Friday, 30 December 2016

The Heart Sutra: Everything is Empty

Thanks to Yuan Hao who introduced this teaching to me, but any errors in these notes are mine.

The Buddha’s teachings after enlightenment are sometimes categorised into three turnings of the dhamma wheel. In the first of these, Buddha elucidates the four noble truths for extinguishing suffering. In the second, he emphasises the teaching of emptiness and the selflessness of phenomena. And in the third, he discloses the luminous nature of the essence of the tathagatas.

The Heart Sutra is the shortest of this second wheel, also called the perfection of wisdom or prajnaparamita teachings. It comprises a condensation of several heavy bookcases of prajnaparamita suttas in the Tipitaka. These were further developed by Nagarjuna and commentaries on Nagarjuna by Aryaveda and Candrakirti.  The Heart Sutra is often used as a daily prayer and also as a blessing both in Tibetan as well as other branches of Buddhism. Its importance is due to its encapsulation of the most fundamental and essential of Buddha’s teachings, namely with regard to emptiness.

The Perfection of Wisdom (Prajnaparamita) is sometimes regarded as a goddess to whom one pays homage. Bowing in Buddhism is not to idolise or worship a figure as if it is real, but to remind oneself of its embodied qualities, and to transcend the self that bows. During meditation, experienes of physical and mental bliss, of clarity and of emptiness may arise. But attachment to these states is an impediment to the practice. When coming to the text we begin by paying homage in order to facilitate a sacred state of mind.

At the beginning of every text, there are often recounted the five perfect attributes which serve as a reference guaranteeing the authenticity of the teaching and so dispelling doubt. These are the time, the place, the teacher, the teaching, and the audience (which in its retelling includes ourselves).

The main body of the Heart Sutra has the form of a question by Sariputra, an answer by Avoliketeshvara and an affirmation by Buddha Sakyamuni.

The emptiness teaching comprises an emptiness of foundation (the five aggregates), an emptiness of path (the twelve links and the four noble truths) and an emptiness of result (the profound wisdom).

The five aggregates are form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. Everything in the world is made up of these five. They are all empty. What does it mean to say that they are empty? Two images are used. One is of a white shell which appears yellow to a person with jaundice: just as such a person does not perceive the original whiteness, it is only because of our way of looking that we do not see things as empty. Another simile is that of the moon in the water. Emptiness is a lack of inherent existence or conceptual separation. It is what Thich Nhat Hanh calls inter-being or inter-dependence.

If the Heart Sutra is the essence, the essence of the Heart Sutra is in the enigmatic quatrain:

Form is emptiness;
Emptiness is form.
Form is not other than emptiness;
Emptiness is not other than form.

If we can contemplate and realise this, the same applies by analogy to each of the other five aggregates. Once realised for the five aggregates, the same can be realised for the twelve sense bases, the eighteen constituents, the twelve links of dependent origination, the four noble truths and the profound wisdom of the Buddha itself.

These four lines speak to the attachment to existence, to non-existence, to both and to neither. Contemplating the four areas of a Venn diagram, the identity of form and emptiness is established.

To say form is empty is also to say that form is empty of an independent self. Conventionally speaking, we can talk of a car and a person and the moon. We can talk of good actions having good consequences and the importance of taking responsibility for our body, speech and mind. These are relative truths. To say all these are empty of existence or self-nature is absolute truth. 

If we were to ask the philosophical question: if I replace one plank at a time of a wooden ship, at what point does it cease to be the original ship? Or the same question, but now where the replacement planks are made of metal? Or what if the planks are not replaced at all? What if instead of a ship, it is the human brain being replaced one molecule at a time with computer chips performing the same function: at what point would the result cease to be human? All these questions are based on a supposition of original nature. In a relative sense, the ship might cease being the original ship from that point when we did not recognise it as such. This emphasises how its nature is defined not in itself but by our own perception. But in an absolute sense, the nature of the ship or the human being is emptiness, so these questions are based on a false premise.

Emptiness is sometimes expanded upon into 7 further profundities of emptiness: emptiness, no characteristics, no production & no cessation, no stains & no purity, no increase and no decrease. Characteristics include the feelings they may induce, whether beautiful or ugly, pleasant or unpleasant. The remaining three pairs refer to the perceptions, mental formations and consciousness respectively which may be induced. Though waves may rise and waves may fall, the wave is empty of inherent existence being but a movement of the sea of consciousness.

In order for sound consciousness to arise, there must be an ear consciousness and a sound. These three constitute sense contact from which pleasant, unpleasant or neutral sensations may arise, from which in turn craving or aversion may arise. The same is true of all the six senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, smell and mind. There are therefore twelve sense bases in total, six internal and six external, and eighteen elements including the consciousnesses that arise therefrom. All of these eighteen constituent elements are empty.

Likewise the twelve links of dependent origination that begin with ignorance and end with ageing and death are empty. These twelve are: ignorance, karmic formations, consciousness, name and form, six sense bases, contact (just discussed), feelings, craving, clinging, becoming, birth and finally ageing and death.

So too the suffering, origin of suffering, cessation of suffering and the path leading to the cessation of suffering, as taught in the first turning of the dhamma wheel, are all empty of inherent existence. The wisdom then is to surrender to the cure, follow the dhamma, but not attach to it, because it too is empty of inherent existence just like the sickness it cures.

We finally turn to the emptiness of result: “no wisdom, no attainment, no non-attainment”. We already possess the Buddha’s profound wisdom, but both the wisdom and the self are empty. They only exist and manifest themselves as if in a dream. Abiding in this profound wisdom purifies the mind of all mental afflictions and attains liberation. But there is nothing attained. We experience a shift, as if waking from a dream inside a dream to realise that we are still dreaming. And this is a universal experience of all buddhas, past, present and future to become enlightened through this wisdom of emptiness, this prajnaparamita or supreme wisdom.

The answer to Sariputra’s question concludes with a mantra for this perfection of wisdom: 

tadyatha om gate gate paragate parasamgate bodhi svaha

This is a blessing with healing power both mentally and physically. Tadyatha means “as follows”, the rest means gone to the other shore, completely gone beyond, completely awakened and enlightened, and svaha means “so be it” or “may it be”.

This mantra expresses a self-surpassing moment, beyond even the opposition of this shore and the other shore, awake or not.

Ken McLeod writes on the use of the six perfections to realise the prajnaparamita: Where is the other shore? For generosity, nothing to own. For ethics, nothing to hide. For patience, nothing to fear. For effort, nothing to achieve. For stable attention, nothing to wander. For wisdom, nothing to know. As a friend of mine joked: wisdom is what remains when all that we have learned is forgotten

The elements of natural awareness are like snowflakes falling on a hot stone, beautiful but transient. In the Amulet Mahamudra of the Shangpa tradition, the four drawbacks of this primal awareness is that it’s so close you can’t see it, so deep you can’t fathom it, so simple you can’t believe it and so good you can’t accept it.

As Ken McLeod says, “the most that a teacher can do is to help create the conditions in which seeing, the experiencing of presence or awakening can arise. The student needs three things: willingness, know-how and capacity.” Willingness is a letting go and is connected with faith. Know-how can be taught and helps cultivate attention. Capacity is the ability to use the know-how we have been taught in practice. Capacity can be developed.

At the end of the teaching, Buddha affirms the teaching. The function of this is to dispel all doubt of both the questioner, the answerer and all those present. The response from all the worlds of gods and men is to rejoice and praise the teaching. This signifies that the Buddha’s teaching is truly universal and applicable equally to all. 

Image: The Convent of St. Agnes in Prague, photo taken by okei.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Befriending Inner Fear (Ajahn Brahm)

Here are some listener’s notes on a dhamma talk by Ajahn Brahm on “Befriending Inner Fear”. It could perhaps be summarised as a talk on right view and framing our experience in such a way that we shine and benefit others most.

Befriending Inner Fear

1. Three Questions: When? Who? What?
There are three important questions: 1) When is the most important time? 2) Who is the most important person? 3) What is the most important thing to do? I will answer these three questions. The most important time is “now”. The most important person is “the one right in front of you”. And the most important thing to do we will come to later, but it is not to do things at all, but “to take care of things”. Stop choosing what to be aware of — what is in front of you right now is the most important, so take care of it, don’t try to brush it aside or get rid of it. With this in mind, let’s meditate for ten minutes. [The moment he falls silent, a toddler bursts out crying and keeps crying and cries continuously.] This is a good practice! Don’t tell it to be quiet. Care for it. [But the parents are too embarrassed so after repeated shushing without success the frustrated father carries the child out of the lecture hall for a while until she calms down.]

2. Positive Framing: The Wisdom of the Great British Philosopher
It’s supposed to be the most fearful thing you can do to give public talks. When I first started, I thought there would be only two outcomes. Either people would walk out, it would be terrible, I couldn’t connect with them, which would be great because I could sit back and be a hermit and take it easy. Or if they liked my talks and came in great numbers, then I could inspire people and give them happiness which would be marvelous! Either way, I didn’t need to worry. The best way to overcome your fear is to look at the world with a positive outlook!
It reminds me of a lesson by the great British philosopher whom I’m sure you’ve heard of. His name is Winnie the Pooh, or Pooh Bear! When Little Piglet and Winnie the Pooh were walking through the forest through a raging storm, first twigs, then branches and then whole trees started falling… Piglet worried that a tree might fall whilst they were underneath it? To which Winnie the Pooh replied, “Supposing it didn’t?” What if it fell where we weren’t underneath it? Fear is “what if…” followed by something negative. Replace it with something positive. A woman who had recovered from cancer worried, “What if my cancer came back?” The fear was crippling her and no-one was able to help her. She asked me and my answer was, “What if it doesn’t?” She got it straight away and it didn’t come back. Fear actually makes what we fear more likely because of the stress it causes. Like the TV show I saw when little about the grasshopper crossing a plank over a pool of acid, who gets nervous and falls only to discover it is just water: it is just the fear which pushes him in! So how to overcome fear so it doesn’t “push us in”? It isn’t by overcoming, but by befriending it, embracing it, caring for it, allowing it to be without trying to get rid of it.

3. Let Go of Being Right & Share Getting your Way
For those of you in relationships, something you will discover sooner or later is never try to convince your significant other that they are wrong. However good at debating you are, even if you are a successful lawyer with great skills at persuading juries, with your partner it’s different. I have a solution for this: simply check the calendar! If it’s an odd-numbered day, then the woman is right, if an even-numbered day the man is right. The observant amongst you will notice there are more odd-numbered days than even-numbered days in a year, but give the women that. As well as not trying to convince, don’t try to change. If you take care of each other, the change often happens naturally.

4. Stop Worrying What Others Think of You (they are thinking mostly of themselves)
For those of you not in relationships, there’s something worth knowing which I wish I had been taught when young. It’s to stop worrying about how others think of us and to stop trying to put on some kind of act for them. What both men and women want in a partner is someone clean, trustworthy, kind, and happy. We spend our youth worrying what others are thinking of us. We do not realise others are worrying about themselves and not thinking about us at all. Let go of the fear of what others might be thinking. This self-confidence also turns out to be attractive. Maybe if I’d known that when I was younger, I wouldn’t have become a monk. But I’m very happy being a monk.

5. Stop Putting Off Happiness: When you are happy, that is success!
We spend our lives putting off happiness. “If only …, then I’ll be happy” First, it’s succeeding at exams, then finding a job, a partner, a house, a car… but the happiness never comes but keeps getting pushed back. Finally, it is looking forward to retirement, or for some people even death and the paradise to come. But happiness doesn’t come from success. Psychologists turn this around and say that success comes from happiness. The truth is different however. When you are happy, that is success!

6. You are Beautiful Because of your Imperfections
“I am enough” as I saw once on a T-shirt. I love T-shirts because they are full of wisdom. Another I saw once said on the first line: “Nobody is perfect.” Then below that: “I am nobody. Therefore, I am perfect.” If you go to a wood, there is no such thing as a perfectly formed tree. Every tree is crooked and has damaged leaves and broken branches. In fact, your favourite tree is probably the most bent and crooked. Broken branches are where birds nest. There is beauty in all your faults and perfection in all your failings. When we do things, we tend to be downhearted by our mistakes and focus attention on them, but like the wall with two crooked bricks, look at them instead as a “feature”!

7. Hearting the Shadow Self: A Practice
There are parts of ourselves for which our fear is too great to connect with and befriend intellectually. And so, I recommend this practice. Imagine the doorway of your heart, a big Valentine heart, opening and a staircase descending from the part of you which you love and accept to those parts of yourself that are excluded or that are full of fear, the child in you who feels rejected or hurt. And lovingly invite these excluded parts and memories up the staircase into your heart to comfort and accept them, saying “you are part of me”. Embrace them. Embrace your shadow side. The catharsis that comes from this process is incredible.

To Summarise:
1) stay present and aware and take care of whatever is before you now,
2) put attention on positive aspects of experiences and people,
3) do not try to convince, push aside, change or cure or failure will be disheartening, but instead focus on doing your best to care for people,
4) be trustworthy and kind, but also be confident not fearing what others think of you,
5) success is happiness now,
6) there is beauty in all your faults and perfection in all your failings, and
7) open the door of your heart to welcome in and fully accept your shadow selves and so realise your beautiful and perfect wholeness, not just intellectually but from your heart.

Ego (Ajahn Brahm)

These are notes based on a dhamma talk by Ajahn Brahm. Any errors are mine.
The purpose of this is to share practical dhamma which is relevant, not to bore you with theory.

Praise & Criticism.
People don’t have a good relationship with themselves in the West. You are good people! If someone praises you or rewards you, don’t negate them for that, but say, thank you, I deserve it! Because you probably do. On a flight to Indonesia, I once met a Muslim flight attendant who said, “I’m your biggest fan, I’ve read all your books and I watch you on YouTube” so that was nice, and one really nice result of that was that I had wonderful service the whole flight! When I tell this story, people say, “aren’t you a monk, aren’t you supposed to be humble” and I joke, “I am humble, but what’s the point of being humble if you can’t tell people”. On the other hand, I’ve also made terrible mistakes. I once did a funeral chant at a wedding. They didn’t notice. It occurred to me that’s the real reason why religious services are in Latin in Christianity or in Pali in Buddhism, it’s so people can’t understand it. That was a really bad mistake. But they’re still happily together! Instead of feeling sad, admit your mistakes! Be honest about both your achievements and your mistakes. Receiving praise will make your heart big, not your head, and encourage you to do good things again in future. Also, accept criticism. If someone calls you a dog, look at your bottom. If you see a tail, they might have a point, if not, you can ignore it. The reason people get upset is that they believe the criticism at some level. So… just walk away. Once there was a politician who fell into a well. (I used to tell this story about a goat, but about a politician is more fun.) The farmer wanted to bury him in the well and started shoveling dirt over him. But what did the politician do? He shrugged his head and shoulders, brushed it off, stamped the dirt into the ground and stepped a little higher. Before the farmer knew what was up, the politician had risen up to the height of the well and calmly climbed out and thanked the farmer for his efforts.

Now, let me share a problem-solving technique. I got into trouble for ordaining nuns in Australia, but I believe in equality and I was trying to bring Buddhism into the 21st century. There are various ways I could have gone about it, but I follow the Nike philosophy “just do it!”. How can we get from A to B? This is the problem-solving technique. Imagine you are already at B and look backwards, thinking about how you got there. If you look from A, things might seem quite daunting and no solution might seem possible. Thinking from the endpoint and working backwards is much less stressful. In all parts of life, use this. It’s incredibly effective!

Letting Go.
We meditate not to achieve things, but to let go of things. Sooner or later, ego vanishes completely away. As a Buddhist monk, I am a loser. I’ve got no money, no assets, yeah I’m a loser, losing greed, losing hate, losing delusion, losing my ego. If you meditate to try to attain things, this will only lead to a stronger ego. Meditation is a putting down, The analogy of the water bottle. If you hold it up, the water keeps moving and it gets tiring. Put your work down from time to time and come back refreshed and clear. We are human beings, not human doings but have you ever seen a human being? A leaf only moves because of the wind. So too, the mind by its nature is still. Stop the winds of wanting and the mind moves less. It becomes perfectly still. When things become still they disappear.

A monk got a phone call, “I need you!”. “Sorry I’m busy,” he replied. “What are you doing?” “Nothing”. “But you were doing nothing yesterday!” “I haven’t finished yet!”
Mindfulness leads to Kindfulness leads to Being with whatever is most important.

Visualisation of Metta.
Imagine the heart as a huge airplane with two doors always open, always giving, always receiving. Don’t shut the doors of your heart to suffering, but transform it into blessings.

Don't Worry Be Grumpy (Ajahn Brahm)

Genre: Spiritual
Tagline:Practical Tools from Ajahn Brahm
As well as being full of wisdom and laugh-out-loud stories, there are also several practical tips in Ajahn Brahm’s book, “Don’t Worry, Be Grumpy” which I’d love to share. But these are just selective reminders — you’ve got to go read the book!

1) Let go of painful memories. We only keep beautiful photos to surround ourselves with. So too we should keep only beautiful memories and let go of memories that cause suffering.

2) Water the goodness in others and in yourself with attention and love. Instead of trying to “fix” what is unwholesome, let it wither away.

3) Accept praise. You deserve it. But do not compare yourselves with others. 

4) Give praise generously and sincerely. Criticism strikes home at once, but praise takes fifteen seconds to get through. If the need arises for constructive criticism, then use the sandwich technique.

5) Lower expectations, and change your attitude. See the goodness in others, and the beauty in ugliness. If you cannot see it, imagine it!

6) Be a visitor to your own home at least one day a week to let go of the feeling of ownership and the need to control things. Be instead a watcher.

7) Enjoy the in-between moments in life. Enjoy the journey, not only the destination.

8) If you need to make a decision, toss a coin to test out how you feel.

9) In life and death situations, ask for permission: from your pet, from your loved one.

10) In looking after someone, focus on caring, not curing; the process, not the endpoint. If we focus on curing, then we will sometimes fail and guilt will follow. If we focus on caring, we know we gave our best.

11) In a relationship, don’t think of yourself. Don’t think of the other! Think only of us!!

12) If you try to capture a moment in a photograph or in words, you might miss it. Stay present, and experience with wonder. Then it will be unforgettable.

13) Promise honesty with your loved ones and commitment to work together. Honesty and forgiveness are much more important than hiding and covering our mistakes.

14) Let go: both what you love and what you hold onto. What you love will come back if the love is reciprocated and what you hold onto, take a break, and you can always get back to it.

15) Live simply.

16) Cultivate loving kindness.

17) Make wholesome things forbidden and they become more attractive.

18) Eat the food, not the menu. Practice, don’t just preach.

19) 20 push-ups every morning. Pushing up the corners of your lips.

20) Happy or grumpy, you have Ajahn Brahm’s permission… it’s ok!

Meditation: A Tool for Stress-Reduction or the Way to Enlightenment

These are rough notes based on a dhamma talk by Lama Samten. Apologies in advance for any mistakes in transmission.
I am happy to be here. To begin, we need wisdom. The world is in a big mess. If we are not able to see ourselves, how can we understand others. So we must talk about wisdom first. Wisdom is like the head. Without a head, we can’t see, we can’t smell, we can’t kiss. That’s a problem! Second, we need moral ethics and integrity. These are like the arms and legs. Finally, we need meditation. This is like the body’s trunk. On its own, it is not much use. Meditation is conditioned on wisdom and moral ethics & integrity.
Wisdom is not the same as intelligence or wittiness. It is the ability to see the difference between what is harmful and what is helpful, and the ability to see everybody, not just yourself. Wisdom is to see other as yourself, where other means the environment as well as other living beings, all things that we depend upon for well being. Wisdom is to be grateful to others, to learn from others and to appreciate everything you gain from others, also gratefulness for this precious opportunity of human life. Wisdom is what makes meditation meaningful.
Moral ethics & integrity is to honour others and to honour yourself.
Meditation then is putting yourself together, first body and then mind. If we lead a simple life, then it is easier to put the mind together. In meditation, we simply sit and watch the mind without judging, like a driver paying attention to the road ahead, or a babysitter just watching the babies play within set bounds without disturbing. In time, the thoughts will settle, like the dirt in murky water sinking to the bottom so the water becomes clear. The key is not to shake the water. Don’t disturb, let be.
If the purpose is enlightenment, what does this mean? It means mind being at ease so nothing can disturb it.
Every morning you wake up, you have a choice whether to have a good day or a bad day. If you check your breath and you’re still breathing, celebrate! Do something to make yourself happy, make a cup of tea. Then share happiness with others. Whatever job we do, we do it to help others. The money is not significant. But if we wake up thinking I’m terrible, I hate my job, wanting what others have, then we’re sure to have a bad day.
Enlightenment comes from calm mind. Calm mind is temporary happiness. Ultimate happiness comes from putting yourself together, meditating, not chasing around. Because all the time we are chasing around, doing something, competing with others. I wish people would compete to be the calmest and most compassionate!
Some people are what I call lazy busy, so they don’t meditate. I ask, why don’t you meditate, and they say, “I have to watch a rugby match.” Watching is very important to them. Not enough suffering leads to many good excuses. But suffering is important and has meaning. It is like the firewood or fuel for enlightenment. In that sense, it is not negative but positive. And if you try to avoid it, it remains. Understanding suffering properly leads to contentment. Joyful, content, grateful to others, meditation leads to enlightenment.
Question: What is the right attitude to suffering in the world?
Help others, but do not disturb yourself. Do not take too much the suffering of the world into yourself. Stay open and compassionate without being overwhelmed. Then you are better able to help the world.

Buddha’s Path in Practice: An end in itself or a means to a better world? (Khenpo Sodargye)

Below are some notes on a very compelling dhamma talk by the Tibetan monk Khenpo Sodargye at the Lady Mitchell Hall in Cambridge. A full video of the talk can be watched here. The audio may be heard here. The organisers thank all those who helped contribute to the event, to all who attended, and to Rachael Harris (left) presiding and to Catherine Hardie (right) for interpreting so brilliantly into English.

Buddha’s Path in Practice:
An end in itself or a means to a better world?
(Khenpo Sodargye)

Listening to each other…
Looking back at the twentieth century and the many conflicts throughout the world, we look forward and hope things will be different in the twenty-first century and that we take advantage of the opportunities for cooperation and collaboration to make a better world. While scientific advances of the West have certainly led to huge material improvements in the standard of living, the wisdom traditions of the East such as Buddha-dhamma have a lot to teach us. So there is a lot of scope for mutual exchange.
I am going to talk about whether the practice of Buddha’s teaching is a practice for personal advancement or a benefit to the wider world. I have been engaged in the practice and study of Buddha’s dhamma for a long time. This dhamma is extremely vast. It is difficult to encapsulate its essence. Of course, it is said by some that the purpose of this teaching is to attain liberation, remove mental afflictions and enter nirvana. According to others, however, even after attaining enlightenment, one should dedicate oneself to the advancement of other beings. According to Patrul Rinpoche, a renowned master of the Tibetan tradition in the 19th century, the objective is not to become enlightened as an end in itself but as a means to liberate other sentient beings.  As the Buddhist Chaplain at Cambridge said when I met her, the Buddha’s teaching is a powerful medicine of great value in the current age to those who are committed to understanding and practicing the teachings.

Compassion for the world
On the one hand, the current age brings unprecedented material blessings, but also unprecedented suffering. All kinds of events transpire around the world each day that we see in the news: war, pollution, food safety to name but a few. To take one example, three hundred thousand people have died in Syria in the last five years and a million people are displaced either within Syria’s borders or outside Syria, and we are seeing the effects of this in Europe and the different attitudes of people in this country to these refugees which I’m sure you are aware of. I would urge you think about the plight of these people who have lost their homes. Of course, I’m not making any requests of you, but asking for compassionate mind. Even if we do not have the means to do something, we should think about this. There are some who say that ordained monks should not think about this, that they should seclude themselves in a cave and examine the nature of mind. But in my opinion, as an ordained person, caring about sentient beings in the environment around us is very important.

Compassion for sufferers of depression
Challenges are not restricted to conflicts. Think also of depression. Over the next twenty years, this is expected to be the second highest cause of illness after heart disease. I’d like to say a few things tonight about depression and how the Buddha’s teaching can help with this. The reason I would like to talk about depression is because in the UK, 26% of the population are depressed, that is 16 million people, one in four! In China, there are 90 million sufferers — which is the population of the UK, Austria and Holland combined. Depression has existed in the past, but it is a growing problem in the modern age. Many famous names in history, many artists and writers suffered depression. Freud described it as a loss of interest in the outside world. It is not feeling down because of some reason that we are naturally upset about, but something more serious, a feeling that hope is extinguished and a loss in confidence.

Medication or Meditation?
Depression is a subject I have paid a lot of attention to and studied a lot. The word did not even exist in Tibetan in the past. It is a new word, invented in recent times. So it seems depression was not common in Tibet. In terms of treating this disease, there are various approaches, including psychological and medical. While medicine might stop the symptoms, once the medicines stop, the symptoms return. Also, there are side-effects to medication. So I believe that to cure this illness of the mind, we need a cure of the mind. I have myself witnessed the great usefulness of Buddhist practices in countless instances, too many to name: the use of meditation, emptiness meditation, mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation and altruistic practices.

1. Mindfulness Meditation

In recent times, there has been an enthusiasm in the West for mindfulness practices, but they existed already in Buddhist tradition. One metaphor of mindfulness is of the mind like the reins that bring a stampeding elephant under control, after which positive mental states arise more readily. It teaches us to focus single-pointedly, and focusing on everything which arises in our life in this way is a very powerful practice. So mindful meditation is one very useful practice.

2. Contemplative Mindfulness
Another way of practicing this is as a contemplative meditation on the body, emotions, the mind, and phenomena. Focusing on the physical form, we realize its impermanent nature. We reduce our grasping towards it. Meditating on emotions, we realize their changing nature, and loosen our grasp on emotional states. Contemplating mindfulness and examination of our minds, we focus on the current moment and so understand the nature of our mind and do not cling to its persistence. Finally, contemplating phenomena, we recognize the empty and selfless nature of phenomena. There is no conflict between emptiness and achieving things, striving towards goals with effort. (Regarding the nature of phenomena to be inherently empty is something we have to have an understanding of, just as physicists describe matter to be made up of atoms in a state of flux. It is a common misunderstanding of emptiness to think of it as nihilistic and meaning we can’t have goals.)
Of course these four approaches to mindfulness are in the Southern Theravada tradition as well, the four foundations of mindfulness. By engaging in this meditation practice, it does heal mental affliction. And even if we do not suffer depression, practicing them is a good preventative measure to prevent future illness.

3. Selflessness
Another Buddhist practice which can be helpful is realizing selflessness: selflessness of being and selflessness of phenomena. A lot of depression is caused by strong grasping of self. The investigation of the two forms of selflessness is very important in this context.

4. Mantra Meditation
As well as single-pointedness, mindfulness and selflessness, another practice I would like to share is mantra meditation. I have a lot of personal success with this both in my own life and with others. Although I am not a doctor, I have helped many people with this method. This tantric mantra was given to me in 1986. I think it had an extraordinary effect in helping me become unshakeable in my faith in the dhamma. In the beginning I would not have described myself as someone who was unmoveable in my practice. This mantra has ten syllables. It is not something I have taught in front of an audience before. But it is not something that needs faith. I believe it is like a medicine that the doctor prescribes. There is no need to understand it. It just works. If you have the need, write it down to share. Recite it 10 times, 10000 times. In terms of whatever endeavours we engage in, to overcome obstacles it really is a mantra of great potency. I would like to share it with you.
Om Sancha Maha Ruo Ka Na Hum Pat
Om Sancha Maha Ruo Ka Na Hum Pat
Om Sancha Maha Ruo Ka Na Hum Pat

5. Equanimity of a Mind at Ease
There is a saying in Tibetan: after you go up a mountain, you have to come down. Happiness and sadness follow each other. It is good to maintain a mind at ease.

6. Dhamma Study
Research into Buddha’s teaching is really invaluable and indispensable. The ideas of selflessness and of dependent origination are of absolute importance to our everyday lives! Engaging with these teachings, it is advisable to raise objections. Debate and rational investigation are the crux of our methodology in the Tibetan tradition.

7. Parents, Family & Community
The last thing is to benefit others and to look after one’s parents. As Durkheim observed in his empirical studies, depression often has its roots not at the individual level but in the community, or common mind. So it is important to work at the higher level of the community also. Thank you!

Questioning Dogma
Question from the audience:
“I recited this mantra 1000 times a day and got into Cambridge and I think this is why I got in!”

Another audience member: 
“Oh, I want to recite this mantra!”

Khenpo Sodargye:
“In fact there are many people who got into Cambridge who didn’t recite this mantra!”

Living in Truth (Luangpoh Sudhiro)

We all want to be happy. Is there a secret to it? If anything, it is living in truth. The Pali word for truth is Dhamma. This carries a lot of meaning to us in Thailand. The word Buddhism is a Western word like all the other –isms and sounds strange to us in the East. So we speak of Dhamma. When Buddha’s pupil said he did not believe what Buddha said, but he had tested and found for himself the effectiveness of his teachings, Buddha was pleased and instructed others to follow a similar process in the Kalama sutta. Our purpose in doing this is dhamma or truth.

One of my earliest memories was seeing a body burning. First the skin and then the muscles and… it was a very interesting experience! In the West, we try to cover up and hide away these things, but it is very instructive and in Thailand the children are taken to watch. I realized that the body that burns is just like my body. Where did he go? ...his relatives no longer hold him close, but turn away and leave. One day that will happen to me also. It was a moment of truth.

We could wake up every morning and create fantasies in our imagination, but the happiness that brings is not lasting. Facing the truth of our life doesn’t bring happiness immediately, but when the truth is accepted, the conditions that we hold onto are let go of, then we come into unity and harmony with the state of nature around us and a deeper happiness arises. Meditation is the description of that process. Meditation is often described in terms of two branches, samatha and vipassana, but these are like two wings of the same bird. Samatha is often translated as peace, vipassana as insight. To use the analogy of the soldier training to fight, samatha is building up the muscles, it is “pure” training, while vipassana is training how to react and what to do in every situation, it is “applications”. We must do both. The dhamma that arises cannot be described. It can only be experienced. 

There is a saying in Thailand. Two ears, many mouths. We can control our own two ears much more easily than we can control the many mouths around us. It is the same with nature in general. We cannot control it and mould it. It is just simply so. We can only control how we react to it, how we live in harmony with it. Death is part of our nature. It is always with us, so in Buddhist meditation, we turn it into our friend and we learn to make use of it. If something causes us pain, we do not put attention on it as belonging to us, but just notice it as we would notice how tears come when we eat spicy food. Also, we focus on the breath, and as long as we breathe in and breathe out, something amazing happens - we are still living!

Source: Based on a talk by Tan Sudhiro and written up by me. Errors of misunderstanding are mine.

Posted originally to Buddhist Travellers in 2010.

What makes a real community?

1. What makes a real community, a real Sangha? 
Christ by John Everett Millais

In the Pasadika Sutta in the Pali Cannon the Buddha expresses his pleasure that his disciples are proficient in the true Dharma, and that among the sangha there are experienced, trained and skilled teachers who are liberated and able to proclaim the Dharma and refute wrong ways, that there are middle ranking disciples who are experienced and trained, that there are novices and lay followers, that there are males and females, celibate and non-celibate. In this way the perfect life flourishes. It is clear from this passage that Buddha drew huge satisfaction from the existence of this community that he had brought together. This was his boast. He had created a wholesome community; one in which there would not be major quarrelling or trouble and which had a capacity to be of benefit to people far and wide. We would be mistaken to think that the Buddhist path is something just for individuals or that the Buddha would have been satisfied with a situation where each individual had their practice that they got on with in their own way in their own space. He certainly did tailor his injunctions to the needs and temperament of individuals, but the life that he led them toward was one in which there was a whole and wholesome community with all its constituent parts playing their respective roles, each complementing the others.

The word "community" is on everyone's lips, but the reality is that we are living in a vast marketplace, where everyone is a consumer, but no one is a neighbor. Every day we are bombarded with goods gone ballistic and services turned sadistic. Even in the best of neighborhoods, we are afraid to go out at night. Is it any wonder that, when we go home at night, we try to draw the night about us like a cocoon? How to form a community, then, is not a rhetorical question. It is the most urgent issue before us... There is a new wind blowing in the world, and it whispers to us that the time for community has come. We are frightened by this wind, for sometimes its whisper becomes a scream. The wind can be as loud as a hurricane and as penetrating as a tornado. We run for shelter to what used to be our communities, only to find that the rooms that once kept us safe are now only walls that keep us apart from each other. We keep looking for the larger world. We want the larger world to take us in, and keep us warm, and make us safe. We want the world to be our community. We want it to be real. Well, why not? It is not too much to ask, really. We are learning how to overcome our own fears and how to find our own faiths. We are learning how to listen to each other. This is the only way to build community, and this is where we start.
[Nationalism] is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members... yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion... This fraternity... makes it possible... for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings."

2. What's lacking in an "imagined community"?

Published originally on Buddhist Travellers in 2012.

Nagarjuna's Middle Way

Starting in the first century B.C. and over the subsequent centuries, there is the emergence in Buddhist literature of the prajnaparamita sutras. These writings praise merit and discipline not as ends in themselves, but merely as a vehicle for the realization of transcendent wisdom. This wisdom, impossible to describe, is characterized by insight into the emptiness of conventional reality. Only one who abides in transcendent wisdom is liberated from the suffering of the world, and it matters not whether he or she be monk or nun.

In one such sutra, a lay person expounds the transcendent wisdom to an audience of monks. How astoundingly revolutionary that must have been! And yet this seemingly new philosophy of emptiness accords with what the Buddha himself had taught. In the Dhammapada, for example, he instructs that one look upon this this world as if it were a bubble and you its dreamer. 

Nagarjuna in his verses on the  Middle Way takes it upon himself to provide a philosophical basis to this insight. His approach is utterly negative, critiquing anything that might seek to fill the gap of emptiness. Even the concept of emptiness will not do! There was a great tradition of philosophical argument in ancient Buddhism. The great and good would gather round to listen and the stakes were often high, the loser of an argument often making obeisance to and becoming a disciple of the winner. It was a good way of resolving disputes. 

Nagarjuna enters this arena as the dispeller of all disputes. He plays the language game but only in order to forbid every move except the move not to play. Nagarjuna, his adversaries and his readers get caught in their own game, but we emerge wiser: it is but a game. How could it be otherwise?
The Magic Gateway by Jeremiah Morelli
The following is the entire set of 26 verses of Nagarjuna's 12-gate treatise to enlightenment based on the translation of Hsueh-li Cheng, though lacking the accompanying explanations and commentary.

1. (Causal Conditions)
Things are produced from various conditions and hence have no self-nature.
If they have no self-nature, then how can there be such things?

The [twelve] causal conditions really have no production.
If they have production, then do they have it in one mind-moment or in many.

2. (With or without effect)
If an effect is already real[ised in the cause], then there can be no production.
If at the outset unreal[ised], then there can be no production either.
If both real and unreal, then there can be no production.
How then can there be production?

Four conditions produce things; 
there is no fifth condition:
the cause condition, 
the sequential condition, 
the appropriating condition and 
the upheaving condition.

3. (Conditions)
Briefly and broadly, conditions do not contain effect.
If there is no effect in conditions, 
how can it be claimed to come from conditions?

If effect does not exist within conditions, 
and yet comes from the conditions,
can it not come from non-conditions?

4. (Characteristics)
Neither created nor non-created things have characteristics.
Since they have no characteristics, they are both empty.

If origination is a created thing, then it should have three characteristics.
If origination is a non-created thing, how can it be called a created characteristic?

The origination of origination comes from the primal origination.
Meanwhile the primal origination is originated by the origination of origination.

If it is said that the origination of origination originates the primal origination,
How can the origination of origination origination primal origination
If it is itself originated by primal origination?

If it is said that the primal origination originates the origination of origination
How can the primal origination originate the origination of origination
If it is itself originated by the origination of origination.

When the origination of origination is being originated,
it may originate primal origination.
How can it originate primal origination
If it itself has not yet been originated?

There is no darkness in the light, 
nor is there darkness in that place.
The elimination of darkness is called illumination.
Now what could the light illuminate?

How can darkness be eliminated by the light being lighted,
When the light, just being lighted, does not come into contact with darkness?

If the light can eliminate darkness while having no contact with darkness,
then the light here should eliminate all darkness.

If the light illuminates itself and other things, 
then darkness will also cover itself and other things.

If origination is not yet originated, how can it originate itself?
If it is already originated and then originates itself, why should it need originating?

5. (With or Without Characteristics)
There is no function of characterisation in the case of a thing with characteristics.
Nor is there function of characterisation in the case of a thing without characteristics.
Besides these, what can characteristics characterise?

6. (Identity or Difference)
Characteristics and the characterisable are neither the same nor different.
If they are neither the same nor different, how can both be established?

7. (Being or Non-Being)
There cannot be being with non-being;
Nor can there be being without non-being.
If there can be being with non-being,
Then being should always be non-being.

8. (Nature)
By observing that the characteristics change, we know all things are devoid of nature.
Things which are devoid of nature are also non-existent, so all things are empty.

9. (Cause and Effect)
Within all conditions, effect is ultimately unattainable.
Nor does it come from elsewhere…
How can there be an effect?

10. (The Creator)
It is not justifiable that suffering is made by itself,
by another, by both, or from no cause at all.
Therefore there is no suffering.

Effect is produced from conditions, conditions are not self-existent,
If conditions are not self-existent, then how can they produce effect?

11. (The Three Times)
Earlier, later, and simultaneous, 
these three events are impossible.
How can events be produced from causes?

12. (Production)
The effect already produced is not to be produced;
that not yet produced is not produced.
Without that which is already produced, 
and that which is not yet produced,
that which is being produced is not produced.

Image: The Magic Gateway, copyright of Jeremiah Morelli.

Shared originally on Buddhist Travellers in 2012.