Thursday, 30 September 2010

Buddha on Mindfulness

Sayings of Buddha (5th century BC) on "Mindfulness".
Rendered in haiku form.

This is a continuation from Buddha on Choices.

The image is "The Valkyrie's Vigil" by Edward Robert Hughes.

Mindfulness of life
Is the way of Nibbana.
Mindful ones don’t die.

Distraction from life
Is the way of Death. Fools sleep,
As if they were dead.

Awake and knowing,
How happy the wise are in
Noble mindfulness.

Ever practicing
Concentration and insight,
The goal: Nibbana.

Striving for freedom,
Mind fixed on the ultimate,
The wise break all bonds.

Awake, purify,
Work with care and compassion
And live in the Way.

The fame and fortune
Of the heedful and mindful
Will surely increase.

Through diligent work,
Disciplined in thought and deed,
You will see the light.

Like men of wisdom,
Make yourself an island which
No flood overwhelms.

The fool is careless,
But the master guards the door
Of the jewel of mind.

He yields not to lust,
But meditates and resolves
To find inner joy.

Masters see the world
As mountain dwellers see those
Who live on the plain.

The wise in his tower
Looks down at the madding crowd
With impartial gaze.

Among the mindless,
He wakes, swift as a racehorse
And outstrips the field.

Indra was mindful,
And became king of the gods.
Awake like Indra!

He who sees danger
In sleep, advances like fire,
Burning through all bonds.

He who is content
In mindfulness will not fall.
Indeed, he is close.

Life is not a dream
So wake up and wake up and
Find the way to peace.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Buddha on Choices

Sayings of the Buddha (5th century BC) on "Choices".
The Buddha needs no introduction, lol.
Rendered in haiku form.

The image is "Choosing" by George Frederic Watts.

We are what we think,
Arising out of our thoughts,
Our thoughts make the world.

Speak with impure mind
And trouble will follow you
As the wheel the ox.

We are what we think,
Arising out of our thoughts,
Our thoughts make the world.

Acting with pure mind,
Happiness will follow you,
Your faithful shadow.

“Look how he abused,
Cast me down, beat and robbed me.”
Thinking this, we hate.

“Look how he abused,…”
Stop and abandon such thoughts.
Stopping them, you love.

Hate is never good
For hate begets more hatred
And so it goes on.

Hate is healed by love,
Not hate; this is an ancient
And eternal law.

You too shall perish.
Knowing we shall both perish,
How can you quarrel?

Lost in the senses,
Like a frail tree in the wind,
You’ll be uprooted.

Master of yourself,
In the winds of temptation,
You’ll be a mountain.

He whose thoughts are stained,
Unmindful and deceitful,
May not wear the robes.

He whose thoughts are clear,
Mindful in his truthfulness,
He may wear the robes.

Ignorant of truth,
He who follows his desire
Overlooks the heart.

Seeing true and false,
He who looks into his heart
Follows his nature.

As rain penetrates
An ill-thatched roof, so does lust
Penetrate the mind.

He with impure mind
Suffers here and hereafter,
More so seeing his wrongs.

Sheltered by pure mind,
He rejoices in both worlds,
More so seeing his good.

Whatever you read,
Or speak of scripture, what good
If you do not act?

Are you a shepherd
Who counts another man’s sheep
But does not lead them?

Read little, speak less,
But act in truth, forsaking
Lust, hate and folly.

Knowing truth, mind freed,
In peace here and hereafter,
Share by example.

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Courage to Awaken to Bodhicitta (Pema Chödrön)

When I teach, I begin with a compassionate aspiration.

I express the wish that we will apply the teachings in our everyday lives.
I encourage the audience to keep an open mind. At the end,
I dedicate the merit of the occasion to all beings.

This approach reflects what are called the three noble principles: good in the beginning, good in the middle, good in the end. They can be used for all activities of our lives: to begin with the intention to be open, flexible and kind, to proceed with an inquisitive attitude, as Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche used to say, “Live your life as an Experiment”, and finally, to seal the act by thinking of others, that anything we learned in our experiment may benefit them. In this spirit I offer this guide on the training of the compassionate warrior.

“It is only with the heart that one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.” (St. Exupéry)

I learnt my first lesson in bodhicitta when I was six and kicking my way home. An old woman sitting in the sun said to me, laughing, “don’t you go letting life harden your heart”. Reacting to difficulty, we have a choice.

What is bodhicitta? It is easier to understand than explain, knowing and discovering it from our own lives. It is only bodhicitta that heals. Citta means “mind”, and also “heart” or “attitude”. Bodhi means “awake”, “enlightened” or “completely open”. Sometimes the completely open heart and mind of bodhicitta is called the “soft spot”, a place as vulnerable and tender as an open wound. It is in part equated with our ability to love. Even the cruellest have it. As Trungpa Rinpoche put it, “we all love something, even if it’s only tortillas”.

It is also equated in part with compassion, our ability to feel the pain of others. We continually shield ourselves from this pain because it scares us. We put up protective walls, made of opinions, prejudices and strategies, barriers that are built on a deep fear of being hurt. These walls are further fortified by emotions such as anger, craving, indifference, jealousy, envy, arrogance and pride. But fortunately for us, the soft spot – our innate ability to love and to care about things – is like a crack in these walls. With practice we can learn to find this opening. We can learn to seize that vulnerable moment – love, gratitude, loneliness, embarrassment, inadequacy – to awaken bodhicitta.

The rawness of a genuine heart of sadness can teach us great compassion. It can humble us when we’re arrogant and soften us when we are unkind. It awakens us when we prefer to sleep and pierces through our indifference. This continual ache of the heart is a blessing that when accepted fully can be shared with all. The Buddha said we are never separated from enlightenment. Even when we feel most stuck, we are never alienated from the awakened state. What a revolutionary assertion! Bodhicitta, like the open sky, is always here, undiminished by the clouds that cover it. Just we’ve got so accustomed to those clouds!

Bodhicitta exists on two levels. First, there is unconditional bodhicitta, an immediate experience, refreshingly free of concept. Second there is relative bodhicitta, the ability to keep heart and mind open to suffering without shutting down. The man or woman who trains wholeheartedly to awaken these two is a bodhisattva or warrior of compassion. The training involves going through fire to alleviate suffering, willing to face the most challenging situations, willing to cut through personal reactivity and self-deception, dedicated to uncovering the basic undistorted energy of bodhicitta.

Wherever we are, we may train. The practice of meditation, loving-kindness, compassion, joy and equanimity are our tools, and with their help we uncover the soft spot of bodhicitta. We find it in tenderness, sorrow and gratitude. We find it hiding behind the hardness of rage and the shakiness of fear.

A warrior accepts that we can never know what will happen to us next. This “I” who wants to find security, who wants something to hold onto, can finally learn to grow up. The question for the warrior is not how we avoid uncertainty and fear, but how we relate to discomfort? All too frequently, we are like timid birds who don’t dare to leave their nest. Here we sit in a nest that’s getting pretty smelly and that hasn’t served its function for a very long time. No-one is arriving. No-one is protecting. And yet we keep hoping mother bird will show up and save the day. We can do ourselves the ultimate favour and finally get out of that nest! It takes courage for sure, and we could use some helpful hints. We may doubt, but do we want to live the rest of our lives in fear or do we want to grow up and face life directly?

Jack Kornfield tells a touching story how the Cambodians, repressed by the Khmer Rouge and forbidden to practice their religion, established a temple in a refugee camp, despite the danger of doing so, and opened it with a continuous chant of one of the central teachings of the Buddha:
Hatred never ceases by hatred
But by love alone is healed.
This is an ancient and eternal law.

Bodhicitta has this kind of power. It will support us in good times and bad. It is like discovering a wisdom and courage we do not even know we have. Just as alchemy would change any element to gold, bodhicitta can, if we let it, transform any activity word or thought into a vehicle for awakening our compassion.

The blog originally appeared on Buddhist Travelers.

Friday, 17 September 2010

The Wildest Dream (US, 2010)

Genre: Documentary
What if we could bring the dead back to life? In fantasy, we could find out what they alone know. But in reality, the dead keep their secrets. The best we can do is to follow in their footsteps. “The Wildest Dream” is a documentary filmed on a climb to the top of Everest interspersed with interviews, photos, archive footage and narrated correspondence from the 1920s as the American climber, Conrad Anker, retraces the steps of the indomitable British explorer George Mallory, his love for his wife, "dearest Ruth", his fatal attraction for Everest, that "prodigious white fang, an excrescence from the jaw of the world", and seeks to answer whether it was possible that he reached the summit of the world almost thirty years before it was finally conquered. He was last seen with his travelling companion Andrew Irvine a few hundred metres from the top before the clouds rolled in and obscured them from view. Only recently his body was re-discovered, face down in the scree and arms outstretched to catch his fall. But was he coming down or still going up? All his belongings were intact, frozen in time, but the photo of his wife which he had promised to place at the top of Everest was nowhere to be found. Had he already fulfilled his promise?

It is a beautiful and moving story. On the first expedition, Mallory, approaching from Tibet because Nepal had forbidden access from the easier South side, eventually managed to find a winding glacial valley that led right to the foot of Everest itself. But monsoon snows made climbing impossible after June. Six months later he would return and try again, but the expedition was hit by a fatal avalanche. In 1924, at the age of 38, he would try for a third and last time. Despite the pain of separation from his wife and three children, the fire of his dream still burned strong and he couldn’t bear to think others would achieve the crowning glory by building on his pioneering work.

Climbing Mount Everest as the filmmakers did to make this film is never to be taken lightly. They tested out wearing gabardine and hobnail boots as Mallory had done, but quickly reverted to modern clothing to avoid the danger of frostbite. What courage, what resolve, what fearless determination and pioneering spirit that Mallory and Irvine had to get so far! Whether they made it on that last fateful day, only a few hours from the top but with the difficult Second Step in their way, we’ll never know. But this documentary, despite an inherent bias in the making, shows that it was indeed possible, and despite that bias we can well believe they did. Within touching distance, a greater power takes over. In a tragic twist of fate, Natasha Robertson, who played the mountaineer’s wife, passed away in a freak skiing accident in 2009 and the film is dedicated to her.

This documentary is powerful and a great feat in itself in the making, and yet it lacks a balance of perspective from the doubters. The loving letters between Mallory and his wife provide a beautiful commentary, but still the movie becomes somewhat earthy and could have done with more about the poetry, culture and psychology of the mountain. If the spiritual is reduced to the physical, then something is lost. Eerily, the lama of the Rongbuk monastery where Mallory paid homage before his ascent warned him unequivocally not to disturb the sacred spirit of the mountain, and it's easy to see why none in the East had tried before. It took a certain combination of the selfishness and selflessness that characterised this golden age of exploration. When asked by an American reporter why he wanted to climb Everest, Mallory is said to have replied, "Because it is there", distilling perfectly the notion of emptiness and purpose for purpose's sake. However, though Mallory survived the Battle of the Somme, he could not survive Everest. He made the ultimate sacrifice. The word sacrifice literally means an act in the name of the sacred.

I leave the last words to George Malloray...
"We have conquered the mountain, and the mountain was in us."

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Certified Copy (Copie Conforme; France, 2010)

Genre: Other
If this film had been directed by Eric Rohmer, I would be bowled over in admiration, but just because it's by an Iranian director whom I’d never heard of, I’m less impressed. It turns out to be ignorance on my part, for Kiarostami is a well known and highly respected master of his art. To what extent is our appraisal of a work affected by its source?

The main character is an English author who’s just written a book called “Certified Copy” which he is promoting in Italy where its idea was born. The book sets out to prove the contentious claim that an authentic copy is of just as great a value as the original work of art. For art is a subjective personal experience, and the copy would give just as great a pleasure as the original, so long as the viewer looks up in awe as if it were original.

So there’s an admiration for the one who can look on the world with simple satisfaction. For example, what if a man stranded on a desert island came upon a bronze lamp and a genie appeared granting him three wishes? What would he ask for? Coincidentally, I’d asked exactly this question on Yahoo Answers just a couple of days previously! His first wish is for a self-replenishing cup of coke. He tests it out, taking a long cool drink, and indeed it replenishes. “Hurry up!” says the genie, “What is your second wish?” Delighted, the man orders two more!

This movie has been described as a more mature version of Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. It simply follows the two main protagonists, the English author and his French admirer, played by Juliette Binoche, as they seemingly aimlessly wander about a village in rural Tuscany, talking to each other in a mixture of languages, mainly English. It’s a talky movie, the kind I like, and that most people find very boring, though there is rather a Pirandello-twist of the genre of which it is a copy.

Themes of uniqueness, identity, memory and disconnectedness pervade. But on the other side is a dream of harmony, of union and of love that never changes. “For man, life is his work.” says the barmaid sweepingly, “For woman, life is for living in all its aspects in the knowledge that she is loved.” How then to bridge the separation? Isn’t love more than just knowledge? More than proofs, more than communications, more even than simple heartfelt gestures like a hand upon the shoulder... “If only we could be more understanding of each other’s weaknesses,” the writer muses as he sits alone, head bowed, but the faultline lies much deeper than understanding.

Maybe the answer lies in art…and imagination.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Tamara Drewe (UK, 2010)

Genre: Comedy

Set in the English countryside among cows, cakes and aspiring writers on retreat, this quasi-comedy follows the story of the girl who made her dreams come true in London returning, now as a beautiful young woman, to the place she grew up with a splat and with a splash. She writes a column about fashion and celebrity for a London magazine and wants to turn her eye now to autobiography and in the same style of baring all, expurgate herself of her sad memories growing up. Directed by Stephen Frears of “Dirty Pretty Things”, this film though too dark and sleazy to be outright comedy and too stereotypical to be arthouse, nevertheless has the energy of a cartoon strip on which apparently it was based.

Though deep as ditch-water, it’s fun, funny and incredibly well-done. For beneath the shallowness is the rich and humorous soil of passion and intrigue, sense of belonging and resentment, deceit and integrity and the striking parallels between characters, young and old, past and present, newly-rich and established country folk, even fictional and real, and culminating in a satisfying sense of natural justice. Finally, the camera-work is brilliant and there’s a splendid rock soundtrack.

This film was funded by the UK Film Council. It’s terribly sad that as a result of government cutbacks, the UK Film Council will no longer be funding British film, and without this funding such quality productions as this one or “Slumdog Millionaire”, “The Wind that Shakes the Barley”, “Bright Young Things”, “Touching the Void” or “Man on Wire” might never make the light of day in future.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Third Noble Truth (Interactive): which drinks make you drunk?

This is a continuation of the following earlier posts on the First and Second Noble Truths:

The first of the five faculties in Buddhism is faith. It is the starting point of every religious and spiritual tradition. It is not blind faith, but conviction or self-confidence. It is the ability to make a choice. 

That which is sweet first is bitter,
That which is bitter first is sweet.
To each a choice, then it all depends
On effort and unflagging will
To reach the city of your choice.


The city of our choice is not something concrete, or an intention of the ego. Rather, it is abstract, pure intent, a choice of the heart. Choices of the heart are always abstract. The path of heart may be difficult at first – there is nothing concrete to hold onto (it is a letting go) – but in the long run it will always turn out more pleasant.

When this faculty of faith is developed, it becomes a powerful force. It becomes the first power. To do good is to be faithful to abstract intent. To do evil is to be waylaid and distracted along the path.

And what causes us to be waylaid?

Before we try to answer that question, we recall the Buddhist paradigm (discussed in the Interactive First Noble Truth) of first examining the nature, before turning to the origin or cause, then looking at the purpose or consequence, and finally at the way to proceed. What is the nature of being waylaid? We might recall the five hindrances of day-dreaming, boredom, doubt, ill-will and agitation. But, in short, it is the interference of the mind that causes us to deviate from the straight path. Metaphorically, it is drunkenness. And what causes drunkenness? It is drink. With wisdom of which drinks have this effect, what is the consequence of abstaining from those drinks? It is sobriety or clarity. And finally, the way to proceed along with faith, with wisdom and with “effort and unflagging will”, is clearly to be mindful as to what we drink.

We can’t go to two cities at once! That would be called “seeing double”, a true sign of drunkenness. It is a cliché of Zen: when you do X, just do X; when you do Y, just do Y. Some students after long instruction of this by their Zen master were shocked to see him eating breakfast and reading the newspaper at the same time. “What’s the problem?” he replied to them. “When you eat and read, just eat and read.” Right then, that’s all the jokes done with. The rest will be all suffering. Actually, the cessation of suffering. It's no joking matter, lol.

Even if we have wisdom and refrain from the drink that causes drunkenness, still the craving for that drink remains and will cause suffering if not addressed. The craving is itself an interference of the mind, or a drink that we’d do well to refrain from. As we learnt in the Interactive Second Noble Truth, we must go to the root, and the root of that which disturbs peace of mind, or gives rise to dukkha, is tanha, the thirst and attachment to those drinks that lead us away from our city into the vineyards of drunkenness.

But again we ask, which drinks are these that lead us astray? 

Because this wisdom will get us a long way to avoiding them. If we recognize something as an unwanted attachment or addiction, then this recognition is the first step in helping us to be rid of it. It will give us the gift of disillusionment in that which causes us to suffer. If it is a strong addiction though, disillusionment won’t necessarily be enough to change our behaviour. Then we might try transference, and swap our craving for one drink with craving for another. We do this all the time in most interesting ways, for example doing things which give us pleasure to cancel or make up for that which gives us pain. We can all see this in our towns, how the evening and weekend binges release all the tension built up over the course of the day and week. Or at a more moderate level, how food and exercise are great relievers of stress. This is all well and good, but we may come to notice in time how pleasure and pain create patterns, some of which may distract us from the city of our choice. And the drunkenness borne of pleasure is the harder of the two to shake… because it feels so good! What if we didn’t or couldn’t transfer our craving or act on it in some way? I would call this “sucking it up” or cessation. Our capacity for cessation is much greater than we imagine it to be. But if the pain is too great, or we lack resolve, we might not succeed and this might discourage us completely. Our response might be avoidance, escape, sleep, cessation from the path altogether. This may do as a stop-gap to buy us time, but ultimately we must embrace life and face up to our cravings. And whether we employ disillusionment, transference or cessation, there is a seed of wisdom whose contemplation is at the heart of the Third Noble Truth: in the fullness of time, all that arises will also cease.

In the game of intent, we must surrender the battles that fuel our drunkenness – neither win them nor lose them, but realize their cessation – in order to win the war. Only when our desire aligns perfectly with our intent, when all other cravings are vanquished or by transference replaced by our true desire, all mind-addictions ceased or replaced by the addiction to Dhamma, and all our love unified in the name of Love, then are we truly on our way to the city of our choice!

For the third time I ask, which are these battles which fuel our drunken state and waste our energy?

I would say: all that does not belong to the city of our choice, all that is not of Truth, all that is not of the Heart, all that is not the drink of the Beloved. Could I be less abstract? More practically useful? I will think more on it… how about you? The questions I’ve been sizing up in this blog may be summarized as follows:

1. What is the city of your choice?

2. What leads you away from the city of your choice?

3. How do you vanquish that which leads you away from the city of your choice?

Let the real work begin! Buddha’s Third Noble Truth encourages us that absolute success is possible and may we set about realizing it. May all answers that you seek come to you, and may they be an expression of “heart”.

I pass the blog over to you! As always, your criticism and feedback is dearly welcomed, and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on these questions.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

Captive of Desire

She looks at me with teasing eyes
And I feel caught within that gaze.
The thought of guilt upon me preys
That I should so desire her prize.

But you who fill my earth and sky,
By you alone I'm truly caught,
For you are in my every thought,
My one fierce longing till I die.

She may seduce my outer part
And leave her love bite on my nape,
But time I hope would heal the scrape
And cure the wound of Cupid's dart.

For I'm your captive from the start,
My body is your shield and drape
And from your love I can't escape,
For you, fair Lady, hold my heart.


Mortal Love

Waiting in Love's maddening strife,
With what great sorrows she is fraught!
Because her ends are not cut short,
She will be cutting short my life.

Your cruelty on this mortal plane
Against what's well-deserved to be
Is that you have withheld from me
The remedy to cure my pain.

And Glory's long-expected boon
Serves more to anguish than elate;
My life grows shorter as I wait 
Why won't its end be coming soon?

— from 16th century Spain

The image is 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci' by Arthur Hughes.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Carmen & Other Stories - Prosper Mérimée

Genre: Literature & Fiction
Author:At the Edge: Tales of Power & Passion

Mérimée’s stories are a study of the juxtaposition of the primitive and the civilized. The former holds a fascination to the latter (like Mérimée's readers and Mérimée himself). The primitive is characterized by an emotional truthfulness, a raw power and a noble passion fueled by freedom, honour and revenge, all things which have been eroded and repressed in the name of higher values by civilization such as Mérimée’s 19th century France post-revolution and post the defeat of Napoleon, the emperor from Corsica. And yet the passions are want to burst forth and so they must with sometimes awe-inspiring consequences, sometimes tragic, sometimes cruel, sometimes evil. We may try to rule the passions, like reason trying to rule the heart, but in the great scheme of things, of life, love and death, civilization is naïve coldness and hypocrisy and the passions rule after all. Or so it seems. Mérimée is to fiction what Nietzsche is to philosophy, aspiring a return to ancient ideas of greatness: of the “superman”, the hero or heroine who is neither good nor bad, but “beyond good and evil”.

Mérimée’s stories are rarely original, but rather they are inspired by stories told to him, and he seeks merely to re-tell them like a historian, to preserve and augment their flavour and expound their setting and culture, which he does admirably. They have a folkloric quality. The stories are often recounted by a narrator within the story after an introductory section, thus distancing ourselves from the action, and distancing Mérimée from the telling. He is merely the vehicle of transmission. This is a classic storytelling technique, but what makes Mérimée’s style distinctive is his way of returning to the prefatory outer story at the end also to create even greater distance, which acts to deny or frustrate the story’s power and gently wake the reader back to reality. One minor drawback though is his use of technical terms and quotations from Latin, which though sometimes explained, still require frequent perusal of endnotes to better understand them. But the telling is captivating, and the characters of the noble savage or the femme fatale at the brink of civilization make for great story matter.

Carmen (1845) culminates in the story of the temptress and the bandit who loves her, the tale which inspired Bizet’s famous opera "Carmen". It was in turn based on an anecdote recounted by the Countess Montijo to Mérimée in 1830 in Madrid and grew in the intervening fifteen years with his experiences in Spain and his readings of Spanish literature, Roman history and about Gypsies.

Mateo Falcone explores the Corsican concept of honour in a dilemma between bandit and police. It has been described as “perhaps the cruelest story ever told”.

The Storming of the Redoubt describes a suicidal naval battle scene.

Tamango is reminiscent of Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko” of the African slave dealer who is himself taken prisoner.

The Etruscan Vase is a tale of jealousy and honour of one blinded by love.

The Game of Backgammon explores themes of passion, honour and remorse.

The Venus of Ille is a supernatural tale of a black Venus statue, its demeanour both beautiful and terrifying. It was Mérimée’s favourite of all his stories.

Columba is a short book in itself and takes up half the volume. It is set in Corsica among the honourable, the vengeful and the scheming and the protagonist returning home from Europe has to walk a tightrope to assert himself among his old countrymen. His sister Columba proves to be a supremely powerful force.

Finally, Lokis (1869), written at the end of his life, is a dark love story set in the forests of Lithuania and a brilliant tale to finish the collection.

Of these, I have three favourites: Mateo Falcone for its power, Columba for its scope and Lokis for its eerie darkness. And who could forget the black Venus of Ille? If there’s any criticism I would have, it would be the slightly stereotypical nature of the characters and setting. The men tend to be either fearless academics, or civilized pawns of authority, or honourable bandits or cowardly villains, while the women tend to be either seductive and manipulative or coquettish and frivolous. But the style of narrative is so spellbinding and succinct without sinking into banality or vulgarity that one cannot help but be enthralled in the telling.