While much of this language may be familiar to the seasoned meditation practitioner, it can be difficult for the neophyte. Add the burden of structural issues like this book has, and despite the great content, it will be a challenge for some to read.

Pam Dodd, PhDPamela Dodd has practiced Korean Zen Buddhism since the mid-1990s. She’s always returning to beginner’s mind as her love of learning takes her into new fields of knowledge.

Pam has a master’s degree in social work and a Ph.D. in organizational psychology. She’s the co-author of The 25 Best Time Management Tools & Techniques, an Amazon bestseller.

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Dharma on zero dollars a day

Brass buddha statue

In a time of global financial meltdown, it may be wise to consider that many of the best things in life are indeed free, including self-awareness, happiness, and the freedom to explore one’s own experience. Bodhipaksa shares some reflections from a former monk.

“Rise before dawn and bow three times to the Buddha within you. Bow three times to whatever Buddha image you may already have. If you have no Buddha image, trace the outline of a footprint or a circle on the wall and bow to that. Bow three times to anyone else who may be doing this practice at this very moment, to those who have done it in the past, and to those who may yet come to this practice in the future. When you have thus performed your prostrations, fold your blanket into a square and be seated on the floor.

See also:

“Next, begin the practice of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day. Maintaining awareness of your breathing in as you are breathing in, breathe in. Maintaining awareness of your breathing out as you are breathing out, breathe out. As thoughts arise, make note of them. As physical sensations arise, do the same. From moment to moment, follow only the breath. Do not follow anything other than the breath.

At all times maintain a firm conviction that the dharma will manifest itself without dollars

“Note carefully when thoughts or impulses arise in regard to purchasing the dharma: the impulse to buy incense or a cushion, to pay membership dues, to purchase dharma teachings in the form of books or tapes or initiations. At the very moment that these thoughts or impulses arise, unbind yourself from them and return to the practice of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day.

“At the end of your meditation session, replace the blanket and proceed about your ordinary business, at all times maintaining a firm conviction that the dharma will manifest itself without dollars. Be especially mindful of advertisements for dharma products and of catalogs or stores where such products may be displayed. To enter such an establishment or touch such products, or to gaze longingly upon images of such products, is an impure act requiring confession before another practitioner of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day within a period of one month.

As you fall asleep, reflect on the precepts and the fact that no dollars need be spent to keep them.

“When you have returned from work, and have taken your evening meal, meditate once more on your folded blanket in the prescribed manner. Afterward, reflect on the quality of your behavior throughout the day. Did your acts in any way contribute to the idea that the dharma was for sale? Did you engage in rootless discussions on the merits of teachers who live in faraway places? Did you do or say anything to imply that the dharma was unavailable to yourself or another at the present place and time? Stated more positively, what did you do to encourage yourself and others in the belief that the dharma can manifest itself right here and now without consumption of any kind?

“As you retire, in the moments before you fall asleep, reflect on the precepts and the fact that no dollars need be spent to keep them. Reflect on the Four Noble Truths of Buddha and the fact that no dollars need be spent to understand them or to take them to heart.

“Once a week, go to your public library and read books on Buddhism (all kinds). Be mindful that these books may or may not have been written by someone who understands and follows the practice of Buddhism on No Dollars a Day. Take that which comes without a price tag and cherish it as a holy text.

Walker Douglas is a former Tibetan Buddhist monk.

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Mark Twain: “Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol…”

Mark Twain

Bodhipaksa explores the relationship between hats, iPods, desires, and needs. And also figures out what the Pali for “Palm Pilot” is. Oh, and he also offers a radical approach to dealing with distraction in meditation.

In a piece called “What Is Man?” Twain wrote: “Any so-called material thing that you want is merely a symbol: you want it not for itself, but because it will content your spirit for the moment.”

Twain argues that when you find yourself desiring, say, a hat, it’s not actually the physical object that you want but something else: perhaps something like the admiration you’ll get from your friends for having such a fine hat. If it turns out that your friends don’t like the hat and think it makes you look stupid, then it’s likely that you won’t think the hat is so splendid after all. The hat hasn’t changed, but its meaning has. (Another possibility, which Twain doesn’t point out, is that you might ditch your friends and stick with the hat, which has now become a symbol of how rebellious and independent you are.)

Happiness comes not from having the right things, but from having the right kind of relationship to our experience.

Twain’s is a valid point, and I recognize the phenomenon in myself. I’m not just a person who owns an iPod Touch, I have an iPod Touch because I want to be the kind of (cool) person who owns an esthetically pleasing, well-designed, practical accessory like an iPod Touch. I’m not so much interested in approval from others; even if no one else ever saw my iPod Touch I could take pleasure in knowing that I’m cool enough to own such a wonderful piece of hardware. In fact that self-validation is more important to me than any admiration I might get from other people. Every time I take out my iPod I’m confirming my sense of self; I’m reminding myself of who I think I am and who I want to be.

The “contentment of spirit” that the iPod offers me is strictly temporary, of course. Sooner or later something better (even just an updated version of the same device) will come out and make mine look old and shoddy. Or it’ll simply keep accumulating dings and scratches to the point that I’ll notice it’s flaws more than its marvelous abilities. In fact, right now my iPod is behaving strangely, with odd flashing lines appearing on the screen, and I’m already thinking that I need a cooler, more up-to-date model. Sic transit gloria technologiae.

The things we desire are all stand-ins, I’d argue, for more fundamental needs.

I’d go further than Twain, however, and argue that even the non-material things we crave are symbols. Say I do get approval and admiration from my friends because of my wonderful hat (or iPod). Why is that approval important to me? I’d argue that it’s just another symbol — this time a symbol for a number of deeper needs. I have a need for connection with others. I have a need for love. I have a need to love myself. The admiration I receive because I have a new hat/iPod stands in as a replacement for those needs. I feel connected to others when they admire me: and after all admiration is easier to attain than genuine communication. Admiration may not be love, but it still feels good. When others give me admiration I like myself more because I reckon that if they like me I must be worth liking. And while that’s not me loving myself for who I am, at least it’s something.

So these things we desire are all stand-ins, I’d argue, for more fundamental needs. An unmet need creates a kind of “thirst” (what’s technically called trsna in Buddhism), and that thirst looks for satisfaction. Unfortunately, because we’re deluded we’re often not very conscious of our thirsts, and we don’t understand what it is we really need. We may need to like ourselves better, but we end up with a new hat!

The principles I’m outlining here have helped me enormously in my meditation practice. Every time we close our eyes to meditate, up pops a flood of thoughts about things we desire to have or to happen and things we desire not to have and not to happen. And some of our thoughts just seem random, but they’ve hooked onto some object or other. I believe that all of these distractions are the “thirsts” generated by unmet needs. I’ll give you a couple of examples:

  • One time I was leading a meditation and I happened to notice my Palm Pilot in front of me (this was a few years back). Before the meditation I’d been reading a Buddhist text out loud to the retreatants and I’d placed the Palm Pilot on the little stand that held the meditation bell. Then I found myself wondering what “Palm Pilot” would be in Pali. I was just coming up with a possible answer (talanāyaka) when I came back to mindfulness. And so I wondered what need might I be trying to meet by wondering about such a ridiculous thing. My intuition told me that what I was getting out of this speculation was fun, and that what I needed was to have a sense of playfulness. Having identified what I needed, I was then able to bring more of a sense of playfulness and enjoyment into my experience by relaxing my effort and appreciating the wonder of the present-moment. And I was able to go back into a state of enjoyable concentration.
  • Another time I kept finding my mind turning to critical thoughts about some bad driving I’d witnessed. And a few moments’ reflection helped me realize that my need to feel safe and secure had been violated. What’s more, I hadn’t been empathizing with my own needs, and instead of wishing myself well I was wishing others ill. So I turned my attention from thoughts of the driver who had almost hit my car to the sense of pain I had in my heart. I offered lovingkindness, warmth, and protection to my heart, and soon I found that I felt secure and safe and that the fear and anger had gone.

I could offer a hundred such examples. I don’t think I’ve found a simple instance of distractedness where I couldn’t identify some need that was not being met, and where I couldn’t find some other way to meet that need from my own inner resources. I don’t want to suggest by this that we never need look outside of ourselves in order to get our needs met. Some of our needs, for example for support and for closeness, involve other people. Some needs you can fulfill from your inner resources, while in other cases you need to find the inner resources to seek the fulfillment of your needs from outside.

But I’d suggest you try thinking about your thoughts and feelings as being merely symbolic. Not just symbolic — they point towards our true needs. If we’re prepared simply to sit with our distractions and see what we can learn from them about ourselves, those distractions become teachers. We can follow the trail of our thirsts back into the less-conscious part of ourselves where our needs reside. This takes a little skill and practice. We need to learn not to react to our distractions: not to judge them. We need to learn to identify what our needs are (and the insights of Nonviolent Communication are very useful here), and we need to learn or find ways to meet our needs. But I believe that this approach to meditation offers a powerful tool for finding inner peace, and for letting go of the idea that there is some “thing” we need that will bring happiness. Happiness comes not from having the right things, but from having the right kind of relationship to our experience.

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Krishnamurti: “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti

I once had a disturbed young man come to a meditation class I was teaching in Edinburgh. As we’d gathered and during the meditation instruction I’d noticed that he was unusually intense and that he had noticeably poor personal hygiene, but in most ways he seemed like a fairly typical young man.

In the discussion following, however, his conversation started to veer off into more bizarre areas. He’d had “cosmic” experiences during the meditation session — experiences whose details I no longer recall but which sounded very off-balance. His girlfriend was apparently an Iranian princess. He was being shadowed by various security forces. Later still, as we were winding up and preparing to leave, and he was able to talk to me more or less alone, his conversation became more delusional still. He had developed special powers through his spiritual practice and could make things happen in the world around him. As we talked a housefly smacked noisily into the glass door we were standing beside. “See!” he said, excitedly. “I made that happen.”

He was obviously ill and suffering, and I experienced that pang of knowing that there was little or nothing I could do to help.

I’m no mental health professional, but his behaviors reminded me of what little I knew about schizophrenia and so I suggested as kindly as I could that he might be misinterpreting his experiences and that he might want to talk to a doctor about what was going on. He was clearly having problems with his mental health, but here’s the thing: according to the Buddha, so were the rest of us. “All worldlings are mad,” he said.*

“Worldling” is a translation of “putthujana,” which is simply anyone who isn’t enlightened. That’s me, and you. The Buddha had his own ideas about what constitutes mental health, and by his definition anyone who isn’t well on the way to Enlightenment is insane. Quite how literally he meant it when he said “All worldlings are mad” is hard to say, but when he looked at ordinary people like us going about their daily business he saw a world out of balance — and a world that by necessity is out of balance, because it is composed of those same off-kilter individuals.

He had a term for this imbalance, which was viparyasa in Sanskrit, although the less-well-known Pali equivalent vipallasa is a bit easier on the tongue and the eye. Vipallasa means “inversion,” “perversion,” or “derangement.” Specifically, in using this term the Buddha was talking about the ways in which we misunderstand the world we live in, and the ways in which we misunderstand ourselves. Just at the young man at my meditation class was constantly misinterpreting what was happening (“See! I made that happen”) so too do the rest of us live in a virtual reality of delusion, confusion, and distortion.

What’s more, we largely share the same delusions, which means that we don’t even realize that our minds are disturbed. And thus, as Krishnamurti suggests, it’s possible to think that we’re spiritually and mentally healthy because we share our mistaken values and understandings with those around us. Collectively, our ill minds create a society that is itself ill, and we consider ourselves healthy because we see our values reflected in our fellow worldlings.

When I think of the vipallasas in modern life I’m overwhelmed by examples, but the one that springs most to mind is to materialism. We keep thinking that the answer to our sense of existential dissatisfaction is to buy more stuff: more stuff, and better stuff. I guess I notice this most with gadgets, but for other people it’s houses, furniture, shoes, clothes, or cars — none of which I care about at all. I get a new gadget — the shiny MacBook Pro I’m writing this article on, for example — and I feel a sense of pleasure just looking at it. It’s better, faster, prettier than any computer I’ve had before. But then what happens over time? Newer, better, faster, prettier computers come on the market, and I start comparing my machine unfavorably with them. My gadget starts to look a bit old-fashioned (after only six months!), less cool, less capable. It feels less fast. And I’m no longer so happy with it. I now start to hanker after something new.

And I’ve been through all this craziness before. (Don’t they say that insanity is doing the same time over and over and expecting a different result?) Even knowing that I’m on a materialistic treadmill doesn’t entirely blunt the craving for a new computer, although to give myself credit I live without a television and rarely make impulse purchases. But on some level I really believe that the answer to the discomfort of my cravings will arrive in a box carried by a UPS truck.

I work with these cravings in my meditation and in my daily life, because the Buddha suggested that there was a better answer to the problem of craving. His advice was that we need to look deeply at our craving itself, and to realize the many levels of delusion that come packaged with it. The new gadget (or pair of shoes, or that lovely sweater, or sexy car) doesn’t contain a magical ingredient that will make us happy. The object of our craving is impermanent and therefore incapable of giving lasting satisfaction.

Our craving itself is impermanent! We can watch cravings arise and pass. As we watch them come and go, choosing not to act on them, they begin to develop an unreal appearance. As we start increasingly to see through them we no longer take them so seriously, and they become weaker and less frequent. And in the end we come to see what the Buddha himself saw, which is that the answer to the problem of our cravings is not acquiring the object of our cravings but letting go of craving itself.

It’s through abandoning craving that we will finally find peace, that we’ll come back to our senses, stop seeing things in a distorted way, and find true health and wellbeing. And having done that, to whatever degree, we can look around at the imbalance that surrounds us — really seeing it — and then compassionately reach out to others so that we can help them bring about their own healing.

* I’ve since learned that this quotation is not from the Buddha, but is ultimately from the commentator Buddhaghosa. You can read more here.

Also the quote, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” seems to be a condensation of something Krishnamurti said in his “Commentaries on Living, Series 3” (1960): “Is society healthy, that an individual should return to it? Has not society itself helped to make the individual unhealthy? Of course, the unhealthy must be made healthy, that goes without saying; but why should the individual adjust himself to an unhealthy society? If he is healthy, he will not be a part of it. Without first questioning the health of society, what is the good of helping misfits to conform to society?” Thanks to reader George Coyne for supplying the full quotation.

The condensed form used in the title of this article seems to have first been attributed to Krishnamurti by Mark Vonnegut in “The Eden Express” (1975). Misattributed or inaccurate quotes abound on the internet.

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