25 February 2006

The Last Words of the Buddha

Image of a group of FWBO and TBMSG people on pilgrimage in front of the Parinibbana Stupa and Temple in Kushnigar
This blog post summarises a longer
essay on the Buddha's Last Words.
Last week we celebrated the Buddha's Parinibbana - his final death. The tradition tells us that nothing can be said about the existence or non-existence of the Blessed One after death. The cycle of birth and death, of suffering, has stopped for him. An account of the last days of the Buddha is contained in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. Towards the end of the sutta the Buddha brings together any disciples in the area, and asks them if they have any doubts. None do. Then the Buddha gives them, and us, a final message:
vayadhammā sankhārā appamādena sampādethā
all things are perishable, through vigilance Awaken!
The full explanation of my translation is too long for this article, but I would like to look at one part of it: the word 'appamaadena'. This word is in the instrumental case so indicates the means by which an action is to be accomplished. It is by appamāda that sampādethā (from a verb, sampādeti, meaning firstly ‘to procure, to obtain’, and secondarily 'to strive'). Appamāda is translated in various ways but 'vigilance' seems to have become standard. However vigilance is not a perfect fit.

Appamāda has three parts: a + (p)p + mada.

The Pali English Dictionary gives two senses for mada: 1. intoxication, sensual excess; 2. pride, conceit. I'm going to focus on the first sense in this article.

Pa is a prefix which indicates forward motion in applied sense often emphasising the action as carried on to a marked degree or even beyond it’s mark. So if mada is drunk, then pamāda is blind-drunk! (the extra p is a common artefact in Pali compound words)

A is a prefix which makes a word mean the opposite.

So appamāda is not-blind-drunk. If you look through the Pali suttas you will see that appamada is used in connection with the objects of the senses: sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touchables, and thoughts. So in practice appamāda means not-blind-drunk on the objects of the senses. Isn't it true that we are easily intoxicated by the objects of our experience? Aren't we in fact mostly caught up in this world of our senses? Or a lot of the time aren't we caught up in the world of our thoughts? So the Buddha's final message was, sober up with regard to the senses and thoughts - don't let yourself get carried away. That's the way to strive, to obtain the goal, to Awaken!

Before we have much familiarity with spiritual practice it can hard to grasp that there is experience which is not centred on the senses. If we eliminate the five physical senses, and the mental sense which comprehends thoughts: then what is left? Nothing? We live in hedonistic times when it can seem that the pleasures of the senses is what makes life meaningful. Or we might spend our time avoiding sensations which we don't enjoy. The Buddha's final message is pointing away from the senses, but towards what?

In meditation we can take two basic approaches to the senses. We can just sit and watch the play of experience, and try not to get get caught up in it. This approach is sometimes likened to watching clouds drifting about the sky. One just sits and watches them coming and going, and doesn't invest any energy in them. Another approach is to actively withdraw from sensual experience through concentration on an object - frequently the breath. Doing this we find that in withdrawing from sense data our experience is blissful, and more satisfying. We may lose the sense of having a body, even lose the sense of having thoughts. The experience of meditation shows us that there is an alternative to being drunk on sensual data.

Both of these approaches to the senses open up all kinds of new possibilities to us. This is not easy to put into words, especially in English because we simply don't have the vocabulary. Pali and Sanskrit terms can help, but they are unfamiliar to people outside Buddhist circles. The Pali word jhana (sanskrit dhyana), for instance, is one that has been used for these states which go beyond the world of the senses. There are texts which describe the experience - often using similes. But the experiences are quite accessible, to some extent at least, for most people who are willing to meditate regularly.

So there is experience which is not mediated by our senses. But why does the Buddha use his last words to direct our attention towards this experience? Bliss is all very well, but is that really all that spiritual practice is about? The answer comes from the first part of his statement. It is because the nature of all things perceived by the senses (sankhārā) is to perish (vaya). Another possible translation of vayadhamma might be 'guaranteed to disappoint'. The objects of the senses as fascinating as they are, do not satisfy us. They are transient. By being focused on them we are constantly being disappointed, constantly let down, and it's a real drag isn't it?

So to sum up: if we want happiness (and we all do), then we need to free ourselves of addiction to intoxication with the objects of the senses, including thoughts, which are guaranteed to disappoint us. The reality of spiritual practice for most of us is that we can only slowly untangle ourselves from the senses, from thoughts. It's not easy because from the first we are totally immersed in this experience. But it is possible, and definitely worth it.

See also: my calligraphy of the Buddha's last words on visiblemantra.org.

18 February 2006

Belief: we are what we think.

examing beliefIn this second look at the subject of belief I'd like to examine a more positive aspect. I was sparked off by a BBC Radio program in the same week as a New Scientist issue (28 Jan 2006) with several articles about belief. Both sources had quite a lot to say about the belief in medical treatments.

Recently medical researchers have become much more interested in the placebo effect. This is the phenomena in which the belief that one has been given an effective medical treatment can have a beneficial effect, even when one is given a placebo, or dummy treatment. Placebo is Latin for "I shall be accepted". What is becoming clear is that the placebo effect is really quite remarkable. It is not a figment of our imagination and it can produce startling physical changes in our body. Covertly given placebo medicines do not work. The strength of the effect seems to be linked to expectations and strength of belief. One scientist thinks that it may be beneficial to err on the side of gullibility: "If you miss the tiger hidden in the grass, then you are always dead. If you always see tigers, you are always running away, but you're not dead". New Scientist p.39

Kathy Sykes, a scientist who investigated alternative medical treatments for a BBC documentary says in the Radio interview: "the power of placebo is enormous". She sites several examples including people who received placebo knee surgery and did just as well as those who had received the full treatment. The result, she suggests, may be down to the brain's expectation and reward system.

I have written about the way that I was able to think myself into a fight or flight response - with adrenaline charged, heart pumping fear! So what we believe is starting to look pretty important isn't it? The impact of belief is not simply psychological, but physiological.

The first line of the Dhammapada goes "manopubbangamaa dhammaa". The literal translation is something like 'mind precedes phenomena'. It's not a trivial exercise to translate this short phrase because mano and dhamma are complex terms that have no exact counterpart in English. But in a sense we could translate it by the phrase "you are what you think". It's not saying that thoughts literally create phenomena, that idea would not become current for several hundred years after the Dhammapada was composed. It is more of a psychological statement. Mano indicates the thinking mind, as distinct from more general consciousness (vijñana) or the heart (citta) in the poetic sense - although these terms can and are used interchangeably, and in different ways at different times. We can think of mano as that aspect of consciousness that supports opinions and views.

What's being said, then, is precisely that we can think of ourselves as being happy, as being free of suffering, and that it will have an effect. The modern research on the placebo effect confirms that this is the case. Buddhism of course goes further and says that if you wish the same for all beings, then that also is possible! The research tells us that the placebo effect is very powerful, and related to the strength of belief. If we believe that Buddhist practice will help us be better people, happier, more loving, then it probably will. If we believe the opposite then that is probably true as well. I'm not saying that practice is all placebo effect, but I think most experienced practitioners would agree that one's attitude to practice is vital. If you believe it won't work then you will have an uphill battle.

There were two words for belief in Pali: saddha means something like 'to place the heart upon'. We place our heart upon what we value. What we value is down to belief. Saddha is usually translated as faith. Ditthi means view or what we would call opinion or attitude. Our ordinary views and opinions weigh us down, cause us suffering. We place our heart on things that can never be satisfying. By reflecting on our views, by comparing what we believe to our actual experience of the world, we can come to what the Buddha called samma-ditthi or Perfect View. This is often translated as right-view, but samma is a bit stronger in connotation than 'right' suggests. When we see things as they really are, then we begin to place our heart upon the things that will really satisfy us. We will, in the traditional idiom, Go for Refuge to the Three Jewels.

Buddhism offers us a plethora of methods to observe our own beliefs, and to bring them into line wit Reality. These range from simple observation, through directed meditation, up to elaborate rituals. We may think of them as technologies of belief. Two weeks ago I suggested that all Buddhist methods amount to ways of paying attention. Paying attention, in the way I have described it, enables us to see how our beliefs condition our experience, to have a vision of Reality, and to enable us to align ourselves with that Reality. The tradition tells us that it is possible to entirely align one's beliefs with Reality: we call this Awakening.

Last week I pointed out where we can come unstuck in belief. This week I've pointed out how belief can work to help us. Given the way humans work we cannot avoid belief. I don't think it's possible to believe in nothing - that in itself is a belief! At worst we can be a victim of what we believe, at best we can radically change what we believe so that our world is forever transformed. The choice is ours.

11 February 2006

Belief: to kill or die for?

Muslim protestor - source The Epoch Times
I'm interested in belief at the moment. This essay and one next week will explore two aspects of belief, one rather negative, and one more positive.

Few people can be unaware that some people hold their beliefs so dear that they are willing to kill others who disagree with them. It's all too easy to treat this fact simplistically. Such a rigidly held belief can be difficult to understand at first sight. We are repulsed by the killer.

Killing for one's beliefs is not a new phenomena. It's been happening for the entire history of human kind. However we live in interesting times. Since the Enlightenment we have stopped believing in an omnipotent god. This seems only right and proper to me, but then I am a product of a rationalist-materialistic social and education system. There are two main responses to this decline in religion: credulity, and incredulity, both in fairly extreme versions. The first extreme is that we believe in everything: from Aliens living amongst us, to crystals that heal diseases, and dead spirits that speak to us from beyond the grave. The other extreme is that we don't believe in anything beyond our five senses. We are skeptical of anything we can't measure.

From either point of view we may find it difficult to understand the radically angry reaction from Muslims whose faith has been publically mocked. From one point of view all beliefs are the same, God = Allah = Jesus = Buddha = Mohammed = Snoopy the Dog, so why would you get all het up over one or the other. From the other point of view believe in God is a childish whimsy, at best. We're just not equipped to deal with someone who is so insistent on their point of view that they will kill anyone who tries to contradict them, or to have a laugh at their expense.

There is also a remarkable naivete in the reaction which says that because a newspaper from Denmark, or where-ever, mocks us, then the government of Denmark is responsible, and Danish citizens are one and all legitimate targets of our anger.

In response to recent events I was saying to myself that I could understand dying for a belief, but not killing for a belief. I said to myself that there were no grounds on which I would kill anyone. But this is not entirely true. I'd probably kill to save myself or a loved one from harm. I imagine that I'm capable of it under extreme circumstances. So this is interesting. What makes me prepared to kill under these circumstances? Well it's a view isn't it? A belief. I believe that my life is worth more than the person I'm protecting myself from. So perhaps killing for a belief is not so alien as I thought. Gulp!

Further more I said to myself that I certainly wouldn't kill anyone for mocking the Buddha. I'm not like those fundamentalist theists! But then I realised that I had been in some pretty heated arguments on this subject, had allowed myself, perhaps even willed myself, to be pretty angry over issues which were relatively petty. And actually there have been times when I felt, and even expressed a considerable amount of illwill towards people whose point of view I disagreed with. So it's starting to look like a matter of degree in which I differ from fundamentalists, not anything intrinsic. I just keep my anger in check to a greater extent. That's not trivial by any means. But the anger is not different from the anger of the terrorist!

I'm not saying here that I have sympathy with killers, or condoning killing in any way. What I'm saying is that the mental states I imagine a killer to be experiencing as a result of their strongly held views, are not alien to me. I recognise hatred in myself.

We all have experiences that we don't want. Our cherished beliefs are challenged, mocked, abused. We respond with anger, and we might even feel quite justified. These need not be religious beliefs. We may believe that saying please and thank, in the English manner, are absolutely essential, but run into someone from a culture where they don't even have words for these concepts! That person unwittingly falls foul of our belief system and whammo we hate them!

The Karaṇīya Metta Sutta tells us, Diṭṭhiñ ca anupagamma "And don't fall into views". In the contemporary idiom of the FWBO we might say: hold your opinions lightly. Beliefs can be constantly re-examined in light of experience. Particularly hatred. My observation is that words said in anger fail to reach their mark. Whatever I am trying to say, if I'm angry, then pretty much all I communicate is I am Angry. And people respond to this in various ways, but none of them involve weighing up my words or empathising with me. And why should they? I know my own reaction to anger is FEAR, and I just want to get away whenever I known someone is angry. Angry people are dangerous, they lash out, they say and do hurtful things. I'm not so very different from anyone else.

If however we hold our beliefs lightly, if we are open to other view points, then we are much less likely to react with anger when we meet an opposing belief. And this is important because if our beliefs are so rigidly held that we are enraged by opposition, then we may end up killing for our beliefs.

In this essay I have assumed that killing is a bad thing without ever justifying this proposition. And last week I suggested that if we are really paying attention then we won't be happy if we try to be happy at the expense of another person. For now I hope that you agree with these sentiments enough to follow along with the argument. Next week I'm going to look a little more at why what we believe is important, not only personally, but more cosmically speaking. This should help to fill out the picture somewhat.


*image by Chris Jackson/Getty Images.

05 February 2006

Practising the Dharma? What do I mean?

mixed image from dumbphotos.comI recently had an email from someone who read my Wikipedia article on Shingon and wanted to know more about it. (Had a look at the article recently and didn't recognise most of the text but that's the Wikipedia for you). I explained to him that I had read everything I could get my hands on, and I had done detailed study of Kukai's writing, but that I did not practice Shingon Buddhism, and therefore couldn't offer much more than what was in that article. My correspondent was interested in what I meant when I said "I practice the Dharma". Amongst Buddhists this kind of throw away line would probably not even get a second thought. We all assume we know what someone means by that kind of statement. But how do you explain it to someone who might not share your jargon or assumptions.

So I started thinking about what I meant when I said I practice the Dharma. At first I was tempted to go into complicated answers that involved lots of doctrinal categories: the path of ethics, meditation and wisdom was an early starter. But then I realised that this would just be gobbledegook to anyone without a few years of reading the same books as me. And unlike my knowledge of Shingon, my Dharma practice is not just book learning.

I do a variety of more formal Buddhist practices: meditation, puja, study, reflection, chanting, right-livelihood etc. But this wasn't going to be much use because each one of these exists in a context which requires explanation. So I started stripping things back to essentials. What is it that I am doing in all of these formal practices, and in the many informal practices I do?

And it came to me that what I do is I try to pay attention to things. This is the guts of what I wrote in an earlier post about my approach to the six perfections. From that perspective I pay attention to other people, to our mutual impact on each other. This produces not only a change in behaviour which promotes awareness, but also liberates energy. Then I can start paying attention to my own mind through meditation. Finally I can begin to pay attention to the nature of reality.

Another approach to this might be to start from my basic desire for happiness. This is something we all have. Even if, like me, we're not always sure we deserve happiness, we still want it. It goes beyond self-esteem and self-views. From this point of view what I am doing as a Buddhist is looking closely at the kinds of things that conduce to happiness and which don't. I also try to note how long that happiness lasts. For instance, a certain amount of dark chocolate does indeed make me feel happy and secure and less anxious. It really works. But it's a short lived happiness. And then there is the anxiety that I will run out of chocolate and the shops will be shut and I'll get a headache because I haven't had my fix lately. Now at present I might not be ready to stop eating chocolate as an antidote to anxiety, but I can still pay attention to the process. I can still observe the cycling between anxiety, eating, happiness, rising anxiety until the desire to eat is triggered again.

So, it became clear that what I do as a Buddhist is I try to pay attention to things, to my mental and emotional states, to other people, and to the real nature of reality. Which sounds a bit simplistic doesn't it? I mean what about the whole edifice of teachings, the profound philosophical doctrines, and, since I'm interested in Shingon, the initiations and lineages. I'm by no means finished thinking about all of this, but it strikes me that all of the superstructure of Buddhism is just an increasing elaborate way of making us pay attention. My impulse is to simplify things, to cut away all of the extrusions and look for what is essential.

In any case it's clear to me that one cannot simply take the Buddhist tradition on it's own terms. I've written about this as well in The Unity of Buddhism. Each strand of traditional Buddhism sees itself as the pinnacle, and other as provisional at best. This is alright when strands exists in relative isolation, but in the present we have access to so many of the strands, each with their unique contribution that it doesn't make sense to privilege one over the others.

The one major objection that I have come up with to this train of thought is that attention is an ethically neutral function. We can pay attention to unethical things as much as ethical. Just paying attention might not actually be enough. It might be necessary to add some qualifier. There is actually a traditional precedent for this - the Pali texts tell us to avoid ayoniso-maniskara, unwise attention.But again I think if we simply pay attention to the consequences of paying attention then it will become clear what things are better to focus on. This was the point of my essay on Imagination. It may be that we need to be reminded of the need for kindness, for kindly attention, from time to time.

It is possible that we might seek our own good at the expense of others. But if we are paying attention to others then we will be aware that they are suffering as a result of something we have done. I find this a very uncomfortable awareness. So if I am paying attention it seems unlikely that I could be happy by exploiting someone else. My happiness is tied up with the happiness of those people around me, and ultimately with all beings.

So what I mean when I say I practice the Dharma is: I pay attention to things. Simply that. And it has been very fruitful to date.
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