The Hidden Aspects of the Five Precepts

The Hidden Aspects of the Five Precepts

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The five precepts (Pāli: pañca-sīlāni) provide a basic code for living a life that is in-keeping with Buddhist ethical ideals. They are recited by lay and monastic Buddhist practitioners all over the world and a great deal has been written about their literal meaning. In today’s post, we offer an interpretation of the five precepts that focuses on their hidden meaning.

First Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing (Pānātipātā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden meaning of the first precept is that we should not kill the Buddha within. Whenever we chase after mundane goals such as wealth and status, this is killing the Buddha within. Our time on this earth is limited and sooner or later we will encounter death. At the point of death, all of our various life encounters and accomplishments mean absolutely nothing. They have no more significance than the fading memories of a dream and no matter how hard we try, nothing from this life can be taken into the next. The only exception to this is the spiritual insight that we manage to accrue on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, if we don’t use this precious human rebirth to nourish and develop ourselves spiritually, we suffocate the Buddha within.

When we are with someone who is talking with us, confiding in us, and our mind is thinking about either what we want to say or what we could be doing instead of being with that person, then we are killing the Buddha within that person and we kill the Buddha within ourselves. When we do not listen to the bird that is singing for us then we kill the Buddha within ourselves as well as the Buddha in the bird. That bird spent many lifetimes training to sing that song so that we could hear it and we spent many lifetimes training so that we could listen to what the bird has to say. The bird sang, we couldn’t care, the moment passed and we were not aware. We are as good as dead alongside the Buddha within.

Second Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given (Adinnādānā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden aspect of the second precept is that we should not steal from ourselves the opportunity to attain enlightenment in this lifetime. The second precept also means that we should not steal this opportunity from others. The opportunity to attain enlightenment is the birth-right of every living being in the universe. We steal away this opportunity from ourselves each time we practice mindless, selfish, and unskilful ways. We steal away this opportunity from others when we do not act with kindness, awareness, and gentleness in their presence.

When people set themselves up as ‘Buddhist’ teachers without having dedicated their lives to spiritual practice (or in some cases after having taken part in just one or two meditation retreats facilitated by people who have no real spiritual experience), they are putting their own spiritual lives in jeopardy. More concerning however, is that they are stealing the spiritual breath of others. They are stealing other people’s opportunity to attain enlightenment. People come to them obviously in need of spiritual nourishment and all they get is the unfortunate experience of being robbed – both spiritually and materially.

Third Precept: I undertake the training rule to avoid lustful conduct (Kāmesumicchācāra veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The innermost aspect of the third precept is that we should not lust after being a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’. Because of wanting to be somebody, people are unable to be themselves. The more we want to be someone, the more difficult it becomes to just simply be. Wanting to be a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’ causes us to develop a big ego which acts as an obstacle to spiritual growth. When we let go of the idea that we inherently exist, we cease to separate ourselves from the energy and dance of Dharmata that is all around us. Phenomena do not exist as discrete entities. They exist as one. When the universe breathes in, all of the phenomena that it contains breathe in with it. When the universe breathes out, all of the matter and space that it contains also breathes out. When we stop wanting to be a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’, we are able to relax into and once again abide in unison with the energy of all that is.

Forth Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech (Musāvādā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden aspect of the fourth precept means that we should not utter false speech by giving Dharma teachings on subjects that we have not fully and directly realised ourselves. It seems that the number of so called Dharma and meditation teachers is rapidly increasing. More and more people are writing books about the Buddhist teachings (including mindfulness), and more and more people are offering meditation retreats and courses. Whenever we try to instruct others in spiritual teachings that we ourselves have not fully realised, we lie to them and we also lie to ourselves. This false speech serves to water down the Dharma, bolster our egos, and distance us (and those listening to us) from the possibility of cultivating true meditative calm and insight.

The same applies when we utter words such as “I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha”. If during our day-to-day existence, we are only concerned with the petty affairs of our lives and getting ahead in the world, then these words are untrue. If we wish to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we have to stop thinking that the world revolves around us. We have to stop living a soap opera. We have to make our entire life a spiritual practice and not just engage in (what we deem to be) Buddhist practice when it is convenient to us or when we are going through a particularly difficult time.

Fifth Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from ingesting intoxicants (Surāmerayamajjapamādatthānā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The innermost meaning of the fifth precept is that we should not fill up and intoxicate our own mind or other people’s minds with concepts, clever ideas, and wrong views. Too many people have their minds full-up. If our minds are too full then there is no room for wholesome thoughts to grow and flourish. In a full mind there is no space for simply being, and there is no emptiness to nurture and refresh our being. Having our minds full-up all of the time becomes very stressful and tiring not only for ourselves but also for those with whom we interact.

Some people that practice Buddhism fill up their minds with the idea that they are a Theravada Buddhist, a Mahayana Buddhist, or a Vajrayana Buddhist. However, a Theravada Buddhist who is caught up in the idea of being a Theravada Buddhist is not, in truth, a Theravada Buddhist. The same applies to Mahayana and Vajrayana practitioners who foolishly attach themselves to the name and label of their particular Buddhist practice modality.  In Theravada Buddhism there are strong Mahayana and Vajrayana elements, and in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism there are strong Theravada elements.

In our work as Buddhist monks, we meet lots of people that proudly introduce themselves as (for example) a vegetarian, vegan, spiritual teacher, meditator, or philanthropist. If people want to be a vegetarian or a vegan that’s great – good for them. But if they over-identify with the idea of being a vegetarian and/or believe that it somehow makes them a more spiritual or virtuous person, then they have allowed their life choices to intoxicate their mind. We abstain from intoxicating the mind with concepts and wrong views when we observe but do not attach ourselves to thoughts and feelings. When we allow thoughts, feelings, and other mental processes to roll freely through the mind and not to stick to it, the mind becomes completely immune to all forms of intoxicant.

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

A Buddhist’s Guide to Safe Sex

A Buddhist’s Guide to Safe Sex

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In our capacity as Buddhist teachers we are sometimes asked questions regarding the role of sex in Buddhist practice. In the last few months, we have also received several requests for us to write a post on this subject. The nature of these questions and/or requests generally relate to misunderstandings as to the Buddhist teachings on this subject. Specifically, it appears that there is uncertainty over what appear to be conflicting Buddhist teachings regarding how a Buddhist practitioner should relate to sex so that it does not become an obstacle to spiritual awakening. Therefore, in today’s post we provide our perspective on the role of sex in Buddhist practice and provide five recommendations to help individuals contextualise and/or engage in sexual activity in a manner that is conducive to spiritual practice:

1. Have sex responsibly: The Buddha did not provide extensive details as to what constitutes having responsible sex and what sexual activity was acceptable or inappropriate. However, the sentiment of the Buddha’s teachings on sex (and on life more generally) were that nobody should ever be hurt or abused as a result of a sexual encounter. This not only includes the individuals having sexual intercourse but also includes anybody else that might be adversely affected. For example, before two people have sex together, they should ensure that an unwanted child will not be born as a result of their actions. Similarly, promiscuous sex should also be avoided because it invariably causes suffering for all concerned. We have always taught that sex within the context of a loving and stable relationship is the most ideal situation. However, if this is not possible then it is important to at least make sure that nobody is taken advantage of or hurt as a result of a sexual encounter.

2. Don’t turn sex into something it isn’t: We are not sure whether any credible research has been conducted to determine the average number of people per day in the world that have sexual intercourse. However, since there are credible estimates of the number of babies born each day in the world, then we can be fairly certain that at least twice this number of people in the world have sex on any given day. For example, current estimates place the birth rate at approximately 370,000 new born babies each day. This means that about nine months prior to this, approximately 740,000 people had sexual intercourse (this does not take into account babies that were born due to artificial insemination, premature births, or instances where twins or triplets were born). However, common sense tells us that in reality, the figure is much higher because not all acts of sexual intercourse result in the birth of a child. Some explanations for this might be that: (i) the act of sexual intercourse was between individuals of the same sex, (ii) contraception was used, (iii) one or both of the individuals had fertility issues, and (iv) there was a miscarriage or the foetus was aborted.

The reason for emphasising the fact that sex is very common is to help us see sex for what it is and not to assign it more importance than it warrants. As human beings, we have certain biological needs. We need to eat, drink water, sleep, and go to the toilet. At the point human beings reach the pubescent stage, the human body also has a biological need to discharge sexual energy. If any of the aforementioned biological needs are not addressed in one way or another, then sooner or later discomfort and pain arise. There are various ways an individual can deal with the build-up of sexual energy in the body, of which having sexual intercourse or masturbation are probably the most obvious (but there are also other means depending on a person’s level of meditative awareness and their familiarity with the various gross and subtle energies in their body). Nevertheless, the point is that just like eating or going to the toilet, sex is neither a wholesome nor an unwholesome act, and it is neither important nor unimportant. The way in which sex is viewed by an individual (and society) depends entirely on the level of importance and meaning they assign to it. The energy that is created and discharged during sex can be incredibly pleasurable, and sex is also necessary for bringing new life into the world. However, it seems to us that sex is afforded too much significance in modern society and this has actually cheapened this otherwise natural and neutral aspect of human behaviour. In other words, sex has become such a big part of peoples’ thoughts and conversation and has been given so much importance, that it has been debased and become unimportant.

3. Practice mindful sex: Research demonstrates that there are various health benefits associated with practising mindfulness. The Buddha did not teach that the idea was to practice mindfulness when engaging in some activities but not in others. Rather, he taught that mindfulness should be practised at all times. Therefore, when you are having sex, try to do so mindfully. We are not aware of a program of empirical research that has investigated whether mindful sex heightens sexual pleasure, but there are preliminary research findings indicating that mindfulness can improve sexual dysfunction (see further reading list below). The way to practice mindful sex is – as with all other forms of mindfulness practice – to be fully aware of one’s thoughts, feelings, bodily movements, and bodily sensations during and after sexual intercourse. In other words, mindful sex involves the individual becoming a participating observer. They fully participate in the act of having sex but allow a certain perceptual distance to be introduced between them and the psychosomatic experience of sexual intercourse. This prevents the act of sex and the powerful feelings and sensations that it produces from causing the spiritual practitioner to lose their meditative awareness and to succumb to mindless ways of thinking and behaving.

4. Don’t reject the experience of having sex:  Some Buddhist practitioners take vows of celibacy in relation to sexual activity. If, for example, a Buddhist nun or monk has taken a vow of celibacy, then it is very important that they honour that vow. However, for individuals that have not taken such vows, it is essential not to consider the act of having sex as something that happens outside of one’s spiritual practice. The Buddha taught that a mind intoxicated with desire for sensual and/or sexual pleasure is not conducive to spiritual awakening. Despite this, the Buddha certainly never implied that the act of having sex was wrong in and of itself. As we discussed in our post on False Spiritual Economy, the crucial point is not to become attached to any objects or experiences that we encounter – including sex. Attachment and/or desire are considered to be primary mental poisons in Buddhism and will definitely present an obstacle to spiritual growth. In fact, as our colleague and friend Professor Mark Griffiths has written extensively about on his own blog, it is actually possible for people to become so preoccupied with sex that they eventually become addicted to it.

The exact same principle applies to being averse to having sex as it does to being attached to it. If a person rejects the sexual feelings and energy that they experience, then they are effectively rejecting a part of their being and introducing a degree of conflict or resistance into their mind. It is for this reason that in place of the path of celibacy advocated by certain Buddhist monastic traditions, other (mostly tantric) Buddhist approaches advocate accepting sexual energy and using it as a means of making spiritual progress. The point in tantric Buddhism is for the spiritual practitioner to accept and work with sexual energy but in such a manner that they use it as a means of realising the inherent emptiness of all that exists (including feelings of sexual pleasure). However, it doesn’t take a genius to understand that the fairly graphic nature of some of the tantric Buddhist teachings means that they can be easily abused or misunderstood. The tantric teachings relating to sex and sexual energy are intended for experienced meditation practitioners that have already acquired advanced levels of spiritual insight and that are already well on the path to enlightenment. Despite this and due to not keeping their egos under control, some Buddhist practitioners and teachers automatically assume that they are already at an advanced stage of meditation practice and use these tantric teachings as an excuse to behave irresponsibly (i.e., they think they can go around sleeping with anybody and everybody and they lose sight of their original goal).

5. Enjoy the wonder of sex: As discussed above, the way in which we relate to sex largely depends on the level of meaning and importance that we assign to it. In other words, it is basically up to us whether sex and our thoughts and behaviours in relation to it becomes something that advances spiritual development or impedes it. Given this choice, it is completely within the power of every spiritual practitioner to turn sex into a wholesome practice and conduct. The way to do this is to load the act of having sex not just with mindful awareness but with positive and compassionate intentions. Sex can be a way for people to be intimate together, to be naked as human beings, and to show love and kindness. If one loads the act of having sex with such positive intentions and awareness, then it becomes a spiritual act. The same applies to everything we do. If a person eats or goes to the toilet with spiritual awareness and a compassionate intention, then these actions also become spiritually productive.

We sometimes observe Buddhist teachers attempt to side-step questions or requests for advice relating to sex. However, sex is a part of human existence and so we definitely don’t need to be afraid of it or steer away from talking about it just because we consider ourselves to be spiritual practitioners. Becoming comfortable with sex and knowing how to relate to it helps us to grow in wisdom and confidence as spiritual practitioners. In other words, if we are a person that wants to take spiritual practice seriously, we have to accept, love, and be comfortable talking and working with everything that we encounter in life. Therefore, if a Buddhist practitioner so wishes, they can certainly make use of sex as part of their spiritual practice. They can also fully enjoy and intricately experience the natural wonder of sex. This is very different than the person that becomes preoccupied with sex and uses it as an excuse to engender lustful, disrespectful, or smutty thoughts.

A great deal has been written about sex and Buddhism, including a lot of misinformation. The above suggestions are by no means exhaustive but we hope they will provide some food for thought for individuals seeking to make sense of this subject. The main thing to remember is to always have virtuous thoughts and intentions. If one can do this then having sex will certainly become an aid rather than a hindrance to spiritual awakening.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Barker, M. (2014). How social is your mindfulness? Towards a mindful sex and relationship therapy. In: Bazzano, Manu (ed). After Mindfulness: New Perspectives on Psychology and Meditation. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 81-100.

Brotto, L. A., & Heiman, J. R. (2007). .Mindfulness in sex therapy: Applications for women with sexual difficulties following gynecologic cancer. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 22, 3-11.

Laurent, H., Laurent, S., Hertz, R., Egan-Wright, D., & Granger, D. A. (2013). Sex-specific effects of mindfulness on romantic partners’ cortisol responses to conflict and relations with psychological adjustment. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 38, 2905-2913.

McCarthy, B., & Wald, L. M. (2013). Mindfulness and good enough sex. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 28, 39-47.

Trungpa, C. (2011). Work, sex, money: Real life on the path of mindfulness. Boston: Shambala

 

A Buddhist Perspective on Suffering

A Buddhist Perspective on Suffering

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In western culture, suffering is generally defined as the experience of either somatic or psychological pain. Therefore, in the absence of such pain and whilst experiencing favourable socio-environmental conditions, individuals are generally not categorised as ‘suffering’ or ‘ill’ according to western medical conventions (e.g., as defined by the World Health Organization). However, within Buddhism, the term ‘suffering’ takes on a much more encompassing meaning. Irrespective of whether a sentient being is currently experiencing psychological or somatic pain, and irrespective of whether a sentient being considers itself to be suffering, Buddhism asserts that the very fact an unenlightened being exists means it suffers.

As we discussed in our recent post on Having Fun with the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha declared that ‘suffering exists’. In addition to representing the Buddha’s experiential understanding of the truth, these words were intended to represent a statement of fact. They were never meant to be ambiguous. ‘Suffering exists’ does not just mean that there is the potential for suffering to exist, it means that with the exception of those beings that have realised the third noble truth (i.e., the cessation of suffering), all beings suffer. Likewise, the noble truth of suffering does not mean that sentient beings suffer at certain times but not at other times, it means that sentient beings that have not transcended to liberation are continuously immersed in suffering.

This type of enduring latent suffering referred to above is known in Buddhism as ‘all-pervasive suffering’. In essence, it is the suffering that arises due to an individual’s ignorance as to the ultimate nature of self and reality. Since – as discussed in our post on Deconstructing the Self – unenlightened beings have a distorted perception of reality, Buddhism asserts that they are deluded. Accordingly, within Buddhism and to a certain extent, the words suffering, deluded and ignorant can all be used interchangeably.

One means of conceptualising the Buddhist interpretation of suffering as a form of delusion (or ignorance) is by drawing parallels between the two conditions of  ‘mindlessness’ and ‘hallucination’. Mindlessness refers to a lack of present moment awareness whereby the mind is preoccupied with future (i.e., fantasized) conjectures or past (i.e., bygone) occurrences. Therefore, an individual afflicted by mindlessness might be said to be engaging in the ‘non-perceiving of that which is’. Hallucination, on the other hand, can be described as being ‘the perceiving of that which is not’. Thus, given that both states involve an erroneous perception of the ‘here and now’, it could be argued that mindlessness is actually a form of ‘inverted hallucination’.

According to Buddhist thought, the population en masse is effectively deemed to be delusional (i.e., suffering) and in a permanent inverted-hallucinatory state. However, as the 12th century Tibetan Buddhist saint Gampopa aptly points out, although all unenlightened beings (human or otherwise) experience all-pervasive suffering, they are generally ignorant of this fact:

Ordinary people will not feel the all-pervasive suffering as, for example, when one is stricken with a serious plague and a small pain in the ears and so forth is not noticeable. But the saintly beings – the noble ones beyond samsara such as the stream enterers and so forth – will see the all-pervasive suffering as suffering …

In addition to all-pervasive suffering which might be described as a more subtle form of suffering, Buddhism recognises two other primary forms of suffering that are much more tangible. The first is known as the ‘suffering of change’ and refers to the fact that whatever temporary happiness there might be, it simply cannot endure. The Buddha stated that birth leads to the suffering of sickness and old age, and sickness and old age lead to suffering of death. Likewise, being in love leads to the suffering of separation, and having possessions (e.g., wealth, health, reputation, family, friends, etc.) leads to suffering when one is ultimately separated from such favourable circumstances. In short, suffering is ubiquitous to the human condition and the principle of impermanence means that just as with all phenomena, favourable circumstances are transient and are subject to dissolution.

The third primary form of suffering recognised in the Buddhist teachings is the ‘suffering of suffering’. This is the most palpable form of suffering and is typified by experiences such as somatic pain, psychological distress, hunger or starvation, thirst or dehydration, being too hot, and being too cold. Buddhism asserts that the human being comprises five aggregates (1. form, 2. feelings, 3. perceptions, 4. mental formations, and 5. consciousness; Sanskrit: skandhas; Pali: khandhas) and that each individual aggregate is likewise composite. For example, the first aggregate of form or the body in-turn comprises the five elements of water, wind (i.e., air), earth (i.e., food), sun (i.e., heat/energy), and space (i.e., in the bodily cavities and between molecules, etc.). Due to the fact the human body exists in reliance upon a delicate balance of innumerable causes, components and conditions, Buddhism asserts that even a slight imbalance in these elements and components results in both the suffering of suffering (e.g., pain and discomfort) and ultimately, the suffering of change (e.g., illness and death).

There is quite a lot more we could write about the Buddhist take on suffering, but the above provides a brief introduction to how Buddhism distinguishes between different types of suffering and why the Buddha stated that suffering exits. It is only by first recognising and coming to terms with the suffering within ourselves – including in all of its different guises – that we can fully appreciate the potency of the Buddha’s teachings and the need to earnestly apply ourselves towards spiritual development.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Bodhi, B. (1994). The Noble Eightfold Path: Way to the End of Suffering. Kandy, Sri Lanka: Buddhist Publication Society.

 

Dalai Lama. (1995). The Path to Enlightenment. New York: Snow Lion.

 

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of meditation: training the mind for wisdom. London: Rider.

 

Gampopa. (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.

 

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-127.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107.

How to Tame a Monkey Mind

How to Tame a Monkey Mind

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Within Buddhism, the term ‘monkey mind’ is sometimes used to describe people that have very unsettled minds. If you have a monkey mind, it basically means that just like a naughty monkey, your mind constantly jumps from one thing to another and only very rarely does it actually settle down. People with monkey minds might be engaged in some kind of task or conversation, but they quickly succumb to boredom and their mind begins to wander off again. The monkey mind condition normally becomes apparent to people when they start learning meditation. Indeed, people that are new to meditation frequently experience great difficulty in holding their concentration on a single meditative object (such as the natural flow of their in-breath and out-breath). We are not aware of any empirical research that has attempted to quantify the prevalence of the monkey mind condition, but we would estimate that most people would admit to having experienced monkey-mindedness to a greater or lesser extent.

In general, people with a more severe form of monkey-mindedness are quite easy to spot because in addition to being mentally restless, they are invariably also very physically restless. Of course, there can be many reasons – including medical ones – that may influence the degree of physical unrest that a person exhibits. However, generally speaking and based on our experience, if a person finds it difficult to sit still and always has to be doing something, then this is a sign that they may be afflicted by monkey-mindedness. Another good indicator of monkey-mindedness is when an individual is following a certain line of dialogue or conversation and they suddenly go off on tangents and introduce completely-unrelated topics. In fact, we encounter quite a number of people that can thread together what seems to be an endless string of completely-unrelated topics and hold (what they deem to be) a ‘conversation’ for hours on end. Perhaps the monkey in the mind of people like this is bigger than the average-sized monkey or perhaps it is just particularly naughty and restless – who knows?

Although monkey-mindedness often reveals itself through an individual’s physical demeanour and comportment, some people try to conceal their monkey mind. For example, as part of our vocation as Buddhist monks, we have been present at or facilitated a large number of meditation retreats, and as with most of life’s pursuits, there is a tendency for people at meditation retreats to try to give the impression that they are very experienced and/or are much more accomplished than everybody else. You would probably be surprised at the lengths that some people go to in order to convince others that they are a ‘serious’ meditator. Indeed, some people sit in what they believe is meditation for hours on end without flinching or moving a muscle, and whilst keeping a very solemn expression on their face. For people who are new to meditation, seeing others behave like this can actually be quite intimidating – we’re not sure that it creates a hostile environment but it certainly doesn’t help people to feel welcome and at ease.

Despite their attempts to convince people otherwise, you only need to observe these ‘serious meditators’ when they get up and leave the meditation hall to see that their mind is far from disciplined and serene. Because such people are more interested in giving the impression of practising meditation rather than actually practising it, then it doesn’t take long before the ego-monkey in their mind reveals itself and does or says something that is selfish and/or hurtful to others. In fact, on several separate occasions, we have observed a meditator sitting very seriously, but due to trying to supress or ignore their monkey mind, they allow psychological pressure to build-up. The next thing that happens is they suddenly can’t take it anymore and they end up rushing out of the meditation hall.

The wisdom and lesson that can be learned from the above example of the overly-serious meditator is that if we try to ignore or supress the monkey mind, it can lead to both internal and external conflict. The same thing happens if we are too rigid and serious in our efforts to tame the monkey within. In other words, in order to begin taming the monkey mind, in addition to a certain degree of meditative-technical knowhow, we need a great deal of patience, gentleness, perseverance, and a good sense of humour.

If we understand that on the one hand, taming the monkey mind requires lots of effort and is arguably the most important thing we will ever do in our lives, but on the other hand personal and spiritual growth takes time and cannot be forced, then we create the optimum frame of mind for enjoying the process of transforming unwholesome habits and for progressing along the path of awareness. In order to tame the monkey mind, we need to become aware of its undisciplined nature but in a manner that keeps things light, spacious, and airy. As we discussed in our post on ‘the absorbing mind’, the simple act of observing and becoming aware of our thoughts and mental processes helps to objectify them and to loosen their hold over us. However, if we try to watch our thoughts and feelings too intensely then despite our efforts to do the opposite, we end up giving them too much power and importance.

Therefore, when we practice awareness of our thoughts and of our mental processes, we should do so with a very big and generous mind. This means that we accept the mind as it is and that we don’t try to manipulate it. If the mind is particularly wild and out of control that’s absolutely fine – all we do in this situation is take the unruly mind itself as the object of our awareness. In effect, what we are doing is setting the mind free within the field of our awareness. Because we are not holding onto the mind or offering it resistance by trying to keep it under control, it has no alternative but to begin to calm and settle. Believe it or not, attempting to modify the mind actually runs contrary to the general principle of meditation which is that tranquillity and wisdom are naturally present in the mind and will arise of their own accord when the correct conditions come about. One of these ‘correct conditions’ is simply observing and nourishing the mind through meditative awareness. A metaphor that we have used previously to help explain this principle is that of a garden fish pond – every time the garden pond is stirred or interfered with, the water becomes muddy and unsettled. However, if a person sits quietly next to the pond and simply observes it, the water becomes perfectly still and clear again.

The monkey mind will remain a monkey mind for as long as we choose not to tame it. We might decide that we don’t have a monkey mind or that we do have one but that it doesn’t need to be changed. However, if we are being truthful with ourselves and if we examine the mind closely, unless we are already very spiritually enlightened, then we are likely to see that it is only very rarely (if at all) that we experience true peace of mind. Indeed, irrespective of whether or not we are aware of the wild nature of our minds, having a mind that is always racing around – constantly jumping to and fro between the past and the future – eventually causes us to become physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted. In fact, it is our personal view that a lot of mental health problems such as anxiety, stress, and depression arise because people have very unruly minds and are without the knowledge of how to properly tend to their thoughts and feelings. However, it is also our view that by practising full awareness of all of our thoughts and mind movements, we can begin to take care of our monkey mind until it gradually learns to sit in perfect stillness and quiet.

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

Suffering Exists

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The Pali word for suffering is Dukkha and is translated as dissatisfactoriness or dissatisfaction. In our most recent post entitled “How to become enlightened in 30 days”, we made reference to the Buddha’s teaching that ‘suffering exists’. We have since received a number of emails asking us to elucidate on this point further. Today’s post is therefore a brief introduction to the Buddhist teachings on suffering.

‘Suffering exists’ represents the first of what are commonly known as the ‘Four Noble Truths’ (Pali: cattāri ariyasaccāni). The Four Noble Truths was the subject of the first discourse given by the Buddha after he attained enlightenment. The teaching was given to the five ascetics (the Buddha’s former companions) whilst the Buddha was residing in the Deer Park in Isipatana (now called Sarnath). The teaching of the Four Noble Truths is that: (i) suffering exists, (ii) there is a cause to suffering, (iii) there is cessation of suffering, and (iv) there is a path that leads to the cessation of suffering.

Although there are (obviously) four components to the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths, each of the noble truths contains the ‘truth’ of each of the other three components. For example, if we assert that suffering exists, then because of the law of causality, it is automatically implied that suffering has a cause (i.e., the second truth). The same applies to the third noble truth – if we assert that there is cessation of suffering (or Nirvana if you prefer), then it is likewise implied that Nirvana also has a cause (which is the path that leads to the cessation of suffering – the fourth noble truth).

Similarly, because suffering (and every other mentally designated concept) exists only as a relative notion, when we assert that suffering exists, the notion of non-suffering (i.e., Nirvana) is produced by default. The same applies to examples such as ‘here and there’, ‘this and that’, ‘high and low’, and ‘hot and cold’. ‘Over here’ exists in dependence on ‘over there’. If we take away ‘over here’, then we also take away ‘over there’. If there is suffering, there is also Nirvana. If there is no suffering, there is no Nirvana.

Thus, although we are not suggesting that this should be done, because all noble truths are implicit within each individual noble truth, we could actually condense the Buddha’s teaching on the Four Noble Truths down to just ‘suffering exists’.

Suffering Exists

This first noble truth of suffering exists contains three principal categories of suffering: (a) the suffering of suffering, (b) the suffering of change, and (c) all-pervasive suffering.

a)    The suffering of suffering

The suffering of suffering is the most obvious category of suffering and refers to discomforts such as poverty, hunger, disease, injury, and so forth. This human body is extremely fragile and even a small bump or cut can give rise to unbearable pain. This is suffering in its grossest aspect and even animals recognise this form of suffering. The majority of people have a tangible fear of this type of suffering and experience discomfort even at the thought of it! We are acutely aware of and sensitive to this first category of suffering – suffering definitely exists!

b)    The suffering of change

Unlike the suffering of suffering, people tend to be less aware of the suffering of change. Despite this, the general tendency seems to be that people make a conscious effort to underpin their whole life with this form of suffering. Few people are truly satisfied with their lot – people always desire more, something bigger, something better, or something different. For example, imagine that we start saving our pennies to buy our first little car. We’re young, money is tight, and car insurance is super expensive. However, we really need something to get us from A to B. We frequently comment to ourselves: “if only I had a little car, it would make all the difference”. Eventually we do a good job of convincing ourselves that life cannot function without the car and voila, we do it – our first and very own motor vehicle:

car

However, as we get a little older, we are influenced by our peers and before we know it, our beautiful little car isn’t so beautiful any more. We ‘need’ something better and we make excuses to justify this ‘need’. Then, before we know what’s happening, we’ve done it again – out with the old and in with the new:

car 2

Gosh, this is better, wait till my friends see this” we think to ourselves. However, once again, it doesn’t take too long before our mind starts telling us that we ‘need’ something even more comfortable. After all, we now have an ‘important’ job and must make the ‘right’ impression! Once again, we manage to convince ourselves to visit the car dealership and hey presto, we’ve done it again:

car 3

Wow, I’ve really done it this time – now people will understand who and what I am – this is really going to change my life – people can’t ignore me now”! However before long, the mind gets to work and begins to nag again: “Hey, this isn’t you after all – it’s not the image that suits you best. Perhaps it was at one time, but now people will think that you’re unimaginative and boring”. You resist for as long as you can but eventually the mind gets its own way: “People really are looking at me as though I am dull, stuffy, and boring – I really ‘need’ to change this car”:

car 5

Aaah – this is definitely me! At least for now”!

We play out this scenario with almost every aspect of our lives. Dominated by the conditioned mind, our desires, thoughts, and feelings get the better of us each and every time.

 

a)    All-pervasive suffering

All-pervasive suffering acts as the basis for the previous two types of suffering and is the root of all suffering. In general, people are totally unaware of this form of suffering. All-pervasive suffering comprises two basic elements: attachment and aversion.  Attachment and aversion govern all of our choices and decisions and arise because of a deeply-rooted belief that the ‘self’ or ‘I’ exist autonomously. With obstinate determination, people believe that the ‘self’ is fixed, unchanging, real, and unending. It is the ‘I’ that becomes attached to phenomena and it is the ‘I’ that has aversion toward phenomena. We, as human beings, cling to this ‘I’ and the reality that the ‘I’ creates. The ever present ‘I’ is inevitably followed by ‘me’ and ‘mine’! So we could say that the root of all suffering is the deluded mind – a mind that insists that the ‘self’ is real and independent. We discussed this in our recent post entitled “The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners” (see the section entitled ‘Ontological Addiction’), and we will visit it again in forthcoming posts.

 

The wisdom of suffering

In order to progress on the spiritual path, we need to become deeply aware of both the existence and nature of suffering. This, in part, is the wisdom that we referred to in our post entitled “Meditation: A Three-fold Approach”. We should aim to see suffering in every aspect of human existence including birth (because birth gives rise to sickness, old age, and death). This is not an extreme attitude whereby a person becomes infatuated with suffering. Rather, it’s the case that if we want to let go of something, we first need to become aware of it. Becoming aware of our suffering means that we can begin to objectify it. We can begin to loosen up and even start to foster an appreciation and sense of humour towards the suffering that we experience. Without suffering (attachment and aversion), we could never attain liberation. Thus, although the spiritual practitioner certainly doesn’t go out of their way to experience suffering, they do their best to take it onto the path and use it to propel them forward.

 

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

How to Become Enlightened in 30 Days

How to Become Enlightened in 30 Days

pulling wool

If you had dedicated yourself to spiritual practice for many decades and had reached a level of realisation that meant you were only one month away from attaining full enlightenment, then it would definitely be possible to attain enlightenment in only 30 days. However, for ordinary people like you and us, we’re sorry to disappoint, but the prospect of reaching enlightenment in just 30 days is not very realistic. In fact, enticements and promises like the title of this post are indicative of what has become the spiritual market place of modern times. To different extents and via both subtle and blatant means, religious organisations and so-called spiritual gurus often go to great lengths to tender for our undivided loyalty and blind adherence to whatever dogma they might be broadcasting.

The problem with promising people quick and easy routes to salvation, a deity that can absolve them of all their sins, or even instant enlightenment, is that such promises can never be upheld. An approach like this plays on people’s basic insecurity and effectively denies them the opportunity to shoulder their responsibility to practise and cultivate spiritual awareness for themselves. The truth is, since the very beginning, we have become so enslaved to the ego-mind, so self-addicted, that there are now countless layers of thick-set ignorance that need to be removed before we can eliminate all of our suffering. Nobody other than ourselves can do this for us. The problem is ours alone and it will remain a problem until we decide to do something about it.

According to HH XIV Dalai Lama, we should have reservations about anything offering the best, the quickest, the easiest, and the cheapest way to spiritual fulfilment. Rather than pulling the wool over peoples’ eyes and offering them an easy way out, we personally believe that a truthful approach is required. Only when we are willing to see and accept the scale of the mess we have created for ourselves – the huge pile of faeces that we have each deposited on our own doorstep – can we begin to take steps in order to rectify the situation. This is what the Buddha was asking us to become aware of when he taught the First Noble Truth: ‘suffering exists’.i

closed mind 4Before we engage in any kind of advanced meditative practice, we need to become established in the practice of observing the mind in all of its facets (i.e., mindfulness) so that we can more fully appreciate the extent and nature of our own suffering. However, in these modern times, most people are so immersed in their own suffering, that they are totally ignorant of just how unruly and narrow their own minds have become. Perhaps this is why there is the saying ‘ignorance is bliss’. However, in reality, ignorance is far from a state of bliss. Ignorance causes people to act in increasingly unskilful ways. Ultimately, ignorance causes the mind to continue to implode upon itself – becoming ever narrower and narrower. Just as there is no limit to how much the mind can expand, there is also no limit as to how much it can contract. Narrow minds tend to live life as though taking part in a soap opera or game show. Narrow minds not only harm the individual but also society as a whole. Just look at how many wars and conflicts have been caused by narrow and self-absorbed minds.

Taking the above into account and from a certain perspective, it could actually be argued that the increasing number of people who experience psychological problems such as stress, anxiety, and depression are actually in a fortunate situation. People in this situation cannot continue to pretend that the soap opera or game show they are currently living is a wise and skilful way in which to conduct their lives. Something is not quite right. Ego’s game doesn’t quite work. Maybe anxiety and depression and other such chronic psychological illnesses are a way of telling ourselves that we need to stop, breathe, slow down, and change the way in which we live. Perhaps that small voice within us, that has been suffocated for so long, is finally beginning to waken up and is crying out for spiritual nourishment. In a recent blog entitled ‘The Biopsychosocialspiritual Model of Mental Illness’, we discussed how spiritual factors play a vital role in our overall levels of psychological wellbeing. From this standpoint, feelings such as stress, sadness, discontent, and anger could actually be an opportunity in disguise – maybe they are the “divine sign” that we have been waiting for all along. They could become our greatest teachers – the raw material that we work with and transform as we progress along the spiritual path.

If we listen to this inner voice and gradually turn the mind towards spiritual practice, then we can steadily begin to progress towards enlightenment. As we discussed in our recent blog entitled ‘The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners’, the important thing is not to make enlightenment into a goal. If we try too hard to attain enlightenment then we will never get anywhere. It will always remain a concept or an idea – something that exists out there somewhere and from which we are always separate. Therefore, the trick is just to take things one breath, one moment, and one step at a time. Try to be patient and consistent in your practice and take a long-term approach. Then, before you know it, you might find yourself in a position where you can predict your own enlightenment and where enlightenment is not as far away as you think! Perhaps you will see that it has been there all along – right here and right now.

tasting the fruit 3

i Within Buddhist philosophy, we find four basic forms of ‘suffering’: birth, sickness, old age, and death. We find also three principal categories of suffering: (i) the suffering of suffering, (ii) the suffering of change, and (iii) all-pervasive suffering (which forms the basis for the previous two). This latter category comprises attachment and aversion to things – especially to the ‘self’.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

The Practice of Impermanence: Learning how to be Alive

impermanence

The Practice of Impermanence: Learning how to be Alive

 In our most recent blog entitled “The Top Ten Mistakes made by Meditation Practitioners”, at fourth place was the mistake of “Forgetting about death”. This section provoked some interesting comments and questions which we would now like to briefly address.

Not forgetting about death means to remember that all phenomena are impermanent. All things are in a constant state of flux. Moment by moment all things change. We were born, we live, and we will die. Absolutely nothing escapes the cycle of impermanence.

The Buddha said:

This existence of ours is as transient as autumn leaves. To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at the movements of a dance. A lifetime is like a flash of lightning in the sky, rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.”

According to the Buddhist view, the law of impermanence represents one of the three ‘marks of existence’ (Pali: tilakkhana): (i) impermanence (anicca), (ii) suffering or unsatisfactoriness (dukkha), and (iii) non-self (anattā).

As human beings, we have the tendency to ignore the fact that we have a limited time to walk upon the shoulders of this earth. Rather than simply experiencing the moment, we tend to superimpose our last moment onto this moment. That is to say, we cling on to whatever experience conditioned us yesterday, and we experience the ‘now’ through that conditioning. In this manner we prevent ourselves from experiencing the present moment exactly as it is.

Therefore, as meditation practitioners, we should aim to remember that whatever we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch in this moment will never happen again – this ‘happening’ has gone by and if we were not aware of it, then we have missed it. So try not to sleep-walk through life. Give yourself a pinch to remind yourself that you are awake and life is happening now.

We are born with an in-breath, we leave this world with an out-breath. That which lies in between is this very precious thing called life, and this life can exist only because of the law of impermanence. In fact, it is actually thanks to impermanence that any phenomenon can come into existence.

Basically, impermanence has three aspects: (i) an outer aspect, (ii) an inner aspect, and (iii) a hidden aspect. These three aspects of impermanence constitute a temporal doorway to intuiting emptiness. This is different from the concept of interconnectedness which is a spatial doorway to intuiting emptiness. We shall discuss interconnectedness in a future post.

 

Outer Aspect

 impermanence practice 3 winter

The outer aspect of impermanence is its most obvious form. The fact that a phenomenon that existed at one point of time, does not exist at a future point in time implies that its nature is impermanent. Take the universe for example: the universe was born some 13.7 billion years ago and from it emerged our sun and the other planets in our solar system. They, in this moment of time, are all ‘existing’, but one day they will die. That which becomes has to dissolve, all that is born must die, all that is accumulated will be dispersed, and all meetings must end in separation – this is the nature of things, this is the law of impermanence.

We can, if we wish, easily recognise this outer aspect of impermanence in our daily lives. We can witness impermanence in our relationships – former friends become our enemies and people we previously didn’t get along with can become our close friends. One moment a person is happy but the next day the bubble bursts and they feel low again. The seasons come and go, as do the years, months, weeks, days, hours, and so forth. Impermanence is all around us.

 

Inner Aspect

 boddhi leaf

In order to best describe the inner aspect of impermanence, We have chosen a quote by Pema Chodron:

That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. It is the ordinary state of affairs. Everything is in process. Everything—every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate—are always changing, moment to moment.”

This is slightly different than the first aspect of impermanence in which we were basically saying that things which currently are, will ultimately not be. Here however, we are extending this logic a little further and are now saying that because phenomena ultimately cease to exist, they must be subject to an ongoing process of change that eventually leads to their dissolution.

You might think that the mountain is solid, has always been there, and will always be there. However, as any geologist or physical geographer will tell you, this is actually untrue. The mountain is changing all of the time. Furthermore,  every time you look at the mountain you and your perspective have also changed. So essentially, the mountain that you saw in the first instance can no longer be said to exist. Likewise, the ‘I’ that first apprehended the mountain no longer exists. If you try to impose your first experience of seeing the mountain onto the present moment, then effectively you are not experiencing the mountain as it is now. In exactly the same manner, this truth can be applied to your life in all of its aspects.

 

Hidden Aspect

 impermanence

The hidden aspect of impermanence is the most subtle aspect and, conceptually speaking, is perhaps a little more complex. Although it is called the ‘hidden aspect’ of impermanence, it is in fact in plain view of everyone but only few people have their eyes open enough in order to be aware of it.

This aspect of impermanence is probably best explained by a verse from a short doha (a kind of spiritual song) that we wrote:

Recognise that all phenomena are composite and therefore impermanent.

Yet if all phenomena are momentarily transient,

then what exists to undergo change?

And so recognise too the contradiction of impermanence!”

 

Tips on how to practise impermanence

Use impermanence as an antidote to ‘mental poisons’ and ‘mundane concerns’ by reflecting upon the following:

1)    Greed: No amount of wealth can be used to barter our way out of death. Whatever we have accumulated, we will have to leave behind.

2)    Power: Not even the General of the strongest army can overpower the process of death.

3)    Fame: No amount of followers or reputation can protect us at the end of our life. It doesn’t matter who you think you are – death has no interest.

4)    Desire: All phenomena, no matter how beautiful and attractive, are subject to the process of decay (change) and death.

5)    Anger: Where this involves another party, try viewing both angry parties 100 years from now – is there really any point to anger?

6)    Procrastination: Try not to put off until tomorrow because tomorrow may never arrive.

Integrate impermanence into your meditation/contemplation by reflecting upon the following:

1)    As suggested in our post entitled ‘Life is a Precious Happening’, contemplate the preciousness of this life and all that happens in it. Each life on this earth is extraordinarily fragile and unique. The beat of a heart is all that separates life and death. So do not squander this precious gift of life.

2)    In a similar manner, contemplate all of the conditions that were necessary in order for this life to come in to existence. Things exist only as a result of the complex interplay of innumerable causes and conditions. We exist in dependence upon the sun, stars, moons, planets, and every other living being upon this planet. Without any one of these ‘happenings’ this life now would simply not be.

3)    Understand that the past is a memory never to occur again. The future is a fantasy that never actually happens. All that exists within the scope of experience is to be found in the here and now. However, as referred to above, if the past is only a memory and does not exist, and the future is only a fantasy which will never arrive, then does the here and now actually exist?

4)    Try to recognise that impermanence flows through all phenomena. Begin by looking at your thoughts, emotions, perceptions, the words you have spoken, and the words you have chosen not to speak. Observe how they too are transient in nature – especially if you choose not to cling onto them.

5)    Contemplate the uncertainty of life and the inevitability of death. Death is part of the process of change. Just as birth gives rise to death, death gives rise to birth. This is the cycle of existence.

Practising impermanence correctly will certainly bring great joy and is a very liberating experience. By allowing the realisation of impermanence to infuse our being, we will gradually learn not to hold onto things too tightly. This means that when the things we love are present we can cherish them even more, but when they dissolve we can let go of them more freely. Just remember, every time we do something, that will be the last time we do it. The recognition of this will invest the things we do and say with great meaning and joy. We no longer have to sleep-walk through life – we are no longer walking corpses. If we become proficient at this practice, in time, we might come to realise what we call the ‘permanence of impermanence’. This is when impermanence becomes a place where we can always be. We have liberated ourselves by learning to completely let go so that the recognition of impermanence becomes a permanent way of perceiving reality. Now we are truly learning how to be alive!

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Common Mistakes Made by Meditation Practitioners

upekkha 3

The Top Ten Mistakes Made by Meditation Practitioners

Based upon an extensive review of the research and classical literature, and based upon observations from our own research and practise of meditation, the following are what we consider to be the top ten mistakes made by meditation practitioners:

Tenth place – Not starting to meditate: Although not taking up the practice of meditation can’t really be said to be a mistake made by people who meditate (because such people cannot be classed as meditators), we decided to include this as a meditation pitfall because there seems to be a significant number of people who are interested in practicing meditation but who never actually get round to doing so. For example, a recent nationally representative survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that more than half of British adults would like to practice meditation, but only 26% currently do so.1 Obviously, despite our best intentions and no matter how many meditation books we might read, if we never actually get around to practising meditation, then the fruits of meditation practice will never develop.

Ninth place – Giving-up once started: Although data exists that reports on the year-by-year changes in the number of people following one particular religion or another, we haven’t been able to identify any reliable data that provides estimates on the number of people who adopt a routine of meditation and then give-up at some later point. However, based on the many 1000s of meditation practitioners with whom we have personally crossed paths, it is unfortunately very common for people to begin practising meditation enthusiastically, but then give-up as soon as they encounter a minor difficulty. A reason why many people don’t stick at their meditation practice is because they have unrealistic expectations about what meditation entails. Meditation is not a quick-fix solution. Lasting spiritual growth requires a life-time’s worth of continuous practise. Thinking that meditation can immediately solve all of one’s problems or change one’s life overnight is a mistake. However, just as all effects follow a cause, the day-in day-out infusing of all aspects of our life with meditative and spiritual awareness will gradually begin to soften the conditioned mind and cause rays of insight to slowly break through. When correctly practiced, meditation is extremely hard work and requires us to be patient and compassionate with ourselves. However, meditation also requires us to thoroughly enjoy life no matter what situation we find ourselves in. Meditation should be the hardest work we ever do, but it should also be a lot of fun!

Eighth place – Not finding a teacher: As discussed in our previous post entitled Authentic Spiritual Lineage, a realised spiritual guide appears to be an essential requirement for effective meditative and spiritual development. Many people underestimate the importance of this point, and misunderstand the role of the spiritual guide more generally. The role of the spiritual guide is not so much about transmitting extensive volumes of teachings, but more about removing obstacles that cloud the mind and prevent its true nature from shining through. In other words, the teacher’s role is about removing confusion from the mind rather than cluttering it up with more concepts and theories. The spiritual guide might be likened to a skilful surgeon who carefully cuts away infected or damaged tissue. This can sometimes be a painful process, but it is necessary if we want to make a full recovery. In a qualitative piece of research we conducted which was published in the Journal of Religion and Health,2 findings demonstrated that meditation practitioners made better progress where they felt they were guided by an experienced meditation teacher. Given that most people’s minds have had many years to become highly accomplished in the practices of non-awareness, self-centredness, and thought rumination, a skilful guide is required to help undo this deep-rooted conditioning.

Seventh place – Finding a teacher who is unsuitable: Worse than not finding a spiritual guide, is following one who is inappropriately qualified. The situation is exacerbated by the fact that followers of such teachers are (presumably) unaware that their guide is unsuitable. Thus, people can spend many years practising ineffective meditation techniques and in achieving nothing other than bolstering the ego (and bank account) of their chosen guide. Meditation teachers who offer palm readings in exchange for money or who (try to) predict lottery numbers (as per some Buddhist monks we met during our most recent visit to Thailand) are quite easy to identify as frauds. But things get a little trickier when, for example, a teacher without authentic spiritual realization happens to be a holder of an established lineage, has extensive scholarly training, or is a “recognised” reincarnate lama (known in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition as a ‘Tulku’). With such credentials, it becomes very difficult for people to discern whether or not they are being led astray. We wrote about the many problems caused by non-authentic spiritual teachers in a short spiritual poem that was published in a previous blog entitled: ‘Hearken to the Dharma’.

To perform the role effectively, the spiritual teacher must be highly skilled in understanding and guiding people’s minds. According to Tsong-kha-pa, a 15th century Tibetan Buddhist saint, a suitable spiritual guide is one who is “thoroughly pacified”, “serene” and “disciplined”.3 So as spiritual practitioners, we should ask lots of questions and take time to get to know our prospective meditation teacher. However, at the same time, we should avoid having too many preconceived ideas and should try not to listen to other people’s opinions. Realized spiritual guides can come in a variety of shapes and sizes and may not always fit what we deem to be the ‘perfect mould’. A good question to ask ourselves is: ‘Do I feel better physically, mentally, and spiritually when in this person’s presence’? Try to allow your intuitive mind to answer this question rather than taking an overly-analytical approach.

Sixth place – Trying too hard: Trying too hard to make progress spiritually and/or meditatively can often lead to extreme behaviours. Extreme behaviours cause things to become unbalanced and invariably give rise to unhealthy consequences. For example, there is evidence to suggest that over-intensive meditation practise can actually induce psychotic episodes – including in people who do not have a history of psychiatric illness.4,5 There are numerous volumes of Buddhist writings that advocate a ‘middle-way philosophy’ (i.e., the middle-way between extremes). We can apply a middle-way philosophy not only to our meditation practice, but to how we live our lives more generally. We’re not going to write much more about this here as we will be exploring the middle-way approach more thoroughly in a forthcoming blog.

Fifth place – Not trying hard enough: A bigger mistake than trying too hard to make progress spiritually, is not trying hard enough. This mistake relates closely to the earlier pitfall about giving-up our meditation practice as soon as we encounter difficulties. Just as conditions such as the sun, rain, and nutrients are required for a seed to grow into a blossoming flower, meditative development requires us to make ‘right effort’ at all times. An excuse people often make is that they don’t have time to practise meditation. They try to cram in and find time for their practice amongst all of the other activities of their lives. This creates a certain stressful attitude towards meditation and practise can easily start to become a chore. Therefore, the trick is to not create a separation between your meditation practise and the rest of your life. When you sit and write at the computer at work, tidy-up at home, play with your children, and even when you go to the toilet, do so in meditative awareness. Try to take what you experience now as the path. Real meditators are those who can practise ‘on the job’. Stop battling with yourself – let go and allow your mind to encompass the entire present moment. Cultivate a mind that is open and accepting – as vast as space. Wherever you find yourself, each time you make the effort to become aware for a brief moment, know that we’re doing the same and are practising with you. Meditate now, my dear.

Fourth place – Forgetting about death: A primary reason why many people’s spiritual practice goes astray is because they forget about death. Death is the spiritual practitioner’s best friend. From the moment you are born, every single second of your life brings you closer to death. You can’t hide from death and you can’t predict when you will die. At any time, you are only separated from death by a single breath in or out. Most people are complacent about death and continue immersing themselves in totally meaningless activities. But believe us – you won’t be complacent about death when it’s happening to you. At this time, if you haven’t made your human rebirth into a precious one (i.e., by infusing your life with spiritual development), then at the time of death you will be totally confused and tormented by regret and fear. Your family, friends, possessions, and reputation will count for absolutely nothing at this time. Your life will have been wasted and you will be leaving an island of jewels (i.e., the human rebirth) empty handed. So there really isn’t any time to delay your spiritual practice because all you can take with you when you die is that which you have accomplished spiritually – everyone and everything else must stay behind. A good practitioner is one who, in every single breath and every single heartbeat, is deeply aware of the uncertainty of the time of death as well as its inevitability. One of our favourite Buddhist quotes about this subject was written by Shantideva – an eighth-century Indian Buddhist Saint:

“By depending upon this boat-like human being, you can cross the great ocean of suffering. In the future such a vessel will be hard to find – this is no time to sleep, you fools!”

Third place – Doubt: Doubt is one of the main reasons why people do not make progress in their spiritual and/or meditative practice. If death can be said to be the meditation practitioner’s best friend, then doubt is probably their worst enemy. Having met a suitable spiritual guide, doubt is what causes people to begin to “find” faults in their teacher’s character and break the sacred bond that supports them. Unfortunately, just as a branch withers and dries up when it falls from the tree, the same happens when the connection with the spiritual teachings is severed.

It’s not that doubt should be feared or run away from, because it is a necessary part of spiritual growth. The real challenge is how we respond to and deal with doubt when it arises. In our recent blog entitled ‘Forgive them Father’, we discussed how doubt is not really about people becoming suspicious of the teachings or the teacher, but is more to do with people becoming suspicious of themselves and their own experiences. Rather than a blind conviction in the teachings, the antidote to doubt is logical reasoning and reflection from a centred and stable mind-state.

The thing to do when doubts arise is to make the practise that we advise for people who receive training as part of their participation in an intervention we developed called Meditation Awareness Training.6 In Meditation Awareness Training, at the point when difficult or destructive emotions arise, course participants are taught to send out an SOS: 1. Stop, 2. Observe the breath, 3. Step back and watch the mind. A technique such as this allows us to examine situations clearly and without the influence of emotion. Give yourself plenty of time to examine your doubts. There is no need to do it all at once. Take a few deep breaths and centre yourself in the present moment – make good use of your doubts and use them as a means of becoming a stronger practitioner. Reason things through but most importantly, rely on your own experiences. In short, if you are confused then enjoy being confused!

Second place – Meditative dependency: In certain circumstances, it seems that meditation might actually be addictive. Professor Mark Griffiths (one of the world’s leading experts in the study of addictive behaviours) recently wrote about this on his addictive/extreme behaviours blog. According to Dr. Griffiths, the concept of meditation being addictive “is theoretically feasible but we need to carry out the empirical research”. Thus, although there are some accounts in the scientific literature of people feeling that they have become addicted to meditation,7 considerably more research is required to explore this possibility further. In a paper we recently published in the Journal of Behavioural Addiction,8 we hypothesised that meditation could actually be used as a ‘substitution technique’ for people in recovery from maladaptive behavioural addictions such as problem gambling. In the example we gave, becoming dependant on meditation would probably constitute what is known as a ‘positive’ form of addiction.

In the Buddhist classical literature, there are cautionary notes regarding becoming overly attached to meditative bliss. In fact, people can confuse meditative bliss (Sanskrit: prīti) with being enlightened and it can become a major obstacle to further spiritual progress. We personally know of one or two individuals who, after many years of practice, have become proficient at cultivating profound blissful meditative states (by exclusively practising a technique known as shamatha meditation). However, these same individuals appear to dwell in such states with a total disregard for the countless number of people who are deeply in need of their support. The idea is not to use meditation as a means of escaping from the world and its problems, but as a tool for developing and engaging a compassionate heart.

First place – Ontological addiction: First place on our list of the top ten mistakes made by meditation practitioners goes to ontological addiction. Ontological addiction is defined as “the unwillingness to relinquish an erroneous and deep-rooted belief in an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ as well as the ‘impaired functionality’ that arises from such a belief”.8 According to ontological addiction theory (a theory that we have been working on for over 12 months as part of our work with Prof Mark Griffiths), the root cause that underlies all forms of suffering and psychological distress is the harbouring of an erroneous view regarding the true mode of existence of the ‘self’. In general, people see themselves as an inherently existent and separate entity. This view acts as a lens through which they live the whole of their lives. Every single thought, word, and action has the self as its referent and serves to reify the belief in an independently existing ‘I’.

However, under analysis (whether scientific or meditative), a self (or for that matter any other phenomenon) that intrinsically exists cannot be found. Thus, we have the concept of non-self. If we look deeply, we will see that we are empty of a self, but are full of all things. The dualistic outlook that separates self from other is a fabrication of the deluded mind. Being addicted to ourselves causes us to act in ways that not only harm others, but that also harm ourselves. This is much like a piece of fruit on a branch of the tree that begins to see itself as separate from the tree. The same piece of fruit might decide that the trunk of the tree is blocking its view of the countryside, and therefore ask for the trunk to be cut down. Obviously, this is not in the fruit’s long term interests. The truth is that even when in the fruit bowl on our kitchen table, the fruit and the tree are never separate. When you take a bite and taste the fruit, looking deeply, you will see that you are tasting the whole tree, and for that matter, the whole universe.

Ontological addiction is another way of saying that we are ego junkies. When, after many years of meditation practice, we eventually begin to experience some of the fruits of meditation that we have read or heard so much about, it is easy to start to think we are becoming proficient in meditation. In fact, many advanced meditators do a good job in uprooting large portions of their ego-clinging, only to become attached to the idea that they are somebody who has defeated the ego. However, this is unfortunately just another example of ontological addiction and represents the ego deceiving us once again. What we should be aiming to do is to completely let go of the notion of ‘being a meditator’ until there no longer remains any separation between meditation sessions and daily life. If a person is in any way caught up in regarding themselves as a ‘meditation practitioner’, then we’re sorry to say this, but they’ve totally missed the point.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

 

 

References

  1. Mental Health Foundation. (2010). Mindfulness Report. London: Author.
  2. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths M. D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for improved psychological wellbeing: A qualitative examination of participant experiences. Journal of Religion and Health. DOI: 10.1007/s10943-013-9679-0.
  3. Tsong-kha-pa. (2000). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume I. (J. Cutler, G. Newland, Eds., & T. L. Committee, Trans.) Canada: Snow Lion.
  4. Sethi, S, Subhash, C. (2003). Relationship of meditation and psychosis: case studies. The Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 37, 382.
  5. Yorston, G. (2001). Mania precipitated by meditation: A case report and literature review. Mental Health. Religion and Culture, 4, 209-213.
  6. Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Sumich, A., Sundin, E., & Griffiths, M.D. (2013). Meditation Awareness Training (MAT) for psychological wellbeing in a sub-clinical sample of university students: A controlled pilot study. Mindfulness. DOI: 10.1007/s12671-012-0191-5.
  7. Shapiro, D. H. (1992). Adverse effects of meditation: a preliminary investigation of long-term meditators. International Journal of Psychosomatics, 32, 62-67.
  8. Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., Slade, K., & Griffiths M. D. (2013). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior. DOI: 10.1016/j.avb.2013.01.002.

Predicting Your Enlightenment

enlightenmentPredicting Your Enlightenment

It is not uncommon in Mahayana Buddhist sutras for the Buddha to prophesize the future enlightenment of his disciples. Probably the best example is the Lotus sutra where the Buddha makes such proclamations on several different occasions. Here is an example from chapter six of the Lotus Sutra where the Buddha predicts Maha-Maudgalyayana’s attainment of Buddhahood in a future era:

This my disciple Maha-Maudgalyayana, after casting aside this body, will see eight thousand two hundred myriads of kotis of world-honoured Buddhas, and, for the sake of the Buddha-way, will serve and revere them. Among these Buddhas, ever practicing the brahma-life, for innumerable Kalpas, he will keep Buddha-law. After these Buddhas are extinct, he will erect stupas of the precious seven, displaying afar their golden spires, and, with flowers, perfumes, and music, pay homage to the Stupas of the Buddhas. Having gradually accomplished the bodhisattva-way, in the domain Glad Mind, he will become a Buddha, named Tamalapattra Sandal Fragrance

Essentially, what the Buddha was communicating with these predictions is that the end result for anybody who perseveres in their Dharma practice over many many lifetimes is that of Buddhahood itself. Now then, let us share with you something that is not widely known. There is a shortcut to enlightenment that means that you don’t have to wait until eternity’s end before you recognise your self-existing Buddha nature. In fact, it’s a shortcut that can place in arm’s reach the prospect of enlightenment within this very lifetime. It’s a shortcut that is so utterly simple, so direct, and so primordially truthful, that most people lack the courage to take it.

If you wish to take this more expedient route to enlightenment then this is what you should do. From the very core of your being, unreservedly offer to the Dharma all of your body, all of your possessions, all of your mind, and all of your spirit. Offer all of your past lives, every moment of this present life, and all of your future lives. Offer all of your hopes and dreams. Offer all of your happiness and all of your pain. Offer every single breath, every single footstep, and every single word you utter. Offer every thought and every mind movement. Offer every ounce of your being and completely surrender your ego to the Buddha. Offer these things with such heartfelt sincerity, such unwavering conviction, that you, there and then, allow the Buddha’s blessings to enter and nourish your being. Offer these things at all times, day-in and day-out. No matter what obstacles or pleasures you encounter, never allow even a hair’s breadth of distance to come between you and the knowledge that you are a rightful heir to the Dharma throne.

When you resolve your mind in such a manner, and surrender yourself to the Dharma without ever looking back, then you don’t need any Buddha to predict your enlightenment. You can make that prediction yourself. You can know that you have been initiated into the inner Sangha of noble beings. What will happen next is that if you have already had the good fortune to meet with an authentic master, your pure faith will enable their blessings to flow forth. If you have not yet encountered or recognised the teacher, then your Vajra-devotion will cause you to swiftly do so.

Enlightenment is in the palm of your hands – you just have to decide whether or not you want to wake up!

Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Loving-kindness and Compassion

compassionLoving-kindness and Compassion

Within Buddhism, loving-kindness (Sanskrit: maitri) is defined as the wish for all beings to have happiness and its causes. Compassion (Sanskrit: karuna) is defined as the wish for all beings to be free from suffering and its causes. Loving-kindness and compassion are traditionally practiced as two of the ‘Four Immeasurable Attitudes’ (Sanskrit: brahmaviharahs) – the other two being joy and equanimity. ‘Joy’ (as one of the four immeasurable attitudes) highlights the fact that authentic loving-kindness and compassion can only manifest from a mind that is infused with meditative bliss, and that has transmuted all afflictive mental states. Equanimity emphasizes the need for unconditionality in the cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion that are extended in equal and unlimited measure to all sentient beings (i.e., irrespective of whether we consider them to be a “friend” or an “enemy”).

‘Bodhichitta’ is a Sanskrit word that means the ‘mind of awakening’. Bodhichitta refers to an attitude or motivation to undertake spiritual practice for the primary purpose of benefitting others. People who adopt and act upon such an attitude are known as bodhisattvas (or aspirants thereof). The bodhisattva essentially dedicates their live (and all future lives) towards alleviating the suffering of other beings. From the Buddhist perspective, this represents a win-win situation because it not only aids other beings both materially and spiritually, but also helps us as practitioners to adopt a humble demeanour. Being humble is a favourable quality because it aids us in dismantling our attachment to the ‘ego-self’. As we discussed in our recent blog about ‘Mindwithness’, ego-attachment is considered to be the root-cause of all suffering.

As aspiring bodhisattvas we should try to allow loving-kindness and compassion to suffuse all of our actions. Being a bodhisattva doesn’t mean that we single-handedly have to “save the world”, or end poverty in the third world. If that was the case then we would have to conclude that all of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas had failed in fulfilling their role. Rather, what we should do is follow in the footsteps of all of the enlightened beings who have already walked the path to liberation. The first steps on this path involve us cultivating compassion and loving-kindness towards ourselves.

When we have unconditional love for our own being then all of our thoughts, words, and actions become an expression of that love. In fact, until we resolve the hatred and conflict within ourselves, we are not in a strong position to try to resolve the conflict and problems that exist in the world around us. If we try to convince others to live peacefully and responsibly when we have tension and conflict in our own hearts, then despite our best intentions, we are just going to create more suffering and confusion.

When we are gentle and kind towards ourselves, and when we have deep compassion for our own suffering and pain, then we begin to see the world in a very different way. We no longer experience life as a constant struggle or an unending flow of dissatisfaction. In fact, not only do we begin to see the world differently but the world begins to see us differently. We begin to tune into how to act skilfully in any given situation – phenomena begin to talk to us and the path becomes clearer and clearer. When unconditional kindness and compassion have flowered in the mind, the earth breathes out a huge sigh of relief. She relaxes a little because amidst all of the chaos and exploitation of her natural resources, the earth knows that she has a new friend and guardian – a child of the Buddhas who walks gently and gracefully upon her shoulders.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

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