six elements

You are the universe become conscious of itself

Photo by Will Swann on Unsplash

My favorite meditation practice from the Buddhist tradition is also one of the least well-known. It’s a reflection on the interconnected nature of our being, and it’s called the Six Element Practice.

It’s my favorite for a number of reasons. For one thing, it’s deeply poetic, evoking our nature as intrinsically part of the universe. For another, it aligns closely with contemporary science, which is a subject I love, and which gives the practice added richness. Lastly, it’s very effective: I and many people I’ve taught this meditation practice to have found that it radically changes our sense of who we are. It gives us a sense of connectedness, of lightness of being, and of freedom.

The meditation involves taking the six elements that make up our being, and seeing how each of them isn’t in any ultimate sense who we really are.

These six elements come from an ancient way of understanding the universe, but although it’s a model of reality that we no longer use, it makes perfect sense on an experiential level. So we have, in the traditional order:

  • Earth, which is anything solid in our being.
  • Water, which is anything liquid.
  • Fire, which is the energy that animates us.
  • Air, which is anything gaseous within us.
  • Space, which is just space — the “container” for the other elements — our sense of being separate from the universe.
  • Consciousness, which is what is aware of the other elements and of itself.

The first four are the four classical elements of antiquity, and are very common-sense. We’re made up of solids, liquids, gases, and energy. This is how we experience the world.

In the Six Element Practice we reflect on each of these elements in turn. First of all we connect with the element within us — which we’d normally think of as being me, myself, or mine. So for the earth element we can experience the solid touch of the body against the floor or our seat. We can be aware of the bones and muscles, and teeth and hair. And what we can’t directly experience, like our inner organs, we can imagine.

Second, we connect with the same element outside of ourselves. So for the earth element we recollect whatever is solid in the world. We can call to mind our experience of walking on solid ground, of picking up a rock, of touching the rough bark of a tree, of holding an apple in our hands. It’s particularly useful to recall experiences of food, like the bread and fruits and vegetables in your kitchen.

This is useful because, thirdly, we reflect that there is in reality no “me” earth element or “other” earth element, but just one earth element. And we can do this by connecting with how the element comes and goes in the body.

Where has all the solid matter in the body come from? All of it, we can realize, comes from the outside world. Your bones and muscles, hair, teeth, inner organs, etc., were formerly soil and rock and wheat and milk and vegetables and so on. And because of the way your body constantly replenishes itself, what was previously your body is now soil and plants and air and animals, and everything that’s presently in the body is in the process of returning to the world again.

And having reflected in this way, we now have a different view of the solid matter in the body. What at first we may have looked at as a “thing,” separate from the world, now is seen as a flow or a process, inseparably part of the world. We see the earth element flowing from the outside world, through this human form, and back into the outside world again.

And lastly, as we observe this flow we say to ourselves, “This is not me. This is not mine. This is not myself.” Because how can you “own” something that’s just passing through?

So we reflect in the same way for the other physical elements, and see that all the solid, liquid, gas, and energy that’s inside us is really just temporarily passing through.

But passing through what? This brings us to be space element. We think of there being a space — a human form — through which the elements are passing. But what is this human form but the first four elements themselves? Take those away, and what’s left? We come to see that there is nothing at all in our physical makeup that is separate.The elements of the body that came from the outside world never really left the outside world. When you see your body you are seeing nothing more or less than a living, ever-changing part of the universe. Separateness is an illusion.

Lastly, there’s consciousness as an element. The traditional description of this is quite involved, but it starts with a recognition that there are three inter-related things: 1) form (the first five elements), 2) the perception of form in our sense organs, and 3) consciousness of form in the mind. The suggestion seems to be that these three things form an inseparable continuum. We tend to think of consciousness as being something separate from what it perceives, but this practice leads us to let go of identifying any part of this continuum as being either “me” or “not me.” There’s a unified, non-dual phenomenon of the universe perceiving itself — the universe become conscious of itself.

So if even your consciousness isn’t “you” in any real sense, then what are you? I think this is one of the great things about the Six Element Practice — it just leaves you with a sense of mystery. A sense of mystery is a kind of openness. It’s a setting-aside not just of definitions but of the need to define. We no longer, temporarily at least, need to try to pin down who or what we are. We no longer need to separate our experience into the categories of “self” and “other.” There’s no me “in here” experiencing a world “out there.” There’s just a vibrant aliveness, the mystery of the universe become aware of itself, and a sense of liberation — life without boundary.

If you’re interested in the Six Element Practice and want to explore it further, join me for a six-week online course starting July 12.

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The great mystery of being

Wildmind’s online course, The Great Mystery of Being: A Practical Introduction to the Experience of Non-Self, begins on Wednesday, September 20th.

The greatest insights that the Buddha had are that our sense of self is a burden that we drag around with us, and that it’s possible to lay down that burden.

The six element practice is a beautiful and poetic reflection on impermanence, interconnectedness — and especially non-self.

The practice encourages us to examine everything that we take to be “us” and “ours” and teaches us to see that nothing in the mind or body truly belongs to us.

In fact the concept of there being an “us” that anything can belong to is subjected to close analysis.

It does this by examining each of the “elements” that constitutes the body and mind:

  1. Earth — everything solid within the body
  2. Water — everything liquid within the body
  3. Fire — all energy within the body
  4. Air — anything gaseous within the body
  5. Space — our sense of separateness
  6. Consciousness — our perceptions, thoughts, and feelings

Over the course of six weeks we’ll explore each of these elements in turn, and see how everything that we take to be “us” is in fact merely “borrowed” from the outside world.

In time, our illusion of having a separate and permanent self can be seen through. No longer do we have to worry about whether the “self” we thought we had is good enough, worthy enough, capable of becoming awakened, etc. Instead we come to a direct perception of the thoroughgoing nature of impermanence, so that our “self” is nothing more than a dance of ever changing experiences. Accompanying this is a profound sense of release, relief, and confidence.

There’s no promise that these six weeks will take you all the way to awakening, but you’ll certainly experience a shift in how you perceive yourself. You’ll at least experience a taste of liberation.

Register today to explore the great mystery of being!

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Two events in NYC

NYC

I’m appearing in two events at the New York Insight center on Oct 9 and Oct 10.

Dharma in Dialogue: Mythbusting the Dharma

The first of these is a conversation and Q&A with James Shaheen, editor and publisher of Tricycle magazine. James and I both have an interest in clearing up misconceptions about the Dharma. James has been running a series of articles by teachers such as Bhikkhu Bodhi, Thanissaro Bhikkhu, and myself, “mythbusting” some common misunderstandings of Buddhist teachings. I run a site called Fake Buddha Quotes (“I can’t believe it’s not Buddha!”) that examines the many supposed Buddha quotes that circulate on Facebook, Twitter, etc., and that often have nothing to do with the Buddha at all.

“Mythbusting the Dharma” runs from 7PM to 9PM on Oct 9. No registration is required. There’s no fixed charge for the event”—make a donation at the door.

From Me to We—And Beyond

The second event is an all-day workshop exploring our interconnectedness with each other and with the elements, with planet earth and with the universe. We’ll be delving into the Buddha’s Six Element Practice in order to expand our sense of who we are, breaking down the boundaries that make us feel separate from one another and from our world.

This event runs from 10AM until 5PM, and the registration fee is $70. (Scholarships are available). Click here to reserve a place.

New York Insight is at the heart of New York City, between Broadway & 6th Avenue, at 28 West 27th Street (10th Floor), New York, NY 10001.

If you’re in the area, I’d love to see you.

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The Six Elements CD

CD7-500px

The Buddha taught the Six Element Practice as a way of challenging our assumptions of our own separateness and permanence. In this practice we reflect on the various “elements” that compose our being (solid matter, liquid, energy, gas, space, and consciousness itself) and see how each is a flow, rather than something static. Through this practice we come to see that every aspect of our being is in a permanent state of flux, and that we are nothing more or less than the universe become conscious of itself.

The practices on this CD will help you to:

  • let go of limited views of yourself
  • feel a greater sense of awe and wonder
  • experience a greater sense of connectedness
  • find a sense of peace and stability in an ever-changing world

Bodhipaksa, who leads these meditations, has been practicing the reflection on the Six Elements for over 20 years. His gentle guidance will help you to access deeper levels of tranquillity and calm.

This CD contains two tracks:

1. The Development of Lovingkindness (15:36)
The Six Element Practice should be entered into from a state of healthy appreciation, and it’s traditional to begin with a short period of metta bhavana, or development of lovingkindness.

2. The Six Element Practice (46:16)
In this insight meditation practice we reflect in turn on the elements Earth, Water, Fire, Air, Space, and Consciousness, noting how each is an ever-changing process flowing through us. The practice helps us to see and appreciate the reality of our interconnectedness with the universe. It liberates us from a limited view of ourselves and helps us to see that we are nothing less than the universe become conscious of itself.

Total Running Time 61:52

The 6 Elements can be purchased as an MP3 download.

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Six Element Practice: Guided Meditation MP3

aryaloka Buddhist center

Here’s another guided meditation from the retreat I’m co-leading with Sunada at Aryaloka. This one’s the Six Element Practice, which is a reflection on non-self.

The quality of the recording is not great, and the only editing I’ve done is to increase the volume and to remove a cough or too. You’ll hear the building creaking, and people shuffling (and no doubt some coughs that I missed).

Still, I hope it’s of benefit:

Here’s an audio-only version:

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Guided meditation: The six element practice

Here is a recording of meditation Hangout on Google+ where Bodhipaksa leads a session of the Six Element Practice, which is a traditional insight meditation practice taught by the Buddha.

The Six Element Practice is a reflection on impermanence, interconnectedness, and non-self, where we notice that the elements of earth (anything solid that constitutes “us”), water (any liquid in the body), fire (the energy in the body), air (any gases within the body), and space (the body’s form) — that is, what constitutes our physical body — are not in any way separate from the world, but are simply borrowed from what we consider to be “not us.”

Even the separateness of the experiencer and that which is experienced is dropped, so that we can come to a state of pure non-dual awareness.

For more information visit our online guide to the six element practice.

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On doing a variety of practices

Sometimes I have meditation students who have problems learning a particular meditation technique because it appears to be fundamentally different — even contradictory — to other approaches to meditating that they’ve learned.

In fact, I’ve had experiences myself that are similar in some ways to this. I once went on a retreat run by teachers who have a different approach to me in order to learn more about their techniques and perspectives, and I found that some of the things they said plunged me into doubt and confusion — and aversion.

I found myself in my meditation continually arguing about things that they had said and about how I thought they made no sense. There was one statement in particular that I thought was contrary to the Buddha’s teaching. A teacher said, “In vipassana we don’t try to get rid of the hindrances” — the hindrances being a traditional classification of distracted states of aversion, craving, and confusion. This threw me into turmoil for two days! I kept thinking of all the suttas (discourses of the Buddha) where he talks about the necessity of overcoming the hindrances. In the face of this (and other teachings), the advice not to try to rid the mind of the hindrances seemed positively un-Buddhist.

This turmoil went on until I had a chance to talk to the teacher who had made this statement. And when I told her I was confused, she replied, “Oh, I didn’t really mean that — it’s just something I say to the beginners.” The intention was to help beginners not to see it as “bad” that they were experiencing the hindrances: to help them avoid the trap of developing aversion to the hindrances and trying to push them away or suppress them.

So sometimes these confusions are apparent, and if you dig deeper you find that two seemingly different approaches aren’t as different as they might seem.

Other times meditation practices may actually be based on quite different premises. There are practices where you’re very definitely trying to bring particular states into being. For example you may be cultivating lovingkindness in the metta bhavana. There are other practices in which you may be just allowing your experience to arise, without interfering with anything. Those are very different approaches, but it’s not that one or the other is wrong: they’re just different tools.

When we cling to the idea that there’s one “right” way to meditate, and that new approaches are “wrong,” this isn’t very helpful. If you hear anyone saying that there’s only one way to meditate, I suspect they’re misinformed, caught up in clinging, or selling something.

The Buddha taught many different meditations: anapanasati (mindful breathing meditation) leading to jhana, meditations leading to the formless spheres, metta bhavana and the other brahmaviharas, six element reflection (and four- and five-element reflections), simply paying attention to the impermanence of our experience in meditation, etc. He taught visualization practices. He offered us a rich tool box of approaches to working with our experience.

These approaches are all valid and complementary, and the practice of one can enhance the experience of the others.

Some people might argue that in doing a number of meditation practices you’re digging many shallow wells rather than one deep well. But since meditation practices are different tools meant to accomplish specific tasks, it’s more like using a variety of tools to dig one deep well. Sometimes you need a shovel, sometimes you need a pickax, sometimes you might need a pry-bar, sometimes you need to take a rest (that’s a tool, too). You’re taking many different approaches — but to one end. There’s really only one task.

There are just two things I would add to this. One is that we need to be clear what the task is; what is the well you’re digging? And second, we need to use the right tool, or combination of tools.

That task, the well we’re digging through Buddhist meditation practice, is what I call “unselfing.” Any practice you’re doing is reducing the sense of having a fixed and separate self that leads us into suffering. Some of the approaches are “samatha” (i.e. they’re aimed at developing and strengthening positive qualities such as mindfulness and lovingkindness) and some are “vipassana” (i.e. they’re aimed at changing, on a fundamental level, how we see ourselves and our relation to the world) but all meditation practices involve unselfing.

Simply paying attention to your breathing — letting go of distractions as they arise and returning over and over to the breathing — unselfs us by quieting the constant thoughts we have that involve comparison, aversion, and clinging (activities that reinforce out sense of self).

Cultivating lovingkindness unselfs us by expanding our sense of concern beyond ourselves and into the lives of others, so that we see others’ joy and pain as being part of our concern. In a way we expand our sense of self, and thus dilute it.

Six element meditation unselfs us by helping us to see that there is no separate self. We’re not physically separate from the world, so there’s physically no “me.” Our consciousness is also not separate from the world either. There’s nothing to grasp onto; there’s not even a “me” to do any grasping.

“Just sitting” practices that lead to experiences of non-duality lead to unselfing by reducing our sense of separation.

Any meditation in which we’re observing the arising and passing of our experience is likewise unselfing. We train ourselves to see more and more clearly that there is no part of “us” that is stable. How, therefore, can there be a stable, static, separate self?

So we need to have a coherent sense of what it is that we’re actually doing. Deep down, there’s no conflict between these practices, because they’re all unselfing. Because the practices I do are all doing the same thing, but in different ways, they’re all complementing each other.

Then there’s a question of which tools to use, and in which combinations. For me, some form of mindfulness of breathing and some form of developing lovingkindness or compassion are crucial. These two practices are complementary to each other, and also essential. We need mindfulness. We need lovingkindness. And this may be all we do for a few years.

But eventually some form of vipassana approach is necessary as well, whether it’s six element meditation or simply observing the impermanence, non-self, or unsatisfactoriness of our experience (or doing all three).

I’m not too good at dealing with complexity, so two or three regular practices is about all I can manage, although when I’m on retreat I’m happy to explore other approaches. But I’d guess that for most experienced meditators something like three to four practices is enough to be getting on with. Precisely which ones

You may find it’s useful to have a schedule, and to plan out what practice you’re going to do on any given day: body scan on Monday, Mindfulness of Breathing on Tuesday, Metta Bhavana on Wednesday, etc. That might give your mind permission to be content with what you’re doing on any particular day. Or if you don’t suffer from the torment of not knowing which practice to do, you can just play it by ear. At times you might have to be disciplined so that you don’t avoid a practice you don’t think your “good at.” Other times you need to give yourself the flexibility to work on what needs to be worked on.

So to cut a long story short: don’t assume there’s only one right way to meditation. Be clear about what the well is that you’re digging, and see how the various tools available to you help you to dig that well. And lastly, choose the most appropriate meditative tools, and use them as wisely as you can.

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Meditation – how many forms should we practice?

A variety of cut citrus fruit, viewed from above.

There are many different types of meditation practices. Most familiar, perhaps, are mantra meditation, Mindfulness of Breathing, Metta Bhavana (Development of Loving Kindness), and the candle meditation. Recently I was asked by a student if I thought she should add a third meditation practice to the two forms of meditation she already practices. I responded to her question with a list of questions to consider before she made her decision. I hope these questions will be helpful to you as well, if you are considering adding other practices to your meditation repertoire.

Regarding adding another form of meditation to your meditation practice – there are differing ideas about doing that. In my own meditation process (from 1993 – 2000), it was recommended that I practice the metta bhavana and the mindfulness of breathing (which some believe can take us all the way to Enlightenment). When I was ordained, in September 2000, I was introduced to two more forms of meditation – the Six Element Practice and an Amitabha Buddha visualization practice. Those practices were taught during a seven week retreat and I had an opportunity to practice both forms in a context where I received instruction and support.

It’s probably a good idea to consider the intention underlying one’s desire to take on another meditation practice. Here are some questions to consider:

1. Am I bored/tired with my practice as it is? If so, why?

2. Which meditation practice do I practice most? If I just practice the Mindfulness of Breathing as a way to become more focused and mindful, should I practice the Metta Bhavana for a while so that I am developing loving kindness for myself and others? Is there a reason I practice one practice more than another? Am I having difficulty concentrating or feeling positive emotion for myself and or others? If there is resistance to one practice, understanding the resistance can be valuable.

3. What do I want to accomplish by taking on another meditation practice?

4. Do I know enough about the practice to do it without the support of a teacher and practice group?

After reading this list of questions, another student responded:

“Thank you for the list of questions to consider when thinking about trying another meditation practice. Your first question struck home with me in that sometimes after I have been doing a particular meditation for awhile I have more difficulty staying focused. It just struck me that maybe instead of switching to another method, I need to just sit with the restlessness of my mind and see what happens. Not being able to stay still emerges once again.”

It’s a good idea to be aware of your meditation practice, and to take stock, now and again, to see if changes (additions or deletions) might be helpful.

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Secular prayer flags

Secular prayer flags made by students at Timberlane High School, New Hampshire

A few days ago I gave a talk at a high school about 40 minutes from my house. Some of the students had made secular “prayer flags,” which had the purpose of expressing their positive thoughts and sending them out into the world.

The prayer flags had been hung where they would brighten up a rather unattractive central courtyard, which now contained a “ger” (Tibetan yurt), designed (I think) in the geometry class. You can just see the ger in the background of the second photograph.

Some of the images were intriguing, and I wish I’d been able to talk more with individual students to discover more about what they were trying to communicate.

Below, you’ll find the text of the address I gave to the students who made these flags.

Secular prayer flag with image of Audrey Hepburn

 

String of secular prayer flags created by high school students in New Hampshire

Good morning.

It’s a pleasure and an honor to be here, and I’d like to thank you for having me. I’m delighted to hear that you’ve been putting your positive thoughts on flags and sending them out into the universe. Of course I don’t believe that your thoughts will literally be sent out on the wind, but I see great significance in what you’re doing.

To print your positive thoughts on fabric you have, of course, to have had a positive thought. And that in itself is a very significant thing to do.

How many people consciously cultivate positive thoughts? I suspect it’s not many. Most of our thinking is “accidental” and most of it is negative.

The world is direly in need of positive thinking. It’s even more in need of compassion and clarity.

The world is very much in need of idealism.

Now to some people the word “idealism” is a slur, an insult. Idealists are seen as being disconnected from reality. They’re seen as dreamers. They’re seen as impractical. They’re seen as naive.

But to me, idealism is a beautiful thing. To have a meaningful life, we have to have goals that go beyond the mere satisfying of our selfish desires.

Of course some idealists are indeed dreamers. Some idealists are impractical, and naive. But the best idealists are practical, grounded, and wise people. I think of Martin Luther King Jr. He was an idealist. He was a dreamer. He had a dream. He dreamt of course of ending racial segregation, and had much success in turning his dream into reality.

But Dr King didn’t stop at just having a dream. He attempted to live his dream. And in doing so he put himself in the way of angry mobs, policemen’s batons, and eventually an assassin’s bullet. And his actions, and those of the many courageous people who stood by him, changed this country for ever.

And lest we forget, in the year before Dr. King’s murder, marriage between black and white people was still illegal in 15 states. At the time of our current president’s birth, in 1961, there were over 20 states in which his parents could not legally be married.

There has been much progress made since those days — our current president is after all a black man — but there is much still to be done. We still need our practical dreamers. We need them more than ever.

King dreamed of ending racial segregation, but he also dreamed of ending poverty, and one of the reasons he opposed the war in Vietnam was because it diverted funds from social welfare projects.

And in the field of poverty we especially need practical dreamers. The number of people living in poverty in the United States is higher now than it was at the time of King’s death. Of course the population of the country is higher too, but the percentage of the population living in poverty was lower at the time of King’s murder than in almost every year since then, and it was lower than it is today. Yes, a greater percent of the US population lives in poverty than in 1968.

And in fact, since the recession of 2008, the poverty rate in the US has been rising dramatically.

Here are the figures for the last three years for which we have figures:

2008 39.8 million
2009 43.6 million
2010 46.2 million

2011 is almost certain to be worse.

The United States now creates more than twice as much wealth per head of population as it did in 1968, the year of Dr. King’s murder. The country is more than twice as wealthy as it was when King campaigned against poverty, and yet there are more people living below the poverty line than in his lifetime.

(In case you’re wondering where all the wealth our country has been creating has gone, roughly 82 percent of all the nation’s gains in wealth between 1983 and 2009 went to the richest 5 percent of households.)

We’ve become a more unequal society since King had his dream of ending poverty.

So on the one hand we have a black president, which I think would have stunned Dr. King in a positive sense. But on the other we have seen the problem of poverty worsen, which I think would have found not only shocking, but incomprehensible.

I mention all this because I think it’s obvious that we need more practical dreamers.

Of course if your dream is simply to be part of the richest 5%, then I wish you well.

I want to say a bit more about so-called “prayer flags.” It’s only in the west that we call these prayer flags. In Tibet, where the tradition originated, they’re called Dar Cho. “Dar” means to increase life, fortune, health and wealth. “Cho” means all beings. They are not intended to send prayers to heaven, but to symbolize the sending of good wishes into the world, much as you have been doing.

But there’s an important aspect of prayer flags that’s often overlooked. They are impermanent. They are hung out in the elements, exposed to harsh sunlight, constantly torn at by the wind, frozen, thawed, and soaked in the rain. The quickly become tattered rags. Eventually, in order to prevent them becoming litter, they are taken down and burned.

The flags — the Dar Cho — return to the elements from which they came.

And this reminds me of two things. The first is to do with the burning of the Dar Cho. Buddhists are fond of burning incense, and besides the fact that incense usually smells nice, it has a symbolic function.

When you light a stick of incense in a meditation room, the smoke doesn’t stay within the room. It drifts out, and circulates around the world. It never stops. It just keeps on going forever.

And the symbolism of this is to do with what goes on in a meditation room. There are many things that people can be doing when they’re sitting there with their eyes closed. But one of the things they do is to cultivate positive thoughts. They cultivate love, and compassion, and kindness, and patience. And here’s where the symbolism comes in. When people cultivate kindness, and compassion, and patience, those qualities don’t stay in the meditation room any more than the incense smoke does. The positive emotion that’s developed has an effect on the world.

We can even measure this. It has in fact been measured by psychologists, not specifically in relation to meditation, but more generally in relation to positive emotion. When a person is emotionally positive, this affects the people they’re in contact with. And they have an effect on those that they in turn are in contact with. And so on.

In fact psychologists have been able to measure the effects of emotionally positive people radiating out to their friend’s friend’s friends. It’s actually measurable. Of course the effect, just like the incense smoke, never stops. It permeates the entire world. But just as you can no longer smell the perfume of the incense once you’re a certain distance away, to the effect of a positive person becomes more dilute as it moves out into the world around them.

This is true for negative emotions as well, by the way. Which is all the more reason that we need to work at bringing more compassion into the world.

So there’s something to think about. The positive thoughts you’ve been cultivating will quite literally affect the entire world.

By cultivating the positive thoughts you’ve printed on these Dar Cho, you’ve become more emotionally positive. And while the writing on these flags will not literally waft on the breeze out into the world, your concerns for the world around you will affect the people you know, and the people those people know, and so on. There is no end to it.

The other thing I wanted to mention about prayer flags is that they symbolize impermanence. Just as they are impermanent, so are we. Prayer flags remind us the unavoidabiity of death. In fact everything we see reminds us of impermanence, although we often don’t want to think about it.

We generally assume that thinking about death is a bummer. That it’ll bring us down. That it’ll depress us.

But that’s not actually the case. Again this has been studied. When we fully accept that we will die, we feel challenged to make something of our lives. There’s a saying, “Very few people on their deathbeds think, I wish I’d spent more time in the office.”

And it’s true. When people are dying, they mostly wish two things. They wish they’d paid more attention to having a joyful life. And they wish they’d loved more. Take it from the dying: love and joy are the two most important things in life.

People who consciously think about death are more likely to embrace life, and to love more.

Just take a minute to picture yourself on your deathbed. If you want to avoid having regrets about how you spent your life, start right now. Think about what kind of life would be the most meaningful for you. Become a practical dreamer.

And take another moment, right now, to look at someone standing next to you. The person standing next to you will die soon. We’ll all die soon. It might not seem like it from your perspective, right now, as teenagers, but again, very few people on their deathbeds think, I wish I hadn’t lived as long.

As you look at the person next to you, aware of the fact that they’ll die soon, you might find your heart opening a little. You might feel a bit more tenderness and respect, and kindness. Try and remember that. And try and remember that in geological time scales, the life of a human being is briefer than the life of a prayer flag is to us.

A human life isn’t a long time, but it’s long enough to make a difference in other human lives.

So in conclusion, I’d encourage you to take away the following thoughts:

  • The world needs practical dreamers. In some ways things have gotten better, but in other ways they’re no better than they were — or are worse — than when your grandparents were your age.
  • Don’t let your thinking be accidental. Consciously think. Consciously cultivate positive thoughts and positive emotions of love and compassion.
  • You can have an effect. In fact you do have an effect. Your inspiration, your idealism, your positive emotions, will change our society for the better. It’s measurable.
  • And lastly, think about the fact that you’re going to die. Think about the fact that everyone you know is going to die. Let an awareness of our impermanence enrich your life. Live so that you’ll have no regrets on your deathbed. Embrace life. Live well. Love well. And leave the world a better place than you found it.
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Buddhist Geeks interview with Bodhipaksa

living as a riverBuddhist Geeks is an insanely popular podcast, featuring in-depth interviews with some of the most influential Buddhist teachers around today. Recently the Buddhist Geeks’ Vince Horn interviewed Bodhipaksa about his new book, Living as a River, which explores how penetrating the truths of impermanence and insubstantiality can free us from fear and clinging.

The interview has now been transcribed, and is available online:

Vincent: Hello, Buddhist geeks, this is Vincent Horn, and I’m joined today, over Skype, with Bodhipaksa. Bodhipaksa, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us. I know that you’ve actually tuned in to Buddhist Geeks before, and I’ve been following you on Twitter. So, it’s really cool to connect with someone that’s kind of plugged in to what we’re doing here at Buddhist Geeks.

Bodhipaksa: Thank you, I’m a big admirer.

Vincent: Cool. Thank you. I just wanted to say a little bit about your background, and this is sort of new for me. Even though I studied Buddhism in college, I knew very little about the order that you’re connected with, and that’s currently called Triratna Buddhist Community. It was formerly known as the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. You were telling me before the interview that the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order is not a community that’s really that popular in America, but that it’s huge in other areas.

Bodhipaksa: Yes, it’s very large in Britain, in particular, it’s possibly the largest. It’s certainly one of the three largest Buddhist movements there.

Vincent: Nice. What was the deal with the shifting the name from the Western Buddhist Order to this Triratna Community?

Bodhipaksa: Well the Western Buddhist Order and Friends of the Western Buddhist Order started in London in the 1960s. It was initiated by a Buddhist monk who was from England who’d been practicing in India for 20 years. He came back and decided, for various reasons, to set up a new kind of Buddhist movement. He wanted, specifically, to set up something that addressed the Western condition. He didn’t think that either of the two main forms of Buddhism that were around in Britain in the mid-60s were particularly appropriate. There was monastic Buddhism, and there was kind of “hobby Buddhism.” People going to evening classes and learning about Buddhism but not really thinking of it in terms of a life-changing practice.

So he decided to start something that wasn’t monastic but was full on. Initially, actually, he called the movement Friends of the Western Sangha, renamed it, shortly afterwards, to Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, as that meant more to some people. But it’s grown since then. It started off in a little basement in London, and we now have a lot of order members, about a third of the Order, I believe, is in India. We have other members in Australia, in New Zealand, and a couple of people in Russia as well. Pitching yourself as being Western when you’re in those places doesn’t really work very well.

Vincent: Right.

Bodhipaksa: So, a name was picked, which is more universal. Triratna means the “three jewels,” of course, of the Buddha dharma and sangha. So we have a name that’s in Sanskrit and can be related to wherever you are.

Vincent: Nice. It sounds like this is a more progressive, looking it from the point of view of sort of spectrum of conservative to progressive, in the Buddhist tradition. So I think this is highly progressive type of movement.

Bodhipaksa: Definitely not conservative, more experimental. We have a lot of women order members. They’ve been smaller in numbers than the men, for example. Of course, as you know, in traditional Theravada Buddhism, in most forms of traditional Theravada Buddhism, there is no full ordination for women, so we’re progressive in that kind of regard. The women are catching up, actually. They’re going to be overtaking the men in a few years, I understand.

Vincent: I wanted to talk with you today about some of the things that you’ve written in a book that’s coming out right around now, which is “Living As a River: Finding Fearlessness in the Face of Change.” This book is coming out through Sounds True, where I worked for a few years, and your name definitely came up a lot while I was there.

I just wanted to say, first, that I really enjoyed reading it. It just flowed in a way that was really pleasant to read. I think it was the ideas, too, were very accessible. I’m thinking now, as you describe the Triratna Community, that there’s a connection here between the way that the ideas sort of just made sense immediately to my Western mind. Yeah, so I just wanted to thank you for that, because it’s not always common to read a book that’s both profound and also is really accessible and easy to read.

Bodhipaksa: Thank you very much.

Vincent: Yeah. I wanted to speak with you about one of the ideas that seem really central to the book, and of course, is central to the Buddhist tradition, which is the teachings on non-self. Could you say a little bit about why the teachings on non-self, or person permanence, are so central, so important in the way you talk about things?

Bodhipaksa: Well sure. I guess, the teaching of non-self or not-self is absolutely central to Buddhism. It’s seen as being one of the core delusions that we need to overcome if we want to achieve a deeper level of happiness and well-being. The idea that we have a separate and permanent self seems to be burned up with a lot of fear and confusion. It leads to defensiveness and to acquisition, a kind of overinvestment in materiality and then things like status, etc. So, it seems to be something that we really have to work at.

Vincent: There’s one piece where you talk about the mind and the brain and how we’re sort of wired for what’s called “change blindness.” What’s the deal with that concept, because that’s something that I found was a kind of a unique way of looking at this whole thing?

Bodhipaksa: Sure. Well, I try to think of some of the reasons for why we think we do have separate and permanent selves because we tend to, almost all of us, have this idea that “Yes, I am separate. There’s this boundary between me and the rest of the world, and I don’t really change that much.” Even if we can’t, exactly put our finger on it, even if we’ve seen a lot of change in ourselves, we think that there’s something permanent within ourselves. So, I try to look at some of the reasons for why is that we might overlook the change that is actually taking place in our experience. One very interesting thing that psychologists have been looking at is what’s called “change blindness.”

I describe a really interesting experiment in the book where people were invited to participate in a psychological experiment. They didn’t know exactly what the nature of the psychological experiment was when they were signing up. All they knew was that they had to turn up like it’s, for example, the fourth floor of the Psychology building in Harvard. They would be asked a few questions. So, you walked in, you got your letter saying that you’ve been invited to participate in the project. There’s somebody behind the desk who asks to see your letter and say a few words about what you’re going to be doing. You’re going to be going down the coordor here, take the second door on the left, but I need to give you this packet, first of all. He ducks behind the desk, stands up again, hand you the packet, and you go on your way. Most people, something like 80% of people don’t notice that the person who stood up with the packet was not the same person who ducks down behind the desk to get the packet, in the first place. [Laughter] They didn’t look alike, they weren’t dressed the same. They were of different heights, they had different hairstyles, they had different facial features. That’s a lot of change not to notice.

Vincent: That’s incredible.

Bodhipaksa: Some people noticed it, about 20% of people, I think, did notice it, but the vast majority of people don’t. It seems that we’re just not very good picking up on change. There’s various theories, I think, for why that is.

The brain can’t really process very much information at one time, so when you’re suddenly there in front of the desk and you’re busy thinking about all kinds of things, like, “Did he say the second door on the left or did he say the right? Am I going to get paid? I wonder what the questions are going to be like.” So, your mind is already kind of half-full of stuff. There’s not really enough mental space, as it were, to pick up on some other things.

So, we just end up screening out a lot of change. There’s a lot of the experiments like this being done actually. One of the most fascinating ones which I did was watching a video of people passing a basketball back and forth. You had to kind of how often the people dressed in white passed the ball to each other. What you didn’t notice until you watch the video again, that somebody dressed in a gorilla costume walked right through in the middle of the basketball court during the game. You just don’t see, you just don’t notice it. It’s hard to believe you wouldn’t, but it’s not.

Vincent: It’s amazing. I mean, I’ve heard about the gorilla experiment before, and I just couldn’t believe it. Yet, it seems really clear that, in fact, people didn’t see the gorilla.

Bodhipaksa: I think one thing that happens is that we just kind of label our experience. We have this kind of crude wordless labels almost. So, the guy behind the desk is just “the guy behind the desk.” We don’t need to know anymore about the guy behind the desk. If he was somebody who we thought we might need to remember, then we might put some energy into really noticing his facial features, of how he was dressed or whatever. But, he’s just “the guy behind the desk. “So, that label suffices, it’s almost like an icon that’s there, and we just continue on our way.

I’ve tried to integrate this into my meditation teaching, because I realize that the brain has a limited capacity for bandwidth. Our short-term memory, for example, can only usually hold about 5-7 things. There’s not really that many things that we can pay attention to at one time. So, what happens when you’re sitting, meditating just following your breath, is very often that a lot of thoughts are coming up and you start paying attention to those thoughts. And I found that, if you, as it were, choke the bandwidth of your mind by just paying a lot of attention to a lot of different stimuli at the same time, then you enter a state of a kind of open, expansive awareness, where there’s basically no room for thinking anymore. You’ve taken up all of your bandwidth. It’s a bit like there’s a bandwidth hog using your wireless internet connection, and everything’s going really slowly. That’s normally a bad thing, but here what we’re talking about going slowly is the discursive thinking that’s connected with stress and anxiety and irritability and wanting things. There’s no room for that anymore, so all we do is just notice our experience.

Vincent: And this is something that is really counterintuitive to the normal way of walking around, and I wanted to talk with you about one of the main practices that you present in the book, which is the Six Element practice. Could you say a little bit about where that practice comes from, and then also it’d be fun to get into how it works and how it’s related to what we’ve been talking about.

Bodhipaksa: Sure. It’s a practice that is found in the earliest strata of Buddhist teachings–that is the Pali Canon–and it’s found in a text called the “Middle Length Sayings.” And, it is a practice of reflection on impermanence and non-self. In a way it’s kind of a non-duality practice, because what we’re doing is we take each of the elements in turn, and the elements are: the Earth element, which is everything solid, both within ourselves and outside of ourselves; the water element, which is everything liquid within ourselves and outside; the fire element, which, outside of ourselves, is represented in terms of energy, and within ourselves is represented in terms of the energy that’s involved in life or living metabolism. There’s the space element, which is the space that contains our body, and the space outside of ourselves, and there’s the consciousness element, which is a bit different.

What we do, for example, with the Earth element, is we start off by reflecting on the Earth element that constitutes the body, so you become aware of everything that’s solid within your body, and you can do that in two ways. You can do that experientially by just accessing your experience of the body right now. You can feel some solid parts of the body. Your hands are in contact with each other, for example, or your feet are in contact with the floor, or your butt is in contact with your meditation cushion, or whatever you’re sitting on.

So you can feel some of the solidity, but the practice also encourages us to use our imaginations and connect with what we know is there and is solid. So, I can’t sense my kidneys and my liver, for example, or even my bones, except where they’re making contact with something, but I become aware that all of that solid matter is there.

You reflect on the solid matter outside of yourself, so having reflected on solid matter that constitutes you, you reflect on the solid matter that constitutes what you normally think of as being “other.” So you’re calling to mind all the solid matter in the outside world–the Earth itself, all the rocks, the soil, the plants, buildings, other beings, etc.

And then you’re reflecting that these two things are not separate. So, you can reflect, for example, on how everything that is within you, everything that is solid within you, has come from the outside world, and we don’t tend to think of this very much. We’re vaguely aware of the fact that we’re eating, and that’s solid matter, and it’s going to be incorporated into the body, but when you start thinking about it, there’s not a single molecule in your body that is completely self-generated. There’s not a single atom which you’ve created. It all comes from outside. Even when you were born–or before you were born–when you were conceived, you started off as being a cell from your father, sperm, a cell from your mother, an egg. They weren’t you; that was part of your mother, part of your father. They fuse. They start growing by absorbing the elements from the outside world, and all of that is borrowed, and that goes on through your entire life. Everything is borrowed.

And you reflect on how it’s all moving back, as well. So having reflected on how the Earth element has all come from outside of you, you reflect on how the Earth element is in a continual process of returning. So, right now, I’m exhaling carbon dioxide, which was carbohydrates, which had been part of plants in the outside world, so it’s all flowing through. I took a dump this morning, so that’s part of the Earth element returning. And losing skin cells–as I’m sitting here, hairs are falling out. So there’s all this Earth element returning to the outside world. And of course, when you die, ultimately, you give all of it back.

So, you reflect this way for the Earth element, for everything solid, for the water element, everything, liquid. I think I forgot to mention gas in the previous explanation. But the fire element, which is the energy taken from the outside world, and the air element, which I forgot to mention earlier, and is everything gaseous within the body and outside. And, you start to sense yourself not as being a thing, not as something separate and static, but you start to experience your body as being something in a process of flow. It’s like a stretch of river, which is not a thing. It’s an event, as it were. Things are flowing through.

You reflect on the space element, which in a way, it’s your appearance, which is continually changing. You reflect on the fact that all of these physical elements that we’ve been talking about have been passing through you, but this space that is you isn’t ultimately you either. It’s continually changing, and it’s also borrowed from the outside world. You don’t have any space that is just you.

So, what we’re doing is we’re looking at what we normally identify with as being ourselves, and realizing that there’s no substance there, there’s certainly nothing separate. There is nothing static.

I haven’t mentioned the consciousness element yet. That is the other thing that we identify with. We identify with our bodies, and we identify with our minds, and when we look at the consciousness element, all we see is a continuous process of change. There are various experiences coming into being, existing for a short time, and passing away again. There’s physical sensations of heat, pressure, etc. There are thoughts, feelings, emotions. They’re all arising and passing away again, so you begin to sense that, too, as being a river. And if none of these experiences that you’re having are, as it were, stuck inside you–if you’re not attached to them–if they’re not attached to you in some way, then in what sense are they actually you? You start to experience this sense of almost existential vertigo. All the attachments that you have to thinking about you are a certain way begin to get let go of.

Vincent: It sounds like, in some ways, the practice you’re describing is very similar to many types of practices, and yet there’s a difference that I’m also noticing. I’ve never done a practice quite like what you’re describing. And I was wondering, because it seems like you’re the type of person that can sort of take a step back from their own approach, if you could maybe say a little bit about what you found the strengths of this approach to be when compared to, maybe, other approaches and techniques, and also if you’ve noticed any weaknesses or limitations.

Bodhipaksa: Ok. In terms of strengths, I think it’s a very all-around practice. What I described in terms of the consciousness element, for example, is very similar to Vipassana meditation–traditional, classic insight meditation. In fact, it is traditional, classic insight meditation. But you’re also reflecting on your body, which is quite a powerful and grounded thing to do. You’re not just reflecting on your experience of sensations within the body, as you would tend to do with insight meditation, but you’re reflecting on your body as you are attached to it in your day-to-day experience.

So, I think it’s got that strength. It’s something that you can reflect on outside of meditation, of course, as well. When you’re eating, when you’re going to the bathroom, when you’re lifting the plug of hairs out of the shower and flushing it down the toilet, you can be aware of all these ramifications of what you are as a process. It does seem to be quite powerful.

On the other hand, well, that power can be unsettling for some people. When I was taught the practice, I was taught that it’s very important to do it in a metta-ful state–that is a state of mind imbued with loving-kindness. If you tried to, as it were, dismantle your sense of self when you’re not in a very positive state of mind, or if you experience self-hatred, for example, then I think that could lead to quite a disturbing and jarring experience. So it’s not a complete practice. I think it has to be combined with loving kindness practice, in particular. I’d say if it’s got a weakness, that’s it, but, in a way, it’s not really a weakness. It’s just how it is.

Vincent: Interesting. And one thing I was noticing is that there seems to be a real recognition just built in to the way that the practice is described–of this interdependence of things, that maybe is not as obvious in, for instance, some of the techniques that I’ve practiced.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. It’s definitely a practice of reflecting on interconnectedness. It can lead to very strong experiences of the dissolving of the sense of self and other.

Vincent: Interesting. And like you’re saying, sometimes that dissolving can also be disturbing, and so there’s a way in which it’s got to be balanced by something.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. Yeah. If you have that balance, though, if you have that sense of loving kindness so that it’s not so threatening anymore–and I have had experiences of feeling quite threatened during the practice–but if you do have that sense of confidence that comes from loving kindness, then that dissolving of the boundaries between yourself and others can be a really powerful experience. The practice leads, in fact, not to the dhyana that you often hear talked about, but to what’s often, in my opinion, erroneously called the arupa jhanas, the formless dhyanas, or higher dhyanas, which begin with a sense of the breakdown between the sense of self and other.

Vincent: Yeah, it’s interesting just the way you’re describing space and consciousness. Those are in the higher dhyanas or jhanas.

Bodhipaksa: They’re the first two.

Vincent: Yeah, they’re the first two.

Bodhipaksa: Yeah. So, the practice segues into the experience of the so-called arupa jhanas. I say that “the so-called” higher dhyanas, because it turns out you don’t have to go through the dhyanas, the four dhyanas, in order to get to the so-called higher dhyanas, and in the Pali Canon, they’re never called dhyanas; they’re called ayatanas, spheres. So I think there’s a bit of mythology built up that you have to go through the dhyanas in other to get to these so-called higher dhyanas. You can do it that way, but you don’t have to.

Vincent: Cool, I love the Buddhist Geekiness coming through right now. It’s good.

Bodhipaksa: Me too.

Vincent: [Laughs] So, to take it even to, maybe, a next level of geekiness, there was one thing that I was struck by as I was reading “Living as a River,” and that was that in some ways, when I heard you talking about non-self or writing about impermanence, there’s a way it struck me that it could be interpreted as you describing what I want to call “ontological realities”–that in some way, impermanence and not-self are true in some ultimate sense. And, as you know, this is one of the big critiques that the Madhyamaka school, and particularly Nagarjuna, were making of earlier strata teachings. And I wondered if you could say a little bit about that, because it’s something that isn’t really entirely clear in reading the book itself.

Bodhipaksa: Well, I would have hoped it was clearer than it might actually be, so maybe that’s something for the 2nd edition. No, I don’t think of impermanence and insubstantiality in a way as being ontological realities. I don’t think the Buddha really talked in terms of ontological realities at all. I think he talked about how our experience is, and I think what he was saying was that within our experience–what he called “The All”–that is, the sum totality of everything that is possible for us to experience. Within our experience, everything is changing all the time, and that there’s nothing within our experience that is permanent enough or stable enough to be able to be the basis of a separate and defined self.

So, I don’t think the Buddha really was that interested in external reality. I mean, obviously he was, in a sense; he lived in the world, but he wasn’t a scientist in the sense that he was making a statement that all fundamental particles are impermanent, for example. Even if he was aware of that concept, that wasn’t his interest. His interest was in suffering and how to get rid of suffering, and in order to address that, you have to look at the nature of our experience.

When the Buddha said everything is impermanent, I don’t think he was actually talking in terms of the world–the physical world that we inhabit. It so happens that it seems that pretty much everything does change. I believe some fundamental particles–perhaps neutrons or something–don’t, in a way, change; they don’t mutate into other particles; they don’t decay, but of course it all was moving around and interacting with other things, so there’s some kind of change there. But I don’t think that’s what the Buddha was interested in.

The Madhyamaka got–well, the Mahayana, more broadly–got kind of caught up in the same kind of trap. I mean, they ended up having to. They tended to reify Sunyata, emptiness. It tended to be seen as being a thing, and so you have Mahayana teachers who are having to say, “Well, emptiness itself is empty.” You got to keep reminding people of this, because it’s just a natural tendency to see impermanence as being a thing, and it’s not a thing, it’s just a description of the way things change. Sunyata isn’t a thing, it’s just a description of how our experiences and how our experience doesn’t constitute anything that can be taken to be an existent, permanent, separate self.

Vincent: Cool. And I guess to sort of finish up or wrap up this conversation, which has been really fascinating, I wanted to talk about, the penultimate goal in some ways, of Buddhist practice, which is enlightenment. And, one of the last chapters in your book is called Entering the Stream. You talk about stream-entry, or what you call entry-level enlightenment.

This is something that I know some teachers do talk about. And then, a lot of teaches seem to shy away from this in some way and there’s maybe not a lot of awareness of this concept, hich is actually, if you look back in the early strata like you were mentioning the Pali Canon. This stream-entry comes up all the time. So many suttas have this as a mention of, this person got stream-entry listening to the Buddha or, or doing this practice, etc. So could you say a little about stream-entry, and also, if you’ve noticed that this is something that people may shy away from in their teachings?

Bodhipaksa: Yeah I’ve noticed that there are some teachers who definitely make a point of talking about enlightenment and that enlightenment is why we’re doing practice in the first place. But when the average person comes along to a Dharma Center, usually their motivated by, something along the lines of, their life sucks. Or there’s some element of their life that sucks. There’s stress and there’s conflict with other people. And they just want to be a bit happier. So they come along and they find that there’s these tools which help them to become a bit happier, at least. I mean the tools can do a lot more than that. But, meditating makes you happier. When you’re, experiencing a bit more loving kindness, you’re a bit happier. When you learn to let go of things, you’re a bit happier. When you’re paying more attention to your experience and experiencing the freedom that comes with that, you’re a bit happier. And people I think get kind of stuck in that. It’s like, “Oh, this is okay. Yeah I’ll just keep doing my dharma practice and I’ll just keep getting a bit happier.” Buy they’re not thinking in terms of making some kind of big breakthrough in the way that they see the world. There’s this incremental change that they’re bringing about in their mental state. But they’re, not fundamentally challenging the way that they see the world.

And I think even teachers can get caught up in that. I have, in the past. Several years ago I was talking with some fellow practitioners and teachers. And saying, “You know I realize I don’t think about enlightenment very much. [laughing] Do you guys think about it? Do you talk about it? Do you teach about it?” And everyone kind of sat there and realized, “Well actually we, we don’t.”

So I started making it a point, and this was probably about seven or eight years ago, I started making a point of being more up front about why we were doing dharma practice in the first place. And, thinking more in terms of aiming at stream-entry. And, in a way I had always thought about that. It was in the back of my mind. But it wasn’t so much a kind of, conscience goal. More something I assumed would just happen at some time.

Vincent: Interesting. And I’m wondering, do you think to some degree with teachers that there’s a way in which the path has become so integrated into their own lives and so normal in a certain sense, that it becomes, weird to think about those sort of things? Or not natural in some way, to think about that in terms of their own experience, but it might be, in some ways, really important for someone who’s just starting on the path? Do you think that’s a possible explanation for why you and those teachers weren’t sort of talking about it that much?

Bodhipaksa: I’m not really sure. I think there’s a number of things going on. One is that we have a tendency, I think because of, a lack of self worth, and because of the nature of our delusions, whereby we think we have separate and permanent selves. We tend to think that spiritual goals are very far away. My own teacher, the founder of the Western Buddhist Order, Sangharakshita, he’s talked about stream-entry a lot. Which is why I said it’s always been in the back of my mind, at the very least. And, he said stream-entry is attainable in this lifetime. If you do a good few years of solid, dharma practice, you can take it for granted that you’ll, at some point, reach stream-entry. And so stream-entry becomes the goal. So there’s a lot of people in the Triratna Buddhist Order, who talk about stream-entry and think about it, as the next goal. But it becomes kind of, elevated. In the same way that the Buddha’s attainment has become kind of elevated, it’s almost out of our reach.

The Mahayana did this a lot. They took the goal of the Buddha, of Buddhahood, and said, “You’ve got to practice for innumerable lifetimes. You’re going have to practice for hundreds of thousands of lifetimes in order to get enlightened. And the Buddha has all these amazing cosmic qualities and he can create entire universes and all this kind of thing.” The Buddha seems so far away. He’s remote. Totally remote.

And people start doing something similar with stream-entry. They start thinking of stream-entry as being, well it’s basically enlightenment isn’t it? And if you’re enlightened you’re basically perfect. So somebody who’s a stream-enterer is going be completely sorted. And it becomes another attainable goal. It’s a goal that’s been put in front of us and we’ve been told, “You can do this.” And we say “no, I don’t think so, not now, maybe sometime in the future.” That to me I think is the main reason that stream-entry gets pushed off is because well, we don’t think that we’re worthy, we think that there’s something inside of us that’s fundamentally flawed that’s going stop us from getting there, and so we make it unattainable.

Vincent: Interesting. And could you talk a little bit about why entering the stream is important; maybe kind of what it is, if it’s something that you can talk about.

Bodhipaksa: Okay. Why it’s important. Well, in the terms that the Pali Cannon uses, that is I think we can assume are the terms the Buddha used, there are a number of fetters holding us back. These are delusions and attachments that stand between us and full enlightenment, full Buddhahood. And if we break the first three of those we’re what’s called a stream enterer–we break the fetter of having a fixed and separate self, we break the fetter of doubt, and we break the fetter of dependence upon practices or inappropriate dependence on practices.

And all three of those are broken more or less simultaneously. I believe the teaching is they’re broken simultaneously, but I don’t know if you necessarily can experience them simultaneously. I think they’ll tend to be experienced in consecutive terms. And there’s just a breaking of a fundamental core delusion that there is something a separate and fixed about you. And that’s a liberating experience. When that core delusion dissipates and you realize everything that constitutes your experience is just changing all the time, and there is nothing else. There’s no hidden baggage that’s holding you back. Obviously, there’s the psychological baggage that holds us back and we have to transform, and dig up, and work with, and transform, but there’s nothing fundamentally holding you back from enlightenment. There’s an enormous sense of confidence, which emerges, which replaces the doubt.

Another thing that happens, which is related to the third fetter, is that you realize this is all actually very simple. When we’re caught up in the third fetter of inappropriate dependence upon religious practices, that tends to get caught up with our lack of self confidence. So, we think well, we need some special teaching, we need some special teacher in order to get enlightenment. We need to be doing something else from what we’re doing, so we perhaps wander restlessly from practice to practice, or we do our daily practice in a kind of semi-despondent way because we know it’s not really taking us all the way yet, and there’s an element of doubt involved in that.

But really what the Buddha was saying was something really simple. Look at your experience, right now. It’s changing all the time. It’s continually changing. All you have to do is look, and you’ll see that it’s continually changing all the time. There is no basis for a fixed, separate, permanent self.

And what tends to happen of course, with practices is that we talk about them, and think about them, and we sometimes over think things. An image I sometimes find myself using, a slightly absurd one, is that stream-entry is a bit like the Buddha having said, “Look, there’s a big pink elephant floating in the sky. Look at it.” And everyone says, “Wow, the Buddha says there’s a big pink elephant floating in the sky, I wonder what this elephant is like? I wonder how big this elephant is?” And then you get all the schools of thought about the big pink elephant, about whether it’s closer to being white, or closer to being red, etc., etc. So we talk about practice, we talk about impermanence. Ayya Khema made the point we sometimes talk about impermanence so much that we forget to look and see that every experience that we’re having right now in this moment is impermanence.

Yeah, it’s actually really simple in the end. Just look, just see, notice that everything is changing all the time. At some point you’ll get it. At some point it’s going to click and you’re going realize that yeah, everything I’m experiencing is completely impermanent. There’s no basis for a fixed separate me.

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