Monday, 14 October 2013


When I first developed an interest in Buddhism there were many things that were totally new to me, some of which I grasped fairly easily but others aspects that I struggled to understand.  I was told, “Don’t worry, set them aside and come back to them later – you may find these things clearer when you are more experienced”.  It was good advice and when I returned to a particular element, I was often surprised that I had made such hard work of it.  However, there is one sticking point that many quite experienced Buddhists have difficulty with – and that’s the Buddha’s teaching on emptiness.  I have re-addressed this several times over the years; read many descriptions and explanations and listened to talks by well-respected teachers, but somehow I couldn’t quite grasp it. 

I recently took a holiday in Menorca, a place I visit often as I have a very small home there.  We have no electricity so there’s no internet and no TV.  Before we travel I spend some time searching for good books to take with me.  Nothing too heavy or challenging,  Mysteries and detective novels are absorbing and relaxing and I find I can get through 2 or 3 each week. Just before we left I bought some used paperbacks, one of which was a slight departure; The Wisdom of Forgiveness.  It is written by Victor Chan, a close friend of the Dalai Lama and based on a series of intimate conversations they shared whilst travelling from country to country following the Dalai Lama's busy schedule. 

In the course of one of these conversations, His Holiness tells Victor Chan that for decades he has meditated every day on interconnectedness and emptiness.  Victor Chan confesses that he has difficulty with this concept but later is present when the Dalai Lama is visited by a Korean scholar, Kim Yong-Oak.  The Dalai Lama begins by stating that emptiness is not the same as nothingness.  He said that there are two types of reality.  Firstly, there is ‘standard’ reality.  He gestures towards a mug of water.  When we look at it we see water.  When we touch it we feel water.  We know it is water. But then he described how we can look at it with ‘ultimate’ reality in which the mug is a combination of particles, atoms, electrons and quarks – none of this particles can be described as ‘a mug’.  The term mug is just an every-day label for this collection of particles.   The mug has come into existence because of a complex web of causes and conditions.  Therefore it does not and could not exist independently.  It cannot come into being by itself, of its own volition. It is empty of intrinsic, inherent existence.  In other words, empty is another word for interdependent.

We all tend to see ourselves as distinct entities; we are different from our friends and family.  Due to our conditioning we believe we are distinct and independent,  but in fact our existence depends on an infinite, intricately linked series of events, causes and conditions.  If any of these conditions had varied, we would exist in a wholly different way.  From this perspective, ‘self’ and ‘others’ makes sense only in terms of relationships.  In fact, your interests and my interests are inextricably connected in a tangible way.  If emptiness is another term for interdependent, we could describe ourselves as ‘empty’.  The Dalai Lama concluded his discussion with Kim Yong-Oak by emphasising that anyone could obtain happiness and fulfilment by focusing on two main elements of the Buddha dharma; compassion and emptiness.

His Holiness returned to this subject in a later conversation with Victor Chan.  He explained that the existence of anything, coffee mugs, feelings of jealousy, is dependent upon a complex web of relationships.  If you think about it long enough, there is no logical way for these things to exist independently.  Therefore they can be said to be devoid of  a life of their own.  They have no inherent, independent existence.  In other words, they are empty. 

He continued, “Normally we tend to see things in a solid, tangible way.  Therefore there is a tendency to grasp at things, to become attached to things.  We cling to the idea of a separate self and separate things. We strive for new experiences, new acquisitions.  Yet as soon as we possess them, the buzz is gone and we look for something new.  This endless cycle of craving causes suffering”.

Later he tells Victor Chan of an insight into emptiness and interdependence he experienced as a young man.  He said that the realisation hit him with a physical shock and he remained affected for several days afterwards.  Since that moment he has viewed life in a total different way.  He concluded that if we acquire and understanding of emptiness, craving, the source of our suffering, will be lessened.

My problem in grasping this teaching was simply caused by having a preconceived idea of the word 'emptiness'.  English translations of sanskrit and pali frequently define the meaning of words in a limited way.  The best known example is the term 'dukkha' which is often just translated as 'suffering'.  This is wholly inadequate as it ignores all the other shades of meaning, ranging from mere dissatisfaction to the full-on agony of suffering.

Monday, 22 April 2013


If you asked me what I like most about Sundays, I would say it was relaxing with a cup of good coffee and the Sunday paper.  As I sat reading the paper this Sunday, I became aware that not only was it not a relaxing experience, I was actually getting wound up by what I read.  It seemed that every piece I read was written in such a way as to deliberately generate a negative response.  Social benefits scroungers, immigrant families being housed in central city locations; god bothered Americans resisting legislation to control guns, Rolf Harris questioned about sex offences.  As I read I became more and more mentally agitated.

Then it occured to me, “I am news junkey!” When I get up most mornings at 6.45, the first thing I do is switch on the radio in the kitchen and listen to Today on Radio 4 whilst I make my breakfast.  I eat this in front of the TV, channel-hopping between Breakfast, Daybreak and Sky News to avoid weather forecasts and adverts.  When I eventually go to the bathroom to wash and shave, I continue to listen to Today on a small bathroom radio.  Then it is time to switch on my computer and start work – too late for meditation.

I pondered for a while on whether I felt compelled to be so well informed about everything that was happening.  Would I be any worse off it I was less aware of all the tensions in the world?  As a Buddhist I wish to develop empathy, but is there a danger of overload?

I have decided to experiment by substantially reducing my news intake.  I will not listen to Today or watch TV news programmes for the next week and see what happens.  I began this morning and have to admit that I found it a little difficult but one benefit was plenty of time for a longish meditation with not so many things going round and round in my mind as I sat.  Maybe the vacuum will be filled by a greater awareness of what is going on infront of me – that remains to be seen.

Monday, 8 April 2013


As I am now well into my 70's I am conscious that I have entered the endgame of this lifetime.  So, do I fear death?  Not really, but I would certainly like to hang on for a little longer to see my grandchildren mature.  What I do fear is disease and the suffering it may bring to me and to my loved ones.  When I talk to friends who fear death, I point out that they have experienced ‘not being’ before they were born, so this is a familiar state and nothing to be afraid of. But the question they always ask is "What comes next?"

The majority of those with little knowledge of Buddhism would assume that I would believe in reincarnation – this is a common misconception.  The two most fundamental teachings of the Buddha were impermanence and conditionality.  He taught us to explore and understand that everything is impermanent – everything passes, even the universe. 

Then there is his most original and enlightening teaching; 'everything arises in dependence upon conditions'.  The more we consider this concept, the more we realise its truth.  Even the planet Earth arose in dependence upon certain critical and finally balanced conditions, allowing life forms to be created.  When those conditions cease to exist, as they inevitably will one day, all life on this planet will also cease to be.  So it is with all things - even the most simple.  A potted plant on my window sill has blossomed because it has light and warmth and soil in which to root and be nourished by. I give it water to help it flourish.  These conditions being present, it grows bigger and flowers brightly.  But if any of these conditions cease to be; the plant is moved away from any light and it is no longer watered, it will quickly fade, die and cease to exist.

If there are no exceptions to these two core principals, then it follows that reincarnation must be a myth.  If everything is impermanent then there can be no permanent, indestructible entity or ‘soul’ to be transferred from one life to another in a constant, unbroken stream.  However, we are asked to consider the possibility that the karma we acquire in this life-time can somehow affect a new-born human after one’s death.  How can this be?

If you Google rebirth, you will find many learned people explaining how this works, but frankly, it is unlikely that any of these pundits knows for sure. Having never seen any exceptions, I understand and accept that everything rises in dependence upon conditions and karma creates conditions in which it is possible for phenomena to arise, but how to explain this graphically?

Fortunately, there are a couple of excellent metaphors.  Firstly, the metaphor of two candles; one is burning and near the end of its life, the other is new and unused.  The flame from the old candle is used to light the new candle.  They continue to remain entirely separate, yet the flame of the second candle came into being upon the presence of the first candle. Without the dying candle, there would be no light from the new one.

Another metaphor that appeals to me, is that of two snooker balls.  The white ball strikes the stationary red ball.  The movement of the red ball is entirely conditioned by the angle and speed at which the white ball strikes it.  Without the white ball, the red ball would have neither motion nor direction.

Of course, these two simple metaphors can never explain the immense complexity of karma, but they serve to give rise to the possibility that it does exist, and a life that has gone before has somehow created conditions that will affect the life of a newly born person.

When you begin to meditate on this, you realise the enormous responsibility resting upon us all. As well as skillful, positive karma, we can also create unskilful negative karma which can burden the life of  someone yet unborn.  By living an ethical, empathetic life we hope to create good conditions upon which positive phenomena may arise, long after we have returned to a state of ‘not being’.