Wednesday, 10 November 2010

PERFECT EFFORT

This talk was given to a drop-in meditation class as part of a series on the Noble Eightfold Path.

The term Effort is a reminder that living a spiritual life is an active thing – it can’t be conducted from and armchair. I subscribe to the on-line Triratna Newsletter and almost every day another issue pops into my in tray. Frequently it reports on Order Members in far flung parts of the globe doing amazing things; they may be establishing a new Centre somewhere in India, building an extension to a Retreat Centre up a mountain in Spain or off on a pilgrimage to the sacred sites. When I consider the small part I play in helping to run our Tuesday Drop-in Class it seems hopelessly mundane in contrast. However, Perfect Effort is not necessarily about travelling around the world doing wonderful things, although thank goodness it is exactly that for many members of our worldwide Sangha. None the less, Buddhism does require that you make an effort to engage with the spiritual life so it is not just something you think about, but becomes something you live. It will come as no great surprise to know that there is a list – this one is known as The Four Exertions.
1. Preventing
2. Eradicating
3. Developing
4. Maintaining
They are fairly self evident. Preventing refers to making an effort to prevent unskilfull mental states from arising; we are on our guard to recognise anger, hatred, craving, envy, etc. Having become aware of the possibility of these mental states lurking in the wings, we take steps to Eradicate them by Developing more skilful mental states such as generosity, equanimity, loving kindness and so on and once we have done so, we attempt to Maintain these more positive states of mind. As the TV Meercat would say, “Simples”

If only it was. “The road to hell is paved with good intentions” as someone once said. It is so easy to be overcome by inertia. Take meditation. We know we enjoy it when we do it. We know we benefit from it. We know we shouldn’t allow anything to deflect us from our practice. But somehow there is often something more pressing, more demanding of our time and yet another day passes without sitting on the cushion. So it is with the Four Exertions. We know they make sense, we know we would benefit from practising them but somehow, something gets in the way. We browse Maplin’s and become gripped by desire for the latest techno-widget, we watch the news and become enraged by some news item about social injustice. Someone passes a negative comment about the way we do our job and we either become apoplectic with indignation or see our self esteem go down the drain in an instant. By the end of the day we are in a mental mess having failed to prevent, eradicate, develop or maintain skilful mental states of any kind.

Buddhists list six senses, sight, sound, touch, taste, smell - and mind. Unskilfull mental states can worm their way into us through any one of them. I have been a vegetarian for over 20 years but just the aroma of frying bacon causes lust, desire, greed and ultimately frustration to arise. Hearing someone screaming at their children in a supermarket could give rise to feelings of prejudice, anger and intolerance. Watching East Enders almost compels me to hurl my boots at the telly. Sometimes all my senses can work together in unison to create a full-on attack of unskilfull mental states; the feel of a heavy lead crystal glass, the clinking sound of ice cubes, the aroma of the world’s most noble spirit being uncorked, the golden colour as it emerges and that wonderful glugging sound. Then the first sip of that peaty, creamy, smooth, 8 year old single malt could cause me to forget restraint, ignore the Fifth Precept and get completely intoxicated. And of course, in my mind I could justify this by citing how hard I had been working and how stressed I had become. “I deserve this treat every now and then”.

So, we must be honest with ourselves, guard the gates of our senses, recognise unskilfull mental states for what they are, gently shutting them out by using our meditation practices to develop metta, mindfulness and focus. However, we should also be aware that, as with most things, we can take it all too far, becoming over zealous, self righteous, censorious, critical and intolerant. The other week I mentioned ‘sandwich-gate’ when someone attending a mother and toddler’s group here left a ham sandwich behind in the fridge. From the righteous indignation that followed its discovery you would think this building was a Mosque or Synagogue rather than a Buddhist Centre. The over-reaction was somewhat out of proportion.


One day the Buddha observed an over zealous monk called Sona, who had practised Walking Meditation so vigorously that the soles of his feet had become blistered and bleeding. The Buddha bade him sit down and reminded him that before he became a devotee, he had lived a normal life and had played a musical instrument called a veena – a member of the lute family.
He asked Sona, “When the strings of your vina were too taut, was your veena in tune and playable?"
“No lord” replied Sona.
The Buddha continued, “When the strings of your veena were too loose, was your veena in tune and playable?"
Once again Sona replied, “No lord”.
“When the strings of your veena were neither too taut nor too loose, but tuned to be right on pitch, was your veena in tune and playable”.
Sona shook his head in agreement, “Yes lord”.
"In the same way, Sona, too much effort leads to restlessness whilst overly slack effort leads to laziness. Thus you should determine the right pitch for your effort, re-tune the pitch of your faculties, and then pick up your theme."

Thursday, 5 August 2010

THE THREE POISONS


The Wheel of Life stems from the Tibetan tradition and is a complex representation of the constant circle of life, death and rebirth.  The hub of any wheel is the part around which everything else revolves,  In the hub of this well known Buddhist icon are three creatures, each biting the other’s tail, spinning round and round in a never ending circle.  A cockerel, snake and a pig represent what are often referred to as The Three Poisons.  The cockerel is greed, the snake is hatred and the pig delusion.  Each on is driven in pursuit of the creature in front, but at the same time is being consumed by the one that follows.  The Three Poisons are the root causes of all suffering.  Everything that causes us dissatisfaction, pain or outright suffering stems from one of these three elements.

   The first of the Three Poisons, Greed, can have many manifestations.  Firstly it can be described as ‘clinging’, ‘grasping’ or attachment.  I once read that you can trap a monkey but putting a delicacy into a heavy pot with a narrow opening.  The monkey, attracted by the scent, puts his hand through the neck of the pot and grasps the contents.  But now his balled fist containing will not pass back through the neck.  Rather than release the delicasy, the monkey maintains its grasp and becomes trapped by it. This is an excellent metaphor for our modern human existence.  We cling to our old ways, afraid to let go of established viewpoints.  Unable to relax our grasp on our conditioned views, we cling on, “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” and remain trapped, unable to move on or grow as individuals.

   We frequently cling to the belief that we have a permanent ‘self’ which is fixed and unchanging.  Yet if we take time to consider our mental states we will see that our thoughts and feelings constantly change from moment to moment.  Our bodies also change – this becomes painfully aware when we look at old photo albums.  Yet when we talk of ‘I’ or ‘me’ we are often seem to be referring to something constant and unchanging.

We may cling to sensual pleasures, constantly craving to satisfy our desires, ‘live now, die later’.  This craving can sometimes represent itself as lust – constantly seeking to satisfy a demanding ego by the constant need for sex, money, excitement, conflict, celebrity, etc. 

At some time or another, all of us are driven by greed, craving, desire, want, avarice, covetousness, need, etc., - unless we are enlightened beings, it is inevitable.  The important thing is to recognise it for what it is and secondly, to understand that it is always going to be unsatisfactory.  Even when you achieve the object of your neurotic craving, it will almost immediately be replaced by another. 

However, it is important to acknowledge the natural will to progress, to make a life for ourselves, to develop as human beings.  The problem arises when we are unable to be content or at ease until we have achieved the object of our desires.  If our happiness is contingent upon acquiring whatever it is that drivrd us, then it has become a neurotic craving and is certain to bring suffering in its wake. 

The antidote to this poison is to develop generosity and equanimity.  Be content with what you have, not yearning after what you don’t have.  That is not to say that you become indolent or lazy with no will to progress.  Every Buddhists wants to move forward, to grow and gain insight but it is important not to mortgage your present happiness and contentment in the hope that you will achieve better things at some future time.  Learn to think more about the needs of others rather than yourself.

The next poison is Hatred.  This has many faces; abhorance, detestation, revulsion, disgust, extreme dislike, intolerance.  Like love, the word hatred has become diminished in everyday use but it is the most destructive of all human emotions leading to anger, revenge, animosity, ill-will, aversion, abuse, racial prejudice, sexual and religious discrimination, homophobia, bullying and in its most extreme forms, violence, rape, murder and war.

If we look closely at what we ‘hate’, we may find that it is a conditioned response.  Maybe it was someone else’s prejudiced view that has been foisted upon us by parents, peer group, politicians, teachers or journalists.  We can all experience anger, frustration and intolerance somewhere within us. We rail because the world isn’t the way we want it to be.  But ask, “What do we gain by holding on to these negative emotions? How do I benefit from all this angst?” The fact is that hatred consumes an immense amount of emotional energy but seldom gets us very far.  Our lack of understanding fuels our desire for things to be different which in turn causes us to be frustrated and angry when the life continues to disappoint us.

However, there is an upside.  That energy can be used for good. We can focus our anger on a world full of prejudice and social injustice, developing a determination to bring about change.  We can transform those negative emotions, using that energy to battle inequality, the destruction of the environment, the causes of crime – a thousand and one things that need to be redressed.

The antidote of Hatred is Metta (loving kindness).  By developing metta through meditation we learn to come to temper these emotions, transforming them into something more positive and accepting.

Finally, Delusion, ignorance, lack of understanding, false view, confusion, apathy.  The reason the symbolic representations of the Three Poisons, the snake, the cockerel and the pig are all pursuing each other but at the same time being consumed by the creature behind them is that greed, hatred and ignorance all feed off each other.  A lack of understanding leads to craving that can never be satisfied, inevitably leading to frustration, anger and hatred.

The antidote to delusion or ignorance is wisdom.  Once we recognise and understand the root causes of our disappointment, frustration and anger we can begin to convert that negative energy to more positive uses.  Of course we are not going to become saints overnight.  But when you feel negative emotions rising, when you are experiencing anger or intense craving, ask yourself, “Which of the Three Poisons are causing me to feel like this?”  Is it the cockerel, snake or pig?

Saturday, 19 June 2010

THE FIFTH PRECEPT



This was the final talk in a series on the Five Precepts given to the Tuesday night 'drop-in' group at the Bristol Buddhist Centre. 

When we considered the previous four precepts, they seem fairly obvious on the face of it but as we look a little closer we began to see subtleties and grey areas that were not so apparent. So it is with the Fifth Precept, “I undertake to abstain from intoxicants’.

Firstly, let’s look at the obvious. This is a clear reference to alcohol and drugs. Does this mean a total abstention or do Buddhists tend to allow themselves a little license, imbibing in moderation? As usual, it depends on which tradition you follow and also your personal choice. Where do you draw the line in the light of your own experience?

Theravadan Buddhists tend to interpret this as total abstention from alcohol and recreational drugs. In Asia they usually call for bars to be closed on Buddhist festival days. Mahayana practitioners are more ambiguous although they consider that selling alcohol is not a ‘right livelihood’ occupation as described in the Noble Eightfold Path.

Zen teacher Reb Anderson says, "In the broadest sense, anything we ingest, inhale, or inject into our system … becomes an intoxicant”. He describes the act of intoxication as bringing something into yourself to manipulate your experience. This "something" can be "coffee, tea, chewing gum, sweets, sex, sleep, power, fame, and even food."

This doesn't mean we should prohibit ourselves from using coffee, tea, chewing gum, sweets, etc. It simply means to take care not to use them as intoxicants; as ways of soothing and distracting ourselves from the direct and intimate experience of life. In other words, whatever we use to distract ourselves into heedlessness is an intoxicant.

In the course of our lives most of us develop mental and physical habits that enable nice, cozy states of heedlessness. The challenge of working with the Fifth Precept is to identify what those are and deal with them. From this perspective, the question of whether to abstain from alcohol entirely or drink in moderation is an individual one that requires some spiritual maturity and self-honesty.

Of course we all understand the dangers present in the over consumption of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs. What is perhaps surprising is that the Buddha was equally aware.

The Buddha described addiction to intoxicants as one of the six causes of ruin. It brings about six main disadvantages: loss of wealth, quarrels and strife, a poor state of health (liability to diseases), a source of disgrace, shameless and indecent behavior, weakened intelligence and mental faculties. I think he nailed it pretty well.

Those of us who have an interest in meditation and Buddhism would tend to either abstain from drugs and alcohol or be moderate in our consumption. But have we considered Reb Anderson’s broader view. How about his view of “..coffee, tea, chewing gum, etc.” My experience of Buddhism is that if floats on a lake of tea and most of us would be reluctant to regard it as an ‘intoxicant’.

I guess it is like everything else – it comes down to a question of degree. Coffee is a stimulant. Some people get a caffeine ‘buzz’ when they drink coffee and they feel it necessary to exclude or reduce consumption to the minimum. For others, their consumption of tea has become compulsive, mindlessly putting the kettle on every hour or so although they are in no need of refreshment or hydration.

Reb Andersen goes on to say that his intoxicant is television and we know that TV can become addictive – particularly soaps. I suppose this cannot be truly considered an intoxicant unless we reach a point where the emotions revealed and expressed in TV dramas become a substitute for the real thing. We may watch East Enders and become concerned, angry, compassionate and sad as we empathise in the characters and scenarios being portrayed on the screen but can’t do we feel the same level of engagement with real life and real people.

Heedlessness seems to be the key word when considering what constitutes an intoxicant. Anything that we consume, engage with or participate in to the point where we are heedless of the affect on our mental states, our clarity of mind and our general wellbeing is an intoxicant.

MINDFULNESS
Mindfulness is the positive counterpart of this precept. Those of us who aspire to follow the teachings of the Buddha, or simply wish to develop a clearer vision of ourselves and the world that surrounds us, invest time and energy in meditation, retreats, discussion and study. We seek to become more mindful, more aware with a greater degree of clarity. The heedless use of any intoxicant whether it be alcohol, drugs, nicotine, coffee, internet sites, Twitter, salted peanuts (my personal obsession) soap operas, sex (Tiger Woods is currently being treated for sex addiction) runs counter to these aims and if ignored would render all the effort pointless.

So once again, Buddhism requires us to take responsibility for our own actions. We have to recognise our personal intoxicants, consider whether if our use of them is heedless and then decide where we draw the line. We have to make these judgements based on our own experience. Do we abstain totally or do we have sufficient self awareness to ensure moderation?

I use three intoxicants. The first two are good whisky and good coffee. There hasn’t been a bottle of whisky in my house since Christmas, but when it is there, I take a glass now and then, usually on a Friday night to mark the end of the week - and with a generous splash of water.

Coffee is a once-a-day habit. I have an espresso maker and my one extravagance is good quality coffee. However, I think that I am probably more addicted to the whole process of making my 11 o’clock ‘cortado’ (a Spanish version of an Italian macchiato) as I am to the actual coffee. It is time away from whatever I am working on plus the familiar noise as I steam the milk and the smell of the coffee rising as it dribbles into the cup, I enjoy as much as anything.

Is my consumption of whisky and coffee heedless? It certainly was in the past, but no longer.

The third intoxicant is food. During times of stress and anxiety, I ‘comfort eat’ and I definitely do so to ‘manipulate my experience’. I am still working on this one.

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

THE SECOND PRECEPT

I recently gave this talk as part of a series on the Five Precepts at a Tuesday drop-in group:

When we considered the first precept: abstention from killing living beings, it quickly became apparent that this extended beyond not committing murder and led to many other ethical considerations. Similarly, the second precept is not constrained to simply undertaking not to steal. But before we broaden the context, let’s look at the most obvious implication of this precept.

Many years ago I used to be an RAF Policeman. During my training I had to learn the definition of stealing: ‘A person steals who takes and carries away any article capable of being stolen, with the intent at such time of taking, to permanently deprive the owner thereof.’

Intent is obviously important. If a friend visits your home and leaves their umbrella behind, you have obviously not stolen it. You intend to take it back to them but simply don’t get round to it. That’s not stealing, that’s procrastination. You friend doesn’t contact you and ask for it back so they don’t seem to miss it and meanwhile, you find it quite useful to have an umbrella so you now regard it as yours. You now have the intent to permanently deprive the owner of the umbrella. That’s stealing.

To take something from another person against their wishes is also an act of extreme egotism. The taker believes their need to possess an object is more important than the owner’s rights to their property. Taking the not given on a lesser scale can also be found closer to home. For example, failing to repay loans from friends and family within the agreed time limit.
Borrowing books that we fail to return once they are read is a common way to take that which is not given.

How many of us have added that little extra to our expenses claims? My favourite justification is, “Well I know I’m bound to have forgotten to claim something so I am entitled to add a bit to compensate”. Obviously I am no saint in these matters. I work from home and my company pays for any postage charges I incur. I used to mail out a great deal so I have a system whereby I can purchase credit from Royal Mail and print off stamps on my computer. These costs are claimed from my employer. Over the last 9 months, I have been mailing out much less but as I live miles away from the nearest Post Office, I have been known to print off stamps using my company’s credit for my personal mail. Once again, there is always justification, “They don’t realise how much extra time I work that I don’t get paid for…” Generosity is supposed to be the positive aspect of the Second Precept yet I use it to justify taking the not given.

Sadly we live in a society where moral judgements are often based on what we can get away with. Imagine what you would do if your employer made and error and paid you twice or you were reimbursed twice for a product you bought over the internet and returned because it was not suitable for use, Both these things have happened to me in the past 12 months. So, don’t be too quick to say, “Oh I never steal so this precept is easy”. Are we all as scrupulously honest as we like to think we are?

There are many other ways the not given can be taken and these are not so obvious. You wake up in the morning. You meditate. The sun is shining and you feel great. You are light on your feet, you look in the mirror when you clean your teeth and you see a happy person. Then your partner or someone at work or a person on the till in the supermarket, for whatever reason, is having a really bad day. They interact negatively with you and quite deliberately bring you down. They have deprived you of your good humour and spoilt your nice day. They have taken something from you that you were enjoying and you wished to keep.

More examples: you have had a row or a dispute of some kind. You are hurt and angry. You have a good friend who you know will understand and be sympathetic to the bruising you have been submitted to. So you call them on the phone. They answer, but they mention that they are just leaving go to the cinema. You ignore this and continue to pour your troubles down the line. Your friend is sympathetic but it is obvious from their voice that this is not the best time. You pretend you haven’t picked up this signal and continue to impose yourself. You are taking the not given.

Denying someone the space to hold their own views and opinions is another way we can take the not given. Parents can so easily do this to their children – usually with the best motives but it is a sensitive bit of tight-rope walking. You may want them to follow you into the family business, observe the same religion, vote the same way. You want them accept your point of view but do you want them to think for themselves, or do you want to remove any options to ensure that they will think like you?

GENREROSITY

This is the positive counterpart of the second precept. You could almost say it is the antidote.

You can give in obvious ways; make a standing order to Amnesty International or the Bristol Buddhist Centre; sponsor a friend who is riding from Lands End to John O’Groats to raise money for a favourite charity. You can buy a copy of Big Issue, telling the vendor to keep the change. If you have had an enjoyable Tuesday evening at the Centre, you could put a little bonus in the Dana Bowl. But this is to imply that generosity is always about giving money.

You can also put in a few extra hours at work, even though you know that you won’t get paid for it but recognise it will make life easier for others. You could offer the book your friend wishes to borrow and tell them, “It’s a great book, don’t give it back, pass it on to someone else”. You may be a little broke and not have much to put in the Dana Bowl but you are happy to give a little time to stay behind and wash the cups at the end of the evening.

When your friend rings just as you are going out of the door, don’t allow them to impose but recognise that this is something they need to talk about and promise them you will call them later – then ensure that you do.

Sometimes giving generously can cost nothing at all. More years ago than I wish to remember, I was being trained as a salesman for J Lyons, Tea & Coffee Division. I was to practice my salesmanship in the field whilst being observed by the Training Manager, a grey haired Scotsman who had been in the business for many years. I was calling on hard-nosed supermarket managers in South London. The morning had not gone well and I had taken a bit of bruising. We stopped for lunch and in spite of the Training Manager’s gentle encouragement I was beginning to feel quite low. As we parked and walked to the next store, we both needed a pee break. We came to one of those Victorian conveniences set underground. As we descended the steps there was a long brass rail which gleamed like gold. Similarly, all the brass fittings in the toilets were freshly polished. The attendant sat in a small room reading Sporting Life. On the way out, the Training Manager put his head round the door.
“Are you the guy that polishes all this brass-work?”
The man looked up and nodded.
“It must take you hours – I’ve never seen a toilet look so sparkling”
The man’s face broke out in a broad smile, “Oh, thanks a lot”
As we ascended the stairs I said, “What was all that about?”
“Oh nothing really, it’s a rotten job so I just gave the guy a nice day”.

To summarise; there are as many ways to give generously as there are ways to take that which is not given. Find a little time to look inwards; see if you recognise ways that you may sometimes take that which is not given but perhaps have never recognised before. You may even spot ways that you can act with generosity that you have never previously considered.

“Remember that the happiest people are not those getting more, but those giving more.”
Jackson Brown

Monday, 24 May 2010

THE FIRST PRECEPT


These are my notes for a talk given to to a beginner's class at the Bristol Buddhist Centre

The first time you read or hear of the Five Precepts you may be struck by their similarity to some of the Christian Commandments.  However, there are a number of clear distinctions. Firstly, the Precepts are not ‘commandments’.  They are principals for living an ethical life, voluntarily undertaken by those interested in living their lives in accordance with the Buddha Dharma – the teaching of the Buddha.  Secondly, they tend to be much broader than the Commandments and in addition, and most importantly, each has a positive counterpart:

  1. Abstention from killing living beings                      Kindness
  2. Abstention from taking the not given                    Generosity
  3. Abstention from sexual misconduct                     Equanimity
  4. Abstention from false speech                              Truthfulness
  5. Abstention from intoxicants                                 Mindfulness

Generally these five precepts are observed by lay people.  When you become ordained into the Western Buddhist Order, we are invited to observe a further five precepts – rather oddly the fifth precept – abstention from intoxicants – is dropped in favour of several more speech precepts.  Over the following four Tuesday evenings, we are going to be looking at these Five Precepts and in particular, their positive counterparts.

After a few weeks or months attending these drop-in classes, you may develop an interest in Buddhism and wish to know more.  You may eventually consider moving to our Monday ‘Friend’s Nights’.  Whilst these evenings also include meditation, there is a greater emphasis on other Buddhist practices including chanting and ritual.  Inevitably you will be invited to recite the Five Precepts in call and response.  The Precepts will be chanted in Pali, one of the ancient languages of Buddhism, followed by the positive counterpart chanted in English.

The first Precept is ‘I undertake to abstain from killing living beings’ and it is chanted as follows:

Panatipata veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami

The positive counterpart follows:

With deeds of loving kindness, I purify my body.

On the face of it the first precept is so obvious, that it can sometimes be overlooked or quickly passed over.  You may think, “OK, I’m not planning to kill anyone in the immediate future, so let’s move on to the next one”.  We may not kill living beings, but there are those that do so in our name.  In Afghanistan, in Iraq British servicemen are killing and being killed on behalf of the British Government who represent the will of the people they serve – that’s you and me.  We may proclaim ourselves to be non- violent but this does little to stop violence being perpetrated on our behalf as British citizens.  As is nearly always the case when considering ethical behaviour, it is seldom that things are black and white – indeed the shades of grey seem infinite. 

Those of us that live in the country frequently find ourselves overrun with mice, usually driven indoors by severe weather.  As Buddhists, should we be using Little Nipper mouse traps to kill them or should we be catching them and taking them a couple of miles away in the boot of a car so we can release them without fear that they will come back.  If an infestation of vermin became a health hazard would we be justified in bringing in the council’s rodent exterminator?

Those of us who eat meat are seldom required to kill a pig or ring the neck of a chicken, but someone has to do so if we are to have our Sunday joint on the table. Slugs are destroying your garden.  You can buy organic slug pellets but should you be killing them at all?

How green are we?  Could our lack of awareness of green issues be contributing towards the destruction of the environment, thereby leading the death of thousands of creatures, perhaps threatening the livelihoods of many distant tribes-people or even putting their lives a risk?

There is the much bigger question of abortion.  If we abstain from killing living beings, should we be against abortion?  What about the grey area of stem cell research?

There are no easy answers to some of these questions and sometimes one is tempted to wish that we didn’t have to face these choices; that we would be better off if Buddhists had someone like to the Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury to tell us what is right and what is wrong.  It would be a relief if someone else made these difficult decisions for us. For the moment, let us put aside these contentious issues and consider the positive precept, “With deeds of loving kindness I purify my body”.  This seems to suggest that with the best will in the world, we are somehow going to be involved in killing living beings whether directly or indirectly but if we make a conscious effort to develop loving kindness we may not be absolved of responsibility but we can in some way prepare ourselves and perhaps even counteract the effects of violence in the world and in ourselves.

If you were here a couple of weeks ago, you will have heard Suhada introducing the Metta Bhavana meditation.  For those unfamiliar with this practice this meditation is designed to assist us in overcoming negative emotions such as aversion, jealousy, greed, hatred and ignorance by developing ‘metta’.  Metta may be translated in various ways but we generally like to describe it as ‘unconditional loving kindness’.

Of course, it would be na├»ve to expect that just by practicing Metta Bhavana we will eradicate all the violence and killing in the world.  However, it may influence the way we vote or indeed encourage those of us who usually don’t vote, to do so.  We may feel encouraged to participate in protest marches or join groups opposed to war and violence.  There are a hundred ways we could manifest our desire to see a less violent world.

Regular metta practice will heighten our own capacity for compassion; little by little we may become aware of our increased desire to work towards a less violent, more compassionate society.  We may slowly come to question the need for animals to suffer in order to feed us.  Why should someone in a slaughterhouse be expected to accept the karmic consequences of killing living beings on our behalf?  We may be prompted to review the harm we are doing to our environment and seek less damaging ways to live. Like the story of the 100 Monkeys, the more of us that practice, the greater the possibility that one day society may change. 

By now you may realise that the first precept, Abstaining from Killing Living Beings, is not as obvious or as simple as you first thought and it is much wider in scope than ‘Thou Shall Not Kill’  demanding a greater level of consideration; possibly bringing your everyday practice of Metta Bhavana into a totally new focus and perspective.  Abstaining from killing living beings and developing loving kindness, requires a great deal of consideration and demands a much higher level of awareness than we may have originally thought necessary.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

THE WORLDLY WINDS

For many years my great passion was dinghy racing. I learned to sail in Bristol City Docks and then joined the Portishead Yacht and Sailing Club. The Bristol Channel is not the best bit of water to sail on. As the tide ebbs and flows, it creates one of the greatest tidal rises in the world. Consequently the strength of the tide limits sailing to just a brief hour or so either side of high water. So, in order to succeed in racing dinghies in these unfavourable conditions you not only have to understand the tides you also have to develop an affinity with the wind and quickly understand its fickle nature. One minute it is blasting at force 5 or 6 you need all your strength and knowledge just to stay afloat. The next minute it has swung round 90 degrees, fallen away to a dead calm and you are drifting backwards.

Riding a big blow on a broad reach can be breath-taking but if you fail to treat it with respect, you will find yourself in the water, all hopes of success dashed. It can be spooky too. You can be ghosting along on the merest breath of wind, the sails flapping like laundry on a washing line. Fifty yards away is the next boat, the skipper similarly using all his cunning to coax some movement out of the slightest zephyr. Then, out of nowhere, a boat trailing far behind, picks up the wind and sails straight between the two of you as if the gods had extended an invisible finger whilst the other boats sit there helpless. So, anyone who has spent any time messing about in boats, will recognise that the wind is a perfect metaphor for those things in life that one moment carry you towards victory and then in an instance, the other way towards disaster.

In traditional Buddhist terms, there are Eight Worldly Winds or rather, four pairs of Worldly Winds. One takes you where you wish to be and the other moves you the opposite direction. Some attract us whilst others repel us. The pairs are:

Praise Blame
Success Failure (also referred to as Gain and Loss)
Pleasure Pain
Fame Disrepute (also referred to as Honour and Disgrace).

PRAISE & BLAME
We all respond well to praise. If someone appreciates what we do and gives us a pat on the back, we feel happy – that’s a normal reaction. However, if we hear praise too often we can become swollen headed and begin to expect praise as our due. This can lead to arrogance and false pride – and we all know what pride comes before.

I had been sailing for a year of two at the PYSC and sailed with Dave who had an Osprey. This was a fast trapeze-crewed boat, solid and well suited to the strong tides and big seas of the Bristol Channel. We had been getting on well and slowly moving up the fleet usually finishing in the top half dozen or so. One day we sailed a particularly well and crossed the line first. We had never won a race before and the spectators on the clubhouse balcony and the crowds on the shore were applauding as we approached the slipway and I swelled with pride. My helmsman called for a quick tack and I swiftly detached my harness clip, swung across the boat, ducked under the boom, sat out on the opposite side and leaned back into the harness as I acknowledged the tributes. Unfortunately I had forgotten to reconnect my harness and executed a perfect backwards summersault as I toppled out of the boat into the water. Without me there to take the bow and hold the boat steady, the hull ground onto the concrete slip. Praise quickly turned to blame as he accused me of being responsible for the big gouge in the bow.

SUCCESS AND FAILURE
There’s an old saying, “Be nice to the people you meet on the way up because you are going to meet them again on the way down.”

PLEASURE AND PAIN
Most of us learn this lesson the hard way. How many of us have childhood memories of wonderful days on the beach, running in and out of the sea, making sand castles, searching for crabs in rock pools? Many have further memories of the pain as we lay face down on the bed covered with a pink crust of calamine lotion, shivering from sunstroke.

FAME AND DISREPUTE
I had a close friend who was an actress. She had mostly been making a living from small walk-on parts in soaps and hospital dramas. Then she secured a leading role in a play running at the Savoy, her name was quite literally in lights. As a West End star she was invited to all the glittering showbiz parties and first night receptions. Visiting her in her dressing room one day I was surprised how calmly she had taken the sudden fame. She told me that it was all an illusion. She had been in the acting profession long enough to know that it could all disappear as quickly as it came. She refused to allow her head to be turned. When the production came to an end and she found herself ‘resting’ between jobs as a waitress at the Hard Rock Cafe, it came as no surprise. She returned to her relative obscurity without complaint or bitterness – she understood the cruel nature of celebrity. My admiration was boundless.

So, what can we do to cope with the worldly winds that blow us first one way and then the other? How can we prepare ourselves for the swings in fortune and misfortune? The answer is to develop equanimity.
The Seven Supports that lead to Equanimity:

1. Virtue or integrity
2. Faith or confidence
3. Mindfulness
4. A sense of well-being
5. Understanding or wisdom
6. Insight
7. Freedom or letting go.

VIRTUE/INTEGRETY/ETHICS
When we live and act ethically and with integrity, we become confident in our actions and words, leading to the equanimity of blamelessness. The ancient Buddhist texts speak of being able to go into any assembly of people and feel blameless.

FAITH/CONFIDENCE
The Pali word for faith, saddha, is also translated as conviction or confidence. If we have confidence in the Dharma and our engagement in a spiritual practice, then we are more likely to meet life’s challenges with equanimity.

MINDFULNESS
Meditation develops concentration and mindfulness. When the mind is focused and calm, we are less likely to be blown about by the worldly winds.

WELL BEING
By developing metta (loving kindness) towards ourselves as well as others we are more able to enjoy the world around us. Free from self doubt we are able to engage more fully with life and accept what we have without craving that which we have not.

UNDERSTANDING/WISDOM
Wisdom is an important factor in developing an accepting awareness; to be present for whatever is happening without the mind or heart contracting or resisting. We understand that our thoughts and impulses are often the result of external conditioning. Recognising this we learn to be more open and able to think for ourselves.

INSIGHT
One of the primary insights is the nature of impermanence. By recognising impermanence we see that things change so quickly we simply can’t hold onto anything for long. When you really engage with this on an emotional level the mind will let go of clinging. Letting go brings equanimity; the greater the letting go, the deeper the equanimity.

FREEDOM
Letting go of our conditioned responses and our reactive tendencies, brings freedom from bigotry, prejudice and discrimination. Being open to experience is liberating and leads to equanimity. As mindfulness becomes stronger, so does our equanimity. We see with greater independence and freedom. Equanimity becomes an inner strength that keeps us balanced.

When I lived in Spain, I crewed an 8 meter yacht designed for racing and day cruising. We had a crew of 6; five Englishmen and a Spanish skipper, Manuel. Manuel loved to race but was pretty hopeless at it. In spite of his passion he had little natural ability. We would spot wind-shifts and call out suggestions for changes of course to improve our position, but Manuel dithered. By the time he made a decision it would be too late and the advantage gone. Slowly we would slip back to our usual position at the tail end of the fleet. Eventually Manuel, realising that all was lost, would ask one of the others to take the helm whilst he went below. He would emerge moments later with a large tortilla, a roast chicken, bags of crisps, cool San Miguel beers and a giant flask of hot black coffee generously laced with brandy. We never won a single race in all the time I sailed with him, but we were the happiest, most contented crew in the entire Mediterranean.

There was a well-known scholar who practiced Buddhism and befriended a Chan Master. Thinking that he had made great strides in his spiritual practice, he wrote a poem and asked his attendant to deliver it to the Master who lived across the river. The Master opened the letter and read the short poem aloud:
"Unmoved by the eight worldly winds, *
Serenely, I sit on the purplish gold terrace."
A smile broke up on the lips of the Master. Picking up an ink brush, he scribbled the word "fart" across the letter and asked that it be delivered back to the scholar.
The scholar was upset and went across the river right away to reprimand the Master for being so rude. The Master laughed as he said, "You said you are no longer moved by the eight worldly winds and yet with just one 'fart', you ran across the river like a rat!"

Saturday, 17 April 2010

LETTING GO

I gave this talk to a beginner's medtiation group recently:


Walking along the coast in the dark, a man lost his footing, slipped down a cliff face, managed to grab hold of a branch and is dangling there, desperately hanging on as it slowly begins to give way... 

He shouts at the top of his voice,” Is there anyone up there who can help me!?” 
A calm voice calls back from an unseen passer-by who is aware that the cliff is just a few feet tall and the man’s feet are just 6 inches from the beach below.  “Don’t worry, everything is going to be OK, all you have to do is let go.  Everything will be fine – don’t panic, just let go…”
There’s a short pause and the man’s voice now risen to a scream, yells  “Isn’t there anyone else up there who can help me!!!???”

Letting go can sometimes be the hardest thing to do.  If we know anything at all about the Buddha’s teaching, it is that everything is impermanent.  There is nothing in the world or in the universe that is unchanging - except perhaps the truth that everything changes.  The Buddha went on to say that all our pain, unsatisfactoryness and suffering stems from craving for or clinging to things that are impermanent.

I have been a parent to five girls and one boy and I know that the hardest thing for a parent is to see their children grow up, recognising that sometime, they are going to move away.  They will move away not just physically but they are also going to become of independent mind with their own thoughts and ideas – inevitably some are going diverge from our own values and concepts.  Knowing when and how to let them go is one of the toughest decisions parents have to make.  If you are an avid Archer’s listener, you will be aware that Tony Archer’s daughter Pip is eighteen, living at home whilst studying at college.  She has met Jude, a man well into his 20’s and naturally her parents are worried that she is being exploited by this older man.  Whilst her mother is unhappy and uncomfortable with the situation, she recognises that Pip is no longer a child and although she sees danger in the relationship, she knows that she has to allow her daughter the freedom to learn from her own mistakes.  Her father, on the other hand, refuses to recognise that Pip is no longer ‘daddies little girl’ and his open hostility towards Jude causes his daughter to rebel, which in turn causes him more anger and suffering.  He is caught in a typical parental dilemma – he feels the need to protect his daughter from harm but does not recognise that it is time to step back - to let go – at least in part.

Experiencing unrequited love can be extremely painful particularly where you once had a close personal relationship but your partner now wishes to move on.  It is natural that you should do all you can to retain the relationship but if you don’t succeed you will have to accept at some stage that you must let them go  There are even songs about it, “If you love somebody – let them go…”  The longer you cling on, the more painful it will be.

When a loved one dies grieving is natural – we have lost someone who was dear to us and we miss them but if we don’t eventually acknowledge that they have gone and let them go, the suffering and unhappiness is going to continue.  There is a Buddhist funeral ceremony that I feel is particularly beneficial although undeniably emotional.  A long white silk ribbon is held by all the mourners.  They are asked to meditate on their memory of the loved one who has died; celebrating and rejoicing in their good times together.  At an appropriate point, they are asked to hold on to their memories but ‘let go’ of their loved one’s presence.  As they recognise and accept that life must go on without them, the ribbon is gently and slowly pulled through their hands until it is released.

On a more mundane level, we can get very attached to ‘things’ and possessions.  When they are lost, broken or even stolen we can get very upset or angry – this is a natural reaction and is perfectly harmless as long as we quickly accept that that thing has gone – and get over it.  If you have listened to me talk on this subject before you may have heard me refer to a particular type of car I had lusted after for years.  Eventually I had an opportunity to own one and because it was the exact model I wanted and at a price I could just about afford, I was determined to have it.  So determined, that I didn’t take care to check it out as thoroughly as I should have done.  In spite of 20+ years of studying the Buddha Dharma, I allowed my craving to blind me to the suffering that would inevitably follow such a strong attachment to something as decidedly impermanent as a second hand car.  Before a year was out, the engine blew up on the way back home from this Tuesday class.  It was beyond repair, towed away to the scrap yard in return for £200.  It was a tough and painful reminder of the dangers of attachment.

I am not saying that we must remain detached and unemotional regarding our relationships with the people we love or the things we have worked so hard for.  That’s not the case.  What I am saying is that you should never forget that all things are impermanent.  Eventually you have to let go whether it be a loved one, a valued possession, your youth, beauty, a career, even life itself.  Last year I was asked if I would visit a man who just had a few days to live.  He was dying of cancer and had said he would like to meet a Buddhist.  He was not a Buddhist himself but he had travelled very widely and often in Buddhist countries and felt a strong affinity with Buddhism.  His wife believed in re-birth and he wanted to talk to a Buddhist about their view of this.  I was a little nervous of the visit as I expected it to be harrowing. The man was several years younger than me.  He lay in his bed breathing oxygen and looking very frail.  Before I could speak, he greeted me by saying that he wanted to make it clear at the outset that he was not angry about dying.  He had enjoyed a wonderful life, travelling all over the world as an IT specialist.  He had a wonderful wife and beautiful, loving children.  His home was set in lovely rural parkland and even as he lay in his bed he could look out of the window and still enjoy it.  If he felt anything at all, it was just a sense of disappointment that it was coming to an end.  We sat together for over an hour during which we talked easily and laughed a great deal.  I hope he enjoyed meeting me as much as I enjoyed meeting him.  Afterwards I felt inspired and privileged to have spent time together.  I had seen a man with so much that he could have clung to but he was prepared to ‘let go’.  Consequently there was no anguish, no anger, no ‘why me?’  It was a significant event in my life and I hope that when my time comes, I will be able to emulate both his equanimity and courage.

The man clinging to the tree branch just inches from safety could have let go and brought his fear and suffering to an end but preferred to ignore the wise voice, clung even more tightly to impermanence and continued to suffer.



Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Some Thoughts on Mindfulness

If you were a Buddhist monk or nun you would spend a great deal of time developing mindfulness or awareness, constantly keeping your mind alert to phenomena that affect your body and mind, striving to be deliberate, making sure not to act or speak due to inattention or forgetfulness. It is described by a Theravadan monk as follows:

“The mind is trained to remain in the present, open, quiet, and alert, contemplating the present event. All judgments and interpretations have to be suspended, or if they occur, just registered and dropped.”

However, we are not monks or nuns so what benefit would we experience in our everyday lives by developing more awareness and how can we encourage it? Firstly, let us make it clear that, in the same way that you don’t have to be a Buddhist to meditate, neither do you have to be a Buddhist to practice and benefit from increased mindfulness/awareness.

So what exactly is ‘mindfulness’? Well, perhaps the best way to understand what it is and how we benefit from becoming more mindful or aware, is to consider what it is like when we act without being mindful or aware. We have all experienced what happens when we are not in the present moment, when we are distracted by thoughts of what has passed or what is to come.

When we travel on the Underground, we are told to “mind the gap” as we step on or off the platform. The consequences of not being mindful are obvious, but what about when we speak to someone without being mindful or aware of what we are saying or the tone we are using as we speak? Politicians have to be hyper-aware of every word they utter and the manner in which they utter it – one moment of inattention and their political career can be ruined. But what about lesser mortals? There’s an old saying, “engage brain before operating mouth” and I am sure we could all recall times when we have said something without awareness and have regretted the consequences.

When we are mindful, we are said to be ‘in the present moment’. To live in the present moment is to be ‘alive’ in the truest sense of the word. To be aware of everything that is going on around you. To recognise your own emotional state, to pick up on the nuances indicating other people’s states of mind; to act in a conscious way and recognise what is taking place around you. But you do this without constantly analysing and interpreting. This instinctive state is sometimes referred to as ‘unproliferated sensing’. This almost seems contradictory. I am suggesting that you find the middle way between being unthinkingly robotic on one hand and constantly using your brain to analyse everything you see and sense on the other extreme.

Here’s an alternative to Mindfulness of Breathing meditation. Take a walk in the country or through a park. Be alone. As you walk, don’t think, “there’s a Labrador having a poo, I wonder if they owner will pick it up”, or “That bird is probably a dunnock” or “I think it is going to rain soon”. Instead, just be aware of everything your senses are telling you but without proliferation. Don’t analyse. Feel the wind on your face, experience the soil under your feet. Observe the flight of a bird. Hear the rustle of the autumn leaves. Become engaged with the rhythm of your footfall in the same way you become engrossed in the in and out of your breath.

Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn (the founder of MBSR and MBCT) describes mindfulness as ‘a particular way of paying attention; on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally’

‘Non-judgementally’ seems to me to mean pretty much the same as ‘un-proliferated’. We are observing things as they actually are without automatically making judgements or analysing what it is we perceive.

In her new book Living Well With Pain and Illness, Vidyalmala expresses the opinion, “We all spend much of our time dwelling on the past and imagining the future, but what we can affect directly is what’s happening right now. If you are awake to each unfolding moment rather than lost in regrets and fantasies, you can be fully alive to everything in yourself, other people and the world around you”.

How can you recognise when you are being mindful and fully aware – what does if feel like? Well, you already know the answer. If you recall a time when you were totally absorbed in an activity, painting, listening to music, reading a novel, watching a sunset. There was nothing in your mind other than the enjoyment of the experience. You were in a timeless present moment, your mind, your body, your senses were all in harmony. I once walked around a small lake with Ananda, one of longest serving Order Members. It started to rain so we sheltered under a tree. As we stood there, we became aware of an angler on the other side. He was sitting totally still, watching his float. He was completely absorbed in what he was doing, absolutely focussed. Ananda said, “If you were to ask him what he is doing, he would tell you that he is fishing, but what he is actually doing is practicing mindfulness”.

So, when I wonder what it feels like to experience awareness in its purest form, I remind myself of a time when I was commissioned to paint a picture of the great sax player, Charlie Parker. As I painted I played Charlie Parker on the stereo. Until then I had been struggling to paint his dark skin tones but as I became deeply absorbed in the music and the painting, I stopped thinking about my lack of experience, ceased worrying about my own limited capabilities. I just painted. I stopped when it was dark and time to go to bed. The next morning I came downstairs and saw the painting on the easel. It was complete and perfect – it almost felt as though someone else had painted it. Today it hangs on the owner’s wall and is his most precious possession.