The Buddha

Buddhism, vegetarianism, and the ethics of intention

One of the most attractive things about Buddhism is that it considers ethics to be based on the intentions behind our actions. This perspective is radical in its simplicity, clarity, and practicality.

When our actions are based on greed, hatred, or delusion, they’re said to be “unskillful” (akusala), which is the term Buddhism prefers over the more judgmental terms “bad” or “evil” — although those terms are used too, albeit mostly in the context of poetry. By contrast, when our intentions are based on mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom, they’re said to be skillful (kusala).

For many people accustomed to systems of morality based on commandments, rewards and punishments, the Buddhist ethical perspective is liberating and refreshing.

But sometimes the idea that Buddhist ethics is about intention is seen in too narrow a way. The problem is that a deluded mind is trying to become aware of itself! We’re not always aware of our intentions, or may choose to fool ourselves about what our motivations really are. We develop ethical blind spots and adopt evasive strategies to justify our actions and to avoid change. Delusion keeps us tied to our current way of being and stops us from making spiritual progress.

One tool that the Buddha encouraged as a way of breaking out of ethical confusion is paying attention to the consequences of our actions:

Having done a bodily action, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily action I have done — did it lead to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Was it an unskillful bodily action, with painful consequences, painful results?’ If, on reflection, you know that it led to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both; it was an unskillful bodily action with painful consequences, painful results, then you should confess it, reveal it, lay it open to the Teacher or to a knowledgeable companion in the holy life. Having confessed it… you should exercise restraint in the future.

If we notice that we’re harming others, or that we’re causing pain to ourselves — for example through inducing guilt — then we need to look more closely at our motivations, being open to the possibility that we’re not clear enough about our intentions. We need to look for and admit to hidden ethical agendas. I wrote about this recently in terms of the way some men harass women on the street, without being willing to look at the fact that their attentions are unwanted and cause suffering.

Another example is the way most people who eat meat say that they like animals. They don’t think of themselves as cruel. Most of them are shocked by actual cruelty and want animal abusers to go to jail. And at the same time, they pay people to abuse animals on their behalf. They don’t think of themselves as doing this, but when they buy meat they’re financially rewarding people who raise animals in stressful and unnatural conditions, transport them, terrified, long distances in trucks, herd them into a slaughterhouse, shoot them in the head, hoist them into the air by their back legs, cut their throats, and then disembowel and dismember them in preparation for being shrink-wrapped and sold.

Although there’s no overt ill intent when you pick up a steak at the supermarket, you’re paying for this whole process to happen — a process that causes affliction to others. And we don’t want to think about all this. We’re shocked by animal cruelty, so for example we don’t want to see videos of animals in slaughterhouses because we’d rather avoid being shocked. That way we can avoid the discomfort that comes from change.

If we’re going to take the Buddha’s teachings seriously as a guide for living, then we need to examine the harmful consequences of our actions, and then look for the hidden intentions and assumptions that drive those actions.

Implicit in buying meat are attitudes like, “You are more useful to me dead than alive,” and “I kind of like you, but I’m hungry, and so I don’t mind you being killed.”

The attitudes are rarely if ever experienced as overtly as that (and I’ve expressed them rather baldly here) but something like that is going on. I know. I used to eat meat.

Meat-eating is just an example. I’ve picked it because so many people who want to follow the Buddhist path fall into the trap of thinking that if their actions are not directly harming others, then there’s no ethical issue at stake. And I picked it because I really hope we can reduce the amount of suffering in our world.

The problem with discussing an issue like this, though, is that it’s emotive, and so the larger point — we should examine the consequences of our actions in order to clarify our hidden intentions — can get lost in our emotional reactions.

Setting aside any such reactions for the moment, the principle of examining the consequences of our actions extends into almost every aspect of our lives. One example is our interaction with the environment. I know that taking my car to work unnecessarily contributes to climate disruption. And I know that climate change causes suffering to people on the other side of the planet. And yet I still take the lazy route. This suggests that I care less about people if they live far away or if I don’t personally know them, and that I value my comfort over others’ wellbeing. My “forgetting” to do my share of the housework suggests that I have a sense of entitlement, and that I think other people’s job is to clean up after me.

The applications are endless; Buddhism is calling upon us to be radically compassionate, radically mindful of our actions.

The principle that reflecting on the consequences of our actions illuminates our unacknowledged motivations is rarely recognized, but it’s one of the most powerful teachings that the Buddha offered us.

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The third arrow

Three darts in a dart board

The first arrow: Think of a time someone said something hurtful to you, and let’s try to break down what happened. A comment was made, and you probably experienced actual physical pain, most likely in the solar plexus or heart. (When the hurt is particularly strong, we sometimes say it feels like we’ve been punched in the gut, don’t we?)

What went on was that some fast-acting part of your brain believed you were being criticized or marginalized, and so identified the comment as a threat to your well-being. That part of your brain then attempted to alert the rest of the mind to this threat by sending signals to pain receptors in the body. This all happens in a fraction of a second, and automatically. You don’t “decide” to feel hurt.

This kind of hurt is an example of what, in a well-known teaching, the Buddha called “the first arrow.” We can try not to get shot by arrows, but emotional pain like we’ve been discussing, along with purely physical pain — as when we’re sick or injured — is unavoidable. Even the Buddha experienced physical and emotional discomfort.

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The second arrow: The existence of a first arrow of course implies a second! The Buddha explained the “second arrow” as the way that the mind reacts to physical or emotional discomfort in ways that create even more pain. We do this by things like indulging in self-pity, thinking about how unfair it is that we got hurt, blaming ourselves, being critical of the other person, or rehashing the hurtful event over and over again, thinking about how we could have handled things differently. The mind compulsively returns to the painful event we’ve experienced, and every time we do so we cause ourselves yet more pain, because in remembering the hurt, we re-experience it. So as the Buddha said, this is like someone being hit by an arrow, and then reacting in a way that causes a second arrow to be unleashed. You probably did something like this after hearing the hurtful comment.

So there are these two arrows — two forms of pain.

The third arrow: But wait, there’s more! In the teaching of the two arrows, the Buddha talked about a third kind of pain: pain that’s deferred because of clinging to pleasure. This is less often talked about, perhaps because he didn’t offer a colorful image to illustrate it. I call this third form of pain the “third arrow,” and I’m going to supply the missing simile.

The Buddha gave a detailed explanation of how the third arrow works. He pointed out that when someone experiences the first arrow of unavoidable pain, he or she can feel resistance to the pain, and then “seek delight in sensual pleasure.” This is because, not having learned to work with the mind, the person “does not know of any escape from painful feeling other than sensual pleasure.” When we act this way we create a pattern of avoidance and denial that leads to yet further pain in the future.

This third arrow is an important teaching regarding addictive behaviors. Who among us is not afflicted with compulsiveness? Drinking alcohol, eating “comfort food,” watching TV, endlessly reading posts on social media sites, browsing the web, checking our phones for new messages — these are all ways of getting hits of dopamine, a neurotransmitter central to the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. And each of these activities is an escape from a painful feeling that in all likelihood we barely acknowledged.

The “third arrow” of deferred suffering is like when a person has been hit by an arrow and sees yet another one coming, but chooses to ignore it. Pretending nothing’s wrong, he or she indulges in activities like eating, drinking, shopping, watching TV, and checking Facebook. It’s not that any of these things is necessarily very pleasurable in itself, by the way. The “pleasure” we feel is often more like the comfortable numbness of compulsive activity.

Of course we can ignore our pain for a while, but we can’t distract ourselves indefinitely. Eventually that airborne dart — the “third arrow” that we’ve been ignoring — finds its target.

Avoiding the third arrow

If we understand, as the Buddha put it, the “origin and passing away” of a painful feeling (the first arrow), then we can relate to it differently. We know it’s not permanent. We know that it will pass. We can simply experience it without aversion. And in the open space of mindfulness that we’ve created, a painful feeling arises and then passes away.

A recent study showed that painful feelings like shame, fear, and humiliation pass in mere minutes. The less we react with the second arrow of mental self-torment, the quicker painful feelings dissipate. Even if they last longer (the same study showed that sadness can be remarkably persistent), if we don’t respond with the third arrow of denial and distraction, we won’t simply be deferring the pain to some future time.

Putting this into practice

I can pretty much guarantee that within the next half hour you’re going to encounter some kind of dissatisfaction (boredom, hurt, confusion, frustration, etc.) and them immediately be tempted to pursue the next dopamine hit by indulging in some kind of escape activity.

See if you can be alert instead. See if you can stay with the discomfort. Tell yourself it’s OK to have this painful feeling. Recognize that it’s impermanent and that it’ll dissipate as we observe it mindfully. Stay with it long enough for it to dissolve. And when it does, the “third arrow” of deferred suffering will dissolve too, mid-flight.

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The teaching of the zombie Buddha

By day I’m a peace-loving Buddhist; by night a fearless zombie slayer.

That second part isn’t entirely true. Last night I didn’t actually slay any zombies, and I certainly wasn’t fearless. In fact I was terrified as I cowered inside my car as a ravening undead creature tried to force its head through the half-open window, growling and gnashing with its foul, gaping maw. I tried to stab at it with a pointed stick, but never quite made contact. (Pointed sticks are for vampires, I know, but you have to use the tools available to you, and that’s what I had at hand.)

As it happens, this was just one of the very realistic zombie adventures that wove themselves into my dreams last night. You might think that I’d wake up feeling disturbed after all these encounters with the living dead, but this morning I actually felt elated, because I understand these dreams and have learned to recognize them as a good sign.

I’ve had many similar nightmares in which I’ve been pursued by dangerous fiends, although these were my first confrontations with zombies. Curiously, whatever form these threatening figures take, they never actually harm me. They are also immune to my attempts to harm them. In these dreams it is they who are terrifying, but it is I who am violent. I hope that strikes you as curious.

What I’ve realized is that we don’t always dream from the viewpoint of our conscious daytime selves. Often our dreams give us an insight into what it’s like to be part of our subconscious.

Call to mind a unhelpful habit that you have—perhaps a tendency to binge-eat, or to get hooked on Facebook, or a tendency to be bad-tempered. Personifying those habits for a moment—which is quite reasonable since they are in fact quite major parts of a person—think of how meditation must appear when seen from their point of view. They don’t want to change, and certainly doesn’t want to cease existing, and yet that’s what meditation is going to do to them. From the point of view of those habits, meditation is a threatening—even terrifying—force. This is true not just for meditation, but for all Dharma practice, which gently destroys who we are in order to birth a new us.

In traditional Buddhist iconography, enlightened figures have both peaceful and wrathful aspects. The peaceful forms are as you would expect: figures meditating quietly, sometimes dressed in simple monastic robes, or sometimes adorned with jewelry, arrayed as princes or princesses. The wrathful forms, by contrast, are wildly dancing, often wreathed in flames. They’re clad in flayed skins, decorated with garlands of skulls, or draped with the corpses of humans or animals. These wrathful forms represent enlightenment seen from the viewpoint of our resistance. They are the zombies I’ve fought in my dreams.

My zombie dreams are encounters with awakening, which is why I’m happy that the undead came close to gnawing on my flesh last night. Something within me is in active pursuit of unskillful patterns of thought and action, and wants to transform them. Something inside me is trying to destroy the recalcitrant habits that cause me suffering. This pursuit is only terrifying in my dreams because I’m experiencing things from the point of view of my habits. Those habits don’t want to change, and so they flee and try to fight back. The forces of compassion and wisdom, on the other hand, may be perceived as threatening but never do any harm.

Last night’s dreams confront me with the fact that although of late I’ve been meditating daily, I haven’t been throwing myself into my practice in a way that’s going to lead to deep transformation. I haven’t been putting in enough hours, or practicing with sufficient diligence. And so I feel a joyful urge to cast myself into the midst of the zombie horde, and to be devoured. In other words I feel enthusiastic about meditating longer, going deeper, and surrendering myself to change.

When I’ve turned to face a threatening figure in my dreams, it’s been revealed as beautiful, wise, and compassionate. And I have confidence that when I meditate deep and long, sitting with any fear that arises, some creative part of me will bring about unexpected and unimaginable transformations in my being.

When we turn to face our fears, everything changes.

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“Our deeds determine us, as much as we determine our deeds.” George Eliot

George Eliot

Karma is one of the most misunderstood Buddhist teachings. Often people think of karma as some kind of external, impersonal force that “rewards” us for our good deeds and punishes us for our bad. Consequently, even some people with an otherwise good understanding of Buddhism reject karma (usually along with rebirth) as being non-rational.

But karma is not external, nor is it about rewards and punishments. Karma simply means “action.” As an ethical term, it refers to the intentions underlying our actions, understood very broadly as anything we might think, say, or do. As the Buddha said, “I declare, intention is karma” (Cetanāhaṁ kammaṁ vadāmi).

What this means is three-fold:

  1. First, ethically speaking, we can see our intentions as being either skillful or unskillful. Skillful intentions embody qualities of mindfulness, contentment, clarity, and care for the well-being of oneself and others. Unskillful intentions embody the opposites: they are motivated by impulsive selfishness, craving, confusion, and ill will.
  2. Second, the importance of this distinction is that skillful actions (i.e. those arising from skillful volitions) lead on the whole to a decrease in unhappiness and an increase in ease. Unskillful actions, as you might expect, do the opposite. So in choosing our actions, we also choose (whether we know it or not) the consequences of those actions. We create much of our own suffering and happiness through our actions.
  3. Third, habits are like muscles in the brain. By exercising a habit, it becomes stronger. As the Buddha said (and with apologies for the gender-specific language), “Whatever a monk keeps pursuing with his thinking and pondering, that becomes the inclination of his awareness,” and “What a man wills, what he plans, what he dwells on forms the basis for the continuation of consciousness.”

We create our consciousness through the actions we take — even our thoughts and words.  And so, as Eliot observed, not only do we create our actions, but our actions create us.

Mindfulness (sammā sati), right view (sammā ditthi), and right effort (sammā vāyāma) can free us from this feedback loop. Together they act to break open a circular track and turn it into a path that leads to awakening.

We need mindfulness because without it, we become submerged in our thoughts and feelings. Unable to stand back, we act unreflectively, strengthening our unskillful habits and creating suffering for ourselves.

Right view is important because it allows us to evaluate our potential actions. We can realize, “If I act in this way (e.g. angrily) then there will be painful consequences. On the other hand, if I act that way (e.g. with patience and kindness) then the consequences will be more beneficial for me and others.

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We need right effort because it’s not enough just to know what we should do. We also have to be willing to act. On the one hand, right effort is our commitment to bring into being and sustain the skillful. On the other it’s to eradicate and prevent the further arising of the unskillful.

Karma is essentially a feedback mechanism, showing us the extent to which we’re in tune with reality.

Something the Buddha was quite clear about is that not everything we experience is a result of karma. Some Buddhist traditions seem to have overlooked that fact, however. So it might rain on your wedding day, or you might hit a red light when you’re already late. But that’s not the result of your karma. (Neither is it ironic, as many people have no doubt pointed out to Alanis Morissette.) But how you respond emotionally to such events, and how much you suffer as a result, does depend on your karma. If you’ve developed the emotional “muscles” of acceptance, patience, and flexibility, then you’ll be able to meet these events with elegance and with a minimum of suffering, or perhaps none. If, by a lifetime of exercise, you bulk up your emotional muscles of impatience and anger, then once again you’ll experience these events as acutely frustrating, painful, and stressful.

The extent to which we’re able to meet life’s difficulties with grace is the measure of our wisdom.

One thing we have to be aware of is the tendency to say “My intentions were pure, therefore I’m not responsible for the fact that you got hurt by my actions.” Our own intentions are never entirely clear to us. That’s why the Buddha pointed out that we have to look at the consequences of our actions to help us divine intentions that might be hidden to us. If we’ve caused pain to ourselves or others, then we likely had some kind of unskillful motivation mixed in with the skillful.

Karma, then, isn’t anything mystical. It’s simply a description of the psychology of happiness. It’s not an external force, but a feedback mechanism. And it’s not a judgement, but the natural result of how we act.

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The Buddha’s radical path of jhana

buddha statue

Jhāna — a progressive series of meditative states of absorption — is a strangely controversial topic in Buddhism. I say “strangely,” because it’s rather amazing given that the Buddhist scriptures emphasize jhāna so strongly, that there should be anything controversial about deeper meditative absorption.

In the Eightfold Path, Right Concentration is consistently defined as the four jhānas. The Buddha said things like, “There is no jhāna for him who lacks insight, and no insight for him who lacks jhāna.” The jhānas are enumerated over and over again in the Pāli scriptures. They’re also implicit in teachings like the Seven Bojjhaṅgas, the 12 positive nidānas, and the Ānāpānasati Sutta, which mention various of the jhāna factors.

Despite the scriptural importance of jhāna, some teachers, like Thich Nhat Hanh, have argued that jhāna was something that the Buddha rejected, and that it was smuggled into the suttas after the Buddha’s death:

The Four Form Jhānas and the Four Formless Jhānas are states of meditational concentration which the Buddha practiced with teachers such as Ālāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, and he rejected them as not leading to liberation from suffering. These states of concentration probably found their way back into the sutras around two hundred years after the Buddha passed into mahāparinirvāna. The results of these concentrations are to hide reality from the practitioner, so we can assume that they shouldn’t be considered Right Concentration. (Transformation and Healing: Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness, page 29)

The specifics of this objection are interesting because they contain some fundamental misunderstandings, and I’d like to explore in this article the topic of the relationship of the so-called “formless jhānas” (I’ll explain that qualification in due course) to the “jhānas of form,” and the role of these “formless jhānas” in the Buddha’s biography — specifically his training under Ālāra and Uddaka, and the Buddha’s later realization that jhāna was the “path to Awakening.”

First, there’s the assumption that Ālāra and Uddaka taught the Buddha the four jhānas. Now, the Buddha never mentions that he learned or practiced the jhānas with his two teachers. He says that he learned to attain the “sphere of nothingness” (ākiñcañña-āyatana — I prefer “no-thingness” as a translation) from Ālāra Kalama, and the “sphere of neither perception nor non-perception” (nevasaññānāsañña-āyatana) from Uddaka Ramaputta. (Uddaka had apparently not experienced this himself, and was merely passing on Rama’s teaching).

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“But,” many Buddhists will object, “if Ālāra and Uddaka taught the Buddha how to attain these spheres, then they must also have taught the Buddha how to attain jhāna, since these spheres are the seventh and eighth jhānas — part of the four ‘formless jhānas’ that follow on from the four ‘jhānas of form.'” (The first two “formless jhānas” are the sphere of infinite space and the sphere of infinite consciousness.) But this is the very error that I am keen to address.

The suttas never refer to any “formless jhānas.” What are nowadays called the “formless jhānas” are in fact never referred to as jhānas in the scriptures, but are referred to consistently as “āyatanas” or “spheres.” It’s only in the later commentarial tradition that the two lists are presented as one continuous list of “eight jhānas.” They should really be known as “formless spheres.”

Now this is important, because the four formless spheres are in fact not jhānas at all. Many meditators have discovered that it’s possible to experience these formless spheres without having first gone through the jhānas. There has been much confusion for some who have had such experiences, because the assumption that the āyatanas can’t be experienced without first having traversed the jhānas is so prevalent. I am in fact one of the many people who has experienced that confusion.

There are suttas in which there is reference to experiencing the āyatanas without first going through the jhānas. Most people would tend to assume that in these suttas the jhānas are assumed, without being mentioned explicitly, but there’s no need to make that assumption, and experience shows it to be false. Certain forms of meditation predispose to direct experience of the āyatanas. Suttas discussing the six element practice and the divine abidings show those meditations leading directly to the formless spheres. I don’t disagree that it’s possible to reach the āyatanas via the jhānas, but there are other ways.

The fact that it’s possible to reach the formless spheres without going through the jhānas helps us make sense of an important episode in the Buddha’s life. In the Maha-Saccaka Sutta the Buddha described how he intuited, prior to his enlightenment, that jhāna was “the way to Awakening”:

I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jhāna, with rapture and joy born from seclusion, accompanied by initial thought and sustained thought. Could that be the way to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the way to Awakening.’

That’s a strong statement. The Buddha had not just a hunch, or an idea, but an actual realization that jhāna is the way to Awakening.

Now, many people have struggled to make sense of this episode. The Buddha had previously attained the seventh and eighth “jhānas” (in reality the third and fourth āyatanas) under Uddaka and Ālāra’s instructions, so how could a memory of first jhāna be so significant in pointing the way to Awakening? All sorts of explanations for this apparent contradiction have been made, but the simplest is one that may be least obvious: that the Buddha had not in fact previously explored the jhānas with Ālāra and Uddaka, and that he had explored the āyatanas through means other than by going through the jhānas. Confusion arises because we’re so conditioned by the commentarial belief that to enter the āyatanas we must first go through the jhānas, that we assume that the Buddha must have had experience of the jhānas.

I see the jhānas and the āyatanas arising in different ways. Jhāna involves paying more and more attention to less and less. In going deeper into jhāna we progressively “tune out” first our thinking, then the pleasurable sensations that arise in the body as we relax, and finally joy. This leaves only one-pointed attention on an object of attention, accompanied by a sense of great peace. Jhāna is a form of progressive simplification — more and more attention being focused on a smaller and smaller subset of our experience.

The āyatanas involve the opposite approach. Rather than “homing in” our attention so that it’s focused on less and less of our experience, we allow our attention to be all-inclusive, excluding nothing from our awareness. Speaking of my own practice, when I enter the āyatanas, what I do is pay full attention to all of my experience: that which arises from within (thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations) and that which arises from outside (light, sound, space, etc.). I then maintain an awareness of both of these fields of experience, finding a point of balance of inner and outer. AS that balance is maintained, the mind becomes very still. At a certain point, the boundary between “inside” and “outside” is lost, and there is simply a single field of awareness. This process is speeded up if I consciously focus on the supposed boundary between inside and outside. In meditation this boundary is perceived to be very fuzzy, and in fact, the closer you look at it the less it seems to exist. Later, other distinctions are lost as well, and there is a loss of the sense that the body has a three dimensional orientation in space.

In the suttas, all of the entry points to the āyatanas have one thing in common: equanimity. The jhānas culminate in an experience of equanimity; having narrowed down our experience and brought the mind to a state of peace, we then broaden our experience once again and enter the formless spheres. (Or so I am told; I have never entered the formless spheres this way.) The fourth divine abiding is of course equanimity, which is also a springboard to an experience of the āyatanas. And the sutta describing the six element practice says that it beings the mind to equanimity and thus into the āyatanas. The formless spheres can be experienced from any meditation that brings about a state of tranquil equanimity.

The Buddha experienced the formless spheres to the furthest possible extent, but he didn’t manage to become enlightened by so doing. Instead, he intuited, jhāna was a more likely route to spiritual liberation. Why should this be? We can only speculate, but my sense is that the teachings of Ālāra and Uddaka explained the āyatanas in terms of unifying oneself with the wider universe. In the āyatanas, certain discriminative faculties — those that produce a sense of spacial separateness — are progressively shut down. (These faculties are a function of the brain’s parietal lobes, which become less active in non-dual meditation.) This sense of religious union would fit with pre-Buddhist views of there being an atman (Self) that is part of a larger “Brahman” (a cosmic reality). Ālāra and Uddaka may not have used those precise terms, but a sense of unity with the cosmos is a common religious trope, and it’s reasonable to assume that they saw that experience as the desired outcome of practice.

What does jhāna do? What is its function? It allows us to focus in exquisite detail on minute aspects of our experience. And that allows us to see that everything that constitutes the self — or what we take to be the self — is in fact an experience that is changing moment by moment. By repeating this minute examination of our experience, we come to the realization that there is no possibility of there being a separate self that needs to be unified with the cosmos.

The Buddha in fact was fond of saying:

I tell you, friend, that it is not possible by traveling to know or see or reach a far end of the cosmos where one does not take birth, age, die, pass away, or reappear. But at the same time, I tell you that there is no making an end of suffering and stress without reaching the end of the cosmos. Yet it is just within this fathom-long body, with its perception & intellect, that I declare that there is the cosmos, the origination of the cosmos, the cessation of the cosmos, and the path of practice leading to the cessation of the cosmos.

Although we would often like the Buddha to be like a modern scientist, in some important respects he wasn’t. He didn’t seem particularly interested in what we would think of “cosmic” questions, and in fact saw them as distractions from the spiritual life. After all, at the Buddha’s time, when it came to questions of whether the universe was finite or infinite, had a beginning or was eternal, etc., there was no possibility of doing more than speculating. These cosmic topics are all matters that the Buddha thought of as being useless subjects for discussion. Rather than indulging in speculation, he preferred to put his attention onto matters where he could have knowledge arising from direct observation. In that regard he did, in an important sense, take a scientific approach. And his work was akin to that of a scientist who finds that in order to understand the nature of stars, we must look at how subatomic particles behave. The way to understand our place in the cosmos, the Buddha was suggesting, is to examine ourselves. And this is what jhāna allows us to do. Jhāna supports insight.

In the Buddha’s view, samatha (the cultivation of the jhānas) and vipassanā (the cultivation of insight) were not mutually exclusive or antagonistic activities, which is how they are sometimes seen today. In the Samaññaphala Sutta, for example, the Buddha describes the practitioner moving deeper into the jhānas and then, “With his mind thus concentrated, purified, and bright, unblemished, free from defects, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, he directs and inclines it to knowledge and vision.” Jhāna makes it easier for the mind to observe impermanence through minute examination of our experience, and thus makes it easier for insight to arise. Conversely, insight also makes it easier for jhāna to arise, and so he says elsewhere, “There’s no jhāna For one with no wisdom (pañña), No wisdom for one with no jhaāna).” Samatha and vipassanā are complementary and synergistic.

If you want to know your place in the universe, it may seem intuitively obvious that you need to reflect on (or speculate on) the universe. So it was a radical departure on the Buddha’s part to withdraw from speculation on the universe, and to turn his attention inwards. It was also a radical departure for him to turn away from the experience of the formless spheres, which bring about a temporary sense of unification of self and cosmos, but which do not entirely remove our self-clinging. It was a massive leap of intuitive wisdom for the Buddha to arrive at the conclusion, “Jhāna is the way to Awakening.”

But why, having failed to gain insight through the āyatanas, should the Buddha have kept them as part of his teaching? Wouldn’t it make more sense to jettison the formless spheres and focus exclusively on the jhānas? I see two possible reasons for him doing this.

First, the assumptions that Ālāra and Uddaka made about the āyatanas (that they were an experience of a permanent self uniting with the universe) may have been the main reason that the Buddha didn’t find them conducive to insight, assuming, as is likely, that he’d picked up on the same assumptions. Stripped of those assumptions, experience of the formless spheres, he may have reckoned, may be more spiritually useful.

Second, the experience of the āyatanas, even if it doesn’t lead directly to insight, does a valuable job in changing our sense of self. Learning that our sense of self is malleable may not directly help us to lose our attachment to that self, but it does help us to loosen such attachments. There can be less grasping after something that is fluid and malleable rather than something that is solid. Experience of the āyatanas helps us to appreciate that our sense of self is not fixed, but can be dramatically different than it normally is. In my own experience, the altered states of self-perception that I experienced in the formless spheres did seem to have a bearing on my later experience of non-self.

A parallel is to be found in that way that experience of psychedelic drugs has brought many people to Dharma practice. Having had the experience that their “normal” sense of reality is just one possible configuration of their experience can lead some to wonder what other modes of perception there might be. Psychedelics have even been used experimentally to help treat anxiety and depression — conditions that tend to involve a very fixed sense of self — sometimes bringing about long-term positive change very rapidly.

So, the Buddha had no formal experience of the jhānas until shortly before his awakening. He had not been trained in the jhānas by Ālā ra and Uddaka, although he did have extensive experience of the āyatanas. The intuition that jhāna might be the way to Awakening was the beginning of a process whereby he began to explore his experience in minute detail, learning to observe its impermanence. And it was through this means that he became Awakened.

It’s time to lay aside the notion that the āyatanas are jhānas, and that they can only be experienced by traversing the jhānas. It’s time also to lay aside the very non-traditional notion that the samatha (cultivating the jhānas) and vipassanā (cultivating insight) are mutually antagonistic activities, and to recognize them as synergistic parts of one path.

And lastly, it’s time to recognize the radicalness of the Buddha’s decision to turn his attention away from meditations that lead to an apparent unity of the self with the cosmos, the radicalness of using jhāna to hone the mind into a powerful focused instrument, and even the radicalness of refusing to settle for the blissful and peaceful experiences that arise in jhāna, so that he could enter into a minute examination of the nature of his experience and find that there was, in a sense, no self there.

Rather than jhāna acting to “hide reality from the practitioner,” as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, it is jhāna that allows us to lay reality bare, so that we may attain awakening.

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Step two: Seeing how we can create extra suffering in our lives

Eight Step Recovery

The Buddha was asked, what is the difference between how an ordinary person and a wise person responds to pain? He replied with the analogy of the two darts. All of us experience pain – whether that is physical pain like catching your finger in the door or mental pain such as when someone rejects you. This is the first dart, which we could call primary suffering.

An ordinary person then gets caught up in trying to push away or avoid the pain; in blaming themselves or others, or feeling self-pity. This has the effect of making matters worse: the second dart, which we can call secondary suffering. A wise person just has the first dart. They don’t get stuck in avoidance or obsessing about the pain. Instead they mindfully accept it for what it is, without making it worse with secondary suffering.’ Extract from Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s teachings to Overcome Addiction.

The Eight Steps

The question is how do we become like the wise person?

The ordinary person takes refuge in distractions to help move away from the pain or suffering. The ordinary person seeks refuge in self pity, blame, and or distraction through addictions. Every time the ordinary person reacts to suffering or pain by distraction, self pity and or blame, they are re-creating a habit. Recreating a pattern of behavior that can in the end result in a matter of life and death.

Every time we turn away from the pain and or suffering, we are just delaying the inevitable. Know that turning away in the moment will create momentary release from the suffering, perhaps even pleasure, but know that misery is swiftly upon our heels.

We can become a wise person by recognizing our patterns of behavior. By seeing how we habitually turn away from our suffering and pain. However we do not become wise, until we take action and do something different.

The good news is; that it is possible to be free of psychological, existential pain and suffering. Yes we will always experience some form of physical pain, but know too that if we react, turn away from it, it will multiply it.

It’s said that the Buddha experienced chronic back and stomach pain due to the extreme austerities that he practiced during the six years before he became enlightened. In fact some say that the dyspepsia that culminated into his last serious illness of dysentery, was caused by his unhealthy eating habits during his ascetic life. He was a human being and like all of us was subject to sickness, ageing and dying. Although there is reference to this physical pain, we never hear of the Buddha complaining.

Sometimes when we clean up from addictions, and step onto the path of recovery, we become resentful of the ailments we are left with, creating more suffering in our lives. If we are to become wise, we have to learn that we have the potential to change our lives in the present moment. The present moment is what we have, and in it we can create a life of misery or a life of peace.

Becoming wise can be as simple as realizing we are not our thoughts. As simple as realizing that our thinking is not true. As simple as learning to pause. And yes I hear you. It’s not easy. But was your addiction easy? Was taking refuge in your addiction to deal with what life presented to you easy? I say that acting on these simple realizations is easier than living with any addiction, compulsive or obsessive behaviour.

Step two – pages 43 – 78

Eight Step Recovery is out now: Eight Step Recovery – Order your book now

Or try a free sample – 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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Getting the dead dog off of your shoulders

Woman wearing a fur hood.

What kinds of things do we get up to when we are meant to be meditating, but have become distracted? Most people will say they “think” or “fantasize,” but that’s not very specific. What kind of thinking is going on? What kinds of desires drive our fantasies?

There are five traditional hindrances to meditation. Speaking very non-technically, what we tend to do when we’re distracted is one of the following:

  • Getting annoyed about things we dislike
  • Fantasizing about things we like
  • Worrying and fidgeting
  • Snoozing and avoiding challenges
  • Undermining ourselves with stories about what we can’t do

These are the five hindrances in very non-technical language. Each of them is a form of mental turbulence that prevents us from experience the natural calmness and joy of the undisturbed mind.

The Buddha suggested a number of ways to calm the mind by dealing with the hindrances.One approach, which we could call “reflecting on the consequences,” uses thought to calm our thinking.

He suggested that we reflect on the disadvantages of continuing to be caught up in the hindrance that is currently dominating our minds. For example, we can ask, What will happen if I continue to let my mind be dominated by anger or doubt? Will it make me happy? Are the consequences of these mental states with those that I want to live with? By consciously reflecting in this way, we bring alternative visions of the future into our present consciousness. We thus create the possibility of choice. We are then able to experience an emotional response to each of the alternatives we’ve imagined.

See also:

So, if you imagine that continuing to indulge in angry states of mind is going to lead to isolation and conflict, then the emotional response to that imagined future outcome may well be one of aversion. And generating aversion to the outcomes of anger will tend to lead to aversion to the anger itself. (This is a useful aversion to have!) And we may imagine being calm, confident, and kind, and this exerts its own emotional pull, making it more likely that we’ll choose the path that leads us there.

The Buddha used a very colorful image to describe this antidote. He said it was “like a young woman or man, in the flush of youth and fond of finery, who would be ashamed to have the carcass of a dog or snake hanging round his neck.” I like this image. It reminds us there is beauty already present beneath the hindrance, and that the hindrance itself is something that mars our inherent spiritual loveliness, and that is relatively superficial and extraneous.

So, when you notice you’re in an unhelpful state of mind, see where that’s leading you by reflecting on the consequences. Become aware of the unwholesomeness of the negative mental state that you’re experiencing, and allow a natural and wholesome aversion towards it to emerge. But also be aware that there is an inner beauty just waiting to be revealed.

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What did the Buddha know about addiction?

Stone Buddha head

We know that before Shakyamuni became a Buddha (waking up to the truth of reality) that he tried extreme self-discipline that included abstaining from all forms of indulgence, which was called the practice of asceticism. His self-mortification included eating just one grain of rice a day, and sometimes walking around with one arm in the air for weeks. In his search for an end to suffering, Gautama became like an addict to asceticism. Like today’s addicts, he had learned how to master pain, or so he thought. He grew as thin as a skeleton, and did not budge from his addiction. Still he did not find an end to suffering. Until one day he realized he was getting nowhere.

It is believed that when he became a Buddha his first teaching to his disciples referred to addiction. He says:

“There is addiction to indulgence of sense-pleasures, which is low, coarse, the way of ordinary people, unworthy, and unprofitable; and there is addiction to self-mortification, which is painful, unworthy, and unprofitable. Avoiding both these extremes, the Tathagata (The Perfect One) has realized the Middle Path; it gives vision, gives knowledge, and leads to calm, to insight, to enlightenment and to Nibbana.”

There are many stories about the Buddha encountering different people during his travels. There was a King Pasenadi from Kosala who consulted him on many aspects of life. One such story tell us that King Pasenadi who was addicted to eating. One day after eating a bucket full of rice and curries, he was fortunate to have an encounter with the Buddha. The Buddha advised that the King begin to reduce his intake, and recite this sutta

“When a man is always mindful,
Knowing moderation in the food he eats,
His ailments then diminish,
He ages slowly, guarding his life.”

But the king lamented ‘how’. And then he had an idea. I will pay for someone to help me.

It’s said he paid a young Brahmin to watch over him every time he had a meal. The Brahmin would snatch a fistful of food, and recite the sutta. The next day the King was only allowed to eat the amount he consumed the day before, and then the Brahmin would snatch another fistful. And the Brahmin continued to recite the sutta, reduce the King’s food intake until he ate only a pin pot amount and was relieved of his addiction. The Buddha’s method here was harm reduction, with the intention of skilfully leading the King to abstinence.

In the introduction of our book we talk about the Buddha being in recovery. We suggest the following questions for you to work through after reading the introduction.

  • What does addiction mean to you?
  • What does Recovery mean to you?
  • Share your personal story of addiction from the perspective of what was it that got you clean and thinking about the spiritual path
  • When you read the Buddha was in recovery what thoughts arise?
  • What would it mean if you were to wake up from your present life?
  • The Buddha taught the middle way – what would the middle way look like in your life?
  • How can this book be for you?

Eight Step Recovery is out now: Eight Step Recovery – Order your book now

Or try a free sample – 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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Integration of mind and brain

??????????????????Linking of mind and brain has three important implications.

First, as your mind changes, your brain changes. Your brain changes both temporarily, millisecond by millisecond, AND it changes in lasting ways because – in the famous saying of the Canadian psychologist, Donald Hebb – “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

The fleeting flow of experience leaves behind lasting marks on your brain, much like a spring shower leaves little tracks on a hillside.

For example, the fine motor areas of pianists are measurably thicker than those of non-pianists. Similarly, the portions of the hippocampus that are responsible for spatial memory are discernibly thicker in experienced London taxi drivers compared to when they started their training. On a darker note, chronic serious trauma and stress lead to a noticeably smaller hippocampus, which also has a central role in registering new experiences into memory.

Second, as your brain changes, your mind changes. For example, if millions of your neurons start firing together in relatively slow rhythms – called Alpha waves – you will experience a growing sense of peacefulness and calm. Alternately, if your hypothalamus tells your pituitary to tell your adrenal glands to release epinephrine, cortisol, and other stress hormones, you will feel revved up to fight or flee.

Third, you can use your mind to change your brain to benefit yourself – and everyone else whose life you touch.

It may seem a little disorienting at first to think about “using your mind to change your brain to change your mind,” to intervene within your own brain at the organic, material level. But it’s actually very natural. For an everyday example, consider how you might routinely change your brain with a cup of coffee or tea – or a donut! – to feel more focused in an afternoon meeting.

You can use your mind to change your brain to benefit your being in two ways.

First, you can use your mind to activate brain states, right now in the moment, that promote patience or inner peace or other positive qualities in response to difficulties, such as wounds to your brain.

Second, since “neurons that fire together, wire together,” by deliberately cultivating wholesome states of mind, over time you create permanent, structural changes in your brain. Those changes may be a matter of uncovering a Buddha Nature, or Transcendental Awareness, or True Self that was there all along – but the “removal of the obscurations” is still a change within a person’s brain.

These scientific findings in modern psychology and neurology offer incredibly good news. They confirm the ancient teachings of the Buddha about the possibility of each person transforming his or her life – even to the point of enlightenment. They nourish conviction, sometimes called faith: one of the seven factors of enlightenment. They explain why it is really beneficial to do certain practices, which encourages right effort. And they suggest new practices that may increase the power and penetration of traditional ones.

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On radical honesty and agnosticism concerning rebirth

Indo-Tibetan Wheel of Life (bhavacakra)

This morning I had an email from Sheila, one of our newsletter subscribers. She’d shared the article called “The Buddha’s Wager” with a Buddhist friend, and wasn’t sure how to address the points her friend had raised. So here’s what her friend had written:

i find it fascinating that ‘sceptics’ want to know how consciousness can survive the death of the brain – when we have no inkling of how consciousness arises in a living brain – to me it’s as much of a leap of faith to believe that other people are conscious as it is to believe that ‘my’ consciousness can survive the death of my body. we are all profoundly agnostic about almost everything…. i find a belief in rebirth gives a me a sense of meaning – of possible progress – i still don’t understand how anyone can profess to be seeking Enlightenment – in the Buddha’s sense of a release from suffering – and not believe in rebirth. if death is the end of suffering then what’s all the fuss about? let’s just die….

And here’s what I wrote to Sheila:

Thanks for writing with these questions. It’s always interesting for me to meet, even indirectly, someone like your friend who sees life and Dharma practice in very different ways.

To take things out of order, with regard to the whole idea that life is pointless unless you believe in rebirth, I’d quote the Kalama Sutta, and gently point out that the Buddha seems to have disagreed with your friend’s position. If he taught the Kalama sutta, then he clearly thought that Dharma practice made sense even if you don’t have a belief in rebirth.

[To quote from the Buddha’s wager, in that sutta the Buddha tells the Kalamas that his “noble disciples” acquire four assurances in the here and now. The first two of these assurances are:

  1. If there is a world after death, if there is the fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then this is the basis by which, with the break-up of the body, after death, I will reappear in a good destination, the heavenly world.
  2. But if there is no world after death, if there is no fruit of actions rightly and wrongly done, then here in the present life I look after myself with ease — free from hostility, free from ill will, free from trouble.

So the Buddha is saying here that his disciples can practice the Dharma and benefit from that practice without believing in rebirth. What’s more, these disciples have mind “free from hostility, free from ill will, undefiled, and pure.” In other words, these are enlightened disciples of the Buddha, who have the assurance that their practice is worthwhile, even if they don’t know whether rebirth happens. You can go all the way to enlightenment and still not be convinced that rebirth is true!]*

Your friend gets her source of meaning from rebirth, but those of us who are skeptical about rebirth get our meaning elsewhere. Life to me doesn’t need any justification, so “let’s just die” would strike me as being a weird position to take, or even to imagine that people might take (unless, say, they were profoundly depressed). I don’t think it takes much empathy to recognize that people with differing views find life, and dharma practice, meaningful without the conviction that there is rebirth.

I hear similar arguments from Christians, who say that God is what gives life meaning, and if you don’t believe in God then you have no reason for living and might as well kill yourself. If your friend doesn’t believe in God then perhaps she might recognize that she’s adopting the same attitude in thinking that her source of meaning is the only possible source of meaning.

I wonder what she means by “let’s just die?” That without a belief in rebirth we should just kill ourselves? That’s absurd, since I don’t need a belief in rebirth to feel that my life is meaningful. That we should cease practice and just hang on until we die and then our suffering will all be over? That’s also absurd, since she’s suggesting that we should stop doing the things we find meaningful because we don’t get our sense of purpose and meaning in precisely the same way she does.

We all have different ways of finding purpose in life, and to me life is meaningful in and of itself. To be alive and conscious is a constant wonder and miracle. But in addition, seeing suffering in myself and others, and recognizing that most of that suffering is unnecessary, I find meaning in wanting to free myself and others from suffering. Now I can see how a Christian can think that serving god is a source of meaning or how the idea of pursuing enlightenment over many lives can give meaning, so I wonder why your friend can’t recognize that other things give my life meaning? I mean, hasn’t she ever *asked* someone with different beliefs what their source of meaning is? To just assume that they have none suggests some kind of lack of empathy or imagination.

To take your friend’s first point, I don’t think it takes much of a leap of faith to accept that other people are conscious. I am a human, and I am conscious. Other humans show the external signs, though facial expressions, words, etc., that they are experiencing the world in a similar way to me. So it would be bizarre, in my opinion, to assume that other people are not conscious. Assuming that consciousness survives death is an assumption of a completely different order from assuming that others are conscious.

As for agnosticism, I am profoundly agnostic when it comes to the teaching of rebirth. I have no evidence either way. It seems unlikely to me that consciousness can somehow function separate from a body (if we don’t need a body to be conscious, why does brain damage affect our ability to think?) and transfer itself to another body. There are on the other hand accounts of past-life memories, but few of us have had the opportunity to check those out first hand, and even if we did there’s no way we can rule out the possibility of the supposed memories having been acquired through some other route. I was advised to watch a video about a Scottish boy who apparently remembered a part life. I didn’t find it very convincing, and when much was made of his knowing that on the island of Barra, planes use the beach as a landing strip, it seemed quite possible to me that he’d seen this on TV. I try to keep a reasonably close eye on what my kids see on TV, but they’re always coming up with surprising things that they’ve picked up, and that I’d no idea they’d been exposed to. So most of the evidence that I’ve seen is rather shaky (plus there are some well-known instances of supposed memories having come from books people have read). On the other hand, we live in a very strange and wonderful universe, where there’s quantum entanglement. We don’t even know what 95% of the matter in the universe is made up of! So I’m not ruling anything out.

For me, being agnostic about rebirth is actually an ethical position. The Buddha promoted a sort of radical honesty (although of course we’re to be kind as well as honesty). The suttas describe truthful speech like this:

“There is the case where a certain person, abandoning false speech, abstains from false speech. When he has been called to a town meeting, a group meeting, a gathering of his relatives, his guild, or of the royalty, if he is asked as a witness, ‘Come & tell, good man, what you know’: If he doesn’t know, he says, ‘I don’t know.’ If he does know, he says, ‘I know.’ If he hasn’t seen, he says, ‘I haven’t seen.’ If he has seen, he says, ‘I have seen.’ Thus he doesn’t consciously tell a lie for his own sake, for the sake of another, or for the sake of any reward. Abandoning false speech, he abstains from false speech. He speaks the truth, holds to the truth, is firm, reliable, no deceiver of the world.”

If you don’t know, say that you don’t know. Otherwise you’re practicing a form of untruthful speech. Now I don’t know that there is such a thing as rebirth, so no matter how many references there are to rebirth in the Pali canon, I’m not going to say that rebirth happens. Unless someone has some extraordinarily convincing and even irrefutable evidence for the existence of rebirth, I think the only honest answer is “I don’t know,” [along with, “Of course what the Buddhist scriptures say is…”]*

Also, practically speaking, not being convinced in the reality of rebirth gives me a sense of urgency. I want to gain full awakening in this very life, and not have the feeling that I can always get around to it later. Sangharakshita has, if I remember correctly, described laziness as the besetting sin of traditional Buddhism, and I believe that this is due to people thinking that they have all the time in the universe to get enlightened.

***

*This wasn’t in my original reply, but it’s something I meant to say and I added it here for completeness.

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