Friday, July 27, 2012

'Composed in a Dream,' by Baisao


Composed in a Dream
the 30th Day of the 10th Month
the 3rd Year of Kampo (1743)
Pain and poverty
poverty and pain
life stripped to bone
absolute nothingness
only one thing left
a bright cold moon
in the midnight window
illumining a Zen mind
on its homeward way

The above is a poem by Baisao (1675 -1763), an eccentric Japanese Zen master, and is taken from the book 'The Old Tea Seller: Life and Poetry in 18th Century Kyoto,' by Norman Waddell, p.159. For a review of this fantastic book, please click here: 
Review: The Old Tea Seller.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Review: The Healing Power of the Breath, by Brown & Gerbarg



Scientific & medical experts are really starting to examine & utilize meditation & mindfulness techniques. Usually taken or adapted from time-honored practices found in Buddhism and other similar traditions, these techniques are now being incorporated into modern medicine. A fine example of this is the work being done by Richard P. Brown, MD & Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD, the authors of The Healing Power of the Breath. In this ground-breaking book, the two professors of psychiatry (who are married to each other) present practical breath-based techniques for calming the mind & body. They also document research backing up ancient claims that such techniques are solutions to everyday stress and mood problems. Indeed, they argue that the exercises upon which this work is based can relieve stress-related anxiety, depression, insomnia, and trauma-induced psychiatric problems.

"Breathing can alleviate negative feelings, such as fear, anxiety, frustration, anger, depression, self-blame, confusion, restlessness, and physical discomforts. With regular practice over time breathwork can bring improvements in physical health, physical endurance, and resilience. But breathing is not just a treatment for life's ills,; it can also enhance pleasurable and creative activities such as musical performance, writing, team sports, or just being with nature. Breath practices nurture positive emotions, loving feelings, compassion, our sense of connection with what is meaningful in life, and our sense of bonding with others."
(The Healing Power of the Breath, pp.58-59)

Whilst not a Buddhist book as such, The Healing Power of the Breath should be of interest to any modern-minded Buddhist interested in the areas of mindfulness application and medicinal meditation. To more tradition-orientated Buddhists, however, it may seem somewhat superfluous to requirements in that it doesn't address the central Buddhist objective of nirvana. For the latter, then, this work is probably not worth the cover price, whereas for the former, it could prove an extremely worthwhile purchase. Moreover, for all those who are not interested in Buddhism (or any other 'ism,' for that matter), Brown & Gerbarg have written a potentially life-changing book.

This is a big claim, but for those of us suffering from anxiety, depression, ADD (attention deficit disorder), PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), or other psychiatric problems, The Healing Power of the Breath contains the means to radically improve our lives. In it, the two authors introduce several breath-based exercises that can calm down those using them and help them find a peaceful space within themselves. The main practices are called 'Coherent Breathing,' 'Breath Moving,' 'Resistance Breathing' & a combination of the three called 'the Complete Practice.' Due to lack of space & time, this review cannot go into great detail of all the techniques presented in the book, so it will suffice to describe the first, basic practice called Coherent Breathing,' as the other exercises are built upon this one.

"Coherent Breathing is a simple way to increase heart-rate variability and balance the stress-response systems. When scientists tested people at all possible breathing rates, they found that there is an ideal breath rate fir each person, somewhere between three and a half and six breaths per minute fir adults using equal time for breathing in and breathing out, a sweet spot where the HRV is maximized and the electronic rhythms of the heart, lungs, and brain become synchronized. Modern researchers have called this the resonant rate,but this phenomenon has been known fir centuries by religious adepts in many cultures. For example, when Zen Buddhist monks enter deep meditation, called zazen, they breathe at six breaths per minute."
(Ibid. p.12)

Along with the other breath practices in the book, this technique is found in a guided exercise on the accompanying CD. Narrated by Richard P. Brown, this five minute exercise takes the listener through the development of Coherent Breathing by slowly slowing down the speed of in and out breaths. This is down by Brown as he calmly instructs his listener to breath in time to his counting, and is very effective, as this reviewer can attest to, having gone through the exercise himself. One small gripe is the reference to related resources found on a website on the internet. When researched into, it was found that they are not free, and that someone that cannot get going with Coherent Breathing is encouraged to go to this website and order a CD or download to complement this book. As this book is not overly long, could not the exercises referred to as being on this other CD (which is by a different person, by the way) be included in the present work and its CD? (At roughly 70 minutes, the CD could have had a few extra exercises on it.)

Nevertheless, Brown & Gerbarg have put together a good book. And, if the reader were to doubt their word alone for the efficacy of the breath practices that they promote, plenty of evidence is given to back them up. Much of it is from people that have actually used breathing to improve their lives, either as therapists or patients. An example of the latter is given in Chapter 4 where a education consultant that attended a workshop conducted by the authors. Working in a big inner-city school, she used the breath to deal with stress, both for herself and a "shocked" colleague (pp.59-60). Elsewhere in the book, much fieldwork is presented in relation to disasters where breath exercises have been used to deal with trauma afterwards, including 9/11 victims, survivors of the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the Haiti earthquake of 2010. Writing of genocide survivors in Rwanda, the authors state the following:

"Global Grassroots' Academy for Conscious Change in Rwanda has incorporated breathwork, yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and other conscious exercises into its eighteen-month social entrepreneurship program for women in Rwanda since the program's founding there in 2006….even now, seventeen years after the genocide, mind-body techniques, especially the core Breath~Body~Mind practice, can provide psychological healing that is essential for personal transformation as well as social change. Years after their initial training, the women continue to utilize these practices to support their recovery and to manage stress from their life of poverty."
(Ibid. p.78)

Books like The Healing Power of the Breath are important. They are helping people to deal with everyday stress and even serious medical disorders. Besides this, they also stack up the evidence that meditation & mindfulness exercises can be beneficial to us on many levels. Brown & Gerbarg reveal to their reader both of the above with clarity & warmth. The breath exercises described in the book, along with the CD, enable people to take some level of control over their lives, giving them the tools to deal with stress, anxiety, and many other psychiatric difficulties. Therefore, The Healing Power of the Breath gets the thumbs up from this reviewer, and it is hoped that anyone reading the book takes the time to actually do the exercises it contains, using them to let go of the suffering that we all create in our lives.

Title & Author : The Healing Power of the Breath, by Richard Brown, MD & Patricia L. Gerbarg, MD
Publishers      : Shambhala Publications
Page Count    : 176
Price               : $17.95
ISBN               : 9781590309025

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Buddha Ear


Buddha statue, Wat Pah Nanachat, Ubon, Thailand

Above is a picture of a Buddha statue: observe the really long ears. Attractive, aren't they? Such ears are a sign of a Buddha according to Buddhist tradition, and are said to indicate both the heavy earrings that he wore as a prince prior to becoming a buddha, and that as a buddha he is all-hearing. Such symbolism can be used wisely as a subject for reflection, contemplating the wondrous qualities that the Buddha possessed, and being thankful that he taught the Dharma to "those with little dust in their eyes" - or should that be ears?!

Those ears can be a source not just of inspiration, however, but they can encourage us to practice, too. For, apart from looking pretty, what are ears for? Well, listening! Just as the Buddha is considered to be all-hearing, so can we learn to listen more carefully, cultivating precious wisdom in the process. And this can work on at least three important levels. Firstly, if we listen like a buddha, that is with attention, we will become better listeners, improving our relationships with others, as well as enabling us to understand the world just a little bit better. Secondly, we can use the faculty of listening to develop mindfulness, a useful tool in both worldly activities and in meditation practice. Thirdly, if we use our ears to listen in the opposite direction to that which they usually do, we will discover something truly amazing!

Buddha statues, Wat Tai, Ubon, Thailand

Looking at the first benefit of being good listener, we can examine the example of the counsellor. Counsellors need to be good listeners. They need to be able to create a welcoming space around what is being said to them, so that the speaker feels that they can reveal their fears, worries, and mistakes without being jumped on. The speaker should feel that they are not going to be judged by the counsellor, but instead be listened to in an attentive & open manner. This has been evident in this writer's role as counsellor for the students in an international program in which he works, where it became apparent that if really listened to, the students would be more likely to express their true feelings. Then, there is a starting point from which these problems could be discussed and hopefully some positive conclusions reached.

Although we do not all work as counsellors, good listening skills can be of use to us in our everyday lives. We can have more fulfilling relationships with this around us if we are truly listening to them, for they will feel more appreciated. Moreover, if we really listen to others, we are actually able to hear what it is they are getting at; then, if we are inclined to do so, we can respond in ways that are pleasing to them. We will benefit from this by being appreciated more ourselves, and people will be more favorable to our requests. Everyone's a winner!

Buddha statue, Wat Pah Nanachat, Ubon, Thailand

The second point above was that we can become more mindful through developing our listening skills. Here, another aspect of this writer's experience can be used for the purpose: language learning. Both as a teacher of English language & learner of Thai, listening has been central to any success. Reading books about a language that we are learning certainly helps in its acquisition. The learning of reading & writing skills are largely dependent upon the usage of text books and other written materials, as is grammar. Speaking & listening skills are equally important for those wishing to be fluent in the language that they are learning, and being able to listen well is crucial to both. Indeed, much study is dependent upon listening to a tutor - how many difficulties have students caused themselves by not paying attention in class? Such lessons can be applied to many skills that we learn in our lives, whether in education, at work, or elsewhere.

Mindfulness is made much of in Buddhism. Whole sutras (discourses) are devoted to it, such as the Satipatthana Sutta, in which instructions are given by the Buddha on how to cultivate mindfulness to the point of enlightenment itself. Meditation, of course, plays a central role in Buddhist approach to awakening, and being able to 'listen' with the mind is an important ability in this regard. If we can really hear what is going on in the body, we can understand it. Ditto the mind, and it is then that real peace & the wisdom that comes out of it can be experienced. 

Now we come to the main point of this article: that of the third remark regarding listening made above, which was that if we reverse the direction in which we normally focus our listening, an incredible discovery awaits us. This is no idle talk, either, merely written to gain your attention - it is the plain, unadulterated truth of the matter. For, on the whole, we direct our listening faculty outwards not inwards. Along with all the other four physical senses, we grow up aiming it at the world around us - after all, that's where all the interesting stuff happens, right? Wrong! This is what we are taught, what we come to believe and assume. But in truth, if we are resourceful enough to about-face with our attention, we can bring to light something absolutely fantastic and probably completely unexpected. And listening is a powerful way to do so.*

Buddha statue, Wat Tai, Ubon, Thailand

What on earth could this 'something' be? Well, if the word 'something' were to be replaced with the somewhat more satisfying 'no-thing,' would that help? Possibly not as yet! The trouble is, that what's being written about here is not easily discussed. This isn't because its highly complicated or involved; quite the reverse. The problem here is that it is so simple, so utterly obvious what we're going to reveal, that it's rather easy to overlook it. In fact, this is what we do on a daily basis. We'd be buddhas otherwise! But, in fact, each of us possesses what might be dubbed 'Buddha Ear,' and conducting a simple exercise can reveal what all this prattle is about. Hopefully, the above waffling has whetted your appetite, rather than spoilt it. So, without further ado, it's time for us to actually do some 'reverse listening,' and hear what we hear. To this end, there are some instructions below, which this writer humbly requests that you carry out. If you do, it will surely be worth your while!

It will be worth your while remembering the main points of this exercise so that you don't have to keep reopening your eyes, which will distract from the exercise somewhat. In a comfortable, quiet place, sit or lie down (the former is preferable if you think you might fall asleep!). Close your eyes.  Listen to the sounds arising at this time, noting each one in turn. Next, turn your attention around to the listener. What can you hear right where you are, now? Take at least a few moments to really focus on that, before opening your eyes. 

At first, you may have thought that there weren't many sounds, or even that it was completely silent. This is rare, however, even if you live in the countryside. But, when acclimatized to your audio environment, you may have become aware of many more sounds than you ever dreamed of. Birds, insects, or other animals, the wind in the trees, running water or falling rain. Apart from natural sounds, there's a multitude of human-made noise that we aren't always aware of: voices, traffic, TVs or radios, music, fans, air con, heaters, cookers, ringtones, washing machines…you get the picture. All this sound is coming from the usual direction, however - 'out there.' Right now, we're more interested what we can hear in the opposite direction. So, when you'd exhausted all the sounds that you could identify, what could you hear where you were? Your breathing, perhaps? Well, technically, that's still part of the external world, and not right where your ears are. Listening to the listener, what did you notice? Here, I notice…silence. An awake, alert, open silence…full of the external noises that it's aware of. Is it the same where you are? If you're not sure, or even if you are, please take your time doing the following exercise, carefully noticing what you can hear.

Again, it will be worth your while remembering the main points of this exercise so that you don't have to keep reopening your eyes. Close your eyes. Listen to the sounds that you can presently hear, one by one. This time, note the particular characteristics of each sound, rather than simply labeling them. Are they loud or quiet, rhythmic or erratic, pleasant or unpleasant, near or far, fast or slow? When you've done this with every noise that you're aware of, turn your attention around to the listener. What qualities can you ascribe to the that which is hearing all of this? Is it loud or quiet, rhythmic or erratic, pleasant or unpleasant, near or far, fast or slow? Or, is it completely without audible characteristics? 

Now, do you feel cheated? After all this talk of 'Buddha's Ear' and discovering something amazing, are you disappointed? If so, please don't give up just yet! So, what did we find out? That the heart of the listening experience is silence. But, as mentioned above, it's not mere empty silence, is it? It's full of outer sounds, and, more importantly for our purposes here, it is full of awareness. It is an awake silence, alert to its contents. It is the emptiness at the centre of being, and it is not self; it is impersonal. Sound familiar? For any Buddhist, they should do, for emptiness and not self are the core teachings of Buddhism. Of the two main branches of Buddhism, Theravada tends to emphasize not self (anatta), whereas Mahayana stresses emptiness (shunyata), but they are different ways of describing what is essentially the same experience. 'Buddha' means 'awakened one.' Awakened to the way-things-are & the no-thing that lies at the heart of all things. Silence is not a thing, and yet all (audible) things arise in it. Furthermore, the silence that we can experience within ourselves is alert to what's going on. This is the Buddha's Ear: awakened silence. 

Buddha statue, Wat Pah Nanachat, Ubon, Thailand

If we spend time with Buddha's Ear, listening to the alert silence as well as the noise that occurs in it, the benefits are potentially fantastic. There's the worldly pluses mentioned above, from being a good counsellor to being a great student. But, more impressive than these, is the realization of our true nature within; silent awareness. And this is where it gets really tasty. If we live from this silence, which is impersonal and beyond suffering, then there is no suffering. Contentment is realized, not based on external conditions - the likes and dislikes of the individual - nor arising from manipulations of the personality. But instead coming from this inner emptiness. As mentioned earlier, any of the six senses can be used, and then we might label this experience as 'Buddha Mind' or 'Buddha Eye' (both of which which have been used historically by Zen masters), 'Buddha Body,' 'Buddha Mouth,' and 'Buddha Nose.' Admittedly, some of these sound a little daft, but if we actually experiment with these senses, we may well find that they are as valid descriptions of our inner reality as 'Buddha Ear.' Keep listening!

*In fact, any of the five physical senses can be used for the purpose, and so can what Buddhism deems the sixth sense, the mind. But, listening will do the job for us now, as it is a particularly striking sense for many of us, closely following vision (which has featured on these pages previously).

Thursday, July 12, 2012

No Ajahn Sumedho


Ajahn Sumedho...now you see him, now you don't!

Those of you that read Buddha Space regularly will know that Ajahn Sumedho is one of the main influences on this writer's Buddhist practice. For those of you that don't know this already, take a look at the link here: Ajahn Sumedho. Suffice to say, he has been a tremendous source of wisdom & practices for people the world over, let alone the central driving force behind the spread of Ajahn Chah's brand of Thai Forest Buddhism in the West. So, when the opportunity to meet him in person arises, it's something that's so precious & pregnant with possibilities. Which brings us to the hub of all this preamble.

On a recent visit to the International Forest Monastery here in Ubon Ratchathani, I was delighted to learn that Ajahn Sumedho was staying there. So, while most of the monks were eating their breakfast, I asked the fasting attendant monk to Ajahn Sumedho if I could talk with the latter. To my surprise, he said, "No." This was rationalized by explaining that laypeople were denied access to the aging Ajahn Sumedho, presumably because otherwise he'd be bothered all day by people with no deep interest in the Dharma just wanting a good photo opportunity. The feeling of deflation & disappointment was intense, but I smiled to the monk and told him, "Never mind." He was red in the face himself, which didn't go well with his ochre-coloured robes, but now I'm being facetious!

After this refusal, I took my usual walk through the forest. The trees & wind did their best to distract the mind from its despondency, and after sitting in the sala (pavilion) that stands in the middle of the forest, all negativity had floated away. After all, I'd met Ajahn Sumedho previously in England a couple of times, and as for the friendly monk (who shall remain anonymous here), he was merely following orders, no doubt. All he was guilty of was (over?) protection of a revered & elderly monk. The trees flapped as if to attempt to further calm me down, and the Buddha statue in the sala serenely gazed upon me, as he ever did. Awareness met the personification of itself, and all was well. Ajahn Sumedho had all but been forgotten!

The sala (pavilion) in the International Forest Monastery

Then, two sets of monks' robes could be seen slowly drifting along the small track between the trees. One was the unmistakably large frame of Ajahn Sumedho, and the other turned out to be his attendant monk. As they moved past the sala, thoughts battled for supremacy: go over and say, "Hello"; no, don't disturb him. The latter was accompanied by a sense of duty, an obedience to rules, and thus proved the stronger impulse. I watched as the two men walked around the sala and away into the forest towards Ajahn Sumedho's quarters. Chance gone! 

But, as Ajahn Sumedho slowly traversed the dirt path, crouching somewhat over his walking stick and intermittently coughing loudly, disappointment was replaced with compassion. He clearly wasn't that well, at least not on that morning, and to engage him in conversation when he probably just wanted to get back to his quarters and rest seemed somewhat selfish. Even without saying a word, or to my knowledge seeing me, he was teaching me! True enough, anyone old & sick could teach the same lessons, but it seemed to have more impact coming from someone of Ajahn Sumedho's Buddhist credentials. Just like the old man, the sick man, and the dying man that inspired the Buddha-to-be Siddhartha Gautama, here was Ajahn Sumedho naturally revealing the Dharma

Alongside the above insights, after Ajahn Sumedho's disappearance into the foliage, another thing rose up in the mind: Now, there is no Ajahn Sumedho. Only the sala, the forest, and this body. There is the thought of him, but only this. On present evidence, he is an idea in the mind, nothing more. And, this, of course, is true of anything that is not presently here, or that the mind & senses are not aware of: it is all mind stuff, without actual physical substance. Writing this now (or in your case, reading it!), not only Ajahn Sumedho but also the forest & the sala are ideas, nothing more. Now, there is a computer, a room, these hands…and a bunch of thoughts. This is reality. In the Bahiya Sutta, the Buddha taught the following:

"In the seen, there is merely the seen; in the heard, there is merely the heard; in the sensed, there is merely the sensed; in the cognized, there is merely the cognized."
(Udana 1.10, Tipitika)
We humans have a tendency to make too much of things, don't we? Rather than just seeing what is seen, we must interpret it, judge it, like or dislike it. In our reactions, we screw it all up and create suffering (dukkha). If loud noise comes from outside, rather than merely hearing what is heard, we will tend to object to its presence. Ajahn Chah, Ajahn Sumedho's teacher, used to say that when this happens, it is really the mind disturbing the sound and not the other way round. Genius! Sound is just sound, hearing is just hearing, but it is the mind that likes or dislikes the experience, causing itself to suffer when the disliked is present and when the liked is absent. Incidentally, there's a wonderful little book called No Ajahn Chah that's worth reading. (Click on its name to download it.)

Further on in the above-quoted Bahiya Sutta, the Buddha reveals that to recognize that "In the seen, there is merely the seen" (etc.) is to realize that there's nobody here seeing (etc.). Only seeing, hearing, sensing, and cognizing. Then, there can be no suffering, for there's no one here to suffer! Actually seeing this, or hearing it, sensing it, or cognizing it, is what Buddhists call enlightenment. Unfortunately, not many Buddhists actually know what enlightenment really is. For them, it's something far off in the distance, to be experienced in some far-flung future life, if at all. This couldn't be further from the truth, as the Buddha's words reveal. 

So, whether there is Ajahn Sumedho or no Ajahn Sumedho, there is the Dharma, naturally revealing itself to those 'with little dust in their eyes' (a saying from the Pali Canon). Similarly, even when such a teacher as Ajahn Sumedho is present but doesn't overtly teach, teaching is taking place…if we really wish to learn. (Of course, there is the possibility that Ajahn Sumedho was acting or exaggerating his ailments so as to teach me - but that seems rather far-fetched, even for a great teacher like him!) This isn't to say that this writer will now dispense with Ajahn Sumedho's teachings - they have their importance too! For one of his books, please click here: Intuitive Awareness.

Wishing for the liked to remain or for the disliked to go away is to give birth to suffering. Not to make too much of things and just see what is seen, hear what is heard, sense what is sensed, and cognize what is cognized, is to know true nature. And it is nothing like we might imagine it to be, for it is not a thought or feeling; it is the naked truth unadulterated with notions of teacher, teaching, enlightened, unenlightened, etc. Such ideas may arise, but then they are solely 'cognized' as they are, and not too much is made of them. Then, it doesn't matter whether we see Ajahn Sumedho or no Ajahn Sumedho. Either way, everything is okay.


Ajahn Sumedho
Coughs loudly
In the distance

A walking stick
Supports him
The old bhikkhu

Trackless
He is a memory
Windy trees

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Buddhism by Numbers: 6 Kinds of Reverence

As a Buddhist, there are six kinds of reverence (garavata) that one should endeavor to develop. These forms of deep respect have practical positive results in the context of Buddhist practice as being a more appreciative person gives rise to positive mind states. Normally, the mind can react to the various phenomena that we encounter in both wholesome and unwholesome ways. This includes such important aspects of Buddhist tradition as the Triple Gem - the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Having negative views towards the Awakened One (Buddha), for example, creates negative thoughts and attitudes that arise out of human arrogance and opinions. Being reverent towards the Buddha, on the other hand, helps to create a freer, happier, more loving mind, which is an important tool in Buddhist development. The six kinds of reverence are:
  1. Satthu-garavata – reverence for the Master
  2. Dhamma-garavata – reverence for the Dharma
  3. Sangha-garavata – reverence for the Sangha
  4. Sikkha-garavata – reverence for the training
  5. Appamada-garavata – reverence for heedfulness
  6. Patisanthara-garavata – reverence for hospitality
The Master (Satthu) in Buddhism is the Buddha. He is the Master or Teacher of all Buddhists, as the entire tradition, whether Thai, Japanese, Tibetan or whatever, ultimately derives from the Awakened One’s realization of enlightenment and his subsequent teachings. Being reverent towards the Master is an act of recognition that acknowledges the debt of gratitude that Buddhists should have for the man that discovered the way things are and then shared this knowledge with others. All Buddhists should know this: Without him, no us.

Reverence for the Dharma, the Buddhist teachings, is another form of appreciative awareness that any Buddhist will develop in time. Cultivating this approach to the Buddha Dharma encourages the realization of such knowledge in us all, for when we are more respectful of the Teachings, we’re more likely to put them into practice. And in the end, it’s in putting the Teachings of the Buddha into practice that will truly benefit us.

The third garavata is reverence for the orders of Buddhist monks and nuns, or Sangha. Although the order of nuns died out in Theravada Buddhism many centuries ago, we can still be grateful to those enlightened nuns, as well as monks, that have taught the Dharma to both Buddhists and non-Buddhists, assisting us to develop wisdom and compassion in our own hearts and minds. Moreover, if we accept the reestablishment of the nun's order as is happening in the world right now, we have the chance to pay respect to these modern female renunciants. The community of enlightened people (Ariya-sangha), ordained or not, is also an example to us, and is a source of great inspiration that shows that ordinary human beings realize the Buddhist Path and its fruits, not only spiritual supermen and superwomen. 

The training (sikkha) comprises the rules and guidelines that Buddhists use to further practice. For monks, there are a total of 227 rules that they should (in theory) adhere to. Laypeople have it somewhat easier, with only five basic precepts to keep to, unless they choose to follow eight or even ten precepts of a semi-ascetic. I use the five precepts as a foundation for my practice. In training this person here to behave in ways that are conducive not only to personal development but also to the benefit of society, mindfulness and meditation have a more stable base from which to grow wisdom and compassion. 

Reverence towards appamada, heedfulness, is a crucial element in Buddhist practice, as well. In the Dhammapada, probably the most famous piece of Buddhist scripture worldwide, it is said that, “Heedfulness is the path to the Deathless, heedlessness is the path to death.” (Dhammapada, verse 21) The Deathless is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice, also known as nirvana. It is a freedom from all greed, hatred, and delusion, where life is seen as it is, without the interference of the ego that normally distorts our understanding of life. Being heedful of the Buddhist teachings and their application to our lives is so important for Buddhists. Otherwise, we can get caught up in all kinds of worldly and unwholesome activities, losing sight of the Path. 

Being reverent of hospitality (patisanthara) is the sixth form of reverence that Buddhists are encouraged to cultivate. We can be hospitable to bhikkhus & bhikkhunis, of course, inviting monks & nuns to eat at our home, paying respect to them by giving them a good meal. Being a good host to everyone that comes our way is a fuller way to leave out this particular kind of reverent behavior. Seeing everyone as my guest, to whom I should be a generous host and make them feel comfortable and happy. Sharing the teachings with others is also an important way to be hospitable. Being reverent towards the hospitable acts of others towards ourselves is a positive state of mind as well, for in recognizing the welcoming actions of other people, we make ourselves better people.

Buddhism by Numbers: 5 Subjects for Recollection


The following words in bold are chanted regularly in Theravada Buddhist monasteries, and form the basis for reflection on the nature of being human. The first four subjects for reflection could be said to be pretty much common sense statements, but the fifth subject is directly related to Buddhist understanding of the nature and results of action (karma). Nevertheless, each of them is capable of facilitating the arising of wisdom if contemplated with a peaceful, unemotional mind. Let’s take a look at the five subjects in turn, beginning with aging:
I am of the nature to age; I have not gone beyond aging.
True enough, I can almost hear you say; the appearance of wrinkles around the eyes and grey hairs on the head reveal the ongoing process of aging. We can certainly hide the outer manifestations of getting older, with make-up and cosmetic surgery, but this is simply hiding the truth. Every day we get older, and facing up to this can enable us to deal with it in a mature and intelligent manner. More than this, reflecting on our aging minds and bodies, we can extend this vision to all phenomena around us; other people, other creatures, plants, buildings, the Earth itself. Seeing things this way, we can become more grateful of what we have in this moment, and more appreciative of those we are with, rather than living in constant fantasies of hypothetical futures. 
I am of the nature to sicken; I have not gone beyond sickness.
We can have good health for weeks, months, or even years. But at some point, the body will contract a cold, or something worse, and we will suffer the ill effects of being ill. Being aware that we cannot escape being sick for ever, makes it easier to handle when we are actually ill. But, of course, it’s not only the body that can be ill, just as it’s not only the body that ages. Our minds too are subject to sickness, with such ailments as depression always lurking in the background, ready to pounce when we are at our most vulnerable. I worked in a psychiatric hospital for many years in England and saw many different kinds and levels of mental illness: people from every strata of society falling victim to a variety of mental afflictions, often seemingly occurring out of the blue. It’s only a fool that believes that such things can’t happen to him: that’s why reflecting on such matters is of value.
I am of the nature to die; I have not gone beyond dying.
Right now, we’re alive – at least I presume that you’re alive as you read this! It’s difficult to imagine being dead, but sure enough, one day we will stop breathing, for whatever reason. No matter what our level of realization, even if we’ve developed psychic powers, we are still mortal, just as we remain capable of being ill, and of aging. Living in the knowledge of our own mortality, we can make more of each moment, driven on to achieve both worldly and spiritual goals.
All that is mine, beloved and pleasing, will become otherwise, will become separated from me.
This is a particularly difficult thing for many of us to accept. But that doesn’t make it any less true: every one that we know, we will lose, either when we or/and they die, or perhaps beforehand, if we grow apart or fall out with them. Everything that we own, we only own for a short time, in the overall scheme of things. The house you live in, whether you own it or not, will one day no longer be your home, just as with all that you possess. Realizing this, we are better able to deal with the loss of those people and things that we hold dear, and less liable to fall apart when such inevitable events occur.
I am the owner of my karma, heir to my karma, born of my karma, related to my karma, abide supported by my karma. Whatever karma I shall do, for good or for ill, of that I will be the heir. 
Karma, or action, is a cornerstone of Buddhist teaching. It lies at the centre of the Buddhist understanding of cause and effect, in that every action has a reaction, whether in this life or a subsequent one. That we are the owners of our karma means that we are responsible for what we do: if we do some unwholesome thing such as stealing, lying or killing, we will reap the fruits of that action in due coarse. Even if we think that we’ve got away with it, our bad behavior will catch us up eventually, and what we dished out to others will rebound upon our selves. Our future births, seen moment to moment as well as in our future lives, will be affected by our present actions, and we will have to live with the results of what we have done. We are, indeed, the heirs of our actions. And this fact can be seen right now, if we have the wisdom to gaze into our past karma and see how it has helped shape our present life. 

These five subjects for contemplation are a real boon in the practice of Buddhism, helping us to focus on important features of our bodies and minds; that they are impermanent, imperfect, and impersonal. Karma and the results of karma can also be seen as an impersonal, natural process of cause and effect. Reflecting on these issues will assist in the cultivation of an understanding that can free us from the bonds of identification with the individual self, and all the problems that accompany it. But in the meantime, we can use these five subjects to lighten the load of living, making this life somewhat more tolerable.

Buddhism by Numbers: 5 Trades to Be Avoided


In the Tipitaka, the Theravada Buddhist scriptures, the Buddha advised laypeople to avoid five specific trades, which if traded in would be unwholesome and create negative karmic results. In short, the Buddha said:

“Five trades should be avoided by a disciple:
 trading in arms, in living beings, in flesh, in intoxicating drinks, and in poison.”

Looking at these five trades, we can see that there’s a theme running through them – the avoidance of harming living beings. This is in line with the first precept of the Buddhist, to refrain from killing living beings. For if one sells weapons, one is assisting those who use those weapons to harm or kill other people and creatures. Similarly, poison is something that can be used to kill both animals and human beings, so in trading in such stuff one might well be helping someone to take life.

Reflecting on the trade of flesh, that is meat, it doesn’t take much to realize that the animal that the meat came from was killed to be eaten. Trading in flesh encourages others to kill animals, even if we don’t slaughter them ourselves; in refraining from selling meat, we take no part in the killing of the animal that it came from. As to selling living beings, we are taking part in their imprisonment. And, as far as we know, no creature likes to be incarcerated and kept from its natural habitat. Have you ever seen a lion that plods up and down in its cage, practically bursting to break free and do whatever it is lions do in the wild? 

Intoxicating drinks, or alcohol to you and me, are referred to in the fifth precept of the Buddhist: “I refrain from the drinking of intoxicating drinks and drugs.” So, in selling intoxicants, we are encouraging others to break the fifth precept, and no Buddhist should be egging on others to behave in unwholesome ways. By trading in alcohol or drugs we are effectively saying, “Go on, get out of your head and do some stupid or even wicked things.’ And, worse still, we’d be making money from doing so!

By implication, then, the following trades are to be avoided if we wish to keep to the spirit of Buddhism; arms trader, barperson, pet seller, butcher (and any job selling cooked or uncooked flesh), and drugs dealer, to name but a few. Taking our beliefs seriously means acting in ways that are consistent with them. In Buddhist communities across the world the five precepts are taken on a daily basis: if they are not be simply empty words, they need to be followed to the letter, erring on the side of caution when it comes to the way we interpret them, including the way we make a living. This is living in the light of Dharma.

For more on the five precepts, see Buddhism by Numbers: 5 Precepts

Buddhism by Numbers: 4 Focuses of Mindfulness

“Bhikkhus, this is the only way for the purification of beings, for overcoming sorrow and lamentation, for the cessation of physical and mental pain, for attainment of the Noble Paths, and for the realization of Nibbana. That is, the four satipatthanas.” 
(The Buddha, in the Mahasatipatthana Sutta)

The four foundations, or focuses, of mindfulness are known as cattari satipatthana in Pali, the language of Theravada Buddhism. They are extensively described in two discourses (suttas) of the Buddha in the Tipitaka (Buddhist Scriptures): the Satipatthana Sutta and the Mahasatipatthana Sutta. ( ‘Maha’ means ‘larger’ in this context, as it is slightly longer than the other version of the discourse.) The four satipatthanas are:
  1. Contemplation of the body 
  2. Contemplation of feelings
  3. Contemplation of the mind
  4. Contemplation of mind objects
In exploring the four satipatthanas, we have an experienced guide with us. His name is Ajahn Brahm, and he’s been a Buddhist monk for over three decades. He has described himself as a “meditation junkie”. He also emphasizes the importance of jhana (meditative absorption) in meditation practice. There are four levels of jhana, as taught by the Buddha, which enable increasing levels of concentration to be developed, which in turn supply what Ajahn Brahm calls the “superpower mindfulness” necessary for such progress.

In the two suttas mentioned above, the Buddha began by describing the various aspects of the body that can be used for this practice. Bear in mind that not every meditator is expected to fully develop all of the following reflections, but to use at least one of them in conjunction with the other three types of satipatthana. There are fourteen different bodily functions for contemplation in the two suttas, which are the breath, posture, activity, composition, the four elements, and nine kinds of corpse. 

Ajahn Brahm has taught that the various contemplations of the body reveal the impersonal nature of the body, that it is subject to natural laws rather than our whims, getting old, sick and eventually dying. Reflecting on the thirty-two parts of the body, for instance, shows the reality of the human form as a collection of various parts, not a person. (For more on this focus of mindfulness, click this link: Buddhism by Numbers: 32 Parts of the Body.)

Contemplation of feeling involves reflecting on pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings, whether mental or physical. As Ajahn Brahm has pointed out, qualities such as being beautiful, ugly, melodious, unmelodious, etc. aren’t inherent in things, but are our feelings towards them. (Otherwise, everyone would agree who is the most beautiful woman in the world, and there would be many disappointed wives around!)

Mind contemplation is observing the mind (citta) as it is, without the distractions of the five physical senses. Ajahn Brahm insists that this is to be done after jhana is achieved, so that the deep level of focus required to penetrate the nature of the mind is present. The forest ajahn compares a mind distracted by the physical senses with a fully-clothed person that has every inch of their body covered – if you want to see them as they really are then all their clothes must be removed first! Only then will they be revealed, and only when the mind has let go of physical distractions will it be able to be seen as it is. 

The fourth satipatthana is that of mind objects. Those taught by the Buddha are the five hindrances, the five aggregates, the six senses, the seven enlightenment factors, and the Four Noble Truths. Other subjects for focusing mindfulness on are thoughts and emotions, according to Ajahn Brahm and other forest ajahns. Using superpower mindfulness gained through jhanic meditation, these various mental phenomena can be viewed as not self (anatta). The five aggregates, for instance, can be seen as forms, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness, none of which consist of a self. This is the enlightenment of the Buddha, to see beyond the delusion of self, understanding life as it is, rather than as we interpret it.

Buddhism by Numbers: 3 Divine Messengers


There are three things that are sure to come to everyone, no matter who we are. Barack Obama, Lady Gaga, David Beckham, & the Queen of England despite their fame and wealth are just as subject to them as the rest of us. What are these three unavoidable facts of life? Old age, sickness, and death. 

Buddhism calls these three aspects of existence the three divine messengers, or devaduta. They’re not called divine because they come from a god, or a heavenly realm, and nor are they literally angelic beings. They’re called divine because they can help us to understand the nature of our lives, inspiring us to develop a wisdom that can free us from their grasp. 

Seeing a man or woman eighty, ninety or a hundred years old, frail, forgetful, wrinkled and toothless, is to see ourselves. Maybe not as we are right now, but certainly as we will be if we live long enough. Aching limbs, a balding scalp and blotched skin are our lot if we’re to become old fogies, and every time that we see such a person, we can know that old age has us in our sights.

Observing people afflicted with illness, bed-ridden and out of sorts, we can know that even if we haven’t experienced being seriously ill as yet, our bodies are still prone to sickness. And so are our minds, for not only do terrible illnesses like aids and cancer exist, waiting to strike us down, but also there are diseases of the mind, such as depression and schizophrenia. So, even if we avoid the pain of our bodies becoming crippled with sickness, our minds remain vulnerable to some pretty awful afflictions. (I can attest to this as I worked in a psychiatric hospital in the UK for twelve years.)

The third divine messenger is death. Now, as you’re reading these words, I’ll presume that you haven’t kicked the bucket just yet – but as with everyone else in the history of the human race, it’s wise to remember that this is one race that nobody can win. We’re all destined to fall short of the finishing line and breathe our last at some point in the future. It’s not only those unfortunates in Iraq, Afghanistan, and various other far-flung places featured in the daily news bulletins that will die. Nor is it only distant relatives or associates that are mortal: you and I get nearer our deaths with each breath that we take. 

So, what are we to make of these three divine messengers, these harbingers of the nastier side of life? Cry, tear out our hair, or go crazy, perhaps? Well, no. Buddhism encourages us to reflect on them, allying them to ourselves and then using the realization of just how vulnerable we are as these physical and mental creatures called human beings. When we explore the implications of the devaduta, we can develop a sense of urgency in our endeavors to cultivate more compassionate and wise mind states. To awaken to the way things are (the Dharma), and let go of our selfish, not to say impermanent illusory selves and seek a deeper understanding that culminates in the realization of nirvana, the deathless.

Buddhism by Numbers: 3 True Teachings


Buddhism has many aspects to it, which may appear somewhat bewildering to someone new (or not so new!) to it. Various systems of thought exist to classify the diverse aspects of the Buddha Dhamma, on of which is called saddhamma, or the three ‘true teachings.’ These three Teachings are as follows: pariyatti, patipatti, and pativedha, or in translation, study, practice, and realization. Buddhist scholars may often view ‘the three Ps’ from a doctrinal position, seeing them as ways to intellectually understand Buddhism, but Ajahn Sumedho has pointed out a more reflective usage for them.

Ajahn Sumedho sees the saddhamma as a means to approach the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism: dukkha (suffering; imperfection), samudaya (origin), nirodha (cessation), and magga (path).  Pariyatti is the statement of each truth – which we learn from a teacher or a book, and is on the conceptual level, which consists of memorizing the meaning of the words. If one stops at this level, then one might best be described as a ‘Buddhologist,’ as opposed to a Buddhist who is living the teachings.

As Ajahn Sumedho points out, patipatti is the practice of what one actually does with the teachings. So, in truly understanding dukkha, we come to know it in our lives, feeling it, accepting it as part of one’s life. Rather than simply thinking about suffering, patipatti involves being aware of it, recognizing it in each moment of one’s experience, seeing the reality of it, not only the theory. This is done through mindfulness and meditation (founded on a solid moral basis), which when focused on the four truths reveal their actuality in the light of wisdom.

Pativedha indicates the full realization of the truths as a result of practice. In the case of the First Noble Truth, it means that suffering has been understood; in the case of samudaya, that it has been let go of, according to Ajahn Sumedho. This is because the cause of suffering is desire (tanha), and if desire is let go of, then there’s no more dukkha. Nirodha, or the ending of suffering, is to be achieved, which is done through the development of the Noble Eightfold Path (magga).

The three true teachings are true in that they involve more than just intellect and faith: they include experience and direct realization of the truths. Ajahn Sumedho emphasizes that this is a reflective form for cultivating awareness of the Dharma (the truth of the way things are). Investigating everyday suffering, the feeling of an underlying unsatisfactory side to life, can lead to the penetration (pativedha) of the Four Noble Truths. You still experience all the ups and downs of living as a human being, but see them through the Dhammacakkhu, the ‘wisdom eye’ of awareness. 

Buddhism by Numbers: 3 Bases of Merit


Unbeknown to many western Buddhists, as well as teaching about the three trainings of the Noble Eightfold Path, the Buddha taught the three bases of merit, or meritorious action (punna-kiriya-vatthu). The aforementioned three trainings are wisdom (panya), morality (sill), and concentration (samadhi), and are a subdivision of the Path; they are well-known amongst most Buddhists around the world. The Buddha taught these Trainings (exclusively?) to monks and nuns, whereas the bases, sometimes called the training in merit, were aimed specifically at laypeople. The latter teaching of the three bases (of merit) is less well-known, and is the subject of this reflection. The bases are:

  1. Dana: Generosity
  2. Sila: Morality
  3. Bhavana: (Mental) Development

Generosity, or giving, is a central element in Buddhist practice. In Buddhist monasteries the world over, you can find multitudes of laypeople donating food, medicines, robes, money, and all manner of things to the monks (bhikkhus). It is believed that by sustaining the bhikkhus with their basic requisites, the layperson will reap good fortune in the future, as well as enable the monks to focus their energies on developing wisdom and sharing it in turn with the laity. (Bhikkhunis, or ordained nuns are a different issue, and a somewhat controversial one. Officially, the order of Buddhist nuns died out in countries like Thailand, and there is resistance to its reestablishment, so whether the same merit comes from making offerings to these nuns is debatable. This author takes the view that it is up to each Buddhist to make up their own mind on this issue.)

Another way to make merit through giving is to give to the poor and needy. This too not only is seen to produce positive results in the future for the giver, but also help create a more cohesive and content society that’s conducive to practicing Buddhism. A third aspect of dana is the gift of Dharma itself. In sharing the Dharma (the Buddhist Teachings), a great deal of merit can be generated, as indicated in the words of the Buddha himself: “The gift of Dharma surpasses all other gifts.” (Dhammapada, verse 354) So, if one has developed some understanding of the way things are according to Buddhist practice, it is much to one’s merit to share it freely with anyone who shows an interest.

Sila is the living of a virtuous life, something often sneered at these days by those too cynical or uninspired to attempt to such an existence. This is a great pity, for even regarding the basic five precepts that every lay Buddhist is encouraged to undertake will produce an ocean of merit. One will become harmless, honest, faithful, truthful, and clear-headed if the five precepts are kept to. They are the precepts to refrain from killing any living creature, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and taking intoxicants. Just imagine a society where the majority of people kept these precepts: Peaceful, safe, loving, compassionate and with no or very few drink-drivers! As to each individual, he or she can benefit in their own life through establishing a happy and guiltless character.

A blameless personality is a sound foundation for the cultivation of the third meritorious base of bhavana, or mental cultivation. Meditation for instance will be much smoother for someone who isn’t plagued with self-doubt and guilt. Mindfulness too can be sustained with a mind that’s not distracted with questioning thoughts and emotions. Alongside mindfulness and meditation, another important aspect of mental development is the so-called four divine abodes of kindness, compassion, altruistic joy and equanimity. A mind that is calm through meditation, alert through mindfulness, and loving living in the divine abodes, is a mind much more capable of the heights of wisdom that the Buddha taught, as well as a mind creating a positive future life.

The emphasis of the training in merit (punna-sikkha) is less on wisdom and the absorptive states of concentration that bhikkhus usually have more time to devote themselves to. Whereas the focus of the bhikkhu’s life is supposed to be on the cultivation of meditative states that lead to enlightenment in this very life, the three bases of merit are geared towards creating a wiser, happier future for both the individual and lay society at large. This isn’t to say that lay Buddhists shouldn’t attempt the deeper meditative states (I myself am a keen meditator), but that this should be done in the context of leading a much more complicated social setting. This is why the training in merit is less stringent and detailed as the three trainings. Which ever one chooses to practice, the benefits are manifold. So, let us walk on!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Buddhism by Numbers: 8 Worldly Conditions


  1. Labha: gain
  2. Alabha: loss
  3. Yasa: fame; ‘face’
  4. Ayasa: obscurity
  5. Ninda: blame
  6. Pasamsa: praise
  7. Sukha: happiness
  8. Dukkha: pain
Living in this world, we constantly encounter the eight worldly conditions (loka-dhamma). We are subject to gain and loss, not only of material things, such as money, but also of the company of those we love such as friends and loved ones. Fame or renown comes in various forms, too. It’s not only celebrities and politicians that attach to their public image and the prestige that accompanies it, for we all like to present ourselves in the best light to those we meet. And who is indifferent to feeling a loss of face, clinging to the idea of looking good or even powerful in the eyes of others? As to praise and blame, only some kind of sadomasochist would take pleasure in being told that they’re to blame for everything that’s going wrong, never being told, “Well done!” Likewise with happiness and pain – do you like to laugh or to hurt, to feel joy or sorrow? Everyone that I know prefers to be happy rather than sad.

So, these eight worldly conditions are part of this human life. Someone’s always going to profit and someone else will therefore lose out; for one person to famous, there must be at least one other who’s unknown; if one person is chastised, another will be applauded; and what makes me happy, may well make you sad. How we react to these ways of the world is what’s important. If we respond to blame with indifference, remaining calm despite harsh words, then we are practicing the Buddha Dharma. If we couldn’t care less whether we are held in high esteem or thought of as a nobody, then we can be said to be rising above worldly attachments. 

Keeping one’s equanimity (uppekkha) when one loses out, or is lauded as the best Buddhist since, well, the Buddha, is the wise thing to do, if not always that easy. This is where meditation and mindfulness come in. Seeing how the mind reacts to praise and blame, for instance, gives one a starting point from which these states can be reflected on in a clam manner. The other day, I was praised by my boss as we said our farewells before I moved to another school to teach there, and I found myself being seduced by her kind words. In contrast, last month, another foreign teacher at the school shouted at me, unjustly accusing me of speaking ill of other people. I was offended, and at first very angry, especially after I tried to placate him and he just continued shouting obscenities at me. It took a few minutes for awareness to become fully awake to my mind’s reactions and for my emotions to calm down. 

Observing happiness and pain arising in the mind, and remaining open to them without attaching to or rejecting them, enables wisdom to grow in one’s heart, even in the most emotionally charged circumstances. Seeing these eight worldly states for what they are, and watching the mind’s reactions to them, gives rise to the liberating insight of the Buddha. And the benefits of this knowledge are not to felt only when in meditative states, but also in the world at large, in the face of all the gain, loss, fame, obscurity, blame, praise, happiness, and pain that life has to offer.

Buddhism by Numbers: 2 Fundamental Teachings


“The Doctrine & Discipline that I have set forth and laid down for you shall be your teacher after I am gone.” (The Buddha)

The Lord Buddha often referred to his teachings as the Dhamma & Vinaya, which can be translated as the Doctrine & Discipline, and which are known as the Two Fundamental Teachings, or Pavacana. This divides the Buddhist Way into two main aspects: the teachings, along with the rules and guidelines for Buddhist practice, which encapsulate the three sections of the Tipitaka, or the Pali Canon, which is the vast collection of Buddhist scriptures. These three sections are: Vinaya Pitaka, Suttanta Pitaka, and Abhidhamma Pitaka, and form the scriptural basis for the practice of Theravada Buddhism, which is found in countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand (including the lineage of Ajahn Chah).
  
Regarding the Dharma, this covers a multitude of utterances that the Buddha gave on the nature of existence, such as the Four Noble Truths and the Three Characteristics, along with more complicated teachings such as paticca-samuppada (dependent arising). In the Tipitaka, the section called the Suttanta Pitaka mainly contains teachings on the Doctrine, as above, as given by the Buddha and his immediate disciples. The Abhidhamma Pitaka is a collection of highly systemized philosophical teachings elaborating on those found in the Suttas. 

The first section of the Tipitaka, the Vinaya Pitaka, centers on those teachings of the Blessed One concerned with the discipline of the Sangha, the orders of monks and nuns – the Theravada Buddhist nun order has long died out, in fact, although it is currently being reinstated in several countries as you read this. If one wishes to find out how a particular rule for bhikkhus came about, and what the Buddha actually taught on it, it is in the Vinaya Pitaka that one will find the answer.

There are many good translations of the major parts of the Tipitaka available in the English language nowadays, often in concise forms which organize them into subjects convenient to the reader. One such translation is “In the Buddha’s Words,” which has been translated by the highly respected American scholar monk Bhikkhu Bodhi, and is published by Wisdom Publications. For superb free online resources on the Tipitaka, as well as related teachings including those of the great Thai forest ajahns, go to: Access to Insight
  
When ascertaining the worth of bhikkhus today, it is to the Tipitaka that one can turn to see if they are living up to the Doctrine & Discipline set forth by the Lord Buddha over two and a half thousand years ago. For, if their teachings deviate from those of the Blessed One, or their conduct is not in line with the Vinaya as taught by him, then it is probably better to seek out different teachers for one’s spiritual guidance. (This is one of the major factors in my own deference to the bhikkhus of the Forest Sangha of Ajahn Chah – they’re teachings echo the Buddha’s, and their adherence to the monastic rules is immaculate, unlike most monks in modern Thailand.)

Buddhism by Numbers: 38 Highest Blessings


Ajahn Sumedho has said that he is deeply grateful for so many blessings that he has had in the forty-odd years of his monastic life, including great teachers, the generosity of many laypeople, living with the forest Sangha, and having the opportunity to practice the Dharma. Regarding such blessings, in the Maha Mangala Sutta, the Lord Buddha lists the thirty-eight highest blessings for a Buddhist. We can use this sutta as something to reflect on, realizing how fortunate we are to have those blessings that we do, and contemplate how we can gain those blessings that we do not. Here are the highest blessings, first in Pali, and then in translation:
  1. Bala-asevana – not to associate with fools
  2. Panditasevcana – to associate with the wise
  3. Pujaneyyapuja – honoring those who are honorable
  4. Patirupadesavasa – living in a suitable region for safe practice
  5. Pubbekatapunnata – having done meritorious deeds
  6. Attasammapanidhi – right self-guidance
  7. Bahusacca – Extensive learning
  8. Sippa – knowledge of the arts and sciences
  9. Vinaya – to be highly restrained by a moral code
  10. Subhasitavaca – to be well-spoken
  11. Matapitu-upatthana – to support one’s parents
  12. Puttasangaha – to cherish one’s children
  13. Darasangaha – to cherish one’s wife (or partner)
  14. Anakulakammanta – to make one’s livelihood wholesomely
  15. Dana – to be generous, charitable
  16. Dhammacariya – to behave in line with the Dharma
  17. Natakasangaha – to cherish one’s family
  18. Anavajjakamma – to act blamelessly
  19. Papavirati – abstinence from evil
  20. Majjapanasannama – abstinence from intoxicants
  21. Appamada – heedfulness in the Dharma
  22. Garava – to be respectful
  23. Nivata – to be humble
  24. Santutthi – contentment with what one has
  25. Katannuta- gratitude
  26. Dhammassavana – the opportunity to hear the Dharma
  27. Khanti – patience; forbearance
  28. Sovacassata – easily corrected
  29. Samana-dassana – to see monks and nuns
  30. Dhammasakaccha – the opportunity to discuss the Dharma
  31. Tapa – self-restraint; austerities
  32. Brahmacariya – to live the holy life
  33. Ariyasacca-dassana – to see the Noble Truths
  34. Nibbana-sacchikiriya – to realize nirvana
  35. Akampitacitta – having a mind unshaken by worldly events
  36. Asokacitta – having a mind free from sorrow
  37. Virajacitta – having an undefiled mind
  38. Khemacitta – having a secure mind
The Maha Mangala Sutta concludes with the following utterance of the Buddha:

“Those who live following this path
Know victory wherever they go,
And every place for them is safe.
These are the highest blessings.”

Buddhism by Numbers: 32 Parts of the Body


“This, which is my body, from the soles of the feet up, and down from the crown of the head, is a sealed bag of skin filled with unattractive things. In this body there are:
Hair of the head, hair of the body, nails, teeth, skin, flesh, sinews, bones, bone marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, membranes, spleen, lungs, bowels, entrails, undigested food, excrement, bile, phlegm, pus, blood, sweat, fat, tears, grease, spittle, mucus, oil of the joints, urine, and the brain.
This, then, which is my body, from the soles of the feet up, and down from the crown of the head, is a sealed bag of skin filled with unattractive things.”

“The Reflection on the Thirty-Two Parts” is a commonly recited chant used in the forest tradition of Thai Buddhism. It is one of the asubha-kammatthana (‘unbeautiful practices’), used to reflect on the nature of the body, realizing that it is more than meets the eye. Now, looking at a photo, or someone else’s form, the thirty-two parts can be easily observed, but to realize that one’s own body is made up of these various unattractive elements is quite a step. Most of us spend a lot of time on pruning ourselves, making our bodies look more attractive by hiding its unpleasant aspects – but they are there, lurking beneath the fa├žade of beauty that we carefully cultivate.

This reflection is also useful if we have the tendency to indulge in sexual fantasies or obsessions, as seeing the truth that the person one desires is made up of these less than appealing things can release one from the grip of an overbearing sexuality. For, when carefully contemplated and absorbed, the thirty-two parts confirm the old adage that beauty is only skin deep.