The purpose of this webpage is for me to record my own impressions, thoughts and ideas about Buddhism. Specifically, this is an ongoing diary of my discoveries as I journey deeper into the realm of Buddhism. Mostly, these are articles and essays about some of the tenets of Buddhism and how I have used them to help me in my spiritual journeys.
I "converted" to Buddhism in . So far, I have been able to make most of the temple's monthly Days of Mindfulness. When my MS does not allow for me to attend, I remain here in my house practicing mindfulness in concert with my fellow Buddhists.
I am really looking at attending some of the other meetings but those are held in the evenings when I am generally much too tired to go. However, with planning and the strategic use of napping, I am hoping to be able to reverse that unfortunate, but temporary, reality.
This journal starts with an essay I wrote about Impermanence. I hope you will enjoy it. Like most diaries the most recent entries are at the top, so you will have to go to the bottom of the page to see the first entry.
Granted, it's a bit of a mouthful to say her name, but the name Mahapajapati Gotami is one near and dear to the hearts and minds of the nuns at Sati Saraniya.
In brief, Mahapajapati Gotami was the surrogate, or foster mother, of Prince Siddhartha who would later be known as the Buddha. At the age of 65, and after her own son, along with both Prince Siddhartha and his son, Rahula, had gone forth to live as monastics, Mahapajapati Gotami sought to do the same thing. She and a large collection of other women of the palace, shaved their heads and walked, barefoot, 240 miles (a little less than 390 kilometres) in order to receive ordination from the Buddha. To describe her devotion to the Buddha's teaching as extraordinary would be an understatement.
The Buddha did ordain her and she is acknowledged as the first Buddhist nun to practice. Now, some 2500 years later, that tradition is enjoying a resurgence and it is due to places like Sati Saraniya and the nuns there. Her noble and utterly selfless actions are recalled with fondness and yesterday marked the anniversary of her ordination.
At Sati Saraniya, a Theravada Buddhist nun's hermitage located just outside Perth, Ontario, roughly 50 people gathered to celebrate the anniversary of the ordination of Mahapajapati Gotami. It was a chilly, damp day with low clouds promising yet more rain. However, the ambiance inside the quiet monastery was warm, dry and welcoming.
One of the other things we all wanted to see was the new meditation hall that is currently under construction. It is scheduled to be completed some time early in , likely during the mid to late spring time. Once that is completed, I plan on returning to the hermitage to take a tour of it.
The meditation hall is very badly needed there as the current monastery really can't adequately hold the 50 some odd people who were there, as shown in some of the pictures.
This day-long event, the first in what is hoped to be an annual event, was very well attended. Many members of the Ottawa Buddhist Society were there, in fact there was close to 50 people in attendance. Yes, the shrine room is a new addition to the monastery and the room could accommodate everyone there...but it was still a bit of a tight squeeze.
The theme, Gratitude to Parents, was meant to include all parents not just one's own and the abbott, Luang Por Viradhammo, emphasized that point when he spoke with us all.
Here are a few pictures from the event itself.
Click to enlarge photos
These are some of the flowers that were put on top of the shrine. The flowers remind us all of the transience of beauty. One day, these flowers will fade, just as all things will. Nothing is permanent.
At the centre of the shrine and sitting quite peacefully is the statue of the Buddha himself. He is surrounded by flowers and his quiet expression reminds us all that we, too, can achieve his state of gentle calm.
Here is the table which held all the delicious dishes offered by the many attendees. Not everyone had arrived when this picture was taken so not all of the food had been laid out.
Luang Por Viradhammo (left), the abbott of Tisarana and Ayya Medhanandi (right) who is a Buddhist nun from the Sati Saraniya hermitage which is located just outside of Perth as well.
Buddhist monks and nuns of the Theravadin tradition often go on retreats. Those times are spent in quiet meditation and practice of mindfulness. For those who live in places like India and Sri Lanka, it is the regular monsoon that sees the retreat into the monastery for the duration of the monsoon itself. Known as the Rains retreat, during that time, monks do not wander, offer teachings in other villages or otherwise interact with the laity. Part of the reason for this is that during the Rains retreat, the local farmers would be bringing in their crops and the risk that the monks and nuns may cause damage to the vegetation was simply too high to allow them to wander.
The laity, too, often took that same time to strengthen their own religious vows and so refraining from things like alcohol, overconsumption of food and other distractions was a common practice. Some members of the lay community would take monastic vows for the duration of the Rains retreat, which is also known as “Buddhist Lent”. It is a time of self-sacrifice, restraint and contemplation with the aim of strengthening one's commitments to the practice.
At the end of the Rains Retreat, it is common practice for the laity to celebrate the end of the monsoons by bringing gifts (eg newly sewn robes) to the monks and nuns. Those members of the laity who had taken monastic vows would give them back (you can do that in Buddhism) and return to their lay life.
But retreats aren't just the Rains Retreat, which typically runs between July and October. A retreat can be any time that one takes for just withdrawing from the day to day life, to just meditate quietly, to practice mindfulness and to just develop a general awareness of one's own thoughts, feelings and actions.
Many retreats are organized ventures. Most cities in the world have at least one Buddhist society, organization, association or even club and many of those groups conduct regular retreats for their members both current and prospective. A retreat, in contrast with a simple escape, has a purpose and a focus for participants. It is not designed to be a way to just avoid or run away from the reality of modern life but an opportunity to sharpen one's resolve to live a better life. The problem, at least as far as modern living goes, is that retreats themselves tend to seem quite boring.
We're so used to excitement, distraction and sensory overload that we actively shun any opportunity to just stop whatever it is we're doing. This is especially the case when retreats themselves can cost a fair amount of money, involve the precept to not eat after noon and to remain completely silent throughout the whole time. We also want results to be instant, enlightening and so profound as to change our very world in a deep, permanent and obvious way.
That's not the way it works.
Retreats are not day camps, even though some are only held over the course of an 8 hour day. There may be organized activities but they won't involve getting into teams and kicking a ball around or fingerpainting giant murals. Activities are both solitary and yet impossible to undertake without the presence of other people. For instance, walking meditation is done alone, on site and in silence but everyone else will be doing the same thing. Mindfulness meditation is also done alone but the silence, as palpable as it may be, is shared with all the others.
Retreats also require a certain level of discipline, beyond the obvious no-cellphones-or-laptops rules. Silence is not just recommended but required. Days start before the sun rises and consist of (typically) an hour of meditation even before one has had a chance to get some breakfast or even shower. Fighting off sleep is difficult but as everyone else is also fighting off sleep, there is a certain comfort in not being alone in this venture.
Showers follow and then breakfast and then a return to the meditation hall for another 45 minutes of sitting meditation. Then, the teacher (monk or nun) may give a talk and then send participants outside to do a walking meditation. Once done, there may be another sitting meditation, lunch and then another talk followed by more meditation, walking meditation, perhaps some tea and then some time alone before the evening sitting and then bed. For 'X' number of days, participants do this.
It's hard not to wonder what the value in all this is, especially since it seems like such an easy thing to do and for the first day or so it is “easy to do”. But, by the second or third day, the weight of silent contemplation can be felt. If the retreat is only a 3 day one, it's common to come out of it feeling a little uncertain as to whether it was both time and money well spent. Longer than about that, though, and I am told things improve dramatically.
So, what benefit does going on a retreat offer? Retreats are a way of just stopping the frantic day to day craziness that so defines a lot of our lives, of just making the time to practice the noble 8-fold path and in just quieting the mind.
So, I wish the monks and nuns a good and quiet continuation of their Rains Retreat and I wish for all who wish to withdraw from things to know they can do that in simple, gentle silence.
I believe it was HH the Dalai Lama who had called upon people worldwide to commit random acts of kindness. I don't believe he was asking for any major undertaking of kindness though he probably wouldn't have objected there. I believe he was asking for all of us to commit small acts of kindness since the majority of us lead lives consisting of many small acts. Getting up in the morning, making coffee, driving to work or school, taking the elevator or walking to one's locker; all of these acts are the small matters that make up the average person's day. Even the oh-so Canadian trait of standing in line is a small act, along with picking up the mail, sorting laundry and boiling water for that night's dinner.
Yet, it's those very small acts that we recall when someone else offers to help us. Who wouldn't object to having help in sorting laundry or making a meal?
So, it was that very idea that kept running through my mind this morning when, while Adam and I were walking on a fairly busy road, a car pulled up on the road. We were walking with backpacks on and carrying our cross country skis and poles. The driver, a middle aged man, opened his window, asked if we were going far and offered us a ride. As it turned out, we only had about 100 metres to go before reaching our destination but it was the generosity of this man, this thoughtful and kindhearted gesture that so warmed my heart that much more. It helped to make an already perfect day that much nicer.
This, I feel, is what HH the Dalai Lama meant when he called upon us all to commit random acts of kindness. I don't know who that man was or what his story is but that doesn't matter. What matters is that his was a very kindhearted act and, for that, I am very grateful to him. May he benefit from his kind act; I certainly did!
My husband was just saying to me last evening that ours is a distracted and noisy world and I couldn't have agreed more with that. He said that to me as we walked past a young lady who was busily sending text messages on her cellphone and seemingly unaware of anything else going on around her. We see that a lot these days - and more. I read recently that new car sales in Canada are up. The iPad, Wii, PlayStation 3 and now the prospect of a Windows based competitor to iPad are all the rage. It's another 'thing' to have, to get, to keep and to distract ourselves with.
It's October and, in no time at all, we will be inundated with adverts for Christmas shopping - right after people stop buying large boxes of "fun size" Hallowe'en candy to hand out to children wearing the latest trendy costumes on Hallowe'en night. It's well understood that ours is a consumerist society, but are we any happier for having the latest computer, blackberry, cellphone, plasma screen television or car? I suspect not and I also suspect that I am not alone in my thoughts there.
The problem with 'things', I feel, is that we mistakenly equate having as many things as we can get with also acquiring a commensurate level of happiness. We project the problem of unhappiness onto an external object we think will solve the problem - and become mighty disappointed when the sought after happiness just doesn't materialize. So, to punish the 'object' for not bringing us the happiness we seek, we discard that object in favour of another, bigger, nicer and more expensive version. Perhaps the underlying assumption is that the more we have the happier we will be...but it never works out that way, does it?
We have been inundated with the message that social success comes only with having the biggest, shiniest, best 'thing', whether it's the latest snowblower, truck, dishwasher or pair of shoes. What we tend to miss is that no matter what we have, we will still grow old, get sick and die one day. We can't avoid that so we attempt to repress that very uncomfortable feeling by buying something we really don't need but simply want.
I'm not saying that having things we want is bad or terrible - it's the underlying assumption that so often plays into our decision to get something. Do we really need a new car or can we use public transit, carpool or even walk? What is it about having the fastest most up to date computer that will make us happy? Can we still do the work we need to do with what we have now instead? Can you tell I'm no fan of unchecked consumerism?
The first lesson the Buddha taught was the 4 noble truths. Those truths all related to the reality of suffering and, oh boy, is it ever as relevant today as during the time he taught this some 2500 years ago. Today's modern world seems to consist of not only pointing out that life is unsatisfactory but that only through buying blank can we enjoy the satisfying life we are all somehow entitled to have. Here, for me, is the tricky bit - we are certainly entitled to enjoy a satisfying life but it would be foolish to assume that satisfaction derives from objects outside of ourselves. Yet, our whole world seems incapable of existing outside the relentless pursuit of things - and that those things are what will make us happy.
The second noble truth, that suffering has its causes, I think stems from this confused and generally unhappy society we've made. How happy is that person who just bought an enormous plasma screen television? I'm sure she or he will be happy for a short while before that sniggling sense of unsatisfaction creeps into the psyche. Then comes the scrambling around to find a cheaper cable or satellite package - and all to be able to watch another hockey game or episode of M*A*S*H. It just never ends, does it? Even if one gets the best TV with the perfect satellite/cable package, there is the nastiness of getting the bill each month, and then what if there is a power outage of some kind? The possibilities for pain and suffering are endless.
The third noble truth, that there is a way out of suffering, is good news for all of us with the fourth truth being that the way out is to follow the noble eight-fold path. However, to do that requires for each of us to stop what we're doing and to take a good long hard look at ourselves, what we're doing and, more tellingly, why we're doing it in the first place. That is probably the most painful thing to do; to realize that our mad, slathering thrashing about to get the biggest/best/shiniest/newest thing is not only how not to attain happiness but that the whole social structure behind such consumerism is pure deception. How betrayed we would feel.
That's not to say we should never buy something solely because we want it whether we need it or not but it is to say we need to be mindful of what we're doing, why we're doing it and, most importantly for me, to not allow ourselves to be seduced by the all the slick marketing. With both Hallowe'en and Christmas coming, there is no time like the present.
At first blush, you would think these two words were talking about the same thing but they're not. Reacting to something, whether it's your friend showing up late once again and keeping you waiting or a comment someone has made, typically does not involve much in the way of conscious thought. It's a little like what happens when you mix baking soda with vinegar; carbon dioxide with all its fizzing and popping. There is no consideration for the situation or what anyone else feels, it's just a reaction that occurs when two things are brought together. Similarly, you may react to being kept waiting by lashing out at your friend or to a comment someone makes by snapping angrily. In all these cases, no conscious thought processes were involved. Granted, with baking soda and vinegar, they are reacting according to their nature - they can never do anything else. Human beings, however, are different. We react purely as a result of conditioning but, unlike baking soda and vinegar, we can do something else. Because we possess intelligence, we can evoke conscious thought processes and actually choose our reaction to things.
From where I sit, the use of conscious, unbiased and reasonable thinking forms the foundation of responding to events rather than merely reacting to them. If your friend has kept you waiting...again...you can react mindlessly as you had done before - or you can pause for just a moment and consider the situation. Maybe your friend was ill or had to take a phone call that went on longer than he or she wanted. In other words, to try and put yourself in your friend's shoes for a moment can go far in not only putting things into perspective but will also tend to lessen the magnitude of emotion you may be feeling. To be sure, you don't deny your feelings - but you can choose how you want to address the matter. I have known people who were fabulously overjoyed at hearing really great news but their response to the news had been measured and somewhat subdued. They weren't any less pleased about things - they just chose to respond to the news, rather than merely react to the news. This is responding to events, rather than reacting to them. Responding involves looking carefully and completely into the situation and asking yourself some pointed questions. "Is my friend just trying to piss me off?", "What is it about being kept waiting that infuriates me like this?", "Who do they think they are that they can say those things about me or to me!" and "Must I be a slave to my own feelings?" When you take the time, I mean really and honestly take the time, to truly think about and consider those questions you may find your outrage dissipated enough that you can now respond rationally to events, rather than merely react to them.
This is a thought that came to mind while listening to one of Ajahn Viradhammo's podcast lessons. There is much in Buddhism that emphasizes the freedom that the end of craving, or the cessation of attachment, brings. We are not taught to repress or indulge thoughts, concepts or emotions - that is neither possible nor necessary. Rather, we are taught to simply be aware of thoughts, concepts or feelings.
Yet, it is difficult to not attach to really good thoughts or to cringe and wish away any negative experience or feeling. The risk to ourselves doesn't so much lie in the inevitability of positive or negative thoughts but in our grasping the good feelings and shunning the negative ones. How freeing it would be if we could each simply acknowledge what we're thinking or feeling, understand the impermanence of things and then move on - all without denying the very truth of our human being.
Ajahn Viradhammo has mentioned in teachings past how by simply acknowledging things without clinging to concepts, we can free up a lot of mindspace. Think of deleting unwanted files on your hard drive and seeing how much more room you have on your computer. If we can find a way to end the craving energy of our generally befuddled minds, how much easier life could be. Imagine not being racked with anxiety or lust, for instance. It is not uncommon for the craving mind to order behaviours that lead to the - always temporary - satisfaction of those cravings. If it's gotta be chocolate then we can sometimes find ourselves outside late at night during a howling blizzard and risking life and limb just to get some chocolate. The craving mind can inflict all manner of pain and suffering and that's something I think we are all familiar with.
But, what if we could find a way to end craving? Let me qualify that question here. By 'craving' I don't mean 'preference' or 'choice'. Rather, craving is something that consumes us and often seems to disconnect that part of the brain that exercises proper judgement. The real issue, I feel, isn't the existence of desire but of just how mindlessly we are pushed and pulled in the flow. It's a little like being a stick in a river, isn't it? Sticks have no say in where they go or what happens to them. We, on the other hand, have control over where we go and what happens to our minds. We can't avoid getting sick but we can certainly decide how we're going to respond to things.
So, back to the seemingly paradoxical notion of craving the end of craving. How, it is reasonable to ask, can we 'crave' the end of 'craving' without it becoming something that consumes us? Perhaps the answer isn't to 'crave' the end of 'craving' but to just retain awareness of it and to let thoughts rise, culminate and then recede before finally ending.
I think we're all familiar with this feeling. We're grateful for esoteric things like freedom of speech, freedom of association and other more pedestrian things like having good food, a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs.
The gratitude I'm referring to goes a bit beyond that though that's not to say such concrete matters are unimportant. It's good to be grateful for having good food to eat or to be able to join a club but I am talking about feeling grateful for having access to Dhamma teachings.
'Dhamma' is translated as 'truth' or 'reality' - or some such notion. We all have access to the dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha on how things are in life. Perhaps we are most familiar with the four noble truths or the noble eightfold path but our opportunities for feeling gratitude don't need to delve that deeply into things.
I, myself, am grateful for having the medication I need to help treat the illness I have. I have multiple sclerosis and, once a week, I inject medication into my body. Admittedly, it's a bit of a shift from the understanding that we ought to avoid any sharp, pointy objects since injecting a medication involves just that - a sharp pointy thing. However, it is the consequences of taking that medication that provide a challenge for me at times.
The side-effects of the drug I take, Avonex, include flu-like symptoms. I get the aching joints, the alternating chills and mild fever and associated fatigue that are often relieved by taking Tylenol...often, mind you, not always. It is the occasional time that Tylenol doesn't do it for me that can result in a fair amount of pain and suffering.
Here is where the dhamma comes in very handy for me.
In meditation practice, as in life overall, we are confronted with discomfort whether in the physical position we adopt in meditation or in the tendency towards having a dull or distractible mind. It can be very tough to sit in quiet contemplation for 45 minutes especially when, in my case, every joint in my body hurts. Yet, the message of 'endure' or 'this won't last' or even 'this is conditioned being' can flow quietly in my mind even as I focus on my breathing and not on just how much it hurts.
Yes, I know the side-effects will dissipate eventually but that can be of little comfort while it hurts now and the Tylenol has done nothing to help. The fact remains that this is the way things are right now and, like all else that is conditioned, will pass even if it doesn't always feel like it.
The key used to be 'just tolerate it' but, yesterday, during a particularly painful time with side-effects, the message changed slightly from 'just tolerate it' to 'identify the feeling, don't identify with the feeling'. It still hurt, to be sure, but, somehow, it just wasn't that difficult to endure. There wasn't really anything to tolerate - the pain was a momentary 'thing' but would not last.
So, how is this related to gratitude? I have been listening to a lot of Ajahn Viradhammo's free podcast dhamma teachings and the theme that comes up now and again is one of gratitude. I am truly grateful for being able to remain focused and engaged in the dhamma teachings while sitting in quiet repose and experiencing the flu-like side-effects of my weekly Avonex shot. The kind hearted words of Ajahn Viradhammo were an immense help for me and, for that, I am grateful.
Now, some 22 hours after taking my Avonex shot, the pain is long forgotten but the dhamma teachings aren't.
"Relative reality is the sum of experiences arising from the mistaken idea that whatever you experience is real in and of itself." - Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche1
This is a phrase that intrigues me, especially since it's an idea that is repeated regularly in Buddhism. My understanding of this phrase is that we all tend to see ourselves as entirely separate from our perceptions and experience.
How, for instance, do I experience something like winter? Do I see the snow, the cold, raw winds and icy sidewalks as something dreadful, joyous or something in between? What we perceive is conditioned by not only prior exposure but on our own thoughts, feelings and expectations on any given experience. Thus, if I view waking up one morning to near whiteout conditions, my mind will immediately form an impression of that and, subsequently, my own feelings on the matter. Do I roll my eyes up and bemoan the fact that, once again, I have a driveway to shovel? Or, do I see it as an opportunity to put on my cross-country skis and 'hit the trails'? It would be easy to suggest that I adopt the latter impression as, surely, that would lead to a cessation of suffering - but to assume that is to miss the point. It's also not true that suffering would cease - at least, not in any permanent manner and especially if I have accidentally applied the wrong wax. In other words, my experience of the snow is relative to my previous experiences, how I felt about the snow at the time, any pain or pleasure I felt and how those informed my expectations. The human mind is very capable of learning new things, however, it is just as capable of both learning the wrong things and of (foolishly) assuming that its perceptions represent some kind of immutable reality.
When it snows, it just snows. That much is understood. How we each experience that truth is conditioned by our own past. Just as Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche intimates, we tend to mistake our own version of events for some kind of absolute truth. The real task we each face is in letting go of our expectations, ideas and concepts and, most critically (I feel) cherished and rigidly held ideas. Rigidity is inflexible and will prevent one from considering any new thought or idea. We become ensnared in the web of the feelings and impressions we have from past similar events. Learning is stunted, or even prevented, and no spiritual growth is possible.
Take a look at a table. What do you see? Is it a solitary object with a flat, horizontal surface which you use for serving and eating meals? Maybe it's also a place to do your homework or to balance your chequebook. Personally, I have used a table to roll out home made pasta dough, as a place to apply mac-tac on maps, to deposit bags of books or even grocery items. What is the purpose of a table? Any one of these aforementioned purposes? Some of them? All of them? None of them? It doesn't matter. The table won't mind if you use it to hold dinner plates or to organize laundry into piles. The table simply is. Of course, we can each think of a myriad of concepts, objects or ideas whose usefulness, definition or purpose can be critically analyzed but the point is that what we see as reality is nothing more than the forward projection of a mental concept.
We can feel edgy or anxious about something and can quickly assume those feelings are incredibly real. Of course they're real but they're also mental objects and do not represent absolute reality. Keeping that in mind is, perhaps, the toughest task of all. Whatever you're feeling is real but it's what your mind is producing. So, the unhappy sighs about a snowfall have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it's snowing and everything to do with what your mind perceives. This, more than anything else, is an intriguing and, for me, freeing concept. It is also something I explore in meditation.
Ajahn Viradhammo, the abbot of the Tisarana monastery in Perth, Ontario, has taught extensively on the subject of mind objects particularly how they can trap us into forming strong and potentially dangerous attachments to those objects of the mind. For instance, when we become angry or anxious about something, it's too easy to grab onto that feeling and let it take us through a hellish ride with the resultant suffering. What he advocates is to not deny those feelings but to merely see them as objects of the mind that rise, bear fruit and die away. In other words, we can identify the feeling but we need not identify with the feeling. "I have the feeling of anger or anxiety arising" and not "I am the anger or anxiety" itself. This, to me, is the essence of noting the relative reality of a mind object and not the absolute reality of mind clarity. This has helped me immensely whenever I find sleep elusive or am in a situation that generates anxious feelings. I do not deny the relative reality of any thought or feeling but I need not be hijacked by that feeling. It, too, shall pass.
That, to me, is reality, just as snow is a reality.
1. Mingyur, Yongey Rinpoche, The Joy of Living, page 101, Harmony Books, Random House,
On an abstract level, most of us know that we shouldn't judge on the basis of what we see on the surface. 'Don't judge a book by its cover', right? Yet, we all seem to do this to a certain extent even if we're not always aware of it. I still catch myself doing it from time to time.
Buddhism teaches us that, fundamentally, we are all one in the same. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has stated that as have other Buddhist teachers. We all have the same desire to be happy and to not suffer. Extending that train of thought, it is argued (at least, I've seen the argument) that we would all be a lot happier and lot better off if we both recognized and embraced our same-ness. This, we are taught, is equanimity and is a good and wholesome striving, I feel.
A young child sees the world as a collection of objects - whether tangible or conceptual, yet has formed no particular opinion on the matter or made any sort of value judgement. Sadly, that comes a little later. Equally sad is that most of us are just not aware of that point in our lives when we ceased seeing the world as a series of objects and started forming opinions on those objects. I have been singularly privileged to recall that moment in my life when that very event happened.
I grew up in Montreal, specifically, the West Island community of Pierrefonds. Though predominantly anglophone, a number of the other kids in the neighbourhood were francophone but that just didn't matter. We all spoke some hybrid English/French without any difficulties and new kids on the block were viewed as any other kid on the block. The neighbourhood I recall most vividly was one of four-plex houses (we affectionately called them "double duplexes") whose back yards were all open and fence-free. Thus, it was extremely common for parents to look out their windows to see clusters of 6, 7 or 8 year old kids running about in each other's back yards. Much like the language issue, property just wasn't an issue and none of the parents seemed to care either.
The young boy I used to hang out with was a fun young guy. He always had the coolest toys and both he and his slightly older sister would come out and invite one and all to play. Hula hoops, skipping ropes and even those ginormous huge sit-on bouncing balls were invariably theirs and they were as generous with their toys as their mother was with the popsicles and freezies during those really hot and humid summer days.
One day, though, when I was seven, I was outside playing on the swingset in a neighbour's back yard with their young children when the boy and his older sister came over. Within a few minutes, we had a really great game of kickball going when it suddenly occurred to me that the young boy I hung out with was black while his older sister and the rest of the family were white. I had never noticed it before and, to this day, I cannot recall why I suddenly saw a difference.
To be sure, the young boy and I remained good friends up to the moment he and his family moved to a different neighbourhood elsewhere in the city. I don't ever recall it being an issue with anyone else but I had to admit that I was curious as to why this young boy was black when his sister and other family members weren't. I know I never asked anyone about it but I was only 7 at the time and knew nothing really about such issues as adoption or foster parenting.
Fast forward to today when ours seems to be a world of acknowledging and even emphasizing differences between "us" and "them". We're white, they're black. We're men, they're women. We're adults, they're children. We're able-bodied, they're disabled. We apply labels of being onto others as though such labels are both accurate and immutable. This is a fundamental problem with the English language and, sadly, it tends to inform our actions. Those actions can be kindhearted, as when we visit a friend who has an illness. However, our habit of applying labels of being on the basis of something superficial has lead to more and uglier conflicts and more and more alienation and divisiveness. Who "is" and who "is not" just as often leads to who "has" and who "has not" and, too often, the basis is superficial and totally arbitrary.
This runs counter to the Buddhist ideal of equanimity, of seeing everything as is and reacting in an equal and un-biased manner. We are not elated at something nor are we agitated at other things; they just are. The day I "lost" my spiritual innocence, the day I suddenly noticed that the boy next door was "different" from his sister and his family, was my first 'baptism of fire' as it were. I still don't see any difference between him and me, or between you and me or between me and a farmer in rural Korea but I do see how judgement has caused me suffering.
This is a term that is used very often throughout meditation lessons, talks, books and other teachings. It refers to one of the goals in meditation - which is to not attach our minds to any given thought that arises in our minds. Recall that thoughts, whatever they are, are just objects of the mind, mental formations conditioned as much by our moods as by earlier iterations of the same thought. During meditation, one of the common pitfalls is the attachment we make to some of the thoughts that arise. After all, it's quite easy for meditators to sit there, serenely breathing and having the appearance of focusing on the breath when, in reality, they are focused on anything but the breathing. More likely are we to be re-hashing an argument or conversation we had earlier in the day with someone or else plotting or planning something like the perfect revenge or how we're going to spend our evening. In other words, we are far too focused on time - whether the past or the future - when we're supposed to be focusing just on our breathing. I can't count how many teachers, experienced meditators and fellow Buddhists have spoken with me about the value of just sitting in the still, quiet present and just focusing on our breathing. Hard as I ever tried, I just couldn't stay in that state. While I was able to intellectually grasp the meaning of non-attachment in meditation, I was never really able to incorporate that into my practice. At best, I was able to almost immediately identify when my mind would drift from the breathing to some aspect of earlier or later. It wasn't until I started reading, Awakening the Buddhist Heart by Lama Surya Das that I was able to learn how to meditate without any attachment to the distractions that typically plague even the most dedicated meditator.
What I learned was to identify and then discard.
That's it. Whatever comes into the mind, whether it's the fact that my leg hurts, my nose itches, I'm tired or what I have to pick up at the grocery store before going home, I simply identify the feeling and then I discard it. If my leg hurts, I can identify that as "pain" and then let it go; if my nose itches, I simply say "itchy" or if I remember that I have to pick up some milk at the store, I'll say "recollection" - but I then discard the word. I don't deny the pain or the fact that I have to go anywhere but I don't indulge in any of those feelings either. As with all actions, what I do is my choice. I choose to feel the sore leg or the itchy nose but then I let them go.
Easier said than done? At first, it sure is. How can we ignore that burning, twitching tickling feeling on the side of our noses? How can we concentrate on our breathing when our leg is throbbing with agony? Obviously, if the reason our nose is itchy is because we're about to be bitten by a large venomous insect or if our leg is sore because it's sprained then I can take whatever protective action is necessary to prevent myself from getting hurt even further. Remember that there is nobody who's "scoring" you on just how perfectly you meditate. However, if our nose is itchy because it's a little bit sweaty or our leg hurts because we're unaccustomed to sitting cross-legged then I just identify the feeling and then discard it. Remember that nothing is permanent in this life (or in any life). Whatever is itchy now won't be itchy in a minute or so and sore legs will still work when the meditation is done. It may be uncomfortable but it'll pass. Of course, the trick is to get into a physical position that won't cause you too much pain and to start off with short(ish) meditation sessions - about 15-20 minutes at the beginning. Marathon meditation sessions just aren't necessary and certainly not at the beginning of your practice. It is much better if you have a short but productive meditation session than a long one fraught with difficulties focusing on the object of meditation - typically the breath.
When those difficulties arise - and they will - I identify the difficulty...and then I discard it. You may find that your whole meditation session is just a long list of identifying and then discarding the distracting difficult feelings and thoughts that arise but awareness of those distractions is the first step towards being rid of them. Over time, you will find it easier and easier to not only identify your distractions more quickly but you may find that you harbour fewer and fewer of them over time and that can't be a bad thing.
Rituals are part of everyday life, from making your morning cuppa to what time of day Buddhists chant. We mark the passage of time with rituals and those rituals provide meaning to our lives.
But, does that mean any and all rituals are good, healthy and worthwhile? Maybe...maybe not...
So how can you tell if any given ritual is useful or healthy? Here's a simple checklist which I made gleaned from one of the Dhamma talks given by the venerable Ajahn Viradhammo.
Be uplifting. Performing a ritual should leave you with a sense of heartfelt joy.
Be consistent. Performing the same ritual in a repetitive, prescribed manner should help to inspire a sense of security yet not result in gut wrenching panic or anxiety if it is missed once or not performed exactly perfectly.
Promote spiritual health. This is related to uplifting. A ritual that leaves you with a stronger sense of commitment to Buddhism will promote spiritual health.
Be fully inclusive. In Buddhism, all are welcome to participate and any religion or religious practice that encourages and allows others to experience the joy of any given ritual is good.
Not cause any harm to anyone or to anything. A ritual should promote peace, happiness and prosocial behaviour.
The truly ironic thing about rituals is that while they tend to promote a certain level of comfort in routine in people, Buddhism states in no uncertain terms that nothing is permanent. Thus, the predictability that so many of us seek and which we find in ritual is not necessarily reflected in life overall.
So, what can we do? If we accept that nothing is permanent and that we cannot, thus, rely on anything like rituals (suppose you have no candles or incense?), how can we perform any of them?
Accepting that nothing is permanent is not the same thing as assuming everything will instantly and catastrophically change. Yes, everything changes all the time – each minute we are a minute older than the previous minute. However, that doesn't necessarily mean we cannot perform any of our healthy, uplifting rituals. The Buddha did insist that the primary messages (the 4 noble truths) be understood within the context of place and time. Some Buddhists practice vegetarianism and, for them, it's a ritual whereas other Buddhists don't practice vegetarianism as much by choice as by circumstance.
This is where we can really study a given ritual. Is it absolutely necessary for Buddhists to practice vegetarianism and are those who do not somehow less than? To think that violates the 5th precept and, thankfully, no Buddhist would ever subscribe to that.
Rituals gone awry often sink into superstition – that mindset based on anxiety and which will take over your practice if you let it. For example, this idea that those who attend the monthly Day of Mindfulness MUST remain for the whole day carries with it a sense of rigidity that has no place in ritual. It also fails to take into account whether or not anyone is able to stay the whole day. Thankfully, Buddhism and Buddhist religious rituals are just not that critical in the practice. They are useful and helpful, to be sure, but they're just not mandatory; not for the laity.
Is there a place for ritual in Buddhist practices? Well, I suppose that depends on what you mean by 'ritual'. If, by ritual, one is referring to a set of practices whose attendance is mandatory or else, then, no, there is no room for that definition of ritual in Buddhist practice.
However, if, by 'ritual' one means the regular set of practices designed to remind ourselves of our commitment to the religion itself then there is certainly room for ritual.
Room, mind you, not total and overwhelming occupation. Buddhism makes few demands on its adherents but one of those demands is that we practice the tenets as well as we can. There are no score cards, no rewards for 'getting it right' or punishments for messing things up. That's just not the way Buddhism works.
The Buddha did not prescribe for the laity although he did set in place some strict rules for the monastic orders but then, that's to be expected and the orders of monks and nuns take ordination after lots of careful consideration as to what that entails.
For the rest of us, we have rituals like taking the five precepts (see box on the right). We are encouraged to take – and hold - those precepts daily although, unlike some other religions, there is no threat of being struck by lightning if we mess up. If we fail to follow the precepts, the result is ours and ours alone. Because Buddhism does not have a god per se, there is no overlord to dole out punishments or rewards.
So, that leaves the practice of Buddhist rituals strictly up to each one of us. I, myself, form the intention to chant blessings each morning and evening. I meditate for 120 breaths (and I breathe quite slowly) every Sunday evening, listen to the Dhamma teachings by Ajahn Viradhammo and attend the monthly Day of Mindfulness which is held at the local temple. Thankfully, it is only a five minute walk from our home.
The rituals I follow in my practice serve to keep my mind focused on seeing things as they are – rather than trying to create a reality I want and whose unfulfillment will cause me to suffer.
Other ritual practices in Buddhism include the lighting of candles and incense before a meditation session, the act of puja (showing reverence to the Buddha in which a vase of flowers is passed around while we each recite a final blessing) and even the act of abstention for one day.
But, these are all choices that the free Buddhist makes; they're not 'rules' as laid down in some kind of commandment.
In psychology, there are three aspects to the way we relate to our world. A, B, and C. 'A' stands for 'affect' and refers to the way we feel. 'B' stands for 'behaviour' and refers to the way we act and 'C' stands for 'cognition' and refers to the way we think. In the diagram to the right, you can see the relationship between these three dimensions. You will also see that the direction of how one influences the other is both direct and bi-directional. That means that it's a closed system but it also means it's one we can change for the better. Best of all, it only requires a change in one of these three attributes.
When I worked as a counsellor and doing this sort of exercise with clients, I often suggested that they change attribute 'B' – behaviour. This seemed to work best because the effect was immediate. If you change your behaviour for the better, others will notice your efforts and are more likely to reward them. Since we tend to want to act in ways that reflect our thinking and our feelings, we will find ourselves changing our thought and affective patterns to reflect those behavioural changes. As a practical example, if we find ourselves disliking a person we are likely to act in a hostile manner towards them. That doesn't help matters at all and will shut the mind off from seeing the other person as someone like us who simply wants to be free of suffering. However, if we change our behaviour towards that person, even just by saying 'hello' or by offering to pick up a coffee for them during break (come on, how much can that possibly cost?) then that will result in a change in the way we think about that person and, by extension, our feelings. That's not to suggest we will become bestest buds with that person but it will bring a more peaceful state of mind for ourselves and will help us to uphold the noble 8-fold path...and you can't go wrong there!
The Buddha had learned that there are 4 facts we each face in our lives. Far from being a gloom and doom scenario from which we cannot escape, these four noble truths provide the way out of our generally unsatisfactory lives.
Life is Suffering
By that is meant that our very existence carries with it the truth of experiencing unpleasant situations. Everything from a skinned knee to a broken heart; from feeling tired to having to wait in line for a coffee results in suffering.
The Source of Suffering is attachment
Specifically, we tend to attach ourselves strongly to the things that give us pleasure, like an ice cream sundae, a pay raise or feeling happy about something. That may sound like it's not suffering but it is because that ice cream sundae will soon be eaten, that extra money we earn will be spent and, of course, happiness cannot last forever. So, we suffer by pining for things we miss. The corollary to attachment is aversion, by which we take pains to avoid something that does not please us, like someone who annoys us at work or at school, having to go to bed early on Sunday or even having to eat all our vegetables before we can have dessert. We loathe the things that displease us and 'suffer' having to face them.
Suffering can cease
Believe it or not, like everything else in this universe, suffering is not a permanent thing. We just have to realize that fact. Once we understand that suffering is not permanent can we begin our steps to freedom from it. However, just knowing this isn't enough. We need to know how we can bring an end to our suffering.
There is a way to end suffering - and here it is.
Now the Buddha introduced something called the noble eightfold path and it outlines the things we can do to bring an end to suffering.
The Noble Eight-fold Path
By that is meant that we must, as much as we possibly can, not cloud our minds with prejudices. On a more immediate level, we must learn to see the thoughts and feelings that arise in our minds as objects of our minds and not permanent features of ourselves. There may be a tendency to adhere to rigid rituals, negative thought patterns (ie the chronically cynical or angry) and to ignore the true nature of things; notably that nothing is permanent.
Here is where simple morality and prosocial thinking comes into play. Our thoughts can easily guide our feelings and our actions and, of course, lead to suffering. If we understand – and it's not all that hard to do – that other life forms want to be as happy as we wish for ourselves then observing and promoting those kinds of positive thinking patterns will guide our own.
This is an especially difficult one since too many of us seem to feel the need to talk. Speech is fine, provided it is beneficial. We must not gossip, speak ill of anyone or anything and to really make it a point to not criticize other people. That's not to say we can never criticize wrong actions – though do be gentle in doing so - but it does mean that we say these things with the understanding that whomever has done wrong (for instance) suffers and simply does not know that there are other ways to act. It is also a really good idea to speak kindly to everyone; even a simple 'good morning' to those you encounter can really go far in helping that person have a better day. One of the things I like to do, personally, is to phone a company if I have received really good service or a marvellous product. I think nothing of telling companies and bosses about someone's exemplary service. If nothing else, the stunned silence is worth the price of admission. This highlights the all-too-common tendency we have to complain to others about what we feel is our sorry lot in life.
It will not do us any harm to let someone else in line ahead of us in the grocery store, especially if it's someone who has – say – a crying child, an elderly or infirm individual. If we refrain from doing harm of any kind, whether butting in line or stealing a pen from the office (mea culpa) then we will not acquire the kamma of that act. Conversely, if we act in a helpful way, we can acquire merit. Of course, the acquisition of merit ought not be the reason we do the right thing but, admittedly, it does help.
The Buddha asked that adherents not have certain occupations and those are the occupations which involve the destruction of the environment, the profession of warrior, involvement in any trade of weapons, intoxicants, slaves, prostitution and any other harmful livelihood. In some parts of the world where Buddhism is practiced, that included the job of butcher. However, in places like Tibet, where meat is a staple food because the climate simply does not allow for the growing of vegetables, not being a butcher is not possible. Thankfully, Buddhism makes it a point of adapting to the local culture.
This is the opportunity for our own spiritual development to take place. If we meditate and find ourselves lost in self-thoughts, then that is not right effort. However, self-flagellation isn't the answer either and it is developing the right intention which will help here. In meditation, for instance, it is common to focus on the breath but it is also understood that maintaining that is difficult. The answer there is to practice, practice, practice. Learn from a good teacher (and there are good teachers around) and cut yourself some slack.
Mindfulness really means awareness of our own minds. We are not trying to achieve perfection, at least not immediately. Yet, when good and wholesome thoughts arise in our minds, it is okay to both cherish those thoughts and to cultivate them further. Of course, as nothing is permanent, it becomes vital to remain committed to right mindfulness.
I seriously doubt the Buddha wanted to have his followers concentrate on he himself. He never saw himself as some kind of god or object of worship. However, if we meditate on what the Buddha himself realized, and understand that we ourselves are capable of attaining the same enlightenment then that is certainly worth the time and effort.
One of the primary tenets of Buddhism is that nothing is permanent. Buildings eventually deteriorate to the point where they crumble unless effort is exerted in maintaining them. But even then, there is only so much maintenance that anyone can do in order to keep a building from falling to pieces as anyone who has seen the Parthenon can attest. On a more familiar level, it is challenging - to say the least - to prevent rust from damaging one's automobile. Things just don't stay the same...at all...ever. Keeping to the car or building analogy, even the most conscientious care and upkeep cannot prevent age from taking its toll.
Even our own bodies are subject to change. If you take meticulous care of your body and mind, you will still grow old, you will still get ill and - eventually - you will die. Nothing stays the same. About the best we can do is to prolong our health and stay as illness-free for as long as possible. That is attainable but preventing sickness is not possible. We change. We all do.
Yet, this is one aspect of reality that causes so much angst in far too many of us and probably for everyone at some point in their lives. Who hasn't heard reference to "the good ol' days" often stated as a lament to how things appear to be currently? Some of us desperately cling to a time we wish would return. The problem (actually there are a few) is that what we recall as "the good ol' days" is not only an internal cognitive construct but one whose subjective reality must pass through any number of cognitive filters before we create a mental formation. It is also a source of actual suffering. We may recall, for instance, various holidays with fondness now but a look through some photo albums of those same holidays may result in our recalling a few different things. We may as easily "forget" the long line-ups at the airport or the fact that our luggage was lost as we recall the time spent luxuriating on the beach.
Yet, the memories we recall seem to be "permanently" ingrained in our minds. We only recall the great time we had on holidays and only wish we could go back. I would predict that were we to get our wish and return to the beach or wherever we spent our holidays, that our experiences would not live up to what we recall, and this is where the suffering comes into play. It's almost as though our wonderful memories of (blank) are lost to us for good. Personally, I think that's a good thing.
Accepting the reality of impermanence gives us a chance to confront our tendency to form unrealistic attachments to "things", including concepts and ideas.
On a more common level, there is a tendency for some people to form opinions about another person without having any real contact with that other person. Often, those opinions are negative and wholly unwarranted but they tend to congeal into something unmovable and can very easily inform one's actions. What I notice in these people is not just that they make unjustified and hurtful opinions but that they will ferociously avoid any and all opportunities to have their opinions quashed. In other words, there is a certain powerful need for these people to have their subjective opinions rendered entirely true and unchanging.
Something that just isn't possible.
I could think of other examples but I don't think that's necessary. So, what can be done about our tendency towards viewing our take on things as absolute and unchanging? To embrace the fact of impermanence can be at once scary as it is freeing.
Some parents have an intensely difficult time accepting - or even understanding - that their children will not remain as helpless babies all their lives. Yet, these same parents persist in treating their adult children as though they were small children in need of being told what to do. Resentment is going to be the outcome if this behaviour does not stop and the parent(s) runs the very real risk of alienating their children.
These parents can take a very serious and good look inside themselves. What is it they are looking for in their children? What does this say about their own sense of confidence as parents in the first place? Or even their views on families in general? Chances are, a lot of those problems originate in the childhoods of these parents and contemplating the fact of impermanence can give some of these parents a real opportunity to grow and to heal.
For those of us who face an uncertain future thanks to a chronic illness, for instance, meditating on impermanence is something that is, essentially, thrust upon us. The best way I found of contemplating impermanence is to continuously understand that I can wind up in a wheelchair very soon and so the fact that I can walk today is both a gift and yet nothing all at once. Let me explain.
Impermanence forces us to stay in the immediate - the very present moment - because that's all we've got. So, today for instance, I can put my one foot in front of the other and walk along a surface. Today is not the day I am in a wheelchair. But, that can change and, if I do wind up confined to a wheelchair, then the fact I can walk now - though nice - is really nothing. My current condition is not permanent so I don't need to devote unnatural efforts towards maintaining it. That doesn't mean I do nothing to help myself but it does mean that I can best help myself by living in the immediate moment knowing that it won't last and that I don't need to worry too much about it.