Being Too Buddhist: A Teacher-Student Dialogue

Being Too Buddhist: A Teacher-Student Dialogue

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Student: Are you busy?

Teacher: Why?

S: May I talk with you for a short while?

T: Yes.

S: I’ve been practising meditation for over ten years. I’ve studied the scriptures and received teachings from great meditation masters. I’ve written a book on meditation and I’ve even been awarded a PhD in Buddhist Studies. I’ve completed a three-year long retreat and practised advanced Mahāmudrā techniques. This was all before I came to practice with you, and I’ve followed your teachings for over 18 months now.

T: (remains silent)

S: It’s just that I feel ready to become a teacher myself. I feel I’m ready to leave and start teaching others.

T: (remains silent)

S: I want to know if I have your blessing to leave and teach?

T: You can leave whenever you want.

S: But do I have your blessing?

T: Why do you want to teach?

S: I want to help others. I want to tell them what I know and ease their suffering.

T: So, you came to me only to seek my approval for you to teach?

S: No, of course not. I came to follow your teachings. I came to learn from you.

T: But you haven’t followed my teachings. You haven’t learned a thing.

S: What do you mean?

T: You’ve wasted your time here.

S: But I’ve been so focussed on learning all there is to know.

T: That’s why you haven’t learned anything. Your head is full of useless information. You wish to learn only so you can impress yourself and others with how much you know. However, although you might be able to recite entire scriptures, you haven’t grasped their inner meaning.

S: What’s your point.

T: My point is that you’ve missed the point.

S: Your talking in riddles.

T: It’s not only during the last 18 months that you’ve wasted your time. You say that you’ve been practising meditation for ten years, but you don’t have ten years’ meditation experience. You have one years’ experience ten times. You haven’t continued to grow and to learn. This isn’t the same as having ten years’ experience.

S: Well, you’re not holding back with your words. In fact, I’m offended by what you’ve said.

T: You need to start from the beginning. You need to let go of what you think you know and relearn the foundation practices.

S: And how long will that take? When, in your so-called wise opinion, will I be ready to become a teacher in my own right?

T: When you no longer have the desire to become a teacher?

S: That doesn’t make sense. Why do you always talk in riddles?

T: It’s not a riddle.

S: You’re saying that I should abandon my wish to help others by teaching them the path. Isn’t this what you have been teaching us to do all along?

T: I am saying that you should abandon your ego.

S: But wanting to help others is an act of selflessness. How can there be ego involved?

T: You’re full of ego. You’re full of shit. Your words carry no weight because you don’t have the experience to back them up. When I talk about people corrupting the teachings, I’m talking about people like you. Your entire approach to Buddhist practice is governed by your ego. You’re a selfish egoistic pig, and in terms of spiritual progress, you’re worse off than somebody that hasn’t encountered the teachings. Your problem is that you’re ‘too Buddhist’.

S: How rude of you to say these things. I completely disagree with everything you have said.

T: To become a teacher, you must let go of the idea of being a teacher. A teacher simply teaches. They teach with each breath they take. They teach by the way they walk and by the way the sit down. They teach through their being, not through their words. A true Spiritual teacher has no interest in gathering followers. They are just as happy teaching a butterfly or a dog, as they are a gathering of 10,000 people. In fact, they humbly accept the butterfly or dog as their teacher. A true teacher doesn’t label themselves as a ‘teacher’.

S: In my opinion, a ‘true teacher’ doesn’t speak to people in the manner that you have just done. You tell us to show kindness to one another, yet you’re not following your own advice. Perhaps it’s you who hasn’t grasped the inner meaning of the teachings.

T: (remains silent)

S: You think you’re some kind of enlightened Zen master that can go around talking in riddles and being rude to people. People have feelings you know. In fact, you’re right, I did come here to seek your approval. If I want to teach, I require the approval of an established teacher. However, I don’t want your approval anymore. I no longer wish to be affiliated with you. I’ll find a teacher who can see my true qualities.

T: Do you see my point now?

S: What do you mean?

T: Look at how easily your ego flares up. Look at how red and tense your face is. You’re offended. You’re angry. Your ego is raging. In your book, you stated that “a person who has transcended their ego can’t be offended”. Are these not your words?

S: It’s true that I said that.

T: You also said that “people should see themselves as if looking in a mirror”. Can you see yourself now?

S: (puts head down and remains silent)

T: I’m asking you a question. Can you see yourself now?

S: (starts to cry)

T: I keep telling people that they need to make a choice. A choice between walking an authentic spiritual path or remaining in ignorance. These aren’t just words. This isn’t a game. I’m not talking about working towards a professional or academic qualification. You can’t pay lip service to spiritual practice. You must live it and breathe it. You must completely abandon yourself to the path. You can’t practice meditation to make a career out of it. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

S: I think you might be right. I’ve been wasting my time.

T: At least you see it now. This makes you more fortunate than most people in your position.

S: Having a partial knowledge of the teachings has done me more harm than good. I wish I had met you sooner.

T: You weren’t ready to meet me before now. You met me when you were supposed to.

S: How do I turn the situation around?

T: Take a step back and breathe. Breathe and know that you are breathing. Be and know that you are being. Let go of wanting to be a teacher. Let go of being a Buddhist. Sit at the centre of the universe and observe your mind as it engages with the world.

S: (laughs)

T: Why did you laugh?

S: It’s just that in my book, I wrote that “people caught up in being a Buddhist have missed the point of Buddhism”. Its only now that I truly understand the meaning of my own words.

T: It seems that you have taught yourself something. Perhaps you’re already a teacher without knowing it.

Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Is Buddhism One or Many?

Is Buddhism One or Many?

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In our experience, most individuals who assert that ‘Buddhism is one’ are generally not well informed or are secret (or in some cases open) advocates of ‘hippyism’! Accordingly, the preferred scholarly position appears to be that there are ‘many Buddhisms’. In terms of the superficial form that Buddhism assumes within a particular culture, time, and geographic region, this assertion is perfectly true. For example, Theravada Buddhism is prevalent throughout South East Asian countries (e.g., Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Burma) and places emphasis on following the original word of the historical Buddha. Mahayana Buddhism, which originated several hundred years after Theravada Buddhism, is prevalent throughout East Asia (e.g., Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam) and places emphasis on compassionate activity and the non-dual or empty nature of phenomena. Vajrayana Buddhism didn’t become popular until around the 7th Century and is associated with Himalayan plateau countries such as Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, and Mongolia (and to a lesser extent Japan). Compared to Theravada and Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism places greater emphasis on ‘sacred outlook’, the bond between teacher (or ‘guru’) and student, and on various esoteric practices. Schools representing all three Buddhist vehicles (i.e., Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana) are present in the West – where to admittedly differing degrees – they continue to embody the teachings and practices of their source traditions.

Despite these differences between Buddhist vehicles (and even between the various schools that comprise a particular vehicle), we would argue that it is still possible from an informed/scholarly position, to assert that Buddhism is one. Such an assertion is based on the fact that all authentic Buddhist lineages teach methods that ultimately lead to the same result. Furthermore, most of these methods are intended to directly or indirectly foster insight into core Buddhist principles such as suffering, impermanence, and non-self. In essence, suffering is suffering whether you approach it from a Theravada, Mahayana, or Vajrayana perspective. The same applies to impermanence and non-self. Another good example is the trishiksha principle (Sanskrit for the ‘three trainings’; Pali: tisso-sikkha) that incorporates the three trainings of wisdom, meditation, and ethical awareness. These three trainings form the foundations of any authentic Buddhist path, regardless of what geographical region or historical period it originates from.

The essential point is that the different Buddhist vehicles and their respective traditions work with many of the same underlying principles, which they reconstitute and teach in different ways. Furthermore, it is our experience that the further a teacher or practitioner advances along the path of spiritual awareness, the more they start to see similarities between the various Buddhist paths (as well as between Buddhist and non-Buddhist paths). Perhaps this is because the teachings are equivalent to a finger that points to the moon, but they are not the moon itself. In other words, there are some underlying truths of reality and the diverse spiritual teachings are methods of introducing discerning individuals to these truths.

Whenever a realised spiritual being expounds the Buddhist teachings, they provide individuals with an entirely new path of practice. It is completely new compared to that which has gone before because it is being taught by a different teacher, to different students, and in a different period of time. However, although it is a new path, it is really just a manifestation of a ‘universal path’ that, as one of its defining features, has the ability to assume new forms according to the prevailing conditions. A suitable analogy to explain this principle might be that of a chameleon lizard that changes its colour and complexion according to its surroundings. The chameleon can display many different colours, but it is always the same chameleon.

Our view is that the most profound Vajrayana practices are implicit within the simplest of Buddhist teachings, such as the discourse on the four noble truths. Likewise, we believe that Theravada Buddhism, when correctly understood and practiced, can, in particular circumstances, introduce spiritually ripe individuals to what are generally regarded to be Vajrayana or tantric meditative attainments. Within Buddhism, there are different interpretations of how to effectively practice spiritual development, but in essence, they represent variations on the same theme. Consequently, it is possible to make a credible argument that Buddhism is many, but it is also possible to credibly argue that it is one.

Ven Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Mindfulness and wellbeing: Towards a unified operational approach. In: I. Ivtzan, & T. Lomas (Eds). Mindfulness in Positive Psychology: The Science of Meditation and Wellbeing (pp. 280-292). Oxford: Routledge.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Singh, N. N. (Eds). (2015). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness. New York: Springer.

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

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. D. (2016). Buddhist emptiness theory: Implications for psychology. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, DOI: 10.1037/rel0000079.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). There is only one mindfulness: Why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, 6, 49-56.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). Mindfulness and the Four Noble Truths. In: E. Shonin, W. Van Gordon, & N. N. Singh (Eds). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness (pp. 9-27). New York: Springer.

Can a Buddha become Angry?

Can a Buddha become Angry?

Concentration

      Given that Buddhahood is frequently described as a state of limitless compassion that is completely free of negative and afflictive emotions, it might seem strange that we have decided to write a post addressing the question of whether it is possible for a Buddha to become angry. However, believe it or not, the answer to this question is not a straightforward ‘no’. In today’s post, we begin by exploring some Buddhist and psychological perspectives on anger and then provide our view on the above question.

Within Buddhism, in addition to attachment and ignorance, anger is known as one of the three root poisons (Sanskrit: trivisa). Anger can be thought of as a form of aversion towards another person, situation, or even ourselves. Because we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch something that we don’t like or that we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing or sense of self, we quickly want to remove or destroy it so that things return to normal. Basically, anger manifests because we are trying to keep things orderly and under control – people or situations that threaten to disturb or interfere with the world that we have created for ourselves make us feel angry and afraid.

Although in the Buddhist teachings anger is often described as a form of aversion, it can actually also be thought of as a form of attachment. Indeed, the reason we have aversion towards a particular situation is because we have allowed ourselves to become attached to what we deem to represent the ‘opposite’ of that situation. For example, imagine that for some time everything was cushy at work and things were going really well with the career. But then along comes a work colleague who makes us angry and who starts to create problems – it seems that they deliberately go out of their way to cause us trouble. However, if we stop and think about it, the anger and aversion that we experience arises because we have become attached to the idea of everything being cushy and comfortable at work – the perfect environment where we will always be recognised and rewarded for our efforts and where we can swiftly move up the career ladder.

If we didn’t harbour attachments or have unrealistic ideas in the first place, then we wouldn’t become so angry when our plans and ideas are disrupted. Buddhism asserts that a person’s propensity for anger is closely associated with how much attachment they harbour. A person that becomes very attached to their possessions – which in some people’s minds can also include family members, partners, and friends – is likely to be quick to anger. In a paper that we recently published in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, we defined the Buddhist notion of attachment as “the over-allocation of cognitive and emotional resources towards a particular object, construct, or idea to the extent that the object is assigned an attractive quality that is unrealistic and that exceeds its intrinsic worth”. As demonstrated by our definition, attachment takes on a very different meaning in Buddhism compared to its use in Western psychology where attachment (e.g., in the context of relationships) is generally considered to exert a protective influence over mental health problems.

In the same way that the Buddhist root poisons of attachment and anger (or aversion) are closely related to each other, they are also both closely related to the other root poison that we mentioned – ignorance. Ignorance is described as one of the three root poisons, but it is actually the primary cause of each of the other poisons and of suffering more generally. Ignorance in the context that we are discussing it here refers to the extent to which a person views themselves as an independently or inherently-existing entity. The more a person is caught up in themselves and thinks that they possess a definite self, the more ignorant they become – and the larger their ego inflates itself. Thus, aversion or anger is a direct result of attachment, and attachment is a direct result of ignorance or ego.

When a person becomes angry, it basically means that the ego-monkey that we talked about in our last post has decided to raise its head. Although ego underpins all of our emotions and behaviours, this is particularly the case when anger is ravaging the mind. In fact, you only have to look at an angry person and it is as though their ego is trying to burst through their skin. We touched on this in our post on the Top Five Beauty Tips for Men and Women where we made reference to research demonstrating that anger is associated with physiological responses such as contraction of the brow muscles, facial flushing (i.e., turning red), flared nostrils, clenched jaws, increased perspiration, increased heart rate, and general tension in the skeletal musculature of the facial and neck regions.

Anger has a tendency to overrun the mind and body and it is generally accepted by Western psychologists that anger can distort a person’s perspective of a situation and reduce their ability to make wise decisions. As we discussed in a paper that we published in the psychology journal Aggression and Violent Behaviour, in addition to causing people to say and do unpleasant things, anger can also cause people to behave irrationally. For example, a few years ago we were guiding a meditation retreat in the Snowdonia Mountains of North Wales where one of the participants was a middle-aged lady who was very angry because she couldn’t get her mind to relax. Part way through one of the meditations, it became apparent that one of the male participants in the group was a ‘breather’. ‘Breathers’ are those people that breathe really deeply and loudly during meditation so that everybody else can hear them and so that everybody knows they are ‘serious’ about their practice. Anyway, about half way through this particular meditation session, it just became too much for the lady who broke her silence and in an angry voice suddenly shouted out ‘stop breathing’!

The point we have been trying to make above is that anger is a major obstacle to happiness and spiritual development. It is a sign that a person’s ego is very much in tact – which from the point of view of the meditation or spiritual practitioner – means that there is still a tremendous amount of work to do. As a general rule, the smaller the degree to which a spiritual practitioner’s thoughts, words, or actions are influenced by ego (and therefore anger), the closer they are to attaining Buddhahood. However, whilst this general rule applies for practically all stages of the spiritual practitioner’s journey, it no longer applies when they have awoken to full Buddhahood.

For a fully enlightened Buddha, the moment a thought or feeling arises in their mind, it is immediately liberated. The Buddhas perceive clearly that all phenomena – including those of a psychological nature – are absent of an intrinsically—existing self. They see that everything that manifests has no more substance than a mental projection or a dream. As it says in the heart sutra, the Buddhas understand that form (i.e., phenomena) is emptiness and emptiness is form. The Buddhas are not bound by concepts such as self and other, past and future (i.e., time), or here and there (i.e., space). Consequently, their mind is unlimited – it is free of any form of attachment or aversion.

This ability of Buddhas to never become attached to physical or mental objects means that they are free to manifest whatever feelings might be most skilful and compassionate within a given situation. In effect, the Buddhas have uprooted the causes of negative emotions to such an extent, that they are now free to use so-called ‘negative emotions’ as they see fit. Ultimately, the Buddhas are 100% focussed on liberating other beings from suffering. They are overflowing with unconditional kindness, compassion, and patience, but if it is a blast of anger that is required to jolt a person to start truly practicing spiritual development, then it will be duly administered. This is very different than pretending to be angry (e.g., as a parent might do) in order to communicate feelings of disapproval towards another person. The type of anger that we are referring to here is very real – it is primordial anger but there is absolutely no ego mixed in with it. Due to the rawness of this anger and the fact that it is not tainted by ego, it enters deeply and directly into the recipient’s mind and gives them a clear choice in terms of embracing or rejecting the Dharma (truth/teachings).

There are quite a number of examples of enlightened beings using this primordial anger to benefit others. Probably the best known example amongst Westerners is that of Jesus Christ when he over-turned the tables and started throwing the traders out of the temple. Buddhist practitioners might have heard about the 11th century Tibetan spiritual adept Marpa who would even administer a physical beating where he felt it would be of some long-term benefit. Another reasonably well-known and much more recent example is Lama Yeshe who died in 1984 – there are reports that he once got hold of a pick-pocket (i.e., a thief) and gave them a right good shaking in order to make them see sense. There are also examples of Zen teachers becoming angry with their students and in some cases this actually prompted an intuitive leap or a sudden flash of realisation.

For the everyday meditation practitioner such as you and us, anger can make it almost impossible to stabilise the mind and it can significantly disrupt a persons’ spiritual progress. Consequently, every effort should be made to practice patience and kindness and to never act out of anger. However, for the fully enlightened Buddhas, although their very being overflows with joy, wisdom, and compassion, it does seem that they can and do use primordial anger as a very skilful and effective means of teaching. This is quite a dangerous subject to write about because some meditation practitioners or teachers could misinterpret what we are saying and start believing that it is acceptable to be angry. However, given that there are reports of Buddhas exhibiting anger, then it seems appropriate to offer an explanation as to why this might be. Another reason for writing this post is because in the event you are one of those handful of people fortunate enough to meet a fully-enlightened teacher – you’ll be less likely to become all haughty and self-righteous if they decide to give you verbal kick-up the backside!

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

Further Reading

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

Day, A. (2009). Offender emotion and self-regulation: Implications for offender rehabilitation programming. Psychology, Crime and Law, 15, 119-130.

Huang Po. (1982). The Zen teaching of Huang Po: On the transmission of the mind. (Blofeld, J., Trans.) New York: Grove Press.

Novaco, R. W. (2007). Anger Dysregulation. In T. A. Cavell, & K. T. Malcolm (Eds.), Anger, Aggression, and Interventions for Interpersonal Violence (pp. 3-54). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Mindfulness meditation in American correctional facilities: A ‘what-works’ approach to reducing reoffending.Corrections Today: Journal of the American Correctional Association, March/April, 48-51.

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, 18, 365-372.

Wright, S., Day, A., & Howells, K. (2009). Mindfulness and the treatment of anger problems. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 14, 396-401.

Deconstructing the Self: A Buddhist perspective on addiction and psychotherapeutic treatment

Deconstructing the Self:

A Buddhist perspective on addiction and psychotherapeutic treatment

(By Ven. Edo Shonin, Ven. William Van Gordon, and Dr. Mark Griffiths)

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Psychological approaches to treating mental illness or improving psychological wellbeing are invariably based on the explicit or implicit acceptance that there is an inherently existing ‘self’ or ‘I’ entity. In other words, irrespective of whether a cognitive-behavioural, psychodynamic, or humanistic psychotherapy model is employed, these approaches are ultimately concerned with changing how the ‘I’ relates to its thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, and/or to its physical, social, and spiritual environment. Although each of these psychotherapeutic modalities have been shown to have utility for improving psychological health, there are inevitably limitations to their effectiveness and there will always be those individuals for whom they are incompatible. Given such limitations, research continuously attempts to identify and empirically validate more effective, acceptable and/or diverse treatment approaches. One such approach gaining momentum is the use of techniques that derive from Buddhist contemplative practice. Although mindfulness is arguably the most popular and empirically researched example, there is also growing interest into the psychotherapeutic applications of Buddhism’s ‘non-self’ ontological standpoint (in which ontology is basically the philosophical study of the nature or essence of being, existence, or reality).

Within Buddhism, the term ‘non-self’ refers to the realisation that the ‘self’ or the ‘I’ is absent of intrinsic existence (Shonin, Van Gordon, & Griffiths, 2014a). On first inspection, this might seem to be a somewhat abstract concept but it is actually common sense and the principle of ‘non-self’ is universal in its application. For example, Buddhism teaches that the human body 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.) (Shonin et al., 2014a). This means that although the body exists in the relative sense, it does not exist in the absolute sense because the body cannot be isolated from all of its contributing causes. Just as a wave does not exist in separation from the ocean, the body does not exist in separation from all other phenomena. According to the Buddhist teachings, when looking at the body, we should also be able to see the trees, plants, animals, clouds, oceans, planets, and so forth (Shonin et al., 2014a). Thus, the body, and indeed the entire array of animate and inanimate phenomena that we know of, cannot be found to exist intrinsically or independently.

The Buddhist teachings go on to assert that suffering, including the entire spectrum of distressing emotions and psychopathologic states (including ‘addiction’), results from adhering to a false view about the ultimate manner in which the self (and reality more generally) exists. As a means of operationalising this notion within Western psychological and clinical domains, we recently introduced the concept of ‘ontological addiction’. Ontological addiction can effectively be considered a new category of addiction (i.e., in addition to what are typically called chemical addictions and behavioural addictions) and 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” (Shonin, Van Gordon, & Griffiths, 2013, p.64). Due to a firmly-embedded (yet scientifically and logically implausible) belief that the self is an inherent and independently existing entity, Buddhism asserts that afflictive mental states arise as a result of the imputed ‘self’ incessantly craving after objects it considers to be attractive or harbouring aversion towards objects it considers to be unattractive (Shonin et al., 2014a).

In Buddhist terminology, this process is known as ‘attachment’ and it is deemed to be an undesirable quality that reinforces ontological addiction.  We have previously defined attachment as “the over-allocation of cognitive and emotional resources towards a particular object, construct, or idea to the extent that the object is assigned an attractive quality that is unrealistic and that exceeds its intrinsic worth” (Shonin et al., 2014a, p.4). Thus, attachment takes on a different meaning in Buddhism in relation to its construction in Western psychology where attachment (i.e., in the context of relationships) is generally considered to exert a protective influence over psychopathology.

Having understood from a Buddhist perspective that attachment (and harbouring an erroneous belief in an inherently existing self) is not advisable for adaptive psycho-spiritual functioning, Buddhism teaches that the next step towards recovery from ontological addiction is to embrace ‘non-self’ and begin deconstructing our mistaken belief regarding the existence of an ‘I’. Based on this Buddhist approach, a number of novel psychotherapeutic techniques have recently been developed that integrate meditative practices aimed at cultivating an understanding of the ‘non-self’ construct. For example, Buddhist Group Therapy (BGT) is a six-week program that has been shown to be effective for treating anxiety and depression (Rungreangkulkij, Wongtakee, & Thongyot, 2011). Another example is Meditation Awareness Training (MAT), an eight-week secular program that, in a number of separately published studies, has been shown to be an effective treatment for individuals with anxiety and depression, schizophrenia, pathological gambling, workaholism, work-related stress, and fibromyalgia (e.g., see reviews by Shonin et al., 2013, 2014a, 2014b).

From a mechanistic point of view, greater awareness of ‘non-self’ is believed to assist in gradually uprooting egoistic core beliefs and can complement therapeutic techniques that work at the surface level of behaviour and cognition (Chan, 2008). Furthermore, an understanding of non-self can enhance therapeutic core conditions because “the more the therapist understands non-self, the less likelihood that the therapy will be about the selfhood of the therapist” (Segall, 2003, p.173).

For some, Buddhist concepts such as non-self may be difficult to conceptually grasp and reflect what might be seen as a paradigm shift when compared with well-established Western psychological beliefs regarding the ego and the self. As such, psychotherapists will carefully need to assess the suitability of utilising ‘non-self’ meditative techniques for their own clients. Although further empirical evaluation of these new approaches is required, preliminary findings indicate that techniques aimed at cultivating an awareness of the Buddhist ‘non-self’ construct may have applications in psychotherapy settings.

Ven. Edo Shonin, Ven. William Van Gordon, and Dr. Mark Griffiths

References

Chan, W. S. (2008). Psychological attachment, no-self and Chan Buddhist mind therapy. Contemporary Buddhism, 9, 253-264.

Rungreangkulkij, S., Wongtakee, W., & Thongyot, S. (2011). Buddhist Group Therapy for diabetes patients with depressive symptoms. Archives of Psychiatric Nursing, 25, 195-205.

Segall, S. R. (2003). Psychotherapy practice as Buddhist practice. In S. R. Segall (Ed.), Encountering Buddhism: Western Psychology and Buddhist Teachings (pp. 165-178). New York: State University of New York Press.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Buddhist philosophy for the treatment of problem gambling. Journal of Behavioural Addictions, 2, 63-71.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014a). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Towards effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, doi: 10.1037/a0035859.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014b). Mindfulness as a treatment for behavioral addiction. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 5, e122. doi: 10.4172/2155-6105.1000e122.

Does God Exist? A Buddhist Perspective

Does God Exist? A Buddhist Perspective

sentient beings

The question of whether God exists is arguably one of the most debated questions of all time. Nonetheless, given that it is common knowledge that Buddhism does not assert the existence of a supreme being or creator, it may seem strange that we have decided to write a post that explores this question from the Buddhist perspective. Indeed, we suspect that many people – including many Buddhists – would automatically assume that the “official” Buddhist response to this question would be a straight forward “no”. However, here we argue that depending upon how the term God is defined, there may actually be grounds for accepting the existence of God within the Buddhist system of thought.

The Oxford English dictionary defines God as: “(in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being”. As a religion or philosophical system, Buddhism does not reject anything that can be established as “true” by either robust scientific investigation or flawless logical reasoning. In other words, if it could be scientifically or logically proven that God exists, then Buddhism would also accept the existence of God. However, based on the above Oxford English dictionary definition, there is currently no robust scientific proof affirming the existence of a supreme creator.

In fact, not only is there an absence of verifiable evidence supporting the existence of a creator being, both modern science and logical reasoning actually indicate the non-existence of such an entity. For example, the laws of thermodynamics forbid the existence of perpetual motion – motion that exists independent of any energy input. Since, by their nature, phenomena are in a constant state of flux and change (i.e., a form of motion), this means that it is impossible for phenomena to exist autonomous of any input. In other words, phenomena (and therefore beings) do not exist as isolated occurrences but manifest in dependence on their causes and components. For this exact reason – the fact that phenomena are composite and do not exist of their own accord – they cannot endure indefinitely and are subject to impermanence. “Impermanence” here, refers to both the ultimate “death” of phenomena when they cease to manifest, and to the fact that phenomena do not remain static between two instances of time (please see our post on Exactly what is the Present Moment?).

Therefore, if an “eternal” God-being existed, this would mean that they were not subject to the laws of impermanence and causality and that they existed in complete independence of the universe and reality they had created. However, since established definitions of God assert that they “rule” the universe and are its “moral authority”, then this automatically rebuts any assertion that God exists in isolation of the universe that they are purported to have created. Thus, it is logically and scientifically implausible to assert that a God exists that created and interacts with the universe, but that such interaction takes place outside of the law of causality (because “interaction” implies that God’s choices and actions must result in some kind of effect).

Accordingly, Buddhism is unable to accept the existence of a creator being that exists in an anti-septic corner of the universe and has dominion over it. However, if the definition of God is modified such that God becomes more of a principle rather than a person, then there may be scope for accepting the existence of “God” within the Buddhist system of thought. To explain this further, we have decided to separate out each of the key components of the abovementioned Oxford English dictionary definition of God and provide an alternative interpretation of these terms:

  1. Supreme being: According to the Buddhist teachings, the capacity for enlightenment exists within every sentient being. This enlightenment capacity or “God nature” never goes away – it is indestructible. However, most people can be likened to a wave on the ocean that forgets that it is also part of the ocean. In wanting to express its creative potential the wave gets caught up in itself. It starts to think it is completely independent of all other waves, and of the ocean more generally. The wave becomes more and more concerned with itself and with its own preservation. It wants to become bigger and better than the other waves and it wants to live forever. However, as the wave continues to develop and feed its “ego”, it becomes increasingly ignorant of its impermanent and interdependent nature. The more the wave gets involved with itself, the more ignorant it becomes. The only thing that the wave can experience at this point is suffering because the wave has developed impossible ideas about itself – it is going to be let down.Although the wave has become very selfish and ignorant, never once does it actually separate from the ocean. All the wave has to do is deconstruct some of its false ideas so that it is able to awaken to the fact that it is part of the ocean. In fact, when the wave “wakes up” or becomes enlightened in this way, it doesn’t just realise that it is connected to the ocean, but it actually becomes the ocean. Now the wave is everywhere all at once, and it knows each single drop of the ocean in intimate detail. The wave doesn’t have to go to great lengths to learn about the ocean, it knows about the ocean without trying. Now that the wave knows that it is both the wave and the ocean, it is a supreme being – it has defeated death. This supreme being has infinite and unconditional compassion for all of the other “potential supreme beings” who choose to suffer and remain ignorant of their true nature. The newly-awakened supreme being does their best to bring these ignorant beings to the understanding that they do not have to search outside of themselves to find God.
  2. Source of all moral authority: From the Buddhist perspective, there is an infallible and all-pervasive law or principle that is the source of all moral authority. What we are referring to here is known as karmic law. Karma has absolutely nothing to do with being judged for our “sins”. Rather, karma (which actually means “action”) basically refers to the law of cause and effect – it asserts that there are both short and long-term consequences to each and every one of our thoughts, words, and actions. This is common sense.The more a person “practises” a particular type of mind-set (e.g., greed, anger, hatred, etc.), the more that person will be inclined to continue engaging such a mind-set in the future. According to the Buddhist teachings, dominant thought patterns and emotions leave an imprint upon the mind. In turn, this imprint influences not only the way we see the world, but also the way the world sees us. For example, a person full of anger and hatred is likely to provoke certain (mostly negative) responses from other people, and they are also likely not to notice life-opportunities that require a balanced, patient, and open perspective. Thus, an angry person may frequently encounter what they perceive to be adversities and may feel they are having a difficult time of things. But the cause of such adversity is nobody and nothing other than themselves – a supreme being has nothing to do with it.

    Furthermore, due to the imprint left on the mind by such a person’s propensity for anger, the Buddhist teachings assert that this anger will cause them to be attracted to certain (unfavourable) conditions when taking rebirth. Again, there isn’t a supreme being involved here – it’s just that the angry person has conditioned themselves to see things in a certain way. Exactly the same principles apply for positive emotions (e.g., love, generosity, patience, compassion, etc.) but these tend to lead to more favourable outcomes (e.g., if you are a kind person then people are invariably kind in return). Thus, it is the human being that asserts moral authority over their thoughts, words and actions – we are our own judge, jury, and executioner or saviour.

  3. Creator and ruler of the universe: As human beings, and whether we like it or not, we are creators. Every single one of our thoughts, words, and deeds has an influence on the world around us. Our past endeavours have created the world as we know it today, and today, we are creating the world that we will live in tomorrow. If we want to create a house, we build it. If we want to create new life, we have sex. If we want to create death and destruction, we wage war. If we want to create heaven on earth, we put aside greed and selfishness and cultivate peace, love, and compassion. Human beings are inherently creative. We create our world and then we live in it and rule it.Phenomena – the outcome of our creative work – exist in dependence of our ability to perceive them. If there is no perceiving mind, there can be no perceived phenomena. The entire universe only exists because there are minds that are able to perceive it. We will discuss this further in a future post but the Buddhist teachings assert that for as long as mind remains confused and continues to perceive itself as an independent entity, universes materialise in order to provide a seat for the mind. In essence, Buddhism asserts that mind creates matter and is inseparable from it. Mind itself is the creator of reality and mind’s creativity is self-existing – it happens all by itself.

In summary, if the definition of God is modified such that rather than an all-powerful universal ruler, God is thought of more as a principle – the principle of all-pervasive and self-existing wisdom that is the indestructible nature of reality and of every single sentient being – then it seems that there is scope for accepting the existence of God within Buddhism. Perhaps this is the definition of God that is conveyed in the Christian Gospel of Thomas where Christ is recorded as saying “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” In fact, as we discussed in our post When Buddha and Christ Met for Tea, perhaps the Buddha’s and Christ’s teachings were essentially the same. As a final thought, it is important to highlight that although Buddhism does not accept or believe in the existence of an all-powerful creator being, it does accept and respect those people and religions that advocate such a belief. Ultimately, we suspect that each individual has their own unique understanding or experience of what constitutes “God” and each of these constructions are undoubtedly meaningful in their own right.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama & Cuttler, H. (1998). The Art of Happiness. London: Hodder & Stoughton

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

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

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, in press.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). The consuming mind. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-013-0265-z.

Sogyal Rinpoche (1998). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. London: Rider.

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.

An Alternative Approach to Defining Mindfulness

An Alternative Approach to Defining Mindfulness

lit flame

It seems that nearly every academic paper concerning mindfulness includes a statement to the effect that ‘there is currently a lack of consensus amongst Western psychologists in terms of how to define mindfulness’. However, we’re not sure whether disagreement amongst psychologists regarding an appropriate definition for mindfulness is as prevalent as the academic literature might suggest. In other words, perhaps people are of the opinion that there is a lot of disagreement about mindfulness amongst Western psychologists only because everybody keeps saying that there is. Indeed, it could be argued that since it is only during the last few decades that mindfulness has been introduced into Western psychological settings, a certain number of ‘teething’ issues are to be expected and that, in terms of what constitutes some of the basic attributes of mindfulness practice, there is actually a decent level of concordance amongst psychologists. Examples of some of the things that Western psychologists generally seem to agree on in relation to mindfulness practice are that mindfulness: (i) is fundamentally concerned with becoming more aware of the present moment, (ii) can be practiced during everyday activities and not just when seated in meditation, (iii) is cultivated more easily by using concentrative anchors such as observing the breath, (iv) is a practice that requires deliberate effort, and (v) is concerned with observing both sensory and mental processes.

Our personal view is that too much emphasis is placed by Western psychologists on areas where there is disagreement rather than working with the aspects of mindfulness practice that have already been theoretically or empirically established. We also believe that too much emphasis is placed by academicians on attempting to devise and disseminate an ‘absolute’ or ‘all-encompassing’ definition of mindfulness. That is not to say that there are certain aspects of Western psychological definitions of mindfulness that wouldn’t benefit from additional clarification, but this doesn’t need to be made into too big a deal or detract from the insights and progress that have already been made. In today’s post, we briefly outline some of the key aspects of mindfulness practice where there is currently disagreement amongst Western psychologists. Following this, we propose a definition of mindfulness that (in our view) embodies a traditional Buddhist perspective on mindfulness and that may help to inform the ongoing scientific debate amongst Western psychologists in terms of how best to define the mindfulness construct.

Key Areas of Confusion in Western Psychology

1. Non-judgemental awareness: Arguably, the most popular definition of mindfulness employed in the Western psychological literature is the one proposed by Jon Kabat-Zinn who defines mindfulness as the process of “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”. In the context of this definition, some people believe that the use of the term ‘non-judgemental’ is appropriate because it implies that mindfulness involves the acceptance (i.e., rather than the rejecting or ignoring) of present-moment sensory and cognitive-affective experiences. However, others believe that the term ‘non-judgemental’ is unsatisfactory and/or too ambiguous because it could imply that the mindfulness practitioner is essentially indifferent and doesn’t seek to discern which cognitive, emotional, and behavioural responses are conducive to ethically wholesome conduct.

2. Insight generation: In the Western psychological literature, ‘vipassana meditation’ and ‘insight meditation’ are often regarded as being the same as ‘mindfulness meditation’. However, this portrayal of vipassana meditation (and insight meditation) is not consistent with the traditional Buddhist perspective. According to the classical Buddhist literature, vipassana meditation (which means ‘superior seeing’) involves the use of penetrative investigation in order to intuit (for example) the ‘non-self’, ‘non-dual’, and ‘empty’ nature of reality (please see our posts on ‘Do We Really Exist?’ and ‘Exactly What is the Present Moment?’). Thus, although mindfulness meditation is certainly insight-generating in the sense that it leads to an intimate awareness of the mind, ‘mindfulness meditation’ is not ‘insight meditation’ as per the traditional Buddhist understanding. Therefore, there is debate amongst psychologists as to the role of insight in mindfulness meditation.

3. Context for practice: Mindfulness is traditionally practiced in the context of spiritual development. Indeed, within Buddhism, mindfulness is practiced in conjunction with numerous other spiritual practices and is just one aspect (the seventh aspect) of a key Buddhist teaching known as the Noble Eightfold Path. As we discussed in our post on ‘Meditation: A Threefold Approach’, the successful establishment of mindfulness relies upon a deep-seated understanding of the three Buddhist root principles of: (i) wisdom, (ii) meditation, and (iii) ethics (collectively known as ‘the three trainings’ – Sanksrit: trishiksha). In Buddhist practice, these three elements interact to form a cohesive whole, and there isn’t a single Buddhist practice that is not encompassed by the trishiksha principle. Therefore, there is debate in the Western psychological literature relating to whether or not mindfulness needs to be practiced within the context of spiritual development.

 

Mindfulness: A Traditional Buddhist Perspective

Needless to say, within Buddhism, there are different views about what constitutes mindfulness practice. That said, and as inferred in our post ‘When Buddha and Christ met for Tea’, we personally believe that there is actually no contradiction in the teachings from any of the different cycles of Buddhist transmission (known as the various ‘Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma’). Accordingly, in terms of a traditional Buddhist depiction, we would define mindfulness as ‘the full, direct, and active awareness of experienced phenomena that is spiritual in aspect and that is maintained from one moment to the next’.

The intended meaning of each of the words in this definition is as follows:

  • Full awareness’ means that mindfulness is all-embracing – nothing is left out and everything is accepted. This is the passive aspect of mindfulness.
  • Direct awareness’ means that there is no gap or delay between the experienced phenomena and our awareness of it. This is the insight aspect of mindful awareness. However, this doesn’t mean that mindfulness is the same as (the traditional Buddhist depiction of) insight meditation or vipassana meditation. Insight can definitely arise during mindfulness meditation but we are not actively trying to induce it as with vipassana meditation practice. Depending on a person’s level of experience, ‘direct awareness’ means doing ones best during mindfulness practice to remember that there is ‘self in other’ and ‘other in self’, or, in the case of very experienced practitioners, it means directly perceiving that this is so.
  • Active awareness’ is discerning and means that the mindfulness practitioner should not only observe the present moment but should also participate in it. Active awareness allows us to determine how to act skilfully in a given situation as well as how to create and shape the present moment. It also allows us to discern the ‘nutritional value’ of our various experiences and which environmental stimuli should be allowed to penetrate and nurture our being (please see our recent post on ‘The Absorbing Mind’). Active awareness is (obviously) the active aspect of mindfulness.
  • Experienced phenomena’ means that we should be natural and not over-exert ourselves in our practice of mindfulness. It means that we take ‘experience now’ as the path. This includes both the ‘external’ phenomena and the ‘internal’ phenomena (sometimes called noumena) that enter our field of awareness. This is the effortless or spontaneous aspect of mindfulness.
  • Spiritual in aspect’ means that the primary intention for practicing mindfulness is to effect spiritual awakening in oneself and in others. This is the compassionate aspect of mindfulness.
  • Sustained from one moment to the next’ means that the practitioner tries to maintain an unbroken flow of awareness throughout the day (and even during sleep if they are experienced enough). This is the enduring aspect of mindfulness.

A Different Approach to Defining Mindfulness

Our hope from introducing the above definition, is to try and give a small amount of ‘food for thought’ to certain aspects of the ongoing debate amongst academicians regarding the formulation of a suitable definition for mindfulness. If you like this definition then please don’t get too worked-up about it. Equally, if you think it is an unsatisfactory definition then please try not to become too upset. It’s just a definition and it would be far better if you practiced and experienced what mindfulness is for yourself. That way, it wouldn’t really matter how other people defined it. In fact, we believe that it’s unlikely that an ‘absolute’ definition of mindfulness will ever be developed because as a spiritual phenomenon, certain dimensions of the mindfulness construct will always be difficult to express in words and can only be fully understood by those individuals who can tap into them on the experiential rather than the academic level. Furthermore, it should also be kept in mind that people will have different understandings depending upon why they are interested in mindfulness and on their level of meditative experience. In this sense, we believe that one of the most insightful and pragmatic approaches to reconciling aspects of the ‘mindfulness definition debate’ is the one taken by Professor Nirbhay Singh (a leading mindfulness expert) and his team. According to Professor Singh and colleagues, “the definition of mindfulness will vary depending on whether one is interested in mindfulness from a social psychological, clinical, or spiritual context, or from the perspective of a researcher, clinician, or a practitioner, and their various combinations”.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

 

  1. Bodhi, B. (Ed.). (2009). Majjhima Nikaya: The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (4th ed.). (Bhikkhu Bodhi, & Bhikkhu Nanamoli, Trans.) Massachusetts: Wisdom Publications. (see the satipattana sutra [sutra no. 10] and the anapanasati sutra [sutra no. 118])
  2. Chah, A. (2011). The Collected Teachings of Ajahn Chah. Northumberland: Aruna Publications.
  3. Dalai Lama, & Berzin, A. (1997). The Gelug/Kagyu Tradition of Mahamudra. New York: Snow Lion Publications.
  4. Dorjee, D. (2010). Kinds and dimensions of mindfulness: Why it is important to distinguish them. Mindfulness, 1, 152-160.
  5. Gethin, R. (2011). On some definitions of mindfulness. Contemporary Buddhism, 12, 263-279.
  6. Kabat-Zinn, J. (1994). Wherever you go, there you are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion.
  7. Kang, C., & Whittingham, K. (2010). Mindfulness: A dialogue between Buddhism and clinical psychology. Mindfulness, 1, 161-173.
  8. Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books.
  9. Rosch, E. (2007). More than mindfulness: when you have a tiger by the tail, let it eat you. Psychological Inquiry, 18, 258-264.
  10. Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Wahler, R. G., Winton, A. S., & Singh, J. (2008). Mindfulness approaches in cognitive behavior therapy. Behavioral and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 36, 1-8.
  11. Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013d). Mindfulness-based interventions: Towards mindful clinical integration. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 194, DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00194.
  12. 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.

Do We Really Exist

Do We Really Exist?

dream

A truly fascinating question, don’t you think? In order to investigate this question effectively, we need to plunge into and explore some slightly taxing concepts.

When we want to examine the question of whether or not things truly exist, we can do so from either a relative or an absolute perspective. Answering this question from a relative perspective is a fairly uncomplicated procedure: if we accept that other things exist then in relation to those things we can conclude that we definitely exist. However, when we examine this question from an absolute perspective, things are not quite so straight forward.

When investigating this question in absolute terms, we need to remember that our existence is dependent on many factors, is caused by many factors, and is defined by many factors. According to the Buddhist view of emptiness based on the Madhyamaka system of philosophical reasoning, any given apprehended object relies for its existence on: (i) our mental designation of it, (ii) the conditions that caused it to be produced, and (iii) its attributes and component parts. However, the Madhyamaka treatises go on to explain that objects are neither equivalent to any of these individual causes or components, nor to their sum total, nor do they truly exist apart from these causes and components.

In other words, no matter how hard we try to find an object that inherently exists, we will never be able to do so. The reason why phenomena appear far more “real” and concrete than they actually are is due to the process of mental reification. We tend to make things real – including how we construct and create the ‘self’ or ‘I’.

In our most recent post entitled ‘Suffering Exists’, we used the example of a motor car to explain how people suffer due to constantly wanting to change or better their situation. Let’s now use the example of a motor car in a slightly different way in order to try and understand more about this idea of “non-self”. The example that we have formulated is based on a dialogue between a meditation teacher and their (somewhat haughty) student.

An Example: Looking for the Car

bugatti-veyron-super-sports-480

Meditation Teacher: Does this car inherently exist?

Student: Yes, of course.

Meditation Teacher: How does it exist?

Student: It exists because it is comprised of car parts.

Meditation Teacher: Ok, I see. So is this the car?

car chasis 2

Student: No, of course not, that’s just the chassis.

Meditation Teacher: Well what about this?

CAR AXLE-ILLUSTRATION

Student: No, don’t be ridiculous, that’s just the wheels and one of the axles. An individual car component cannot be all of the mutually exclusive parts that make up the car. One thing cannot be another thing.

Meditation Teacher: So the car doesn’t exist in any of its component parts?

Student: Of course not.

Meditation Teacher: Does it exist outside of its component parts?

Student: No, that’s even sillier. The car doesn’t exist in any one of its individual component parts nor does it exist outside of its component parts.

Meditation Teacher: Ok, so how does the car exist?

Student: The car exists as the sum of its component parts.

Meditation teacher: Ah, I see. But you have already said that a component part can’t be two things at once. Are you now saying that the chassis can be both a chassis and a car?

Student: No, that would be illogical.

Meditation Teacher: So you’re saying that when the wheels, chassis, axles, and all the other car components are put together they stop being those components and become a new single entity?

Student: No, that wouldn’t make sense either – the component parts still exist in the car. The word “car” is used to designate the collection of individual components that collectively form a car.

Meditation Teacher: Right, so you are saying that the car is just label?

Student: Well, I guess so.

Meditation Teacher: How can a car be just a label?

Student: I don’t know.

Meditation Teacher: You still haven’t shown me where I can find a car that inherently exists. Where is the car?

Student: I’m not sure, I’m confused.

Meditation Teacher: Enjoy being confused.

Student: I’m going out to get some fresh air.

Meditation teacher: Ok, but don’t take too long. We’re going to test drive a new car later and I’ve been looking forward to it all day.

We can apply the same line of reasoning employed in the above example of the motor car to ourselves as human beings. We are made up of blood, flesh, bone, thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. We are made up of molecules, atoms, electrons, and quarks. We are made up of our parents and their parents, and of the wind, water, earth, and sun. Although without any of these things we do not exist, an inherently existing self may not be found within these causes and components whether in singular or in sum. Therefore, when, in Buddhist philosophy, we speak of ‘non-self’ (Pali: anattā), the ‘self’ that we are denying is an independent and intrinsically existing self.

Deconstructing the ‘Self’

mansion

However old we are, we have had that much time since birth in order to create the construct of ‘I’. In fact, we don’t limit ourselves with just one ‘I’, but tend to be a different I for each different aspect of our lives. We have an ‘I’ that we use when we are with the family, another for friends, and yet another when we are at work.  It’s as if we have built a mansion with many rooms where each room comes with the label ‘I’. A useful practice is to take a moment to discover how many rooms make up our mansion and what materials have been used to construct and arrange each of these rooms. What beliefs, motivations, habits, and perceptions have influenced the creation of each of your different ‘I’s’?

Unfortunately, most people live out their entire lives in this mansion – stuck in a boring and cyclic pattern of moving from one room to the next and limiting themselves to being the same cluster of ‘I’s’ that everyone expects them to be. People have a tendency to get stuck in their own identity, and to forget that outside of their mansion there is a whole world to explore. As we discussed in our post entitled “The Practice of Impermanence: Learning How to be Alive”, the problem with getting stuck like this is that we cause ourselves a great deal of suffering because we are not open to change.

self deception

Were you able to witness with clarity and honesty all of the different construction materials that you have used over the course of your lifetime?

prison

What exactly is this mansion that we have constructed? Did the thought cross your mind that instead of a mansion perhaps we have constructed a prison? Is it possible that we have limited and imprisoned ourselves with our concepts, words, judgements, feelings, perceptions, and so forth? Maybe we are our own jailors guarding a prison of our own construction.

If that’s the case, then we need to think about how we can escape from this prison. The good news is that we’re not stuck. If we have the power to create a prison for the mind then we also have the power to dismantle it. With perseverance and hard work, we can definitely dismantle the limited construct of ‘I’ that we have created.  For many people, this can be a somewhat daunting prospect so it is advisable to take things one step at a time. As we become familiar with the fact that we (body, mind, spirit) are not a constant, we begin to feel more comfortable with the idea of allowing things to change. It is then that we can begin to demolish the old ‘I’ and prepare the ground for the new build:

demolition

Everything that we uncover during the demolition process made us what we are today. In fact, some of this ‘stuff’ such as ideas, beliefs, emotions, and thoughts will be useful and can be put to one side for recycling in the new build. However, some of the things that we uncover will be of zero or even negative value and it is therefore advisable to dispose of them completely. When the old mansion is completely demolished and we have a clear and clean plot, we can start to build a new ‘I’ that is dynamic, has a vast and panoramic view, is up-to-date, and in a constant state of flux:

meditation house

As we mature in the practice and become more familiar and comfortable with change, letting go of the old to make way for the new becomes easier and easier. We begin to dynamically flow with impermanence and this new found space and freedom causes the mind to remain in tranquillity. It is here that we can start to enjoy the empty nature of phenomena – allowing the old to dissolve and the new to become.

meditation house 3

In seeing, there is just seeing. No seer and nothing seen. In hearing there is just hearing. No hearer and nothing heard.”

(The Bahiya Sutta)

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

Suffering Exists

suffering exists

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

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