Wesak 2022

Today is Wesak day, which is the most important day in the Buddhist calendar. It is the first full moon day in May. According to the Buddhist tradition, the Buddha was born on this day, he attained enlightenment on this day, and he passed away on this day.

Somewhat in honor of Wesak 2022, I have rewritten a paper I wrote years ago called “What the Buddha Taught“. It is a tribute to the depth and breadth of the Buddha’s teaching that this topic is not easily described. Some years ago I wrote a completely different paper with this same name, but I was never happy with it.

I think this one is somewhat better. Let me know what you think. You can also access it from the Papers and Project tab.

Happy Wesak.

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Turning 70

I turn 70 next month and this seems like a particularly auspicious birthday. Of course, for me that is not saying much. Birthdays have not had much meaning for me in the past. I remember one year I was at work preparing to go home when I suddenly realized that it was my birthday! So needless to say, birthdays have not been a big event for me.

Bur turning 70 feels different, and I think that is because it feels like a real cause for celebration. I have had an extraordinary life, one that I could not even have imagined when I was a child. I grew up in a rather sheltered way, and yet I have gone on to a great life with great adventures.

But having said that, it could have gone terribly wrong.

Yesterday I was driving through the Cottonwood district of Albuquerque. I go through there a lot, and there are often homeless people there asking for help. Curiously the Pāli word for monk is “bhikkhu,” which literally means beggar.

So I was stopped at a red light and I offered up a $5 bill to just such a homeless person. But when I looked into his eyes, I did not see an “other” person. I saw myself. I felt like I was looking into a different manifestation of me.

This is, of course, what the Buddhist teachings tell us. Whatever person or animal or any being you see, you have been that person in the past. You may be that person in the future.

Like most people my life has had its ups and downs. Life can be like walking on a narrow plank. If you step one way you fall into misery and despair. If you step the other way you land in joy and happiness. And I have had times in my life where it all could have gone terribly, disastrously wrong.

I think that is why when I see someone like my homeless friend, or someone who is in despair—even committed suicide—or in prison, I think about what my Christian brothers and sisters say: “There but for the grace of God go I.”

But for whatever reason, whenever I was on the brink of disaster, something happened to save me. And the greatest thing that saved me was the Dharma, and the Dharma is the greatest savior of all.

The world is a very uncertain place. Does anyone not believe that? This is the Buddha’s teaching on impermanence, inconstancy.

Look at where we are now. The pandemic. Political instability. Climate change.

But has the world really ever been different? When I hear people talk about how bad things are, I invite them to read Barbara Tuckman’s book A Distant Mirror. If you think things are bad now, take a look at the Middle Ages. Even in our recent past we had Nazis and the First World War. It goes on and on and on back through time. And someday the sun will go supernova. The whole planet will blow up. That is really going to ruin your day.

But inside of all this incredible chaos is shelter from the storm. In Buddhism we call them the Three Refuges: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṇgha.

I have always loved the image of a refuge. I lived in New England for most of my life, and New England is largely a story of the sea. The coast is full of refuges, safe harbors. Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Portland, Maine. Salem, Gloucester, Marblehead, and Boston in Massachusetts. There are the iconic whaling harbors of Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and New Bedford.

When you see these places from land, they look one way. But when you see them from the vastness of the ocean, they look quite different. If you were a sailor in the 19th century, you may have spent two or three years on the uncertainty of the oceans. It is quite the metaphor for life.

But then you arrive home. There it is, the glassy stillness, serenity, and safety of Salem Harbor.

This is what the Three Refuges are. They are the one place of safety in a dangerous, uncertain world.

There is a great deal of comfort in that. But it isn’t some superficial kind of comfort. It is substantial. We look around at all of the uncertainties of life. It is just as the reflection on the Five Subjects for Frequent Recollection [AN 5.57] tells us:

I am of the nature to age, I have not gone beyond aging.

I am of the nature to sicken, I have not gone beyond sickness.

I am of the nature to die, I have not gone beyond dying.

All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.

I find that last line particularly poignant. Everything you know will disappear. Everyone you know will die. The planet itself will vaporize.

And yet, there is this great big, warm security blanket. And it is reliable. It is constant. It is the glassy stillness of Salem harbor. And ultimately it brings us to final liberation and release from the relentless wandering through the uncertain existence that is saṃsara.

But as the infomercials tell us, wait! There’s more! And that is the unimaginable joy that Dharma practice brings us.

Because of the way that the Dharma is sometimes couched, it feels rather negative. We hear a lot about renunciation. We see monks and nuns who are celibate. They only eat one meal a day. They live in little huts and only wear simple robes. It seems pretty dismal, from the outside, at least.

But as your practice deepens—and I truly hope that you get to experience this if you have not already—there is a joy that goes way beyond anything you can experience in the conventional world. The pleasures of the conventional world seem gross and even revolting. The Pāli word is nibidda. It means “revulsion.”

A way to understand this is through food. Suppose you ate at this wonderful, world class restaurant and you had this amazing meal. And the next day your only option was to eat at McDonald’s.

This world class restaurant is the joy of a deep Dharma practice.

The Three Refuges are also called “The Three Jewels.” I remember years ago reading a description of The Three Jewels by a Tibetan lama. I think he was a tulku, a reincarnate lama. And the way in which he described The Three Jewels was so vibrant that it felt to me that this was not just some metaphor for him. He really saw The Three Jewels as literal jewels. They were overwhelmingly bright and dazzling and sparkling. They dominated his space like bright sunlight.

Ayya Khema uses this image to practice metta, lovingkindness. She invites us to imagine a bright sun glowing in our hearts and minds, our citta. This light is metta. It fills our whole being. We are completely immersed in it. It shines on everyone without discrimination. It makes us radiate with lovingkindness. We are lovingkindness. In fact, we disappear. There is only metta.

And as your practice deepens, you may experience metta in just that way. You may experience The Three Jewels in just that way. And the world, with all of its uncertainties, pain, anger, hostility, violence, and greed… it all falls away.

A lot of people criticize this as being escapist. Yes! It is! It is escaping from the prison of saṃsara. If you were in an actual prison, wouldn’t you want to get out?

And when you do escape, as Ayya Khema once intimated, you enter the world of nirvāṇa. Nirvāṇa lies beyond time and space. It is the very fabric of being, or perhaps more properly, non-being. In entering that world, your boundless love, compassion, and wisdom also become part of the fabric of being/non-being. And from that, all beings throughout time and space benefit.

In this context, wearing robes and eating one meal a day and abstaining from sex hardly matter. I mean, crikey.

The fact is, I may not make it to 70. It is still nearly a month away as I write this. This, too, is a teaching of the Buddha. We are only, perhaps, ever a moment away from this life ending. But it is not really an ending, is it? It is just a transition from this life to the next. But the good news, especially if we have found and practiced the Dharma, is that we take that with us. In fact, it is the only thing we take with us. Whatever good qualities we have developed, our kindness, our compassion, our wisdom and generosity, they go with us. The goodness we have received from good friends, that we take with us. And that is a cause for joy, not grief. It is a cause for celebration.

And so as I face 70—ailing, creaky body and all—I celebrate.

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Thich Nhat Hahn

Thich Nhat Hahn—“Thây” to his students—died a few days ago on January 22. He was one of the great Buddhist monks and figures of the 20th century. And I was very blessed to have had him as one of my earliest teachers when I started practicing in the 1990’s.

In any life, you have to feel blessed to have just one person in your life like a Thich Nhat Hahn. I have been extremely blessed to have had more than one of them. That is why it is impossible for me to live even one day without boundless gratitude.

There is a famous passage in the Pāli Canon in which the Buddha’s attendant Ānanda says that good friendship is “half of the holy life.” The Buddha replies that it is, in fact, the entire holy life:

[Ānanda:] “Venerable sir, this is half of the holy life, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship.”

[Buddha:] “Not so, Ānanda! Not so, Ānanda! This is the entire holy life, Ānanda, that is, good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship. When a bhikkhu has a good friend, a good companion, a good comrade, it is to be expected that he will develop and cultivate the Noble Eightfold Path.”
— [SN 45.2]

In a Buddhist sense, good friendship is friendship with an arahant, someone who is fully awakened. This is because an arahant opens us up to the possibilities of life. We can see a living manifestation of the Dharma. “Oh,” we say, “life could be like this. I could be like this.” All those ideals of the Dharma go from being vague possibilities to being living realities.

Thây was like that. He was a living embodiment of the Dharma. He didn’t express lovingkindness, he was lovingkindness. The Dharma didn’t come from him, it flowed through him.

I watched his funerary rites last evening on YouTube, and I was struck by several things. First and foremost was simply how beautiful it all was. The monks and nuns were wearing pristine robes. The Dharma Hall was immaculate. The lay people were neat and clean and reverent.

But I also did not detect any sadness. This was not grief over something lost, but the celebration of something great. Death has a central role in Buddhist practice. There is this old joke that Buddhists spend their entire lives preparing for death, and there is some truth to that. It was the contemplation of death that led, in fact, to the Buddha’s own spiritual quest.

The Buddha famously was born into a life of wealth, power, and privilege. But when he considered the inevitably of his own death, all of this seemed meaningless:

But I too am subject to death, not safe from death, and so it cannot befit me to be shocked, humiliated and disgusted on seeing another who is dead.’ When I considered this, the vanity of life entirely left me.”
— [AN 3:38]

Ajahn Brahm says that when he was in Thailand, his monastery was the only place in that area that could perform funeral rites, so he got to see a lot of them. But he also says that in the many years he was part of those rites, he never saw anyone express grief.

For a Buddhist death is simply a part of the cycle of life. According to the Buddha’s teachings, we are born, we live, we die, and then we are reborn. To mourn death is like mourning the winter. Spring always follows. There is nothing to mourn.

And when someone passes out of our lives, no one can take away from us the goodness and kindness we received from that person.

There is this lovely story in the Pāli Canon that speaks to this issue. It is an exchange between the Buddha and Ānanda after Sāriputta died. Ānanda and Sāriputta were very close. They famously solved a dispute at the monastery at Kosambī. And Ānanda revered Sāriputta. He was very devoted to him, But Ānanda—at the time of Sāriputta’s death—was “only” a stream-enterer. He was not fully awakened. He still had defilements. And when Sāriputta died, Ānanda was overwhelmed with grief.

This is from my biography of the Buddha:

Once when the Buddha was staying at Jetavana, Sāriputta’s younger brother Cunda came to visit him. He gave the Buddha the news that Sāriputta had died. Ānanda was particularly distraught. The Buddha gave Ānanda some particularly compassionate but poignant advice:

[Ānanda] “Venerable sir, since I heard that the Venerable Sāriputta has attained final nibbāna, my body seems as if it has been drugged, I have become disoriented, the teachings are no longer clear to me.”

“Why, Ānanda, when Sāriputta attained final nibbāna, did he take away your aggregate of virtue, or your aggregate of concentration, or your aggregate of wisdom, or your aggregate of liberation, or your aggregate of the knowledge and vision of liberation?”

“No, he did not, venerable sir. But for me the Venerable Sāriputta was an advisor and counselor, one who instructed, exhorted, inspired, and gladdened me. He was unwearying in teaching the Dhamma; he was helpful to his brothers in the holy life. We recollect the nourishment of Dhamma, the wealth of Dhamma, the help of Dhamma given by the Venerable Sāriputta.”

“But have I not already declared, Ānanda, that we must be parted, separated, and severed from all who are dear and agreeable to us? How, Ānanda, is it to be obtained here: ‘May what is born, come to be, conditioned, and subject to disintegration not disintegrate!’? That is impossible. It is just as if the largest branch would break off a great tree standing possessed of heartwood. So too, Ānanda, in the great Bhikkhu Saṇgha standing possessed of heartwood, Sāriputta has attained final nibbāna. How, Ānanda, is it to be obtained here?

“May what is born, come to be, conditioned, and subject to disintegration not disintegrate? That is impossible.

“Therefore, Ānanda, dwell with yourselves as your own island, with yourselves as your own refuge, with no other refuge; dwell with the Dhamma as your island, with the Dhamma as your refuge, with no other refuge… Those bhikkhus, Ānanda, either now or after I am gone, who dwell with themselves as their own island, with themselves as their own refuge, with no other refuge; who dwell with the Dhamma as their island, with the Dhamma as their refuge, with no other refuge – it is these bhikkhus, Ānanda, who will be for me topmost of those keen on the training.”
— [SN 47.II.3]

The word translated here as “island” is the Pāli word dipa. It can also mean “lamp.” This passage works equally well either way. Be a lamp unto yourself. Be an island, a refuge unto yourself. The Buddha may have once again used the double meaning of a word to poetic effect.

In this particularly beautiful passage we see Ānanda’s reverence for Sāriputta. But the Buddha gently reminded Ānanda that this is the way of the world. Sāriputta’s “attaining final nibbāna” did not deprive Ānanda of any of the merit he had gained through his own efforts. The Buddha urged Ānanda to be his own island, to be a refuge for himself, and to use the Dharma as a refuge. This is one of the most famous passages in Buddhism.

It was very beautiful for me to see that Thây’s funeral was just such a celebration. He influenced the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Mine was one of them. Thây may be physically gone, but the great gift that he gave to me and so many others can never be taken away. Thank you, Thây. Safe travels.

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Fear and Anxiety

I listen to many Dharma talks. I am sure that over the years I have listened to thousands of them. And, of course, you hear the same topics covered repeatedly, and you also hear the same questions asked repeatedly.

One question that I hear a lot is from people who suffer from a psychological problem. It might be depression, anxiety, attention deficit disorder, PTSD, and so on. And these people want to know if the Buddhist path can help them to overcome these problems.

And over the years I have heard many (many, many, many…) responses to these questions, but I have never heard a response that I thought was wholly satisfactory until today. I was listening to a Dharma talk by Ajahn Brahmali at the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. You can watch the whole talk at https://youtu.be/WgLkn2c1C70. The talk itself is about generosity, so the question about anxiety is not in that context. But if you want to skip ahead to the question itself and Ajahn Brahmali’s response, skip ahead to the 1:40:33 mark. But if you just want to read his response. a transcript of his answer is here:

Question: I have anxiety disorder. I am not fully recovered as it’s a disorder. How should I proceed so I can get better? I also fear death due to anxiety.

Ajahn Brahmali: The Buddha does not talk about specific disorders of the mind. The [Buddha’s path] is like a general path towards well-being. It doesn’t talk about disorders. But of course, if you use that general path, that general path will work for everyone. But for many of these disorders, you have to actually use professional help. This is what you are probably doing already, which is good, and then you can add a bit of Buddhism on top of that. But the most important thing is probably professional help. But I can give you some ideas of what to do.

And one of the things is that a large part of these kinds of disorders is a disorder… it’s a cognitive distortion. It’s the way you think about the world which is the problem. It’s like depression. Depression comes very often because we think about the world in the wrong way. We think about things that are hopeless or bad or whatever, and we need to change that attitude to see the goodness in the world, the goodness in ourselves, and then optimism can return. And depression can be cured entirely in that way.

And you may have noticed that. Most people may have had some episodes of depression in their life. And [when] you compare that depressive episode with a happy one and you will see that the nature of how you think is really the critical thing there.

It is the same thing with anxiety disorder. It is about re-thinking the world, thinking about the world in a different way. Anxiety comes from usually worrying about the future. The kind of fear anxiety has. So looking at the future with fearful eyes. You think the future has something negative in store for you.

But this is not necessary. You don’t have to see the future as dangerous. It is kind of interesting. I notice how many people in the present world are very worried about climate change, about political instability, about Covid—even though Covid seems to be the least of our problems, yeah? There are many problems much worse than Covid. Still, people are worried about these things, and obviously for very good reasons. There are very good reasons to be worried about these things.

But from a Buddhist point of view, your future is not determined by Covid. Your future is not determined by climate change. Your future is not determined by political instability in the world. Your future is determined by the goodness of your heart. That is what determines where you are going to go in this life and also in future lives.

So to overcome this anxiety, become a better person. Do the right thing. Live in a good way. Remind yourself that you are a good person, that you are doing the right thing. Don’t be afraid of praising yourself when you deserve praise… not in a way of kind of getting at the ego, but just to feel good about yourself. And then when you live well, gradually it comes to you that I have a good future. It becomes obvious if you have a heart that is full of kindness and love for the world, all fear about the future disappears. Because when you are full of these positive emotions, it is impossible to fear and have anxiety at the same time.

So develop these good emotions. And then you start to lose your anxiety about what the future is about. Because it becomes impossible. It becomes incompatible. So think in this way. Practice the Buddha’s teaching in the right way, and gradually—it may take a long time—but gradually you will be able to overcome these things.

One of the marvelous things about Buddhism, where Buddhism is very different from almost all the rest of the world, is that we understand the conditioned nature of our minds, that there is nothing inherent that is the real you. And because there is nothing inherent that is the real you, it means nothing is solid. Nothing has to be there. Everything can be conditioned out of you. This is the great hope of the Buddhist path. And this hope is there for you. If someone tells you that this is an anxiety disorder that you always have to have, don’t believe them. It is not true.

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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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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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