The Buddha

Paying the Dharma forward

walking-buddha-1The Buddha really emphasized giving. In fact in you think about it we wouldn’t have any Buddhism today. The Buddha’s life, after his Awakening, was a life of giving. His time and his talent in communication was spent in giving people the tools they needed to become awakened. His energy was spent traveling around India, teaching.

The entire community of monks and nuns likewise gave their time and energy — their lives, really — in order to help others.

And if it wasn’t for 2,500 years of householders donating to the sangha, none of that teaching would have been passed onto us. It wasn’t just a question of lay Buddhists putting some scraps of food in the bowls of begging monks and nuns. It was a question of them donating robes, giving land to the sangha, having dwellings and monasteries built, paying for monuments to be erected, etc.

2,500 years of giving. And we’re the beneficiaries. I benefit. You benefit.

If you benefit from the work we do, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

If you benefit from the work we do, please consider supporting Wildmind. Click here to make a one-time or recurring donation.

We’re asking for donations to our Free Bodhi project. The aim is to provide seed funding for a business manager for Wildmind so that I don’t have to do so much admin and can concentrate on teaching and writing. Lots of people tell me that the teaching and writing I do has made a positive difference to their lives, and I hope you’ll consider supporting us on this.

So we’re asking you to continue 2,500 year tradition, and to pay it forward. We’ve written, and continue to write, hundreds of articles on meditation. We’ve made structured guides to various meditation practices available. We run free guided meditation videoconferences and post the recordings on Youtube.

And next year we’ll be running an unprecedented year-long series of meditation events that we’re calling a Year of Going Deeper. We chose that title because the eight events we’re running will give you a complete guide to meditation practices that can take you all the way to Awakening.

Our Year of Going Deeper is going to be free. That’s our gift. What we’re asking is that you help support us — just as generations of practitioners before you have helped support other teachers — so that we can help enlighten the world.

Please donate to the Free Bodhi project on Indiegogo, and help support our work.

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Self-hatred, self-compassion, and non-self

You should train yourself thus … ‘I shall remain friendly and empathetic, with a mind of lovingkindness, and I shall not give in to hatred'

A lot of people have difficulty practicing self-compassion, but some people have difficulty with the concept of self-compassion. I’ve had very experienced Buddhist practitioners tell me that while they think it’s good to have compassion for others it’s not desirable or even possible to have self-compassion, or that self-compassion is just self-pity. It’s a shame there’s so much confusion over such a crucial practice.

But in some ways it’s not surprising that this confusion exists. The Buddha just took it for granted that we love ourselves — he said we should love others as we love ourselves, which for self-loathing westerners seems the wrong way around — and as far as I’m aware he never addressed the problem of self-hatred, which people say is largely a modern, western phenomenon, although I’m not sure there’s any evidence of that. Anyway, there’s little to nothing in the Buddhist scriptures about the practice of self-compassion or even self-metta.

Dealing with those objections, I see the issue of self-compassion versus compassion for others, or self-hatred versus hatred of others as a red herring. Hatred is hatred. So hatred of oneself, or parts of oneself, should be dealt with in the same way as hatred for others. And compassion for oneself should be cultivated in exactly the same way that compassion for others should be cultivated. So when the Buddha says something like:

“You should train yourself thus … ‘I shall remain friendly and empathetic, with a mind of lovingkindness, and I shall not give in to hatred,'”

this is as applicable to ourselves as it is to others. When the mind is full of compassion it touches everything it experiences with compassion. And this applies to reflexive thought — when the mind full of compassion thinks of itself it does so compassionately. How could it do otherwise?

This is a teaching of non-self. The perception of pain is just the perception of pain. If you experience pain in another or in yourself there’s not any essential difference regarding how you should respond: your pain, another’s pain — it doesn’t matter. And the only appropriate and skillful response to the perception of pain is compassion. It doesn’t matter whether the pain you’re perceiving is in yourself or another, you should meet the pain with compassion. This is where the non-self perspective comes in. “Your” pain isn’t really your pain.

There’s an interesting dialog in the Samyutta Nikaya, where the Venerable Moliya Phagguna asks the Buddha the simple question:

“Lord, who feels?”

The reply is very interesting: “Not a valid question,” the Blessed One said.

“I don’t say ‘feels.’ If I were to say ‘feels,’ then ‘Who feels?’ would be a valid question. But I don’t say that. When I don’t say that, the valid question is ‘From what as a requisite condition comes feeling?’ And the valid answer is, ‘From contact as a requisite condition comes feeling. From feeling as a requisite condition comes craving.'”

So suffering, which is a feeling, arises, but it’s improper to say that there is a person who suffers. There is suffering but there is no sufferer. This is hard to understand without having seen through the illusion of self, but if we want to move toward directly seeing the truth of non-self we shouldn’t get caught up in thinking that our own suffering is any different from other people’s suffering.

We often, though, think either that our suffering is more important than others’ because it’s ours, or that it’s less important because it’s ours. Both of these are examples of what Buddhism calls “conceit” which includes not just thinking that we’re more important or better than others (so we’ll hurt people to relieve our own suffering) or that we’re less important or worse than others (so we’ll give compassion to anyone but ourself).

Self-pity is entirely different from self-compassion, incidentally. Self-pity is where you’re causing yourself further suffering by going “Oh, this is terrible. This shouldn’t be happening.” With self-compassion you let go of those story-lines and simply feel compassion for your pain. You send it loving attention. You hold it in awareness the same way you might hold a sick child. You give yourself comfort and reassurance.

Actually self-compassion is a bit of a misnomer. You don’t really have compassion for “yourself.” “Your self” is too large and vague a category; it’s hard to point to exactly what it refers to. You don’t really have a unified, stable, single entity called “your self.” “Your self” is an abstract category, and so you can’t really have compassion for it. What you can have compassion for is your pain, or the part of you that is suffering (which is inseparable from the pain). It’s the experience of suffering that is the object of self-compassion. The experience of suffering is more concrete. There is feeling, but no one who feels.

So this is my practice: when I’m experiencing pain I notice as best I can where it is in my body (even emotional pain is experienced in the body) and I send it my love. I send it my kindly attention, and drop phrases into the mind like “May you be well; may you be free from suffering.” But you could just as easily describe the intention as “I shall remain I shall remain friendly and empathetic, with a mind of lovingkindness, and I shall not give in to hatred (or self-pity).”

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The book that changed my life

penguin dhammapada from the 1970's, translated by juan mascaro

In the late 1970’s, between finishing high school and going to university, I opened a small book of ancient verses, and my life changed forever.

I’d been interested in Buddhism for years, but my local library only had one book on the subject — a rather dated “Teach Yourself” guide to Zen Buddhism. I’d read the book, and found it both intriguing and baffling, but struggled to get a sense of what difference Buddhism would make to my life. And I was looking for something life-changing.

One early autumn day I accompanied my parents on a shopping trip to the nearest large town, which was the possessor of that rare and precious thing — a book shop. I’d inherited a love of reading from my father, and so the two of us went (more or less) one way while my mother went hers. And after a period of browsing, I happened across a slender black-spined volume: “The Dhammapada,” translated by Juan Mascaró. I can still see exactly where in the bookshop, on which shelf, and where on the shelf the book sat, as clearly as I can see the book now on the desk in front of me.

I’d heard of the Dhammapada, and knew it was an early Buddhist scripture. I knew it was the real deal — the teaching of the Buddha — as opposed to being merely about Buddhism. And sitting in the passenger seat of my parents’ car, waiting for my mother to return from her bargain-hunting, with my father beside me listening to the droning incantation of the days’ football results, my eager hands slipped the slim book from its brown paper bag, and skipping past the introduction I read the following words:

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with an impure mind, suffering follows him as the wheel of the cart follows the beast that draws the cart.

What we are today comes from our thoughts of yesterday, and our present thoughts build our life of tomorrow: our life is the creation of our mind. If a man speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows him as his own shadow.

Despite the fact that these verses had a big effect on me, this is a terrible translation. Nevertheless, these clear and simple words were revelatory. We have choices. The key to happiness and suffering lies in the quality of our thoughts, words, and actions. Reading these verses, I knew I was a Buddhist.

Inherent in these few lines is everything we need to know about what it means to live a Buddhist life. We can find out for ourselves, through experience and observation, which thoughts, words, and actions lead to suffering and which to joy. These choices lie before us in every moment of our lives: the skilful or the unskilful; joy or sorrow. Which are you going to choose? In every moment you make choices that change your life.

Choose wisely.

PS. A better translation would be:

All experiences (dhammā) are preceded by mind (manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā). If someone speaks or acts with a corrupted mind, suffering follows them like the wheel the hoof of the ox.

All experiences (dhammā) are preceded by mind (manopubbaṅgamā), having mind as their master (manoseṭṭhā) created by mind (manomayā). If someone speaks or acts with a pure mind, joy follows them like a shadow that never leaves.

Since this is a bad translation, I suggest either Narada Thera‘s version (available free in various formats), or Gil Fronsdal’s. Buddharakkhita’s translation is good, and is available free on Access to Insight. Bhikkhu Sujato’s is excellent, and is available free on Sutta Central, along with other translations.

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Why meditation isn’t the main thing in my life

Given that I’m a meditation teacher and the author of a good number of books and audiobooks on meditation, you might think that meditation should be the central thing in my life. But — and this is something I only just realized — it’s not.

I’ve carried around, not very consciously, the idea that meditation should be the most important, the most central, thing in my life. And I suspect that this mostly unconscious idea has led to inner conflict and resistance. Certainly, when I realized just the other day that meditation wasn’t and shouldn’t be the central thing in my life, I felt unburdened. I felt lighter, freer, and clearer. The notion that meditation should be the central thing in my life was something that had been weighing me down.

It’s not that I don’t take meditation seriously. I meditate every day. It’s just what I do. It’s part of who I am. To use a common, but useful, analogy, brushing my teeth isn’t the most important part of my life, but I make sure I do it at least twice each day.

What is the most important thing in my life? What brings me the most happiness and gives me the sense that my life is being spent in a meaningful way is seeing people grow and become happier. Having a hand in that process is deeply fulfilling. So basically helping people is the central thing in my life.

But even that’s a bit of a simplification. I have a drive to become awakened, or enlightened. Or at least I have a drive to seek a meaningful way of living that maximizes my sense of happiness and peace and that minimizes the amount of unnecessary suffering I experience. That’s my quest. And it just so happens that the Buddhist goal of spiritual awakening and the Buddhist path to awakening match up with my own goal. That’s not surprising, since the whole Buddhist path is about ending suffering and finding peace.

I sometimes talk about my quest (and always think about it) as wanting to know the mind of the Buddha. Now that might sound a little selfish, or self-centered, but there’s another factor. It turns out that if I want to maximize my happiness, minimize the amount of unnecessary suffering I experience, experience more peace, and feel that I’m living life meaningfully, then I need to help others.

I can’t exactly explain why. You can call it “interconnectedness” if you want. You can talk about it in terms of non-duality. But fundamentally, helping others to move toward awakening (whether or not they’re aware that’s where they’re headed) seems to be inseparable from my own movement toward enlightenment. This is what the Mahāyāna called mahākaruṇā, or great compassion, in which we aim to guide all beings to the happiness of awakening. I believe this is what the earlier Buddhist tradition also called upekkhā, the fourth brahmavihāra. Everyone else is going to tell you that upekkhā is “equanimity,” but the root of the word upekkhā suggests that it originally meant “to watch over closely” and its place as the pinnacle of the brahmavihāras convinces me that upekkhā and mahākaruṇā are the same thing.

There’s another way you can express all this, which is to say that the Buddha (enlightenment, awakening, living an awakened life) is at the center of my life. And if I think of my life as a maṇṇḍ ala — a symbolic arrangement of values — then the Buddha is at the center of my maṇṇḍ ala.

Ideally, I’d like everything else in my life to relate to and be supportive of the center. That’s far from being the case: I have anger and craving and any number of bad habits that represent movements away from the center. But that’s what practice is about. It helps us to “want one thing.”

Meditation is just a support — albeit a crucial one — to the goal of getting myself and all beings to awakening: my “one thing.” It can never be, never has been, and never should be the most important thing in my life, even though it’s a crucial practice.

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International recovery day

Detox Your Heart, Vimalasara

Support local bookstores: Buy from Indiebound (US) or Bookshop (UK)

September 8th is International Recovery Day. Every day is a recovery day for me as I wholeheartedly go for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. The more I can place these jewels at the centre of my life, the more I walk the Noble Eightfold path that the Buddhas taught as a way out of our misery.

This path is a way to live our life that will bear the fruits of stillness, simplicity and contentment.

Perhaps choose to focus on one of the stages of the path each week throughout September and October.

  1. Transforming View – Consider transforming your perspective on life. If you related to your life differently what could that look like?
  2. Transforming Intention – Consider transforming your thoughts. If you changed the way you think what could that look like?
  3. Transforming Speech – Become aware of the traces you leave with your speech. Notice the impact of harsh, untruthful, frivolous speech. If you changed the way you communicated with yourself and others what could that look like?
  4. Transforming Action – Do an inventory of your actions out there in the world. Which actions could you consider changing?
  5. Transforming Livelihood – Livelihood refers to your work, career and your hobbies. If the way you earn your living is not ethical you may well like to reconsider what you are doing. Ask yourself how does your livelihood affect your heart and mind?
  6. Transforming Effort – Become aware of what effort you are making in trying to live a more ethical, calm and balanced life. Do you need to put more effort in abandoning harmful thoughts towards yourself and others?
  7. Transforming Mindfulness – And what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is coming back to your focus in life. Coming back to the present moment. Ask yourself how much time am I paying attention to being more aware in my life?
  8. Transforming Concentration – Concentration is the next step after Mindfulness. When Mindfulness arises, one can begin to work at sustaining Mindfulness. What do you need to do to become more concentrated?

Enjoy looking at your life. Be kind. Acknowledge how much you have changed already, or how far you have come. Next month I hope to launch the free meditation download, 21 day meditation for addiction recovery, as part of the precursor to my new book Eight Step Recovery: Using The Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction. Check https://www.facebook.com/eightsteprecovery for updates.

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Knowing the mind of the Buddha

padmasambhava

A little under two years ago I was on a retreat with other members of the Triratna Buddhist Order, which I’ve been a member of since 1993. We were discussing the visualization meditation practices we were each given at the time of our ordination.

At the time of my own ordination, the practice I had requested and was formally given — the visualization of Padmasambhava — was described as being my orientation toward enlightenment. The visualized form of Padmasambhava — a red-robed figure with a trident and skull cup overflowing with the nectar of immortality — embodied my personal connection with awakening.

“Enlightenment” can be a rather abstract concept. How can we aim to attain a state if we have no feel for what it’s like to experience it? Imagine that you wanted to develop the quality of kindness, but had no examples of kind people to inspire you? Developing the quality of kindness wouldn’t be impossible, but it would be a lot harder. So it’s helpful to develop a clear and embodied sense of what an awakened being is like, so that we can resonate imaginatively and emotionally with it (which is now no longer an “it,” but a “he” or a “she”).

I started my contribution to the discussion without much enthusiasm, because my practice of the visualization of Padmasambhava had fizzled out a long time ago, and I didn’t feel good about that. When I was ordained there was a lot of stress put on doing the visualization practice regularly, and although I’d started off well, I found visualizing to be very hard. I’m actually a very visual person, but I had some kind of block regarding the practice.

Actually, before my ordination, I had a very strong personal connection with Padmasambhava. I had many dreams about him, and sometimes when I looked at pictures of him I’d “hear” him speaking to me — often giving me very useful advice. (No, I’m not crazy; I’m aware this was really me speaking to myself.) I spent months sculpting his trident, which is very elaborate, and then rowed out into the middle of a loch in the Scottish Highlands and offered the trident up to the depths. My connection with Padmasambhava was a big deal for me.

Somehow the meditation practice I was given interfered with all this. Struggling with the visualization made me feel that there was a barrier to communing with Padmasambhava, and gradually that sense of connection faded away, and I stopped doing the meditation practice.

And there was a sense of shame about my lack of fidelity that came up as I talked on the retreat about how I’d ceased doing this visualization practice. But as I continued to talk about how I’d been exploring alternative approaches to awakening that were more rooted in direct experience, I realized that I had never lost my fidelity to an underlying quest, which I expressed that day as wanting to know the mind of the Buddha.

This was the quest I’d been involved in even before I encountered the Buddha. Even in my teens I knew there was an alternative, more real, and more satisfying way to experience the world. There was a different way to see, and a different way to be. And I wanted to know what that was like. I wanted to experience the world that way — whatever “that way” was.

When I encountered the Buddha’s teachings — and even more when I encountered the Mahayana Perfection of Wisdom Sutras — I was aware of being in the presence of that different way of seeing. And I wanted to know the mind of the Buddha.

Although I’d stopped visualizing Padmasambhava, knowing the mind of the Buddha was always my goal. And my connection with Padmasambhava was just one particular way to seek that goal.

Now, just as mudita is the joyful appreciation of the skillful in others, where the good in us resonates with the good in others, so I believe that upekkha can involve valuing and appreciating the insight that others have. It’s that within ourselves that seeks insight resonating with the insight in others. Upekkha involves wishing the highest possible good — the benefits of awakening — for others. And so we naturally respond with gratitude, respect, and even devotion, to those who embody awakening. And that in fact is the point of the practice of visualizing enlightened beings.

The Buddha himself (or possibly his early disciples) seems to have encouraged this way of approaching awakening, and there was a practice that they called “Buddhānusati” — reflecting on the Buddha and allowing ourselves to resonate with his qualities.

And I think that Buddhānusati can be an important part of our upekkha practice. I discussed a couple of days ago how we have to be engaged in a quest for awakening ourselves before we can really wish awakening for others. And I think that it’s helpful, if we’re on a quest for awakening, to develop a sense of a personal relationship with enlightenment.

This doesn’t necessarily have to take the form of a visualization meditation. That didn’t work out well for me, although perhaps I gave up too soon.

  • It could take the form of having pictures of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas on our walls, or on our phones or computer screensavers.
  • It can take the form of reading the Buddhist scriptures (many are available free online) and allowing ourselves to get to know the Buddha from the records that have been passed down to us. This may not be an easy thing to do, because much of the depth of the Buddha’s personality has been flattened by centuries of oral repetition. But enough of the Buddha still shines through for us to have a sense of his extraordinary personality.
  • It can take the form of having a Buddha statue on the altar we meditate in front of. Don’t have an altar? I’d suggest putting one together. It doesn’t need to be elaborate.
  • It can take the form of bowing to Buddha images. Bowing doesn’t mean subservience. It’s simply a respectful greeting. And so every time I walk into a meditation hall, I bow. This reminds me of my debt of gratitude to the Buddha.
  • It can take the form of chanting verses. This is done in every Buddhist tradition that I know of. In the Triratna Buddhist Community of which I’m a part, we have a number of texts that we commonly chant together. There are various recordings here. The earliest forms of Buddhānusati seem to have involved chanting.
  • And lastly, you can do visualization practices. This doesn’t have to the done in a formal way, but can be as simple as imagining that the Buddha is sitting beside you when you’re meditating. I often do this. I don’t even necessarily “see” anything, so visualizing isn’t the right word. But just as you can know someone’s sitting beside you when you have your eyes closed, you can imagine someone sitting beside you while you’re meditating. There’s a feeling of a physical presence. And what I often do is to drop in the words “Feel the love of the Buddha.” So not only am I experiencing the Buddha sitting beside me, I feel him as a loving presence. Often this results in a feeling of warm on the skin of the side of my body that’s nearest to him.

So we seek to know the mind of the Buddha, to get close to him and to develop an appreciation and respect for awakened qualities — qualities which we ourselves are bringing into being. And in the upekkha bhavana practice we can wish that those qualities manifest in others, so that they know the peace and joy of awakening.

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Taking refuge in the Buddha

As a teacher I’m often asked: What does it mean in Buddhist practice when you agree to “take refuge” in the Buddha? Does this mean I need to worship the Buddha? Or pray to the Buddha? Isn’t this setting up the Buddha as “other” or some kind of god?

Traditionally, there are three fundamental refuges are where we can find genuine safety and peace, a sanctuary for our awakening heart and mind, a place to rest our human vulnerability. In their shelter, we can face and awaken from the trance of fear.

The first of these is the Buddha, or our own awakened nature. The second is the dharma (the path or the way), and the third is the sangha (the community of aspirants).

In the formal practice of Taking Refuge, we recite three times: “I take refuge in the Buddha, I take refuge in the dharma, I take refuge in the sangha.” Yet, even though there is a formula, this is not an empty or mechanical ritual, but a practice meant to expand our understanding and intention.

With each repetition, we allow ourselves to open ever more deeply to the living experience behind the words. As we do, the practice leads to a profound deepening of our faith: The more fully we open to and inhabit each refuge, the more we trust our own heart and awareness. By taking refuge we learn to trust the unfolding of our lives.

The first step in this practice, taking refuge in the Buddha, may be approached on various levels, and we can choose the way most meaningful to our particular temperament. We might for instance take refuge in the historical Buddha, the human being who attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree 2500 years ago.

This doesn’t mean that we are worshipping the man who became enlightened, or setting him up as “other” or as “higher” than ourselves, but bowing and honoring the Buddha nature that already exists within us. For instance when the Buddha encountered Mara, he felt fear—the same painfully constricted throat, chest and belly, the same racing heart that we each experience when fear strikes our heart.

By willingly meeting fear with his full attention, the Buddha discovered fearlessness — the open, clear awareness that recognizes the arising and passing of fear without contracting nor identifying with it. Taking refuge in the truth of his awakening can inspire us on our own path toward fearlessness.

At the same time, those who are devotional by nature might seek safety and refuge in the living spirit of the Buddha’s awakened heart and mind. Much like praying to Christ or the Divine Mother, we can take refuge in a Being or presence that cares about our suffering.

In taking this first refuge, I sometimes say, “I take refuge in the Beloved” and surrender into what I experience as the boundlessness of compassion. When I am feeling fear, I surrender it to the Beloved. By this, I am not trying to get rid of fear, but rather letting go into a refuge that is vast enough to hold my fear with love.

In the most fundamental way, taking refuge in the Buddha means taking refuge in our own potential for liberation. In order to embark on a spiritual path we need faith that our own heart and mind have the potential to awaken. The true power of Buddha’s story, the power that has kept it alive for all these centuries, rests in the fact that it demonstrates what is possible for each of us.

We so easily believe limiting stories about ourselves and forget that our very nature—our Buddha nature—is aware and loving. When we take refuge in the Buddha, we are taking refuge in the same capacity of awareness that awakened Siddhartha under the Bodhi Tree. We too can realize the blessing of freedom. We too can become fearless.

After taking refuge in the Beloved, I turn my attention inward, saying “I take refuge in this awakening heart mind.” Letting go of any notion that Buddha nature is something beyond or outside my awareness, I look towards the innate wakefulness of my being, the tender openness of my heart.

Minutes earlier, I might have been taking myself to be the rush of emotions and thoughts moving through my mind. But by intentionally taking refuge in awareness, that small identity dissolves, and with it, the trance of fear.

By directing our attention towards our deepest nature, by honoring the essence of our being, our own Buddha nature becomes to us more of a living reality. We are taking refuge in the truth of who we are.

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What is at the center of your life?

In the 12-step tradition of Alcoholics Anonymous it clearly states in the third step that we need to make a decision “to turn our will and our lives over to the care of a God as we understood him,: if we are to maintain sobriety and abstinence.

Buddhists, whether in recovery or not, or have an addiction or not, turn their lives over to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. When we surrender to this action, we are placing positive refuges at the center of our lives. We are placing the ideal of liberation and freedom, the teachings of the Buddha and the spiritual community at the center of our lives.

What this means is that we surrender to the potential of waking up to reality and begin to see things clearly, without the story, judgments or interpretation. This is what helps to take care of our lives.

‘In reference to the seen, there will be only the seen. In reference to the heard, only the heard. In reference to the sensed, only the sensed. In reference to the cognized, only the cognized.’ From the Bahiya sutta.

It is a different way of experiencing the world one that helps to dissolve our obsessions and addictions.

Inevitably what we often go to refuge to will bring about suffering. Those of us with addictions know that all to well. Our addiction has been the thing that has been at the center of our lives.

‘We are likely to have used our addiction as a refuge to cope with difficulties, and we may have engaged in other damaging behavior, such as self-harm or getting involved in destructive relationships, to manage painful emotions. We call these refuges that don’t help us in the long run, false refuges. False refuges look like they are going to be reliable, are going to relieve our pain, but they let us down. They don’t work, except perhaps in the short-term.

They are like a derelict house, empty, no life, or breath, with weak walls and a leaky roof. We flee from the storm only to find that the rain starts to come through the roof. Then as the wind picks up, the whole structure blows over, and we are left exposed to the elements with pieces of the building falling on us. We are no nearer to safety. Instead we are soaked and have cuts all over from the fallen timber.’

‘When we reflect on what is truly valuable to us, what we really want our lives to be about, and what sort of person we deeply want to be? If we are clear about what is important to us and what we really value, it is easier to steer our lives in a meaningful direction, and it helps us to keep going when the going gets tough.’ Eight Step Recovery – Using the Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction.

“A God of our understanding” does not have to be a person – do not let that fool you. A God of our understanding can be the compassionate care of practices, like mindfulness, loving kindness or ethics. Far better to have qualities like these at the center of our lives rather than relationships, people and teachers, because inevitably one day these relationships will cease. We may abandon the practice of mindfulness, loving kindness and ethics for a while, but we can always go back to them and cultivate them again in our lives. They will not let us down in the same way people will. They are far more reliable.

  • What is at the center of your life?
  • What do you spend most of your time thinking about?

The answers to these questions will tell you what you go to refuge to.

  • How reliable are the things you put at the center of your life?
  • Are they a false refuges or positive refuges?

Next month we will look at one of the reliable Buddhist teaching that is helpful to put at the center of our lives.

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Gratitude for the teachings and teachers (Day 75)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“A person of integrity is grateful and thankful” — The Buddha (Day 74)

100 Days of Lovingkindness

The Buddha, in Bhikkhu Thanissaro’s translation at least, said, “A person of integrity is grateful and thankful.” This is one of those thoughts that I’m profoundly grateful for because I don’t think it would ever have occurred to me. Yet searching the web for the terms “gratitude” and “integrity” brought me to an interesting book, The Gratitude Factor: Enhancing Your Life Through Grateful Living, by Charles M. Shelton.

Shelton explores this theme of integrity and gratitude. He distinguishes between thankfulness (which involves being appreciative of some specific person or thing) and gratitude (which is a deeper and more pervasive attitude to life consisting of being grateful not just for specific things but for living itself). And he observes that many people who discuss this distinction, and who value gratitude over thankfulness, see gratitude as being related to “virtue” and “integrity.”

Here’s the connection that Shelton makes:

A life of deepening gratitude requires that we commit ourselves to goodness; only people of integrity live truly good lives. Only conscience can ensure that we are women and men of integrity. Conscience is a uniquely human quality that requires us to make choices that reflect goodness, to follow thought on our choices, and to commit ourselves to the choices we make. Gratitude is linked to conscience just by the fact that we could never acknowledge, live out, or give back our giftedness unless we had within us some prior moral sense that recognizes the gracious generosity of giving and motivates us to give back in turn for what we have received.

I’ve pointed out often that the brain is modular, and not a single system running smoothly as one unit. It involves cooperation, competition, inhibition of one module by another. And so our selves are modular in exactly the same way. We don’t have “a self.” And to the extent to which the various modules in the brain are operating on conflicting assumptions, to that extent the more unhappy and conflicted our experience will be. When some parts of the brain are screaming that hanging on selfishly to what we have is the way to be happy, and another is saying that compassionately giving to another person is the way to be happy, then — stuck in this conflict — we’re not going to be happy. And in fact it’s the latter of these two parts of the brain that is right; giving creates more happiness than holding on.

So wisdom helps us to recognize what truly brings peace and happiness, and mindfulness and volition, informed by that wisdom, help us to educate the more grasping and the more aggressive parts of the brain and encourages them to “stand down” so that we can act in ways that bring about peace and happiness. Perhaps we’re enlightened when those more primitive parts of the brain are completely re-educated. Or perhaps they simply go offline, or their inputs are so weakened that they can never, after the point of awakening, have a real effect on our behavior. I just don’t know.

But the thing is that our multiple and conflicting selves become more integrated around our wisdom, so that there’s less inner conflict. The whole of us becomes an expression of, and an accessory to, that which is most wise in us. All spiritual practice involves a process of integration, which leads to “integrity,” which means “wholeness.” And this is a wholeness centered on “the good.”

Mudita — joyful appreciation, focusing on the good in ourselves and others — is one important factor in bringing about this sense of wholeness and integrity. The less we obsess about what’s wrong with the world, the less we feel out of place in the world, and the less we feel conflicted and defensive. And so our sense of existing in a state of polarization is reduced. Our sense of being an isolated “self” is reduced. Our being becomes more relaxed, more diffused. We see ourselves as essentially good, and we see our role as being to encourage the emergence of the good that is in others.

Shelton also notes:

Individuals who feel interiorly a sense of their own goodness appear to possess an integrity that flows outwardly; they claim that a fundamental stance of goodness exists in the world. For them the world is an inviting place that encourages them to spread and give away their own goodness.

As I continue to explore mudita as part of our 100 Days of Lovingkindness, that statement more and more closely resembles my own experience. I hope this is true for you as well.

PS. You can see all of our 100 Days of Livingkindness posts here.

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