Author: Ratnaprabha

Writer on Buddhism

Grabbing a firebrand

Grabbing a firebrand: aphorisms and Sangharakshita

Whenever we’re presented with a statement, it’s so tempting to take it literally, not to look through it for truth, but to think it is the truth.

The aphorism

The world will be different only if we live differently.[1] This quotation is an aphorism.

Aphorisms are short, pithy statements containing a truth of general import. The etymology is from Gk. aphorismos ‘a definition, a pithy sentence,’ from aphorīzein ‘to mark off, divide’ apo- ‘from’ + horīzein ‘to bound.’ Synonyms are the words ‘maxim’ and ‘saying’. An ‘axiom’ is different, a statement of self-evident truth; and an ‘epigram’ is like an aphorism, but lacking in general import.[2]

So an aphorism is ‘from a horizon’. An aphorism is a statement which defines a perspective by illustrating or describing the horizon of that perspective. Instead of standing outside a viewpoint and describing the viewpoint, an aphorism adopts a viewpoint and identifies the things which are only visible from that perspective.[3]

But an aphorism is like a firebrand — you can easily get burnt if you grab the wrong end.

Caspar David Friedrich, 'Wanderer above the sea of fog'

Caspar David Friedrich, ‘Wanderer above the sea of fog’

Nietzsche was one of the great aphorists. He wrote, in his Zarathustra: In the mountains the shortest route is from peak to peak, but for that you must have long legs. Aphorisms should be peaks: and those to whom they are spoken should be big and tall of stature.[4]

Aphorisms are inevitably ambiguous, because they are short and striking. And to work, they should really hit you, so it’s best if they sound rather controversial, against the run of normal opinion. Sangharakshita does this as an aphorist. But before I move on to his sayings, here are a couple of warnings. An aphorism is never exactly true. It is either a half-truth or a truth and a half.[5] And from Dr Johnson: In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath.[6] Lapidary inscriptions are the short sayings carved into tombstones and the like.

Whenever we’re presented with a statement, it’s so tempting to take it literally, not to look through it for truth, but to think it is the truth. But aphorisms say that so much more forcefully:

Art is a lie that makes us realise the truth.[7]

Words, like eyeglasses, blur everything that they do not make more clear.[8]

Encountering Sangharakshita’s sayings

When I was a student in 1976, I used to go along to the little Brighton Buddhist Centre in the backstreets not far from the sea. One of the first things I picked up by Sangharakshita was a yellow coloured booklet called Sangharakshita: Sayings, Poems, Reflections. The very first quotation from Sangharakshita was:

One cannot be what one should be merely by closing one’s eyes to what one is. That sort of thing really grabbed me. Wow, I thought! It worked. I was very struck. I had to think about it.

But you can’t get Sangharakshita’s teachings just from aphorisms. Sometimes, you are bound to get the wrong end of the firebrand.

I remember quite a while ago when a lot of people wanted to argue with Sangharakshita (which some have always have wanted to do, at least ever since I started first heard of him in 1976), I remember him saying: ‘before you decide you disagree with me, clarify your understanding of what I’ve said.’ It’s so easy to assume that one disagrees — or indeed that one agrees. But what does it actually mean?

A powerful example was a very controversial little booklet written by Subhuti, Women Men and Angels.[9] Its title comes from a strange saying by Sangharakshita. Angels are to men as men are to women — because they are more human and, therefore, more divine.[10] What on earth does that mean? It sounds like it’s saying that men are superior to women in some sense. If so, in what sense? But what is this angel? What is an angel? Is it good to be more divine? What about the Buddhist idea of the god realms where the devas (angels) live being a dead end? In any case, what is the background to this weird little saying — how does it fit in with traditional Buddhist teachings? How does it fit in with other ideas of Sangharakshita’s, and his life and behaviour? How does it fit in with your experience? There are so many questions. If possible, ask questions, get clarification before you get indignant.

Here’s another one: ‘One should not waste time helping the weak. Nowadays it is the strong who need help.’[11] If you’re like me sometimes, the kind of person that bristles at an outrageous thing, you might go ‘hey, what’s this about ignoring suffering and defenceless people, and only nurturing some master race?’ (For my thoughts on that saying, see note 11.)

Here’s some advice from Sangharakshita himself on how you might regard teachings or dharmic ideas that you come across. It is not enough to sympathise with something to such an extent that one agrees with it. If necessary, one must sympathise to such an extent that one disagrees.[12]

Attitudes to dharma teachings

Can you look at traditional Buddhist teachings in this critical, non-literal way? Sangharakshita writes: Many years ago, I constantly asked myself: ‘How does this teaching relate to one’s actual spiritual experience, spiritual life and spiritual development? Why did the Buddha say this? Why was the Buddha concerned with this? Where does it connect up with the spiritual life?’ And I found that very, very few scholars ever thought in those terms. In many cases it didn’t even seem to occur to them to do so — even to Buddhists themselves, very often. As though it was just a sort of game, you know, that had no relevance to life and no bearing on the spiritual life or on spiritual development as an individual.[13]

So is Buddhism, the Dharma, true? The Dharma is the Buddha’s Enlightenment objectified, and therefore falsified.[14]

One can only speak the truth to one person. The larger the number of people to whom you are speaking, the more will what you say become an approximation to the truth.[15]

Religion cannot be taught; it can only be caught. You have to catch the spirit of religion, and you do that through the influence of other people.[16]

The Buddha taught and influenced people by what he was, far more than by what he said.[17]

My personal view about Sangharakshita, having lived in the same community as him for five years, having read his stuff, having argued and disagreed with him sometimes, becoming his pupil and disciple by being ordained by him, my personal conclusion is that he is not stupid, and he is not malicious. I could say much more positive things about him than that, but I just want to try to assert those relatively uncontroversial characteristics. He is not stupid, he is not malicious.

I have sometimes heard people, including people in the Triratna Order, taking issue with what they think Sangharakshita believes, either as if he has not thought it through at all, i.e. he is stupid, or as if he’s actually trying to cause trouble. If you start from the view that he basically has a kind intention, and that he does have a reasonable knowledge and intelligence, then you can take what he says rather more subtly, rather more seriously. You might conclude that if your first response to it was ‘that’s puerile’ (to quote a commentator on some of his stuff that I saw recently), or ‘that’s nasty’, then you might pause in your response and say, ‘hang on a minute, perhaps I didn’t quite get it the first time’.

Having a project

I’d like to help his readers to see that Sangharakshita encourages them to make a difference in the world, to make the Dharma more available to people who might enormously benefit from it, if only they could encounter it in the right way. I feel quite strongly about this, though I’m not much good at it myself in most respects.

It seems to me that just about all the Triratna Order members I meet have a lot to congratulate themselves for. They are very impressive people. They have achieved something wonderful. They have found a real meaning in life. They have arrived at a sort of maturity, they’re confident, they have a lot of positivity, they are really alive. Even more importantly, pretty much all the Order members I know, as well as many other Triratna and other Buddhists, are genuinely working on themselves. They are putting into effect the first half of a saying by Sangharakshita: (1) Man can change. (2) He can change himself

It’s such an achievement to have a healthy life worked out, with a real sense of working on oneself, such an admirable and rare achievement. It’s wonderful to see it happening so much, so genuinely. I think it’s there much more now than it was amongst the practitioners that I knew forty years ago when I started coming along to Triratna activities. Much more maturity, confidence, and indeed kindness towards each other, happiness with the lifestyle each has chosen, people thinking for themselves, and making their own decisions. It’s impressive; it is to be rejoiced in.

I’m a bit scared though. I’m scared that because it is so satisfying to have reached that position, that we will stop there. Now we can be happy, now we can be fulfilled and integrated people, we can be comfortable, we can have our achievements on an ordinary human level — perhaps find a profession that helps others to some extent or is creative; perhaps find a loving partner and a good, aesthetic living situation; perhaps find financial security for our futures; perhaps raise a family. In itself, that’s not scary, it’s lovely; it’s a great relief that it is indeed possible!

But what about this poor world? What about human beings, what even about our own future selves, our long-term future selves, ourselves as we die, as we move on into the bewildering unknown.

Let’s finish Sangharakshita’s saying: (1) Man can change. (2) He can change himself. (3) He can help others to change. (4) Together they can change the world.[18]

My own feeling and hope is that a lot of people, to be truly fulfilled, need something else. We need our own projects. Projects for making a difference in the world, but projects that are genuinely our own, that we care about, not just things we have joined in with that looked nice when we were young. Have we got a project? I’ll end this post with some more sayings of Sangharakshita’s.

Need for vision

If one does not dream, one becomes a monster.[19]

Working on a project

If one is healthy, one has energy, and if one     has energy, one naturally wants to put it into something — that is, one wants to work, whether the work consists in digging the soil or painting a picture.[20]

Sometimes I think work — real work, work in which one believes — is the greatest enjoyment in life.[21]

You learn what it is that you are trying to do in the process of trying to do it.[22]

People who have no real work of their own to do will always interfere with that of others. They may even make their ‘work’ to interfere.[23]

Not underestimating oneself

We are usually able to bear much more than we — and others — think we can.[24]

Altruistic projects

You can’t help helping others when you are truly helping yourself… one can help others even simply by providing facilities whereby they can help themselves. The importance of being able to help others in a supportive way is also very great. In a way, even people in the forefront of our activities are only supporting the whole activity of the Sangha. This is developing the faculty of rejoicing in merit.[25]

The deeper the internal realisation, the broader and stronger should be the outflow of energy. A spirituality that is sterile in respect of ‘good works’ is highly suspect. Of course there is such a thing as purely spiritual action on higher levels of consciousness, and this is far more effective than ordinary action, but for most treaders of the spiritual path it is many, many years before this stage is reached, and meanwhile we have to busy ourselves with humble, everyday tasks of service on the mundane level.[26]

Duty

From a Buddhist point of view, your duty is what you see as incumbent upon yourself in view of the principles on which you believe, and the situation in which you find yourself.[27]

It is not a sign of spirituality to allow oneself to be exploited. Sooner or later you begin to start resenting it.[28]

I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.[29]

[1] Maturana, H R and F J Varela, The Tree of Knowledge (Shambhala, 1992).

[2] Online etymological dictionary: http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=aphorism

[3] Wikipedia

[4] Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pt. 1, ‘Of Reading and Writing,’ 1883-92, trans. 1961

[5] Karl Kraus, Sprüche und Widersprüche, 1909

[6] Johnson, Samuel, in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. Vol. vi. Chap. i., 1775

[7] Picasso, quoted in Dore Ashton, Picasso on Art (1972)

[8] Joubert, quoted in Auden and Kronenberger, Faber Book of Aphorisms (1962), 357.

[9] Windhorse Publications, 1995

[10] Peace Is a Fire (Windhorse Publications, 1979), 64

[11] Peace Is a Fire, 75. When I thought about this aphorism, years ago, I decided that it was suggesting that the most effective way of making a difference in the world is to band together with others who seem to be capable of making a difference in the world, referred to here as ‘the strong’ because of that capability. Help the strong in order that the world — which includes everybody, weak or strong — can be genuinely transformed in a radical and lasting way. It could also be hinting that it is a waste of time helping the weak in the sense that you need a certain amount of strength to be able to accept help. But don’t be cowed by this idea. In my opinion, your project must be your own project. Your heart, your vision, is so important. If that vision is to be involved intimately with people who are weak in the sense of being dependent on illegal drugs in extreme ways, for example, than that is admirable. You have found something very hard but very rewarding to do. Wouldn’t it be appalling if somebody was put off from a project like that by some silly little saying in Peace Is a Fire!

[12] Peace Is a Fire, 60

[13] Peace Is a Fire, 99

[14] Peace Is a Fire, 102

[15] Peace Is a Fire, 105

[16] Buddhism and education lecture, A Stream of Stars (Windhorse Publications, 1998), 15

[17] Peace Is a Fire, 106

[18] A Stream of Stars, 18

[19] Peace Is a Fire, 32

[20] Correspondence, A Stream of Stars, 69

[21] Correspondence, A Stream of Stars, 70

[22] ‘A Method of Personal Development’ Lecture, Peace Is a Fire, 30

[23] Peace Is a Fire, 30

[24] Correspondence, Peace Is a Fire, 105

[25] Door of Liberation seminar, Peace Is a Fire, 31

[26] Correspondence, Peace Is a Fire, 31

[27] Tuscany 1982 Question and Answers, A Stream of Stars, 72

[28] Door of Liberation seminar, Peace Is a Fire, 30

[29] Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks, May 1849

Are scientific laws permanent?

‘All things are impermanent’: what about scientific laws?

IDL TIFF file

Saturn

Impermanence is fundamental to Buddhism. It is even “Buddhism in One Word” (Sangharakshita).  The locus classicus for this particular doctrine could be seen as being a verse of the Dhammapada (a collection of sayings ascribed to the Buddha, which are very likely to be very close to his original teachings), which runs:

277  sabbe sankhaaraa anichchaa ti yadaa paññaaya passati
atha nibbindati dukkhe esa maggo visuddhiyaa.

All processes are impermanent. When one sees this with understanding, then one is disillusioned with the things of suffering. This is the Path of Purification. (John Richards translation)

So what is being stated as being impermanent is all processes — the Pali word being sankhara (the transliteration doubles the a’s to show they are the long form), or Sanskrit samskara.  It pointedly does not say, “all dharmas are impermanent”, but two verses later, it does say, “all dharmas are insubstantial (anatta)”.  Dharmas here probably means anything that can be an object of cognition, whether it is what we see as a physical thing, or an idea, or an attribute etc. I think it would be best to see a physical law as a dharma, but not a samskara (though a philologist friend who read an earlier draft disputes this).

Verse 5 of the Dhammapada says:

Occasions of hatred are certainly never settled by hatred. They are settled by freedom from hatred. This is the eternal law

So here a psychological law is being stated as not being impermanent.  (Eternal law translates dhammo sanantano – ‘an eternal or age-old dharma’.)  Why should the same not be the case with the physical laws of the universe? However, it is possible that they are contingent in some way: the cosmologist Lee Smolin speculates that new universes are constantly being spawned within black holes, each new universe having slightly different physical laws from its parent universe. (The Life of the Cosmos.)

But Buddhists might differ from many scientists, in particular those who think that there will eventually be a final theory of everything, in that they would count physical laws as dharmas, and so would assert that they are insubstantial.  In other words, a law has no independent existence of its own.  It is simply an ordered description of the way phenomena behave — how they influence each other, how they arise and pass away etc. and another type of intelligence might use a different set of laws to describe the same phenomena, though it would in principle be possible to cross-reference the two sets, and show how they are consistent with each other.  It is an object of the conscious mind.

I wonder whether the regularity of scientific experimentation allows one to suspect that some physical laws would always be conceptually patterned in the same way, if different observers at perhaps very different times in very different parts of the universe set up their observations in the same way? In that sense, the law could be unchanging.

What is impermanent?  In the Buddhist tradition, very little is left out of the rather loose term ‘samskara’.  It is most importantly used for people’s mental states, habits, characters etc — in other words, it is encouraging you to feel that you are not stuck in any form of life, or any personal tendency.

This doctrine would assert that there can be no entity in the universe that was free from influence and thus change, similarly, no form of existence or realm, no physical object etc.  ( I am taking it as read that such entities are mind objects, though in this context they are mind objects within scientific discourse, which is very careful to specify them in ways that ensures they can be investigated coherently by many people using a variety of well defined observation methods.) But how would this apply to certain subatomic particles which are regarded as being completely stable?  Could one say that a proton(1) is a permanent entity?

It may be that it is illegitimate to apply Buddhist insights to the scientific sphere. I hope not, I suspect that the meeting of the two ways of looking at human life could be stimulating and fruitful. Scientific findings are very robust, and could clarify the worldview of Buddhists in many ways. Buddhists could also help scientists, for example by offering cogent alternatives to the view that it is primarily the human brain that gives rise to human awareness, and that there is an absolutely real, dead universe, lacking in awareness, which is ultimately separate from the processes of awareness. More importantly, it can suggest a non-religious ethical framework for scientists, some of whom have little in the way of ethics apart from the pressure of public opinion.

_______________

(1) I had originally written ‘neutron’, a bit of a howler as a free neutron has a half life of less than 15 minutes. Free protons have never been seen decaying so far, so may be very long lasting, perhaps ‘permanent’, though protons within nuclei can transform to neutrons by beta decay, and a proton would lose its identity if it fell into a black hole.

Karma in Buddhism: why stop acting from preference?

kindnessKarma: acting by skill instead of likes and dislikes

A karma means a deed: anything we initiate, whether a deliberate thought, a few casual words to someone, or a physical action. All actions have their effects, and the intentional ones change our character and thus our future most powerfully of all.

There is a choice between what the Buddha called dark deeds and bright deeds. With mindfulness you can put energy into certain mental impulses and withdraw it from others; you can let some impulses express themselves in action, and restrain yourself from acting on others. This is Buddhist ethics, an ethics based in your knowledge of mental states, which offers the choice between skilful actions, the bright deeds, which genuinely benefit one’s self and others, and unskilful, dark deeds, which cause harm and distress.

The consequence of the basic negative impulses of craving and aversion is that things go wrong, and life becomes unsatisfactory because the world does not match your wants. This is how unskilfulness is defined in Buddhism: it comes from craving or aversion, and it leads to frustration and misery. By definition, unskilful actions harm yourself and others. Skilful actions in contrast come from open and loving states, and lead to benefit and happiness.

The first stage of a Buddhist life is to move the seat of government from the likes-and-dislikes polarity to that of skilful and unskilful, the criteria of Buddhist ethics. You restrain the craving, the clinging, and the other self-protective responses, and you see whether you can stop yourself turning those mental responses into harmful words and deeds. Instead, you practise friendliness, compassion, stillness, awareness and so on.

This does not mean a swap to not doing what you want to do and doing what you dislike. Skilful/unskilful are categories of a different nature from like/dislike. You are choosing on the basis of skilfulness instead of giving in to the habits of protecting a precarious identity, and a skilful choice can be tough, but it is often delightful. It can be very skilful to do what you like, and pleasant experiences are often the consequences of previous skilfulness. Ruling your life by always choosing what you like, hedonism, leads to disappointment and selfishness. But ruling your life by what you don’t like is religious asceticism, a practice the Buddha tried before his awakening, and emphatically found did not help. He reflected: ‘Why am I afraid of such pleasure?’ Then he explored the delights to be found in a clarified human mind – a skilful mind.

Karma, action, has tangible consequences, according to Buddhism. Why is it that one notices some things and not others? And why is it that some things are liked and some disliked? The reason is said to be past karma: the decisions we have made, the habits we have entrenched, perhaps in previous lives, in short all our seeds of ethical and unethical actions; these give significance to our current world, and determine what we notice and what we do about it.

Extracted from Finding the Mind by Robin Cooper (Ratnaprabha), Windhorse Publications, 2012.

Did the Buddha Ban Drinking? Alcohol, Addiction and Mindfulness

The fifth precept

A pretty literal rendering would be: I undertake the footstep of training to abstain from:  beer, wine and intoxicants which cause carelessness.

In Pali: Surā-meraya-majja-pamāda-ṭṭhānā veramaṇī-sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi.

The positive form as used in Triratna is: With mindfulness clear and radiant, I purify my mind.[1]

What does this precept imply?

In the early days of Buddhism it could be undertaken strictly, as a one-day precept, and then it was recited like this;

All enlightened ones, for as long as life lasts, have given up the taking of liquors and intoxicants, of that which intoxicates, causing carelessness. They are far from intoxicants.  All of you have given up the taking of liquors and intoxicants. You abstain from drink which causes carelessness. For all of this day and night, in this manner, you will be known as having followed the enlightened ones, and the [precepts] will have been observed by you. [2]

Would it help to try not to use alcohol or other intoxicants at all?  The Buddha said: [3]

A layman who has chosen to practice this Dhamma should not indulge in the drinking of intoxicants. [4] He should not drink them nor encourage others to do so; realizing that it leads to madness. [5]

Through intoxication foolish people perform evil deeds and cause other heedless people to do likewise. He should avoid intoxication, this occasion for demerit, [6] which stupefies the mind, and is the pleasure of foolish people.

The precepts are “footsteps of training” — to do with moving on in a natural way from where you are now. So it’s not really a question of either drinking or not drinking, but of shifting in a direction that means that you are doing fewer things that cause heedlessness, and doing more things that encourage mindfulness. If your practice is alive, you’re probably looking at all your addictions and intoxications, and working with them, changing them in helpful ways.

Does it also help others?

In [giving up intoxicants, the disciple of the noble ones] gives freedom from danger, from animosity, from oppression to limitless numbers of beings. [And so] he gains a share in limitless freedom from danger, freedom from animosity, and freedom from oppression. This is [a] great gift … And [it leads] to welfare & to happiness.[7]

You are more likely to break all the other precepts if you are inebriated. So others are in less danger from you if you remain sober. But perhaps more important nowadays is the freedom not to drink that you can grant others, who may have a serious drink problem, by not yourself not joining in social drinking.

Addiction

Addiction comes from wanting to repeat pleasures or palliatives until they become excessive.  Happiness does not come from pursuing pleasure, it seems to come from being fully engaged with life, and gradually breaking down the limitations on your awareness.

You can tell whether or not you are addicted by whether or not you get distressing and uncomfortable symptoms when you stop using the intoxicant.   So whatever you enjoy, sometimes just try doing without it for a while, to experience yourself without your habitual props.

Addiction also comes from wanting stimulants, to distract one from discomfort and unhappiness, and distract one from feelings of self-dislike.  A way of tackling destructive addictions is to enhance one’s feelings of self-worth.  The best way is from the genuine esteem and love of friends.

The lesson is to offer love and esteem to others!

Intoxication with health, youth, and life

The Buddha describes that after seeing the four sights (examples of decrepitude, sickness and death, and of a seeker for truth), he reflected like this:

Drunk with the intoxication of Youth, … Health,… [or] Life, an uninstructed, run-of-the-mill person engages in bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, & mental misconduct. …  ‘Subject to birth, subject to aging, subject to death, run-of-the-mill people are repelled by those who suffer from [being subject to birth, ageing and death.] [He continues his reflection:] And if I were to be repelled by beings subject to these things, it would not be fitting for me…’ As I maintained this attitude — knowing the Dhamma without acquisitions — I overcame all intoxication with health, youth, & life as one who sees renunciation as rest. For me, energy arose, [Nirvana] was clearly seen.[8]

Mindfulness

It seems that originally Buddhist ethics emphasised only four precepts. The Buddha felt it necessary to add a precept about intoxication because he placed such an enormously high value on being conscious and aware, on being mindful. “Awareness is really precious and it is hard to come by”.[9] So the positive version of the precept is about mindfulness.

  • the mindfulness is clear; radiant
  • it is about being present;
  • not being forgetful (recollection[10]);
  • having a clarity of purpose, where you know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it;[11]
  • vigilance: having an awareness of your mental state, and whether it’s a good idea to act from that mental state or not;[12]
  • an awareness of the way your state of mind changes – noticing what’s coming up.[13]

The Buddha’s analogy is that mindfulness is the bouncer of the mind.[14] It stands at the door, and some visitors it lets in, some it excludes. It is aware of the effect of the experiences and the stimuli that are trying to get into the club. Jostling at the door, are the intoxicants.  They range from specific substances such as alcohol to very general infatuations such as youth and health.

You might consider your favoured intoxicants: what makes you less conscious? But also what makes you more conscious, face-to-face with life, what wakes you up?

Did the Buddha ban drinking?

Maybe some of the remarks I have made, and the quotations from the Pali Canon, could help you to decide how best to practise the fifth precept.  The Buddha was certainly stricter in his interpretation of the precept for those of his disciples who had forsaken home and family for a full-on life of practice, those we sometimes call the ‘monastics’.  Today, some Buddhists drink to excess, some drink, some don’t.  I had some mulled wine at a private view of paintings last week. Did it do me any harm? It did affect me. Would it have been a problem not to have it?

Some questions for personal reflection

  • Is it generally worth the trouble to strive for mindfulness?
  • What are your ‘favourite’ intoxicants?
  • What effect do they have on you? Do they cause heedlessness?
  • What pleasures or benefits do you get from them?
  • Would you like to reduce your dependence on them and enjoy more awareness?
  • How could you do so?

[1] https://thebuddhistcentre.com/system/files/groups/files/sevenfoldpuja.pdf

[2] The eight lay precepts. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.041.vaka.html  The wording reflects Ñaravara Thera’s translation of the fifth precept.

[3] Sutta Nipata, 400-401. Alternative translation by Jayarava, in an excellent essay on the fifth precept: The householder who finds pleasure in this Dhamma,/ Should not practice drinking alcohol;/ Should not cause any other good person to drink, /Knowing it leads to madness.

Intoxicated, they foolishly do evil,/ And cause other negligent people to do likewise./ This occasion for disgrace should be avoided,/ This crazy, idiotic pleasure of fools. Dhammika Sutta. http://jayarava.blogspot.co.uk/2010/07/fifth-precept.html

[4] majja

[5] ummāda

[6] pāpa

[7] Abhisanda Sutta. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an08/an08.039.than.html

[8] Sukhamala Sutta. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an03/an03.038.than.html

[9] Jack Kornfield.  http://www.skepticfiles.org/mys3/action.htm

[10] sati

[11] sampajañña

[12] appamada

[13] appamada again.

[14] Samyutta Nikaya IV 194

The Buddha’s Last Words

As he lay on his deathbed between the twin Sal Trees, the Buddha’s parting words were: “Be your own light, be your own refuge, the Dharma is your light and refuge. Things naturally decay: win through by mindfulness!”

After reading Jayarava’s very thorough discussion of the last sentence above, from the Pali words given in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, I thought I would produce my own re-rendering, designed for accessibility and usefulness.  Jayarava raises many points about the meanings of the various terms, and his suggested translations are different from the above; he has not checked my rendering.  It is well worth reading his whole blog entry.

 

 

Notes on right livelihood from Buddhist sources

Right livelihood is ethical livelihood (the Buddha)

1200px-Mancunian_Bees“And how is right view the forerunner? One discerns wrong livelihood as wrong livelihood, and right livelihood as right livelihood. And what is wrong livelihood? Scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, & pursuing gain with gain. This is wrong livelihood…

“One tries to abandon wrong livelihood & to enter into right livelihood: This is one’s right effort. One is mindful to abandon wrong livelihood & to enter & remain in right livelihood: This is one’s right mindfulness. Thus these three qualities — right view, right effort, & right mindfulness — run & circle around right livelihood.” (MN 117, Thanissaro trs)

Monks, these five trades ought not to be plied by a lay-disciple… Trade in weapons, trade in human beings, trade in flesh, trade in spirits [intoxicants] and trade in poison. (Gradual Sayings, AN 5.177)

The Buddha’s advice on working

To a Householder

“We, Lord, are laymen who enjoy worldly pleasure. We lead a life encumbered by wife and children. …We deck ourselves with garlands, perfume and unguents. We use gold and silver. To those like us, … let the Exalted One preach the Dhamma, teach those things that lead to weal and happiness in this life and to weal and happiness in future life.”

Four conditions, Vyagghapajja, conduce to a householder’s weal and happiness in this very life. Which four?

The accomplishment of persistent effort (utthana-sampada), the accomplishment of watchfulness (arakkha-sampada), good friendship (kalyanamittata) and balanced livelihood (sama-jivikata).

  1. Herein, Vyagghapajja, by whatsoever activity a householder earns his living, whether by farming, by trading, by rearing cattle, by archery, by service under the king, or by any other kind of craft — at that he becomes skillful and is not lazy. He is endowed with the power of discernment as to the proper ways and means; he is able to carry out and allocate (duties). This is called the accomplishment of persistent effort.
  2. Herein, Vyagghapajja, whatsoever wealth a householder is in possession of, obtained by dint of effort, collected by strength of arm, by the sweat of his brow, justly acquired by right means — such he husbands well by guarding and watching so that kings would not seize it, thieves would not steal it, fire would not burn it, water would not carry it away, nor ill-disposed heirs remove it. This is the accomplishment of watchfulness.
  3. Herein, Vyagghapajja, in whatsoever village or market town a householder dwells, he associates, converses, engages in discussions with householders or householders’ sons, whether young and highly cultured or old and highly cultured, full of faith (saddha), full of virtue (sila), full of charity (caga), full of wisdom (pañña). He acts in accordance with the faith of the faithful, with the virtue of the virtuous, with the charity of the charitable, with the wisdom of the wise. This is called good friendship.

Herein, Vyagghapajja, a householder knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income.

Just as the goldsmith, or an apprentice of his, knows, on holding up a balance, that by so much it has dipped down, by so much it has tilted up; even so a householder, knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income.

(From the Dighajanu Sutta, Anguttara Nikaya VIII.54, translated by Narada Thera.)

To Sigalaka

And how, young householder, does a noble disciple, cover the six quarters?

The following should be looked upon as the six quarters. The parents should be looked upon as the East, teachers as the South, wife and children as the West, friends and associates as the North, servants and employees as the Nadir, ascetics and brahmans as the Zenith….

In five ways should a master minister to his servants and employees as the Nadir:

(i)     By assigning them work according to their ability, (ii)     By supplying them with food and with wages, (iii)    By tending them in sickness, (iv)    By sharing with them any delicacies, (v)    By granting them leave at times.

The servants and employees thus ministered to as the Nadir by their master show their compassion to him in five ways:

(i)     They rise before him, (ii)     They go to sleep after him, (iii)    They take only what is given, (iv)    They perform their duties well, (v)    They uphold his good name and fame.

The servants and employees thus ministered to as the Nadir show their compassion towards him in these five ways. Thus is the Nadir covered by him and made safe and secure.

[From another part of the Sutta:] … There are, young householder, these six evil consequences in being addicted to idleness: he does no work, saying:

  1. That it is extremely cold
  2. That it is extremely hot
  3. That it is too late in the evening
  4. That it is too early in the morning
  5. That he is extremely hungry
  6. That he is too full.(From the Sigalavada Sutta, DN 31, translated from the Pali by Narada Thera.)
  7. Living in this way, he leaves many duties undone, new wealth he does not get, and wealth he has acquired dwindles away….

The Four Appropriate Happinesses

“Herein, householder, these four kinds of happiness are appropriate for one who leads the household life and enjoys the pleasures of the senses. They are the happiness of ownership, the happiness of enjoyment, the happiness of freedom from debt, and the happiness of blamelessness.

“What is the happiness of ownership (atthisukha)? A son of good family possesses wealth that has been obtained by his own diligent labour, acquired through the strength of his own arms and the sweat of his own brow, rightly acquired, rightly gained. He experiences pleasure, he experiences happiness, thinking, ‘I possess this wealth that has been obtained by my own diligent labour, acquired through the strength of my own arms and the sweat of my own brow, rightly acquired, rightly gained.’ This is the happiness of ownership.

“And what is the happiness of enjoyment (bhogasukha)? Herein, a son of good family consumes, puts to use, and derives benefit from the wealth that has been obtained by his own diligent labour, acquired through the strength of his own arms and the sweat of his own brow, rightly acquired, rightly gained. He experiences pleasure, he experiences happiness, thinking, ‘Through this wealth that has been obtained by my own diligent labour, acquired through the strength of my own arms and the sweat of my own brow, rightly acquired, rightly gained, I have derived benefit and performed good works.’ This is called the happiness of enjoyment.

“And what is the happiness of freedom from debt (ananasukha)? Herein, a son of good family owes no debt, be it great or small, to anyone at all. He experiences pleasure and happiness, reflecting. ‘I owe no debts, be they great or small, to anyone at all.’ This is called the happiness of freedom from debt.

“And what is the happiness of blamelessness (anavajjasukha)? Herein, a noble disciple is possessed of blameless bodily actions, blameless speech, and blameless thoughts. He experiences pleasure and happiness, thinking, ‘I am possessed of blameless bodily actions, blameless speech, and blameless thoughts.’ This is called the happiness of blamelessness.

“When he realizes the happiness of being free from debt, he is in a position to appreciate the happiness of owning possessions. As he uses his possessions, he experiences the happiness of enjoyment. Clearly seeing this, the wise man, comparing the first three kinds of happiness with the last, sees that they are not worth a sixteenth part of the happiness that arises from blameless behaviour.” (A.II.69, from a Ven. Payutto Web Page.)  These four can be applied to your work, and summarised as: Joy in what you’ve got (enjoying the career and work that you already have, and the benefits you get from them, including financial); Joy in what you do with it (this is enjoying the products of your work — creativity and as well as material productivity); Joy in non-dependency; and Joy in a free heart.  See the Jack Kornfield talk, reference below.

Working in Buddhist teams

Defining TBRL

‘Team-Based Right Livelihood Businesses’ (TBRL) “were team-based because they consisted of a number of Buddhists working together. They worked together along broadly co-operative lines. And they were right livelihood businesses, because they operated in accordance with Buddhist ethical principles.”

(Sangharakshita, The integration of Buddhism into Western Society, 1992)

” Team based right livelihood businesses have four distinguishing characteristics.

  1. They provide those who work in them with a means of support. They do not pay wages or salaries, and they give each worker what he or she needs according to their individual circumstances.
  2. They engage only in such activities that are ethical, ie. in accordance with the precepts. Morover, the team based right livelihood businesses are run in an ethical manner, and the workers treat one another ethically.
  3. They provide opportunities for the development of spiritual friendship within the work situation. [enumerated as number 2 in The integration of Buddhism into Western Society (1992): “they enabled Buddhists to work with one another”.] This is particularly the case where the workers not only work together, but live together in a community.
  4. Profits of the business are distributed as dana, for the benefit of FWBO/TBMSG activities of various kinds.” [In The integration of Buddhism into Western Society: “they gave financial support to Buddhist and humanitarian activities”.]

(Sangharakshita, Looking Ahead a Little Way, 1999 and The Six Emphases of the FWBO.)

“If anything is to be added [to the above four] it should be something to the effect that a right livelihood business would be one in which all the skills necessary for the success of the business were present – managerial and other skills.” (1987 Men’s Order Convention Questions)

Cooperative working

“If you have a co-op you’ve got a group of people who have equal responsibility in principle.  That doesn’t mean… that they’re interchangeable in terms of skills, but… there are no employers and no employees regardless of the specific functions the individual members of the co-op are performing. So you’ve got a situation in which people all accept responsibility, and that isn’t easy, because one usually finds within a group of people working together, that some … take on less responsibility, which means that the others have to take on a bit more responsibility to take up the slack… Usually those who take on more responsibility are in the minority, those who take on less responsibility are in the [majority]. Then those who take on less responsibility for the same reason that they take on less responsibility are resentful that other people have taken on more responsibility … In this way resentment develops, all sorts of criticism develops and so on. So you need really, to have a co-op at all, a group of really mature and responsible people.” they need to be concerned for the co-op as a whole, not just their job (at least full-timers).  So probably only order members should work in our ‘co-ops’…

“If you have to think in terms of a career, well think of it as a career within the Movement as a whole.”

(Sangharakshita, 1987 Women’s Convention.)

It’s not difficult to start an FWBO centre, it’s more difficult to start a single-sex community, but the most difficult and demanding of all is to start a TBRL.  “But it’s also perhaps the most worthwhile of all because, …in some cases you not only work with other people but you live with those same people and living with them and working with them, you can develop a very close spiritual friendship.”

“You work best on your relationships within the Team by all of you, more and more devotedly co-operating for the fulfilment of the aims and objects of the business.”

“I regard the [FWBO] housewife as, in a way, working, you might say, in a Team Based Right Livelihood project, perhaps on a rather small scale, depending on the number of children.” (Sangharakshita, Dhanakosa Opening Questions, 1993)

Also, ” the work situation is very important for developing a more virile kind of spiritual friendship.”

“Unless they are manned entirely by stream entrants, all organisations and Movements will have an in-built tendency to degenerate. So err on the side of adherence to the ideal, if you have to err at all.”

(Sangharakshita, Windhorse Trading Right Livelihood Questions)

Subhuti’s five categories of right livelihood

  1. Doing work that is not unethical.
  2. Having contact with Buddhists in the same line of work.
  3. Working with other Buddhists.
  4. Setting up a Buddhist business, paying normal wages.
  5. Team-based right livelihood with a semimonastic lifestyle.
  6. (Summarised in: Working Life, an Exploration of Right Livelihood, Talk by Jnanavaca, London Buddhist Centre. I would add number 1a, Vocational work, which might be altruistic or artistic.)

Historical spiritual communities, especially in the 19th century in America

“Some of these communities developed business enterprises, and these business enterprises were quite successful, but they ended up absorbing all the energies of the people involved, and the spiritual communities became, sometimes officially and legally, business corporations; one or two of which, I think, continue still. And the whole spiritual community side of [things was lost. Broadly, they failed because there was] no common way of life, no common spiritual practice, and no real emphasis on individual growth and development and on helping one another to grow and evolve; and no emphasis on the community as a situation with a structure which helps the individual to evolve.”

(Sangharakshita, Tuscany 82 Q&A)

Team-Based Right Livelihood as spiritual practice

“If the work is ethical it’s a spiritual practice. If the business is generating funds for dharma projects, for dana, obviously that’s a spiritual practice. One might even say that if it’s providing its workers with support, that’s a spiritual practice. It’s again a form of dana. And if it provides kalyana mitrata well certainly it’s a spiritual practice.” And you get your energies going through working hard.  (Sangharakshita, 1987 Men’s Order Convention Questions)

Mindfulness and insight through working

Mindfulness is important, but would you necessarily develop more mindfulness, say, at Vajraloka that at work?  “In your work there is an objective check up. You’re made more quickly aware if you have been unmindful.”  “There is a constant means of checking, objectively, how well you are doing. Not only in business terms, but even to some extent in spiritual terms. You may not get that in a more relaxed and, as it were, spiritual situation, unless you have a very fiery Zen type master perhaps.”

Insight at work?  By its nature, insight doesn’t depend on any particular set of conditions: it arises in dependence on non-Insight.  The Indian  tradition in particular says that Shamatha is most conducive, but Zen provides many examples of insight in different situations.  Nevertheless, an extreme situation, pushing you to the edge, is most likely to give rise to insight, whether you are meditating or not.  Are you sometimes pushed to the edge at Windhorse Trading? “Maybe there are financial problems, and you tell yourself well yes there are these problems, but what is the challenge? Not to be disturbed, and just face the possibility of total failure with equanimity. … That’s the edge towards which you are being pushed. That you are not deep down really, ultimately concerned about success or failure. At least not in a personal sense.”  You can cultivate all the spiritual faculties at work, but to keep them healthy there are probably more specialised situations such as Puja and meditation and retreat and study which are also necessary, and are allowed for at Windhorse.  Sangharakshita would take a daily meditation practice, the weekly chapter meeting, and one month of retreats each year as a minimum.  If Windhorse was really a complete situation, why not commit yourself to it for life, as the Benedictines did in their monastery?  Those not suited to it could found other kinds of right livelihood businesses, especially those involved with providing the essentials of life, especially food, clothing and housing. (Sangharakshita, Windhorse Trading Right Livelihood Questions)

Jack Kornfield’s five aspects of right livelihood

  1. Non-harming

Avoiding livelihoods that, for example, involve weapons, exploitation, drugs, or whatever hurts people; and helping others avoid them, too.

  1. Appropriate happiness

(See above)

  1. Growth and Awareness

‘Waking up’ in your livelihood.  Practising mindfulness, and facing reality in your work.

  1. Simplicity

Keeping your work uncomplicated and straightforward, using it to support a simple life, not consumerist.

  1. Service

Seeing your livelihood in terms of offering benefit to others, acting in a loving and selfless way.

[I would add:  6. Fellowship: communication, friendship, kalyana mitrata, co-operation, empathy, Sangha etc.]

http://www.cheraglibrary.org/buddhist/kornfield/jkliveli.htm

Dogen on the Tenzo

The job of cook is an all-consuming pursuit of the way. If one lacks the way-seeking mind, it will be nothing but a vain struggle and hardship, without benefit in the end.

When washing rice, preparing vegetables, and so on, do so with your own hands, with close attention, vigorous exertion, and a sincere mind. Do not indulge in a single moment of carelessness or laziness. Do not allow attentiveness to one thing to result in overlooking another….

The ancients said that cooks regard [rolling] up their sleeves as the way-seeking mind.

Treat utensils such as tongs and ladles, and all other implements and ingredients, with equal respect; handle all things with sincerity, picking them up and putting them down with courtesy….

Do not argue with the store officers over the amount of ingredients you have received. Without worrying about their quality, simply make the best of what you have. …

Even when, for example, one makes a soup of the crudest greens, one should not give rise to a mind that loathes it or takes its lightly; and even when one makes a soup of the finest cream, one should not give rise to a mind that feels glad and rejoices in it.

…When we work attentively, therein lies the principle that makes it possible to surpass our predecessors.  That you still do not grasp the certainty of this principle is because your thinking scatters, like wild horses, and your emotions run wild, like monkeys in a forest. If you can make those monkeys and horses, just once, take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward, then naturally you will be completely integrated. This is the means by which we, who are [ordinarily] set into motion by things, become able to set things into motion. …

Harmonizing and purifying yourself in this manner, do not lose either the one eye [of transcendent wisdom] or the two eyes [of discriminating consciousness]. Lifting a single piece of vegetable, make [yourself into] a six-foot [Buddha] and ask that six-foot body to prepare a single piece of vegetable. Those are [the cook’s] spiritual penetrations and magical transformations, his Buddha-work and benefiting of living beings. …

Harmonizing and purifying yourself in this manner, do not lose either the one eye [of transcendent wisdom] or the two eyes [of discriminating consciousness]. Lifting a single piece of vegetable, make [yourself into] a six-foot [Buddha] and ask that six-foot body to prepare a single piece of vegetable. Those are [the cook’s] spiritual penetrations and magical transformations, his Buddha-work and benefiting of living beings. … (Dogen, Advice to the Cook, http://www.stanford.edu/group/scbs/sztp3/translations/eihei_shingi/translations/tenzo_kyokun/translation.html )

And an unsourced quote from Dogen: ” when the cook takes the vegetable stems, it must be with the same power with which the Buddha turned the wheel of the Dharma…”

Right livelihood reading list

Author Title Subtitle Publisher
Date
Notes
Badiner, Allan Hunt (ed) Mindfulness in the Marketplace Compassionate responses to consumerism Parallax 2002 Essays on consumerism etc, mainly by various American Buddhists
Buchan, James Frozen Desire An Inquiry into the Meaning of Money Picador 1997 Nature and history of money and its illusory nature.  Not Buddhist.
Carroll, Michael Awake at Work 35 practical Buddhist principles for discovering clarity & balance in the midst of work’s chaos Shambhala 2006 Based on Tibetan mind training, using slogans
Dalai Lama and Howard Cutler The Art of Happiness at Work Hodder and Stoughton 2003 Conversations with the Dalai Lama on job satisfaction etc
Inoue, Shinichi Putting Buddhism to Work A New Approach to Management and Business Kodansha Internation’l 1997 Japanese businessman, mainly on Buddhist economics, a little on RL
Kinder, George Seven Stages of Money Maturity Understanding the Spirit and Value of Money in Your Life Random House 1999 Vaguely Buddhist angle on understanding spiritual and psychological issues around money.
Kulananda & Dominic Houlder Mindfulness and Money The Buddhist Path to Abundance Broadway Books 2002 By two Order Members
Lamont, Georgeanne The Spirited Business Success stories of Soul-friendly companies Hodder and Stoughton 2002 Transforming your workplace to be more spiritual, with many case histories
Lewin, Roger and Birute Regine The Soul at Work Unleashing the power of complexity science for business success Orion Business Books 1999 Business organisational dynamics, prioritising genuine relationships and mutual respect, connecting people to values.
Low, Albert Zen and Creative Management Charles Tuttle 1976this ed 92 Solving management problems using Zen ideas
Maitland, Arnaud Master Work Master of time Dharma Publishing 2000 Disciple of Tarthang.  Communication, cooperation, responsibility, awareness & concentration; caring; mastering the flow of time.

 

Padmasuri Transforming Work An experiment in Right livelihood Windhorse Publicat’ns 2003 On Windhorse Trading
Payutto, P A Buddhist Economics A Middle Way for the Marketplace Buddha Dharma foundation 1994 (2nd edn) Ethics of making money
Pratley, Peter The Essence of Business Ethics Prentice Hall 1995 Study text for managers
Richmond, Lewis Work As a Spiritual Practice How to bring depth and meaning to the work you do Piatkus 1999 Buddhist approach, including the energy wheel, dealing with stress, worry, anger, boredom, failure etc and developing positive qualities.
Roach, Geshe Michael The Diamond Cutter The Buddha on managing your business and your life Doubleday 2000 Business strategies from the Diamond Sutra
Simpson, Liz Working from the Heart A practical guide to loving what you do for a living Vermilion 1999 Making work more fulfilling, vaguely Buddhist
Tarthang Tulku Mastering Successful Work Skilful means: wake-up Dharma Publishing 1994 Making work into a path of realisation and transformation
Tarthang Tulku Ways of Work Dynamic action Dharma Publishing 1987 Accounts of working for Dharma Publishing etc
Whitmyer, Claude (ed) Mindfulness and Meaningful Work Explorations in Right livelihood Parallax Press 1994 Essays based on the eightfold path applied to work, mainly by American Buddhist teachers.
Witten, Dona and Akong Tulku Rinpoche Enlightened Management Transforming yourself — and then your team — for maximum success Rider 1998 Applying Buddhist principles to managing

Compiled by Ratnaprabha

Mind in Buddhism

Mind in Buddhism: Finding the Mind interview

CoverHow would you introduce Finding the Mind in just a few words?

Being aware is the most important part of our experience as human beings, so in Finding the Mind I wanted to explore what it means to be aware, and what you can do with this awareness. Buddhists have been looking into the issue for over two and a half thousand years so my book draws on the whole of the Buddhist tradition, as well as looking at some modern ideas.

I also put a few exercises in the book so that readers can do some of the things that Buddhist meditators have been doing down the ages and see what results they come up with themselves. I wanted to make the book accessible and also quite interactive because ultimately what is important is your own experience, not what somebody else says your experience ought to be. So I hope that Finding the Mind will give people a few avenues into exploring their own minds.

Why is the project of finding our minds so important?

In a way, experiences are all that we have got, so exploring the nature of experience is, I think, basic to our humanity. Also basic to our humanity are our unwelcome experiences – we suffer, we experience pain, and we wish things were different – and Buddhism has some very effective strategies for coping with these unwelcome experiences. Not just coping with them, in fact, but actually seeing through the issues that cause them in the first place.

The Buddha taught that suffering springs from our own minds, and mostly from the fact that we don’t know our own minds, so we end up making the same mistakes in life, over and over again. This is why I think that finding our minds is such an important project.  We become familiar with the way our minds normally work, firstly so that we can then work out how to change our minds, and secondly so that we can also empathize with the experience of other people. Because people’s minds do work in very similar ways, and if we can understand our own minds, we can understand more about what it’s like to be a human being in general.

So finding our minds is not only important but also quite fascinating and exciting – lots of unexpected insights emerge when we start to look at our minds. Imagine that you didn’t have repeated disappointments with life and that you’d found the confidence to engage with the world and leave it a better place! This is what I think engaging with the Buddhist view of the mind can offer.

You dedicate a whole chapter to the subject of compassion. What relevance does compassion have as far as finding the mind is concerned?

Well firstly I think that it’s very important that any discussions of Buddhism include the subject of compassion because compassion is such a crucial part of Buddhism in general. Obviously meditation is also crucial – it allows us to make our experience as simple and straightforward as possible so that we can notice what’s actually going on in our minds and make subtle little adjustments. However, what is equally important is what happens during the rest of the day: how we go to sleep, how we eat, how we behave at work, how we deal with the people we live with. All of this stuff is real – it’s our mind actually responding. So finding the mind is not just about self-discovery, it’s also about connecting with our capacity to respond to life in a more compassionate way.

And as I mentioned earlier, our experience of suffering is something that we share with all human beings. More specifically, it’s a common human experience to feel embattled, for example, or needy, or that there’s something missing. One way through these experiences is through awareness of others – in other words through compassion – because compassion expands our awareness from the narrow perspective of the self, leaving us more relaxed and happier. So, even from a selfish point of view, compassion really works! But of course it is also about something much bigger than that. Other people are just as real as we are, they are just as important. So not to care about other people I think is running away from something.

Does Buddhism point to objective and universal laws that govern the workings of our minds, or does it simply encourage us to explore our own subjective experience?

I think it’s definitely best if our exploration of Buddhism starts from our own experience – from basic mindfulness – but of course with mindfulness we start to notice patterns in our experience and patterns between people as well. We discover that there are universal laws that govern the lives of conscious beings – all beings with a mind – because there’s something about mind which is, in a way, universal. When we see ourselves as a distinct subject in here, for example, we are inevitably going to experience problems with the separation between ourselves and the world around us.

So all conscious beings face similar problems, and finding solutions to these common problems is exactly what Buddhism is about. It’s something that ultimately we have to do for ourselves, but Buddhism gives us maps of the patterns that we’re likely to find in our experience to help us on our way.

In fact the Buddhist tradition has come up with a number of different maps because the underlying truths of life can never be fully summed up in one single conceptual way. And I think it’s helpful to be exposed to the widest possible range of approaches, so in my book I include visual images like the Tibetan wheel of life, along with Buddhist philosophical teachings, and I also recount stories – some narratives and some more mythic stories. I think that once you’ve found an approach or a map that works for you it means that you can change your mental responses by using the understanding that’s come through from other people, as well as from your own mindfulness and self-understanding.

Are there many individual minds or is there just one universal Mind?

Well usually we have a sense of some kind of division between an outer world that we share with others and an inner world that is ours alone. However, I do know that some people have had wonderful panoramic experiences of unity where they feel a very strong connection with everything outside them as well. I think those are really valuable experiences, but I would be very hesitant to turn them into an ideology and to insist that there is only one Mind because quite a lot of the time we experience ourselves very much as individuals – I’m sure that there is truth in both views.

In the author biography on the back of the book it says that you curtailed your career in science to train for ordination into the Triratna Order. Can you talk a bit about this process and the place that Finding the Mind has in the context of your own experience?

I’ve always had a lot of curiosity about the world around me, as well as curiosity about myself. I can remember when I was very young, at that time when self-awareness starts to dawn, just looking around me and finding it incredibly weird and wonderful to think that I was in the present moment which wasn’t ever going to happen again. It was this fascination with my own awareness which led me into science, I think.

Then I got quite stressed while I was studying science at university so I started to meditate, and meditation took me to Buddhism. And Buddhism led me back to that same fascination with awareness! So in Finding the Mind I really wanted, at least for my own satisfaction, to explore what it means to be an aware human being, and to do so with fidelity to both Buddhism as a personal path and to science as an objective discipline. I find it very interesting to try and bring Buddhism and science together, and in some ways Finding the Mind is an outcome of that.

So is Buddhism a science?

Buddhism is certainly like science in some ways. Both Buddhism and science are explorations of what is going on in life, but the big difference between them is that Buddhism deals specifically with human experience rather than the outside world. Science is very interested in the outside, so even when it looks at the mind it views it as an outside phenomenon – science is not an exploration of the mind of the scientist, but the mind of the person she or he is putting into the MRI scanner. Buddhism is interested primarily in exploring the scientist’s own mind – our own minds – how they produce suffering, and how they can free us from suffering. So I would say that Buddhism is scientific, but it’s not the same as science.

You say that ‘the results of neuroscience and of Buddhist insight are being compared, and there are signs of an exciting synthesis emerging.’ Can you expand on this statement?

This is something that I discuss in the last chapter of my book – I talk a bit about the interesting insights that came out of the Mind and Life conferences where a number of top-notch scientists engaged in dialogue with Tibetan teachers including the Dalai Lama. These conferences were really productive, to the extent that a large number of American neuroscientists now also have some kind of Buddhist training or background, which is fantastic.

Since both neuroscientists and Buddhists are trying to find the mind, there is much that they can learn from each other. One of the things that science can learn from Buddhism is the value of introspection – the value of looking at your own experience with a quiet mind and not assuming that that must be completely untrustworthy because it’s subjective. Through introspection you can work from the inside, not just from the outside.

There are also many things that Buddhism can learn from science. It can learn, for example, not to be too bound by the specific teachings of particular Buddhist traditions but to look at them all together in the light of modern findings. To take a rather crude example, until recently the Tibetans still believed that the earth was flat and that there was a great mountain called mount Meru right in the middle of it. Science has enabled them to realize that although the teaching may have great symbolic value, it shouldn’t be taken literally. So I think that Buddhism and science can be friends with each other – they definitely don’t need to attack each other.

Lastly, can we really find our minds?

I feel as if I’m giving it all away here, but I think the answer is no – you can’t find your mind. Still, you’ve got to look! Buddhism is all about looking for our minds and not finding them, and then turning to the centre of our experience to realize that we can’t tie anything down when we look at it. We tend to have quite a lot of views about our subjective experience – we say ‘I’m like this’, ‘I have this identity’, ‘I associate with this’, ‘I call myself this’, and they’re all just stories that we tell ourselves which, in one way or another, cause us suffering.

So the funny thing is that the more you look for the mind and don’t find it, the happier you become – you find a sort of liberation of the mind. I mean, I don’t really know what enlightenment would be like, but I get a sense that even a liberated mind wouldn’t think that it had tied everything down. It would still carry on looking – looking really, really openly.

Buy Finding the Mind here.

Interview by Hannah Atkinson of Windhorse Publications, August 2012

Gender in Buddhism

The songs of the sisters

The Therigatha of the Pali Canon is said to be the first spiritual text in the history of the world composed by women. Inevitably, some of its stories and poems confront the issue of gender and spirituality. For example, Mara, embodiment of distraction, approaches Kisa Gotami while she is meditating in the Forest.  He comes up to her with a grin, and says “what are you doing here crying in the forest, are you looking for a boyfriend?” But she sees through him at once:

Khmer Tara or Parjanaparamita

Tara from Cambodia

I know you, time waster, you are Mara.
I have finished looking for men.

I don’t grieve,
I don’t weep —
and I’m not afraid of you,
my friend.

The mass of darkness is shattered.

Having defeated the army of death,
free
of [longing] I dwell.

And Mara curses under his breath and flees.

[Kisa Gotami Sutta, SN 5.3, Thanissaro’s trs modified.]

The Therigatha tells of another Buddhist woman, Soma.  She was also meditating under a tree, and Mara comes up to her: “who do you think you are, a woman, thinking you can attain enlightenment.  No woman with her two fingered intelligence can possibly make spiritual progress!” Apparently “two fingered intelligence” refers to the ability to tell whether the rice is cooked or not by rubbing it between your fingers.  He is trying to insult her by saying that she is only good cooking in the kitchen, although personally I think that getting the rice right is a pretty impressive achievement.  She replies “what difference should a woman’s state make, when the mind is well concentrated, when knowledge is rolling on, when she rightly has insight into the Dharma?  To one for whom the question arises, “am I a woman or am I a man in these matters?”… to such a one is Mara fit to talk!”

So with the first woman, Mara’s game was to try to interest her in sex.  She was concentrating on meditation, and he started talking about boyfriends.  But she would have none of it.  The second time, he tries to instil doubt in her about her ability to move towards Awakening, simply because she is a woman.  But she points out that Awakening has nothing to do with gender.

Gender

In this post I want to look a bit more deeply into gender in traditional Buddhism.  My main motivation for covering this topic was because I wanted to do a little bit of research myself, and understand it better.  Why was I interested?  Well, gender always seems interesting.  And we often have such strong opinions about it!  When I gave a talk on the topic, someone present said ‘yes, I’ve got extremely strong views about gender issues!’  The post has turned out to be predominantly about women in Buddhism.

Sometimes it seems that men and women are just human beings with slightly different shapes, and the issues that we face in life are very much the same, and what we can achieve is also very similar.  At other times it seems that there is a great distance between men and women, we seem to see things so differently, and we treat each other badly.  On a large scale, it seems in particular that women have been denied their rightful place in many spiritual traditions.

Women in early Buddhism

In ancient traditional India, women were strongly pushed into their roles as wives and mothers.  In fact the religious tradition that was gaining ground at the time of the Buddha was Brahminism, which later developed into what we now call Hinduism.  And that denied any spiritual role to women — they weren’t even allowed to listen to Brahminical teachings.

But some things were changing.  Many people were questioning the old ideas, and some of them left home to become wandering philosophers, looking for teachers and debating with each other, and practising all sorts of weird practices.  Some of the wanderers were women.  And amongst the wanderers, one new religion was starting called Jainism.  The founder of Jainism, Mahavira, formed an order of nuns, though many of the Jains denied that women could gain enlightenment.

While Mahavira was still alive, the Buddha started his teaching career.  He launched his two great legacies, the Dharma — a system of training towards awakening — and the Sangha, a spiritual network of people co-operating with each other.  Against the old-fashioned ideas of the time, his Sangha included women from its very early days.  But when he formed an order of full-time homeless celibate wanderers, the bhikkhus, it seemed that he was reluctant to also form an order for women.  Having said that, it does seem that some of his early women disciples were full-time wanderers, but this was probably before he had set up a systematic order of Bhikkhus with their rules, and ordination procedure and so on.

So there is a story about how the women’s order started.  It is very difficult to tell how much of this story is historical fact.  Some of it may well have been invented by misogynistic monks later.  I think these events are of interest and relevance to men as well as women.

Formation of the bhikkhuni Sangha

About five years after the enlightenment, the Buddha’s foster mother Prajapati, the woman who had brought him up after his mother died, came to see him.  She was very keen to become a celibate homeless wanderer, with a rulebook, like the monks, and a number of her friends and colleagues were also interested.  But the Buddha refused.

So Prajapati gathered together all the women she could find who wanted to become what we would now call a nun, and they went on a sort of protest march, already dressed in the robes stained with earth that the monks used to wear, and asked the Buddha again.  He continued to be reluctant, but his attendant and friend Ananda asked him whether women were capable of gaining enlightenment.  He said yes indeed they are, their spiritual potential is no different from men’s.  And he was persuaded to change his mind.  So he allowed an order of nuns (bhikkhunis) to form.  However he subordinated the nuns to the monks.  Monks as well as nuns always had to be involved in nuns’ ordination, the nuns had to defer to the monks, and at first they had to confess any transgressions to monks as well as nuns.

Prajapati happily accepted the special rules, and so many women were ordained as nuns, and left their homes to live the celibate life.  After a little while Prajapati got fed up with having to defer to the monks, and she asked the Buddha to change this rule, but he would not do so.  He said that in the same way that a household mainly consisting in women is in greater danger from robbers than one with plenty of men, he wanted to safeguard his order by having it dominated by men.  He doesn’t really explain what the problem is.  But I think it is fair to say that this male domination has been the case in most periods of Buddhist history.  This seems very strange to us today, I think.  It’s so difficult to consider it in an open way.  Would it be a problem if monastic Buddhism was dominated by women?  Would it even be an advantage?  Would it be a problem if women became dominant in our Triratna Buddhist Order?

It is very interesting that when Sangharakshita founded the Triratna Order, he decided not to follow the Buddha’s example.  He gave an equal ordination to both men and women, and he did not institute a mechanism to ensure that men will remain dominant.  However, I should say that he was untraditional in another important way as well.  The order he founded is not monastic — you do not have to be celibate to be an order member, and maybe that is a factor as well.

The traditional Buddhist monastic order actually has two separate orders, one for men and one for women, although they do interact, and when they do the men are allowed to dominate.  But in general they conduct their affairs separately.  I mentioned that at the beginning women had to confess any breaches of the rules to both men and women, but after a while this rule was changed, and confession just happened within the men’s or within the women’s order.  However, unlike monastic orders, the Triratna order is not divided into two, it is one single order, though quite often men and women order members will meet separately or have separate retreats.  And nearly always, the preceptors who ordain women are women, and the preceptors who ordain men are men.

Sexism in traditional Buddhism & the Pali Canon on women

The most important conclusion for me is that the Buddha agreed with what the nun Soma said when she defeated Mara — gender has no bearing at all on enlightenment.  It is not a spiritual issue.  This itself is perhaps controversial, in that some people feel that there is a special women’s spirituality and a special men’s spirituality.  Of course there may be some differences in what men and women most benefit from, differences in the best circumstances to go for, but the principles are the same. We are all self-aware human beings with the same kind of mind.

Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a western Tibetan nun, produced an excellent book called Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha, and she says that “spiritual development is essentially an individual affair.  Institutions may limit women’s participation in the outer sphere, but no one can limit their inner development.”

Nevertheless, the Buddha did establish differences in the institution of the monastic Sangha, and these differences probably seem unfair to us now.  But in the Buddha’s time it was a wonderful innovation for women.  At last they could escape from the constrictions of their family lives, and be pretty much independent, pursuing their own spiritual practice and forming their own communities.  Indeed, several of the most prominent teachers during the Buddha’s lifetime were women, and their pupils and disciples included men. Women were involved in the spread of Buddhism and in the exploration and the teaching of the Dharma.  It is sometimes suggested that the bhikkhuni Dhammadinna played an important role in clarifying the whole area of conditionality, the most important philosophical principle of Buddhism.  Those women Buddhists who chose to continue living with their families also played an important and outspoken role in the development of Buddhism.

Disadvantages of being a woman?

So we’ve seen that spirituality is the same for women and men, and the differences in early Buddhism were differences in how the institutions were set up, not in how men and women were regarded.  However we do see two forms of sexism in early Buddhism, which persist to this day.  The first form of sexism seems to be the classic antagonistic feeling that some religious men have towards women, putting them down, even being rather afraid of them.  In some Buddhist countries this attitude became stronger after the time of the Buddha, and conservative views of male dominance were transferred from the societies where Buddhism travelled into Buddhism itself.

The second form is, in my opinion not really sexism, though it easily melds with the first form.  There are a number of texts in which monks are told to regard women as unclean, unattractive, dangerous and manipulative.  This sounds terrible!  But you will also find texts in which women celibate disciples are encouraged to regard men in the same way!  So what is going on here?  It seems rather extreme, but it is actually simply an attempt to help young celibate men and women dedicate themselves to their practice, and deal with the temptation to break their vows of celibacy or to get involved romantically with members of the opposite sex.

Now, is there any difference between how men and women might approach leading a Buddhist life?

It is quite often said in traditional Buddhist texts that there are significant disadvantages in being a woman.  For example, in his good wishes towards people practising Buddhism in the Bodhicharyavatara, Shantideva says that he hopes that all women will be able to become men in future lives.  He doesn’t even explain why — he just takes it for granted that that would be better!  I suppose that if you are encountering prejudice, you could say that it is better to be a man than a woman.  But apart from prejudice, the Buddha listed five specific disadvantages:

  • A woman has to leave her relatives when she joins her husband’s family
  • she has to suffer menstruation
  • pregnancy
  • and childbirth
  • and “she waits upon a man” (Samyutta, IV, 239).

Note that three of these are biological.  Two of them are socially conditioned, but until recently we had our own versions of them in Western society.  A woman might not have to move in with her husband’s family, as was the norm in the Buddha’s society, but she used to be expected to sacrifice her own aspirations for the sake of her husband’s career and ambitions; and also be subject to him in some respects.

The traditional view that women are generally at a disadvantage in trying to commit to a Buddhist life is still held by some Western Buddhists, including Sangharakshita and some influential members of the Triratna Order, though most in Triratna would disagree with this, I think.  (Once committed, Sangharakshita’s opinion is that there is no disadvantage.)

However, if you are an independent, celibate woman like one of the Buddhist nuns, only one of the five issues (menstruation) will apply to you, and that one only up to the menopause.  Nevertheless, for many women, as well as men, it must have been a very hard decision to renounce the possibility of having children and a family in order to lead a full-time spiritual life.  Many made the decision after their children had grown up, and that is still often the case amongst Western women practising Buddhism.  Is this is still a bigger issue for women than for men?

Karma Lekshe Tsomo, who did decide on the celibate option, is very grateful to the Buddha for setting up a celibate order for women.  “Out of compassion, the Buddha created an alternative community for women which freed them from familial constraints and encourage their spiritual pursuits.”  [p23]  She says that childbearing reduces one’s options in life: “the major disadvantage of a female rebirth [is] a vulnerability to pregnancy and the responsibilities of parenting which falls largely on the mother”, and makes meditation quite limited for 15 to 20 years.  And she concludes that “ordination is even more advantageous for women than for men.  Asian Buddhist nuns are well aware of this and candidly say ‘we are so lucky to be nuns.  We don’t have to have babies.'” [pp20-21]

So the Buddha lists these five disadvantages of being a woman, including pregnancy, childbirth, and the restrictions of married life; but what are the comparable disadvantages in being a man?  Suggestions have included sexual obsession, competitiveness, recklessness, poor communication skills, unawareness of emotions, and inconsistency.

Is gender fixed and definite?

We saw that when Kisa Gotami sent Mara packing, she told him that gender has no bearing on spiritual practice.  Nevertheless, we see some Buddhists believing that it is preferable to be a man.  This debate seems to have been a live issue in many Buddhist societies.

Once a ruler came to see the Buddha with his new baby girl, lamenting that he hadn’t had the boy he had hoped for.  The Buddha told him that in many ways it is better to have a daughter than a son.

Later, a number of Mahayana sutras feature impressive enlightened females.  I say females rather than women, because some of them are said to be goddesses!  Shariputra asks one of them in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra why on earth she had not been reborn as a man given that her spiritual attainment is so high.  She doesn’t answer him in words she simply waves a sort of magic wand, so that he finds himself in her body, and she occupies his body, much to his dismay.  The changing of sex is to demonstrate that gender has no fixed existence.  She says that she has sought femaleness for many years but has not found it, and emphasises that being male or female is only a matter of appearances and convention.  There is no need to transcend femaleness to reach spiritual excellence, nor is there any need to be attached to femaleness.

IMG_1633

Green Tara by Devaraja

In another story, the Bodhisattva Tara is advised that she would be better taking the form of a man.  But she replies that there is no such thing as a man, a woman, a self or a person, and she took a vow to remain female in all her lives as a bodhisattva, because of the scarcity of female teachers and role models.

Tara challenges the very labels ‘man’ and ‘woman’, and indeed when I gave a talk on this topic in Stockholm, one person in the audience said that scholars have identified fourteen different genders!  There are examples in early Buddhist texts of trans-gendering: people who changed gender, man to woman or woman to man, and this was no obstacle to spiritual progress.  There are also examples of people of intermediate or undefined gender.

The Mahayana examples of the danger of identifying with one’s gender too strongly go right back to the Buddha’s own early teachings.  Once he said that he wanted to talk about bondage and lack of bondage:

A man attends inwardly to his masculine faculties, masculine gestures, masculine manners, masculine poise, masculine desires, masculine voice, masculine charms. He is excited by that, delighted by that. Being excited & delighted by that, he attends outwardly to feminine faculties, feminine gestures, feminine manners, feminine poise, feminine desires, feminine voices, feminine charms. He is excited by that, delighted by that. Being excited & delighted by that, he wants to be bonded to what is outside him, wants whatever pleasure & happiness that arise based on that bond. Delighting, caught up in his masculinity, a man goes into bondage with reference to women. This is how a man does not transcend his masculinity.”  And the Buddha says exactly the same with regard to women, and says this is how they do not transcend their femininity.  But if you don’t want to get bonded to what is outside you and derive your satisfaction from that bond, then you need to try not to get caught up in your masculine or feminine side, and not to get excited by the features of the opposite gender in other people.  Thus a man does not go into bondage with reference to women, and a woman does not go into bondage with reference to men, and each can transcend their masculinity or femininity.  [Saññoga Sutta: Bondage, translated Thanissaro Bhikkhu, condensed.]

Single sex activities: advantages and problems

I personally think that this difficulty of identifying too much with one’s gender is the main advantage of single sex activities.  This may seem strange — it might seem that the best way to transcend one’s own gender would be to ignore it and freely mix men and women together.  I think that definitely should be a part of one’s experience — it would be dreadful to spend one’s whole life only with one’s own gender.  But have you ever spent time just with women or just with men?  Did that have a different flavour to it?  I find that I can be more myself, and forget about being a male.  Recently I led a retreat in Sweden which was just for men.  One guy said he thought it was not in any way different from a mixed retreat.  But several of the others said they really valued being just with men sometimes.

If you practise the Dharma, it is worth considering how you personally have found trying to practise with different mixes of people, especially on retreat.  Have people’s views on gender got in the way?  Do you find yourself holding fixed views on gender issues?  And can you rejoice in your masculine or feminine characteristics, something I think we probably need to do before going on to transcend gender in the way that Tara suggested?

However, men also need to learn to relate to women simply as human beings, and women need to learn to relate to men in the same way, I would suggest.  This sounds so straightforward, but it is more difficult than it seems.  One of the reasons is that when we are with the opposite gender we tend to shrink back into our own gender sometimes, as if we are playing a role.  Sexual attraction, if any, is only a part of this.  So why not try celebrating your gender, and spending some of your time in male or female only company?  If there turn out to be no benefits, then you can stick to mixed groupings when the experiment is over.

Audible sex

16th KarmapaLast week’s post on Sex in Buddhism was based on a talk on sex and gender that I gave a while ago in Stockholm.  You can listen to it here.

Here are some other recordings of my talks and led meditations, from the Freebuddhistaudio site, with their blurbs:

Working Together – the Buddhist Tradition

This is a very useful and, as ever, entertaining talk by Ratnaprabha on bringing Buddhist values and ideals …

Ratnaprabha 2007
A System of Spiritual Development

Here’s a talk by Ratnaprabha on leading the spiritual life, particularly in the context of preparing …

Ratnaprabha 2002
Grabbing a Firebrand

An appropriately pithy talk by Ratnaprabha looking at the sometimes controversial aphorisms of Sangharakshita. …

Ratnaprabha 2006
In the Maw of the Beast – the Ethics of Eating

Ratnaprabha‘s talk is a fascinating enquiry into the ethics of eating – a challenging and complex subject, …

Ratnaprabha 2009
Hare In the Moon

Ratnaprabha tells the Jataka of the Bodhisattva Hare and his animal friends, and how the Hare’s supreme …

Ratnaprabha 2011
A True Story

How can stories be more valid than collections of facts or advice-based teaching? Ratnaprabha looks at the …

Ratnaprabha 2011
Gender and Sexuality In Buddhism

In this very rich and well researched talk at the Stockholms Buddhistcenter (13 June 2011) Ratnaprabha traces …

Ratnaprabha 2011
A Straight Talk On the Heart Sutra

Ratnaprabha takes us through this great, but short, Buddhist text, using his own re-rendering, and inspired …

Ratnaprabha 2012
The Story of Hatthaka

A brilliantly told story from the Pali Canon, about Hatthaka, who used the 4 sangrahavastus, the four means of creating …

Ratnaprabha 2007
The Four Sangraha Vastus

A lively and inspired talk at Stockholms Buddhistcenter in 2007, companion talk to The story of Hatthaka. Ratnaprabha

Ratnaprabha 2007
Finding the Mind

The story of Ananda and the outcast girl introduces a talk on Buddhist views of the mind and subjective experience, to launch …

Ratnaprabha 2012
What Do Buddhists Think – The Mind

The last in our series of talks ‘What do Buddhists think…?’ Ratnaprabha, author of ‘Finding …

Ratnaprabha 2012
Finding the Mind

Talk given at the launch of Ratnaprabha‘s book of the same title at the LBC’s Dharma Night Class …

Ratnaprabha 2012
Ananda and The Outcast Maiden

Ananda falls in love with a young maiden and realizes he is not in control of his mind. The Buddha then instructs him to …

Ratnaprabha 2012
How Genuine Sangha Can Be Created

A WlLBC Sangha Day talk: Ratnaprabha about the origins of Sangha.

Ratnaprabha 2012
Hand Me Downs

A talk given by Ratnaprabha at Sangha Night, Sheffield Buddhist Centre on 22nd January 2008 about Sangha …

Ratnaprabha 2008
The Fifth Precept

In a series on Buddhist Ethics at the WLBC in September 2013, Ratnaprabhatalks about the fifth precept, …

Ratnaprabha 2013
Footsteps of Truth; Following the Trackless One

Ratnaprabha talks about the Dhammapada at the WLBC on Dharma Day 2013.

Ratnaprabha 2013
Good Friends. Kalyana Mitrata In Early Buddhism and Today

Irst talk in series on Kalyana Mitrata, recorded at the WLBC in October 2013. Kalyana Mitrata is spiritual friendship, even …

Ratnaprabha 2013
The Star of Healing

In a talk for Buddha day, Ratnaprabha takes us through the realisations that came to the Buddha during his …

Ratnaprabha 2014
The Urban Buddha, Restoring the Ancient City

The Buddha described his project as being like following an overgrown path, and restoring the ruined city he finds. Ratnaprabha

Ratnaprabha 2014
How to Be a Buddhist

How did people join the Buddhas own Sangha 2500 years ago? What makes people decide to follow Buddhism and how do they choose …

Ratnaprabha 2015
Manjushri

Ratnaprabha introduces the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, and explains the way he breaks the chains of karma. He …

Ratnaprabha 2015
The Hare In the Moon

An engaging talk on a well konwn Jataka story, the hare in the moon. Given at the 25-year jubilee retreat (of FWBO activities …

Ratnaprabha 2005
How to Have Fun

Looking at the Buddhist path in terms of happiness, engagement, interest and delight. A new take on the positive nidana

Ratnaprabha 2010
The Wheel of Life

The audio from a slideshow on the Tibetan Wheel of Life.

Ratnaprabha 2010
The First Chick Hatches

A talk on the Buddha as ‘the elder brother of mankind’, given on Buddha Day at the West London Buddhist Centre.

Ratnaprabha 2010
Vajra Slideshow — the Audio

This is the commentary to a slideshow on the Vajra, the tantric symbol of reality and breakthrough. It is comprehensible …

Ratnaprabha 2010
Mandala of the Five Buddhas Slideshow

This is the commentary to a slideshow on the mandala and associated symbolism. It is comprehensible without the slides.

Ratnaprabha 2010
Metta Bhavana Into and Lead-Through

A session of loving kindness meditation, with an introduction and body awareness followed by a led session lasting about …

Ratnaprabha 1994
Mindfulness of Breathing Intro and Lead-Through

A full lead-through and introduction to the Mindfulness of Breathing (anapanasati) meditation. Note the sound quality is …

Ratnaprabha 2010
The Life of Milarepa – Milarepa Talk 1

First talk in a series of 3 talks on ‘Milarepa’.

Ratnaprabha 2010
Milarepa, Singing the Dharma – Milarepa Talk 2

Second talk in a series of 3 talks on ‘Milarepa’.

Ratnaprabha 2010
The Heart Sons of Milarepa – Milarepa Talk 3

Third talk in a series of 3 talks on ‘Milarepa’.

Ratnaprabha 2010
Stupa Sideshow, the Audio

A comprehensive overview of the symbolism of the Buddhist Stupa. The talk was given with slides, but is comprehensible without …

Ratnaprabha 2011
Saluting the Sangha

A talk for Sangha Day at the West London Buddhist Centre (Nov 2011), taking us through the Sangha Section of the Tiratan

Ratnaprabha 2011
The Structure of Buddhism

An introduction to the structure of Buddhist teaching: why so many lists? Do you have to be an intellectual to get the Dharma? …

Ratnaprabha 2012
Citta

A talk for the West London Buddhist Centre Sangha night on the third Satipatthana, the mind. Includes quotations from the …

Ratnaprabha 2012
The Six Elements

An introduction to earth, water, fire, air, space and consciousness, the mystery of human experience, and how to use the …

Ratnaprabha 2012
The Mandala of the Five Buddhas – Talk 3 – Ratnasambhava and the Mandala

The third talk of Padmaloka’s 2012 Winter Retreat on the Mandala.

Ratnaprabha 2012
The Mandala of the Five Buddhas – Talk 5 – Amoghasiddhi; Courage and Creativity

The fifth talk of Padmaloka’s 2012 Winter Retreat on the mandala of the five Buddhas. Now we enter the realm of story …

Ratnaprabha 2013
The Mandala of the Five Buddhas – Talk 8 – Ratnasambhava and the Path of Beauty

Eighth talk of Padmaloka’s 2012 Winter Retreat. Each Buddha presents us with what can be a complete path or an aspect …

Ratnaprabha 2012
The Mandala of the Five Buddhas – Talk 10 – Amoghasiddhi and Harmonious Action

Tenth talk of Padmaloka’s 2012 Winter Retreat. Amoghasiddhi is the Buddha of action and also spiritual rebirth, he shows …

Ratnaprabha 2013
How the Buddha Taught Mindfulness

Ratnpaprabha explains this practice and understanding of the Sutta of ‘Being mindful of the in- and out-breaths’ …

Ratnaprabha 2013
Sowing Seeds In the Soil of the Mind – The Alaya

The alaya or storehouse consciousness is the Buddhist equivalent of the unconscious mind. It is like a garden, in which every …

Ratnaprabha 2014
Life of Milarepa

The amazing story of Tibets great mountain yogi, Milarepa. His black-magic driven crimes, his ordeals under his Buddhist …

Ratnaprabha 2014
Universes Colliding – The Meeting of Science and Buddhism

A lively talk in conjunction with the Cambridge Science Festival and part of the Cambridge Buddhist Centre Open Day.

Ratnaprabha 2015

Sex in Buddhism

Celibacy

The Buddha seems to have seen sex and sexuality as being a big issue, even a problem.  He offered one solution to it for thos41 WLBC Nidanas WofL (5)e who are prepared to renounce family life — to join a celibate order of men or women.  Then you spend most of your time in single sex situations, and when you are with members of the opposite sex, you are very careful because you have taken a vow not to get sexually involved, and if you break that vow you will be thrown out of the monastic order.  Of course this does not work so well if you are sexually attracted to members of your own gender, and I will come back to that later.

Some people say that the main reason that the Buddha asked his monks and nuns to be celibate was simply because he wanted them to be free to wander, to practise meditation, to teach the Dharma, without any family responsibilities.  In those days, men and women having sex meant almost certainly having children.  So for the monks and nuns, sex is not an ethical issue, but it is one of defining the institution of the monastic Sangha.  It is a legal point, and even if the sex involves no craving, it is still banned.  This is a point made by Janet Gyatso in a survey of sex in Buddhism  [in Lopez, Critical Terms in Buddhism, 2005].

If you are not a monk or nun, it would be assumed that you would eventually find a partner and have children, and there is plenty of advice for people in that situation, which I will come on to below.  But it is interesting that the Buddha strongly encouraged people, if they could, not to have a family, and devote all their energies to practising and spreading the Dharma.  This may be unique amongst the world religions, most of which encourage family life; the Buddhist attitude is called ‘anti-natalism’.  People are often shocked when they hear of the Buddha himself leaving home when his son was still a tiny baby.

Nowadays, contraception means that you can be sexually active and still probably not have children, if you want to.  So is monastic celibacy a thing of the past?  There is a new kind of Buddhist, who David Loy describes as “less than monastic in lifestyle…  More devoted to practise than the laity have usually been” [Money, Sex, War, Karma, 2008].  David Loy is an American scholar, and he says that monasticism is not attractive to most Buddhists in America, but many are practising very sincerely.  In fact this is the model adopted in the Triratna Buddhist Order, which is described as “neither monastic nor lay”.  For example, I am trying my best to be a full-time practitioner and teacher of Buddhism, and yet I do have a partner: and I’m glad to say that she is also very dedicated to her Buddhist practice.

Nevertheless, maybe we should not write off monasticism too quickly.  Because I am not celibate, I definitely do feel a tension.  Bonding together as a couple is such a strong pull.  And in some ways that pull can compete with one’s attempts to have an open network of connections in the Sangha, and to be with one’s own gender.  At the moment I’m living alone.  But part of me would love to set up a home with my partner, and if we had been younger I expect we would have considered children.  Yet I would love even more to set up a men’s community, since we don’t have one in West London where I live.

This is a tension, and of course if you gave up sex altogether, you would have to face other tensions.  But as well as tensions there are potential negative difficulties in the Sangha if there are a lot of sexual relationships.  Most Sanghas have been affected by this.  In the Triratna Order, the founder of the order gave up being a celibate Buddhist monk and started being sexually active.  Perhaps inevitably, his love affairs happened mainly with his own disciples, and this has caused some quite serious problems in the order, because it seems quite dangerous for a teacher to be sexually and romantically involved with his own disciples.

Can sex be spiritual?

On the other hand, Miranda Shaw, in her book Passionate Enlightenment says that Tantric Buddhism does not take this view of relationships in the Sangha. Even in the early days of Tantric Buddhism, which started in India about 1500 years ago, most practitioners found a sexual partner, lived a simple village life, made pilgrimages, and meditated intensively. “The seekers pursued a distinctive religious path that finds its most characteristic and nuanced expression in an intimate and sexual relationship.”  So a woman alongside a man is (writes Shaw) the ideal Tantric pattern.  Tantric practice could only get into the Tibetan monastic system by sublimating the imagery and practices, so that for Tibetan monks and nuns, the sexual themes of Tantric practice are regarded as symbolic.

But for some branches of tantra, sexual activity became a carefully regulated spiritual practice.  Before you get too excited about this, I should say that usually it was very important not to come to a climax, and the man had to ensure he did not ejaculate.  The intense pleasure had to be let go of, as one saw that like everything else it dissolves into complete openness.  The sexual energy was thus supposed to be sublimated into a spiritual energy which brings alive the subtle visionary body of the practitioner.  You arouse intense sexual desire, and then try to emulate the spacious calm of Nirvana by not acting on that desire.

Incidentally, Miranda Shaw says that the crucial role of women in the rise of Tantric Buddhism has not been recognized because “the study of other cultures continues to be undertaken from the perspective of providing documentation of the universality of oppression against women”  — to legitimate current male dominance.  Tantric Buddhism shows a society in which women were not necessarily being oppressed. (Passionate Enlightenment, 195-6.)  I will try to publish something on gender in Buddhism soon.

Sexual ethics for those who are sexually active?

Celibacy for monks and nuns is a rule, even a law, to preserve the institution. But if you are not a monastic, is it unskilful to have sex?  Skilfulness is the word that applies to ethics in Buddhism.  It says that ethics itself is not a matter of rules and regulations, it is a matter of the mental state that your behaviour comes from, and what effects your behaviour has on others.  You try to make sure that you act from mental states of love, clarity, stillness of mind, generosity, awareness and so on.  And you try to make sure that you bring benefit rather than harm to other people through your actions.

How does sex fit with this?  Does sex benefit other people or is it entirely selfish?  Can it come from these skilful mental states or can it only come from longing, inner emptiness, frustration and craving?  Well, traditional Buddhism definitely sees that sex is a normal part of life, and it tells you about skilful and unskilful sex.  The third precept says: “I undertake as a part of my training to abstain from sexual misconduct”.  Any sex involving violence or coercion is obviously extreme sexual misconduct.  But the most widespread kind is to endanger an existing relationship through your sexual behaviour.

There is no condemnation of sex outside marriage, it’s sex inside marriage when you’re not the married person that is the problem!  I mean coming between a committed couple by having sex with one of them.  Also being unfaithful to your own partner breaks the third precept.  And marriage doesn’t mean having gone through a particular ceremony; it means having made some kind of a commitment to another person, even if it’s only for one night.  So it would be sexual misconduct to sleep with someone else who you know had made even the briefest commitment to another partner, because of the hurt and confusion you cause.

The great Buddhist teacher Nargarjuna says: “the pleasure of husband and wife is to be two bodies but one flesh; to take away one who another loves and destroy this deep sentiment is a crime.”  (Peter Harvey, Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, 71.) Anyway, it seems quite reasonable to look carefully at your sexual life, and to see whether you can make it less self-centred, and more considerate of your effect on others.

Sex and negative mental states

For myself, I still do come back to this rather uncomfortable question, as to whether it is possible to have sex without unskilful mental states being involved, even if you are being very careful not to hurt the other person.  Is sex primarily a selfish activity?  That is an excellent introductory book on Buddhism by Roger Corless called The Vision of Buddhism, and he says: “Sex is an all-consuming passion.  When we are involved in it our minds become muddy and confused. This precept warns us to watch out for the mental turbulence which often attends sex and, when in doubt, to refrain from it.” He goes on to suggest that ordinary life, with all its wants and fears, which is known as Samsara in Buddhism, is a drug we are addicted to.  We can easily mistake a samsaric phenomenon for a means of escaping Samsara, and hence bind ourselves to the decay, disappearance and repetitive meaninglessness of that phenomenon.  Perhaps sex can be rather like this. In fact traditionally it is seen as potentially strongly addictive.  The middle way is to ask how liable one is to becoming addicted to sex if one indulges in it; remembering that a part of the addiction is denying that we are addicted (delusion, avidya).  So strong self-interest, and overpowering craving are things to look out for in sex.

I think even Roger Corless’s view does not go far enough, because sex is not just about the slightly messy and potentially addictive things that go on under the bed covers.  It is also about bonding together with another person in a romantic couple relationship.  Nowadays we see sex as necessary for happiness, and we expect personal fulfilment through romance and sexual intimacy.  Buddhism questions this expectation.  It is quite hard to consider the possibility that sex is mainly an appetite driven by biology, not a marvellous and sacred thing!  Because my bond with my partner feels unique, it floats me above my isolation, or so it seems.  But then very often eventually the relationship is not as satisfying and fulfilling as we expect, and when it goes wrong we become very bitter and disillusioned.  In fact, nobody else can make us feel complete.  David Loy calls romance a “delusive cycle of infatuation and disappointment followed by a different infatuation” — when we look again for the right person.  Of course committed relationships can be a great joy, but it’s important not to expect what they cannot give: they cannot fill our sense of lack. But I do believe that the Buddhist path shows how it is possible to fill that sense of lack in a far more effective way.

Exactly the same points about unskilful sex and the dangers of romantic entanglements apply to homosexual sex.  As far as I can see, early Buddhism doesn’t see anything wrong with sexual attraction within one’s own gender.  Highly sexed gay men sometimes tried to join the order of monks for the wrong reasons, and there were rules to try to stop that.  Later on, different Buddhist schools took different approaches.  The Dalai Lama’s school of Tibetan Buddhism, at least in theory, was rather intolerant, but he is very open-minded about talking things through with other people, and gay men and women have talked to him about it, and he feels that his school should relax its position.

I will give the last word to Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a Western Tibetan nun, who has no regrets about giving up sex. She loves being a celibate, saying that it avoids the cycle of “clinging, unfulfilled expectation, the pain of separation… [in relationships, where] often, the longing for a companion is a wish to complement one’s missing or undeveloped qualities… Celibacy, on the other hand, represents the decision to rely on one’s own inner authority.  It is an attempt to achieve a balance and wholeness within, independent of the feedback of another person…. [and enables one to go beyond sexual attachment,] the major force that propels beings from one rebirth to the next ”  (Tsomo, 1988, in Sakhayaditha, 55-6).