The Buddha

“The Buddha’s Wager”

In the 17th century, the philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal outlined his famous “wager,” attempting to make a case for why we should believe in God. Briefly, the wager rested on the assumption that their either is or is not a God, that no logical proof can be make for either proposition, and that believing or not believing is a coin toss that we can’t avoid making. Weighing up the consequences of the coin toss, Pascal pointed out that “If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.” Therefore, he argued, we should unhesitatingly believe in God, in order that we might win an “infinity of an infinitely happy life.”

Better minds than mine have picked over the premises of this wager, but we could consider perhaps that we might worship the wrong God (this is Homer Simpson’s Wager: “Suppose we’ve chosen the wrong god. Every time we go to church we’re just making him madder and madder!”). Or we could consider that God might have a thing against people who try to game his system, and might have a special place in hell reserved especially for them.

The Buddha, over 2,000 years earlier, had proposed his own wager. The wager is found in a famous discourse in which he helped a clan called the Kalamas who were confused because they encountered many spiritual teachers with conflicting messages and were unable to decide which to listen to. The Buddha’s answer is rightly famous because he told the Kalamas not to rely on conjecture, tradition, holy books, habit, and even logic. Instead, he said, they should rely on experience — evaluating experientially whether teachings, when put into practice, are praised by the wise and lead to welfare and happiness. (The wise are those, presumably, who you have observed experientially to be right about such matters.)

That’s the part that the Kalama Sutta is well-known for. The wager is found a little further on, where the Buddha tells the Kalamas that his disciples acquire four assurances in the here and now. The first two of these assurances are as follows:

  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.

We’re not told why the Buddha decided to say this, but given that he was talking to a bunch of people who were skeptical and confused about the claims of spiritual teachers, it seems likely that they had asked him whether the system of practice he taught made sense if rebirth wasn’t a reality. And clearly, he thought it did.

This is of comfort to those us of who are agnostic, at best, about the likelihood of rebirth. On the one hand, I find it hard (to say the least) to imagine how consciousness could survive the death of the brain, exist independently of a body, and transfer itself to another body. On the other hand, we live in a universe where there are things like quantum entanglement and in which 95% of the matter that constitutes it is unknown, so who knows? The evidence for rebirth rests largely on supposed memories of past lives. In some cases it does seem there is such evidence, but on the other hand that evidence might be tainted by the belief systems of those conducting the investigations, especially where children are concerned.

As a result of such considerations, I describe myself as “profoundly agnostic” on the matter of rebirth, and this annoys some of my fellow Buddhists. But the Buddha himself seems to have suggested that it’s acceptable for a disciple to practice with rebirth being an open question, so I’m happy with my agnosticism. And more than that, the Buddha clearly held that belief in rebirth wasn’t necessary in order for us to experience the benefits of practice. So whether I come back (or something comes back) after death, I have this assurance, that my practice benefits me and others, right here, right now.

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The Buddha in proportion

Image of Buddha head from The Tibetan Book of Proportions

These rather gorgeous images are from an eighteenth-century book consisting of 36 ink drawings showing precise iconometric guidelines for depicting the Buddha and other figures. I stumbled across it today on a site called The Public Domain Review, which draws attention to non-copyright media of all sorts that are available for general use.

As the site points out, “The concept of the ‘ideal image’ of the Buddha emerged during the Golden Age of Gupta rule, from the 4th to 6th century. As well as the proportions, other aspects of the depiction – such as number of teeth, color of eyes, direction of hairs – became very important.”

It’s worth checking out the other images in the collection.

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Right intention

lighted candlesOf course, the first question regarding intention is, for what?

All the great wisdom traditions of the world, and all the great moral philosophers, have grappled with this question. What should we want?

There are many ways to approach this question. Some try to answer it in terms of discerning the will or desires of their sense of a Divine influence, of God. Others through resort to certain ideals or abstractions. And others through reliance on some kind of authority, such as a priestly class or a scripture.

In the case of the Buddha – and also some moral philosophers – he approached this question pragmatically, in terms of what leads to more or less suffering, to more or less benefit or harm to oneself and others. Intentions are good if they lead to good results, and bad if they lead to bad results.

This approach has numerous advantages. It is down to earth. It draws upon our own observation of what happens, rather than relying upon the viewpoints of others. It provides a ready test for the worth of an intention: what did it lead to, what actually happened? And it keeps turning us back to ourselves, toward how we can be ever more skillful.

The best available record of the actual teachings of the Buddha – what is called the Pali Canon after the language in which they were first written – is chock full of encouragement and practical guidance for many kinds of intentions leading to good results.

For example, in one sutta – a talk or discourse of the Buddha – he is offering a merchant guidelines for an ethical business, and in another he is advising a monk on the subtlest imaginable inclinations of mind in profoundly realized states of consciousness. In one of my favorite suttas, the Buddha tells his seven-year-old son, Rahula, that knowing how to act in life is actually very simple: before you do something, consider if it will lead to benefit or harm, and if it will be beneficial, go ahead; then, while you are doing things, keep considering if they are beneficial or not, and if they are, it’s alright to continue them.

In this context of diversity and individuality of wholesome intentions, the Buddha singled out three in particular. They are contained in what is called Right Intention, which is one of the parts of the Eightfold Path; that Path is the last of the Four Noble Truths, and it describes the way leading to the end of suffering.

By the way, Right (or Wise) Intention is sometimes translated as “Right Resolve,” which conveys the determination, firmness of aim, heartfelt conviction, and persistence that are central to right intention. Let’s see what those three intentions were, that the Buddha thought were so important that they deserved such emphasis.

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Four tips for meditating in public

I love meditating in public places. I’ve meditated on park benches, and on trains and buses and airplanes. I’ve done walking meditation on country lanes and on busy city streets.

One benefit of meditating in public places is being able to squeeze a bit more meditation into your day. If you regard meditation as something you can only do in a special room, relatively free from audible distractions, then you’re limiting the amount of time that you can spend meditating. If you regard these other times I’ve mentioned as being fair game, then you have many more opportunities for practice.

There are just a few things I’d suggest you bear in mind if you’re going to meditate in public.

  1. If you have the expectation that you’re going to become very narrowly focused on internal sensations, like the breathing, as might happen in a quiet meditation room, then you’re probably going to be very frustrated. What we need to do is to practice a more open form of awareness where the sounds around us are part of the meditation practice. I’ll usually start by being aware of the space, and light, and sound around me. I accept the presence of whatever sounds are arising. It doesn’t matter if the sounds are ones you might conventionally think of as unpleasant, like the sounds of construction or of music that you don’t normally like — just accept that they’re present. Think of allowing them to pass, uninhibited, through the space of your mind. Sounds in fact cease to be distractions, and become what you are mindfully paying attention to. It may be that once you’ve acknowledged the sounds, you can become more narrowly focused, but it’s fine if you end up breathing while also being mindful of any sounds that are arising.
  2. You might be interrupted. Even if you’re sitting with your eyes closed it’s possible that someone might come up and talk to you. Again, if you have an expectation that meditation is a self-evident “do not disturb” activity, as it generally is when you’re meditating in a dedicated meditation room, then you might be jarred or even angered by someone coming up and talking to you. So you have to accept that people around you are not going to know what you’re doing, and are unlikely to regard it as being special, in the way they might if they saw you sitting on a zafu in front of a Buddhist altar. So accept any disturbances with as much grace as possible.
  3. You can do any form of meditation outdoors. I’ve mentioned that you can do walking meditation. You can do mindfulness of breathing, although as I’ve suggested it may not be as deeply focused as when you meditate in a quiet, still place. Lovingkindness practice is perfect; cultivating lovingkindness can feel much more grounded and less abstract when there are actual people around. You might find that you don’t do the usual stages (self, friend, neutral person, etc.) and go straight to the final stage of wishing all beings well.
  4. Finally, I’d suggest avoiding meditation postures where the hands are held in special “mudras” on the knees or, even worse, held out to the sides. If you want to give the impression that meditation is some weird hippy-trippy activity, then that’s a great way to do it. But it’s not a traditional posture for Buddhist meditation, where the hands most often rest in the lap, although you can rest them on the knees as well. Generally a regular seated posture (hands on the lap) is fine for meditating on a train, bus, or park. It works, and it’s unpretentious.

It’s worth considering that the Buddha probably did the majority of his meditating outdoors, in places that we might consider public. He probably didn’t meditate in city streets, except for when he was walking or begging mindfully, but he had a reputation of meditating much closer to towns than was considered normal in those days; most meditators would withdraw to very secluded places deep in the jungle or up in the mountains. And this makes me think that the Buddha meditating in that way, in those relatively accessible places, might have had the effect of “normalizing” the practice of meditation by making it visible. Perhaps we too can have the effect of normalizing meditation, making people curious about what it is that all those people sitting peacefully with closed eyes on the bus, or train, or plane, of park bench are doing. Perhaps meditating in public could be a bodhisattva activity, subtly transforming our culture.

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“Being in the moment”

chain_clock_blur_10(403).jpgOver and over again, you’ll hear Buddhist teachers talking about the need to “be in the present moment,” but interestingly this wasn’t something the Buddha emphasized much. There are one or two scattered references that are similar to the concept of being in the moment, like this one:

They don’t sorrow over the past,
don’t long for the future.
They survive on the present.
That’s why their faces
are bright and serene.

In many ways the language of “being in the moment” is useful, because so much of the time we’re unmindfully caught up in thinking about things from the past, or things that might happen in the future. But actually we only have this present moment. Even when you’re thinking about the future or past, you’re focusing on thoughts that are arising right now. You’re always in the present moment.

The problem implicit in what the Buddha says above isn’t actually to do with the past, present, or future, but with how we relate to memories and our thoughts about the future.

First, we tend to get obsessively caught up in thinking. It so happens that much of our obsessive thinking is concerned with things that took place in the past or with things that will or might take place in the future. But it’s also possible for us to obsessively think about the present, like “I wonder what she’s doing right now?” or “I wonder if he doesn’t like me?”

The Buddha tended to treat the past, present, and future in the same way. For example, in verse 421 of the Dhammapada the Buddha says:

He who clings to nothing of the past, present and future, who has no attachment and holds on to nothing — him do I call a holy man.

Certainly, we can think about, say, the future in an anxious way, but we can also think about the future in an objective or metta-ful way. For example the Buddha said things like:

While you are performing a bodily act, you should reflect on it: ‘This bodily act I am doing — is it leading to self-affliction, to the affliction of others, or to both? Is it an unskillful bodily act, with painful consequences, painful results?’

So we’re actually meant to think about the future! Similarly, there are good reasons to think about the past, and the word we usually translate as “mindfulness” is sati, which primarily means “memory.” The Buddha made the connection between mindfulness and the past quite explicit: “…the monk is mindful, highly meticulous, remembering and able to call to mind even things that were done and said long ago.”

Our mindfulness can include reflecting on past actions, as with this piece of advice:

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?’

So thinking about the future is unhelpful when longing or anxiety are involved, and thinking about the past is unhelpful when there’s sorrow involved, but it’s perfectly possible to think mindfully about the past or future. It all comes down to the quality of attention that you bring to anything you’re aware of. It’s whether craving, aversion, or delusion are present that’s important.

The problem with the language of being in the moment is that often people think there’s something wrong with thinking about the past or future. As we’ve seen, that’s far from being the case — as long as we’re paying attention to thoughts of the past, future (or present!) without attachment, aversion, or delusion. But the false impression given by the language of being in the moment also leads people to think that it’s wrong to have goals and aspirations. Since Buddhist practice doesn’t in fact teach us to “be in the moment” in a literal way, the “problem” of goals and aspirations isn’t in fact a problem at all. Of course we’re to have goals and aspirations. The Buddha was very keen on striving, and his last words were, “Strive diligently.” We’d never make progress if we don’t have goals and aspirations.

What’s important, again, is the quality of attention we bring to those goals and aspirations, particularly regarding whether there is craving, aversion, or delusion involved in them. If we grasp after attaining goals, or experience aversion because we haven’t met our goals, or have goals that are deluded, then that’s obviously unhelpful. But we can also have appropriate goals and work toward them without grasping or aversion.

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Developing a “Buddha Brain” through gratitude

A ”buddha brain” is one that knows how to be deeply happy, loving, and wise. We develop ourselves in this way by cultivating wholesome qualities and uprooting unwholesome ones. In a sense, we plant flowers and pull weeds in the garden of the mind – which means that we are gradually changing the brain for the better.

Gratitude is a powerful tool in this “garden” since what you rest your attention upon is what will shape your brain the most. That’s because “neurons that fire together, wire together.” Gratitude shifts your attention away from resentment, regret, and guilt – and therefore stops you from building up the neural substrates of these known factors of mental and physical health problems. Gratitude also focuses your awareness on positive things, simple good facts such as having enough water to drink, the laughter of children, the kindness of others, or the smell of an orange.

To reap the rewards of gratitude, rest your attention on a good fact, noticing details about it, staying with it for at least a few seconds in a row. Then allow a natural emotional response of gratitude to arise. Continue to pay attention to this feeling of gratitude for another few seconds – or even longer: it’s delicious! Taking these few extra seconds will help you weave gratitude into the fabric of your brain and your Self. And you can practice gratitude both on the fly, as you move through your day, and at specific occasions, such as at meals or just before bed.

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Is the mind-body problem a problem at all?

A stripe of rainbow light runs vertically over the face of a woman, intersecting with her cornea.

One could rightly ask: How can intangible thoughts affect tangible matter (i.e., the brain)? This question is at the heart of the longstanding “mind-body problem,” and related questions include: How can mind arise from matter? Is mind reducible to matter? Does matter determine mind?

These are important, non-trivial questions, and they’ve occupied philosophers for millennia – and now, neuroscientists. Increasingly, their research is suggesting that the account of dependent origination (particularly, related to the moment of “contact”) given by the Buddha long ago is profoundly insightful: based on preceding conditions, mind and matter co-arise, co-causing each other, distinct but intertwined domains, empty of independent self-nature, joined fundamentally as a whole.

Also see:

Let’s take this step-by-step. First, our thoughts, desires, feelings, personality, sense of “I,” etc., are patterns of information that are represented in the matter and energy of our nervous system. (Since E=mc2, we’ll use the word “matter” alone from now on.)

In a similar way, patterns of information – say, a letter to a friend and a picture of the two of you together – are represented by the matter of your computer’s hard drive. Just so, information is carried by wires during a phone call, much as the Ode to Joy playing softly on a stereo was represented by modulations in a radio signal. And so on.

Second, matter can act on information, as anyone knows whose hard drive has crashed . . . or who has an aging parent with a fading memory.

Third, information can be conveyed by any suitable material medium. For example, the Ode to Joy can be represented by a written score, a radio frequency, electrical charges in an iPod . . . or by neuronal activity in your brain as you hum it from memory. In fact, the specific neural structures and processes involved in remembering the tune today will be different from those activated when you recall it tomorrow. It’s the melody that counts, not the medium which conveys it. This means that while information requires representation by matter (apart from any possible transcendental considerations), information can be causally independent – in a sense, free– of the domain of matter.

Fourth, information can act on matter – and act on information itself – through the patterning of matter that represents it. Using the example of the Ode to Joy, the matter of the CD which represents it modulates radio waves, which shape the flow of electrons going to your stereo speakers, which pattern sound waves in air, which activate circuits in your brain, the patterning of which is then – finally! – translated back into the lovely information of Beethoven’s masterpiece.

In sum, immaterial information cascades through the mind by the vehicle of linked, co-arising materiality. Even without reference to a transcendental principle, mind – consciousness – exists, it can’t be reduced to matter alone, and it shapes matter through the action of the material substrate which represents it. Information and matter in the human nervous system are interdependent and reciprocally causal (which creates opportunities to use the mind to change the brain to benefit the mind). Much as light is both waves and photons, our existence is both informational and material. The teachings on emptiness apply here as well: distinctions between mind and brain are relatively true and often useful, but in an absolute sense, mind and brain form one unified system, each aspect of which is empty of inherent self-nature (as is any mind/brain system itself, in its inter-dependence with the world and other people).

While the details are complex and could take centuries to unravel completely, at its essence, we believe the mind-body problem is actually no problem at all.

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Interview with Vimalasara, co-author of “Eight-Step Recovery”


Interview with the co-author of “Eight Step Recovery – Using The Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction.”

Most of us either know someone who has suffered from some form of addiction or have suffered from addiction ourselves. Why do you think it is so common?

Suffering is Universal. Human nature has an inbuilt tendency toward addiction. I would say that the main reason why we become addicts is that there is some dis-ease deep in our minds, and I think most of us can relate to that experience. Our addictions are usually misguided kindness towards ourselves – we’re trying to take care of something difficult that is arising in our minds. The problem is that in doing that we keep reaching for our addiction until it becomes so habitual that we’re not even aware of our behaviour. Many addicts will say ‘But I didn’t have a choice’, and once upon a time I would have said the same to you – it was almost as if someone had jumped inside me and driven me into the shop so I could buy my fix. But when we begin to slow down and step onto the path of recovery, we can actually see more clearly what we are doing and realize that we do have that choice.

So would you describe stepping onto the path of recovery as taking back control over our lives?

Well I think the first step towards recovery is not so much trying to take control of the situation but just slowing down and becoming more aware. Our addictions are actually often bound up with issues of control. My main addiction was food, for example, (I was diagnosed an extreme bulimic anorectic) and I spent so much time trying to control my body and what I put into it but of course this didn’t work because I wasn’t in control; none of us can ever be completely in control.

Instead of trying to control my life, actually what I needed was to do was to become more aware of my thoughts – not to control my thoughts but just to become aware of them. And when I started to put the emphasis and the energy into this, I began to see that I didn’t have to believe in my thoughts – my thoughts weren’t truth.

So I think that when you are suffering from addiction it can actually be really important to acknowledge that you are not in control. Rather, the first step towards recovery is just to slow down and become more aware.

And this is where meditation comes into the picture. Can you talk a bit more about the benefits of meditation for those who are in recovery?

Meditation is such a powerful tool that in the long term it can completely transform people’s lives. I look back at my life I think ‘God, is that me?’ I don’t actually recognize that person who I was, and that is fantastic.

In the shorter term, what meditation offers is sobriety of mind or peace of mind. Meditation can begin to calm our mental proliferation – the voices and stories which go on and on and around and around in our heads.

Saying that, often people who meditate for the first time come back to me and say, ‘I can’t meditate because it’s too hard for me to concentrate – I’ve got so many voices in my head!’ And what I say to these people is, ‘That’s meditating!’ When you can see all of the chatter in your head, you have started to meditate, because often we’re not even aware of that chatter. Then if, with practice, you can just keep coming back to the breath and get a couple of seconds of stillness, that’s huge!

So don’t tell yourself, ‘I can’t meditate because meditation must be calm, it must be peaceful’ because it might be really challenging when you’re sitting in the chair or on the cushion, but once you come out your formal meditation, you will begin to see the impact of that practice on the rest of your life.

So for someone who is starting this process, what are some simple meditations that they could try?

There is an acronym called AGE, which is something that’s used a lot in the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy world. AGE is a thee-minute breathing space, and each letter stands for something. ‘A’ is awareness – one has awareness of thoughts and feelings. ‘G’ stands for gather – gather the breath and become aware of the breath on your upper lip or inside your nostrils. Then ‘E’ stands for expand, expand the breath throughout your whole body, from head to toe. And this is something that you can do in three minutes or even in just a minute – you can do it at your desk or when you’re walking down the street, for example. You just need to stop and take a pause.

You say in your book that ‘The Buddha was in recovery’. What do you mean by that?

Well we know that the Buddha came form a hedonistic background – he led a princely life with all the material pleasures he could wish for, but still he wasn’t content. So he tried to find contentment by going to the other extreme and becoming an ascetic, using self-mortification practices and eating just one grain of rice each day. All of this, of course, is quite harming, and in the modern west the Buddha could be locked up or considered an anorectic. When Shakyamuni became a Buddha (hence woke up to the truth of reality) he went beyond recovery. He then shared his recovery with the rest of the world. It is possible for us to go beyond recovery too. We all can wake up and see things as they really are.

So after engaging with these ascetic practices, the Buddha realized that actually they weren’t the answer either; the answer was the Middle Way. And in his first discourse he makes it very clear that the path to the end of suffering is about freedom from craving, from addiction. So in a way, I believe that what the Buddha’s life story is telling us is that what the Buddha offered was his recovery to the world – he offered the Noble Eightfold Path as a way out of suffering.

So do we need to believe in a higher power, like the Buddha or God, to recover?

I don’t think that we need to believe in a Buddha or a god in order to recover, but I do believe that higher power is there for us whether we believe in it consciously or not. The breath, for example, is higher power – we all believe in breath unconsciously because if we didn’t we would be dead, and we believe in impermanence (which is another of the Buddha’s key teachings) because without it we wouldn’t have the confidence that we could grow and develop; we wouldn’t have the motivation to carry on living. So although some people aren’t aware of higher power working in their lives it is always there for us to tap into, and it is wonderful when we can become conscious of it.

Your book is called Eight Step Recovery. Are the Eight Steps to your book the Buddha’s Noble Eightfold Path or are they referring to the Twelve Step Program?

Steps have a venerable tradition in Buddhism. The Dhammapada an important text in Buddhist literature, means steps of the dharma, or verses of the dharma. The rupa, statues of the Buddha is a contemporary representation of the Buddha. In the Buddha’s day it was two footprints, that represented the Buddha stepping out into the world. If you are familiar with Buddhism there are many lists. And so it seemed fitting to call these teachings eight steps. We have used aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path but our book draws more widely from Buddhist teaching as well, so the Eight Steps don’t just refer to the Eightfold Path. Neither do they refer just to the Twelve Step Program; we would like our book to be used as an alternative to the Twelve Step Program, or in conjunction with it.

We believe that through writing this new book we are adding to the canon of recovery. Actually I think that we’re in a very exciting time now, because at one point the Twelve Steps had the monopoly on recovery – there was nowhere else that people could go – but now there are other options for people who would like to recover from their addictions.

I’m one of those people who didn’t clean up in the Twelve Step Program – I cleaned up in the meditation rooms – and I wanted to write a book offering my recovery to the world as well. The Buddhist teachings changed my life, so through this book I hope that I can bring these teachings to more people and help change their lives for the better as well.

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:

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How beautiful it is to stay silent when someone expects you to be enraged

How beautiful it is to stay silent when someone expects you to be angry.

I was struck by the similarity between the quote in the graphic above and something the Buddha’s recorded as having said:

Whoever doesn’t flare up at someone who’s angry wins a battle hard to win.

It’s also very reminiscent of these verses in the Dhammapada:

133.Speak not harshly to anyone, for those thus spoken to might retort. Indeed, angry speech hurts, and retaliation may overtake you.

134. If, like a broken gong, you silence yourself, you have approached Nibbana, for vindictiveness is no longer in you.

I was a bit surprised, though, to see a comment made by the person who shared the graphic:

I love this one: it usually irks the attacker even more.

Remaining silent in order to irk someone isn’t a very noble motive.

Taking pleasure in someone else getting angry is, from a Buddhist point of view, unskillful. It’s just a subtle form of aggression. Our desire should always be to reduce the amount of suffering our actions cause.

If we “irk” someone, they then go away in a state of resentment, which causes them to suffer. And out of their suffering they’ll likely cause suffering for others as well.

Buddhism encourages us to practice compassion. We should have a concern for the well-being and happiness of ourselves, the person who is trying to make us mad, and all other beings who might be affected.

By remaining silent instead of getting into an argument, we avoid creating unnecessary conflict. In that way there’s less suffering. The other person might get mad in the short term even if we’re not intending to provoke them, but in the long-term they’ll benefit because you’ve given them less to be resentful about. You might even have modeled compassionate non-reactivity for them.

You might experience discomfort in the short term because part of you really wants to fight back, but in the long term you’ll have less to regret and your emotional state will be more peaceful.

The Buddha alluded to the difficulty of not responding harshly to harshness when he said,

Knowing that the other man is angry,
He mindfully maintains his peace
And endures the anger of both,
His own, as well as of the other

It’s better to endure your own anger than to inflict it on someone else. It’ll be painful, but it’ll pass.

With training, we can even learn not to be angry:

People out of control stab with words,
When they hear a harsh word spoken,
a mendicant should endure with no anger in heart.

Of course it’s not necessary to remain silent in order to respond compassionately to another person’s aggression. Responding with words that express overt kindness and compassion is another way of “not flaring up.” That’s even more beautiful than remaining silent.

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“Meditation in the Wild: Buddhism’s Origin in the Heart of Nature,” Charles S. Fisher Ph.D.

meditation in the wild book cover

Available from and

Charles Fisher has poured decades of Buddhist practice, love of nature and scholarship into this work. He leads us on a journey down the centuries and through the jungles and mountain caves of Asia, following the trail of Buddhist practitioners who have lived and meditated in the wild. The quest takes us from the Buddha himself, discovering enlightenment while sitting at the foot of a tree, right through to the modern day. He homes in particularly on the Buddha’s early disciples, the forest hermits of China and Japan, and the Thai Forest tradition. He does not claim to be making a complete survey of the Buddhist world – Korean and Tibetan Buddhism are covered only briefly in an appendix. Milarepa, that most devoted and joyous of wilderness meditators, is overlooked completely. Nonetheless, for the urban Buddhist (and we are all, by the standards of this book, urban!), the result is revealing, inspiring and daunting.

The book builds on Fisher’s earlier work, ‘Dismantling Discontent: Buddha’s Way Through Darwin’s World’, in which he argues that the Buddha’s teachings can be seen as an antidote to the existential discontent brought about by the change from a hunter-gathering to an agricultural society. You don’t need to have read this, but its thesis is never very far away in the sequel.

The book is no paean to the delights and prettiness of nature. Fisher has spent time in the wild and pulls no punches about the demands of such a life. For sure, recluses down the ages have waxed eloquent about forests, streams and mountains. But such superficial delights are not enough to sustain them. The book attends much more to the wilderness as an escape from civilization, and nature as teacher.

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He begins with a description of the forest in the life of the Buddha, which is both vivid and scholarly. While the Buddha, after his enlightenment, spends most of his time in towns or on the edge of them, he still spoke of the ideal meditation as a solitary pursuit undertaken in forests, at the roots of trees or in empty huts. The first lesson of nature is in solitude and freedom from distraction. As Ajaan Mun put it, it was not through mingling and socializing or indulgence in mirth and gaiety that Buddhahood was attained, but rather in quiet and deserted places, free from confusions and trouble.

More than this, nature reinforces our understanding of Buddhist teachings… “listening each morning to the waxing and waning of bird calls, meeting changes in the weather with little protection, knowing hunger and biting insects.” It is one thing to contemplate change and suffering in the comfort of a meditation hall, quite another to live it in the wild. Discomfort and vulnerability bring an earthiness and bright alertness to one’s practice. In nature, there is no avoiding the Buddha’s teachings.

Not only is there discomfort, but danger too. Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, cultivated his fearless heart in the depths of the forest night. More recently, the early Forest Tradition of Thailand took this on quite avidly as a practice. Fear of tigers and snakes was used as a spur to concentration. Survival of malaria was seen as a sign of the strength of one’s practice. There were monks who didn’t pass the test.

And if discomfort or fear doesn’t divert you from your practice, then nature as teacher has one more challenge. In the author’s own experience, life in nature can be “uneventful, even achingly boring.” Even Ryokan, the great Zen poet, counts the days before the snows clear and allow him to leave his hut – “how many more days must I abide before springtide?” But by sitting with the boredom, a deeper silence awaits him…

Often the moon and I sit together all night,
And more than once I have lost myself among the wild flowers,
Forgetting to return home.

Fisher cuts through any hint of sentimentality with regard to nature. Centuries of revered Chinese and Japanese teachers, recluses and wandering poets are subjected to Fisher’s razorlike acuity. There are those whose writings show genuine signs of having practiced in the wild; and there are the ‘aesthete-recluses’, one step removed from the wild and for whom nature is merely metaphor. Ryokan passes the test. Dogen fares less well, for using nature more as symbol than reality. The great poet Basho is even accused of Disney-izing in his description of a shivering monkey who seems to be in want of a raincoat.

The founder of Shingon Buddhism, Kukai, who spent ten years in his youth as a wandering monk, also comes under the spotlight. He was drawn to the inhospitable heights of Mount Koya and spent years building a temple there for the ‘practice of meditation and benefit of the nation.’ He wrote eloquently of his love of meditating in nature. But, for Fisher, he was tainted by association with civilization, his temple-building being supported by the imperial household, and dividing his time between Koya and civic duties in Kyoto.

Kukai falls foul of Fisher’s sometimes over-rigid dichotomy between wilderness and civilization. His
engagement with worldly affairs is treated as mere compromise, disqualifying him from the author’s roll of honor of the true wilderness practitioners. Yet it would be much more in keeping with Kukai’s own tantric Buddhism to see his political engagement as part of his practice rather than a distraction. He was willing to go beyond his own preferences for mountain life out of a desire to make the Dharma widely available. This was no compromise between wilderness and civilization, but rather a transcendence of it.

After all, the Buddha himself, for all he praised meditation in the forest, spent almost all of his later life in and around human settlement. He allowed patrons to build sheltered settlements for his monk followers. He concerned himself with society’s welfare, and for him this outweighed the ideal of dwelling in the forest. His teachings may have been born in the forest, but were meant for the welfare of the many.

So I suggest a note of caution to the reader. Let’s be inspired by the wilderness tradition but not idealize it. Nor let us take the icon of the forest meditator as a literal standard by which to judge our practice or that of others. (Is it such a great idea anyway to send young Buddhists to their deaths in the jungle?) Human society is where Buddhism is most needed. We may live in towns and cities for a whole mix of motives – comfort and compassion both among them. But to really practice in the city is no soft option, no second-best Buddhism. We can be inspired by the wholeheartedness and vigor of forest meditators. But forests and mountains are not necessarily where we need to spend most of our time.

This book might move more of us to immerse ourselves more adventurously in the wild, at least from time to time, to brighten and vitalize our practice. I hope it does. More than that, I hope it inspires us all to bring a wilderness of the heart to our Buddhist practice, wherever it may lead us.

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