spiritual community

When the Buddha quit

Buddha in the style of Shepard Fairey's Obama Hope poster

There’s a discourse in the Buddhist scriptures that’s long intrigued me, and which I think can be interpreted as giving an account of a time that the Buddha quit as head of the monastic community. The discourse itself seems confused and contradictory, which suggests to me that the monks who passed it on weren’t sure how to handle it, and may have tried to tone down what actually happened. On the other hand maybe I’m reading too much into this particular sutta. You can make up your own mind.

The discourse in question is the Cātumā Sutta (Majjhima Nikāya, 67). It tells of a time that the Buddha was on the outskirts of a town called Cātumā, when a large band of monks (500, which just means “a large number’) arrive, creating a great disturbance. The monks are headed by the Buddha’s two main disciples, Sāriputta and Moggallāna.

There were a few things that the Buddha seems to have particularly disliked, and one of them was noisy monks. After telling the monks that they are behaving like a bunch of raucous fishermen hauling in a catch, he dismisses them, saying that he doesn’t want them near him.

Some householders appeal to the Buddha, saying that these monks, some of whom were newly ordained, need his guidance. But the way they phrase their request suggests that the Buddha was being called back to guide the entire monastic Sangha, not just this group of 500:

Let the Blessed One delight in the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One welcome the Sangha of the Bhikkhus … Let the Blessed One help the Sangha of the Bhikkhus as he used to help it in the past.

There’s no mention of the 500 monks here, but of “the Sangha of the Bhikkhus.” And the Buddha is being asked to help them as he has in the past (odd if this is a group that’s just arrived). This isn’t conclusive, but it makes me think that the Buddha is being asked to walk back a decision a bit more drastic than merely “firing” one group of monks.

Adding to the mystery, the householders now receive backup, in the form of Brahmā Sahampati. This god is the same being who originally entreated the Buddha to teach after his Enlightenment, for the benefit of the many beings who had the potential for awakening. Now, here he is again, but this time intervening on behalf of just one group of monks. Again, there’s nothing conclusive here, but the first time we meet Brahma he’s stepping in for the benefit of all beings. Perhaps originally he was doing the same here.

The Buddha is persuaded. Or, as the sutta puts it, his “confidence is restored.” The monks are called back.

See also:

The Buddha first talks to Sāriputta, and asks him what he had had thought when the Buddha had “fired” the monks. He replied that he assumed that the Buddha would “abide inactive, devoted to pleasant abiding here and now.” And he’d thought he’d do the same. Basically, Sāriputta was glad that of the opportunity just to get on with his practice.

The assumption that the Buddha would “abide inactive” is an odd one if the sutta is to be read literally. Since only 500 monks out of (presumably) thousands have been dismissed, surely the Buddha would have plenty to keep him busy! Sāriputta too, as a chief disciple, would still have plenty of teaching and organizing to attend to. He was, after all, the “General of the Dharma” (Dhammasenāpati).

After reproaching Sāriputta for this selfish train of thought, the Buddha asks Moggallāna what his own thoughts had been. He replies that he’d too thought that the Buddha would “abide inactive”, but that he and Sāriputta would “lead the Sangha of Bhikkhus.” The Buddha approves of this.

This is odd as well. If the 500 monks are no longer followers of the Buddha, what sense does it make that Moggallāna decides he’s going to lead them? Is he going to have his own Order of Bhikkhus, independent of the mainstream monastic Sangha? Are these 500 monks now no longer the Buddha’s disciples but still somehow with the Sangha as disciples of Sāriputta and Moggallāna? Why would the Buddha approve of such a relationship? If your boss tells you that your underling has been fired, then it makes no sense for you to say you’ll keep managing him, or for your boss to approve of you so doing.

Again, I think this suggests that the Buddha had quit, quite literally, “the Sangha of Bhikkhus”—not the 500 noisy monks, but the whole shebang. Only then it would make sense for both Sāriputta and Moggallāna to assume that the Buddha would “abide inactive,” for Sāriputta to think that he’d do likewise, and for Moggallāna to assume that he (and Sāriputta) would step in as head of “the Sangha of Bhikkhus.”

The rest of the sutta is an apparently unrelated teaching about various temptations and dangers that Bhikkhus faced, which might tempt them to return to the household life. It has nothing to do with monks being noisy.

I can’t understand this sutta to be saying anything other than “the Buddha quit.” I can well imagine that this would be a difficult message for the reciters (and, later, scribes) who passed on the teachings to take on board. And so I suspect that what had actually taken place was toned down, so that it wasn’t the entire Sangha that was dismissed, but just 500 monks.

There’s a tendency to assume that the Buddha was perfect, and that therefore the kind of scenario I’m proposing couldn’t possibly happen. But the Buddha was far more human than some assume. How human it was for the Buddha, in his later years, to say “I spit on old age.” How human it was that the Buddha experienced self-doubt, in the form of a taunting Māra, at various times in his life, including when he was confined to bed and wasn’t able to teach or to be of use to his disciples. How human it was that the Buddha seemed to find noise physically jarring, as in this sutta, or that he got so annoyed by being misquoted.

I actually feel closer to the Buddha knowing that he was a vulnerable human being. I have respect for him, knowing that he faced, and worked with, challenges and difficulties. I take the fact of his Enlightenment to mean not that he was perfect and free from doubt and irritability, but that he was a big enough being always to overcome these challenges.

And I feel admiration for him, and gratitude too, thinking that he once quit and was open to being talked into resuming the headship of the Sangha.

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Mentorship and meetings

Eight Step Recovery

It has been one year since the first edition of “Eight Step Recovery” was launched, and Eight Step Recovery meetings have begun to spring up. I’ve just spent the last month in India talking about 12 step programs, and how the only requirement to attend them is the desire not to indulge in the substance or behaviour of that meeting. However for many Buddhists in India, the word God, has some negative connotations. And so it was a delight to introduce people to another meeting format that may help with their recovery.

Some of you who read my blog regularly will remember I posted a meeting format a few months ago, well now that I have had the opportunity to be in Eight Step Recovery Meetings daily for the past month, they have been refined.

Below we suggest a meeting format that has been tried and tested. Many people have benefited from these meetings and we hope you will too. We have suggested several types of meeting, while always including the Welcome, Meeting Guidelines, the Preamble, and reciting the five training principles in negative and positive form in call and response and the eight steps in unison. We would suggest you have the above printed out on cards – so that different people can read them out aloud.

Decide which meeting format will work for you. We also include suggestions of how to mentor people through the eight step model.

MEETING FORMAT

Welcome

Welcome my name is …….. and I will lead the 3 minute breathing space (AGE) this evening:
Become Aware of your body… Aware of sensation in the body… Aware of thoughts… Aware of emotions…
Gather your breath on the upper lip – in the abdomen – and let the contact of the breath calm your thoughts…
Expand the breath throughout the whole body. Let me hear everyone take a deep breath and expand it throughout the body.

I would like to remind all of us of our suggested meeting guidelines:

  • If there is more than one person there are enough people for a meeting.
  • The only requirement to attend this meeting is the desire to live your life by the five precepts, or training principles to train the mind.
  • Please respect people’s personal sharing – let what you hear stay here.
  • Be kind to yourself, and in turn be kind to others.
  • Enjoy your recovery.

We invite you to introduce yourself – and why you are here this evening. Please take one minute maximum – thank you. It is also okay for you not to say anything too.
After introductions, ask if there are any newcomers, and please welcome them.

Will somebody please read the preamble?

Preamble

This Eight Steps meeting explores recovery through the lens of the Buddhist teachings, and Buddhism through the lens of recovery. (If you are attending a 12 step meeting, this can be your expression of your 11th step and if you are not in a 12 step program, it can be another way to approach your recovery.) This is an extra meeting to compliment your recovery whatever that looks like.

For the next 1 and half hours or 2 hours we are temporarily going for refuge to the three jewels. What we mean by that, is as best we can we are placing the Buddha (not the person, but what he attained), the dharma (the  teachings of the Buddha) and the sangha (the spiritual community, which is us) at the centre of our thoughts. Those of us in recovery know too well that our addiction has often been at the centre of our thoughts.
So we begin with our moral inventory. (If a 12 step person is leading, you can say, just as in step three we turn our life and our will over to a god of our understanding, we are turning our life over temporarily to these three jewels.)

If you are Buddhist practitioner then please do the Pali first and let people know if it feels strange they can just listen. If you are not a Buddhist practitioner then please just recite the English as noted below.

Always do the negatives and positives as couplets in English, as it is valuable to reflect on what we are moving away from as well as what we are moving towards.

  1. I undertake to abstain from harming life – with deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  2. I undertake to abstain from taking the not given – with deeds of loving kindness I purify my body.
  3. I undertake to abstain from sexual misconduct – with open handed generosity I purify my body.
  4. I undertake to abstain from false speech – with truthful communication I purify my speech.
  5. I undertake to abstain from taking intoxicants – with mindfulness clear and radiant I purify my mind.

We will now say the Eight Steps together

Step One: Accepting that this human life will bring suffering.
Step Two: Seeing how we create extra suffering in our lives.
Step Three: Recognizing impermanence shows us that our suffering can end.
Step Four: Being willing to step onto the path of recovery, and discover freedom.
Step Five: Transforming our speech, actions, and livelihood.
Step Six: Placing positive values at the center of our lives.
Step Seven: Making every effort to stay on the path of recovery.
Step Eight: Helping others to share the benefits I have gained.

Here are several formats that can take place after the precepts and steps have been recited.
Format 1 (if you only have an hour – or you have a lot of people – we suggest you work through the steps weekly in the following way).

This evening we will focus on Step One: Accepting that this human life will bring suffering.
What does it mean for you to accept that this human life will bring about suffering, in the context of your dis-ease?

This evening we will focus on Step Two: Seeing how we create extra suffering in our lives.
How do I create extra suffering in my life?

This evening we will focus on Step Three: Recognizing impermanence shows us that our suffering can end.
What do I need to let go of in my life today?

This evening we will focus on Step Four: Being willing to step onto the path of recovery, and discover freedom.
How willing am I to step onto the path of recovery today? or What is one aspect of freedom I have discovered since being on the path of recovery?

This evening we will focus on Step Five: Transforming our speech, actions, and livelihood.
How can I begin transforming or continue to transform my speech, or actions, or livelihood? Just choose one to focus on.

This evening we will focus on Step Six: Placing positive values at the center of our lives.
What are some of the things that tend to occupy my thoughts ? What is the impact of having these thoughts at the center of my life?

This evening we will focus on Step Seven: Making every effort to stay on the path of recovery.
How can I make more effort to stay on the path of recovery?

This evening we will focus on Step Eight: Helping others to share the benefits I have gained.
What could I do this week to help share the benefits I have gained?

Format 2 – for longer meetings of 90 minutes to two hours.

For the next few weeks we will be exploring Step One. We will discuss every exercise, one exercise a week, and when a meditation or reflection comes up, we do the practice and discuss it after. We will work through each step in this way, until we get to the end of the book, and then begin again.

Format 3 – can be done in the shorter meeting and the longer meeting.

Format 4 – Book Study meeting:

Participants begin from the beginning of the book. They read a section for 15 to 20 minutes, and then discuss the text. When a reflection or meditation comes up, either listen to it from the book website or somebody lead it – and then discuss. Mark the page you finish on at each meeting, so you can begin from the correct page at the next meeting.

There are several ways of doing this. You can work through the book chronologically, beginning with the foreword, or you can ask someone to select a text that they would like to focus on. If the group is closed then it is appropriate to ask people to do reading at home and come prepared. However, there will be meetings that are open and people will drop in or not turn up every week, which is perfectly fine. Both kinds of groups can work. If it’s the latter we advise each week someone will need to read a piece of the book out, or as a group you can pass the book around and read from it for ten to fifteen minutes and then discuss the topic.

You can be creative with the formats – although every meeting needs to begin with the AGE, the welcome, the introductions, the preamble, and reciting the training principles and the Eight Steps. Some meetings you may like to introduce a speaker, by asking someone to tell their story of recovery, abstinence, sobriety and their connection to the Buddhist teachings.

ENDING THE MEETINGS

We ask the meetings are ended in the following way:

Transference of merit said in unison. We offer a couple of versions, and of course you may know other Buddhist versions of this text.

Version 1

May the merit gained
in my acting thus
go to the alleviation of the suffering
of all beings.
My personality
throughout my existences,
my possessions,
and my merit in all three ways
I give up without regard
to myself
for the benefit of all beings.
Just as the earth
and other elements
are servicable in many ways
to the infinite number of beings
inhabiting limitless space,
so may I become
that which maintains all beings
situated throughout space
so long as all have not attained
to peace.

Version 2

We come together in fellowship,learning to recognize and let go of our unskilled words, thoughts and deeds,quieting our minds through meditation and supporting each other on our path to freedom from suffering.
May the merit gained in my acting thus,go to the alleviationof the suffering of all beings.

Three minute breathing space, AGE (ask someone to lead this).

Ask for Dana (voluntary financial contribution) – nobody is paid. Dana is an act of generosity, showing an appreciation of the Buddhist Teachings. However there is no suggested fee, and nobody is turned away. There is no price to attend a meeting. And nobody should be made to feel uncomfortable if they don’t put into the pot. Just as recovery is a process, so is the act of generosity. Dana will pay for your meeting space, for materials, books, non-alcoholic drinks, and anything else you need. If you have a surplus, you might wish to give money to a participant who wants to attend a recovery retreat.

Notes on how to run meetings:

We ask that all meetings conduct abstinence of not having food, at meetings. Of course we welcome non-alcoholic beverages.
Meetings are peer led. Each group will decide on perhaps someone taking on responsibility for doing the welcome and asking people to read the preamble and lead the AGE, for a month or two. Make sure responsibility is shared.
You may want to close your meeting – this is the group’s decision. You may want to set up Eight Step Meetings for specific addictions, or more generally for substance abuse. This again is the decision of the people who set up the group.

Mentorship

The book lends itself for people to be mentored through the Eight Step Recovery. We suggest if you want to mentor someone through the book, that you have read the book and have worked through every exercise and reflection on your own or in a book study. If you take on a mentee, then it would be expected you take the mentee through every exercise and reflection, and discuss the answers. We suggest that all mentees, do the 21 meditations for recovery, which are free and available on our website. We recommend requesting that they do one every day for three weeks.
We also suggest that mentees are attending meetings. Meetings can include Eight Step Recovery, 12 step meetings or SMART recovery meetings. Additional meetings can include attending a Buddhist centre weekly, but not as an alternative while working the steps.
Here are some – questions for mentees to answer before beginning the step work:

  • Are you prepared to go to any lengths to get your recovery? If someone asks what you mean by this, then you can say are they prepared to do every
    exercise and reflection in the book. Are they prepared to give what you may suggest a go?
  • What does addiction look life in your life today?
  • What does Recovery mean to you?
  • Share your personal story of addiction. In terms of your conditioning, what you have struggled with? What are the events that have marked your addiction?

Remember there are also meditations attached to the book, so for some meetings you could choose to listen to a meditation and then discuss how the meditation was for you. There is a website listed at the back of the book where you can download all the meditations in the book for free.

Finally one breath at a time – with your recovery.

For a free sample chapter of Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings To Overcome Addiction please email: eightstepsrecovery@gmail.com

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How to make enemies

toy soldiers

I’ve been making a lot of enemies lately. People I don’t even know. A guy passes me on the street and looks a little too fashionably dressed and carefully coiffured. I pass a negative judgement (“what a poser”) and the world looks a little nastier. When cars overtake me at unnecessary speed I resent the fact that such idiocy exists and again the world has a few new enemies in it. A lady wearing expensive clothing and a fixed look of disgust on her face stares through me from the passenger seat of a car, and I feel my own face begin to crinkle in disgust. She’s one of them.

For every enemy I add, my world gets darker, more lonely, more frightening. I can feel it happening even as I am doing it. But when I step back and take a moment to consider what’s going on, I can see that the only thing happening is that I am painting the world black. I’m not making any discoveries about some outside reality – life continues all around me as before. I haven’t identified my enemies, I’ve created them.

I’m constructing my own reality and I’m doing it in an unskillful way. I’m feeding the wolf of hate (to use Rick Hanson‘s image) because some part of me believes that I am protecting myself from the things and the people I don’t like. But I’m not. Instead I’m just creating more things and people to dislike and surrounding myself with them. I feel like I’m under siege.

Yesterday, with the help of my Wildmind sangha, I started to break that siege. Yet another potential enemy approached me on the street: A young man with big shades and bigger hair, designer clothes and matching scowl.  I caught myself in the act of creating a new enemy and the phrase “Is this what I want to fill my mind with?” – suggested by a friend in the sangha – arose. Into that famous ‘gap’ between stimulus and reaction I introduced a new thought, aimed at the approaching youth – “may you be well”. I began to remember the stomach-churning pressure to fit in and look good that comes with youth, and I felt a wave of sympathy for him. The relief was instant. I can still feel it now as I write. There is more space in my experience. More warmth. More colour. The world continues to do what it always does, but I don’t have to paint it black.

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Hugging strangers

Free hugs

There’s a frightfully corny saying that you’ll find on postcards and posters for sale all over Ireland: There are no strangers, just friends you haven’t met yet. I say corny, but only because I’ve seen it so often in the context of overpriced woolen jumpers, stuffed leprechauns and tee-shirts with alcohol-related humour. The fact is, for all its corn, I think the saying contains solid gold truth.

I was walking to the supermarket the other day, in a city far away from woolen jumpers and leprechauns, and I started to pay attention to the few other pedestrians I encountered along the way. Many of the faces I saw expressed emotions that ranged from neutral to the quiet desperation that Thoreau wrote about in Walden. My own expression was probably not particularly joyful either, mind you, not because I was sad but because I was among strangers and joy is something we reserve for our friends. But the thought crossed my mind that any one of those faces could in principle be a member of the Wildmind sangha.

I don’t actually think there are any other people in my sangha living in my city, but even if there were, I wouldn’t recognize them. I haven’t met any of them, and know a few only through their profile pictures. And what would happen if I suddenly came to realize that the person I was passing on the street was a member of  that group? I’m pretty sure that our neutral expressions would transform into delight and we would greet each other like long-lost friends.

The thought crossed my mind that all of the people I encountered did belong to a group of friends – just not mine. And for every person that passed me, there was at least one long lost friend who would have embraced them in delight on seeing them. I’m not suggesting that hugging random strangers is the way to go (though I really love what the Free Hugs Campaign do). But simply keeping in mind the fact that all strangers we meet are friends to somebody, can change the way we see them as we pass them in the street on the way to the supermarket. It can release a hint of that joy we feel when we meet our friends. And I don’t know of anyone who has too much joy in their lives.

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Gratitude for the teachings and teachers (Day 75)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

So you’re here to learn something about meditation. From me, a person who enjoys sharing his experience. Perhaps you’re grateful that I do that. I’m grateful you’re here.

I learned meditation from many people, the first of whom was a man called Susiddhi, another Scot, who was teaching at the Glasgow Buddhist Centre in Scotland. And now that I think about it, I am very grateful for what he taught me, and I’m grateful to the many other teachers I learned from, who often taught each other. This process of teachings being passed on isn’t a linear process of teacher to student. Teachers are also students of each other. Often students teach their teachers. So I’m going to say “thank you” to all these teachers, including the teachers who have been my students.

Most of those people who I learned meditation from learned to meditate, originally at least, from Sangharakshita, an Englishman who went to India to become a Buddhist monk. Now I’m very grateful indeed to Sangharakshita for having gone to India, and for having explored meditation there, and for having sought out a number of teachers, some of whom were Indian, several of whom were Tibetans who had recently left their homeland in order to escape the Chinese occupation and the persecution of their religion, and one Chinese man who happened to be living in Kalimpong. And I’m grateful to all of Sangharakshita’s teachers for having passed on meditation instructions along with their other Dharma teachings. Thank you, Sangharakshita. Thank you, Dhardo Rinpoche, Yogi Chen, and all the other teachers who spent time with him.

And I’m very grateful to Sangharakshita for having returned to Britain after something like 16 years in the East, and for having set up what was at first the Western Buddhist Sangha, but which became the Western Buddhist Order, and is now the Triratna Buddhist Order, of which I’m a part.

I often wonder what my life would be like without the Dharma, and without the spiritual community of which I’m a part. I was a difficult person in my youth, and I’m not sure any of the other Buddhist organizations that were around in my young adulthood could have offered me the challenge and the friendship that I needed. We’ll never know. But when I think of all the people who helped me, even though I made it hard for them to do so, I’m very grateful indeed. There have been times I’ve choked up and been unable to talk while expressing my gratitude. Thank you to all the people who have helped me and challenged me to grow.

I often wonder what my life would be like without the Dharma, and in fact wonder if I would even have a life. I was prone to isolation and despair when I was younger. Two of my friends, one of whom was my best friend for several years, killed themselves. I think it’s possible that that might have happened to me. So I’m grateful to be here, and grateful for the Dharma that made it possible for me to be here.

And the Dharma made it not only possible for me to be here, but possible for me to live more happily, and to be a better person — easier for others to be with, and less prone to making others suffer. I’m much happier and kinder as a result of my Dharma practice.

And this Dharma, which I’ve immersed myself in, and which was made available to me because of the actions of a maverick monk from England who decided he was a Buddhist at the age of 16 and who spent 16 years living and teaching in India, goes back, of course, all the way to the Buddha himself, 2,500 years ago. How many teachers are there between the Buddha and Sangharakshita? We’ve already seen that the process of Dharma “transmission” (I use the scare quotes so that what I’m saying won’t be confused with the linear Zen idea of transmission) isn’t linear. The route back to the Buddha isn’t like a river flowing straight to the ocean, but like entwined braid of criss-crossing streams. The number of teachers between me (or Sangharakshita) and the Buddha is literally uncountable. How many people there are for me to feel gratitude for? There’s no shortage!

And there’s the Buddha himself. One of the things I most admire about him, and that I’m most grateful for, is that he refused to settle. He said he felt a “thorn in the heart,” and he didn’t settle for putting up with that. He had a comfortable life, even if he wasn’t the prince that legend makes him out to be. He didn’t settle, and went off wandering. He attained deep states of meditation with Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta, and could have settled for those spiritual accomplishments, but he didn’t. Nor did he settle for becoming a leader of either man’s group. He explored asceticism, and didn’t settle. And then he rediscovered the jhanas, and didn’t settle for those, either, although he realized that these were the path to awakening. And he didn’t settle until he’d found the thorn in his heart and plucked it out. He could have just enjoyed the rest of his days peacefully meditating, but again he didn’t settle, and spent 45 years relentlessly wandering and teaching. How fortunate for us! Or for me, anyway. I’m deeply grateful for his perseverance, and even though he’s long dead I say “Thank you,” and bow deeply. Gratitude turns naturally into puja, or devotion.

And it’s incredibly lucky that the Dharma found its way through the centuries — found its way to us. It seems that had been enlightened teachers before the Buddha, but they were pre-Iron Age, and a society living at a subsistence level couldn’t support an ongoing spiritual community. We call these previous awakened individuals Paccekabuddhas, solitary Buddhas, not because they lived alone (as people erroneously think) but because they were isolated in time, leaving no enduring legacy. In the Buddha’s own day there was once a drought so severe that people criticized the monks and nuns for begging from householders. This was potentially a lineage-killing event. We’re lucky the sangha survived this. Buddhism was in fact wiped out in India by persecution from Hindus and Muslims, and it’s only because Buddhist scriptures were transported to Sri Lanka that we have an extensive collection of records of early Buddhism. There’s much to be grateful for.

Being grateful makes me happy. And every moment in my life is an opportunity to be grateful. I should make more effort to remember that!

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness Posts here.

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Meditation for software engineers

buddha head and computer

I’ve noticed that there are a lot of technologists and software developers on the Wildmind Community and among Buddhists generally. I don’t think it’s just by chance. Coders tend to have life habits that make us susceptible to certain problems of mind, but yet may predispose us to the skill that can address these problems: meditation. I’d like to outline those problems, highlight why we might be predisposed to meditation, and make a suggestion as to how we can improve our practice.

Although software engineering is a craft – not unlike carpentry or gardening – it’s a craft where no manual labour is involved. The raw material is pure thoughtstuff and the end product is invisible. So we are obliged to live most of our working lives in the world of abstract ideas, never laying our hands on our work. Another useful way to describe software development is that it is an editorial process. We are always working on a draft, building it out and then honing it down, over and over until we have something that is fit for purpose. And then we start again for the next release. This is a creative process and for that reason it’s intense and personal. We begin to identify with the code we produce. A third characteristic of this kind of work is that we spend a great deal of time trying to solve problems – either by studying an overall solution to a customer’s needs, or by debugging our first attempts at that solution. We move from problem to problem and use the same skillset – logic, experience, concentration – to work through each one.

Let’s look again at this combination of factors: we spend much time in abstractions; the work is intense and creative but requires collaboration with other intensely creative people; and we approach the world as a series of puzzles to solve or problems to fix. This internal regime of mind can lead to problems both inside and outside the office.

Abstractions are necessary for navigating a complex world. Without the ability to generalize from particulars and build up a mental model of reality, we could not function as human beings. But for long periods of time this is all software engineers do. We begin to mistake our abstractions for reality (whatever that might be), and in fact we fall in love with those abstractions and identify with them as completely as we identify with our hard-won solutions to complex engineering problems.

Meditation can be a process by which we return to direct experience. Some kinds of sit allow us to observe our thoughts and other mental constructs as they come and go, while we guide our attention to simpler sensory experience such as sound or the tactile sensations of the breath. By experiencing this first-hand, we can rediscover the limited nature of our abstractions and so use them better. An abstraction that is no longer fit for purpose – because things have changed over time, or because it was too simplistic – is a liability in code and in life. In code, we know that we must re-shape these structures to deal with new requirements, and we know that even if this can be a painful process, we will get into ‘technical debt’ if we don’t do it. The less identified we are with the old idea, the easier we can change or discard it, the better our code will be, and the happier we can work. Outside the office, we need to let go of old abstractions and make way for new ones all the time. We can do this if we practice agile self-development: discard ideas that have outgrown their use, confront the pain of change as early as possible in the knowledge that if we don’t, we will get deeper and deeper into emotional debt.

People who don’t work in the software trade and only have TV and movies to go by have been taught to believe that nerds are solitary creatures who work alone (in basements) and usually have personal hygiene issues. Many offices have examples of this stereotype and if this is true of your office, you’ll know who those people are precisely because of the fact that they stand out as exceptions. Most software developers are of course perfectly normal and sociable – and this is just as well because any software project of any reasonable size needs a team and that team will have to embody communication and emotional skills if it is to deliver. Software development is a high-pressure team sport. When deadlines are looming (that’s what deadlines always seem to do – they loom!) tempers can become worn but the need for tight collaboration becomes even more important. It’s crucibles like these that demand of us the kind of qualities that a constant meditation practice can help to develop: steadiness, patience, the ability to not take things personally, and the capacity to deal with stress without exploding or imploding.

Finally, there is our approach to problem solving. This is a very transferable skill in the sense that we can use it outside of the workplace. There’s nothing wrong with this as long as it doesn’t become the only tool in our box. Life is not a software project, or if it is, it’s the worst-managed project in the history of engineering: The requirements are never clear from the start and in any case they change by the minute; the interfaces to other modules are completely inconsistent and come and go as they please; there are multiple clients, managers and bosses; the team itself changes every other day and nobody ever really agrees on a design. You can apply all the logic, experience and concentration you like, but you’re still just firefighting. The kind of problems that life throws at us cannot be traced and debugged. And more often than not, they can’t be solved either. They have to be accepted – even loved. Try that approach in the office! There is no issue tracking system that allows a problem resolution status of Accepted and Loved. In the similar but opposite way, what we find in our todo list outside work cannot always be set to Resolved or Reassigned. And yet we very often act on the habit of our working hours, and try to fix everything that comes our way, or pass it along as somebody else’s problem.

But if our choice of career can bring all these problematic ways of thinking, it also brings with it the basic tools we need to mitigate them, and first among this is concentration. I’ve recently heard a good metaphor for what goes on when an engineer is mentally working on a solution: we are building a house of cards. Each layer is built upon the one underneath, but in a gentle way so as not to destroy what we have carefully constructed so far. This is why interruptions are so frustrating. When somebody taps you on the shoulder when you are in the middle of house-building, the cards can come crumbling down in an instant. Sometimes it’s not another person who taps on our shoulder, but another thought. What will I have for lunch today? Why don’t I check the online news? In order to be productive, we have learned to some extent the importance of extended periods of concentration, and how to maintain them. When you walk around the average software house, the reason you see so many headphones and earbuds in place is not because engineers are anti-social. They are just defending themselves against the crazy but widespread policy of open-plan office space, with all the noise and distraction that this entails. Concentration, which is central to meditative practice, is something that we know how to access.

Another positive predisposition to Buddhist meditation that engineers may have is an openness to certain fundamental concepts that underpin it. One of these concepts is anatta, or no-self. Bodhipaksa has described this beautifully in Living Like a River and in many blog posts. One of the most helpful images he has used is that of the car with hundreds of people inside scrambling for control of the steering wheel. There is no single driver, but a decentralized – even chaotic – process of control-passing from one process to the next. This concept is deeply counter-intuitive to many people who encounter it for the first time through Buddhism. But to anyone familiar with computer architecture, it makes perfect sense.

An engineer’s tinkering curiosity will serve well when meditating. We’ve used the system of consciousness for long enough – sooner or later we’re going to want to understand how it actually works. I’ve heard Shinzen Young make an analogy between meditative concentration and the microscope, in the sense that if we learn how to concentrate we can look more deeply and in more detail into our experience. He might just as easily have used the idea of the symbolic debugger. Meditation can be the tool that permits us to understand how our minds work and follow its loops, uncovering problems in the software and allow us to refactor as we go.

So we have some factors in our favour, but I think we can take things further. There is a change we can make in our in order to transfer our professional skills onto the meditation cushion. As a group, we need to become emotionally smarter by learning the skill of self-compassion.

There is a phenomenon known as the Imposter Syndrome that is quite prevalent in Silicon Valley and other centres of engineering excellence. A lot of people walk into these cathedrals as employees and feel unworthy, less smart than their peers, and expecting to be uncovered as frauds. These are smart people who are carefully selected, but yet feel that they have slipped through by mistake and that sooner or later they will be found out. I don’t know to what degree I personally suffer from this syndrome, but I’ve seen something strange happening when I’m trying to solve a problem: I feel physically and emotionally unwell until the problem is solved. When I examine the source of that stress (using mindfulness meditation as the debugger) I find fear. The fear that I am not smart enough to fix the problem or solve the puzzle. The fear that I will be found out. This fear becomes the overriding motivation to solve the problem, but paradoxically it creates obstacles and only delays the inevitable solution. I wonder how many of my colleagues go through the same thing. This isn’t a very smart way to manage one’s emotions, inside or outside the office. A more kindly approach would serve better. If we can be more gentle with ourselves then over the long run we will end up being more productive, easier to work with, and happier.

The Wildmind Community is almost half-way through 100 days of daily meditations on Lovingkindness. If you find the above description of the life of a software engineer to be accurate, or if it at least sparks that engineer’s curiosity in you to experiment with meditation, then consider this an invitation to join us.

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Day 100: Just do it

Just do it. Neon sign.

So, today is the 100th Day of Wildmind’s Meditation Challenge. Actually, for me this is my 185th straight day of meditating, as far as I can tell. That’s one of the longest stretches of daily meditation that I’ve done in my life, but my goal, frankly, is to keep meditating daily until I’m dust.

But since the first of January this year, a bunch of us have been encouraging each other to stick to meditating daily. We “hit the ground sitting” on January 1, and this is the 100th day of the year, and of the challenge.

Here are a few lessons learned:

  • My “mantra” really seems to work for many people. “I meditate every day; it’s just what I do; it’s part of who I am.” This affirmation helps to change your self-view so that you actually see yourself as a daily meditator. You lose your tendency to waver, and to let yourself off the hook. You just do it.
  • If you missed a day it wasn’t that you’d failed the challenge; the challenge was to build a habit of sitting daily, and in any habit-building there’s going to be learning about what does and what doesn’t work, and there’s going to be times when the habit falls to pieces. The important thing is to pick up those pieces again and to get back to the task of building the habit.
  • A day is organic, not a calendar day. This turned out to be very useful: a “day” in terms of “meditating every day” is the time from when you get up until the time you go to sleep. So it’s not necessarily a day ending at midnight. There was at least one day when I didn’t manage to sit until after midnight. If I’d been counting calendar days I’d have “missed a day.” But because I sat before I went to sleep (at 12:30 AM or whenever) I kept to my commitment to sit “daily.” It’s funny how these little things help.
  • It’s easier to build a habit if you do it in company and if you check in with others. Wildmind’s online community has been a tremendous source of inspiration and support for many people. We’ve had participants who are experiencing major emotional upheavals, depression, bereavement, separations, etc., and who have kept their practice going. I’ve experienced the benefit of this myself. There have, frankly, been several days when I was exhausted and overwhelmed and couldn’t meditate until late at night. Part of the reason I did sit was because of my mantra (“I meditate every day”) but part of it was most certainly that I didn’t want to let the team down. Thanks for being there, guys!
  • Five minutes is enough (at a pinch). A lot of people end up not meditating because they don’t have time to do a forty minute sit. This is kind of crazy, really. The idea is that it’s better not to meditate than to meditate for a short period. Of course the reality is the reverse of this; any amount of meditation is better than none, and it’s much better to do a five minute sit and maintain (or build) your habit of meditating daily than to break the habit and feel bad about it. Sure, aim to sit for 40 minutes a day, or whatever you can manage, but know that it’s OK to have a five minute sit as your emergency fallback position. It’s like emergency rations, eaten not because they’re haute cuisine, but because you’re hungry and it’s all you can have.
  • Short sits add up. We all need breaks during the day. They keep us sane and make us more effective. And if you do a couple of five or ten minute sits during those breaks, they really add up. Add in a walking meditation on the way to or from work, and a more formal sit, and it can be surprising how much meditation you can fit into a day. Some days I’d manage an hour and a half, or more, and half of that time, at least, would be shorter sits squeezed into gaps during the day.
  • There will be times that you just go through the motions. I’ve had some blissful meditations over the past 100 days. I’ve had some that were purely token sits, where I was on the cushion for only five minutes and ended up falling asleep. (Once I fell asleep for nine hours during a five minute meditation.) It doesn’t matter. Just do it. You’re not sitting to have good sits, you’re sitting to transform your life. And transforming your life isn’t always going to be easy.
  • There’s no such thing as a bad meditation. Really. Well, I’ll concede that a meditation you didn’t do is a bad meditation. But every sit you do is a good sit. It’s good in that you’re building that habit. You’re keeping faith with your practice and with yourself. You’re showing determination and tenacity. And down below the threshold of awareness you’re doing things like building new neural pathways in the brain. Your brain is building those pathways, strengthening your ability to regulate your emotions and to live compassionately and mindfully, whether or not you enjoy a particular sit. So your meditation wasn’t just monkey-mind? It was a cage full of ADHD monkeys on speed, throwing poop at each other? At least you did it. You rock!

I’m sure I’ve missed some points, but perhaps other people can chip in below and share their experience.

And what’s next? We have another 100 day challenge coming up! This one is 100 Days of Lovingkindness. Stay tuned, and keep sitting.

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Discovering the four noble truths

Buddha statue

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

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

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

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

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

The Four Noble Truths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Why I call myself a Buddhist

Figure with weird bulging eyes, from a Tibetan thangka painting.

When I became a Mitra (friend) of the Triratna Buddhist Community earlier this year, I was surprised by the surprise of my non-Buddhist friends. They seemed aggrieved.

This was the general message:

‘We know you’ve benefited from meditation, and going on silent retreats. Although that’s not our idea of a holiday, we’re pleased for you. But why spoil everything by espousing a weird Eastern religion? Can’t you keep it secular? And if you have to be religious (though God knows why) can’t you stick to your own? OK, maybe not the Church. But what’s wrong with the Quakers? They sit in silence and meditate, don’t they?’

Fair enough questions. And I tried to answer them. I talked about the value of meditation, the common sense of the precepts. I talked about enjoying chanting, and finding ritual moving.

This was all true. But my explanation, even as I gave it, struck me as just so much hot air. After a lot of apologetic shrugs at dinner tables and in cafes, I realised that my decision to become a Mitra hadn’t been ‘thought through’ at all.

The commitments involved in becoming a Mitra – coming out as a Buddhist, promising to live by the precepts and choosing the Triratna Buddhist community as my spiritual home – didn’t feel like things I had ‘decided’ on.

Rather, all my experiences within the Triratna Buddhist Community had added up and reached a tipping point. I suddenly felt ‘at home’ with it all.

By experiences, I mean acts of kindness I’ve felt and witnessed. I mean the teachings of Order Members and the warmth or sometimes lacerating sharpness with which those teachings are delivered. I mean stuff I read in Buddhist books that speaks directly to personal problems I didn’t realise anyone else had. I mean the intimacy of joined voices reciting the seven-fold puja (one of the core rituals in the Triratna Buddhist Community) and the hypnotic beauty of the Heart Sutra, the poem at its core. I mean the pregnant sense of strangeness and mystery that often suffuses me when I sit in silence with myself or with others, at home, at Leeds Buddhist Centre, or on early morning meditations on retreat where you enter the shrine room in the dark, meditate while dawn gathers, and step out utterly and completely in the day.

I can no more justify or quantify this than I can tell you why somebody falls in love with one person – perhaps a person from a different background – and not another. My Mitra ceremony felt like a kind of marriage. Most marriages go through rocky patches, I know. I’m going through one even as I write this, not having meditated for a fortnight. But Buddhist practice gives me a home to come back to, a structure to see my struggles in the context of. That’s why I was happy to say ‘I do.’

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Reconnecting with silence

Morning coffee

Being fresh off a retreat this past weekend, Sunada shares what it’s like to be in silence, and why it’s a good thing. Even if we don’t go on retreats, she thinks there are many reasons why it’s important to bring more silence into our lives.

A lot of the time we chatter just to fill the air. Not that talking is a bad thing. But sometimes we talk just because we’re uncomfortable with silence. We think of silence as the absence of something. It feels, well… empty. Not normal. But silence can be very rich, if only we give it a chance to speak to us.

Silence can be very rich, if only we give it a chance to speak to us.

This past weekend, I was on a retreat where we spent several hours each day in silence. So the experience is still fresh in my mind.

Early on in a retreat, there’s always a bit of awkwardness since you’re thrown together with people you don’t know. We wonder what to say, how to start a conversation, how to make a good impression. All that inner fretting.

When we learn how to be in silence with others, we find a deeper, more essential way of connecting with another human being.

But when we’re in silence, all that becomes moot. In silence, a lot of that pomp and posturing drops away. We don’t have to grope for something to say. We can simply be with each other, smile and make friendly eye contact. Perhaps offer a helping hand. Nothing more is needed.

And how often do we really do that with another person, on retreat or otherwise? I mean consciously offer our presence without pretense or an agenda? When we learn how to be in silence with others, we find a deeper, more essential way of connecting with another human being. In that unobstructed space, we don’t need words. Actually, words can pull us away from that basic ground of real communication.

Eating with others in silence can be a lovely shared experience… We’re all holding each other with kind awareness, and everything flows smoothly.

On this retreat, we ate breakfasts together in silence. And how often do we engage all our senses when we eat? Do we stop and take in the wonderful smell of a fresh pot of coffee? Hear the mechanical ka-chunk when the toast pops up? See the colors and textures of our breakfast cereal? Feel the creaminess and the chilly temperature of the milk in our mouth? Taste the bursting tang of the raisins when we bite down on them? How often do we slow down and really savor our food?

And eating with others in silence can be a lovely shared experience. What do you think happens if I want the butter at the far end of the table? When we’re all sitting with kind awareness of each other’s presence, it’s not a problem. If I’m holding a piece of toast, and looking toward the butter, somebody always notices and does the right thing. If necessary, there might be a series of taps on a neighbor’s arm and gestures and points. But the butter comes to me. Every time. No words are needed. We’re all holding each other with kind awareness, and everything flows smoothly.

This is all about mindfulness, really. Of ourselves, each other, and our surroundings. It’s also a deep respectfulness – gratitude even – of everything we encounter. Of our food, each other’s presence, everything.

When we stop talking, we get much closer to our experience and begin to glimpse what’s REALLY happening around us. I don’t think we realize how much talking can take us away from life itself. When we spend all our time thinking and talking, we start believing that’s all there is. But what happens is we end up thinking and talking ABOUT our lives, not actually living it. Skimming the surface.

I know most of us have busy lives, full of noisy hustle and bustle. Thinking and talking are obviously necessary for getting around, getting along, and even surviving in this world. But that’s all the more reason why I think it’s so important to reconnect with silence once in a while. Silence helps me drop down into the ground of something much more real. And it creates spaciousness and clarity in my mind so I can go back to that hustly-bustly world feeling fully present and alive, with all of me intact. I can’t imagine life without it.

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