24 April 2009

From the Beginning Nothing Arises.

Syllable āṃḥSome time back I wrote a blog post on a quote from the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra (MAT): The Essence of all Mantras. Recently I was reflecting on the idea that the syllable 'a' is the essence of all mantras in light of my studies of Sanskrit.

In the MAT the phrase is, in Stephen Hodge's translation:
"I declare that A is the essence of all mantras, and from it arise mantras without number; and it produces in entirety the Awareness which stills all conceptual proliferations".[1]
Previous explanations of this phrase are based on two ideas: first that unmodified consonants in the Sanskrit alphabet assume the vowel 'a'; or second, that 'a' added to any adjective or noun causes it to mean the opposite. These don't seem explain the claim that 'a' is the essence of all mantras. The syllable 'a' is not involved either phonetically or graphically in the other vowels sounds, and added to a verb usually indicates the past imperfect tense. I have put forward the theory that this idea makes more sense in an environment in which the Gāndhārī [2] language and Kharoṣṭhī script were used: where the character for 'a' is modified by diacritic marks to indicate other vowels.

Here I want to explore a link to the Perfection of Wisdom tradition by examining one of the phrases which make up the alphabetic acrostic of the Arapacana poem as found in the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra - the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra in 25,000 Lines (hereafter the 25kPP). The first five lines go like this:
akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt
repho mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ rajo 'pagatatvāt
pakāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ paramārtha nirdeśāt
cakāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ cyavanopapattyanupalabdhitvāt
nakaro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ nāmāpagatatvāt
Clearly there is a pattern here. Akāro, repho, pakāro etc are the names of the syllables in Sanskrit (r being irregular). Sarvadharmāṇām is a compound of sarva + dharma in the genitive plural case - roughly 'of all dharmas'. Conze's translation into English remains the only accessible one and he translated the first phrase as: "The syllable A is a door to the insight that all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning".

Conze has not just translated the words, he has interpreted them - there is nothing to correspond to "the insight that" in the Sanskrit. The grammatical relationship suggests that the letters are indeed the 'mukhaḥ' of all dharmas, but here we need to tread carefully. Firstly my regular readers will know that dharma is a very ambiguous term that can be translated rather differently under different circumstances. I have pointed out that in many cases that dharmas (plural) should be taken to be what arises in dependence on causes (the primary focus of the Buddha's insights and teaching), and further that it is better to think of dharmas in this sense as the units of conscious experience - they are the building bricks of our subjective 'world'. I think that this definition might apply here also, but before I go into this we need to explore this word 'mukha'.

Mukha is almost a slippery as dharma. Since we know that the language of the Wisdom alphabet was originally a Prakrit rather than Classical Sanskrit we need to consult more widely than Sanskrit dictionaries in defining this word. I have consulted Monier-Williams' Sanskrit Dictionary, Edgerton's Buddhist-Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary and the Pāli-English Dictionary (PED). Definitions largely overlap except for one specific case. The PED provides the most useful summary of the meanings:
  1. mouth
  2. face, or of the face
  3. opening, metaphorically a means of income
  4. cause, ways, means, reason
  5. front, top, head (and hence:)
  6. pinnacle, best part, foremost, top most.
Conze has chosen to render mukha as 'door' and the reason for this may be that in the 25kPP mukha occurs with another term which suggests that they might be synonyms: "akṣaramukham akṣarapraveśaḥ" (25kPP 21.2.08). Akṣara is 'syllable' in both cases. Praveśa can mean "entering, entrance, penetration or intrusion into". It is quite common in Pāli texts to use two synonyms like this for emphasis - although often commentators feel compelled to make hair splitting differences between the two. However 'Door' is not the most obvious translation of mukha even under these circumstances. Salomon translates it 'head' in one of his papers on the Arapacana Alphabet for instance, although I do not think this is right either.

Let's step back for a minute and explore the context which in this case is meditation. The words of the acrostic are an aide de memoire for meditation. This is brought our quite clearly in a later passage (420 pages later in Conze's translation!). Here the text makes it clear that the reader should be meditating "on the 42 letters" [3]. If one reads through all of the lines it becomes clear that this is a meditation on emptiness: or to be quite specific it is a meditation designed to reveal that dharmas are empty of svabhāva or independent existence. This is not different from my own approach to dhammas relying on Pāli texts. Because dharmas are the subjective aspects of experience and nothing substantial arises in the process of having an experience, nothing is defiled, nothing is beyond this, nothing ceases, there is nothing to pin a label on (these are rough translations of the first five lines of the Arapacana). That is to say the subject for contemplation is not the nature of Reality, but the nature of experience.

So the letter 'a' reminds us of the word anutpanna (non-arisen) which expands to the line akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt, and the overall idea is to contemplate the notion that within experience nothing substantial or independent arises. Conze's suggestion, then, that the syllable 'a' is a door, even a door to insight, is not completely implausible. However praveśa suggests not simply an entrance, but a penetration into something - ie an insight - into the meaning of the words. The syllable 'a' certainly provides a reminder, and perhaps we could see it as providing a way into insight. Perhaps then mukha is being used in the sense of 'means' or 'opportunity'? Another possibility comes from the BHS dictionary where Edgerton suggests that another way of reading the word is 'introduction' or 'ingress'. It could be that the meditation practice is seen as having two phases - introduction to the concept, and penetration to the consequences of it.

Conze says that "all dharmas are unproduced from the very beginning", but I don't think this is quite what was intended. Let's take apart this complex compound ādyanutpannatvāt and see what it says: ādi + an + ud + panna + tva + āt. The prefix ādi means 'beginning or commencement'. An + utpanna is just the opposite of utpanna, and utpanna is ud + panna (d changes to t before p) which is 'rising up' or 'arising'. So anutpana is 'not rising up'. Now -tva is a suffix used to form abstract nouns: if god is the noun, then divinity is the abstract noun. You could also translate -tva as -ness. If a stone is hard then it exhibits hardness. And -āt is an ablative suffix - it can express the English 'from' or 'because of'. So putting things back together: anutpannatva means 'having the quality of not arising'. Adding ādi gives us Conze's "from the very beginning".

I would translate the whole phrase:
akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt
the syllable a is an opening because of the primal quality of not arising of all dharmas.
This is not so different to Conze. There is an ambiguity: sarvadharmāṇāṃ is a genitive plural "of all dharmas" and it could mean the 'opening of all dharmas...' or 'the primal quality of not arising of all dharmas.' Conze chose the former, but it occurs to me that the latter needs to be considered as a possibility, and works better in my opinion - I'm a beginner and Conze was a very experienced linguist and translator, but, even so.

It is interesting to note that the text has effectively become esoteric - i.e. it cannot be understood as it stands. One needs a little Sanskrit, and to have studied the text with a view to the Arapacana meditation. It does yield up it's secrets to study, but not to the casual reader. I have examined all of the published occurrences of the Arapacana. I don't have access to the many unpublished manuscripts. The manuscript from Bajaur which will no doubt provide more insights when published as it is the oldest known Arapacana. In my opinion the incorporation of a working Arapacana meditation in the 25kpp links it to the Gandhāra area - recall that no other alphabetical lists are known in ancient Indian texts.

My view is that this tradition represents a continuous line of development from early Buddhism which preserves the essential elements of the original. The crucial notions are that dharmas are units of experience, and that the important thing is to the workings of experience from the subjective pole (as opposed to trying to describe 'reality'). But the particular tradition withers and, I think, dies. Traces of the Arapacana tradition survive for hundreds of years, but are increasingly abstract. Between the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra (ca mid 7th century) and the next major Tantric text, the Sarvatathāgata-Tatvasaṃgraha Tantra (ca late 7th - early 8th century), the whole alphabet gets paired down to just the syllable 'a'. In the 25kPP the meditation is on all of the syllables of the Gāndhārī alphabet - it is a complex task to remember the 42 (or 43 or 44) lines. And the 25kPP itself says that all of these reflections point to the same truth. So the whole thing got pared down to: akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannavāt. As I have remarked elsewhere the line later became embedded in bījas and was turned into a mantra: oṃ akāro mukhaṃ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt āḥ hūṃ phaṭ svāhā. This form crops up in contexts which appear completely dissociated from its origins in Gandhāra.

[1] Note that the purpose is to still proliferations. I don't have space to link this with last week's essay on proliferation, but the connection is an interesting one.
[2]My spelling of Gandhāra and Gāndhārī have been somewhat erratic in the past - I think I have it right in this essay and will endeavour to correct it in past essays as time permits.
[2] The text does indeed say 42, although most versions of the Arapacana have 43 or 44, and the one in this text has 44. It's not clear why this discrepancy exists.

Note: A complete and reliable edited Sanskrit text of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra is not yet available, and access to manuscripts is out of the question for someone like me. Dutt's edition is complete but unreliable - for instance the Arapacana has two duplications of syllables. Another edition is in the process of being edited by Takayasu Kimura, but the volume which contains the Arapacana is not yet published, although the other related passages are available in Kimura (I haven't had a chance to compare them yet).

image: Seed-syllable āṃḥ - combines the syllables a, ā, aṃ, aḥ which represent the four stages of the path in the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra, and therefore symbolises their culmination and apotheosis as embodied by Mahāvairocana.

17 April 2009

Proliferation - the stories we tell ourselves about experience

The Madhupiṇḍika or Honeyball Sutta* is one of the most important texts in the Pāli Canon. In it the Buddha's maternal uncle Daṇḍāpāni asks what the Buddha teaches. The name Daṇḍapāni may well be a joke since it means rod in hand, or even the punishing hand, and the Buddha replies that he teaches in a way that on does not quarrel with anyone in the world. But more specifically and more importantly he teaches a way to be free of craving, to be detached from sensual pleasures. Some of the bhikkhus find the sermon a bit terse and so they ask Mahā Kaccāna, who is known as the foremost expounder in full of brief sayings of the Buddha, to give a further explanation. He says:
‘‘Cakkhuñcāvuso, paṭicca rūpe ca uppajjati cakkhuviññāṇaṃ, tiṇṇaṃ saṅgati phasso, phassapaccayā vedanā, yaṃ vedeti taṃ sañjānāti , yaṃ sañjānāti taṃ vitakketi, yaṃ vitakketi taṃ papañceti, yaṃ papañceti tatonidānaṃ purisaṃ papañcasaññāsaṅkhā samudācaranti atītānāgatapaccuppannesu cakkhuviññeyyesu rūpesu. MN i.111.
It translates roughly as
"dependent (paṭicca) on the eye and forms, eye-consciousness arises: these three together constitute contact (phassa), which causes sensations (vedanā). Sensations are perceived (sañjānāti), and perceptions are reflected on (vitakka**), and reflections proliferate (papañceti). Because the eye is always recognising forms, a man is beset by ideas about, and definitions of, what is proliferated".
The formula is repeated for the other senses and the mind. Now the precise meaning of papañca is still disputed by scholars, but it is generally taken to mean something like "mental proliferation". I think of it as something like associations. By linking present experience with associations we create the stories we tell ourselves about the experiences we are having. So we have a sensation, and the register it and reflect on it, and we then associate that with past experiences, and expectations, and habitual responses, and the result is that we incorporate the sensation into our personal narrative - what we might call our 'world' (loka). Not that much, if any, of this happens consciously.

The Buddha had earlier explained that
‘‘Yatonidānaṃ, bhikkhu, purisaṃ papañcasaññāsaṅkhā samudācaranti. Ettha ce natthi abhinanditabbaṃ abhivaditabbaṃ ajjhositabbaṃ. Esevanto rāgānusayānaṃ, esevanto paṭighānusayānaṃ, esevanto diṭṭhānusayānaṃ , esevanto vicikicchānusayānaṃ, esevanto mānānusayānaṃ, esevanto bhavarāgānusayānaṃ, esevanto avijjānusayānaṃ, esevanto daṇḍādāna-satthādāna-kalaha-viggaha-vivāda-tuvaṃtuvaṃ-pesuñña-musāvādānaṃ. Etthete pāpakā akusalā dhammā aparisesā nirujjhantī’ti. MN i.110
"As to the ideas about, and definitions of, what is proliferated which assail a man: if there are no objects of pleasure, nothing to welcome, or to cling to then the bias towards pleasure is left behind, the bias towards reactivity is left behind, the biases towards views, uncertainty, comparisons and conceit, the desire for continued becoming, ignorance are left behind; giving out punishments, fighting, quarrels, disputes, contention, blame, slander and lying are left behind. These evil unskilful states are completely destroyed."
So here the Buddha is rather tersely explaining that being caught up in our own stories about the 'world' (really our own 'world') we are led to actions which are harmful to us and others. In order to give up these states we have to stop seeking out pleasure, stop being fixated with it, and stop clinging to it. This is a subtle point which might be mistaken for a kind of dour puritanism.

The problem is not pleasure per se. Pleasure is not bad. It is our attitude towards pleasurable experiences which causes us difficulties. Sensations are largely involuntary - if not in a deep sleep then we constantly experience sensations over which we have little control, except perhaps which sensations we focus on. We are surrounded by objects of the senses, and we are constantly in contact with them. We swim in sensory experience just like a fish in water.

The problem is the stories we tell ourselves, mostly unconsciously, about the nature of these sensations. These stories come from our surrounding culture, our social group and from our families. We are this kind of person, but not that kind. We like this kind of thing and not that kind. Some of us are so convinced about their story that we will kill on the basis of these beliefs, but all of us will quarrel and fight, and on occasion will be unskilful in order to defend our 'world'. Unfortunately we are so strongly inculcated with these views that we don't even see them as views, let alone question them. Where people do question them, they often seem to lack the vision to find a better answer.

In fact most of us don't get along very well without pleasure. Some of us go a bit mad when we deny ourselves pleasure. The middle way is not to deny or indulge in pleasurable sensations, but to see sensations, and experiences for what they are. Experiences - ie the coming together of sense, object and consciousness - are impermanent. Even if the stimulus behind a sensation remains constant, our relationship to it changes. A good example is tinnitus - the constant ringing in the ears that many of us have due to listening to loud music. It is constant, but sometimes we notice it and sometimes not; sometimes it is annoying or even exasperating, sometimes it is neutral. Experience shifts and swirls and each moment of awareness is different from the next.

As I explained last week [How is Suffering created?] - we associate happiness with pleasure. This is one of the most dangerous stories that we tell ourselves, one of the most destructive associations we make. Because it makes pleasure important to us. We'll fight to get it, fight with those we perceive as denying it to us, and fight to hold on to what we have. We don't even imagine that pleasure being a vedanā (ie a mental event) is impermanent. We welcome pleasure and we cling to it, or try to. What Kaccāna does is to put this in the context of the mechanics of experience. Pleasure is not something we have control over, not something we can hold on to.

Likewise we are reactive towards painful experiences. I think we need to be clear that if you're literally on fire then it is vital to put out the flames. But painful sensations are as involuntary as pleasurable. Having been burned we should be ready to experience the pain of the burn. This is a huge ask at times. Sometimes the pain of the moment is too much to bear, as I wrote about in my essay [When awareness is too much to bear]. But the problem is that when we try to suppress awareness of some sensations we are less alive to our experience. Denial creates unconsciousness which becomes a vicious circle - and how vicious this can become is obvious to anyone tuning into the news media.

So we have these biases: thirst for pleasure, reactivity towards pain, and this is both a result of, and a condition for, the continuation of the stories we tell ourselves about what we are experiencing. But since the stories aren't consistent with the nature of experience, then we find ourselves constantly being disappointed or confused. Part of the Buddhist method is to slow down and just pay attention to that raw experience. If necessary label it: pleasant, painful, neutral. And watch our reaction to it - drawn towards, react away? It's usually one or the other. The aim of this stage of practice is to attain equanimity towards experiences, in order to prepare us for the next step, which is to start getting into the workings of the process.

* Madhupiṇḍika Sutta, Majjhima Nikāya no.18 (PTS MN i.111.). In the translation by Bikkhus Ñāṇamoli and Bodhi it is on pg 201. It is also translated by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight with a lengthy and useful introduction.

** Vitakka and reflect have very similar etymologies. See my essay Communicating the Dharma.

image: honey bee from autan on Flickr.

10 April 2009

How is suffering created?

Jain AsceticsOne time the Buddha was wandering for alms in Rājagaha when he was approached by a naked ascetic called Kassapa*. "Kassapa", the Buddha said, "this is not the right time for asking questions". But Kassapa persisted, and eventually the Buddha relented and said, "alright, what is your question?" Kassapa asked whether suffering is self-made (sayaṃkataṃ), or whether is other-made (asayaṃkataṃ), or perhaps both, or neither. In each case the Buddha answered: "not thus" (mā heva) or more colloquially "it's not like that". At this point Kassapa wondered aloud whether the Buddha knew the answer. But to this question he answered, "I do know". Kasssapa asked the Buddha to teach him.

The Buddha tells Kassapa that if you believe that the one who acts is the same as the one who experiences the result (so karoti so paṭisaṃvedayati), then you must believe in a lasting entity, and this amounts to eternalism (sassataṃ etaṃ pareti). If you believe that the one who acts is other (añña) than the one who experiences the results (añño karoti añño paṭisaṃvedayati), then this amounts to nihilism (ucchedaṃ etaṃ pareti). Suffering in fact arises in dependence on causes. The Buddha teaches Kassapa about the 12 nidanas - ignorance gives rise to volitional tendencies, which gives rise to consciousness, etc. This, he declares is the origin of this mass of suffering (dukkhakkhandhassa).

Kassapa finds this illuminating and asks to join the bhikkhu Sangha. The story has other interesting features, but let's go back and work through the exchange I've just outlined. Sayaṃkataṃ can mean "created by oneself" (which is how Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it) or it can mean "made by itself". PED also suggests "spontaneous" as a possibility. To me it seems more likely that Kassapa is asking whether suffering causes itself, rather than do we cause our own suffering. This fits the context as we will see.

Now the Buddha responds to Kassapa's question about how suffering occurs by first critiquing two wrong views about the relationship between acting (karoti) and experience (paṭisamvedeti). By the way: acting (karoti) produces an action (kamma) both of which come from the root √kṛ - 'to do, to make'. And action according to the Buddha is intention, ie it is the motivations, the subjectivity, behind actions that he is interested in. To emphasis a point I have been making repeatedly lately, the link here is between intention and experience. Paṭisaṃvediyeti comes ultimate from the verbal root √vid 'to know or feel'. Vediyati is a form of the the causative, and therefore means something like 'informs', but it's clear that it refers to experiencing sensations. Vediyati is related to the important word for sensations vedanā (literally: announcing or making known). The suffixes here (paṭi + saṃ) don't seem to change the meaning very much. Paṭi perhaps makes it reflexive, and saṃ can mean together or complete. In any case paṭisamvediyati refers to the experience of sensations or vedanā. So the context here is the subjective pole of both actions and consequences, not the objective side of the equation - bodily actions and things in the world.

Kassapa sees two basic possibilities - suffering is either self-made, or not-self-made. It seems that the Buddha interprets the former as saying that one who acts and and the one who subsequently experiences are identical; while the latter is saying that actor and experiencer are not linked. Indian logic also allows for both and neither to be the case. But neither the two basic cases, nor both, nor neither apply. Now because Kassapa is a naked ascetic and for some complicated reasons about the way he asks his questions, we can assume that he is a Jain.

Like most Indians of the time the Jains believed in a kind of rebirth. All forms of rebirth theory present one major difficulty. What links one life to another? If there is something which continues from life to life, then that is eternalism; and if there isn't then rebirth isn't really rebirth, and we only have this one life, which is nihilism. If one is concerned with exhausting karma in order to be liberated, a more specific question arises because if one dies what then is the link between actions and consequences? The Jains believed that humans possess a jiva, or life energy, which continues from life to life. The image for the way the jiva operates is that actions (kamma) produce dust, which sticks to the jiva weighing it down. Liberation can be achieved by removing the dust (through the experience of suffering) and by not creating any new dust - that is by not acting. The Jains believed that all actions - whether intentional or not - created dust. In addition they believed that all things possess some kind of consciousness, so eating even vegetables was causing harm. It was the Jains who first adopted the practice of ahiṃsa - non-harm. Many of the austerities carried out by Jains consisted primarily in non-action - long periods of immobility, extreme fasting, and holding the breath for example. Going naked meant not having to harm plants or animals for the sake of clothing. The idea was that through painful austerities one "burned up" one's karma, removing the dust from the jiva and allowing it to float up and be liberated.

Several suttas in the canon portray the Jain Sangha falling into dispute and confusion after the death of their leader Mahāvīra. This may be polemical, but it might provide the context for a Jain asking advice of the Buddha, and for being in such a hurry to know. Note that Kassapa is not asking "why do I suffer?" in any abstract way. He is asking really concerned with the question - "how do I understand suffering in order to be liberated from it?" In other words his outlook is not much different from a Buddhist, he just lacks the insight of dependent arising - which the Buddha tells him about.

So the question about the link between actions and consequences, and the origins of suffering have the same answer. Experiences, of which suffering is the paradigm for the unliberated, arise in dependence on causes. The key aspect of this is that when we experience pleasurable sensations (vedanā) we desire more (taṇha). This craving provides fuel (upādāna) for continued becoming (bhava). This results in the cycle of birth (jāti) old age and death (jarā-maraṇa) - that is to say that it causes us to suffer since all unenlightened experiences are (unsatisfactory) dukkha. Only if we understand this process, can we then begin to interrupt it because although vedanā is involuntary, taṇha is not.

We often choose the wrong course of action because we think that pleasure is happiness. We want happiness, but we pursue pleasure. In fact it is a double bind, because not only do we pursue pleasure, but the way offered by the Buddha appears as if it may not be entirely pleasurable: we have to give things up, we have to be disciplined etc. And because we also avoid discomfort we won't commit ourselves to practice while we see happiness in terms of pleasure. It's not until we really begin to see where happiness lies that we are able to overcome this reticence: to give up what must be given up, and to take up what must be taken up. Often we must do a lot of study and engage in discussions and debates to get to this point. We have to take apart our views about happiness in order to make room for practice. And a third fetter may have been put in place by this point. We may have burdened ourselves with many commitments by the time we come to our senses. We for instance have families and careers that we have a responsibility to. So then finding a compromise between our practice and our responsibilities can be quite difficult. But still it is important to understand what we are doing and why. We have this experience because it has arisen in dependence on causes. We have a choice about what conditions we set up in the future - so we can always practice to some extent.

*This story is from the Acelakassapa Sutta, Saṃyutta Nikāya 12:17 (PTS SN ii.18 ff). It can be found on page p.545 in Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation (single volume edition). The Sutta is also translated by Bhikkhu Thanissaro on Access to Insight. (Note that Thanissaro translates dukkha as 'stress' which can be a bit confusing).
image: modern day naked Jain asetics by Freddy Nagarvala.

03 April 2009

Who's in charge?

Recently in the news I noticed a headline which suggested that cheap booze is killing people in the UK. The claim was being made by an official of the medical profession. Put this alongside the focus, last year, on the "epidemic" of obesity which claims that obesity is the number one health issue in the UK today, and the problem is cheap poor quality food. What do these two stories have in common? I think it it this: that eating and drinking are not involuntary but voluntary. But the news is telling us that we are not responsible for what we put in our mouths, that the fact that fatty foods and booze are cheap is what is causing the problem.

I consider that the main job of the media is entertainment. This is the only explanation for the choice of news stories, or at least the choice of which stories to give prominence. The front page and the lead story are always the one that will get the biggest emotional response from the audience. Since anger and fear are more easily provoked, and often more intensely felt, than other emotions, these are the ones they go for. There is even micro-targeting for what will outrage the target market so that papers will highlight different stories that will outrage their demographic.

So I never assume that anything is being reported for the information content, but only for its ability to rouse emotions. Which is why I seldom comment on the media, current events, or politics. But I see a trend here which is worth looking at. I think it does reflect an attitude in the UK, if not elsewhere, that are counter productive.

If I am fat then chances are I eat too much. I allow for some people having genetic disorders, and genuine medical problems, but the fact is that most people who are over-weight eat the wrong kind of food, and too much of it. Combined with lack of sufficient exercise, that is the obesity problem. It is true that fatty foods, and processed foods are often cheap, but this is not to say that good food is unaffordable. Most people have the choice, but they simply do not exercise it. Why? Well I think part of it is that we are being trained to think that we are not responsible for our actions. If the media constantly presents obesity as a problem of cheap fatty food, instead of greedy, undiscerning eaters then we start to think: "I'm not responsible". Similarly if I drink heavily it is not because there is cheap booze. It is because I choose to drink heavily. There may well be reasons behind that, but it is my choice. The attitude of not being responsible is fostered in the UK by ever increasing amounts of legislation and regulation which are aimed to prevent problems caused by not taking responsibility. The main area is what's called Health and Safety. Because of the large number of accidents in the workplace a series of measures have been implemented to stop people doing things which might result in accidents. And because you can't legislate against stupidity or unmindfulness, the rules try to make the world safe for stupid or unmindful people. In fact if you operate a workplace in the UK you have to assume that your employees and customers are very stupid and not at all mindful. This lowest common denominator has become the norm. The result is wasteful and infantilising. It seems to have encouraged the notion that safety is someone else's responsibility rather than that my safety is my responsibility. Now it may be argued that unscrupulous people put others at risk and that employees especially need to be protected, and I will grant that this is the case. But the next time you see someone operating a pneumatic drill or jack hammer, take a look at their ears. I suppose about 50% of the people I see are not wearing hearing protection - even though the H&S regs have made this freely and easily available to all. If there is some doubt over workplace safety there can be none over food and drink. As kids we eat what we are given, but as adults we choose.

The Buddhist program calls for us to be aware of our intentions, how they manifest in actions, and what the consequences of those actions are. This is not an easy path by any means. So often we can only see what's going on in retrospect when everything has turned to custard and we review what happened. Even then the urge is to blame other people, or other factors. As Buddhists when something goes wrong the first thing we should do is examine our own mind. What were our motivations? So often these are complex and largely unconscious. The practice of ethics (of behaving in accordance with ethical guidelines and confessing breaches of them) brings us hard up against our motivations. Sangharakshita has said there is no justification for sustaining a negative mental state. We may not be able to prevent one arising, because they arise in dependence on past conditions and causes, but we can surely recognise a negative mental state in the present and do something about it! So often we justify our irritation - and this justification is reinforced by those around us. But irritation is just aversion and nothing good can come from it. It is hatred. We need to face up to this, and pay attention to what happens when we go around letting irritation persist in our minds. I don't need to spell it out, because it's up to everyone to discover for themselves what it's like. But I can say that I don't enjoy it.

And ethics are not simply an exercise in good behaviour and finding approval. We may well find approval, but being scrupulously ethical may also meet with disapproval from an uncomprehending society. The point is to become more aware of how our minds actually work. To find the connections between our intentions and the consequences, and to see how our experience arises in dependence on causes. It is this that we urgently need to understand because the lack of clarity is causing us (and everyone else) to suffer. We particularly need to see how we response to pleasant sensations and to painful sensations. This leads is naturally into meditation techniques which help to strip away the distractions and the confusion and allow us to focus on understanding the nature of experience. But without a measure of calm and positivity we won't get far in meditation. The gross disturbances caused by breaking precepts means that our minds are unstable in meditation. We need to be ethical in order to experience what the texts sometimes call 'non-remorse' (avippaṭisāro). Discipline is for the purpose of non-remorse, and from non-remorse naturally arises happiness (pāmojja) and from this rapture (pīti), etc on up to knowledge and vision, and up to liberation. That is to say that ethics naturally leads us onto what Sangharakshita has called The Spiral Path, the progressive series of stages that lead to liberation the way that trickles of water may become rivulets, that join with others to become a stream, with many streams making a river, and eventually a mighty river that flows down to the sea. Just as a mighty river relies on its watershed of many tiny streams, so the process of liberation begins with ethical observances which, reflected on, give insights into how experience works.

We cannot afford to buy into the "it's not my problem" mentality. Everything we do is up to us, and it is we who have to live with the consequences.

image: Mail Online
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