The Meditation of Life

The Meditation of Life

Without exception, everything that has happened in your life, every choice you have made, has brought you to where you are now. And where are you now? You are reading this blog post. Depending on your frame of mind, you will engage with the words in this post to a greater or lesser extent. This blog post, as well as every other experience and encounter you have ever had, will be a causal factor in terms of bringing you into contact with all of your future experiences. The process of accumulating experiences that each influence who we are and what we do, is called life. Perhaps we can think of life as a big snowball rolling down a hill. The snowball grows and accumulates snow as it rolls, and this accumulation – as well as the gradient and texture of the terrain – keeps causing the snowball’s weight, size, shape, velocity, and direction, to change.

If a person was to stop the snowball and look at it, they might only see a big ball of snow that they want to play with or take photographs of. Alternatively, if they have sufficient insight, they might see the snowball as the product of the journey it has undertaken. In this case, when they look at the snowball, they will see how it has grown, the choices it has made, the terrain and landscape it has passed through, and the different bumps and jumps it encountered along the way. The same applies when we look at ourselves and other people. If we have sufficient skill and insight, when we meet somebody we can glean understanding into the journey they have undertaken. We can see how they have grown, what motivates them, what scars they have accumulated, and whether they live only for themselves or for the betterment of humanity. Furthermore, based on the trajectory of their choices and journey thus far, we might be able to estimate the direction that they will go in next.

The difference between a skilled and mediocre meditator is that when the skilled meditator looks at a person, situation, or object, they see the whole story. They see that a person or object is comprised of its past, present, and future. If we can understand the trajectory that a person is travelling on, it means we are better able to decide what intervention, if any, might be possible to help shift that trajectory into one that will bring them wisdom and happiness.

Another difference between a skilled and mediocre meditator is that the skilled meditator doesn’t actually practise meditation. To practise meditation implies that a person tries to be mindful or regularly sits in meditation in order to cultivate mental tranquillity or clarity. However, the truth is that whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not, we are all partaking in a meditation. This mediation is called life. Life brings us into contact with new experiences each moment of every day. These experiences are pregnant with wisdom. They are our teacher, if we want them to be. This applies to seemingly boring situations just as much as it does to circumstances that appear to be out of the ordinary or that we find challenging.

In other words, we don’t need to strain ourselves in meditation to look for spiritual insights because they are all around us. Everything we do, every sound we hear, every person we meet, are opportunities to grow and encounter spiritual insight. All we have to do is open our eyes, heart, and mind. Don’t you see that you have been meditating since before the moment you were born? As soon as we realise we are partaking in a meditation, we start to wake up and see how each moment of our lives connects to, and influences, the next. Moreover, we encounter the complex web of the universe and begin to see how each moment of our lives connects to each moment of the life of every other living and non-living entity.

Meditation isn’t about sitting with our legs crossed and working ourselves into a state of calm. Rather, it is the art of fully experiencing every aspect of normal daily living and using it as the raw material to foster spiritual awakening. Meditation is both joyful and painful. There is nothing mystical about meditation. It is the process of allowing life to be our teacher. Eating a piece of toast is our teacher. Getting drenched by the rain is our teacher. Missing the bus is our teacher. Being cheated out of money is our teacher. Making love is our teacher. Taking a dump is our teacher. The death of a loved one is our teacher. Winning is our teacher. Losing is our teacher. Getting old is our teacher. Meditation is being awake to what is unfolding in front of us and having the courage to embrace life as the training ground for cultivating our full potential for love and wisdom.

Dr Edo Shonin & Dr William Van Gordon

Letting Go

Letting Go

The following post is from a friend in Thailand. Roughly, the words translate as: ‘If you let go, time will heal’. This is sound advice. However, better still is not to hold on in the first place! This is the path of meditation.

Condivido il seguente post da un’amica in Thailandia. Grossomodo, le parole si traducono come: ‘Se si lascia andare le cose, con il tempo tutte le cose possano guarire’. Questo è un consiglio sano. Tuttavia, Forse è meglio non trattenere delle cose già dall’inizio! Questo è il percorso della meditazione.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & William Van Gordon

Mindfulness for Pet Dogs

Mindfulness for Pet Dogs

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Unsurprisingly, a search of the academic literature reveals that there has been little (if any) scientific investigation into whether dogs can be taught mindfulness. In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking that teaching dogs mindfulness is taking things too far and that it is another example of how ancient mindfulness teachings are being misappropriated in modern society. However, based on personal experience, it’s our view that under certain conditions and to a certain extent, some dogs can learn to practise a form of mindfulness. In this post we present the cases of Vajra, Tara, and Zeus – three beautiful dogs with whom we are fortunate to have shared our lives – and share how they have each come to embody a form of mindfulness practice.

Vajra

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Vajra was a medium sized mixed-breed male dog who lived with us at a Buddhist monastery and retreat centre that we ran in North Wales. Vajra (pictured above) was fawn coloured and his weight as an adult was approximately 18kg. Vajra came to us as a puppy from a dog rescue centre. He grew up in the monastery and met new people on a day-to-day basis. The monastery followed a daily routine of meditation practice involving formal seated meditations in the morning and evenings as well as periods of silence, walking meditation, working meditation, study, and chanting. At various times throughout the day, the monastery bell would sound in order to invite people to a particular practice or to remind them to stop, breathe, and remember that they are alive.

When Vajra was two years old, of his own accord he would come and lie in the meditation hall during the formal meditation sessions. To begin with, he would often just go to sleep and he could sometimes be heard snoring when people were trying to meditate. However, from the time Vajra reached three years of age, rather than lay on his side and go to sleep during meditation, he would assume a squatting position whereby he was still effectively lying down, but was upright and sat directly over his front paws. When sat in this manner, Vajra would hold his head off the ground and in addition to remaining alert, he would stay still and as quiet as a mouse. We suppose this posture would be similar to that which professionally trained dogs assume when they are given the “platz” command.

As mentioned above, walking meditation was practised on a daily basis at the monastery and this involved participants walking very slowly, in single file, and remaining meditatively aware of all that they experienced during each moment of every step. When he was young, Vajra would ignore the people practising walking meditation and would use the practice as an opportunity to play, sniff, and run around. However, as he grew older, Vajra started to join in with the walking meditation; he would take his place in the line of participants and place one foot in front of the other in a slow and focussed manner.

Of course, it is impossible for us to know what was going through Vajra’s mind when he exhibited these behaviours and it could be that all along, he was thinking about what he would receive for dinner or was just unconsciously mimicking our behaviour. However, many of the visitors to the monastery commented on Vajra’s calm nature and we like to think that in his own way, Vajra had learned to practice a form of meditation.

Tara

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Tara (pictured above) is a toy Jack Russel Terrier. She weighs about 5kg in adulthood and came to us as a puppy. Like many Jack Russel Terriers, for the first few years of her life, Tara was somewhat naughty. Despite almost being small enough to sit in the palm of a person’s hand, it seemed Tara thought that she was a Rottweiler and she would even try to dominate dogs that were ten times her size. Also, Tara had a habit of climbing trees and getting stuck high up in the branches such that in order to bring her down, we had to perform acrobatic manoeuvres that easily exceeded our tree-climbing capabilities. It’s fair to say that Tara was hard-headed and despite understanding fully our commands, she would frequently test how far she could cross the line.

However, when Tara turned four years old, she began to settle down and assume a much calmer demeanour. The house that we lived in with Tara was visited by a large number of practicing Buddhists (as well as spiritual practitioners from non-Buddhist traditions). In the house, there was a chiming clock that was used as a mindfulness reminder. When the clock chimed to announce the turn of the hour, people in the house were invited to stop whatever they were doing in order to return to awareness of their breathing and awareness of their being. Each time she heard the clock chime, Tara would freeze her position and remain perfectly still and quiet. In fact, there reached a point when not only would Tara take a moment of pause when the clock chimed, but if – as was frequently the case – visitors ignored the chiming clock, Tara would bark at them to remind them to stop and be present. Therefore, in the house at that time a system of a ‘double mindfulness reminder’ was in place; Tara reminded people to remember to be mindful of the mindfulness reminder!

Zeus

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Zeus is approximately one-year-old and his current weight is 42kg. Zeus was abandoned when he was five months old and as a stray dog, he roamed the countryside and streets for about three months. Zeus has been with us for four months and we are informed by the vet and a dog breeding specialist that Zeus is an American Mastiff. It is expected that Zeus will reach a weight of 50-60kg. Zeus is highly protective of us and through training, we are attempting to temper some of his protective instincts. He is making exceptionally good progress and we think that although his time in the wild has been difficult, it has helped him to think for himself and perhaps even to understand something about the nature of suffering.

Zeus appears to really enjoy joining in with meditation and related forms of spiritual practice. For example, when we practice chanting, Zeus makes deep humming and groaning noises, and if he hears the gong sound to announce the start of a meditation session, he comes running in from the land and sits in a relaxed but attentive manner at our side. When Zeus is practising canine meditation in this manner, if somebody throws him a treat or ball to fetch, he remains completely undistracted and won’t retrieve it until after the meditation session has concluded. Zeus has adopted these behaviours of his own accord and several individuals have commented that Zeus sometimes appears to exude an air of wisdom and elegance.

Concluding Thoughts

We have shared our lives with other dogs in addition to Vajra, Tara, and Zues. For example, in addition to mixed-breed and cross-breed dogs, family members have included a Border Collie, German Shepard, and Rottweiler. All of these dogs have been beautiful companions in their own right but it is only Vajra, Tara, and Zeus in whom we feel there was some genuine form of meditative practice. We have always attempted to obedience train any dog that has lived with us and to do so in such a manner that the dog enjoys the training and feels loved and cared for. However, we have never specifically sought to teach mindfulness to a dog and have found that just by practising mindfulness ourselves, most dogs gradually assume a calmer demeanour but a minority of dogs actually go onto practice what appears to be a canine form of meditation.

It should be noted that the type of canine mindfulness we are referring to here is very different from the high level of concentration exhibited by a working dog that is following their handler’s commands. As we have discussed in previous posts, mindfulness is not simply about being alert or concentrating in a focussed manner. It is more about being aware of one’s being and about the nature and dance of the present moment. There is no doubt in our mind that being in an environment or family where people practice mindfulness is of benefit to dogs and that in turn, the dog’s calmer demeanour is of benefit to family members. However, in the absence of empirical research, it is difficult to know what factors predispose a dog to learning mindfulness and, just as with humans, it could be that some dogs are simply more spiritually inclined than others. Empirical research to investigate some of these knowledge gaps would be both welcomed and interesting.

 

Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

Carbonell, H. J., Waite, D., & Jackson-Grossblat, A. (2016). The therapeutic effects upon dog owners who interact with their dogs in a mindful way. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. 56, 144-170.

Epstein, R. (1984). On mindfulness and our relation to animals. Between the Species. Available at: http://digitalcommons.calpoly.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1423&context=bts

Fox, M. (2007). Dog body, dog Mind: Exploring canine consciousness and total well-being. Lanham, Maryland: Lyons Press.

Henry, C. L., & Crowley, S. L. (2015). The psychological and physiological effects of using a therapy dog in mindfulness training. Anthrozoös: A multidisciplinary journal of the interactions of people and animals, 28, 385-402.

Karen L. Dean (2005). Mindfulness meditation: Learning from dogis and mystical dogs. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 11, 319-321.

Vita: un’esperienza prossima della morte

Vita: un’esperienza prossima della morte

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“Non perseguire il passato. Non perderti nel futuro. Il passato è la storia. Il futuro deve ancora arrivare. Guardando in profondità la vita così com’è nell’ hic et nunc, il praticante rimane incrollabile e libero nel cuore. Oggi dobbiamo essere diligenti, perché la morte può colpire domani. Non c’è nessuna contrattazione con il Signore della morte” – The Buddha, 500 BCE (sutra 131, MajjhimaNikaya)

 Nel 1960 e 1970, la psichiatra Elizabeth Kubler-Ross e lo psicologo e medico Raymond Moody hanno giocato un ruolo fondamentale nel portare il fenomeno definito in inglese “Near Death Experience” (NDE l’esperienza prossima della morte) all’attenzione del grande pubblico e della comunità scientifica. Lo studio scientifico delle NDE – soprattutto prima del 1990 – ha incontrato un certo scetticismo tra psicologi e medici professionisti. Tuttavia, negli ultimi anni, le comunità psicologica e medica sono diventati più aperti alla possibilità che la NDE è un fenomeno vero che rientra nella gamma delle possibili esperienze umane.

La NDE è tipicamente associata ad un insieme o un modello di esperienze che possono verificarsi quando una persona è vicino alla morte (ad esempio, a causa di una malattia), quando credono di essere vicino alla morte (cioè, situazioni di pericolo di vita), o quando si trovano nel periodo tra la morte clinica e la rianimazione.1-3Le NDE spesso comportano una combinazione delle seguenti caratteristiche: un’esperienza fuori dal corpo, l’esperienza di muoversi attraverso un tunnel, la comunicazione con un essere di luce, osservazione di un paesaggio celeste, incontro con persone decedute, e / o di una revisione della vita.1-3

Piuttosto che l’approccio tradizionale di vedere l’NDE come fenomeno esplicitamente associato con la morte o la minaccia imminente di essa, qui adottiamo un punto di vista leggermente diverso, più ampio, prendendo in considerazione l’esistenza umana e la vita più in generale come un’esperienza di premorte.

Secondo la US Central Intelligence Agency4, il tasso di mortalità mondiale per il 2013 è di 7,9 morti ogni 1000 persone all’anno (cioè, 0,79%). Sulla base di queste cifre, una media di 107 persone muoiono ogni minuto. Questo significa, per rendere ulteriormente l’idea, che se sei una persona che normalmente va a letto alle ore 23.00 e dorme per otto ore, quando ti svegli alle ore 7.00 del mattino successivo oltre 50.000 persone sono morte. La morte è un evento molto comune. Non esistono casi scientificamente verificabili di qualsiasi essere senziente – umani e non – in grado di sconfiggere la morte. La causa più comune di morte è la malattia (in particolare la malattia in età avanzata). Altre cause della morte molto frequenti includono l’incidente, il suicidio e l’omicidio. Cause meno comuni di morte sono la combustione umana spontanea e la morte da colpo di fulmine (anche se queste morti potrebbero essere classificate come accidentali).

Il corpo umano è un’entità bellissima e meravigliosa – ma l’invincibilità non è uno dei suoi punti di forza. Una piccola puntura di spillo, il contatto con una padella calda, un dito intrappolato in una porta – questi sono solo alcuni esempi di come il più piccolo incidente può causare enorme dolore e disagio. In realtà, basta solo che ci sia il minimo squilibrio nell’ambiente esterno per far si che il corpo umano incominci a spegnersi rapidamente. Condizioni ambientali estreme tipo il troppo caldo, o il troppo freddo, una carenza di acqua o la mancanza di cibo possono rapidamente portare alla morte. Anche piccole situazioni come mangiare un boccone di cibo avariato, prendere un comune microbo dell’influenza, o scivolare sul ghiaccio possono portare alla morte. Infatti, in qualsiasi momento, l’unica cosa che ci separa dalla morte è un “unico respiro”. Sembra che l’essere umano disponga di un sistema di sopravvivenza che possiamo definire di “appena in tempo”, per indicare che anche il minimo ritardo nel prendere aria, acqua o cibo può essere fatale.

Dal momento in cui nasciamo, ogni singolo secondo che passa ci avvicina alla nostra morte. Il fatto stesso di essere giovani non fornisce alcuna garanzia di vita perché la morte può verificarsi a qualsiasi età. Infatti, alcune persone muoiono mentre sono ancora nel grembo materno, alcuni nell’infanzia e altri ancora durante l’adolescenza. Alcune persone muoiono nel fiore dell’età adulta e alcuni nella vecchiaia. La vita è come la sabbia che si muove attraverso una clessidra – alcune persone iniziano con più sabbia di altri, ma alla fine si esaurisce lo stesso.

Per aiutare a capire questo concetto, in modo leggermente diverso, possiamo citare gli insegnamenti buddisti che usano l’analogia del prigioniero che viene portato alla propria esecuzione e ogni singolo passo che fa si avvicina alla morte.Nasciamo, viviamo e moriremo. Tutti i fenomeni sono transitori e sono soggetti al decadimento e alla dissoluzione. Assolutamente nulla sfugge al ciclo dell’impermanenza. Il corpo umano è impermanente, gli amici e la famiglia sono impermanenti, il pianeta su cui viviamo è impermanente, e anche l’universo, in ultima analisi, cessa di esistere.

Questo è ciò che il Buddha ha detto circa la natura fugace dell’esistenza:

Questa nostra esistenza è transitoria come le foglie d’autunno. A guardare la nascita e la morte degli esseri è come guardare i movimenti di una danza. Una vita è come un lampo nel cielo, che scorre via, come un torrente lungo una ripida montagna.”

In generale, c’è una diffusa tendenza tra le persone a non accettare il concetto della morte e ad assumere anzi il convincimento che a loro non accadrà mai. Tuttavia, questa non accettazione scomparirà rapidamente quando le persone si troveranno alle soglie della morte. Quando arriva il momento, spesso molte persone provano sentimenti travolgenti come: rammarico, rabbia, paura. Infatti, al momento della morte, le persone manifestano spesso una forte fissazione e un forte attaccamento verso la loro famiglia, i loro successi, gli amici, i beni materiali, la propria reputazione e la vita. Tuttavia, quando gli ultimi granelli di sabbia sono in procinto di scivolare attraverso la clessidra – queste cose non contano assolutamente nulla e non possono essere portate con sé. Dobbiamo lasciare la vita esattamente nello stesso modo in cui siamo entrati – da soli.

Si potrebbe pensare che è inopportuno discutere la realtà della morte in modo cosi diretto e aperto come stiamo facendo in questo articolo. Tuttavia, a nostro modesto parere, prima una persona inizia ad accettare completamente che a un certo punto senza nessun dubbio morirà, e prima può iniziare a prepararsi per la morte, piuttosto che aspettare fino all’ultimo quando poi è troppo tardi.

In un articolo che è stato recentemente pubblicato sulla rivista dell’American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality,6 abbiamo discusso che imparare ad accettare la natura impermanente della vita può effettivamente essere un processo molto gratificante.

In effetti, la letteratura accademica indica che la consapevolezza dell’impermanenza può effettivamente fungere come un buffer (protezione) contro la psicopatologia. Inoltre è stato dimostrato che una maggiore accettazione e internalizzazione dell’impermanenza può aiutare nei confronti di una crescita post-traumatica.7,8

Gli insegnamenti buddhisti spiegano che una persona veramente saggia è colui che, in ogni singolo respiro e in ogni singolo battito cardiaco, è profondamente consapevole dell’incertezza della propria vita e di come la morte sia effettivamente inevitabile.5

Si ritiene che questa consapevolezza dell’impermanenza aiuta una persona a privilegiare ciò che è importante nella vita.6 I risultati della nostra ricerca indicano che coltivando una radicata comprensione dell’impermanenza si può arrivare ad una grande gioia e ci si può arricchire spiritualmente.9,10

Consentendo al concetto dell’impermanenza di infondere tutto il nostro essere, possiamo gradualmente imparare a non attaccarsi strettamente alle cose.

Questo significa che quando le persone e le cose che amiamo sono presenti, noi possiamo veramente amarle, ma quando si dissolvono possiamo lasciarli andare più liberamente. Una cosa utile da ricordare è che ogni volta che facciamo qualcosa, lo facciamo per la prima e l’ultima volta. Un momento di tempo non si ripete mai.

Riconoscere questo aspetto ci permette di dare grande significato alle cose che facciamo e diciamo. Noi non dobbiamo essere dei sonnambuli all’interno della nostra vita – non dobbiamo diventare dei cadaveri ambulanti.

Sulla base di alcune considerazioni, le NDE non sono particolarmente comuni e riguardano soprattutto quello che alcune persone potrebbero definire come esperienze “mistiche”. Tuttavia, dato che la vita è incredibilmente fragile e utilizzando criteri di definizione leggermente diversi, crediamo che ogni singolo essere senziente sta essenzialmente, in questo stesso momento, partecipando a una esperienza di premorte (NDE).

Vorremmo concludere questo post con una breve riflessione sulla morte dal titolo “una bolla nel vento”:

Una Bolla nel Vento

“La vita è come una bolla trasportata dal vento. Alcune bolle scoppiano presto, altre più tardi. Alcune scoppiano di loro spontanea volontà, altre per caso. Alcune vengono deliberatamente scoppiate. Ciononostante, in un modo o nell’altro, tutte le bolle scoppiano. La differenza tra il praticante spirituale realizzato e la persona comune, è che il praticante riconosce di non essere solo una bolla, ma anche il vento che dolcemente lo trasporta.

Quel vento non ha alcun punto di origine ed è senza meta. Soffia liberamente dove le pare. Che meraviglia!”

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

References

  1. Ring, K. (1980).Life at death. A scientific investigation of the near death experience. New York: Coward, Mc Cann and Geoghenan.
  2. Lommel, P.V., Wees, R.V., &Meyers, V.,et al. (2001). Near death experience in survivors of cardiac arrest: a prospective study in the Netherlands. Lancet, 358: 2039-45.
  3. Moody, R.A. (1975). Life after Life. New York: Bantam Books.
  4. Central Intelligence Agency. (2013). The World Fact Book.Available from https://www.cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/xx.html (Accessed, 15th January 2014).
  5. (1998). The Jewel Ornament of Liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. (A. K. Trinlay Chodron, Ed., & K. Konchong Gyaltsen, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.
  6. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integrations. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality,in press.
  7. Kumar, S. M. (2005). Grieving mindfully: A compassionate and spiritual guide to coping with loss. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger.
  8. Wada, K., & Park, J. (2009). Integrating Buddhist psychology into grief counseling. Death Studies, 33, 657-683.
  9. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths M. D. (2013a). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for improved psychological wellbeing: A qualitative examination of participant experiences. Journal ofReligion and Health, DOI: 10.1007/s10943-013-9679-0.
  10. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). The treatment of workaholism with Meditation Awareness Training: A Case Study. Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing, in press.

Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation

Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation

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We recently had a paper accepted for publication in the Mindfulness in Practice section of Mindfulness. The paper is entitled ‘Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation’. It can be downloaded (for free) by clicking here  The Universal Breath_Mindfulness 2016 EYS or by accessing the journal’s website directly: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-016-0570-4

The full reference is as follows:

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2016). Experiencing the Universal Breath: A Guided Meditation. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-016-0570-4.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Thupten Jingpa on Compassion and Mindfulness

Thupten Jingpa on Compassion and Mindfulness

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We recently had the pleasure of talking with Thupten Jingpa, who has been the principal English translator of the Dalia Lama for the past 30 years. The theme of the conversation was the interrelated practices of compassion and mindfulness, including (i) their role in contemporary society, (ii) the traditional context for learning and applying these techniques, (iii) the utilisation of compassion and mindfulness in contemporary behavioural interventions, (iv) issues relating to teacher training, and (v) whether lessons learnt from more than two decades of researching and rolling-out mindfulness-based interventions can be carried forward in order to facilitate the effective integration of interventional approaches based on compassion and loving-kindness meditation.

The interview is now published in Mindfulness and is available for free download from the following link. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12671-015-0448-x

Should a Buddhist Eat Meat?

Should a Buddhist Eat Meat?

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We never cease to be amazed by the number of non-Buddhist individuals that we encounter who believe that abstaining from eating meat is a prerequisite for being a Buddhist. However, it is not just amongst non-Buddhists where this view is prevalent because in the region of about 25% of Buddhist individuals that we meet (in both the East and West) also appear to share the same view. The question of whether or not it is appropriate for Buddhists to eat meat raises a number of important ethical (and practical issues) that are as relevant today as they were when the Buddha was teaching some 2,500 years ago. In this post, we examine the logic and scriptural provenance underlying some of the leading arguments for and against Buddhists eating meat.

A Scriptural Account

We have sometimes read or heard it said that the Buddhist scriptures are ambiguous on the matter of meat eating. However, this presumption is incorrect because the Buddha gave some very specific advice on this topic. According to the Jivaka sutta, the Buddha stated that there are three particular instances where it is acceptable for a Buddhist practitioner to eat meat, and three circumstances where it is inappropriate. The exact words as recorded in the English language Pāli canon edition of this sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 55) are as follows:

“Jivaka, I say that there are three instances in which meat should not be eaten: when it is seen, heard, or suspected that the living being has been slaughtered for oneself. I say that meat should not be eaten in these three instances. I say that there are three instances in which meat may be eaten: when it is not seen, not heard, and not suspected that the living being has been slaughtered for oneself. I say that meat may be eaten in these three instances.”

Thus, the Jivaka sutta, which contains one of the Buddha’s most direct references to meat eating, makes it clear that although the Buddha was adverse to a spiritual practitioner consenting for an animal to be killed on their behalf, he was not adverse per se to the idea of a spiritual practitioner eating meat.

Arguments against Eating Meat

The main argument against Buddhists eating meat is that meat eating is incongruous with the core Buddhist precept of abstaining from taking life, as well as with the general emphasis placed in Buddhism on cultivating loving-kindness and compassion towards all sentient beings (including animals and fish). Of course, it could be argued that if a person buys meat in the supermarket then they haven’t personally killed the animal. However, the robustness of this position is questionable because clearly the consumer is a vital link in the chain of meat production (i.e., if there wasn’t a demand for meat then the number of animals slaughtered for the purposes of supplying meat would be significantly less).

There are several other views relating to why Buddhists should not eat meat but they are mostly encompassed by the primary argument outlined above. An example of such a secondary argument is that by capturing and killing a mature wild animal (i.e., an animal that has not been specifically bred for meat production), it is possible that: (i) its offspring will suffer (and possibly die) due to being without the protection of their mother or father, or (ii) an animal (or animals) higher up the food chain will suffer (and possibly die) due to not being able to find a prey. In other words, due to a human being eating just one single animal, it is possible that numerous other animals will incur suffering.

A further example of a secondary argument relates to the Buddhist view of reincarnation in which it is implied that a living being that is currently an animal may, in its recent past, have been a human. Since most people would be repulsed by the idea of eating a human being, the question arises as to whether it is ethically correct to eat an animal that was a human being during a previous lifetime. These secondary arguments add additional ‘food for thought’ but they are all basically encompassed by the view that human beings are in many ways responsible for the wellbeing of the insects, fishes, and animals with whom we share this earth, and that it is cruel to kill them or cause them to suffer.

Arguments for Eating Meat

From the point of view of practicality, there are certain geographical regions where, without going to great expense, it would be very difficult for a Buddhist practitioner to live on a meat-free diet. In arctic, sub-arctic, and tundra regions, it is much more difficult to grow produce compared to regions that are much warmer. The same applies to very arid regions where droughts can last for months on end. In such areas, it is probably unrealistic for a person on an average or below average income to live on a diet that excludes meat or fish.

In addition to influences and limitations imposed by the elements, an individual’s level of wealth may also affect the dietary options that are available to them. For example, there are regions of the world that are conducive to growing produce but where poverty places restrictions on the types of food a person can buy. In the West, it is becoming increasingly easier to be vegetarian without it meaning that one’s health and nutritional intake somehow has to suffer. Indeed, some Western supermarkets now have entire sections of the shelves, chillers, and freezers that are dedicated to meat alternatives and vegetarian meals. Many restaurants in the West also have vegetarian sections of the menu and there are also some restaurants that are exclusively vegetarian. However, this isn’t the case all over the world and it is probable that in abstaining from eating meat, some individuals of below average means would not be able to afford to buy everything they need for a balanced and healthy diet.

The above arguments are not necessarily in favour of Buddhist practitioners eating meat but they simply highlight the fact that there are certain circumstances where it is impractical for an individual to be vegetarian. In addition to such practical considerations, there are also arguments that support meat eating that are more philosophical in nature. In particular, there is the argument that by eating meat, Buddhist practitioners (and anybody else for that matter) are actually sustaining life. This somewhat paradoxical argument relates to the fact that if there wasn’t demand for meat, then a large proportion of animals currently being bred for meat production simply wouldn’t exist. It is true that some animals bred for meat production live in conditions that are far from ideal (or that in some instances constitute cruelty to animals). However, it is also true that many of these animals – particularly in developed countries – live in conditions that are deemed to be comfortable and conducive to their health and wellbeing. Therefore and according to this line of thought, by eating meat a Buddhist practitioner plays an integral role in the process of giving and sustaining life.

The above slightly paradoxical argument could be challenged by asserting that although the meat eater is a contributing factor for new life being brought into the world, they are also the cause of that life coming to a premature end. This is a valid counter-argument but it can be easily undermined by taking into consideration the fact that even when living in the wild, a lot of animals die ‘prematurely’. The reason for this is because unless they are at the top of the food chain, animals are predated upon. In fact, even animals that are at the top of the food chain are an easy target for a carnivorous or scavenging animal when they become sick or old. Thus, in the wild, there are probably very few animals that die of old age, and it is not uncommon for an animal that becomes the prey of another animal to meet with a brutal end (in some cases probably much more brutal than being slaughtered in a controlled environment). 

Concluding Thoughts

There are strong arguments both for and against the Buddhist practitioner eating meat. According to the suttas, the Buddha’s personal view on this matter was that spiritual practitioners should avoid killing, or directly consenting to the killing of, an animal intended for consumption by human beings. However, the Buddha was seemingly not opposed to a person eating meat where the animal had been killed without that individuals ‘direct’ knowledge or consent. Our own personal view on this matter is that Buddhist practitioners should appraise themselves of the key arguments for and against meat eating, and then come to an informed decision.

As far as we see it, although we would encourage people to make sure that whatever they eat (meat or otherwise) has not somehow resulted in the subjecting to cruelty of an animal or human being, there isn’t really a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ position here. If a spiritual practitioner makes an informed decision and decides that they would like to eat meat, then that’s fine. Likewise, if a spiritual practitioner understands all of the options and decides that they would like to be vegetarian, that’s also fine. In other words, from the point of view of authentic spiritual development, the issue of eating or abstaining from eating meat is actually of limited relevance. Today, some people that call themselves Buddhists make a big deal out of this issue, but according to the record of the scriptures, it wasn’t considered to be a big deal by the Buddha. In terms of its spiritual significance, rather than ‘what’ a person eats, we would argue that ‘how’ they eat counts for a lot more. If a person eats meat or a vegetarian meal with spiritual awareness, gentleness, and good table manners then this will certainly contribute towards their spiritual growth. However, if a person eats meat or a vegetarian meal in a greedy and mindless manner (e.g.,  by slouching over their meal and shovelling it into their mouths), and if they eat without being considerate of other people who might be in their presence, then such comportment actually counts as a hindrance towards progressing along the spiritual path.

 Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

For mindful teaching of mindfulness – The Psychologist

This letter was written by colleagues in response to my recent interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn. The letter has just been published in The Psychologist. For mindful teaching of mindfulness – The Psychologist.

“This is not McMindfulness by any stretch of the imagination” – The Psychologist

I was recently asked by The Psychologist to interview Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction. The interview has now been published online and can be accessed via the following link:

“This is not McMindfulness by any stretch of the imagination” – The Psychologist.

Edo Shonin

 

Fearlessness on the Path of Meditation

Fearlessness on the Path of Meditation

Fearlessness1

Some people are of the view that in order to enter the spiritual path one has to forget about the world and everything we know. However, rather than forgetting about or turning one’s back on the world, a true meditation practitioner is a person that completely surrenders themselves to, and becomes fully immersed in, the world. In order to surrender ourselves to the world we first have to abandon hope and fear. When we have hope, we leave ourselves exposed to suffering. We suffer when our hopes and expectations are not met. Wherever there is hope, there is also fear – the fear that our hopes will not be realised.

Many people think that in order to be happy they need hope. But this kind of happiness is very conditional and is reliant upon the presence of external factors. Relying for our happiness on external factors will never lead to lasting happiness because situations and phenomena are changing all of the time – there is no way we can control them all. By always hoping to be somewhere else, be someone else, or have something else, we effectively turn our back on the present moment and deep spiritual peace can never take root in the mind. This is not to say that we should not make efforts to improve our current situation, but we should do so in such a way that we do not allow the mind to intoxicate itself with hope that our efforts will bear fruit. In other words, if we wish to change or improve our current circumstances, we should do so with absolute focus to the task at hand but remain completely unattached to expecting that we are somehow going to gain something or get somewhere.

It is by engaging in, yet remaining completely unattached to, all that we experience that we create the correct conditions for gaining our first taste of unconditional fearlessness. When they have become adept at abandoning hope and desire, absolutely nothing can shake the meditation practitioner’s confidence. Without trying, they begin to emanate strength, courage, and contentedness. They remain centred and un-phased by any situation. People can’t help but notice the fearlessness that exudes from the person walking the path of meditation. However, because the meditator’s fearlessness stems from a place of calm, compassion, and non-attachment, people invariable feel reassured and safe in their presence.

Of course, there will always be some people who feel threatened and unsettled in the presence of a person that has wholeheartedly entered the path of meditation. However, rather than actually being afraid of the meditation practitioner, it is more the case that such people are afraid of themselves. Due to being free of hope and the idea of being somewhere else or being somebody else, the mind of an accomplished meditator is calm and completely clear. When others encounter this clear awareness, it acts as a mirror and reflects back upon them that which is prominent in their mind. Therefore, upon meeting a genuine meditation practitioner, some people are forced to face up to the fact they are living a meaningless soap opera and that they are effectively devoid of spiritual awareness. Understandably, this is a difficult pill to swallow but having it pointed out is a good thing because it gives people the opportunity to examine their life choices and to make changes where appropriate. However, it is often the case that people don’t want to admit that there is no substance to the self they have worked so hard to create. They become angry at themselves and at what is reflected in the meditation practitioner’s mind.

As referred to above, the quality of fearlessness that arises naturally as part of walking the path of meditation stems from a place of wisdom, compassion, and having abandoned all hopes. Consequently, it has absolutely nothing to do with being macho or deliberately trying to be courageous. These types of fearlessness are very much reliant on the presence of a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, and an ‘I’. The fearlessness that exudes from the authentic meditation practitioner is what is left after the ‘me’, ‘mine’, and ‘I’ are removed from the equation. For this reason, the fearlessness that the meditator experiences is completely devoid of aggression and is without a personal agenda.

An important source of the authentic meditation practitioner’s fearlessness is absolute commitment to the path that they are walking. They do not make a distinction between spiritual practice and time at work or time with the family. Whatever they are doing and wherever they find themselves, they strive to perfect each breath, moment, and activity of their lives. This unremitting commitment to their chosen path provides them with access to an immense resource of spiritual energy. It is the energy of the present moment that flows through and connects all phenomena. By tapping into and nourishing themselves in this energy, the authentic meditation practitioner is able to respond with fearlessness and take whatever happens in their stride. Everything that they encounter forms part of their practice. It doesn’t matter if they are seen as a national hero or if the whole country despises and rises against them – a person that has truly entered the path of meditation has absolute confidence in what they are doing. This is a beautiful and invigorating way to live.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Chah, A. (2011). The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Northumberland: Aruna Publications.

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of Meditation: Training the Mind for Wisdom. London: Rider.

Khyentse, D. (2007). The Heart of Compassion: The Thirty-seven Verses on the Practice of a Bodhisattva. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Nanamoli Bhikkhu. (1979). The Path of Purification: Visuddhi Magga. Kandy (Sri Lanka): Buddhist Publication Society.

Santideva. (1997). A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life. (V. A. Wallace, & A. B. Wallace, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Tsong-Kha-pa. (2004). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment (Vol. 1). (J. W. Cutler, G. Newland, Eds., & The Lamrim Chenmo Translation committee, Trans.) New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Trungpa, C. (2002). Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambala.

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