Triratna Buddhist Community

The “Worldly Winds” (video)

In this 20-minute talk, prepared for Day 1 of Triratna’s 2011 International Urban Retreat, Vajragupta introduces the eight Worldly Winds.

Known in traditional Buddhism as the Lokadhammas, they are eight ways in which the world can ‘blow us around’ – gain and loss, pleasure and pain, fame and infamy, and praise and blame.

The Urban Retreat runs worldwide from Saturday October 8th – 15th, for more details see Over 50 buddhist centres around the world are taking part, and many more individuals via the internet. All are welcome.

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Pleasure and pain: the worldly winds

Vidyamala talks about the worldly winds of pleasure and pain as part of the Triratna Buddhist Community’s International Urban Retreat, where for one week (8 – 15 October, 2011) people around the world at Triratna centers intensify their practice while staying their your home situation. The Urban Retreat is about learning to make Buddhist practice real and effective in daily life.

You can see more Triratna videos at from

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Why I call myself a Buddhist

Figure with weird bulging eyes, from a Tibetan thangka painting.

When I became a Mitra (friend) of the Triratna Buddhist Community earlier this year, I was surprised by the surprise of my non-Buddhist friends. They seemed aggrieved.

This was the general message:

‘We know you’ve benefited from meditation, and going on silent retreats. Although that’s not our idea of a holiday, we’re pleased for you. But why spoil everything by espousing a weird Eastern religion? Can’t you keep it secular? And if you have to be religious (though God knows why) can’t you stick to your own? OK, maybe not the Church. But what’s wrong with the Quakers? They sit in silence and meditate, don’t they?’

Fair enough questions. And I tried to answer them. I talked about the value of meditation, the common sense of the precepts. I talked about enjoying chanting, and finding ritual moving.

This was all true. But my explanation, even as I gave it, struck me as just so much hot air. After a lot of apologetic shrugs at dinner tables and in cafes, I realised that my decision to become a Mitra hadn’t been ‘thought through’ at all.

The commitments involved in becoming a Mitra – coming out as a Buddhist, promising to live by the precepts and choosing the Triratna Buddhist community as my spiritual home – didn’t feel like things I had ‘decided’ on.

Rather, all my experiences within the Triratna Buddhist Community had added up and reached a tipping point. I suddenly felt ‘at home’ with it all.

By experiences, I mean acts of kindness I’ve felt and witnessed. I mean the teachings of Order Members and the warmth or sometimes lacerating sharpness with which those teachings are delivered. I mean stuff I read in Buddhist books that speaks directly to personal problems I didn’t realise anyone else had. I mean the intimacy of joined voices reciting the seven-fold puja (one of the core rituals in the Triratna Buddhist Community) and the hypnotic beauty of the Heart Sutra, the poem at its core. I mean the pregnant sense of strangeness and mystery that often suffuses me when I sit in silence with myself or with others, at home, at Leeds Buddhist Centre, or on early morning meditations on retreat where you enter the shrine room in the dark, meditate while dawn gathers, and step out utterly and completely in the day.

I can no more justify or quantify this than I can tell you why somebody falls in love with one person – perhaps a person from a different background – and not another. My Mitra ceremony felt like a kind of marriage. Most marriages go through rocky patches, I know. I’m going through one even as I write this, not having meditated for a fortnight. But Buddhist practice gives me a home to come back to, a structure to see my struggles in the context of. That’s why I was happy to say ‘I do.’

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Bodhipaksa interviewed on television program

Click here to view video on YouTube.

This piece about Aryaloka Buddhist Center, where I teach, was on New Hampshire’s WMUR two weeks ago. The did a great job, I thought, of showing what Aryaloka’s like. The only unfortunate thing was that they couldn’t film a “real” gathering of the Sangha — at the Tuesday Sangha Night there are usually 40 to 50 people in attendance — and so we had to round up a few strays in order to stage a meditation and discussion group.

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“The Yogi’s Joy,” by Sangharakshita

The Yogi's Joy

How would you feel if your teacher burned your book collection? A new book by Sangharakshita highlights a challenging friendship between a Tibetan guru and his disciple.

A good dharma book is humbling. It is like a spiritual friend who isn’t afraid of cutting through our defenses in the service of positive change. Sangharakshita’s new book, exploring three songs of Milarepa, challenged me in this way. The material is compiled from edited transcripts of seminars Sangharakshita gave to members of the Triratna Buddhist Order (formerly the Western Buddhist Order) in the late 70’s, about Milarepa, his songs and the spiritual life. The songs chosen are about spiritual friendship and its challenges. We get to see Milarepa beginning a relationship with one of his close disciples, Rechungpa. We get to watch as they get in tune with each other.

Title: The Yogi’s Joy: Songs of Milarepa
Author: Sangharakshita
Publisher: Windhorse Publications
ISBN: 1-899-57966-4
Available from: Windhorse Publications (UK), and

Milarepa was a Tibetan yogi who lived 1052–1135 C.E. in medieval Tibet. The basic outline of Milarepa’s life is that he was cheated out of land by some relatives. He used black magic to create a storm that killed the thieves, and then, fearing that he would have a bad rebirth, he turned to the spiritual life in order to save himself. He went to Marpa for teachings. Marpa made him build, tear down and rebuild a tower, as a way to cleanse his karma. (You can go see the last tower Milarepa built, it still exists, the tower is situated in Lhodrak district, north of the Bhutanese border.) When Milarepa was ready and his karma was cleansed, Marpa told him to go and meditate in caves.

Legend has it that in Milarepa’s last teaching he flashed his calloused butt to a student to suggest how hard you need to meditate.

Milarepa is famous for his rigorous practice and his asceticism. He is said to have turned green from eating nettles, which formed the main component of his diet. One day the wind was so fierce that Milarepa passed out, and when he awakened his robe was gone. He liked to flout convention, and there are many stories of him being naked, or showing his body. Legend has it that in his last teaching he flashed his calloused butt to a student to suggest how hard you need to meditate. There is a spiritual intensity here that’s not for dilettantes. This is more of a spirituality of confrontation than of comfort, and Milarepa’s spiritual intensity and commitment, while it can seem inspiring, can also seem extreme and frightening.

The songs in The Yogi’s Joy are taken from The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, which is the written records of Milarepa’s songs: the spiritual poems that he would sing as a way of teaching people the Dharma. Apparently it’s not too hard to improvise songs in the Tibetan language because of its structure. Ordinary folk would often sing as they worked, and Sangharakshita met many Tibetans in Kalimpong in the 1950’s who would improvise songs. The Yogi’s Joy is good at setting the historical stage, and at translating Milarepa’s teachings into a modern context.

We know enough Dharma; doing it is the hard thing.

Milarepa’s relationship with his discipline Rechungpa is at the heart of this book. Rechungpa went off to India to get some teaching, and comes back haughty and puffed up. He no longer wants to hang out with his guru Milarepa in caves, and instead wants to find some sponsors to give him a good meal and lodging. But Milarepa gets Rechungpa to go out for water, and while he’s away on this errand, Milarepa burns his books. This would have been a challenging moment in a spiritual friendship, I imagine. There’s something emotionally challenging in being receptive to another person, because of the level of trust and vulnerability involved. It’s not easy to be open to a true spiritual friend.

As well as being a story about the friendship between Milarepa and Rechungpa, The Yogi’s Joy is the meeting between Milarepa and Sangharakshita — two people of great spiritual depth. Sangharakshita was born in England in 1925 and spent almost 20 years in the east practicing Buddhism. In 1967, in England, he founded a Buddhist order — the Triratna Buddhist Order — which has spread around the world. Sangharakshita says, “If any westerner practices even a hundredth part of what they have read, they are probably doing pretty well.” You could say this about reading Sangharakshita’s book. He has many intense spiritual teachings, which it would be easy to just keep reading past as we move on to the next one. But to connect with spiritual teachings, to let them percolate into the deepest part of us, requires lingering reflecting, and — most importantly — putting the teachings into practice in one’s life.

Sangharakshita goes so far as to suggest that the many Dharma books we read, often quickly and superficially, hinder our spiritual progress. My spiritual friends read very slowly while I have gobbled Dharma books over the past seven years, and I even read this book quickly when it first came out. Rereading it has been a sobering lesson on how little sticks when you rush. In another way it heartens me because there’s so much depth, I can return and return to the book and still find things I’ve not understood or forgotten. We know enough Dharma; doing it is the hard thing.

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Meditation, the Buddhist way, attracts many

Sandeep Survade, a student at the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics found it difficult to manage his outbursts and his temper ended up driving people away from him. This was five years ago. But now after practicing meditation, the Buddhist way, he has been able to keep the negative energy at bay and focus better at studies.

“A lot of people from all walks of life come to us as the fundamentals of Buddhist teachings are beyond caste and creed and focus on human beings. The Buddha said that meditation was important to keep the mind calm and lead a good, disciplined life. In today’s times of excessive stress this is relevant, ” said Trustee of Jambudvipa Trust, Yerawada, Dhammachari Maitreynath.

The trust engages in communicating Buddhist teachings and mediation discourses along with encouraging members to be involved in social work.

Anil Tulse who works at the Trust said, “Classes are conducted in English and Marathi with discourses on anapan sati that is assimilating energies by breathing techniques and metta bhavana that is loving-kindness meditation.”

Kshama Rahirkar who works in software development discovered Buddhist mediation many years ago and since then does not remember being depressed or bored. “I became more aware of myself and have been consistently positive in my outlook. I believe that spiritual practice is essential. At work too I was less affected by the environment and my communication became more effective,” she said.

“Buddhism is scientific and should be used as a tool. But there are people who are increasingly marketing Buddhism as something glamorous today,” rues Dhammachari Maitreynath.


Founded in 1998 by Dhammachari Lokamitra, an British national who took to the Buddhist way of life, the Jambudvipa Trust, has seen many people benefit from the positive effect of meditation. The Trust is a principal part of the wider Friends of the Western Buddhist Order family.

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Can meditation stop me getting angry?

A few months ago, I tore up a copy of Grazia and spat on it because I had decided my byline was too small. So a friend, who witnessed the assault, suggested I try meditation. “It might help you with your anger,” she said, observing the drool dribbling over my chin and on to the magazine. “But I like living my life in homage to An American Werewolf in London,” I replied. “No, you don’t,” she said. “And I have seen you shouting at buses.”

It seems that meditation does have health benefits, particularly for neurotics with anger and anxiety issues such as myself. This week American academics published the results of their research into the joys of transcendental meditation (TM). Apparently guinea pigs (human ones) who practised TM showed a 48% decline in depressive symptoms. Last year another study indicated that there were 47% fewer heart attacks, strokes and premature deaths among transcendental meditation-heads, which tunes in with what my friend Yogi Cameron, the former male supermodel, has told me. “Yogis,” he once said, “choose when to die.” So – could meditation save my copy of Grazia? Could it save me?

There are many different types of meditation, I learn – it is a big aromatic buffet of love. It is popular with the great religions – praying or clutching a rosary can be considered a type of meditation – and, as a leisure activity, it is at least as old as war. There is mantra meditation, where you continually repeat a chosen word or phrase (transcendental meditation is a type of this) mindfulness, yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong. All promise serenity and healing and an end to assaults on blameless magazines. I choose to try out mindfulness because, according to my blurb, it will help me “experience myself” and learn to “live in the moment” through posture and breathing work. (For Tai Chi, on the other hand, you have to stand up.)

So I telephone and beg to be admitted to a Meditation for Beginners class (£8) at the West London Buddhist Centre. It is in Notting Hill, the evil yummy mummy/latte vortex, which is surely the last place in London in which I am likely to have a spiritual experience. A few days later, I walk past the building, quite unconsciously, twice. This, I believe, is called denial. The anger and anxiety wants to stay in power. It is like having Peter Mandelson in my brain.

So I walk in late, to a cream basement room with a small shrine. Buddha is there. For some reason, he reminds me of a very small football fan. The scene is like a Sunday afternoon at my late grandmother’s. A group of women and a man with a beard are comatose and covered in blue blankets on the floor. Only the EastEnders omnibus is missing.

A man called Duncan is leading the group. He is tall and pale – handsome but slightly ghostly. He has a sinewy yoga body and bright blue eyes. He smiles gently and tells me to sit on a chair and close my eyes. I obey, and Duncan begins to say calming things. I don’t remember them all, because I can’t use a notebook with my eyes shut, but I do remember him saying: “Feel your tongue.” He encourages us to feel and to be aware of every part of our bodies and, above all, to concentrate on our breathing: “Breathe in, breathe out, breathe in, breathe out.”

There is neither a television in the room, nor books, so I decide to go along with this madness. I take a long sigh, like a Mills & Boon heroine submitting to a racked company director, and I surrender to the Saturday-morning silence. I feel like I am plunging down a well to somewhere untouchable and terrifying. This, I suppose, is myself, without distractions. I muse on how much I love my nephew Blobby – not his real name – and how I am going to buy a stew pot in John Lewis later. “Breathe in, breathe out,” says Duncan, in a mesmeric voice, “Breathe in, breathe out.” I almost fall asleep.

At the end of the session, I feel happy and giggly. I lie on the floor in my blanket, laughing like an insane person, or a baby, or an insane baby. I think I must be very tired. I speak to a few of my fellow travellers. They all seem to be in recovery from a terrible personal crisis, although I do not know if they too shout at buses.

I have a brief chat with Duncan. He is about 50 and he seems very posh, although he says he isn’t. He is concerned that I might tease Buddhists in my article. “Everyone teases Buddhists,” he says. Me? Tease Buddhists? I am supposed to be interviewing Duncan, but there is no point interviewing anyone after meditating. You just fall over. I ask: why am I so tired? “It’s the subject matter,” he says, “You are sleepy because it is a way of disengaging from being present.” We postpone.

Instead, I read the literature that Duncan has given me. “Mindfulness,” I read, “means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally. There is nothing cold, analytical or unfeeling about mindfulness. The overall tenor of mindfulness is gentle, appreciative and nurturing. It is about being more aware in the present moment. This makes life more enjoyable, vivid and fulfilling.” To me, this is language beyond gobbledygook. Perhaps I will have an epiphany after lunch?

Later, I face the first challenge of my meditating life. I go to see my friend Raymond in Kentish Town. I am making him lamb stew. But when I put the stew pot on the hob, it explodes. “The pot has exploded,” I tell Raymond. “Oh, dear,” says Raymond, not moving from the sofa, where he is reading a book titled Town Planning in Britain Since 1900: The Rise and Fall of the Planning Ideal. “I’m sure it will be fine.”

“It has exploded,” I say.

“Oh dear,” he says, and turns a page. If I had not meditated, I believe I would have maimed Raymond. But I do not; I am calm. I feel a sense of serenity, which I have always associated with unconsciousness or Valium. And so I simply bin the stew and leave. When he calls later, to say he has removed the stew from the bin, cooked and eaten it – “It was horrible” – I emit a serene cackle.

A few days later, meditation calls me back. I actually want to do it. Could the anger be ready to fly away, like a bad love song? This time I go to City Lit in Holborn, which has a mindfulness class, again run by Duncan. Again, I am late – the power of denial! So, when I go in, 20 women are sitting on mats with their eyes closed, doing the practice session. One opens her eye and scowls at me. I scowl back. There is also, inevitably, a solitary man. In meditation class, there is always a solitary man. It seems to be a law.

When everyone has opened their eyes, Duncan checks if they have done their mindfulness homework. Everyone has been asked to practise meditating for 10 minutes each day and to record their pleasant thoughts, also noting what moods and feelings accompanied the precious pleasant thought. Not everyone has done it, which seems to make Duncan cross. He winces. The class is full of obsessives. Duncan asks us to write the word “flower” on a piece of paper, and meditate on it. At least three people ask for more paper because, says one, “I didn’t write ‘flower’ in the middle of the page.”

We practise again – I close my eyes, listening to Duncan talk about tongues and feet and the need to be aware of them and live in them; again I fall down the friendly well. It’s easier this time. I am possibly entering the realm of nothing matters. Everything. Will. Be. Fine.

I love this new sensation. Normally, when pouncing from anger to anger, I end the day gibbering and falling into a half-sleep from which I awake exhausted, usually with a BBC3 reality show still murmuring in the corner. (Once I awoke to watch a man in a wheelchair ballroom dancing.)

Then, we have an event. A woman in the street outside screams and I am pulled back into Holborn. She screams again and the kind thoughts melt, cinematically. I panic. I am a failure! A monster! I hate everyone and everyone hates me! I feel my body contorting, into a giant fist. I feel Hulk-ish. I have always identified with the Incredible Hulk, for obvious reasons; I can even play his theme tune on the piano. But this, I know, is familiar; this is why I am here – to be cured of my anxiety and its inevitable sequel, the desire to punch pot plants. I tune back to Duncan, my salvation. “Breathe in, breathe out,” he says. “Breathe in, breathe out.”

I take Duncan out to lunch to ask why meditation works; I am sure it is working, but I do not know why. “The refusal to acknowledge ourselves,” he says, “is the cause of most grief. Meditation will lead you to a relishing of being alive, but it can only be known through direct experience. Even pain,” he adds optimistically, “can feel quite rich.” But he thinks I should work on my posture. Apparently I sit there with my head lolling on one side, like a stroke victim.

I continue to meditate and as I do, I can feel the anger waving goodbye. I stay soothed. For example, a friend asks me to a dinner party. I fear dinner parties like I fear Nazis. But I go, and I am polite, even when someone asks me if I have cystitis. (I do not.) Meditation is effective, I fear. I am in danger of turning into a rug. I am in danger of being happy.

Tanya Gold, The Guardian

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Buddhism goes home

Sangharakshita, 1967Sangharakshita, an English Buddhist, lived for 20 years in the East before returning to Britain in the 1960s. Sangharakshita made a return visit to India in 1984, reconnecting with former-untouchables who had been led to Buddhism by Dr. Ambedkar, himself a former untouchable who had become the country’s law minister. Nagabodhi describes one evening of that tour.

Each night Sangharakshita introduces a fresh range of teachings, and explains aspects of Buddhist practice, basing his commentaries on a host of traditional formulations: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Threefold Way, the Seven Limbs of Enlightenment, the Five Spiritual Faculties…. His discourses are peppered with stories, jokes, anecdotes, and examples from the life of the Buddha and Dr Ambedkar, or simply from Indian village life. His words are straightforward and clear, and leave no one behind.

Purna’s tape recorder hums and whirs, picking up his words. Before long they will be transcribed, edited, translated, and published in the Marathi, Gujerati, and English-medium magazines that circulate within the Buddhist community. During the course of this visit Sangharakshita is creating a legacy of teachings that will keep those publications stocked for years.

 Tonight we’ve got a man who wants to drive his bullock cart through the audience.  

Again and again, he returns to the theme of morality. Ambedkar once said, ‘Morality is Dhamma; Dhamma is Morality’. Sangharakshita distinguishes ‘conventional morality’ – the morality of the group or caste – from ‘natural morality’. In terms of natural morality, some actions – of body, speech, or mind – express lower, less human, even animal mental states. Others express truly human states, express our distinctively human capacity for wisdom, love, and unselfishness. Our first task, therefore, is to become truly human and to get beyond the animal realm of blind craving, blind instinct, and self-centeredness.

To be truly human is to recognize that actions have consequences, for ourselves, for others, and for our environment – and to take full responsibility for our actions. The five Precepts help because they offer a kind of blueprint for more truly human actions and states of mind. These precepts don’t take their sanction from a god, or from the group, but from our innate potential to develop, and from our deep yearning to do so. For this reason ‘natural’ morality is the foundation of human life itself, whether individual or collective. Naturally, if we live a truly ethical life we will be free from conflicts and confusion; we’ll get on well with others, and we’ll know how to help them. Our lives will be clear, free from worry, free from anxiety….

For some reason, almost every night, at around the half-way point, there is a major disturbance. Tonight we’ve got a man who wants to drive his bullock cart through the audience. He can’t be bothered to go the long way round, and thinks he can just trundle across our field. A argument has erupted at the gate.

 We think we are sheep when really we are lions. We think we are weak when really we are strong.  

Sometimes, a circle of ladies will arrive late, and come floating into the proceedings with their trays of lighted candles and incense, like spirits from a dream. But every night, no matter where we are, a moment comes when the young mothers realize it’s time to put their little ones to bed. As soon as they get up, they seem to disconnect from the event completely, and enter a new dimension. They talk at the tops of their voices, call across to each other, and berate their children, while other members of the audience shout at them, hiss, wave their arms, and try to calm them down. If things get really bad Sangharakshita will take a few discrete steps back and study his notes while Vimalakirti joins in from the microphone. It can take ten minutes for the ripples to subside.

Sangharakshita goes on to explain how mental and emotional freedom, the fruits of ethical conduct, provide the basis for meditation practice. Meditation, he says, opens the way to the higher development of the mind which Ambedkar upheld as the indispensable requirement for a decent life. Ambedkar repeatedly spoke of his faith in the ‘energy’, ‘enthusiasm’, and ‘inspiration’ that lie within us. These qualities can be contacted directly, through meditation. In a mind that is concentrated and focussed, distractions have no place, the various ‘aspects’ and ‘selves’ that make up a person are brought into harmony. The result is that we begin to feel quite different: we have more energy because none of it is being drained by confusion or vagueness; we can reach down into our depths and discover tremendous power, limitless enthusiasm, and a fundamental level of confidence.

He teaches the practice of anapana sati, or ‘mindfulness of breathing’, a meditation which brings about this kind of concentration. Anyone who practices it will begin to see their life more clearly and find out what they need to do to make it better. It is a practice that can carry us into realms of thought, feeling, and imagination far richer than those we experience most of the time. This is where the fresh vision will arise, helping us to take our lives and ambitions onto an ever higher level.

 Whenever Ambedkar is mentioned there is an explosion of applause.  

He also teaches the maitri bhavana – the ‘development of universal loving-kindness’. Emotions like love, fraternity, and compassion can be developed, he says. We tend to think that they arise solely as a matter of chance or passing mood, but our emotional states need not depend on outside circumstances at all. Someone who has worked to develop even a little maitri can stand firm in the face of difficulties. He won’t be discouraged by the knocks he receives, he will be able to think clearly and positively – remain in a good state to find a way of beating the obstacles that confront him. If all the members of a Buddhist locality were to practice maitri bhavana, they would not just get on well with each other, they would be able to work effectively together: they would be strong, and they would have an incalculable effect on the localities around them.

It surprises me to see Sangharakshita teaching meditation this way. In England I’ve never once heard him explain how to practice meditation at a public talk. But here, in this town, there is no public center for anyone to visit for a follow-up class, and Poona is a long way away. Even while he speaks, I can sense the urgency he feels. Even if just one person here manages to get somewhere with meditation as a result of this talk, he or she will make an impact on the others, another seed will have been sown.

There is a vihara in this locality: a small, rectangular, one-roomed building. It has a Buddha-shrine, and is used as a lodging by visiting monks. Most of the time, though, it serves as a sort of social club. Sangharakshita asks his listeners to keep their vihara beautiful and clean, and use it only for Buddhist activities:

‘A Vihara should be a peaceful place, a place where you can make a special effort to practice the Precepts, a place where you can meditate. If you treat your vihara well, and use it properly, you will have no need to make the costly pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya. You will have the Buddha right here in your own neighborhood, reminding you of the real purpose of life, inspiring you to make further efforts.’

 The Dhamma is whatever helps people to grow. They may choose to work on themselves first, or they may choose to work in society. Either way they will be growing…  

Meditation, practiced successfully and deeply, he continues, provides the foundation for wisdom. In this context wisdom is not something we get from books. Of course it is important to study the Dhamma; that is how we find out what the Buddha actually did and said, and what he advised us to do. But even that kind of book learning is not wisdom; Wisdom is the way we see things when we are living on a higher level. And this kind of wisdom can express itself in a number of ways: as fearlessness, as generosity, as patience, and, of course, as ‘insight’ – seeing things as they really are. He offers an illustration:

‘Once upon a time there was a lion cub who had lost his parents. In fact, he became completely separated from the other lions, and strayed into a flock of sheep. He lived with the sheep for years, and grew up among them – thinking, after a while, that he was himself just another sheep.

‘One day while out grazing, the sheep/lion came across a big, wild lion. At first he was terrified, and tried to run away, but because he only knew how to run like a sheep, the lion soon caught up with him, and asked him why he was so frightened.

‘ “Baa!” said the sheep/lion, “I am afraid because I have been told that lions are dangerous to us sheep. You will want to eat me up.”

‘ “Us sheep?” stammered the lion, “But you are not a sheep at all! You are a lion like me.”

‘ “Baa! Oh no. I am not a lion. I am a sheep. Why are you trying to confuse me?”

‘The lion had never encountered anything like this before. There was no doubting it, though: here was a lion who thought he was a sheep! Then he had an idea, and led the sheep/lion by the scruff of the neck to a pool of clear water and forced him to look at his reflection. There, the sheep/lion didn’t see a sheep at all — but a lion! He immediately “woke up”, and realized that for all those years he’d been living under an illusion.

 In the West, people are more individualistic and psychologically oriented. I therefore have to talk in “psychological” terms.  

‘We are like that lion cub. We think we are sheep when really we are lions. We think we are weak when really we are strong. We need to see for ourselves what we really are.

‘Of course, like that lion cub, we may need a friend to come along and remind us about our true selves. But in this respect we are very lucky. We have had two friends, two lions, in the not too distant past. First there was Gautama the Buddha. And then — even more recently — there was Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar!’

Repeatedly, Sangharakshita embroiders his stories with references to Ambedkar, and recapitulates the man’s qualities and significance. Whenever Ambedkar is mentioned in this way there is an explosion of applause. The official cheerleader — one of the village elders — sets up a few chants; the atmosphere is jubilant.

One night, after a talk, I asked Sangharakshita about these continual references. It was all so different to the Buddhism I was used to. Were all these references, and the general preoccupation with the social dimension of things, anything more than a ‘skillful means’?

‘What do you mean?’ Sangharakshita was perplexed.

‘Well, in the West, you explain Buddhism far more in terms of individual, even psychological, development. Isn’t that where all this must lead in the end, to individual Buddhists working on themselves to develop Enlightened qualities?’

He laughed. ‘Well, in the West, people are far more individualistic and psychologically oriented. I therefore have to talk in those more “psychological” terms. Here, people are more community oriented; they experience themselves more as members of a community or family. So here I talk in more, as it were, social terms. But, actually, I’m using a skillful means in both situations. You must not assume that either approach is any closer to the fundamental Dhamma than the other. The Dhamma is whatever helps people to grow. They may choose to work on themselves first, or they may choose to work in society. Either way they will be growing, and setting up the conditions for their own further development – and that of their society.

‘If anything, you could say that the language of social uplift is more effective – though both approaches have their advantages and limitations, of course. If Enlightenment consists in overcoming the “self-other dichotomy”, we can progress towards it by working on the “other” end of things just as effectively as we can by working simply on ourselves.’

Night after night, he instructs, uplifts, and befriends. If there is any one element that I will recollect above all others, it will be the bond of warmth and intimacy that grows between him and his audience as each talk progresses. No wonder there are people here who remember his last visit, twenty years ago. And no wonder he has never forgotten them.

NagabodhiNagabodhi is a senior member of the Western Buddhist Order. Since 1974, when he was ordained, he has devoted his life to the development of the Triratna Buddhist Community as a Dharma teacher, publisher, center director, and fundraiser. He now lives in London with his wife, Vimalacitta. This passage is excerpted, with permission, from his book, Jai Bhim: Dispatches From a Peaceful Revolution (Free PDF download).

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9/11: Meditate to Liberate

On the anniversary of the attack on the World Trade Center, we bring the story of how one Buddhist chose to respond by challenging the consciences of those whose business is to promote the sale of weapons war.

9/11 changed everything. We all knew that — the only question was, how? The US government’s “war on terrorism” was swiftly launched and a deep conviction arose in me that this was not the way to go. In their fervor our leaders, especially America’s, seemed utterly oblivious of the simple truth that violence breeds violence. Their response seemed opportunistic and vindictive, Bush’s rhetoric duplicitous and deeply worrying, our leaders seemed uninterested in peacemaking. To me, and perhaps many others, the words of the poet Godfrey Rust rang true: “The moral high ground is just a pile of smoking rubble.”

Soon after that fateful day I left my office in Birmingham and embarked on an itinerant life, a wandering Buddhist teacher-organizer affiliated to Buddhafield, a collective that holds outdoor retreats and festivals under canvas in the West of England. I wanted to dedicate myself to exploring new approaches to practicing and spreading Dharma and — as the so-called “war on terror” broadened — to deepening my own involvement in social and political issues. This led me to i quest for “acts of power”: public actions demonstrating what I stood for which I could perform wholeheartedly as a Buddhist.

I’ve had many years of doing Buddhist “retreats” and I felt it was now time for some “advances”

It has become increasingly imperative for me to engage with the world as well as with my mind; to take direct action, while continuing to work on myself and being a good citizen in a general way. I’ve had many years of doing Buddhist “retreats” and I felt it was now time for some “advances.” But alongside this came unease about aligning myself with many conventional forms of protest — the noise and negativity of angry demonstrations, the violence implicit in sabotage and occupation, the wildly different agendas of other activists.

How to act directly, as a Buddhist, without compromise, without compromise, without undermining the positive in society? I knew well that greed, hatred and ignorance were rampant in the world — I also knew they were flourishing in my own mind, and I had to change that just is much as anyone else’s. I knew that polarization and demonization helped no one and never led to constructive communication, however satisfying it might feel in the moment. I also realized the issues were complex, that I was relatively ignorant and in no position to state categorically what was right. I only knew that the “war on terror” was not it.

Out of all this, and out of a series of events over a remarkable summer, came the beginnings of a way forward. This way promised to be a new and powerful approach to practice and protest, marrying inner and outer, demonstrating alternatives with minimum polarization, speaking directly to our innermost conscience, cutting through the endless arguments — a way forward that nonetheless takes courage and determination.

We call it “Meditate to Liberate.” It is the brainchild of John Curtin, a veteran animal-rights campaigner who has seen protestors at their most violent, and who has been drawn increasingly to Buddhism, despite his criticisms of many Buddhists for their passivity in the social sphere. 0n the second anniversary of 9/11 there was a large arms fair in London’s Docklands — 15,000 delegates gathering to trade weapons, including cluster bombs and torture equipment. It was time to act.

We boarded the train and swiftly seated ourselves in silent meditation in front of each doorway up and down the carriage

Attending a protesters’ briefing, we learned that many delegates would arrive by local train and that this was the best way to get close to them. We immediately knew what to do. On the day, after some nerve-wracking training in arrest procedures, we dressed in our blue meditation shirts or robes, bought all-day travel passes, boarded the train and, as it pulled out, swiftly seated ourselves in silent meditation in front of each doorway up and down the carriage. The exit was not blocked but anyone leaving had to brush past our silent forms. Pinned to Our chests were large badges reading: I AM A BUDDHIST AND I AM OPPOSED TO THE ARMS TRADE. Others in our group had leaflets to hand to interested passengers, and another, in a loud voice, invited all present to reflect oil the death and suffering that would result from the fair.

As we sat there, hearts pounding, we found our meditations clear and strong, much habitual discursiveness stripped away by the raw immediacy of the situation. Strong feelings arose: fear, anger, elation sadness, all to be calmly, mindfully witnessed and absorbed. Around us we felt people come and go, overheard the occasional comments and, as we stopped at Custom House, venue of the “arms fair,” felt a great swish past us as most passengers alighted to do their deals. We sat on for one more station, arose a little stiffly, and caught the next train back.

We did this again and again throughout the day. in the streets around we could hear crowds of demonstrators held back by lines of police. We broke for lunch and overlapped with many of them in a local Christian café. The arms fair continued — none of us could stop it. But, by the time we went home, we’d had an intense day of meditation practice, and done our level best to prick the delegates’ consciences. I am confident this type of action is both powerful and in harmony with the spirit of Buddhism. And it may just contribute to ending the “war on terror.”

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Inside Story

The Great EscapeWhat makes a prisoner? Sarvananda, a prison Buddhist chaplain, has an inside view of life in jail; and he reflects that we are all prisoners of our mental states

Twice a week for the past seven years I have visited Norwich Prison in eastern England, in my capacity as a Buddhist chaplain. Recently I have been wondering why I am drawn to this work. Apart from the desire to spread the Dharma and the fact that my teacher Sangharakshita has encouraged his disciples to undertake such work, a certain fascination has drawn me to prison visiting — a fascination with prison life itself and with the people I meet.

I was brought up in an affluent, suburban district of Glasgow, Scotland. Criminal acts seemed rare. Graffiti was hardly seen and, if it did briefly blossom, it was gone by the next morning. No, the forces of darkness lived over the river. Just across the muddy waters of the River Cart lay the Castlemilk housing estate. In the summer, when the river was low, our suburban stronghold was often invaded by the Castlemilk youth. They stole from shops, and chased people with ‘blades’. On my way back from a shopping expedition I was once mugged by some of these dreaded ‘Cassies’. I still remember the grinning, handsome face and bright eyes of their ringleader. I staggered home in tears without my mother’s groceries and with fear and anger in my heart. Yet ‘the Cassies’ also fascinated me.

I have always had the middle-class boy’s curiosity about those who live on the other side of the tracks. It has determined my tastes in literature, and even my choice of friends. This fascination has extended to my prison visiting and ties in with my other incarnation as someone who attempts to write plays.

 These men understand immediately that a successful Buddhist practice could, literally, make the difference between life and death.  

When I visit the prison, I have to rein in my curiosity. I am there to communicate the Dharma, the Buddhist teachings, and to be, to the best of my ability, a spiritual friend to the men I meet. Although I have access to the prisoners’ files I never read them. Nor do I ask them why they are in prison. I let them offer that information – or not. There is a danger that my own curiosity can be a distraction from my primary purpose. Still, I am curious …

I usually feel tense as I ring the little bell and wait by the enormous double doors of the prison. This is not because I feel apprehensive about visiting the prisoners who have asked to see me. In seven years visiting the prison, I have never been threatened or felt intimidated by a prisoner (which was certainly a fear when I started). The men I meet have asked to see me and always treat me with friendliness and respect. The tension has more to do with the difficulties I have experienced in getting to see prisoners, or finding a room in which to meditate, or establishing my credentials.

‘What are you doing?’ barked an officer one day, as I wandered aimlessly down a corridor searching for a prisoner who had no doubt been transferred to another prison.

‘I’m the Buddhist chaplain.’

‘You don’t look like the Buddhist chaplain.’

‘I am,’ I assured him. ‘I’m the Buddhist chaplain.’

And I showed him my card with the little photograph of me that makes me look like the prison’s longest-term resident. But the card did undeniably say ‘Buddhist chaplain’.

‘Sorry, sir.’ His voice changed. ‘Probably best not to wear a maroon sweatshirt [regulation prison gear] when you come here. Gave me a nasty shock seeing a prisoner with keys.’

‘Who are you?’ is a question I often get asked as I enter the prison, a question often accompanied by the unselfconscious stare of an inmate. It’s the kind of stare you don’t usually get on ‘the out’.

Being a member of the Western Buddhist Order, I don’t wear robes, so I’m not immediately recognisable as a chaplain, and I sometimes envy the Christian chaplain his immediately recognisable dog collar, his chapel, and the weight of his western tradition. I am a curiosity for officers and prisoners. And I’ve had some interesting conversations about Buddhism with landing officers while waiting to see a prisoner.

The first thing that hits me when I enter a prison wing is the noise – shouting, slamming doors and blaring radios. The atmosphere at first seems casual. After all, these are just men getting on with their daily routine. But I always detect an underlying frustration. These men have been locked up against their will, deprived of their freedom and their ability to make choices is hugely limited.

There is often, too, an atmosphere of jokey comradeship, something even mildly homoerotic. As I walked up a stairwell recently I noticed one inmate kissing another through a wire mesh.‘ What are you two up to?’ demanded a scandalised third party.

‘We love each other, man.’

‘You’ve been in here too long, mate.’

I meet the men I have come to see in various locations. It is sometimes difficult to find an appropriate room and I have been sequestered in a small treatment room with a bewildered inmate and two angry budgies, irritated by the invasion of their personal space. Sometimes I meet with a prisoner in one of the Christian chapels. It seems strange meditating under the Stations of the Cross, but these rooms have a spaciousness and tranquillity that I like. I often use one of the multi-faith rooms, which have few artefacts or images and are sterile and drab because they have been designed to give no offence to any religion. Here I set up my Buddha figure, light some incense, perhaps put on a tape of Tibetan chanting, and try to create a pleasant atmosphere. The men I meet, suffering under the routines and rituals of prison life, respond positively to the ritual and artefacts of Buddhism. Incense is particularly popular. Perhaps burning incense marks them off as being Buddhists – as well as disguising the pervasive smells of cooking, detergent or toilets.

 Occasionally, just occasionally, I find myself envying aspects of their lives.  

Sometimes I see the prisoners in their cells, which vary in size and quality. ‘M’ wing houses prisoners of an enhanced category. They have pleasant, spacious cells with a shower. Other cells are small, shared spaces with a bunk bed. There are also small, single cells with a toilet. These are particularly smelly, cramped and unpleasant. Whatever their size or quality, prisoners spend a substantial amount of their prison lives banged up in these cells.

The prisoners choose to decorate their cells in different ways. Some are neat with a little shrine on a table and Buddhist images displayed on the walls. In others naked women are plastered everywhere and it is a relief to shut one’s eyes to meditate.

‘It’s about the only curves you see in prison,’ one of the more philosophically minded inmates reminded me, by way of apology.

Lines. No curves. From their striped blue shirts, to the wire mesh, to the bars on the windows … The masculine, ordered geometry of prison life wearies the eye. Prison is an ugly, ugly environment.

And the ugliest part of this ugly environment is ‘A’ wing, the old Victorian part of the prison. There seems a particularly tense atmosphere on this wing. Generations of men have tramped these landings, called to one another from these balconies, have spent years of their lives locked in these cells … The geography of the wing makes the whole place a well of sound. Noise is what I would find most difficult to endure in here. It is what the more sensitive inmates complain about. It’s difficult to meditate with blaring radios, yelling and slamming doors being amplified, flung up and around the four landings on the wing …

I often wonder how I would cope in prison. The men I meet (usually one-to-one, but sometimes in groups) range from lifers convicted of violent crimes to young men convicted of selling drugs. Many of those I meet are there for drug-related crimes. Occasionally I meet someone from a similar background to myself but usually the environment from which they have emerged has been difficult, harsh and often violent. A lot of them have been in institutions of one kind or another all their lives.

Normally I have a general chat, talk about basic Buddhism and we meditate together. Some have found in Buddhism an alternative to conventional religion, a spiritual path without God. Some have a good, consistent meditation practice. Others find meditation difficult and prefer just to talk. Many are struggling with addiction and it is no coincidence that, at the moment, the majority of guys I see are on a special wing that helps them to deal with their addictive behaviour. These men understand immediately the Buddhist attitude to craving and that a successful Buddhist practice could, literally, make the difference between life and death.

When I talk with the prisoners I always try to follow Khemadhammo’s advice – to stay with the Dharma. Ven. Ajahn Khemadhammo, an English Theravadin monk, started Angulimala, the UK’s Buddhist prison chaplaincy organisation to which I belong, in 1985. Its 45 or so chaplains attend regular meetings, which provide mutual support and encouragement.

I try to follow Khemadammo’s advice: not to psychologise, nor sort out the prisoners’ problems for them, nor take sides, nor get into the cloudy areas of the rights and wrongs of their specific case. I try to come back again and again to the basics of Buddhism – the importance of creating the right conditions in establishing an effective practice; the need to take responsibility for one’s mental states; the law of karma as expressed by the Buddha in the Dhammapada:

‘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 shadow.’

In returning to these truths I also remind myself of the basics of the Dharma that I so easily forget. And those prisoners who have some genuine grasp of these basics move on most effectively. It is easy to underestimate the struggle many of them have. I visited one man who seemed to be getting on well. He was usually calm and bright and had a seemingly effective meditation practice. After he was released I happened to spot him in the city. His face was haggard and bruised and he was having a fierce argument with some of the drunks and drug addicts who frequent that part of town.

Occasionally, just occasionally, particularly if I am busy, I find myself envying aspects of their lives. In many ways their lives seem simpler than mine. They do, of course, have a lot of free time. They seem less subject to the tyranny of choice. ‘The amount I could get written, the amount I could study, the amount I could meditate if I lived in here!’ I occasionally reflect.

 Prison visiting helps me to make wiser choices…  

Some of the men I meet say that being in prison has been beneficial, in that previously they never had the time or the space to consider their lives. And I often suggest that they try and see their time in prison as a semi-retreat. I stress that they may never again have the spare time seriously to meditate and reflect.

But my attraction to their life is superficial. There are 500 other good reasons why I would not want to be a prisoner. These men have been deprived of their freedom and, in the process, I sense that they have lost something else. This is difficult to put into words, but it is something to do with the blue striped shirts and the maroon sweat shirts, the fact that their letters are opened before they read them, that they’re called by their second name, and are subject to a sometimes baffling bureaucracy. If I’m late for a prisoner or can’t manage to see him, it doesn’t seem so important to me as it would if I was inconveniencing someone on the outside. It’s a subtle, semi-conscious feeling, which I fight against, that these men are second-class citizens, that broken promises affect them less, that they live on the other side of the river. Prison life can deprive them of dignity.

I am writing this article on a solitary retreat. On the face of it I have the freedom to go where I want, do what I want and think what I want. But I have been aware, while meditating here, how much my ability to think or act freely is limited by deep-rooted negative habits. I am imprisoned by these habits, and here is another fascination in my work: the prison provides me with a metaphor. It reminds me that my world is similar in many respects, that the dividing river is not really a divide and that, like the men I meet in Norwich prison, I am subject to the imprisoning mental states of greed, hatred and delusion. The difference between a free person and one without freedom is not bars or doors, but the extent to which they can take responsibility for their mental states.

In the end, however, my world is not one of bars and wire and slamming doors. Every time I walk out of the prison I experience a sense of relief. Choice can be a tyrant, but prison visiting helps me to make wiser choices, to make the most of my physical freedom. Hopefully, in communicating the Dharma to those men I meet, I can help them, too, to choose wisely.

Sarvananda / Alastair JessimanSarvananda was born in Scotland and is a member of the Western Buddhist Order. He lives in Norwich, England.

Under the name Alastair Jessiman he is a noted writer of plays for radio, who has had many of his works produced by the BBC. His most recent production is Boxer and Doberman, a comedy police drama, which was described by the Telegraph as “funny in a wonderfully macabre way.”

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