What the heck is “the unconditioned”?

close up of a sparkler, with two blurred hands in the background

I often hear Buddhists talking about “the unconditioned.”

I’m extremely suspicious of this expression. In fact think it’s positively unhelpful, in that brings about a sense that Enlightenment is something that happens far, far away. “The unconditioned” becomes a sort of mystical realm — some kind of mysterious entity or metaphysical reality. Sometimes people call it “the Absolute.”

Why I’m Skeptical of the Unconditioned

I started thinking about this when I made the discovery that a well-known Buddhist teaching on suffering: that there is ordinary pain, the suffering of reversal (e.g. loss) and the suffering inherent in “conditioned existence” said no such thing.

Actually, the teaching says that there are (in this order) inevitable physical suffering (the first arrow), suffering we create through reacting to the first kind of suffering (the second arrow), and suffering that hits us if we try to immerse ourselves in pleasure as an escape from these other forms of suffering (I call this “the third arrow”).

A Calamitous Error

My own teacher, Sangharakshita, makes what I regard as a calamitous error when he says “there is conditioned reality and Unconditioned reality – or more simply, there is the conditioned and the Unconditioned.”

But there cannot be two realities. Only one of these things can be real, although one single reality can be looked at in different ways, and perhaps that’s what he meant.

The habit Sangharakshita had — shared by many others — of capitalizing “Unconditioned” reinforces this idea of the term referring to something very special and abstract. If you say “in reality” you’re simply describing what happens. If you say “in Reality” there’s a very different implication. We start wondering where and what this “Reality” is.

See other articles in the “Debugging the Source Code of the Dharma” series:

What Is this Term?

Let’s look at this  expression, “unconditioned” or “the unconditioned,” or even (heaven help us) “the Unconditioned.”

One of the key places it’s found are in translations of a famous Udāna verse:

There is, bhikkhus, a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned. If, bhikkhus, there were no not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned, no escape would be discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned. But since there is a not-born, a not-brought-to-being, a not-made, a not-conditioned, therefore an escape is discerned from what is born, brought-to-being, made, conditioned.

There are several other places in the scriptures where this saying is found.

This passage is invariably interpreted in a metaphysical way — as if the Buddha is talking about different worlds. “The unconditioned” sounds even more mysterious now, because it’s accompanied by other terms: “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made.” How mystical! Surely the Buddha is talking about some otherworldly realm, other than the one we find ourselves in — the world where we are born, brought into being, etc.

What Does It Really Mean?

Remember, first, that there’s no direct or indirect article in Pāli. The text just says “there is not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned.” That already sounds quite different.

These four terms (not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-conditioned) are synonyms, so asaṅkhata, “not-conditioned” or “unconditioned”) means the same as “not-made.” Saṅkhata can mean “made” or “produced” and so asaṅkhata here can simply mean that something hasn’t yet come into being or no longer exists.

In the Saṁyutta Nikāya, the Buddha actually explains what he means in using the term “uncreated” (asaṅkhata).

“And what, bhikkhus is not-created? The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred, the destruction of delusion: this is called not-created.”

So now we have states of mind that are “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-created.”

Creating or Destroying Mental States

It’s actually, I think, a very practical statement that the Buddha is making. He’s simply saying that things (specifically the experience of suffering, which is what he was most interested in, and the mental states that are the causes of suffering) are sometimes created, and sometimes they are not. They can be “de-created.”

What he’s saying is that because suffering can be not created or destroyed that the experience of suffering can be escaped. If we can create suffering, then we can also not create suffering.

If we had previously created certain mental states of suffering, like craving or hatred, and, through practice, we let them die away. They’d no longer be “born, brought-to-being, made, created,” but would now be “not-born, not-brought-to-being, not-made, not-created.” And that would be the state of nibbāna, which is literally the “burning out” of suffering. When suffering’s fuel burns out, suffering burns out, or is “not-created” (asaṅkhata).

“The Unconditioned” is not a thing.

“The Unconditioned” (asaṅkhata) is not a thing. It’s not some kind of “absolute.” It’s not a “reality.” It’s not even “the unconditioned,” because both the “the” and the “unconditioned” parts aren’t right. What it refers to is the  “non-creating of things that would otherwise be created.” Practically, it’s the non-production of suffering, through the non-production of that which causes suffering.

I think that’s all the Buddha is saying.

The Traditional Interpretation Is a Distraction

All this metaphysical stuff about “the Unconditioned” is a million miles away from how the Buddha actually taught, and presumably also from how he thought. I want to know the mind of the Buddha. I want to see things they way they saw him. And having a goal which is not the Buddha’s goal just isn’t helpful in that regard. In fact it’s a positive distraction.

Making the Buddha’s teaching metaphysical leads us into realms of nebulous speculation. It takes us away from the here and now. It takes us away from our direct experience. It diverts us from actually practice.

We don’t need to try to conceive of, let alone strive to attain, some mystical state called “the unconditioned.” We just need to keep working on letting greed, hatred, and delusion die away, so that they are no longer things that are born, brought-to-being, or made within us. Instead they are not-born, not-brought-to-being, not made.

To be very simple and concrete, we stop creating greed, hatred, and delusion, and destroy them instead.

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What to do when you feel unloved

lonely tree

Someone recently wrote to me, saying that she was lonely and felt unloved, and wondering whether the metta bhavana practice (the meditation for developing kindness) would help. I thought I’d paraphrase and expand on what I’d said to her.

The metta bhavana practice can certainly help with feelings of loneliness. In particular, self-metta and self-compassion — showing ourselves the same kindness, support, and encouragement that we show to others that we care about — would be helpful.

Think about that thought, “No one loves me.” You might say things like that to yourself, but would you tell a friend who was lonely, “No one loves you”? How would that make her feel? Would it help her? I’m guessing the answers are “no,” “terrible,” and “of course not.”

So why do this to yourself? When you’re lonely, why not treat yourself as you would a dear friend who was experiencing the same thing. What might you say to such a friend? Perhaps you’d say things like, “I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. It sounds really painful. I just want you to know that I’m here for you, and that I care about you.”

How might that make you feel? Better?

Treating ourselves with kindness and compassion reduces our suffering. It doesn’t necessarily make it go away—nor should it—but it makes it more bearable. And in the case of loneliness, this helps free us up to connect more with others, and to care more about them. And that can replace our sense of loneliness with a sense of connectedness.

Going further, cultivating kindness for others and then putting it into practice through acts of caring and kindness (without expecting anything in return) will help you to feel more connected. For example, we could express appreciation or offer support when someone feels down. If we take a genuine interest in that person’s wellbeing, then we’ll be more emotionally connected. If, however, we do those same things with the assumption, “I’m doing something nice for them, so now they should do something nice for me, and then I’ll feel good about myself,” you’re still acting in a self-absorbed way, and you’ll perpetuate your loneliness.

Breaking out of self-absorption is painful, because part of your brain thinks that obsessively telling stories will help you, and it therefore sees dropping the story as a threat. So if it feels uncomfortable when you try to take a genuine interest in others, that’s OK.

My main teacher, Sangharakshita, said that when we feel unhappy, we should do something for another person. Most forms of intense unhappiness are self-absorbed; we get so caught up in our own suffering that we don’t make an effort to connect with others. And when our suffering comes from loneliness, we end up exacerbating our isolation by withdrawing our interest in others. Our suffering isolates us. The way we respond to our suffering isolates us more.

The solution to loneliness is not as simple as “getting out more.” Most people who are lonely feel that way even when they’re surrounded by other people. Loneliness is being emotionally disconnected from others.

My correspondent said that she “felt unloved.” “Unloved,” however, is not a feeling, but a thought or story. A feeling is a sensation in the body. When we’re lonely, we have sensations such as heaviness or an ache around the heart, low energy, etc. “No one loves me,” or “I am unloved” is not a sensation, but a story. It’s something we tell ourselves in order to make sense of our feelings.

It’s vital to distinguish between actual feelings and stories that we use to explain those feelings—because our stories can either reinforce or reduce unpleasant feelings. You might feel lonely or sad or hurt, but you tell yourself that you are unloved, that no one cares, etc., and this makes you miserable. Becoming aware that you’re telling these stories, and that they’re unhelpful because they make you feel worse, is a valuable practice, because whether we take a thought seriously is something we have a choice over. We can also deliberately cultivate more useful thoughts, such as the self-kindness and self-compassion thoughts I suggested earlier.

We need to accept feelings of loneliness. One of the stories we tell ourselves is that if we’re lonely, there’s something wrong with us. We’re defective. But in feeling lonely, you’re showing that you’re a perfectly functional human being! We’re social animals. We’re designed to feel pain when we’re not connected in a web of empathy. Your feeling of loneliness is just a signal that your mind is sending, telling you that you need to connect. Feeling lonely is normal.

Being caught up in thoughts actually prevents us from really seeing our feelings of loneliness. When we drop the story and turn toward our feelings, what do we find? We find sensations in the body. We find sensations that we experience as emptiness, darkness, heaviness, and so on. Maybe the feelings are painful, but also beautiful, warm and intimate. Maybe they’re tender. Maybe they’re tingling, like twinkling energy in space. Maybe they’re mysterious and intriguing. Maybe they’re no longer scary, but contribute to a sense of our aliveness. Can you say “yes” to these feelings? Can you allow them to just be?

Empathizing with ourselves in this way opens the way for us to empathize with others.

If loneliness is a lack of felt connection with others, then perhaps we need to connect with ourselves in order to move past feeling lonely. Connect kindly and compassionately with your loneliness, and it will connect you with others.

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When you have trouble being kind to yourself (Day 18)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order and Triratna Buddhist Community, is asked by Ratnaguna in this video from (I think) 1991 why some of us have difficulties feeling kindness towards ourselves, and what we can do about it.

Here’s a transcript of the video below.

Ratnaguna: I think it would be true to say that most people find the mindfulness of
breathing the easier of the two meditation practices [mindfulness of breathing and lovingkindness meditation] and some people I think go so far as to say they they just can’t do the metta bhavana [lovingkindness meditation] — it’s too difficult. What would you say to people who say that?

Sangharakshita: I think people say this for various reasons, so it’s difficult to generalize and also it’s difficult to given an answer that will be applicable to all cases.

I think a lot of people when they try to to develop feelings of goodwill towards other living beings are a bit too forceful about it — and I won’t say wilful, because that word has perhaps been overused, not to say abused. They they’re a bit too forceful, let us say. They don’t do it in a sufficiently relaxed sort of way.

I think the secret is to to look at your relations to people, to things, to animals, and just to ask yourself, well, where do you have positive feelings? Where do you feel good will? Take that as a starting point, and remind yourself that, yes, you are capable of feeling goodwill. And in as much as you do experience goodwill towards this person or that creature. You’re able to develop it towards a greater number of people, a greater number of creatures. You are able to eventually even universalize it.

Ratnaguna: I think of the five stages of, the metta bhavana, the one that people find the most difficult is the first stage — the development of loving kindness towards oneself — and they often say that they be able to do the metta bhavana if it wasn’t for the first stage. And they quite often miss the first stage out. Do you think that’s advisable?

Sangharakshita: Well, if one has really insuperable difficulty in developing goodwill towards oneself, but can experience at least some goodwill towards others, then concentrate on the goodwill towards others for the time being. But you mustn’t give up on yourself, as it were. You must nonetheless, sooner or later, come back to developing feelings of goodwill towards yourself.

Very often people are unable or find it very difficult to develop goodwill towards themselves because they’ve been brought up with the the idea, or they’ve somehow acquired the idea, that they’re unworthy — that they don’t deserve affection or goodwill. They may even feel, in specifically Christian terms, that they’re sinners — even miserable sinners — and not deserving of anything like goodwill. Perhaps they don’t like themselves. Perhaps they don’t — I’m not going to say “accept” themselves — again this is a term that has become overused. But in some ways they’re unduly critical of themselves, and they have to let up a bit.

PS Feel free to join our Google+ 100 Day Community (now replaced by Wildmind’s Meditation Initiative), where people are reporting-in on their practice, and giving each other support and encouragement.

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Avalokitesvara: The heart of the rainbow

As a child growing up in Scotland I had a strong relationship with the Holy Spirit. I would pray for the Holy Spirit to fill me with the love that existed between God the Father and God the Son. I have no idea where I got this sophisticated understanding of the Holy Spirit — but he was the personification of the love that enabled God to let his son be sacrificed to redeem mankind. I prayed that this mighty love would free me and others from the suffering I saw around me. Perhaps it made sense of how God could be a god of love and yet, alongside the beauty and marvels of the world, he could allow so much violence and poverty to exist.

I would escape from home and go to our local Catholic church. I sang in the choir, and climbing up to the choir loft was more than taking a few steps, it was entering a world far from Glasgow’s gang-fights, alcoholism, and pain. High Mass on Sundays, Ave Maria at weddings, masses for the dead — we sang them all. The Holy Spirit was certainly there: I begged for his divine help and was blessed by his presence. (The Father held no promise for me, and the son was too pained.) Sometimes a white dove of peace hovered over me, sometimes tongues of fire, but always the Holy Spirit was love. I had experiences of bliss, of grace, and a burning love for humanity — states of mind that I now understand as the absorbed state of dhyana.

Then came the fall from grace. Aged 13 1 could use reason to question, and Roman Catholicism no longer satisfactorily answered me. I lost my faith. I hid my skepticism and continued in the choir and doing charitable deeds for the sick and elderly. I carried on with everything except God until my integrity stopped me. I argued with everyone about the mysteries of religion and the existence of a creator god. At 15 1 declared myself an atheist and joined the Young Communist League. The rhetoric and sense of comradeship was even better there, but I did miss the Holy Spirit.

So, I put the opiate of the people behind me and concentrated on making the world a better place by other means. Ten years later, disillusioned by the political options and nearing a nervous breakdown after a series of bereavements, I found myself in the Glasgow Buddhist Centre. I was listening to a taped lecture by an English gentleman with a somniferous voice. The lecture had an electrifying effect. I had come home. I immediately immersed myself in Buddhism.

Here was a more rigorous analysis of the world’s wrongs than anything I had so far discovered. Here was the possibility of change: personal and global — and, in meditation, the methods to bring about that change. Here, too, was the possibility of religious experience. I set about examining Buddhism under the spotlight of philosophical questioning. I was suspicious of devotional practices but at the same time I loved them. I felt transported as I chanted mantras. My voice could again be lifted in worship.

I am glad I encountered the Dharma in Glasgow. I heard it in a voice which, not only in accent but in discourse and rhetoric, sounded enough like my own to reach me. Yet what it was saying was new enough to intrigue me. Most importantly I learnt about the Bodhisattva Ideal, that most sublime of human ideals. The heart of this ideal is the desire to gain Enlightenment not only for oneself but for all beings — with the purpose of ending the world’s suffering. So, I met the true love of my life: the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara.

Our love affair began with immediate recognition, followed by periods of less interest and then a growing appreciation and deepening love. At least on my side. As he is an archetypal Bodhisattva, existing outside time and space, I can’t speak for him. From the start I loved his mantra: om mani padme hum — homage to the jewel in the lotus. As I understood more layers of meaning to the mantra I loved it even more, but initially it was just the reverberating sound. And I was delighted to learn that while chanting his mantra practitioners imagine each of the six syllables entering the hearts of suffering beings in the six realms of existence.

A few years later, when I committed myself through ordination, I decided to take up visualising Avalokitesvara The quintessence of Compassion, he is one of the best known Bodhisattvas and is worshipped all over the Buddhist world. He is contemplated in many forms, the most popular variations having either four or 1,000 arms. And each of the hands has an eye to ensure that the altruism informed with clarity.

He appears in various Mahayana Sutras, for example in the Karanda-Vyuha Sutra where he is the typical Bodhisattva who will ‘enter Nirvana’ until all beings are saved. His task is to ‘help all sufferers, to save them from every distress, and to exercise infinite pity that does not even shrink from sin nor does it stop at the gates of hell’. In the Surangama Sutra Avalokitesvara gains Enlightenment through deep meditation on sound. Interestingly enough the Bodhisattva of Compassion is the principal figure in the Heart Sutra, one of the Perfection of Wisdom texts — a reminder that Compassion is not separate from Wisdom.

Just before pledging myself to his practice, however, I had doubts — he seemed a bit white and wimpy, and the mantra (as we chanted it) sometimes sounded like a funeral dirge. But these doubts evaporated when I heard a talk on ‘The Glorious Array of Bodhisattvas’. I was waiting with anticipation to hear about Manjushri; but as the speaker began to talk about Avalokitesvara, I felt transported to another world. And I wept.

I recalled an experience from an earlier solitary retreat. During a Metta Bhavana (loving-kindness) meditation, as I became concentrated and peaceful, I was filled with bliss. Then a sound arose, from both outside and inside me. It was like the sound of keening, of a thousand lament,.; for the dead from ages immemorial down to the present, and into the future. It was the sound of battle cries and children wailing with hunger. It was the sound of women being raped and men being slaughtered, of small whimpers and loud clamors It was the sound of all suffering — and my heart felt fit to break.

I could not listen to this sound nor could I stop listening. It filled me and it filled the universe. I wanted to escape but there was nowhere to go because this sound was universal — of all times and all places. The pain in my chest became so unbearable I thought I might die.

Then I remembered some verses about Avalokitesvara from the White Lotus Sutra:

In quarrels disputes and in strife,
In the battles of men and in any great danger,
To recollect the name of Avalokitesvara
Will appease the troops of evil foes.

His voice is like that of a cloud or a drum
Like a rain cloud lie thunders, sweet in voice like Brahma.
His voice is the most perfect that can be.
So one should recall Avalokitesvara.

Think of him, think of him, without hesitation,
Of Avalokitesvara, that pure being.
In death, disaster and calamity
He is the savior, refuge and recourse.

As these verses came to mind, the sound changed and my breathing calmed. I saw the four-armed figure of Avalokitesvara and felt a white light stream from him towards me. It was like being bathed in warm rain, which cleansed and soothed me. It probably lasted only seconds but it was powerful. I chanted the mantra aloud and slowly hope returned.

So, recalling that experience during the talk, I decided: OK, I am yours. At my private ordination ceremony I told my teacher Sangharakshita about these experiences, and he laughed. He thought Avalokitesvara was appropriate for me as a visualisation practice primarily because Compassion is the core of the Bodhisattva Ideal and Sangharakshita recognised that this ideal was my North Star and guiding light.

As an ideal it is precious and beautiful, while as a practice it is demanding and, in a way impossible to fulfill. How can we ever relieve the suffering of all beings? How can we overcome our embedded ego-identity and reach out lovingly to all — beyond all likes and dislikes? How can I embrace the abuser and rapist with the same tenderness as the abused and raped; Avalokitesvara is the answer.

He is the end and the means. It doesn’t matter that the ideal seems impossible to realise. What matters is the willingness not to put a limit on what we will give. And believing that by trying to alleviate suffering, we can render the world a better place. As ecologists remind us, we can ‘think global and act local’. Moved by Avalokitesvara’s beauty, by his mantra or by what he symbolises, we can be inspired to approach each small act in our daily lives with loving-kindness.

For two decades I have visualised myself as the four-armed Avalokitesvara, seated in meditation and made of luminous white light surrounded by rainbows. He holds a jewel within one pair of folded hands before his heart while the other hands hold a rosary and a lotus flower. The jewel is the mani of his mantra and is the highest part of us, a jewel to be found within the lotus of our lives. The lotus flower grows out of the muddy bottom of a lake yet blossoms to .1 beauty that far transcends its soiled origins. So, too, can we blossom and shine, regardless of our beginnings. Our own jewel is found in the down-to-earth experiences of worldly life. Avalokitesvara suggests a way of being within the world but unsullied by it. This is the significance of his mantra: om mani padme hum, the jewel of our aspirations covered in the mud of the mundane.

The sounds of suffering are all around. True compassion means opening tip to those cries and being neither overwhelmed nor indifferent. Avalokitesvara’s name means ‘he who hears the cries of the world’. This is the attitude of the Bodhisattva: one who hears and acts upon that hearing.

Avalokitesvara’s jewel also signifies the Bodhicitta: the will to attain Enlightenment for the sake of all beings. The arising of the Bodhicitta is the ‘experience’ that makes one a Bodhisattva and as such it is of crucial importance in the life of every practitioner who has taken the Bodhisattva Ideal as their guiding star. It is not merely the wish for Enlightenment but a reorientation of one’s whole life and being in that direction. It is a burning love for all humanity and a commitment to acting in accordance with it, purifying all those unskilful acts that prevent us embodying the vision.

I have now come full circle. I am no longer the frightened child of the 1950s seeking divine help, but I still want to open my heart to a love that can alleviate the ills of our world. In Buddhism I have found a philosophy that acknowledges suffering and gives it a framework. When necessary I can articulate that philosophy — but that is not enough. I am inspired by the love of Avalokitesvara to help create a world without suffering.

I want to be transformed. I want the tongues, of fire to descend and to serve the dove of peace. When I imagine myself as the rainbow figure of Avalokitesvara, I offer my flesh-and-blood being as a vehicle for his transcendent qualities. In the end, with all my imperfections, I try to serve him, not as a god but as Compassion manifest in the universe.

According to the legend Avalokitesvara saw he could not save all beings through will-power alone — so great was his despair that his body shattered and he cried out for help. The Buddha Amitabha appeared and healed his broken form, giving Avalokitesvara 11 heads to see in all directions and 1,000 arms to act more comprehensively. This is a beautiful symbol for spiritual community. We are each an outstretched hand offering our unique talents. We’re also joined together in something much greater than ourselves — a true spiritual community which fosters both diversity and unity.

This is the body of Avalokitesvara, in whose heart is the jewel of the Bodhicitta. We need the Bodhisattva of Compassion because the battle cries are loud and the world is aching. May his mantra sound ever more clearly throughout our suffering world.

This article was previously published in Dharma Life magazine.

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“Living Ethically: Advice from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland,” by Sangharakshita

Buddhism’s ethical code was formulated in Iron-Age India. How relevant is it for people living today? Pam Dodd, our guest reviewer, delves into Sangharakshita’s book on Living Ethically.

Living Ethically is the first of two planned volumes by British Buddhist scholar and former monk Sangharakshita on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland of Advice for a King (Ratnamala). This first book follows a beautifully laid out interpretive journey through the Precious Garland’s rich array of common and uncommon directives for leading an ethical life.

These lessons will be a welcome addition to any Buddhist teacher or serious student of Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism. Those from other Buddhist traditions or who wear their Buddhism more lightly may find the reading a challenge at times, but with patience and persistence most apparent mountains quickly turn into meaningful molehills.

Like the second century India philosopher Nagarjuna, Sangharakshita tackles ethical issues head on, never beating about the bush. His writing is honest, practical, and perceptive, helping the reader navigate the finer nuances of Nagarjuna’s advice to an ancient king with thoughtful attention to how it applies today.

Title: Living Ethically: Advice from Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland
Author: Sangharakshita
Publisher: Windhorse Publications
ISBN: 9781899579860
Available from: Windhorse (UK)

Nagarjuna is a master at showing the subtle ways we evade the spirit of the Buddhist precepts. Both Nagarjuna and Sangharakshita make it patently clear how easily we let ourselves off the hook and what we need to do to hold ourselves more accountable to being more skillful as we go about our day.

The book begins with an informative chapter on Nagarjuna and an explanation of why it’s important to have a wise, experienced teacher to interpret old texts. The seven chapters that follow discuss Precious Garland verses using the framework of the Five Precepts overlapping the Ten Good Deeds.

1. Friendship

Beyond killing people, the first Buddhist precept extends more deeply to not harming living beings. Breaches include hunting (chasing and killing animals for pleasure), frightening others, violent or pornographic films, political and journalistic doom mongering, giving up on someone we find difficult, and generally getting in the way of people’s positive development as true individuals.

Several sections cover the fruits of practicing the kindness of metta bhavana. True metta towards others and ourselves puts us in an effortless, positive, and spontaneous state that brings loving friendship, mental and physical pleasures, easily getting what we need, and protection from violence.

Also discussed is right livelihood (work that doesn’t require us to violate the precepts in any way). Work we should avoid includes producing or selling alcohol and weapons of war; butchering; holding any job based on deception or dishonesty; and wasting our lives working at something we hate, find repetitive or boring, or that offers no incentive to improve our performance.

2. Generosity

Likewise, Nagarjuna says that the second precept means far more than not stealing physical things that don’t belong to us. Generosity arises from not treating things and people as commodities. The ethical person should not, for example, block other people’s development or violate their individuality by wasting their time or robbing them of their energy or be possessive or manipulate situations to his or her advantage.

Much discussion is devoted to clarifying giving and taking, including the importance of gratitude. In an ideal society, we give what we can and take only what we need. But most of us live far from the ideal. For instance, a gift is not really a gift if you’re thinking about what you will get in return. Moreover, unsolicited advice is the one assumed gift that is best withheld.

Perhaps the greatest generosity is offering help out of a sense of love, not merely a sense of duty. In other words, we should make ourselves useful when needed, not only when we feel like it.

3. Sexual Relationships

The third precept, to abstain from sexual misconduct, initially meant forsaking other men’s wives at a time when wives were considered property. Reinterpreted for the present day, Sangharakshita shows how in the broadest sense this precept is concerned with what we do with our sexuality.

At a more obvious level, we should not violate another’s individuality by using them for sexual gratification against their wishes, not knowingly break up a marriage or other sexual partnership, and not misuse sexuality thoughtlessly to get what we want. More deeply, it involves understanding the effects of our sexual activity on our state of mind.

Today Sangharakshita believes that romantic emotional attachment is a far more dangerous issue than sexual desire itself. He explains how romantic projection, or finding qualities we are missing in our romantic partners, causes many people to feel lost or incomplete when their loved one is not around or their relationship breaks up.

4. Skillful Speech

The fourth precept, abstaining from false speech, is not just about lying. Precious Garland elaborates at length on skillful and unskillful speech.

The positive consequences of lying are short-lived. The negative consequences are not. When we don’t tell the truth, eventually we’ll be found out and our word will be worth nothing. This goes as well for divisive speech like backbiting, malicious gossip, frivolous chatter, and creating dissension and disharmony between people. Special note is made of democratic political representatives who often rationalize and self-justify lying by saying people don’t necessarily want to be told the truth, their political party comes first, and that the truth is rarely obvious.

In general, skillful speech should be timely, helpful, and bring about harmony, even if it sometimes means we must tell a truth that causes pain. Hearing the truth is equally important. Nagarjuna advises that we should be non-defensively open to hearing an unpleasant truth about ourselves, accept it, and act upon it immediately.

5. The Ethics of Views

This chapter focuses on two false views, Nihilism vs. Externalism. While the analysis can seem overly philosophical, it is worth wrestling with for the useful perspective it provides for ethical practice.

Nihilists are averse to the world, asserting strongly that the world does not exist and nothing about a person remains at death. Externalists take the world and how they live seriously, believing that a permanent self or soul continues to exist after death. Externalism is better than Nihilism, however it is also not a positive mental state since it is based on attachment.

According to Buddhism, neither of these views leads to liberation. Buddhists see existence as process or flux, the flow of ever-changing mental events continuing from life to life through rebirth or re-becoming.

Also addressed in this chapter are the negative effects on mindfulness of overindulgence in drugs, alcohol, and gambling and underindulgence via self-mortification and punishment. Neither approach helps us lead a more spiritual life. Yet most of us would rather follow either than take the middle way of self-discipline and spiritual training.

6. Mental States

No Buddhist book would be complete without discussing mindfulness. Nagarjuna stresses the importance of regularly taking stock of ourselves but cautions against being too self analytical or too spontaneous. We need to be active and spontaneous and aware and mindful at the same time.

Precious Garland lists 57 unskillful mental states and how they affect our peace of mind with instructions on how to cultivate contentment and develop a more aesthetic attitude to life. Nowhere will you find a more thorough but succinct analysis of the various forms of anger, pride, hypocrisy, flattery, jealousy and all the seemingly unimportant ways our minds stay attached, scattered, or entangled.

7. The Results of Actions

Although the law of karma operates over a series of lives, there are very real consequences of our actions in this lifetime.

Nagarjuna says we are creating the world we live in every moment, by our values, our character, those we associate with, and how we treat them. If we don’t like the world we’re making, rather than accept our circumstances as given, we can change the conditions to support more positive mental states.

While Nagarjuna recommends sacrificing a life of pleasure for the promise of less tangible future spiritual rewards, Sangharakshita says that today it’s probably wiser to enjoy pleasurable experiences as long as they’re not incompatible with our spiritual life. The main question we should be asking ourselves about living ethically is “Am I becoming skillful according to the precepts and eliminating what isn’t skillful?”

Overall, Sangharashita proves a worthy guide to the Precious Garland, helping us navigate an ethical life now. Anyone who reads this book will have a hard time retiring it to a bookshelf. Its value seems to grow with rereading and recommitting to its ancient advice.

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Buddhism goes home

Sangharakshita, 1967Sangharakshita, an English Buddhist, lived for 20 years in the East before returning to Britain in the 1960s. Sangharakshita made a return visit to India in 1984, reconnecting with former-untouchables who had been led to Buddhism by Dr. Ambedkar, himself a former untouchable who had become the country’s law minister. Nagabodhi describes one evening of that tour.

Each night Sangharakshita introduces a fresh range of teachings, and explains aspects of Buddhist practice, basing his commentaries on a host of traditional formulations: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Threefold Way, the Seven Limbs of Enlightenment, the Five Spiritual Faculties…. His discourses are peppered with stories, jokes, anecdotes, and examples from the life of the Buddha and Dr Ambedkar, or simply from Indian village life. His words are straightforward and clear, and leave no one behind.

Purna’s tape recorder hums and whirs, picking up his words. Before long they will be transcribed, edited, translated, and published in the Marathi, Gujerati, and English-medium magazines that circulate within the Buddhist community. During the course of this visit Sangharakshita is creating a legacy of teachings that will keep those publications stocked for years.

 Tonight we’ve got a man who wants to drive his bullock cart through the audience.  

Again and again, he returns to the theme of morality. Ambedkar once said, ‘Morality is Dhamma; Dhamma is Morality’. Sangharakshita distinguishes ‘conventional morality’ – the morality of the group or caste – from ‘natural morality’. In terms of natural morality, some actions – of body, speech, or mind – express lower, less human, even animal mental states. Others express truly human states, express our distinctively human capacity for wisdom, love, and unselfishness. Our first task, therefore, is to become truly human and to get beyond the animal realm of blind craving, blind instinct, and self-centeredness.

To be truly human is to recognize that actions have consequences, for ourselves, for others, and for our environment – and to take full responsibility for our actions. The five Precepts help because they offer a kind of blueprint for more truly human actions and states of mind. These precepts don’t take their sanction from a god, or from the group, but from our innate potential to develop, and from our deep yearning to do so. For this reason ‘natural’ morality is the foundation of human life itself, whether individual or collective. Naturally, if we live a truly ethical life we will be free from conflicts and confusion; we’ll get on well with others, and we’ll know how to help them. Our lives will be clear, free from worry, free from anxiety….

For some reason, almost every night, at around the half-way point, there is a major disturbance. Tonight we’ve got a man who wants to drive his bullock cart through the audience. He can’t be bothered to go the long way round, and thinks he can just trundle across our field. A argument has erupted at the gate.

 We think we are sheep when really we are lions. We think we are weak when really we are strong.  

Sometimes, a circle of ladies will arrive late, and come floating into the proceedings with their trays of lighted candles and incense, like spirits from a dream. But every night, no matter where we are, a moment comes when the young mothers realize it’s time to put their little ones to bed. As soon as they get up, they seem to disconnect from the event completely, and enter a new dimension. They talk at the tops of their voices, call across to each other, and berate their children, while other members of the audience shout at them, hiss, wave their arms, and try to calm them down. If things get really bad Sangharakshita will take a few discrete steps back and study his notes while Vimalakirti joins in from the microphone. It can take ten minutes for the ripples to subside.

Sangharakshita goes on to explain how mental and emotional freedom, the fruits of ethical conduct, provide the basis for meditation practice. Meditation, he says, opens the way to the higher development of the mind which Ambedkar upheld as the indispensable requirement for a decent life. Ambedkar repeatedly spoke of his faith in the ‘energy’, ‘enthusiasm’, and ‘inspiration’ that lie within us. These qualities can be contacted directly, through meditation. In a mind that is concentrated and focussed, distractions have no place, the various ‘aspects’ and ‘selves’ that make up a person are brought into harmony. The result is that we begin to feel quite different: we have more energy because none of it is being drained by confusion or vagueness; we can reach down into our depths and discover tremendous power, limitless enthusiasm, and a fundamental level of confidence.

He teaches the practice of anapana sati, or ‘mindfulness of breathing’, a meditation which brings about this kind of concentration. Anyone who practices it will begin to see their life more clearly and find out what they need to do to make it better. It is a practice that can carry us into realms of thought, feeling, and imagination far richer than those we experience most of the time. This is where the fresh vision will arise, helping us to take our lives and ambitions onto an ever higher level.

 Whenever Ambedkar is mentioned there is an explosion of applause.  

He also teaches the maitri bhavana – the ‘development of universal loving-kindness’. Emotions like love, fraternity, and compassion can be developed, he says. We tend to think that they arise solely as a matter of chance or passing mood, but our emotional states need not depend on outside circumstances at all. Someone who has worked to develop even a little maitri can stand firm in the face of difficulties. He won’t be discouraged by the knocks he receives, he will be able to think clearly and positively – remain in a good state to find a way of beating the obstacles that confront him. If all the members of a Buddhist locality were to practice maitri bhavana, they would not just get on well with each other, they would be able to work effectively together: they would be strong, and they would have an incalculable effect on the localities around them.

It surprises me to see Sangharakshita teaching meditation this way. In England I’ve never once heard him explain how to practice meditation at a public talk. But here, in this town, there is no public center for anyone to visit for a follow-up class, and Poona is a long way away. Even while he speaks, I can sense the urgency he feels. Even if just one person here manages to get somewhere with meditation as a result of this talk, he or she will make an impact on the others, another seed will have been sown.

There is a vihara in this locality: a small, rectangular, one-roomed building. It has a Buddha-shrine, and is used as a lodging by visiting monks. Most of the time, though, it serves as a sort of social club. Sangharakshita asks his listeners to keep their vihara beautiful and clean, and use it only for Buddhist activities:

‘A Vihara should be a peaceful place, a place where you can make a special effort to practice the Precepts, a place where you can meditate. If you treat your vihara well, and use it properly, you will have no need to make the costly pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya. You will have the Buddha right here in your own neighborhood, reminding you of the real purpose of life, inspiring you to make further efforts.’

 The Dhamma is whatever helps people to grow. They may choose to work on themselves first, or they may choose to work in society. Either way they will be growing…  

Meditation, practiced successfully and deeply, he continues, provides the foundation for wisdom. In this context wisdom is not something we get from books. Of course it is important to study the Dhamma; that is how we find out what the Buddha actually did and said, and what he advised us to do. But even that kind of book learning is not wisdom; Wisdom is the way we see things when we are living on a higher level. And this kind of wisdom can express itself in a number of ways: as fearlessness, as generosity, as patience, and, of course, as ‘insight’ – seeing things as they really are. He offers an illustration:

‘Once upon a time there was a lion cub who had lost his parents. In fact, he became completely separated from the other lions, and strayed into a flock of sheep. He lived with the sheep for years, and grew up among them – thinking, after a while, that he was himself just another sheep.

‘One day while out grazing, the sheep/lion came across a big, wild lion. At first he was terrified, and tried to run away, but because he only knew how to run like a sheep, the lion soon caught up with him, and asked him why he was so frightened.

‘ “Baa!” said the sheep/lion, “I am afraid because I have been told that lions are dangerous to us sheep. You will want to eat me up.”

‘ “Us sheep?” stammered the lion, “But you are not a sheep at all! You are a lion like me.”

‘ “Baa! Oh no. I am not a lion. I am a sheep. Why are you trying to confuse me?”

‘The lion had never encountered anything like this before. There was no doubting it, though: here was a lion who thought he was a sheep! Then he had an idea, and led the sheep/lion by the scruff of the neck to a pool of clear water and forced him to look at his reflection. There, the sheep/lion didn’t see a sheep at all — but a lion! He immediately “woke up”, and realized that for all those years he’d been living under an illusion.

 In the West, people are more individualistic and psychologically oriented. I therefore have to talk in “psychological” terms.  

‘We are like that lion cub. We think we are sheep when really we are lions. We think we are weak when really we are strong. We need to see for ourselves what we really are.

‘Of course, like that lion cub, we may need a friend to come along and remind us about our true selves. But in this respect we are very lucky. We have had two friends, two lions, in the not too distant past. First there was Gautama the Buddha. And then — even more recently — there was Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar!’

Repeatedly, Sangharakshita embroiders his stories with references to Ambedkar, and recapitulates the man’s qualities and significance. Whenever Ambedkar is mentioned in this way there is an explosion of applause. The official cheerleader — one of the village elders — sets up a few chants; the atmosphere is jubilant.

One night, after a talk, I asked Sangharakshita about these continual references. It was all so different to the Buddhism I was used to. Were all these references, and the general preoccupation with the social dimension of things, anything more than a ‘skillful means’?

‘What do you mean?’ Sangharakshita was perplexed.

‘Well, in the West, you explain Buddhism far more in terms of individual, even psychological, development. Isn’t that where all this must lead in the end, to individual Buddhists working on themselves to develop Enlightened qualities?’

He laughed. ‘Well, in the West, people are far more individualistic and psychologically oriented. I therefore have to talk in those more “psychological” terms. Here, people are more community oriented; they experience themselves more as members of a community or family. So here I talk in more, as it were, social terms. But, actually, I’m using a skillful means in both situations. You must not assume that either approach is any closer to the fundamental Dhamma than the other. The Dhamma is whatever helps people to grow. They may choose to work on themselves first, or they may choose to work in society. Either way they will be growing, and setting up the conditions for their own further development – and that of their society.

‘If anything, you could say that the language of social uplift is more effective – though both approaches have their advantages and limitations, of course. If Enlightenment consists in overcoming the “self-other dichotomy”, we can progress towards it by working on the “other” end of things just as effectively as we can by working simply on ourselves.’

Night after night, he instructs, uplifts, and befriends. If there is any one element that I will recollect above all others, it will be the bond of warmth and intimacy that grows between him and his audience as each talk progresses. No wonder there are people here who remember his last visit, twenty years ago. And no wonder he has never forgotten them.

NagabodhiNagabodhi is a senior member of the Western Buddhist Order. Since 1974, when he was ordained, he has devoted his life to the development of the Triratna Buddhist Community as a Dharma teacher, publisher, center director, and fundraiser. He now lives in London with his wife, Vimalacitta. This passage is excerpted, with permission, from his book, Jai Bhim: Dispatches From a Peaceful Revolution (Free PDF download).

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Playing our way through life

Girl playing, blowing bubbles

Many people think of play as a fringe benefit of life. Work comes first. Play is an “extra” that we reward ourselves with only after finishing our work. But Sunada sees it differently. On the one hand, play has a generative quality that can help us navigate successfully through life. But even more so, she sees it as an essential way of expressing life itself.

I recently listened to a fascinating podcast on National Public Radio’s show called Speaking of Faith. It REALLY made me rethink all my ideas about play! It was an interview with Dr. Stuart Brown, the founder and president of the National Institute for Play — a non-profit that sponsors research on the role of play in the development of human potential.

Play may be purposeless, but that doesn’t make it pointless.

According to Brown, “When one really doesn’t play at all or very little in adulthood, there are consequences: rigidities, depression, no irony — things that are pretty important, that enable us to cope in a world of many demands.” He suggests that play helps us learn empathy, trust, and problem solving, and also enables us to develop our talents and character over our entire lifespan.

Play as a positive approach to life issues

Play may be purposeless, but that doesn’t make it pointless. Play has a generative quality to it. It brings out our sense of curiosity and imagination, and allows us to explore unfamiliar territory in an open-minded, open-hearted way. It’s free of judgment, or the need to perform or be perfect. “Mistakes” and “wrong turns” are a natural part of the process. It also reframes notions of work and effort, and allows us to explore and learn in a joyful way.

These ideas can have some big implications for how we go about navigating and creating in our own lives. Think about it. When we’re faced with something new and unfamiliar – fearful even – which approach seems more likely to elicit a helpful and creative response: one filled with methodical problem-solving, fretful worrying, and willful effort, or one filled with a more open sense of imaginative curiosity? A friend of mine recently told me of a quote (unfortunately she couldn’t remember the author) that goes: “Adults typically only use their imaginations to worry.” What a waste is that?

What I’m talking about here is a state of mind – more about HOW we do things than WHAT we do.

Some people might at this point object by saying that their problems are very complicated and risky, and couldn’t possibly be resolved just by playing through them. But what I’m talking about here is a state of mind – more about HOW we do things than WHAT we do. From a Buddhist perspective, it’s our mental state as we go about doing things that determines the nature of what happens in our future. We certainly do need to analyze and plan our way through things. But rather than seeing them as problems, how can we view them with an attitude of openness and curiosity rather than constriction and timidity?

As a life coach, I often hear clients tell me they feel stuck with their problems because they don’t know what to do next. The way they say “I don’t know” has a tone of resignation and shutting down. Rather than throwing up the proverbial stop sign, what if we looked at the situation more like being on vacation in a new, exotic place? We might have no idea what to do or where to go, but there’s a sense of wanting to find out, and being willing to try things. Wouldn’t we do things very differently if we approached the “I don’t know” situations of life in that sort of way?

The spiritual dimension of play

In his interview, Dr. Brown also talked about a more profound, spiritual side of play. In one segment of the show he says:

“I was watching a pride of lions and two sub-adult female lionesses got up, looked at each other — and there’s a picture of this in the National Geographic magazine, what looked from a distance kind of like a fight, but it was a ballet. And while I was watching this, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that this is — I’m almost brought to tears talking about it now — that this is divine.”

It turns out that this idea of a spiritual dimension in play is part of the Buddhist world as well. In the Mahayana tradition there is the figure of the bodhisattva – an enlightened being who takes on a human birth for the sole purpose of benefiting others. An essential quality of a bodhisattva is lila – Sanskrit for “play.” Far from being serious-minded martyrs, bodhisattvas joyfully play at everything they do. My own teacher, Sangharakshita, says, “One can regard this as a spontaneous overflowing of [their] inner realization, which transcends the immediate situation.1

My interpretation is that the play of the lionesses and bodhisattvas are essential expressions of life itself. There’s nothing frivolous about it. It’s not some nice “extra”. When they play, they are in effect saying “I am alive. I am here. In this moment, I am expressing my innermost nature.” It’s like saying “yes” to life, opening up to it in a full-bodied, wholehearted way.

When seen in this light, play isn’t something we relegate to our spare time, if and when we happen to have some. It’s an entire attitude toward life that ideally permeates everything we do. Life isn’t about problems to be solved, or to-do lists to be slogged through. It’s is something to be met full-on – lived and played in with 100% of our being.

1. From The Bodhisattva Ideal by Sangharakshita. Birmingham, UK: 1999, Windhorse Publications, p 139.

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Inside Story

The Great EscapeWhat makes a prisoner? Sarvananda, a prison Buddhist chaplain, has an inside view of life in jail; and he reflects that we are all prisoners of our mental states

Twice a week for the past seven years I have visited Norwich Prison in eastern England, in my capacity as a Buddhist chaplain. Recently I have been wondering why I am drawn to this work. Apart from the desire to spread the Dharma and the fact that my teacher Sangharakshita has encouraged his disciples to undertake such work, a certain fascination has drawn me to prison visiting — a fascination with prison life itself and with the people I meet.

I was brought up in an affluent, suburban district of Glasgow, Scotland. Criminal acts seemed rare. Graffiti was hardly seen and, if it did briefly blossom, it was gone by the next morning. No, the forces of darkness lived over the river. Just across the muddy waters of the River Cart lay the Castlemilk housing estate. In the summer, when the river was low, our suburban stronghold was often invaded by the Castlemilk youth. They stole from shops, and chased people with ‘blades’. On my way back from a shopping expedition I was once mugged by some of these dreaded ‘Cassies’. I still remember the grinning, handsome face and bright eyes of their ringleader. I staggered home in tears without my mother’s groceries and with fear and anger in my heart. Yet ‘the Cassies’ also fascinated me.

I have always had the middle-class boy’s curiosity about those who live on the other side of the tracks. It has determined my tastes in literature, and even my choice of friends. This fascination has extended to my prison visiting and ties in with my other incarnation as someone who attempts to write plays.

 These men understand immediately that a successful Buddhist practice could, literally, make the difference between life and death.  

When I visit the prison, I have to rein in my curiosity. I am there to communicate the Dharma, the Buddhist teachings, and to be, to the best of my ability, a spiritual friend to the men I meet. Although I have access to the prisoners’ files I never read them. Nor do I ask them why they are in prison. I let them offer that information – or not. There is a danger that my own curiosity can be a distraction from my primary purpose. Still, I am curious …

I usually feel tense as I ring the little bell and wait by the enormous double doors of the prison. This is not because I feel apprehensive about visiting the prisoners who have asked to see me. In seven years visiting the prison, I have never been threatened or felt intimidated by a prisoner (which was certainly a fear when I started). The men I meet have asked to see me and always treat me with friendliness and respect. The tension has more to do with the difficulties I have experienced in getting to see prisoners, or finding a room in which to meditate, or establishing my credentials.

‘What are you doing?’ barked an officer one day, as I wandered aimlessly down a corridor searching for a prisoner who had no doubt been transferred to another prison.

‘I’m the Buddhist chaplain.’

‘You don’t look like the Buddhist chaplain.’

‘I am,’ I assured him. ‘I’m the Buddhist chaplain.’

And I showed him my card with the little photograph of me that makes me look like the prison’s longest-term resident. But the card did undeniably say ‘Buddhist chaplain’.

‘Sorry, sir.’ His voice changed. ‘Probably best not to wear a maroon sweatshirt [regulation prison gear] when you come here. Gave me a nasty shock seeing a prisoner with keys.’

‘Who are you?’ is a question I often get asked as I enter the prison, a question often accompanied by the unselfconscious stare of an inmate. It’s the kind of stare you don’t usually get on ‘the out’.

Being a member of the Western Buddhist Order, I don’t wear robes, so I’m not immediately recognisable as a chaplain, and I sometimes envy the Christian chaplain his immediately recognisable dog collar, his chapel, and the weight of his western tradition. I am a curiosity for officers and prisoners. And I’ve had some interesting conversations about Buddhism with landing officers while waiting to see a prisoner.

The first thing that hits me when I enter a prison wing is the noise – shouting, slamming doors and blaring radios. The atmosphere at first seems casual. After all, these are just men getting on with their daily routine. But I always detect an underlying frustration. These men have been locked up against their will, deprived of their freedom and their ability to make choices is hugely limited.

There is often, too, an atmosphere of jokey comradeship, something even mildly homoerotic. As I walked up a stairwell recently I noticed one inmate kissing another through a wire mesh.‘ What are you two up to?’ demanded a scandalised third party.

‘We love each other, man.’

‘You’ve been in here too long, mate.’

I meet the men I have come to see in various locations. It is sometimes difficult to find an appropriate room and I have been sequestered in a small treatment room with a bewildered inmate and two angry budgies, irritated by the invasion of their personal space. Sometimes I meet with a prisoner in one of the Christian chapels. It seems strange meditating under the Stations of the Cross, but these rooms have a spaciousness and tranquillity that I like. I often use one of the multi-faith rooms, which have few artefacts or images and are sterile and drab because they have been designed to give no offence to any religion. Here I set up my Buddha figure, light some incense, perhaps put on a tape of Tibetan chanting, and try to create a pleasant atmosphere. The men I meet, suffering under the routines and rituals of prison life, respond positively to the ritual and artefacts of Buddhism. Incense is particularly popular. Perhaps burning incense marks them off as being Buddhists – as well as disguising the pervasive smells of cooking, detergent or toilets.

 Occasionally, just occasionally, I find myself envying aspects of their lives.  

Sometimes I see the prisoners in their cells, which vary in size and quality. ‘M’ wing houses prisoners of an enhanced category. They have pleasant, spacious cells with a shower. Other cells are small, shared spaces with a bunk bed. There are also small, single cells with a toilet. These are particularly smelly, cramped and unpleasant. Whatever their size or quality, prisoners spend a substantial amount of their prison lives banged up in these cells.

The prisoners choose to decorate their cells in different ways. Some are neat with a little shrine on a table and Buddhist images displayed on the walls. In others naked women are plastered everywhere and it is a relief to shut one’s eyes to meditate.

‘It’s about the only curves you see in prison,’ one of the more philosophically minded inmates reminded me, by way of apology.

Lines. No curves. From their striped blue shirts, to the wire mesh, to the bars on the windows … The masculine, ordered geometry of prison life wearies the eye. Prison is an ugly, ugly environment.

And the ugliest part of this ugly environment is ‘A’ wing, the old Victorian part of the prison. There seems a particularly tense atmosphere on this wing. Generations of men have tramped these landings, called to one another from these balconies, have spent years of their lives locked in these cells … The geography of the wing makes the whole place a well of sound. Noise is what I would find most difficult to endure in here. It is what the more sensitive inmates complain about. It’s difficult to meditate with blaring radios, yelling and slamming doors being amplified, flung up and around the four landings on the wing …

I often wonder how I would cope in prison. The men I meet (usually one-to-one, but sometimes in groups) range from lifers convicted of violent crimes to young men convicted of selling drugs. Many of those I meet are there for drug-related crimes. Occasionally I meet someone from a similar background to myself but usually the environment from which they have emerged has been difficult, harsh and often violent. A lot of them have been in institutions of one kind or another all their lives.

Normally I have a general chat, talk about basic Buddhism and we meditate together. Some have found in Buddhism an alternative to conventional religion, a spiritual path without God. Some have a good, consistent meditation practice. Others find meditation difficult and prefer just to talk. Many are struggling with addiction and it is no coincidence that, at the moment, the majority of guys I see are on a special wing that helps them to deal with their addictive behaviour. These men understand immediately the Buddhist attitude to craving and that a successful Buddhist practice could, literally, make the difference between life and death.

When I talk with the prisoners I always try to follow Khemadhammo’s advice – to stay with the Dharma. Ven. Ajahn Khemadhammo, an English Theravadin monk, started Angulimala, the UK’s Buddhist prison chaplaincy organisation to which I belong, in 1985. Its 45 or so chaplains attend regular meetings, which provide mutual support and encouragement.

I try to follow Khemadammo’s advice: not to psychologise, nor sort out the prisoners’ problems for them, nor take sides, nor get into the cloudy areas of the rights and wrongs of their specific case. I try to come back again and again to the basics of Buddhism – the importance of creating the right conditions in establishing an effective practice; the need to take responsibility for one’s mental states; the law of karma as expressed by the Buddha in the Dhammapada:

‘What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart.’

‘What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his shadow.’

In returning to these truths I also remind myself of the basics of the Dharma that I so easily forget. And those prisoners who have some genuine grasp of these basics move on most effectively. It is easy to underestimate the struggle many of them have. I visited one man who seemed to be getting on well. He was usually calm and bright and had a seemingly effective meditation practice. After he was released I happened to spot him in the city. His face was haggard and bruised and he was having a fierce argument with some of the drunks and drug addicts who frequent that part of town.

Occasionally, just occasionally, particularly if I am busy, I find myself envying aspects of their lives. In many ways their lives seem simpler than mine. They do, of course, have a lot of free time. They seem less subject to the tyranny of choice. ‘The amount I could get written, the amount I could study, the amount I could meditate if I lived in here!’ I occasionally reflect.

 Prison visiting helps me to make wiser choices…  

Some of the men I meet say that being in prison has been beneficial, in that previously they never had the time or the space to consider their lives. And I often suggest that they try and see their time in prison as a semi-retreat. I stress that they may never again have the spare time seriously to meditate and reflect.

But my attraction to their life is superficial. There are 500 other good reasons why I would not want to be a prisoner. These men have been deprived of their freedom and, in the process, I sense that they have lost something else. This is difficult to put into words, but it is something to do with the blue striped shirts and the maroon sweat shirts, the fact that their letters are opened before they read them, that they’re called by their second name, and are subject to a sometimes baffling bureaucracy. If I’m late for a prisoner or can’t manage to see him, it doesn’t seem so important to me as it would if I was inconveniencing someone on the outside. It’s a subtle, semi-conscious feeling, which I fight against, that these men are second-class citizens, that broken promises affect them less, that they live on the other side of the river. Prison life can deprive them of dignity.

I am writing this article on a solitary retreat. On the face of it I have the freedom to go where I want, do what I want and think what I want. But I have been aware, while meditating here, how much my ability to think or act freely is limited by deep-rooted negative habits. I am imprisoned by these habits, and here is another fascination in my work: the prison provides me with a metaphor. It reminds me that my world is similar in many respects, that the dividing river is not really a divide and that, like the men I meet in Norwich prison, I am subject to the imprisoning mental states of greed, hatred and delusion. The difference between a free person and one without freedom is not bars or doors, but the extent to which they can take responsibility for their mental states.

In the end, however, my world is not one of bars and wire and slamming doors. Every time I walk out of the prison I experience a sense of relief. Choice can be a tyrant, but prison visiting helps me to make wiser choices, to make the most of my physical freedom. Hopefully, in communicating the Dharma to those men I meet, I can help them, too, to choose wisely.

Sarvananda / Alastair JessimanSarvananda was born in Scotland and is a member of the Western Buddhist Order. He lives in Norwich, England.

Under the name Alastair Jessiman he is a noted writer of plays for radio, who has had many of his works produced by the BBC. His most recent production is Boxer and Doberman, a comedy police drama, which was described by the Telegraph as “funny in a wonderfully macabre way.”

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“The Essential Sangharakshita” by Urgyen Sangharakshita, edited by Karen Stout

The Essential SangharakshitaBuddhism has always adapted its presentation as it has taken root in new cultures, finding new idioms and new forms that resonate with the host culture.

For the last fifty years, Sangharakshita has been one of the teachers most involved in helping Buddhist to find expression in the west. William Harryman takes a look at Wisdom’s new survey of 50 years of teaching.

Discussing the movement of Buddhism to the West seems to be a hot topic in the Buddhist magazines, blogs, and online communities. There seems to be a lot of concern as to how Buddhism will survive the translation from Eastern culture to Western culture. Many traditional Eastern teachers, especially Theravadin, and even some Tibetan, do not want to see Buddhism adapted in any way for its Western audience. From their perspective, Buddhism has survived just fine for more than 2,500 years.

However, there are many more who believe that in order for Buddhism to take root in the West, it must adapt itself to the Western mind. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was among the first teachers to really embody this perspective. Many Americans and Europeans went to India, Nepal, Japan, and other Buddhist nations during the sixties and seventies and returned as teachers. Lama Surya Das, Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg are among the best known teachers in America. (My comments here are generalizations, so interested readers are invited to check out Western Buddhist Teachers by Andrew Rawlinson for a more in-depth look at Buddhist teachers in the West.) Stephen Batchelor (in Buddhism Without Beliefs) has gone so far as to suggest a Buddhism without karma and rebirth, two seemingly “pre-modern” ideas closely associated with Buddhism.

Title: The Essential Sangharakshita: A Half-Century of Writings from the Founder of the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order
Author: Urgyen Sangharakshita (Edited by Karen Stout).
Publisher: Wisdom Publications, 2009.
ISBN: 0-86171-585-3
Available from: Wisdom and

Dennis Lingwood went to India (posted there in the British military following WWII) and stayed when his enlistment ended. Having read The Diamond Sutra and the Sutra of Wei Lang as a teenager, he realized he was and had always been a Buddhist. Following his discharge from service, he set off with a friend to find a teacher and was eventually ordained in the Theravada tradition, where he was given the name Sangharakshita (“protected by the spiritual community”). Over the following years he continued to seek the dharma from a variety of Buddhist teachers, including Tibetan refugees, among them Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. It was one of his other Tibetan teachers, Kachu Rimpoche, who gave Sangharakshita the name “Urgyen,” when Rimpoche was conferring the Padmasambhava initiation. Sangharakshita also read widely in the various Buddhist traditions, seeking an understanding of the universal truths that unite the diverse Buddhist community.

This broad education in Buddhist traditions eventually led Sangharakshita to return to England and found in 1967 the first Western ecumenical Buddhist sangha, The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (Triratna Buddhist Community). Its goal was to make Buddhism accessible to the West in ways compatible with the modern world. In doing so, Sangharakshita references Western philosophy, psychology, and art, in addition to the central Buddhist teachings. Over the years, Sangharakshita has written extensively on Buddhist practices from the perspective of the Triratna Buddhist Community, and those writings are finally collected in The Essential Sangharakshita (Wisdom Publications), edited by Karen Stout (known in the Triratna Buddhist Community community as Vidyadevi).


The book is a substantial 792 pages, including material from 38 of Sangharakshita’s books, his poetry, early writings, sutra commentaries, spoken word, and autobiography. The book is organized into sections that help give some coherence to the massive amount of text (Stout has done an amazing job organizing the material). The five broad sections include The Essentials (introductory Buddhist teachings), Buddhism and the Mind (teachings on Buddhist psychology, death, karma, rebirth and other deeper topics), Art, Beauty, and Myth in the Buddhist Tradition (several great sections combining Western psychology, dream study, art, and myth), Buddhism and the Heart (dealing with emotions, meditation, ritual, gurus, and nature), and Buddhism and the World (Bodhisattvas, compassion, ethics, discipline, right livelihood). Within each main section are several smaller sections containing individual articles, poems, excerpts, and assorted writings.

Creating this collection was no small task. Sangharakshita still has more than fifty books in print, so making the selections and organizing them needed an approach that could serve to structure the book. In Stout’s own words:

All my attempts to organize them seemed just to shift the heap into another heap; and the words, taken from their contexts, kept losing their luster. I decided to try organizing the collection according to a symbolic pattern to which Sangharakshita has returned many times in the course of his teaching: the mandala of the five Buddhas, from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. (Editor’s Preface)

The center Buddha is Vairocana, also known as the Illuminator (The Essentials). To the east is Aksobhya, the Imperturbable (Buddhism and the Mind). To the south, is the realm of Ratnasambhava, the golden Buddha of beauty (Art, Beauty, and Myth in the Buddhist Tradition). In the west, Amitabha is the Buddha of infinite light (Buddhism and the Heart). And in the north, is Amoghasiddhi, whose name means “unobstructed success” (Buddhism and the World). The use of this symbolic structure is quite useful to the reader and adds layers of meaning to the readings.

The Writings

One thing to note at the outset of this section is that those looking to this book for information about the Western Buddhist Order (WBO) or Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (Triratna Buddhist Community) will be disappointed. There is not a single reference (that I noticed) by Sangharakshita to his worldly projects within the text, and only the briefest of mentions in the introduction and in an end matter blurb. As a Buddhist who is not familiar with the Triratna Buddhist Community, I would have liked a chapter or so of explanation about the sangha, especially considering some of the information about controversies (true or otherwise) available on the web. But I can also see not including anything about the Order in order to focus on the material itself.

One thing that, for this reader, highly recommends this text is Sangharakshita’s reliance on the Pali texts when he refers to the Sutras. He is not advocating a purely Theravadin approach either, so the ecumenical nature of the writings with a reliance on the oldest available texts makes a great deal of sense. I also appreciated that he emphasizes mindfulness of breathing and work with developing loving-kindness as the two recommended forms of meditation. This may seem “old school” to some Buddhists, but the reliance on these simple practices for Westerners makes a great deal of sense.

Further, as a Westerner who has sampled from many different traditions, I also appreciate Sangharakshita’s acknowledgment of the Path of Irregular Steps:

We are in the transcendental sweet shop of Buddhism, with all these spiritual goodies around us, and so we grab this and that: Zen, Tantra, Theravada, ethics, meditation of one sort or another. But nonetheless, we do make some progress. The Path of Irregular Steps is a path, and it does give us some experience of Buddhism. (p. 169)

But this only works as a path for a short time. Sooner or later our practice will stagnate or stop altogether. So while he acknowledges that many of us, especially in the West, will attempt this buffet style of Buddhism (a little of this, a little of that), he also knows that a consistent approach is needed, the Path of Regular Steps:

This is the basic principle. If we want to experience the higher stage, or higher level, with any intensity of any permanence, we must first perfect the lower stage, on the basis of which, alone, the higher stage is to be established. This is why, sooner or later, we have to make the transition from the Path of Irregular Steps to the Path of Regular Steps. (p. 174)

Sometimes, in order to make this transition, we need to go backwards–back to the basics we may have skipped over in order to try the more exciting or esoteric practices. Point taken.

This book may be a great introduction to a distinctly Western Buddhist practice for some people, and for others already familiar with Sangharakshita’s work or already a part of the Triratna Buddhist Community, the book is a nice collection of the primary teachings. With a book of this size, there is way more content that a brief review can cover, so pick up a copy and spend a few hours with this uniquely Western approach to Buddhist practice.

William HarrymanWilliam Harryman is a freelance writer, a personal trainer, nutritional coach, and integral life coach living in Tucson, Arizona. He has been a practicing Buddhist since 1998, at first sampling among many traditions before settling into the Shambhala tradition of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

William blogs at Integral Options Café, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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Parenting and practice

Steve BellHow do we maintain an active practice while being immersed in the world of parenting and work? Are children a hindrance to spiritual practice? Or can parenting also be a path? Steve Bell, Buddhist practitioner and social worker, speaks from his experience of meditating while parenting two young boys.

I tell prospective parents to make a list of all the things they enjoy doing in their spare time. What are your hobbies? Do you like to go to the movies? I ask them to list the obscure little things they would miss. Do you like timely haircuts? Do you like to luxuriate in the bathroom, on the toilet, in the shower, and grooming? Then I ask them to cross off half the things on their list — those that are least important. Then cross out half of the remainder. Keep whittling the list down, until there is just one last thing, the thing you couldn’t give up.

The last thing on my own list was meditation. I’d give up everything but that. I love meditation and what it gives me. And I wouldn’t have known all that if I didn’t have children. The narrowing of possibilities as a parent has focused me onto what’s most important in my life and helped me to see what’s most important to me.

Parenting is a kind of crisis that makes it more important for me to meditate, because meditating is a survival strategy for me. I underestimated the amount of work it would take to raise children. The pressure of having no sleep and caring for children has challenged me maybe more than living in a hermit’s cave would. I’ve done the “mindfulness of my exhaustion and sleeplessness” meditation more than I care to. At times, when I’m tired and stressed, I feel moved to act in a way towards my children that I know is wrong. Somehow I’m primitively drawn forward, like there’s some archaic script that must be followed, some intergenerational trauma that must somehow be passed on. Meditation helps me to step aside from that, to act in my own best interest and in my children’s best interest.

The age of the children, the number of children you have, their disposition, how much support, and other circumstances, determine the constraints that you practice under. Here are the factors that affect me: My children are aged two and three. My wife works. My sons are not good sleepers. They’re very loud, active boys who like climbing, jumping, shouting and exploring. It’s been a challenge to get them into their beds, and to have them sleep through the night in their own beds. I wake up in the morning and they are in bed with us. They sneaked in while we slept.

All these conditions effect whether I get to meditate uninterrupted. My wife leaves for work during the time I meditate, and if the boys wake up I need to stop what I’m doing. There will no doubt come a time when I can ask them to let me finish meditating, or when they will just know to leave me alone until I’m finished. But for now I have to cultivate patience. To help with this I’ve taken to reading the chapter on patience in Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara after I meditate, if there’s time. Rarely is there time.

My boys challenge me in unexpected ways and constantly catch me out. They are my gurus, pointing out the aspect of my practice I need to be focused on: patience. Nobody can unravel me and find my weak spots more easily than they do.

When I complain about not being able to meditate, my friends say, “Just be mindful in your day-to-day life.” I get irritated at that because on the one hand it is actually the answer. On the other hand, I feel that meditation is an essential way for me to increase and even just to maintain my mindfulness. The challenge for me is finding the right balance between the depth of sitting practice and cultivating mindfulness in everyday life.

When I don’t meditate I feel less capable, less positive, less open, and less flexible. I am more easily overwhelmed and unbalanced, more small-minded and selfish. When I meditate I can relax into the challenges of parenting. I am grounded in my body, and I’m not as reactive. I have more objectivity.

When I don’t meditate, I resist my circumstances more. One of my core understandings of the Dharma is that we hurt ourselves when we resist our circumstances. The struggle to accept my situation as a father, and in particular being interrupted when I meditate, is one of my key spiritual challenges.

The Satipatthana Sutta says that you should cultivate mindfulness when your mind is “restricted, scattered, unconcentrated.” I have more of a restricted, scattered, unconcentrated mind when my children wake up early and I don’t get a chance to meditate. Meditation is my main method for increasing mindfulness.

So how do you develop the mindfulness to parent well when parenting prevents you from meditating? How do you get inspiration in the very situation that seems to be drying it up? I can’t find the answer in the life of the Buddha. He left his family to pursue a spiritual journey that resulted in enlightenment. He never went back, though his wife sent his son to live with him at age seven, and he took him on as a disciple. Later his wife even joined the Sangha. But that’s not a reunification of the family unit — they joined his spiritual movement.

With my literal mind, in moments of weakness, I sometimes wonder if I have to leave my family to seek more spiritual depth and challenge. But of course I couldn’t leave my children. My father left me, and it was deeply painful. His leaving was perhaps the central event in my life. Because of my childhood experiences and my commitment not to harm others I could never do the same thing to my own children. So I need to find a more metaphorical kind of going forth that will benefit me and my family and that takes into account my circumstances and commitments.

Meditation is essential to me. I’ve practiced meditation daily for the past six years, and my sitting practice has been the biggest catalyst for positive change in my life. Some people are amazed that I meditate for 40 minutes most days despite having two small boys. For me, it’s vital, necessary, and not negotiable.

Retreats are very important to me. I want to squeeze the most out of the few retreats that I get to go on. On retreats it’s easier to meditate and we meditate more than I do normally, but my hunger for meditation is such that I never feel there is enough. I have an urgency I would not have developed if I was able to go on retreat more.

And I’d love to get on retreat more, but it wouldn’t be fair to leave my wife alone with the children. She’s not a Buddhist, though she is very kind, and because she doesn’t go on retreat we can’t have a straightforward quid pro quo arrangement. I won’t go on retreat against her wishes, so the retreat negotiation is yet another struggle on the spiritual path, attempting to get my needs met while also taking my wife’s needs into account.

You parent well by giving attention: by giving a particular kind and quality of attention. I don’t usually see that as mindfulness, but in a way it is. I have the challenge of trying to remain calm when flummoxed, to remain kind when my conditioning tells me to crack the whip in an unskillful way by imposing my will rather than relating empathetically. I have to watch for being so tired that I just want to let some of my children’s undesirable behavior slide by unaddressed.

Although my practice is important to me I worry about pushing Buddhism onto my children. I dislike the coercive indoctrination of religion on children. Yet my practice and my parenting are inseparable. There are many ways my boys learn about my Dharma practice. I chant to them to help them fall asleep. They see me meditate. They have met my Buddhist friends. They have gone to a Buddhist naming ceremony. They had naming ceremonies themselves, although they were too young at the time to be able to remember. They can identify the Buddha on the cover of books I read. My practice subtly diffuses out of my pores, and they pick up on it, without my proselytizing or forcing anything on them. Most of the time they appreciate my kindness and my mindfulness. So in a way I have done what my friends suggest, and infused my parenting with my spiritual practice.

I wish I could say I act gracefully all the time, that I go around in a state of equanimity, that I’m always a “good Buddhist.” The fact is though, that my boys have exposed some of my fragility and inflexibility of mind. They show me that I have lots of work to do. They are my gurus, and they humble me because they help me to see more clearly who I am and who I want to be. Pema Chodron talks about “the big squeeze”: when we realize the pressure of our ideals and how far we are from them. I have learned to clarify and use ideals, like the ten precepts, in a positive way, and not to turn them against myself in the pressure cooker of parenting.

My teacher, Sangharakshita, tells a story. There was a fellow who meditated on lovingkindness every morning. Every day, his servant boy would quietly bring some tea into the meditation room so that his master could have tea after meditating. One day, during meditation, the servant boy spilled the tea. The man roared at the boy for interrupting his meditation, “Can’t you see I’m radiating universal loving kindness throughout the world!”

So when my son comes up to me while I’m meditating, and says, “Do you want to play?” my heart melts, and I get up from my cushion — even if I’ve only been sitting for four minutes — and go play with him. That is how I express my metta.

Parenting is a challenge, but it also brings direct spiritual rewards. Kevin Griffin points out in One Breath at a Time:

Sometimes we are focused on developing concentration or investigation or some other quality. New parents have to work hard at cultivating and maintaining a lot of spiritual qualities: patience, generosity, renunciation (as they give up so much of their freedom and time). But the gift that they receive is love, as well as what’s called mudita, or appreciative joy. There’s no work involved, no effort in developing metta and mudita for our children, they just blossom. Appreciating that this is happening for us can help us to be easier on ourselves when other aspects of our practice seem to be crumbling.

I love my sons. They are utterly precious to me, even if they sometimes stop me from meditating. My love for my boys is as at least as powerful as my feelings of frustration about not being able to meditate. I sometimes catch myself speeding home from work: I am rushing to get back to them, to see them, urgently, passionately.

This is not the spirituality of being on retreat, of meditation, dharma study, and sangha. I contrast my life with a retired friend’s simple life of meditation and reflection, his walks in nature, his artistic and social activity, with no television or internet. His children have grown up and he no longer needs to work. Is that the only way to be spiritual, with free time, with no pull of responsibility? Do you have to be a monastic to move towards enlightenment? Can I be spiritual while immersed in my parenting and working life?

My spiritual practice is about staying with my experience, and not running away internally in order to cope with difficult experiences. It’s the same as with an itch on my nose in meditation — I don’t have to react, I can just experience it. I must stay with the challenging experience of parenting, not do the violence of wishing I was elsewhere, taking myself out of the here and now. It’s in this way, staying with and accepting my experience, that I become less scattered and restricted.
I wouldn’t have known all these things if I didn’t have children. Maybe I would have learned different lessons — I can’t say, and there’s no point in trying to second-guess myself. The challenge of losing my free time, of being needed so much, has taught me something vital: My children are my gurus. They help me blossom.

Steve Bell is a 40 year old father of two small children, who’s been meditating for five years. He lives in New York City and works as a psychotherapist at an agency for people with HIV/Aids. Steve is currently studying at the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy. His wife of 10 years is a middle school teacher.

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