Listening to the Buddha within


The history of Buddhist scriptures has, to simplify a little, two main phases. There were the initial teachings, recorded in a number of languages and passed on first orally and then in written form. The sole complete version of these that we have is called the Pali canon.

Then there are the Mahayana (“Greater Vehicle”) scriptures, which often claim to be the word of the Buddha, but which were clearly composed much later. The style of these indicates that they were composed as written works, and didn’t go through a phase of oral transmission.

The fact that the Mahayana scriptures don’t literally come from the Buddha doesn’t invalidate them as sources of wisdom, of course. I love a lot of the Mahayana Sutras and take inspiration from them. The Perfection of Wisdom sutras (including the Heart Sutra and Diamond Sutra) and the Vimalakirti Nirdesha are works that I consider to be the profoundest spiritual documents in the world. In fact the claim that the Mahayana sutras came from the Buddha himself points to something very interesting about the nature of insight.

These scriptures were composed by people with genuine spiritual insight at a time when other early schools had largely slipped into scholasticism. Just to take one example, some of the key terms of the Mahayana, like “shunyata” (emptiness) are found in the early scriptures, but they’re largely ignored by the Theravadin tradition, or at least they’re very far from being central to its teachings. The Mahayana, on the other hand, kept alive a spiritually vital understanding of what the Buddha meant by that term.

The Mahayana authors chose to present their explication of those teachings as scriptures (writings purporting to be the word of the Buddha) rather than commentaries (the writings of later teachers). There’s a sort of dishonesty implicit in that, unless you consider the possibility of the teachings having emerged in visionary states, in which case the “composers” of the Mahayana sutras might well have believed that they were passing on teachings that mystically came from the Buddha. It’s quite literally possible in a meditative state to “hear” teachings from the Buddha.

There’s plenty of this is the Pali canon, by the way. There are many discourses where a disciple was pondering a question, and the Buddha appeared to them in a vision and gave them a teaching. For example, one time a disciple of the Buddha was trying to meditate, but falling asleep. We’re told that the Buddha then appeared to him (although he was physically elsewhere) and gave him instructions on how to stay awake.

I take this to mean that a deeper level of intuitive insight arose in the disciples, but was presented in the Buddha’s voice.

We all have the experience of having conversations in our head with other people we know well. We’ve internalized their thought patterns and mannerisms to the extent where we can run a mental simulation of them. Sometimes, though, when we’re very familiar with a teacher’s mode of presentation, we can “hear” them answering a question that’s in our mind. It’s not a psychic transmission, but our own wisdom appearing in the teacher’s appearance and voice. Although this is “our” wisdom, we hear insights that are new to us, and that surprise us.

So I think that this may have been what happened with the Mahayana scriptures — that they did come from the Buddha, in a sense, but not the historical Buddha. Instead they came from insights that arose in the minds of deep practitioners of the Dharma, manifesting in the guise of the Buddha.

For us, the important voices to listen to are our conscience and our intuition. This is one reason it’s crucial that we learn to calm the mind in meditation, so that there’s less inner chatter going on. Through meditation we can create a quiet inner space in which the quiet murmurs of our unconscious wisdom can make themselves heard. Eventually, these voices may appear in the guise of the Buddha, or some other figure who represents wisdom. But that’s not what matters. It’s simply important that we learn to still the mind, and to listen.

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Mood of meditation at Buddhist Temple

John Curry, Stittsville/Richmond EMC: Except for the intermittent sounds of traffic passing by on Hazeldean Road filtering into the building and the ticking of a wall clock, silence reigned in Stittsville’s Cambodian Buddhist Temple on Thursday evening, May 17 as Bhante Kovida led attendees through meditation exercises.

One involved moving the hands in a rotational cycle, while touching the body at certain points. These movements and touches enhance a person’s awareness of the moment and helps eliminating random thoughts from the mind. In this way, these hand and arm movements are a roadway to a state of meditation.

This exercise was followed by a …

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Blue Lotus Temple buys former Unitarian church

Chelsea McDougall, Northwest Herald, Il.: Monk Bhante Sujatha’s face drops when he’s in concentrated meditation. He sits cross legged on the floor on a firm pillow. He’s wrapped in a loose robe. His feet are shoeless. A Buddha statue in a similar pose sits directly behind him.

His muscles relax and it’s as if all the day’s problems have melted away.

The Blue Lotus Temple recently bought the former Unitarian Universalist Congregation near downtown Woodstock and Sujatha’s life just got a little more hectic.

The temple bought the building at 221 Dean St. for $125,000, and now is adjusting to mortgage payments and a slew of bills as the temple renovates the former church’s interior.

But Sujatha can deal with it. He’s studied the Buddhist teachings for more than 30 years. He teaches others self awareness and spiritual guidance, and he knows how to cope with struggles.

“Being a monk I don’t say my life is 100 percent peaceful,” he said. “No, I get distracted.”

Back from his mediation, Sujatha is lighthearted. One might even call him jovial. He often tells jokes and flashes a bright, white smile as he laughs along at his own quips.

“People think we are monks, we are so serious,” he said through a thick accent. English is a second language to the Sri Lanka native. “We are funny, always cracking jokes.”

It’s believable. Sujatha calls his smartphone an iMonk. Another young monk – the temple has four and one monastic nun – giggled at a silly YouTube video. Several monks on Friday had just gotten back from a snowy walk to Starbucks. Sujatha has a story for everything.

Having a place to call their own is a big change for Blue Lotus Temple. Until December the temple hosted meditations in the basement of the Unitarian Church.

“Now that we own the building, people feel like home,” Sujatha said.

When Sujatha first started leading meditations, protesters gathered outside the church. But 10 years later the community is more accepting, he said.

“People accept me as more than a religious leader, but as a peace maker,” Sujatha said. “They understand we are doing something wonderful for the community. Not harmful.”

The temple officially will open in May after a dedication at its annual Buddha Day celebration. Monks from all over the world have been invited to the temple’s dedication.

Until then, the temple is planning a large-scale renovation of the building’s interior, all while maintaining the building’s historical integrity. An archway and stained-glass windows with Christian religious icons will stay. The temple will continue hosting a PADS shelter site.

Blue Lotus Temple’s weekly meditations will continue through the renovations. Meditations are open to everyone, regardless of religious background. Meditations are held from 10 to 11 a.m. on Saturdays, and from 7 to 8 p.m. on Mondays. There is monastic practice open to the public from 6 to 6:30 p.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

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Forest monks portrayed in photo exhibition

Venerable Ajahn Cagino, 43, lives in a cave with two snakes and eight bats. The cave is 2km from the nearest village in Mae Hong Son in northern Thailand. Nestled in a deep valley hemmed in by high mountain ranges that border Myanmar, Mae Hong Son is isolated from the outside world and is covered with mist throughout the year.

“I’ve had enough of wandering,” says the Malaysian monk of Thai Forest Tradition, which is a branch of Theravada Buddhism.

For 12 years, Cagino had been walking through the remotest jungles of Thailand, before settling…

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See also a slideshow of the exhibition below.

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Prince William and Kate Middleton told meditation is key to a happy union

The first Buddhist monk to be invited to a royal wedding has advised Prince William and Kate Middleton to meditate daily for a happy marriage.

The Venerable Bogoda Seelawimala, the most senior Buddhist monk in Britain, said that would help them get through any marital difficulties.

He said: “Discuss your problems and meditate together each morning to empty the mind of all your problems.”

Mr Seelawimala, 55, who is head priest at the London Buddhist Vihara in Chiswick, has been invited to join the 1,700-strong congregation at Westminster Abbey on April 29.

But the head of Britain’s…

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150,000 Buddhists also warned the couple to “set an example”, reminding them that they were role models.

The Chiswick monastery was the first to be built outside the Asian continent. Set up in 1926, it is home to five monks. More than 1,000 Buddhists attend.

The wedding is not Mr Seelawimala’s first link with royalty. Prince Charles visited the Vihara in 2005 following the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. “He is a very warm-hearted man,” Mr Seelawimala said. “He was very interested in Buddhism and asked some great questions. He was very keen to know about meditation and how hard it was sit with your knees crossed for so long.”

Mr Seelawimala is keen for William to follow in his father’s footsteps and visit the monastery. He said: “I would love them to join in a meditation session.”

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Thai Buddhists celebrate approval of new temple

The temple will be fit for a king.

Area Thai Buddhists celebrated the town’s final blessing of their future home last week, smiling for the cameras before a model of the largest sanctuary of its kind outside of Thailand.

The 109,000-square-foot Theravada Buddhist temple and meditation center on South Street East will serve as a religious and cultural center and home to as many as 16 resident monks.

It will be topped with a 185-foot golden steeple.

“What a magnificent structure,” Zoning Appeals Board Chairman Robert Newton said before his board unanimously approved the spire’s height.

The plan fulfills the long-held dream of Boston-area Thai families to honor their monarch, King Rama IX, Bhumibhol Adulyadej, who was born in Cambridge in 1927.

Project advisor Richard Cook, a retired engineer, said the complex of buildings surrounding a courtyard was consistent with the religion and culture of Thailand.

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“Sons of the Buddha,” by Kamala Tiyavanich

Sons of the Buddha, Kamala TiyavanichIn Sons of the Buddha Kamala Tiyavanich shows how the early experiences and upbringing of three Thai boys led to their developing into powerfully influential figures in the Theravadin world.

All Buddhist masters were once children, just like you and I. In Sons of the Buddha Kamala Tiyavanich shows how three prominent Thai Buddhists of the 20th century — Ajahns Buddhadasa, Panya, and Junmien — were shaped by the social, religious, and political standards of their youthful years.

Using their own words and other source material (listed at the end of the text) Tiyavanich crafts three parallel stories to provide readers with an engaging portrait of southern Thai Buddhism before the modernization and Westernization of Thailand. The introduction sets the stage by providing a significant view of each Ajahn’s (Bhikkhu’s) impact on the modern state of Thai Buddhism. We see how each became an active teacher, took a stand for greater morality, and how each reinvigorated the use of everyday experience in teaching the Buddha-Dhamma.

Starting with Ajahn Buddhadasa, likely the most well known 20th century Thai bhikkhu to those of us in the West, we learn of his parents, their place in society, his childhood in the village, and something of the social structure of that period on the southern Thai peninsula.

  Junmien’s father insisted he practice meditation while still a young boy, intent on teaching him the mental discipline he believed necessary for success in life   

As an infant Buddhadasa was named Ngaum (“cave high up on a mountain”) by a respected monk. We learn that young boys often spent a significant amount of time at the local Wat (monastic temple) and often lived there for a significant amount of time, working to help maintain the Wat by cooking and cleaning. This was often the boys’ first opportunity to get any formal education. It was only later, when Ngaum had become a Bhikkhu that he was given the name Buddhadasa (servant of the Buddha). As with most young men at the time Ngaum entered the monastery for a temporary period at age 20. Yet, because of his parents being shopkeepers and having books, Ngaum was already well read and practiced in debating Dhamma when he entered the monastery. He found life as a monk suited him, and his Dhamma talks were very well received by the elder residents.

Ajahn Panya (boyhood name Pan) was still a young monk when he came to Ajahn Buddhadasa’s forest monastery for the rains retreat in 1936. The two bhikkhus became friends and maintained their friendship until Buddhadasa’s death in 1993. His boyhood was filled with stories told by his grandmothers, and in this way he learned a great deal of “folk wisdom” which, at that time was full of tales illustrating morality (sila). As a young man he tried making his fortune in the world outside his village and wherever he would find work he would quickly learn that this was not for him. Time and again his path would lead him to the local monastery of the region. Eventually, he learned that the life of a monk was what best suited him.

The author does not indicate that Ajahn Junmien’s life path crossed that of Buddhadasa or Panya except in that his story shares many parallels with that of the others. Junmien’s father insisted he practice meditation while still a young boy, intent on teaching him the mental discipline he believed necessary for success in life. He also taught Junmien many gathas (invocations) that could be used to see the him through difficulties in life. Because of his father’s strong influence Junmien developed great courage and ability at whatever he undertook. At one point the author relates that Junmien was singled out by his parents from his five siblings, for they felt he had the greatest potential of all their children. Their expectations of him where much higher and they pushed him much harder than the other children. From age eight Junmien began studying any books available at the local monastery, eventually working his way through much of the Tripitika before becoming ordained.

  There is humor, sadness, and an abundance of lessons in this seemingly simple narrative.   

The stories are engaging, and while reading Sons of the Buddha the pages flew by. I was continually brought to consider my own rural boyhood, to compare my early experience with that of Ngaum, Pan, and Junmien. Their family relations, their trials, and their mischief are all related to who they became as Buddhist monks. I too find that in looking back to my boyhood there were formative conditions and experiences that are still producing fruit now that I’m walking the Buddhist path.

Sons of the Buddha is not an overtly didactic book. There is humor, sadness, and an abundance of lessons in this seemingly simple narrative. Kamala Tiyavanich weaves three life-stories together, not always gracefully or with the polish of a seasoned storyteller, but effectively showing the salt and grit of three boys’ rough-and-tumble experience. It is an enjoyable read pointing to the value of reflecting on one’s upbringing — pointing to the Dhamma that is in each of our lives if we take the time to look and consider how we’ve come to be who we now are.

Title: Sons of the Buddha: The Early Lives of Three Extraordinary Thai Masters
Author: Kamala Tiyavanich
Publisher: Wisdom Publications, 2007
ISBN: 0-86171-536-5

Priyamitra was ordained in the Western Buddhist Order/Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana in 2005.

He lives in Spokane, Washington where he is active as a prison Dharma volunteer.

In February and March 2009 he will be fulfilling a life-long ambition of going on pigrimage in south Asia.

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“The Meditator’s Atlas: A Roadmap of the Inner World” by Matthew Flickstein

The Meditator's Atlas

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What is the Buddhist Path? Can we become spiritually awakened through meditation alone, or do we have to take a more rounded approach? If we’re already free, why do we need to follow a path anyway? Looking for answers, Tejananda, long-term Buddhist practitioner and meditation teacher, follows The Meditator’s Atlas on a spiritual road trip to purification.

The Path of Purification (Visuddhimagga) is Buddhaghosa’s classic commentary on the way to full awakening. Buddhaghosa was a fifth-century Indian exponent of the Theravada or “Doctrine of The Elders” school. The Theravada bases its approach on the Pali canon which contains some of the earliest extant records of the Buddha and his teachings.

See also:

While it’s an invaluable resource for meditators, the Visuddhimagga is a huge tome and it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. Matthew Flickstein’s “The Meditator’s Atlas” (formerly titled Swallowing the River Ganges and now totally revised) is a fairly short and clearly written commentary on the Visuddhimagga. It not only elucidates the nature of the path of insight according to Buddhaghosa, but also provides useful tools and meditations for every stage of that path, many of them based on the Satipatthana Sutta, the discourse on the foundations of mindfulness.

But what is the Buddhist path? In a telling passage right at the end of the book, Matthew Flickstein writes:

All paths, religions and spiritual practices are just more stories. There is ultimately nothing that we need to do or practice, since we are already free. And, again, the greatest freedom is freedom from the illusion that we are not already free – and all maps of the true spiritual journey lead us right to where we are.

So the question naturally arises “what stops us being where we are already?” Different Buddhist traditions have somewhat different approaches, different paths (including, naturally, the “path of no-path”) but all of them inevitably have to address the fundamental issue. We suffer because we unquestioningly believe that things are other than they actually are. This erroneous belief — delusion — leads us to fixate on what we take to be our “self” and we uphold this “self-view” by constantly engaging in stratagems of craving, grasping and aversion, and revulsion. The underlying delusion and these stratagems that arise from it — the “three poisons” — are what are preventing us from being “right where we are.”

Buddhaghosa outlines a “path of purification” leading to the eradication of the three poisons and the consequent realization of nibbana (nirvana). According to the author,

Although nibbana cannot be realized without having completed the purification process, nibbana does not arise as a result of the process. Nibbana is a self-subsistent reality that is not the result of anything. By following the path of purification, we merely eradicate the delusions and perceptual distortions that prevent us from discerning this ultimate truth.

The path –- and the book –- is structured round the fundamental “three trainings” of virtue, meditation and wisdom, subdivided into seven stages of purification. Acts that arise from craving or aversion — unethical behaviors of every kind – “sabotage the possibility of realizing the deeper states of spiritual purification.” Sitting meditation alone is not enough: “To reach the pinnacle of spiritual realization, we must align every aspect of our lives with that goal.” So the path begins with the purification of virtue (though it is never left behind). The author details the practice of the main precepts and the importance of “guarding the sense doors” against impulses of greed, hatred or delusion, while cultivating their opposites: generosity, loving-kindness and clarity of mind.

Then, “the purification of virtue manifests as states of mind unstained by thoughts or feelings of remorse.” This is the basis for the next stage, purification of mind, which is primarily about the cultivation of what the author (in common with many others) refers to as “concentration” of mind. It’s an unfortunate term, given possible connotations of furrowed brows; I think alternatives like “one pointedness,” “absorption,” or “integration” have much more helpful connotations. Nevertheless, whatever you call it, it’s a necessary quality, although, as the author points out, teachers differ greatly as to how much concentration is necessary for the cultivation of insight. Most of this section is, quite sensibly, devoted to one concentration practice –- mindfulness of breathing –- rather than the forty that Buddhaghosa outlines in the Visuddhimagga.

There are some useful observations in this section. For example, people sometimes comment that at a certain point the breathing “seems to disappear.” This can be taken as a “good sign,” or it can lead to anxiety and a loss of absorption. The author comments, “The reason we cannot perceive the breaths is because our concentration is not strong enough. If we keep our focus on the touch-point and make a concerted effort, we will be able to perceive the breathing process once again.”

A helpful emphasis of the book is that, although the author details the potential for deeper levels of absorption (jhana), he also brings out the potential for insight-cultivation on the basis of initial concentration. As he points out “unless we have an extended period of time to devote to the practice of serenity meditation, and have the proper environmental and teaching support, we face an extremely difficult challenge when we pursue the attainment of these jhanas.” If we believe that “insight meditation” can only be effective on the basis of extensive experience of the jhanas, we may hold back from insight reflections that we are perfectly ready for, and hinder our penetration into the essence of the Buddha’s teaching.

All paths, religions and spiritual practices are just more stories.

And it’s the path of insight (wisdom) that most of the rest of the book is about. The ways to insight that he describes are mainly around the contemplation of the impermanent, unsatisfactory and selfless nature of body, feelings, consciousness and dhammas (“phenomena”). But he covers a lot of ground, including all the stages of purification, and a lot of approaches, including elimination of the five “hindrances,” walking meditation, balanced effort and mindfulness of pain. Particularly helpful are the exercises and practical hints he provides for approaching each area of practice. For example, in the area of mindfulness of pain, he recommends sitting completely still for long enough that pains begin to appear. The issue with pain, he writes, “more than the unpleasant feeling itself is the fear of being overwhelmed by the experience” which leads to mental and physical tightening, intensifying the unpleasant experience. By softening and settling into the painful feeling, he suggests, we begin to see through our misperceptions about it. “We will then be able to … discover that there is no pain in the knee, back or other location as such. The place in which we feel the pain actually keeps shifting from moment to moment. Further, … between pulsations of pain, there is the absence of pain.”

The exercises, reflecting the Path of Purification itself, are carefully and progressively structured. Of course, when reading a book such as this, it’s always a temptation to skip the earlier and apparently less exciting stages. This is one reason why a book alone is not really enough without access to personal teaching or mentoring –- exactly as most books on meditation emphasize. However, any degree of penetration into the truths of the Dharma can have a revolutionary effect –- including what here appear to be preliminary exercises. If there is any area that is given slightly short shrift, it’s the place of positive emotions such as loving kindness in the path of insight, which Buddhaghosa does cover in some detail. But to deal with that adequately may have needed a much longer book. Overall, The Meditator’s Atlas is a helpful adjunct for those already practicing within a sangha (the general approach sits quite harmoniously with that taught in the Triratna Buddhist Community, in which I practice) and a good overview of the path for those new to meditation.

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