The Buddha

The first truth: There is suffering

Dead, withered rose

Everything is impermanent. What arises will cease. When Shakyamuni gained enlightenment (insight), he became a Buddha, which means he attained an awakened mind. He awoke to what enlightened beings had seen before him. He rediscovered the path onto which we can return. The Four Noble Truths are part of the teachings that connect all Buddhist traditions.

The Four Noble Truths

The First Truth, that there is suffering, may seem pessimistic at first, as if life is hopeless. That is how it once appeared for me. Although I had suffered, I would have told you once upon a time that I had a great childhood, but once I stopped going for refuge to the nightclubs, to sex and intoxicants, the suffering hit me. I spiraled into an eating disorder. I was unable to cope with the reality that there was suffering. And if there was I was going to be in control of it. But acknowledging my own suffering connected me to every other human on this planet. I was not alone. I had suffered and so had everybody else I knew.

The light bulb switched on when in the same week, I had one friend grieving the loss of her mother, and another who was grieving the loss of her dog. The latter puzzled me, why was she so distraught? As that thought arose I could see that pain was pain. Suffering was suffering, the cause of it was irrelevant.

It was insightful for me to accept that in my life, and everyone else’s that there will be suffering. And even more insightful to learn how I created more suffering. I had lived my twenties anesthetized to my suffering. I had done everything possible to avoid suffering, so I thought. But I had to learn that there was suffering, and I could make it worse or easier for my self. The first truth was plain and simple, and I could not avoid the truth. From the moment I was born I was old enough to die.

By the fact we are born, we suffer. We age, become sick, and die. This gives us pain and grief. We lament, making such statements as, She was too young to die, He wasn’t meant to die, It is so unfair that I am sick, and Why does this happen to me? Yet, as the saying goes, once we are born, we are old enough to die.

Perhaps, we are born sick at birth, with a dis-ease, and our lives are about healing this sickness. The die-ease of life can be cured by the practice of renunciation.

Yet we live our lives attached to almost everything around us, unaware that, every day, we consciously or unconsciously renounce something in our physical, mental and spiritual lives. Ironically, we never seem ready for the final renunciation of our lives. So many of us are still sick when it comes time to renounce our bodies. This is suffering. It cannot change, and it will not change; we are always changing, whether we like it or not. Thus, to die well is to die with faith, energy, awareness, wisdom, and loving kindness.

Interestingly, death in some cultures is not such a painful occurrence. Some women know that their children will die before the age of five, due to poverty and sickness. Here in the West, a child dying before their parents is considered to be a most cruel occurrence.

Modern medicine has advanced the longevity and health of the physical body, but it has stagnated the growth of the mind and heart. We have become attached to our bodies, our health and our beauty. Ironically, the only guarantees in life are that we will age, we will get sick, and we will die! We do not know when these events will strike us, but we know they will happen. Nonetheless, many of us live our lives as if we were unaware of the fact that such mundane phenomena will happen to us.

The suffering occurs when our mind and hearts are unable to accept the first truth—that there is suffering. We are unable to see that everything is impermanent, that what arises will cease. When happiness or success arises it, too, passes, and something new arises when it ceases. And when unhappiness, difficulties and tragedies arise these, too, pass and something new arises. Suffering occurs, because we want happiness to last forever. We become attached to it, and when it passes and unhappiness arises, we move into aversion and hatred, wanting to push away our unhappiness, while craving for happiness to arise again.

We refer to a sunny day as “beautiful,” thus fixing our day and, so, when it rains, it becomes an awful day and we suffer. If we could simply refer to the sun as “shining” and the clouds as “raining,” we may begin to lighten our load of suffering. By extension, we may begin to see death as merely another part of the life cycle. Thus, there is hope.

My first step in recovery was to acknowledge that this human life will bring me suffering – and suffering is okay, if I don’t move away from it. It will arise and cease.

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How to meditate lying on your side

I have a vertebra that tends to slip out of alignment. Regular visits to my chiropractor keep it in place and prevent too much discomfort, but when I’m on retreat my back sometimes gets so painful that I have to lie down to meditate.

When I first had to do this on retreat, the posture that was suggested was the Alexander semi-supine position, where you lie on the back, with the knees bent and the feet flat on the floor, and the head raised on a cushion.

This is comfortable, but it’s very hard to stay alert in this position, and I’d tend to fall asleep. Even if I didn’t fall asleep my head would feel fuzzy. Recently I’ve been experimenting with a more traditional — and badly neglected — approach.

Oddly, very few people seem to try meditating lying on their side, even though images of the Buddha doing this are abundant. This may be because the Buddha passed away while meditating on his side, and when people see statues depicting this posture they don’t think “that’s the Buddha meditating on his side” but “that’s the Buddha dying.” So the connection between this posture and meditation tends to get lost.

The Buddha didn’t lie down this way only when he was dying. He lay down like this often when he was meditating. In fact this is how he advised monks to go to sleep, so that they could be mindful right up to the last moment. So this is a meditation posture in which the Buddha happened to die, not a special posture for Buddhas to die in!

Actually the Parinirvana (death) statues and the meditation statues are different. In death, the Buddha’s hand is no longer supporting his head. In the image above you can see that the Buddha is clearly alive!

This is actually quite a comfortable posture to meditate in. I’ve used this when I’ve been sick, or when I’ve wanted to meditate at the end of the day and have felt physically exhausted. Here are some basic pointers:

  • Lie on your right side.
  • You’ll need to have some cushioning under the whole body. You can lie on a mattress or a couple of zabutons (meditation mats) laid end-to-end or even a folded blanket or two.
  • The left arm rests on top of the body.
  • The right elbow rests on the floor, with the hand supporting the head.
  • The knees should be slightly bent. Bend the upper knee a little more than the lower knee so that there isn’t undue pressure between your ankles and between your knees.
  • You’ll need to have a cushion under your right armpit or upper chest, to take some of your body’s weight.
  • The pressure of your hand on your head may cause discomfort, so you’ll probably need to move your hand from time to time. Be aware of the intension to move, and be mindful of the movements themselves.
  • If you have neck problems this posture is not recommended, but for most back problems it should be fine.
  • Someone on Facebook said that she found this a good way to meditate during her pregnancy, and that she’d meditated lying on her side for six months. But (see the comments below) it’s probably a good idea for pregnant women to lie on the left, rather than the right, side.

In this position you’re far less likely to fall asleep compared to when you lie on your back, and it’s easier to maintain a sense of mental clarity.

Is this a posture you’re tried out? Have any advice? Please feel free to leave a comment below.

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Can you have faith, but disbelieve the Buddha?

Women bowing to a Buddhist shrine

Facebook’s a funny place. You’ll post a link to a really brilliant, informative, insightful, and useful article on meditation and get no response, and then post a picture of a dog meditating and get swamped with thousands of “likes” and comments.

Recently when I idly shared a cartoon on reincarnation from In it, a young boy says to his grandfather, “Yeah, well, I didn’t believe in reincarnation when I was your age either.”

It’s funny. I liked it so much I bought a signed print from the artist.

Anyway, back to Facebook. Someone asked me what my own view on rebirth was, and I replied to the effect that on balance I’m not a believer. I made clear it’s not that I deny the possibility of rebirth — it just seems vanishingly unlikely that any kind of consciousness can exist outside of a brain, or be transferred from one brain to another. I guess you could say I’m an agnostic, and a skeptical one at that.

Also see:

But this admission suddenly created a discussion in which it was suggested that I was lacking and downplaying faith, and had “modern rationalist prejudice” against the idea of rebirth.

I don’t really want to write too much about rebirth here — I’ll save that for another post — but I would like to say something about the nature of faith (saddha in Pali, or shraddha in Sanskrit) in Buddhism, and how having it doesn’t mean that you have to believe everything the Buddha said.

I’d also like to point out that saddha (faith) has very little to do, in the Buddhist tradition, with belief in things that you can’t verify in your experience.

Early Buddhist texts tell us that when you attain the first level of spiritual awakening (stream entry) you have have unshakable faith in three things: the Buddha, his teaching (the Dhamma), and the spiritual community (the Sangha). But it’s important to examine how each of these things is described.

First, faith in the Buddha.

The disciple of the noble ones is endowed with verified confidence in the Awakened One: ‘Indeed, the Blessed One is worthy and rightly self-awakened, consummate in knowledge & conduct, well-gone, an expert with regard to the world, unexcelled as a trainer for those people fit to be tamed, the Teacher of divine & human beings, awakened, blessed.’

The faith being advocated here is confidence that the Buddha is a realized teacher: that he has attained spiritual awakening and that he’s able to guide us to that same awakening.

Now, we can’t directly verify for ourselves that the Buddha was awakened. But we can read his words, and see the effects of Buddhist practice in others, and in our own lives, and on that basis develop confidence that there was something special about him — that he had some extraordinary insight. And we can have confidence that his teaching, in principle, can led to us having the same insight. This isn’t blind faith. It’s faith rooted in experience.

Second, faith in the Dhamma (teachings, path):

He is endowed with verified confidence in the Dhamma: ‘The Dhamma is well-expounded by the Blessed One, to be seen here & now, timeless, inviting verification, pertinent, to be realized by the wise for themselves.’

I’m not going to parse this entire passage, but here, faith is confidence that the Buddha’s teaching is something that can be verified (“inviting verification … to be seen here and now … to be realized”).

The core of this confidence is recognition of the Dhamma as a verifiable process. We can’t — and this is important — verify the Dharma in its entirety right now. It has to be verified in our experience, and that takes time. Again, there’s no blind faith involved.

Third, faith in the Sangha, or spiritual community:

He is endowed with verified confidence in the Sangha: ‘The Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples who have practiced well…who have practiced straight-forwardly…who have practiced methodically…who have practiced masterfully — [the various types of awakened individuals] — they are the Sangha of the Blessed One’s disciples: worthy of gifts, worthy of hospitality, worthy of offerings, worthy of respect, the incomparable field of merit for the world.’

This seems a straightforward kind of confidence: confidence that it’s a good thing to master the teachings and become spiritually awakened, that it’s a good thing to respect and honor people who have done so. This is an aspirational attitude, and also a devotional attitude, which is very important in Buddhist practice. It’s why you’ll see Buddhists bowing in front of Buddha statues (and to each other!). We need to respect and honor goodness and wisdom when we see it. But again, there’s no blind faith involved.

So this is the kind of faith that someone who is a stream entrant has, that someone who has reached the first level of awakening has. These types of faith are called “factors of stream entry” and they’re not only seen as characteristics of the stream entrant, but as means to gain stream entry itself. It has very little — nothing, really — to do with belief in things that you can’t verify in your experience. It’s all “provisional trust” in something that you intend to, and can, verify.

I’d like to come back and talk a little about the teaching of rebirth. The scriptures are full of references to rebirth and to afterlives in heaven or hell. Although some have argued that the Buddha only taught rebirth as an accommodation to the culture he lived in, I see that in itself as a leap of faith! We know something of what the Buddha said, but we can never know what he was thinking if it was different from what he is recorded as having said. It seems reasonable to accept that the Buddha believed in rebirth.

Does that mean that I should, out of faith, believe in rebirth? I don’t think it does. For one thing, I can’t verify the existence of rebirth in my own experience. I don’t remember any previous lives, and there are always going to be questions hovering over the accounts of people who say they do. I can’t 100% verify their accounts. In fact I can’t verify their accounts at all, since all I’ve ever had to go on are other people’s accounts of their accounts.

For another thing, the Buddha said other things that we know to be incorrect — or at least he’s recorded as having said those things. There is no mountain hundreds of thousands of miles high, around which four continents are arranged. Those continents do not float on water, which in turn does not rest on air. Earthquakes therefore are not caused by the air which lies under the water which lies under the continents.

The Buddha’s area of expertise was spiritual psychology. Evidently, he didn’t know any more about geography, geology, and cosmology than any other educated Indian of his time. Although I recognize the Buddha as a sure guide to overcoming greed, hatred, and spiritual delusion, I’ve no reason to believe that he had any special insight into what happens after death.

Most importantly, though, it makes no difference to my practice to be skeptical of the reality of rebirth. I’m going to make the most of this life, whether or not I’ll be reborn. In fact, I’d argue that thinking it’s probable that this is the only life I’ll have gives me more of a sense of urgency about practicing. In fact the Buddha’s recorded as saying that his disciples can have the assurance that “if there is no fruit [in future lives] of actions rightly & wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.”

If that was good enough for the Buddha, then that’s good enough for me.

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Waking up from the hindrance of sloth and torpor

Sleepy dog

Have you noticed that half the time when you ask people how they are, they answer with “tired”? We all seem to be tired, and when we sit down to meditate we may find that we nod off or sit there in a rather dreamy and unfocused state.

This is sloth and torpor — one of the states of distraction that we call the Five Hindrances. The schema of the Five Hindrances is a diagnostic tool that, combined with traditional “antidotes,” can help us to engage creatively with our experience in order to become more joyful, calm, and focused.

Most of the specific antidotes to the hindrances that I’m learned have been shared by other practitioners, or come from the commentarial tradition, but sloth and torpor is one of the rare hindrances where detailed instructions have been preserved in the original scriptures.

In talking with one of his chief disciples, Moggallana, the Buddha gave a list of suggestions for dealing with tiredness:

“Whatever perception you have in mind when drowsiness descends on you, don’t attend to that perception, don’t pursue it. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

One of the main applications of this is that when you’re tired, you shouldn’t focus on sensations low in the body. Rather than paying attention to the movements of the abdomen, which will further encourage sleepiness, you should notice sensations that are higher up in the body, like the sensations of the breathing in the upper chest and head.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then recall to your awareness the Dhamma as you have heard & memorized it, re-examine it & ponder it over in your mind. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

Reflect on the Dhamma — the Buddhist teachings — helps to focus the mind, preventing it from drifting aimlessly. Also, the reminder of a “higher purpose” may have the effect of inspiring us and of arousing our energy and enthusiasm. You can run through a list such as the Four Noble Truths, of the Five Precepts, or the Eightfold Path, and give yourself an inner Dharma talk. You can even imagine that you’re explaining the teachings to a friend. A lot of people don’t have these lists memorized, which is a shame, and I’d highly recommend the practice of committing these teachings to memory. The effort really pays off in terms of mental clarity.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then repeat aloud in detail the Dhamma as you have heard & memorized it. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

So, this is the same advice, but here we’re talking out loud, which is further going to prevent us from falling asleep. For obvious reasons this method isn’t very appropriate when you’re meditating with others.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then pull both your earlobes and rub your limbs with your hands. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

So now we move on to physical stimulation, which gets the blood flowing, and which encourages the release of endorphins. The most useful form of stimulation I’ve found is yoga stretches — particularly when we stretch the hamstrings or hip muscles.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then get up from your seat and, after washing your eyes out with water, look around in all directions and upward to the major stars & constellations. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

Water in the face gives us a creative shock to the system.

This suggestion also takes us more in the direction of paying attention to light, which is the next piece of advice we’ll hear. Also the suggestion of raising the head to look up is significant. When we’re tired, we look down and the chin drops. When this happens, a chain reaction is kicked off: our experience is visually darker, our breathing shifts to the abdomen, and the center of our awareness typically moves downward in the body. All of these things heighten our sense of sleepiness. These effects can be noticeable with even a tiny movement downward of the chin. Raising the chin can cause mental stimulation.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then attend to the perception of light, resolve on the perception of daytime, [dwelling] by night as by day, and by day as by night. By means of an awareness thus open & unhampered, develop a brightened mind. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

If you have candles on your altar, then you can open your eyes and look at a candle. You can visualize light. You can imagine that you’re looking at a bright light. Or, if you relax and just notice your field of awareness, you may notice that some parts of your experience are brighter than others. You can pay attention to those in order to keep yourself alert. This can actually be a meditation in its own right.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then — percipient of what lies in front & behind — set a distance to meditate walking back & forth, your senses inwardly immersed, your mind not straying outwards. It’s possible that by doing this you will shake off your drowsiness.

It’s hard to fall asleep while doing walking meditation.

“But if by doing this you don’t shake off your drowsiness, then — reclining on your right side — take up the lion’s posture, one foot placed on top of the other, mindful, alert, with your mind set on getting up. As soon as you wake up, get up quickly, with the thought, ‘I won’t stay indulging in the pleasure of lying down, the pleasure of reclining, the pleasure of drowsiness.’ That is how you should train yourself.

Finally, the Buddha recognized that sometimes you just need to take a nap! The strategies above can help combat and even overcome tiredness, but in the end you’re fighting your physiology, and your physiological needs are going to triumph.

There are other techniques for dealing with the hindrance of sloth and torpor, but the Buddha’s advice to Moggallana is still very relevant and useful.

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What makes someone a Buddhist?

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

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

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

The Buddha observed people doing this all around him:

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

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

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

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

(Attadīpā viharatha attasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā, dhammadīpā dhammasaraṇā anaññasaraṇā.)

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

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

So how do we do this?

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

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

In Pali this is:

Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi
Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi
Saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi

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

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

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

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

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Making Wise Decisions

Decisions shape our lives, but psychologists say we are remarkably bad at making them. That’s true of strategic decisions, tactical decisions and decisions made in the heat of the moment. Typically, we are poor at assessing risk, understanding probabilities and anticipating consequences. We overestimate our capacity to make good decisions and underestimate the true influence of emotion, bias and assumptions in what we do.

We need to learn for ourselves how to make good decisions and that’s where the Buddha comes in. His teachings won’t help with the specifics, but they offer insights into the process of how to make a wise decision. And the starting point is clearing our minds of the approaches that lead us to make bad ones.

What not to rely on

One day the Buddha spoke with a group from the Kalama clan who were trying to decide what to believe. They told him that many religious teachers passed through their town, each declaring that he alone possessed the truth. So who on earth should the Kalamas follow? The Buddha responded by listing ten reasons why people typically believe things and said they should question the lot. (For more detail on each of the items on this list see this excellent commentary by Nagapriya).

  1. It’s what people have always believed
  2. It comes from a venerable lineage
  3. It’s what everyone is talking about
  4. It says so in an ancient scriptures
  5. Because the person telling me this seems to be an expert
  6. Because that’s what my teacher says

These are six kinds of authority that often govern how we think and act. You can easily see how they apply to religions with their priesthoods and scriptures. But similar kinds of group-think and deference apply elsehwere as well. Consider professional life, for example. Every profession has its canon of received wisdom, its authorities and experts and is affected by fashions, rumours and loyalties. The Buddha isn’t saying you should reject everything the authorities say but that you shouldn’t believe them just because they are authorities. And we will need to work hard if we are to free ourselves of their undue influence.

Unlike the Buddha, we don’t live in a traditional society where long-standing ways of thinking carry tremendous weight. Plenty of people still believe things because they are in the Bible (and, while we are at it, plenty of Tibetan Buddhists trust the words of their Lama as if they were Gospel), but that’s not the general tenor of modern life. These words have some people to see the Buddha as a proto-modern freethinker and sceptic. But his list continues with a caution against believing something on apparently more rational grounds:

  1. Because of clever arguments
  2. Because it seems to be logical
  3. Because you have worked it out
  4. Because you’ve been thinking about it for such a long time

This is more challenging for most of us, but a little reflection shows that we often make our biggest mistakes when we place undue trust in our capacity to figure things out. We are easily swayed by the seeming eloquent ideas and pride creeps in when we think we’ve worked something out for ourselves. Just think of the pride that came before the crash of 2008. Or the dotcom bubble. Or the great depression. Being clever doesn’t make you right, as a glance at academia demonstrates. Intellect alone produces a wide range of answers, which is why economists and philosophers disagree with one another. In fact, being clever can simply reinforce the delusion that you know the answers when really you don’t.

Perhaps most telling of all is the suggestion that we believe things simply because we have grown accustomed to thinking in a particular way. It’s not just generals who are always preparing to fight the last war.

Clearing the ground in this way is essential if we are to make wise decisions. At the time of the UK’s 2010 election I explored this in a Thought for the Day broadcast on BBC Radio 4 (read or listen). The competitive frenzy of an election campaign surely resembles the ferocious religious marketplace of the Buddha’s day. Our underlying political loyalties may be inherited from parents or picked up from friends, or else we may be drawn by appeals to self-interest or swayed by charisma. We understand that we need to go beyond these, but trying to figure things out rationally only gets you so far.

Making Wise Decisions

So what do you do?  I’ll be returning to this question in future posts, but we can start with what the Buddha says to the Kalamas

When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are unskillful; these qualities are blameworthy; these qualities are criticized by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to harm and to suffering’ — then you should abandon them.

He’s advising us to reflect on our experience. We need to become aware of ourselves and the forces at work in the situations we encounter. As we can’t trust authority, revelation or analysis we have to come back to our own experience. Setting aside our biases, we must reflect on what we have truly learned from our lives about what really brings benefit and happiness. That’s how we find our values. We need to look honestly and directly at the situation we confront, taking in all the evidence that presents itself and finding a response that expresses those values most fully. That’s a lot harder than just going with the pack, but the mention of ‘the wise’ is also a reminder that we can learn from others as well.

There’s a lot in this, and in future posts I will return to the Buddha’s words to explore their significance further.

Follow this Up

The Kalama Sutta is found in the Anguttara Nikaya 3:65

The Kalama Sutta (Access to Insight)

An excellent, detailed discussion of the Kalama Sutta by Nagapriya

Four Translations and a Commentary

See more writing by Vishvapani at Wise Attention




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The paradox of having goals in the moment

There’s a lot of confusion about whether goals have a place in Buddhist practice. Buddhism’s about “being in the moment.” Right? And if you’re in the moment you shouldn’t be thinking about the future. And goals are a form of clinging, and we’re not supposed to cling, and so therefore goals have no place in spiritual practice. Right? Well, not so fast.

Sure, there can be problems with goals.

Goals can be something we cling to inappropriately, and so we end up giving ourselves a hard time when we don’t meet them.

Here’s something I’ve experienced, and that I’ve seen happen with many other people:

Early on, when I’d not long learned to meditate, I had a great sit, full of contentment, even bliss. I was effortlessly focused, filled with energy, and feeling like I was radiating compassion. It was wonderful; my first real experience that meditation could bring about powerful change.

So the next time I sat down to meditate I wanted that again. Why not? I’d cracked it! I had this meditation thing sorted out. I was probably on the verge of enlightenment. And of course, what happened? Distraction, despair, and doubt! I plunged into an emotional freefall, desperately wanting to recreate that experience, and failing miserably. And as I failed, I became despondent. And the more despondent I became, the more I failed. A classic vicious cycle.

What went on here? First, the “good sit” arose because I had a non-grasping mind. The mind had let go of grasping after pleasant experiences and of trying to push away unpleasant experiences, and simply relaxed into a state of calmness, contentment, and concentration. In the second sit, there was an attitude of grasping after a particular experience. And when that experience didn’t arise (and it couldn’t, because an experience of non-grasping can’t be achieved through grasping) states such as aversion, doubt, and self-criticism arose. Grasping after the experience of a good sit stops a good sit from happening.

So that’s one problem with goals; they can be something we grasp after, and when we grasp after them they cause us to suffer.

What’s the solution to grasping after achieving goals? We don’t hold our goals as expectations, and therefore don’t beat ourselves up when we don’t achieve them. We hold our goals lightly, so that they represent the direction in which we want to move rather than something we must achieve. So we can have the goal of reproducing the “good sit,” but we’re not obsessed with the degree of progress we’re making. We accept that change is messy and unpredictable. And mostly importantly we accept that we have to start from where we are right now. We accept the present moment, because anything good that happens in our practice comes from acceptance.

Don’t assume that your happiness is going to arise automatically or magically just because you’ve set goals. Don’t beat yourself up when things don’t work out exactly as you planned. Life is unpredictable.

Apart from clinging to our goals, the worst mistake we can have is to lack goals altogether. If we don’t have any sense of direction in our spiritual practice, how are we going to find our way to enlightenment?

At its broadest, we should have the goal of becoming awakened. That’s what Buddhist practice is all about. The goal of enlightenment needs to be lightly held (see above). We shouldn’t think that just because we want to get enlightened it’s going to happen right now. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But we shouldn’t expect it.

Practically speaking, though, we’ll probably have more specific things we’re working on. We might have a goal of becoming less cranky, or of becoming more patient, or more compassionate, for example.

In my own life I have any number of goals that are directly connected with my spiritual practice. I want to be more empathetic, particularly toward my wife. I want to be more patient with my children, especially when we’re in a hurry and they do what kids often do, which is get distracted. In my meditation practice I’m working on realizing non-duality more clearly, by letting go of the unconscious habit of regarding some sensations as “self” and others as “other.” I also have the goal of setting aside more time for meditation, because with my own work, two young kids, and a wife who works irregular hours, my meditation time can get squeezed to almost zero.

Sometimes we can have the wrong goals. I’m not talking about specifically spiritual goals here, but about goals that a spiritually-oriented person might have that aren’t helpful. For example, goals can be very materialistic. That’s not a problem in itself, but frankly materialism doesn’t work very well. There’s plenty of research showing that after an initial bost in happiness when we gain material wealth, we drift back down to a “hedonic set point.” The lesson to take from this is that happiness fundamentally comes from within — from our attitudes.

But say you make a goal to change your attitudes. Say you make a goal of appreciating every day the people you love. Or appreciating yourself every day. Of expressing gratitude every day. Of spending some time each day in meditation. Of serving others at least once a week. Those activities can change your hedonic set point (which isn’t set in stone — it’s just the end result of the habits you have). If you have those kinds of goals, and make meaningful effort to achieve them, then you’ll be a happier person.

Happiness may be implicit in the thinking behind materialist goals. Explicit is “I will earn $200,000 dollars a year.” Implicit is “and doing so will make me happy.” Of course the question that arises is, will it? Probably not.

If you’re earning 10 times as must as you did when you were a grad student, or 100 times more than that summer you volunteered to work with disabled kids, are you now 10 or 100 times happier than you were then? I’m guessing not. So why do you assume that what didn’t work in the past is going to somehow start working in the future? It almost certainly won’t. In fact, you were probably really happy working with those disabled kids because you grew as a person and realized how incredibly lucky you were. So if that worked in the past, why not set it as a goal for the future? That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go back and do that precise thing, but instead reconnect with the appreciation and giving that contributed to your wellbeing. Why not set a goal of recreating those elements in your life?

And if you haven’t made happiness your explicit goal, will you even remember it once you’re in the throes of trying to make your goals happen? Again, probably not. It’s hard enough to bear goals in mind when they’re fully conscious. When they’re assumed, they’ll tend to be forgotten.

But what about the idea that if you’re “in the moment” you shouldn’t be thinking about the future? Sadly, this is a common misunderstanding of what it means to be in the present moment. Talk of “being in the present moment” is a metaphor. Given that we can’t actually be anywhere else than the present moment, how could it be otherwise? What is the metaphor referring to, if it’s not to be taken literally? Well, much of the time when we’re distracted — when we’ve lost our mindfulness — we’re thinking about the past or future. We’re worrying, regretting, feeling angry, longing after things we think will make us happy. And crucially, we’re not aware that this is what we’re doing. What’s going on in the present moment is that we’re absorbed in unhelpful forms of thinking, and we’re not aware of that present-moment activity. Saying that we’re not in the present moment means just that we’re not aware of what we’re doing in the present moment.

It is perfectly possible to think of the past or future mindfully — that is, we’re aware we’re thinking about past events or events that might become. We’re not captive to those thoughts, and if they start to give rise to grasping or aversion we can notice this and take corrective action. That’s something we aren’t able to do when we’re distracted.

The Buddha often encouraged people to think mindfully about the past or future. He asked us to reflect on old age, sickness, and other forms of suffering the future will bring, for example, in order that we can motivate ourselves to practice now.

He also asks us over and over to note how experiences have passed away, so that we can appreciate impermanence and learn to let go of our grasping. There is no way to learn without contemplating the past.

The Buddha didn’t teach anything that opposed, in principle, having goals as part of our spiritual path. In fact the Buddha talked over and over about the goals of the spiritual path, and points out that we even have to have enthusiasm for attaining our goals.

We just need to make sure that we have appropriate goals, and that we don’t cling to them. Without goals, there is no spiritual growth.

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“Pocket Peace: Practices for Enlightened Living,” by Allan Lokos

Pocket Peace, by Allan Lokos

In Pocket Peace, Allan Lokos, founder and guiding teacher of the Community Meditation Center located on New York City’s upper west side, offers some practical advice for those of us who are seeking to create more balance in our lives.

It’s no newsflash that living in modern times can be a challenge to the development of our spiritual selves. The truth of the matter, however, is that there have always been daunting challenges to developing a strong spiritual practice. Early Buddhists recognized this by creating the “Paramis,” or “Perfection Practices.” In this book, Lokos re-investigates the Buddhist “Paramis” and builds on them by offering effective “pocket practices” that we can use to better ourselves and have a greater understanding of the world around us.

Title: Pocket Peace: Practices for Enlightened Living
Author: Allan Lokos
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-1585-42781-9
Available from: and

I began reading this book during a transitional moment in my life and found it to be a welcome source of wisdom and re-assurance. When the book arrived in the mail, I was in the process of moving into a different apartment, had just gone through a difficult break-up, and was transitioning from seven months of joblessness into a full-time kitchen job. I found Lokos’ third chapter, entitled, “Relinquishing” to be timely medicine as I began a new life in a new home.

In Chapter 1, “Generosity,” Lokos reminds us that the Buddha placed generosity at the top of a list of six “virtuous practice that lead the way to Enlightenment.” Here is Lokos’ suggested practice for cultivating generosity in our daily lives: “For one week carry at least five dollar bills with you wherever you go and do not walk past anyone who is asking for help.” I liked this chapter because Lokos encourages the reader to develop their own idea about what generosity is, and in particular, leads us to re-examine our notions of morality, and whether the culturally-accepted version of morality is in alignment with our own experiences.

Lokos gently reminds us that “We need never be bound by the limitations of our previous or current thinking, nor are we ever locked into being the person that we used to be, or think we are” (p. 60). An existing understanding of Buddhism and Buddhist practice is not a prerequisite for the enjoyment of this book. For the uninitiated, it can be a fascinating glimpse of Buddhism in practice in modern day NYC, and offer some practical suggestions for being a better person without “taking vows.” For those whom already practice Buddhism in their everyday lives, this book can be a pleasant re-introduction to the “Paramis.”

In Lokos’ own words, “these practices are intended to help us become more aware of our thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and motivations, and to see things as they really are, not as they appear to be” (foreword, p. 22). This is a well-written book by an experienced practitioner, teacher, and author. It does not talk down to the reader, rather, encourages them to walk a little taller; to think a little clearer.

Sprinkled with haiku and encapsulated by delightful cover art, and a faux antique-style book-binding, this text should make a welcome addition to any bibliophile’s collection. It even comes with a little pocket-sized card with some of the practices from the book which the reader can carry with them and refer to throughout the day.

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Thousands greet giant Jade Buddha

War, oil spills, earthquakes, tornadoes, disease and nuclear proliferation are the realities of our world today.

Peace and tranquillity are what we long for, but those qualities are elusive and rare in our lives. So when the opportunity presents itself to get closer to that state, many take it, which is why more than 4,000 people from across Western Canada and the United States gathered Sunday in the country, 45 kilometres north of Edmonton.

They had come to see the Jade Buddha of Universal Peace, which is supposed to bring inner peace and happiness to those who see it. How could it not, under…

Read the rest of this article…

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Woman wants Buddha statues banned from nursing home

I have sympathy for the Christian woman who is protesting the decorative Buddha statues that are being used in her father’s nursing home.

If I was staying in a non-religious nursing home, I would not be comfortable being surrounded by crucifixes, or statues of Christ or the Virgin Mary. If it was a religious nursing home, then fine, but it seems inappropriate to have religious displays used in non-religious settings.

The general manager, Mr. Adey, said “She’s confusing decorative Asian items with a religious message.” For Buddhists, Buddha statues are not “decorative Asian items” but are symbols of spiritual awakening, and reminders of the historical Buddha, just as for Christians, statues of Christ are symbols reminding them of God and his son’s sacrifice. Arguably, using Buddha images as “decorative Asian items” is a misuse of religious imagery. The topic of Buddhist ideas or imagery in the marketing or production of (usually non-Buddhist) services and consumables is one that Rod Meade Sperry takes up in his well-known “Dharma-burger” site.

Not having seen pictures of the Buddha statues, however, there’s one related matter I’d like to comment on: a lot of what people think are “Buddha statues” are actually statues of Hotei — those “fat-bellied Buddhas” aren’t actually Buddhas at all! Hotei is more like Santa Claus, so confusing Hotei with the Buddha is akin to thinking that Santa is Christ.

Herald Sun: A Christian woman is demanding a nursing home in South Australia remove decorative Buddhist statues, saying they are “stressful” for Christian residents including her 89-year-old father-in-law.

Ruth Thompson, of Vista, has lodged a complaint with the ACH Group’s Highercombe aged care home in Hope Valley, which opened late last year.

At least half a dozen statues of Buddha, about 60cm tall, adorn communal areas, Mrs Thompson says.

“We’re so agitated and annoyed about it,” she told the Leader Messenger last week.

“It’s very stressful for the older people to see this sort of thing.

“We are committed Christians and we don’t want Buddhist statues in our faces all the time.”

However, ACH Group general manager of residential services Greg Adey said there had been no other complaints from the more than 60 residents or their families.

Mr Adey said the statues were purely decorative and would not be removed.

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