Magic and Miracles

There are times when I just love how the universe works. As I am fond of saying, those who do not believe in magic and miracles simply are not paying attention.

Here is a story in three parts.

Part one: Many years ago I became enamored of a Buddhist monk named Ajahn Amaro. As is typical of my Buddhist teachers, he is endearing, grounded, brilliant, and has a lovely sense of humor. When I first became familiar with him he was the co-abbot of the Abhayagiri Monastery in Redwood Valley, California. This is about 30 miles south of San Francisco.

I have listened to dozens and perhaps hundreds of his talks. And one year—this is when I still lived in Vermont—I learned that he was going to lead a retreat at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Massachusetts. I was very excited about this, and fortunately for me, I was able to get a spot at that retreat.

Not only was the retreat unforgettable, it turned out that Ajahn Amaro was on his way back to his native England to become the abbot of the Amaravati Monastery. This was his last retreat in the United States. There are moments in life where you just feel blessed and grateful and perhaps a little astonished, and this was one of those moments. It was a wonderful retreat, and I will never forget it.

This is the end of Part One.

Part two: A few weeks ago I was listening to a talk by Ajahn Brahm. As those of you who follow this blog know, he is one of my favorite teachers. The Buddhist Society of Western Australia—the BSWA—has an active online presence and its own YouTube Channel. They livestream many events. And especially during the pandemic the BSWA has been a way to stay connected to a vibrant Buddhist community.

In this talk Ajahn Brahm told a rather astonishing story. It was in response to a question from someone who asked, “How do you know if becoming a monk or a nun is the right choice for you?” This is what he said.

Many years ago—decades, in fact—a young man from England had just finished his college degree. Before he entered the workforce, he decided to do some traveling. He went to a number of places in Asia, and eventually he ended up in northeast Thailand. He went there to visit some friends who were working for an NPO. Now as you may know, northeast Thailand is some of the poorest and most remote country in the world, and there is not much for a young twenty-something to do. So he asked around, and he was told that there was a Buddhist monastery nearby and that he might want to visit it.

Now this young man knew nothing about Buddhism. Being from the West and having been in the same situation, I can relate to how he must have felt. I was nearly 40 years old before I knew even the slightest, tiniest amount about Buddhism.

So off this young man went, to spend—he thought—an afternoon in the strange, mysterious environs of a Buddhist monastery. He had a wonderful afternoon there. In fact, it was so wonderful that he asked the monks if he could stay for the night. Of course, they were happy to have him stay. It must have been marvelous for them to have this Westerner come to visit them out of the blue. And so he stayed for the night.

On the next morning, in what seems like an astonishing choice, he asked to be ordained as a Buddhist monk! And perhaps even more astonishingly, they agreed. He was ordained, and he never looked back. Imagine just for a moment making that same choice. Incredible.

And that is the end of Part Two of this story.

Part three: And now… you may have guessed the punchline. That young man was and is Ajahn Amaro. He has become one of the great Buddhist monks and one of the great Buddhist teachers of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Those who do not believe in magic and miracles simply are not paying attention. And when I look at the arc of my life, I feel so incredibly blessed to have—in some small way—been a witness to one of those miracles.

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The Clogged Filter Teacher

As many of you may know, yesterday was Wesak (Vesak). This is the most important Buddhist holiday. Traditionally it is the day on which the Buddha was born, became enlightened, and died. I had planned to spend the day meditating, listening to Dharma talks, and so on, but as often happens, things did not quite go as planned.

I have a small, artificial pond in my backyard, and it has a waterfall feature attached to it. This comes with a pump and a filter, and the whole system requires regular attention. I had just finished my Wesak lunch when I noticed that the waterfall flow had slowed to a trickle. The pond system—which includes plants—has to be kept running, so I could not postpone attending to whatever the problem was.

I spent the next few hours working on the pond, waterfall, filter, and pump. It is messy work, and I literally smelled like pond scum (!). I finished up this morning, and everything seems to be in working order. And while that whole situation may sound like it was an annoyance, it was actually a very pleasant experience. I was in a very nice state of mind—probably because of my Wesak activities—so instead of mentally whining about it, I just did it. In a way it was the best Dharma lesson. Just stay in the moment. Do what life requires of you and do it with your full attention. Chop wood, carry water.

And… I have a story about that. Back in the 1980’s, the great Thai forest practitioner Ajahn Chah was becoming known in the West. This guy from Australia went to a lot of effort to go to Thailand and make his way to the remote jungles of northeastern Thailand where Ajahn Chah had his monastery. This is not a trivial trip. Northeast Thailand is some of the most remote jungle in the world. You have to work your way there on pony carts and the like. You don’t just catch a train.

Unfortunately, when he finally got there, he was a little dismayed to see that Ajahn Chah was surrounded by several hundred people. His chances of seeing Ajahn Chah seemed as remote as the jungle monastery. But rather than waste his entire time, he picked up a broom, and along with one of the monks he started sweeping the footpath. Sometime later he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Ajahn Chah. Ajahn had apparently seen him, and of course a Westerner would stand out in a crowd of Thais. Ajahn Chah said he had one piece of advice for the Australian. “Whatever you do in life,” he said, “Do it with all your heart.”

The Australian never forgot that. He said that his life instantly improved. His marriage got better. His relationships with his children got better. His job got better. And decades later he was still joyfully living his life with all of his heart.

The Dharma isn’t always about mind-blowing meditation experiences. Sometimes it’s just the simple stuff. Yesterday’s teacher was a clogged water filter. Instead of it “ruining my plans,” I simply had a new plan. It’s often not about what you do but how you do it.

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The Wishing Game

This story compliments of Ajahn Brahm

There were five children who were playing the wishing game. In the wishing game the child who comes up with the best wish wins.

The first child said, “I wish for the latest, greatest computer game.”

The second child said, “I wish for a computer game store. Then I can have any computer game I want.”

The fourth child said, “If I had any computer game I wanted, my parents wouldn’t let me play it. They would just make me do my school work. So I wish for 10 billion dollars. Then I could buy my school. And I could also buy a high school and a university. Then I could get my diplomas and college degrees and I could play any computer game I want.”

The fourth child said, “I wish for three more wishes. Then I could buy a computer game store, get 10 billion dollars and buy my schools, and then wish for three more wishes. Then I would have endless wishes and I could always ask for anything I want.”

The fifth child sat quietly for a few moments. Then she said, “I wish for complete peace, contentment, and happiness. Then I wouldn’t need any wishes.”

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Infinite Time

A man falls into a manhole. Whenever he sees someone walk by, he calls for help. Finally someone stops, looks down into the hole, and jumps in. “What did you do that for?” the man asks. “Now we are both stuck down here!” “Yes,” said the other man, “But I have been down here, and I know the way out.”
– [from “The West Wing”]

The Buddha’s teachings on rebirth are fundamental to the path that he taught. They create a sense of urgency about the meaning of our lives and how we should be spending our time and energy. This is serious business.

There is a term in Buddhism that speaks to this. That term is saṃvega:

[saṃvega is] the oppressive sense of shock, dismay, and alienation that come with realizing the futility and meaninglessness of life as It’s normally lived; a chastening sense of our own complacency and foolishness in having let ourselves live so blindly; and an anxious sense of urgency in trying to find a way out of the meaningless cycle.
– [Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, Noble Strategy, “Affirming the Truths of the Heart: The Buddhist Teachings on Samvega & Pasada”]

I heard a story some years ago about a young man from Thailand. In Thailand almost all young men go into a Buddhist monastery for some period of time. It is a rite of passage. So this young man went into a monastery and took temporary ordination as a monk for six months.

He left behind a young woman with whom he was very much in love, and she was very much in love with him. Everyone assumed that they would get married when he finished his time as a monk. But his time in the monastery changed him, and when he left the monastery he was very conflicted.

Finally he decided to ordain permanently as a monk and devote his life to practice and awakening. When he talked to his young woman she was, of course, very distraught. But he explained to her that he now understood that he had lived this life a million times before. He had fallen in love, gotten married, had children, died, and then done it over and over and over again.

Conjoined with rebirth is the Buddhist (and Hindu) notion of cyclical time. In cyclical time, the universe itself has a lifetime. There is a birth, an expansion, and a contraction. Then there is another big bang, and the process starts all over again. In Buddhism the term for a life of the universe is “kalpa.” (Note that Western scientists only started to believe in a cyclical model of the universe in the 1980’s.) And this cyclical model has enormous implications for how we think and act.

In the West, and I think throughout most of the world, people think of time as being linear. This leads to the idea of a Creator God. The Creator God is who started everything. And when you have a beginning, this also means that there is an end. (No one has ever been able to explain to me how if God created everything then who created God, but so be it.)

Thinking about time as being linear leads to apocalyptic thinking. This is when everything ends. It is judgment day. And whenever you talk about judgment day, it brings up incredible fear, fear that is often used to scare and manipulate people.
But Buddhists and Hindus don’t think like that. Everything is cyclical. Time is “beginningless.” The modern term is “infinite.” Time is not a straight line with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s a circle.

There is an entire section in the Saṃyutta Nikāya on this topic. It is saṃyutta number 15, the “Anamataggasaṃyutta,” the “Connected Discourses on Without Discoverable Beginning”:

At Sāvatthı̄.
“Bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving. What do you think, bhikkhus, which is more: the mother’s milk that you have drunk as you roamed and wandered on through this long course — this or the water in the four great oceans?”
“As we understand the Dhamma taught by the Blessed One, venerable sir, the mother’s milk that we have drunk as we roamed and wandered on through this long course — this alone is more than the water in the four great oceans.”
“Good, good, bhikkhus! It is good that you understand the Dhamma taught by me in such a way. The mother’s milk that you have drunk as you roamed and wandered through this long course — this alone is more than the water in the four great oceans. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is enough to be liberated from them.”
– [SN 15.4]

This puts our dilemma into a much bigger context, indeed.

We have “wandered this long course” throughout infinite time and infinite kalpas. And during that time, we have been in every realm. We have been devas. We have been in the hell realms. We have been animals and hungry ghosts. We have lived in the Brahma realm. Obviously we have been human, whatever that means depending on a particular life of the universe.

We have also lived in every kind of condition. We have been men and women, rich and poor. We have been every race. We have been every species. And we have been related to each other in every way that you can imagine:

“At Sāvatthı̄. “Bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is not easy, bhikkhus, to find a being who in this long course has not previously been your mother … your father … your brother … your sister … your son … your daughter. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is enough to be liberated from them.”
– [SN 15.14-19]

This has enormous implications for how we think about our lives.

Let’s take a couple of obvious examples. The first is someone who commits suicide. They think that they are going to end their suffering. But the fact is that they just carry it into their next life.

Now I want to be clear here. This does not necessarily mean that someone who commits suicide is headed for a bad rebirth. Many people who commit suicide are good people. Something went wrong, and they decided to take their own life. But they very well may have had lots of good karma. In fact, of the people who I have known who have either committed suicide or have struggled with it, all of them have been good people. So let’s not jump to any rash judgments. This is more about how we think about what we are doing and the implications of certain actions. The point is more that people who commit suicide think that there is an end. It’s a linear notion of time.

Also, to be clear, there was an arahant during the Buddha’s time who committed suicide. This was because he suffered physically from a medical condition. He was an arahant, so obviously he did not suffer from mental anguish. So in his case suicide was simply to end the unnecessary physical suffering. He was not going to be reborn anyway, and the Buddha said that his suicide was blameless.

This brings up a related issue, and that is the right to die. A Buddhist would not see any reason to prolong suffering. You have probably seen people who hang onto this physical life in heart-wrenching ways. They want to squeeze every last minute out of this life. But that, too, would not be the Buddhist way. We are going to die. We are probably going to be reborn. That is the way the system works. So unlike almost every other religion, Buddhism is on the side of the right to die. It is more compassionate, and it fits in with the idea of infinite, beginningless time. We’ve already lived an infinite number of times, so let’s not make this one any worse than it has to be.

And this also explains the decision of the young man from Thailand to ordain rather than marry his sweetheart. From a conventional standpoint, that decision does not make any sense. But from a Buddhist standpoint, it is the only rational decision.
This brings us back to that word saṃvega. The Buddha said that there are two reactions to the futility of mundane existence. The first one is dismay, shock, horror, a sense of hopelessness, and even depression.

The other reaction is determination to find a way out. Very fortunately for us the Buddha jumped down into the manhole with us. He has been here and he knows the way out.

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Generosity

I have not done a post in quite a while. I put most of my energy into my Jātaka book project these days. I am currently working on the final edits for volume 4.

When you do a project like this – at least if you have the kind of mind that I do – you are fully involved in whatever the current story is. But as soon as you move on, you tend to forget about what you last worked on. So when I do the final proof of a book, sometimes it is like I am reading it for the first time.

I just finished proofreading Jātaka 180, which is a lovely story about generosity. And I had forgotten that at the time that I was first working on it that I heard this lovely story from Ajahn Brahm about a kind act of generosity from his time in Thailand.

Ajahn Brahm was responding to a lay follower who asked how could he learn to feel the joy of giving more. Ajahn Brahm answered that one way to do that is to look at the inspiring stories of other people who give. He went on to tell several stories of giving that are very inspirational.

One of them is about a young teenage girl from Thailand. She was very poor and lived in a poor village there. She was also brain damaged from birth, and she could not speak. But the villagers looked after her, and she was very devoted to the temple and the monks.

One day Ajahn Brahm was sweeping the back of the temple, and he sensed that someone had snuck in. He thought maybe the temple was being robbed. So he very quietly peeked around the corner, and there he saw this young girl. She was looking around cautiously to see if anyone was watching. Then she went up to the alter, put something there, and then turned around and ran out the door.

Ajahn Brahm went up to the altar to see what she had put there. What he saw was a very crudely made origami lotus flower. She was probably embarrassed that anyone would know who had made it. But she had made this gift from the goodness of her heart. It was the best that she could do, and it was the most that she could give.

This is the joy that comes from a kind and generous heart. And of course Ajahn Brahm made sure that none of the other monks removed that lotus flower from the altar.

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Killing in Self Defense

“For this cause I am prepared to die. But there is no cause for which I am prepared to kill.” – Mahatma Gandhi

A friend of mine who teaches meditation had a student ask her this past week what the Buddha had to say about killing in self defense. It is great question. It is simple and direct, and those are always the best kinds of questions. And it raises all kinds of issues in the Buddha’s teaching.

One way to look at what the Buddha taught is that he described a universe of causes and conditions. His teachings on ethics and morality lack the punitive, judgmental quality of theism. It is more like the law of gravity. Our karma is determined by a) the intention behind our actions and b) the skillfulness of our actions. The first part of that equation is important in that if, for example, you are walking in the grass and you unknowingly step on and kill an ant, there is no karmic effect because there was no intention. If, on the other hand, you are walking on a sidewalk and you see an ant and step on it, then there is a karmic effect because there was an unskillful intention.

Even if we find a way to rationalize something harmful that we have done, the unskillful act leaves a negative impression on our consciousness. Deep down we know that what we have done is harmful. These actions sometimes come up in our meditation. In the still mind, we suddenly see clearly something that we did that caused pain and suffering. The stillness of the mind cuts through the rationalizations, and we see the karmic effect. But even this can be used in a positive way. It is an incentive to be more careful in how we act in the future. It is a healthy, useful way to look at our past, unskillful actions. We can’t change what we have done, but we can use it as an incentive not to do it again.

There is another aspect to karma that is important to mention, and that is that karma is not deterministic. This is a common misunderstanding. Aṇgulimāla was a serial killer, but he became an Arahat. That was possible because what is most important is the decisions that we make now, in the present moment. When that tsumani occurred in the Pacific, some Buddhists said that all those people died because of their karma. This is a complete misunderstanding of karma. The tsunami happened because tectonic plates moved.

Of course, we are always looking for loopholes. That seems quite human to me. But the Buddha never described any loopholes when it comes to killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, or lying. Despite that, many schools of Buddhism – maybe even most of them – try all sorts of end runs around them. This is especially true of the precept on sexual misconduct. It is disturbingly bazaar how many prominent teachers have used their positions and power to take advantage of their female students. (I am not aware of any cases where a female teacher has done this to a male student.)

Likewise, even some of the most famous Buddhist teachers in the world, some of them even Buddhist monks, have written treatises on when violence is justified. You see this in the politics of Asia where – currently – the Burmese are trying to justify their atrocious treatment of their Muslim minority, and in Sri Lanka where the Tamil/Hindu minority is treated just as badly.

But the Buddha was quite clear that killing is never justified. He gave some pretty extreme examples. There is this famous passage from the Majjhima Nikāya:

“Bhikkhus, even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hate towards them would not be carrying out my teaching. Herein, bhikkhus, you should train thus: ‘Our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving-kindness, without inner hate. We shall abide pervading them with a mind imbued with loving-kindness; and starting with them, we shall abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will.’ That is how you should train, bhikkhus.”

– “Kakacūpama Sutta: The Simile of the Saw” [MN 21.20]

There is also a wonderful passage in the Saṃyutta Nikāya about a conversation between a deva and the Buddha. The deva asked the Buddha who can you kill and still sleep soundly? Then she asked who can you kill and not feel sorrow. Finally she asked the Buddha who the Buddha would approve of killing:

“Having slain what does one sleep soundly?

Having slain what does one not sorrow?

What is the one thing, O Gotama,

Whose killing you approve?”

In his usual clever turn of phrase, the Buddha replied that the only thing that he approves killing is anger:

“Having slain anger, one sleeps soundly;

Having slain anger, one does not sorrow;

The killing of anger, O Vatrabhū,

With its poisoned root and honeyed tip:

This is the killing the noble ones praise,

For having slain that, one does not sorrow.”

– “Māgha Sutta” [SN 2.3]

I love that phrase “With its poisoned root and honeyed tip.” The Buddha often described the deadly sweetness of anger. There is something energizing about anger. It is very enticing in that way. It makes us feel powerful in a destructive, malicious sort of way, thus the “poisoned root and honeyed tip.”

But there is another aspect to the notion of “self defense.” It has at its core a basic misunderstanding, and that is that the body is the same as the “self.” It is “me.” The question about “self defense” actually means defending the body, not the “self.” The Buddha was quite clear that the body – being one of the five aggregates – is not “me” at all. It is just, as the famous phrase goes, “the body, in and of itself.” The body dies, but the process that we call “me” continues into the next life.

In fact, I would argue that if we want to practice true “self defense,” we would never consider killing because of the harmful, negative effect it has on our continuing consciousness and our karma. Who cares about this body? It is really only useful in how we can use it to advance in our practice. We care for it, as the analogy goes, in the same way that a cavalryman looks after his horse. The cavalryman depends on his horse for his very life, so he cares for it, trains it, and keeps it healthy. But he never thinks of his horse as being “me.”

Personally, I would give this body up in a heartbeat rather than suffer the misery that would come from killing. That includes animals as well as people. It means any living being. I also think that as our practice deepens, our compassion for others – even someone who kills us – gets so deep, that killing another being simply to keep this body alive a little longer becomes instinctive.

I was at a retreat many years ago where there was a big colony of ants on one of the sidewalks. Someone put up a sign warning people to be careful of the ants. I didn’t think much of it at the time. But then some years ago I realized how carefully I walk so I do not accidentally kill any insects. I think that is just how the practice works. It gets into your bones after a while. This is, after all, what the Buddha’s path is about: abandoning unwholesome conduct and cultivating wholesome conduct.

All living beings want to live, from the ants on the sidewalk to the person trying to kill us. However, we also try to stop another person from killing from compassion, so they do not have to suffer the karmic consequences of their actions. That would not mean killing them, but it would mean trying to stop them.

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Racism and the Dharma

There is an article in today’s Washington Post about a bizarre incident that took place at Lehigh University last year. A student from China was the roommate of a black man from the U.S. During their senior semester, there were a series of disturbing incidents involving their room being vandalized, racist notes being left, and a series of illnesses for the black man.

It turns out that the Chinese student was the culprit. The black student is puzzled as to why this suddenly happened. They had known each other for a number of years, and he thought they got along just fine.

This is a grim reminder that racism, sexism, and prejudice exist everywhere. I was in Silver City, New Mexico last spring, and a woman at the hotel where I was staying told me about racially charged remarks made by an Indian from Jemez Pueblo about the Navajo.

It is so easy to divide the world up in arbitrary ways, into the good guys and the bad guys. I heard a Dharma teacher recently mention multiple times the “patriarchal history of Buddhism.” I think that is quite an overstatement. If you read enough of the Pāli Canon you get a very even-handed view of gender and social status. In the Buddha’s time, then as now, India was a very status driven society. I think that most people know about the caste system in India. It was not quite as deeply divided during the Buddha’s time as it is now, but all of the modern-day divisions were in place.

But the Buddha’s own teaching is free from those divisions. Such is the case with the monk Venerable Upāli. Upāli was a barber, which was one of the lowest level professions in the Buddha’s home country of Sakya. But Upāli not only became a monk, he was one of the ten chief disciples of the Buddha. At the First Buddhist Council, Upāli recited the monastic code, being “foremost in the Vinaya.”

And at a time when women were treated as little more than servants, the Buddha famously ordained women as monastics. This story often gets mistold. The key fact that is often mistold is that when the Buddha’s step-mother, Pajapati, asked to ordain, we are told that the Buddha refused. However, when I read the actual account in the Pāli Canon, I noticed a subtle difference. It is a difference that I later discovered that Buddhist scholars and monks have also noticed. That difference is that the Buddha did not refuse to ordain Pajapati. He asked her to “carefully consider what she was asking.”

In a sexist society such as India, the reality of a woman samaṇa was highly problematical. Samaṇa depend on alms food. It was not clear that people would even give alms food to a woman. A woman who traveled in India at the time who was not under the protection of her father, a brother, or her husband had no legal protection under the law. They were fair game. So the Buddha was simply asking his step-mother to make sure that she understood the implications of what she was asking.

But back to the issue of prejudice. The Buddha’s teaching is a level playing field. It is based on the quality and skill of your actions: your thoughts, words, and deeds. Further, the Buddha taught that through infinite time, we have all been every kind of person that you can imagine. We have all been men and women, every race and sexual preference. We have all been in every kind of relationship that you can imagine. We have been each other’s mothers and daughters, brothers and sisters, fathers and sons. We have hated each other and been best of friends. This is the endless churning of the world of saṃsāra:

At Sāvatthı̄. “Bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is not easy, bhikkhus, to find a being who in this long course has not previously been your mother … your father … your brother … your sister … … your son … your daughter. For what reason? Because, bhikkhus, this saṃsāra is without discoverable beginning…. It is enough to be liberated from them.” – [SN 15.14-19]

The Abhidhamma goes even further. It breaks human experience into specific mind states, 52 of them to be precise. These mind states are experienced by everyone. It is the mind broken down into atomic units. This is the entire realm of human experience.

It has become a convention to look at racism as the domain of white people. There is, of course, a lot of history behind that. But to view racism as a white phenomenon is simple-minded and foolish. This is true for gender bias, as well. The issue is more fundamental than that. We are all capable of all of these feelings.

This is why I am puzzled by so-called Buddhist institutions that have made white racism part of their calling card. It is to deny the existence of all the other forms of racism in the world. It does an end run around a basic tenet of the Dharma that only one thing matters, and that is the quality of a person’s character. No one is denied the opportunity to be loving, compassionate, kind, and generous. And no one automatically gets the moral high ground because they are male or female, white, black or whatever, transgender, gay, or straight:

Whoever does no wrong

in body,

speech,

heart,

is restrained in these three ways:

he’s what I call

a brahman. – [Dhp 391]

In this lifetime we have manifested in a particular way. But in the next lifetime, who knows how we will be? “Walk a mile in my shoes,” – in everyones’ shoes – because in the next life, those shoes may be yours.

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Compassion

I heard an extraordinary story today that I would like to share with you. It is a story told by Ajahn Brahm. If you would like to hear the entire Dharma talk, you can find it here. Start at about minute 48 for this story.

You may know that Buddhism has a history with animals. Many monasteries became sanctuaries for animals. The animals seem to know that they are safe there. At Abhayagiri Monastery in California, there are many deer. And in Thailand there is the famous Tiger monk, where even animals that are natural enemies live together in harmony.

Ajahn Brahm’s story is about a monk who went to live alone in the jungle. After a while, even a human being just becomes part of the scenery. Even I have experienced this here in New Mexico. Especially when you are meditating, animals have no reason to fear you. They will simply go about their business. When I was in India I meditated at Jetavana. When I opened my eyes, I was surrounded by monkeys and parrots.

So this monk was living in the jungle in his little hut. Sometimes he would leave a little food for the animals. Probably without even knowing it, he earned their trust. They knew that they were safe around him.

One night he heard a knock on the door. Now, you can imagine that he wondered who could possibly be at his hut in the middle of the night. When he opened the door, he saw a female monkey. She was holding a baby in her arms. She offered the baby to the monk, who saw that it was dead. The grief on her face was obvious. But the mother monkey clearly knew that there was something kind and compassionate about the monk. She was looking for comfort. So he held the baby for a while and then gently gave it back to the mother, who took it and disappeared back into the jungle.

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The Third Recollection

The Yaksa asked, “What is the most wonderful thing?”

Yudhisthira Maharaj replied, “The most wonderful thing is that although everyday innumerable humans and their animals go to the abode of death, still a man thinks he is immortal.”

– [Mahabharata, Meditation 128: The Lake of Death]

There is an old joke that Buddhists spend their whole lives preparing for death, and there is some truth to that. We are constantly being reminded that we are all subject to aging, sickness, and death. In one of the most common Pāli chants, The Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection, the first three recollections are just that. The fourth recollection is that when we die “all that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.” [AN 5.57]

For most people, that sounds pretty depressing. But in the Buddha’s teaching, death is a natural and normal part of life. It is most definitely not a cause for grief, torment, and anguish. As one Tibetan teacher once told me, “In a certain sense, there is no such thing as death. There is simply the next moment.”

Death for a Buddhist is a simple reality. It is also a tool. While we are living, the recollection of death gives us a healthy sense of urgency. This life is precious. It is an opportunity to do something important. We have this chance to develop the path. When we die, we do not know how we will be reborn. So now, while we can, we need to devote ourselves to the path. And we need to train our minds so when the moment of death does come, we will be prepared, and we will not be subject to the whims and fears of a wild, untrained mind.

That sense of urgency is not limited to Buddhist training. My father died five days before my 18th birthday. It happened suddenly. The night before he died, we had an argument, so my last words to my father were angry ones. It took me a very long time to get over his death, and there was a lot of guilt over the argument. But when I did finally get over it, what I learned was not to put things off. Treat people as if you will never see them again. Never put off telling someone that you love them. Death can come at any time to anyone. It happens every day. Live your life with that thought always in mind.

That lesson came in very handy some years later. Shortly after my father died, I met the man who would become my father-in-law. We were close almost from the very beginning. In retrospect, we had a very unusual relationship. We did things together all the time. It all felt normal and natural.

Then we got the phone call. He was only in his mid-50’s, but he had a heart attack and died just as suddenly as my own father had. I was in shock and upset, of course, but the bigger part of me was grateful. I had been given a second chance, and while I was sad that he was gone, the larger part of me was simply grateful that we had the time together that we did. The glass was more than half full.

When the time of our own death comes, it is very important to have a calm and supportive environment. People who have had near death experiences tell us how sensitive the consciousness is at the moment of death. So it is very important to be around people who will be calm and loving. For many Buddhists, having a monk or a nun in attendance is a wonderful boon. Conversely, being in an emergency room full of frantic nurses and doctors and loudly screaming machines and wailing family members is without doubt a worst-case scenario.

My mother died in 2012, and she was in a coma for the last week of her life. Because I knew about near death experiences and the state of the consciousness, I spent a lot of time with her. And after she died, I spent the entire night with her, thinking thoughts of gentle loving-kindness. It was actually quite wonderful for me. My final hours with my mother were spent in love and gratitude for all of the kind things that she did for me and all the good things that she gave to me. By the end of the night, I was completely at ease with her death, and I never really experienced any grief. What I did experience was love and gratitude.

During our death and after our death, the trained mind gives us a better chance to either escape from the rounds of rebirth completely, or to at least have an auspicious rebirth, one where we can continue the practice. This is not necessarily a human rebirth, as some schools of Buddhism believe. We know from the Buddha’s teachings that there are once returners and non-returners who are reborn in the heavenly realms. And if you don’t have to worry about a fussy human body and all of its relentless demands, and you don’t have to deal with so many cranky people and getting an education and finding a job and paying a mortgage, etc., doing the practice may be quite a bit easier.

Because of the Buddha’s teachings and his transcendent understanding of existence, we are very fortunate to have a rational, sensible way to think about life and death. This is why those of us who are his followers are so deeply grateful to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṇgha. Without the Three Jewels, we are just lost, wandering around in the desert with no way out.

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Non-self

One of the most fascinating teachings of the Buddha is the one on anatta, non-self. Not surprisingly, it is enormously misunderstood.

The Buddha was focused on one thing, and that is teaching us how to escape from dukkha (suffering/stress/unsatisfactoriness) and to attain the liberation of nirvana. He was relentless in his single-minded devotion to that objective.

What he did not do was to describe the ultimate nature of reality. Rather, he said that if you follow his course of training, you will see it for yourself. He also seems to have been skeptical that if you tried to understand the ultimate nature of reality without seeing it for yourself, that you would not understand it anyway. Nirvana, he said, is “the unconditioned.” It lies beyond time and space. It defies conventional notions.

This is very important to remember when undertaking the Buddha’s system of training. His teaching is designed to help us to become free from dukkha. This is true of the teaching on non-self as well. The Buddha actually abstained from saying whether the self actually exists. In Buddhism the ultimate nature of the self is called one of the “ten indeterminate questions.” (Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta, MN 72). He even went on to say that pondering these questions is a hindrance to awakening:

Therefore, oh monks, do not brood over [any of these views] Such brooding, Oh monks, is senseless, has nothing to do with genuine pure conduct, does not lead to aversion, detachment, extinction, nor to peace, to full comprehension, enlightenment and Nibbāna, etc.– [SN 56]

So the Buddha’s teaching on non-self is not a statement about ultimate reality. It is, as Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu says, a strategy.

This is one reason why the practice of jhāna – meditative absorption – is so important. At some point, when your concentration is very good, you will feel a sense of freedom. It is temporary and conditioned, of course, but it gives you a taste of the possibilities of freedom when you fully awaken.

And when you are very concentrated, you can turn your attention to the feeling of “me.” The deeper your concentration is, the more likely you are to feel the sense of “me” weakening. As Ayya Khema says, the less “me” there is, the more free you feel. There is significantly less stress. And when you attain stream-entry, the sense of “me” disappears completely.

Something else you can see – and this is clearest in the fourth jhāna – is how much energy we put into protecting this sense of “me.” Our discursive thinking – our internal dialog – is all designed to protect that sense of “me.” This is why when the mind starts to quiet down, it will rebel. There may even be a sense of panic. This is because the perception of “me” is dying, and it will fight to survive. This is where patience and persistence are critical. You must gently ease the mind back into quiet, serenity, and stillness.

It can be useful at that stage to tap into the feeling of joy, happiness, and freedom that come with the still mind. In other words, rather than paying attention to the stress and fear of the still mind, turn your attention to the peace of stillness. In that way we focus on the positive aspect of the stillness rather than the negative.

You will hear it said – because it is true – that when you awaken, the issue of whether the self exists or not is irrelevant. What is left is only the sense of ease, peace, tranquility, and freedom. You are simply happy. The mind is clear. Concepts and opinions fall away. There is just this.

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