Needing Nothing


These are the discussion notes accompanying my first ‘Budcast’ talk at the North London Buddhist Centre, October 2018.

The podcast of the talk itself is here.

According to Buddhism, our craving – being dominated by need – is the basic cause of suffering, our sense of frustration and lack.

The opposite of craving is a freedom of the heart and mind, which is the goal of Buddhism. Happiness does not come from getting what you want, but from liberation from craving.

What is craving?

“Craving… Is painful.… Craving is the longing for pleasure that we are not yet enjoying. It is a state of privation or lack, and hence of uncomfortable tension. As long as we have some hope of satisfying the craving, we usually fail to notice its unpleasant side, because the anticipation of future pleasure conceals the present pain, as sugar might mask sharp taste.” (Subhuti , Mind In Harmony, 24.)

For example, one can crave for material things, for other people, and for status or a secure identity. None of these things are reliable, they change, so if the craving leads on to grasping and clinging, it will inevitably result in a sense of insecurity, loss and frustration. If it becomes habitual, it is an addiction.

Likes and dislikes.

The succession of our experiences, some pleasant and some unpleasant, is pulling us and pushing us. They’re pulling us and pushing us because of our preferences, because of our likes and dislikes. The question is who is the boss? A lot of what we like and dislike is fairly arbitrary, yet we allow it to govern our lives. Can you ever arrange your life so that you will always get what you want, and never get what you don’t want?

If we govern our lives by our likes and dislikes, by the search for gratification, when will we have time to find meaning and significance, to make a real difference to the world? Pleasant experiences are wonderful, they refresh your life, but they can easily be contaminated by craving.

One of the big radical, and perhaps counterintuitive, Buddhist suggestions is no longer to let your preferences be the boss. You don’t use that scale of judging things anymore. Instead, you start to learn what is skilful and what is unskilful, to use the Buddhist terminology. You don’t try to go for experiences, instead you try to decide how to act. It’s a radically different way of living a human life.

And a skilful action is one which leads you into more expansive and freer states of mind, and which causes benefit to both yourself and others. An unskilful action is one that yields experiences which are contracted, self protective, anxious and tense, and which causes harm to both yourself and others.

The precepts – training in skilfulness.

  1. I take on the training not to harm anything that breathes. [Kindness]
  2. I take on the training not to take what is not given. [Generosity]
  3. I take on the training not to lose my way through sense desire. [Contentment & Simplicity]
  4. I take on the training not to speak falsely. [Truthfulness]
  5. I take on the training to avoid intoxicants which cause carelessness. [Mindfulness]

Desire/intention is okay

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with desire. It’s craving that’s the problem. But there are different kinds of desire – there’s the desire for stimulation and gratification, which tends to cause us problems. But there are also wholesome desires. Hunger, thirst, sex, well-being, love, acceptance – these come from our evolutionary past and our upbringing. As our species evolved, we needed to look out for food and shelter, companionship and belonging, protection, affection and sex.

There’s also the desire for the unknown, for a creative life, for a life bringing happiness to oneself and others. Desire for truth and authenticity. These are positive.

How to work with craving.

  • Noticing craving, staying with the experience/feeling. Imagine being interested in what’s happening, but without needing it to be just right, without needing it to be as if designed just for you.
  • Noticing discomfort, and staying with it. Renunciation is a great virtue in Buddhism – it means not acting on craving, not letting it turn to grasping.
  • Mindfulness of experiences, starting with the body.
  • Cultivating aesthetic appreciation, kindness, contentment
  • Learn and internalise how craving leads to suffering because of impermanence. Because everything changes, if you hang onto anything, you will be hurt and disappointed. Realising this deeply is insight.
  • Learn meditation: meditation is doing nothing. Imagine the calm delight of not needing anything, simply sitting still.

“The craving of one who lives carelessly increases like a fast-growing creeper. One races from place to place, like a monkey in the jungle leaping from tree to tree in search of fruit.” (The Buddha, Dhammapada, 334.)


There are three chains or fetters (from The Essential Sangharakshita, 198-201). Breaking them yields what the Buddha calls ‘the taste of freedom’.

  1. Habit. We are the sum total of our habits “a habit that a certain stream of consciousness has got into”. This knot can be untied, getting rid of the old self, becoming continually aware, positive, responsible, sensitive and creative of oneself.
  2. Superficiality. Acting from the surface, without thoroughness, without care, in appearance rather
    than genuinely, because we are divided, especially the rational mind from the deep emotions. You may be very busy, but lacking singleness of purpose, not doing things with the whole force of your being. “A small part of us is prospecting ahead, but the greater part is lagging far behind.” Commitment to something you really care about is the solution to superficiality.
  3. Vagueness. Not wanting to decide, shrinking from the pains of growth, keeping options open with several interests and aims. Break it by thinking clearly, sorting out priorities between alternatives, not postponing the moment of decision.

Our essential need as human beings, once food clothing shelter and leisure needs have been
met, is freedom – which is needed in order to grow. We need space to grow into. Freedom from all that restricts us externally and internally, from our conditioning and our old self.

Bhikkhu Bodhi (The Taste of Freedom, 1994): Freedom is spiritual autonomy, not simply licence to do what you feel like. Consider the sequence: complete bondage in prison, then unshackled in prison, then released into a life with many responsibilities, then a dictator who can do whatever he wants. However, even for the dictator, pleasant and unpleasant experiences still lead on to craving, hostility and delusion, compulsively, so one is not really free, there is no mastery, which shows that licence is not the same thing as freedom. You need to be free from craving, hostility and delusion.

 “Prisoner, tell me who was it that wrought this unbreakable chain?  It was I, said the prisoner, who forged this chain very carefully.  I thought my invincible power would hold the world captive, leaving me in a freedom undisturbed.  Thus night and day I worked at the chain with huge fires and cruel, hard strokes.  When as last the work was done and the links were complete and unbreakable, I found that it held me in its grip.”

(Rabindranath Tagore, Gitanjali, 31.)

                                    Notes by Ratnaprabha,


Tolerance — ksanti


Kusunoki Masashige, photo by Jim Epler

The Zen master and the general

In the warring period of medieval Japan, one of the most ferocious of the clan generals swept into a peaceful valley with his army. The general was used to the terror his arrival would always cause. The Buddhist monks in the local Zen monastery fled into the mountains – all except one. The general stomped through the monastery buildings, and was very surprised to find one remaining monk, the Abbot, a well known Zen Master, who was calmly sitting in his room. He strode up to him. his sword drawn: ‘Don’t you know who I am? You dare to remain seated in my presence? I have killed scores of men. Do you realise that, without blinking an eyelid, I could run you through with this sword?’ The Zen master did not move. ‘General,’ he said ‘do you realise that, without blinking an eyelid, I could be run through with that sword.’ After a pause, the general put away his sword and bowed, and ordered his army to leave the valley.

I remembered this story as a striking example of a special kind of tolerance which is found in Buddhism, a personal tolerance which includes  the ability not to join in with any games of power. (I will question the Zen Master’s behaviour later.)

Tolerance in Buddhism

It’s tempting to bestow some reassuring but bland declarations of how nice it would be if everyone else were more tolerant. But what of our own personal level of tolerance? I’d like to look at that from a specifically Buddhist angle.

I learnt Buddhist meditation as I was about to start my finals at university (and I certainly needed the effects of meditation then!) So I had some contact with a Buddhist, the meditation teacher, in fact he was the one who told me that story. He impressed me very much, and I decided to investigate Buddhism as a whole, not just the practice of meditation.

Two things, among others, really struck me about Buddhism. One was its emphasis on the individual, and one’s actual experience, here and now. The other was that it does more than tell you that you ought to be kind to people, and tolerant and so on. It recognises that you may not feel kind or tolerant, and so it offers practical methods for developing such qualities, and methods for leaving behind habits that lead to harm and suffering. These two points apply to Buddhist tolerance.Firstly, it is said to be individual tolerance that matters most. So it is not Buddhism that is tolerant, but Buddhists. And it is not other isms that Buddhists tolerate, but real individual people. I think this is quite an important distinction.

However, if you strongly identify with your religion or your ideology, and label other people with their religion or ideology, then it is very tempting to make the label so huge that you can’t see the person behind it. And then it is a label which you tolerate, or don’t tolerate, as the case may be. She is a Moslem, so she must be bloodthirsty and fanatical, say.

The second point was to do with seeing tolerance as a quality to be developed in the individual, using practical methods, not as a pious hope, or something received from outside you by grace. So what is the quality of tolerance like, and how can you develop it?

Well, I’ve been using the word tolerance, which of course is an English word, to translate a traditional Buddhist term which actually has a rather broader meaning. The word in Sanskrit is ksanti, a rather beautiful word, I think. As well as tolerance, it means forbearance, patience, kindness, and maybe the best translation is non-reactivity. Non-reactivity is something the Zen Abbot exemplified, I think. It is the ability to respond with kindness whatever another person does to you. Quite a tall order, but it is something you can gradually strengthen, as we’ll see. It is not something you just have or don’t have, and you just have to put up with it. This is a great mistake, I think, which it is very easy to make. I can believe, ‘well, so I am a bit crabby. But I was born like that, and that’s the way I am.’ .So ksanti is a quality you can develop, the ability to remain cheerful and positive even if people are not treating you as you’d like to be treated.

An old poem ascribed to the Buddha includes the line: ‘Ksanti is the highest form of austerity.’ I think this means that when people get difficult, learning not to react with more of the same is a better form of training than the most impressive feats of self-denial or fasting and so on.

Developing ksanti

So how do you learn ksanti, how do you develop tolerance as a personal quality?

In Buddhism, the first steps for cultivating any inner quality are ethical ones. You apply awareness to your actions, and to your feelings as well. You restrain any impulses that are intolerant, because if those emotional urges turn into words and actions, they get a firmer hold on you, as well as damaging whoever has to bear the brunt. Instead of acting from intolerance, you emulate anyone you know, or know of, who seems to be truly tolerant, and so your habitual behaviours slowly adjust.

But ethics is only a first step, and it is not enough. You need to tackle the intolerant impulses at their roots in the heart, and cause tolerant impulses to sprout there instead. Any method which achieves a direct emotional change is called meditation. Meditations for developing ksanti use the medium of empathy. In a meditation to cultivate kshanti,you would get into a quiet state of mind which is flavoured with confidence. This is because the meditation will not work if you do not have a strong sense of self-worth. You could say that you can’t really tolerate others unless you can be tolerant to yourself: everyone has flaws and makes mistakes, but it is counter-productive to give yourself a hard time about them. In Buddhism, they are called ‘adventitious defilements’ because deep down you are ok, there is a core of inner purity, the potential for Enlightenment.

So with that feeling of being happy about yourself, you than call to mind the people you are intolerant of (whether or not you think the intolerance is justified), and you start to feel what it must be like to be them, as best as you can. You regard them with the same kind of understanding that you have for yourself, and notice that they are the way they are because of all sorts of circumstances, and some of those circumstances can change. Thus you start to empathise with them.

As you empathise more, you may realise that your intolerance of them is based on very superficial characteristics – it’s their tone of voice or their facial expression which really gets up your nose. Alternatively, you may decide that their behaviour is just not on. In Buddhist terms, their behaviour is unskilful, ie it is damaging to themselves or others. This is where your tolerance is really tested – when it seems that you have good reasons for it. William Blake says:

Learn … to distinguish the Eternal Human … from those States or Worlds in which the Spirit travels. This is the only means to FORGIVENESS OF ENEMIES.[i]

In other words, we can recognise that our common humanity is where our regard for each other comes from. On the surface of that humanity, everyone passes through many mental states, some skilful, some unskilful. If our reason for not being tolerant is others’ mistakes and unskilfulness, then we will tolerate no-one.

You can’t ignore unskilfulness. But I think you need a thoroughly tolerant frame of mind in order to be of any real use in helping someone overcome it. And maybe you can’t — maybe you can’t cope with this person, but you have no choice but to cope with your own reactions to them.

There are much more advanced developments of ksanti or tolerance in Buddhism, connected with the very significance of birth and death, but I just wanted to give you some practical ideas about how to make it stronger. There is one more thing I’d like to add about tolerance as a quality. Kshanti has been defined as not expecting anything.[ii] This may seem a bit extreme, because we always, surely, have some expectations. But then we are often being disappointed. And what makes it so difficult to be tolerant is other people not fulfilling our needs and our expectations of them. Expect nothing, and life is full of very pleasant surprises!

So in this talk, I have deliberately focussed on ksanti, tolerance, as a quality for each individual to strengthen in themselves. We may think we are already very tolerant. That may be true when it comes to events in distant countries, or the religious rites of exotic communities. Tolerance is really tested, though, between you and your relatives, the people you work with, or whoever is with you now. Can we really put up with such weird and unreasonable human beings in such close proximity?

One reason for the difficulty of being tolerant is that other people are different from us, and their differences can seem unreasonable, even threatening. Can I accept that someone else is fully human, and deserving of a good and full life, even though they are not like me? One way out of this problem is to regard differences as unreal, but I think that is a cop out.

Religious tolerance

I wanted to concentrate on personal tolerance, so I have not discussed religious tolerance, or the toleration of variant views and beliefs. As you know, this is not really an issue for Buddhism as a tradition, despite very poor behaviour by some Buddhist communities. But ksanti or tolerance as a personal quality is just as much an issue for Buddhists as for anyone else. For a Buddhist, any other person is to be treated as an independent human being, responsible for their own destiny, who is potentially a Buddha, whatever their opinions may be.

But what if their opinions are pernicious? For example, what if they hold tenaciously to an ideology in which a huge section of the community is regarded as untouchable, their very shadows being seen as polluting, as is still the case in large parts of India? If so, then I think the harmful views should be exposed, but in a spirit of personal friendliness. So I am pointing out that you do not have to tolerate everything. Tolerance does not mean blurring the truth and pretending that we all believe the same thing or are really all on the same path. I am convinced that there are  real differences between people, and also real differences between the Buddhist approach and other approaches, and between different people’s priorities and aims. I feel it’s rather intolerant for someone to insist otherwise.

Why is it that (with exceptions such as Northern Myanmar in our own time) Buddhists have as a whole has been quite happy to coexist with other religions and ideologies, while for most of their history, the other world religions have not been tolerant of each other?

I haven’t time to treat the whole issue thoroughly, and I could well be quite wrong about it. But I consider that it is connected with belief in God. Buddhists do not believe in God. Buddhism is a religion of discovery, of discovering the truth by taking full responsibility for the growth of your own wisdom and compassion. The other main world religions are, for most of their followers, religions of revelation. If you believe your truth is revealed from an infallible divine source, then it is difficult to admit the quite different revelations of other religions, or even the different interpretations of the revelation of your own religion.

It is obvious that individual theists can be genuinely tolerant people, but I think that such people have left behind some of the traditional associations with God. Each theistic religion as a whole, as a tradition or an institution, seems to militate against many forms of tolerance, and will carry on doing so unless there are some big changes. For example, I very cheekily asked a priest why the church did not simply repudiate the Old Testament, but he wasn’t having it!

So, if you are a believer in God, however you conceive of him, a non-theist might really test your tolerance by saying: ‘I am convinced that God does not exist, and that belief in God can in itself explain why there is more active intolerance in the theistic religions than outside them.’


I was thinking some more about the story of the Zen Abbot and the general. It is an impressive story, and he must have been a very impressive man. But I am not sure he was setting a very good example. In fact, I am sure he had no intention of setting an example, he was just being himself. If I had been there, I am certain I would have scampered off into the mountains with the other monks.

When I have told such stories before, some people usually respond by saying: ‘If everyone acted like that, society would fall apart!’ or ‘Someone has got to resist the tyranny and oppression of the strong over the weak’, or they think he was just lucky.

I sympathise with these responses, but I think they miss the point. The Abbot was not writing a list of recommended behaviours to suit all situations. He was just being himself, and each of us is different. For a start, we have probably not developed anything like his imperturbable kshanti, and that is not something you can pretend about.

Another Japanese master was lucky enough to die in his bed. As he lay dying, his devoted disciples gathered round, and asked him for his last words of wisdom. He just croaked: ‘I don’t want to die!’ ‘But master’, they said, ‘we want some final advice that posterity will remember you for’. ‘No really,’ he said ‘I don’t want to die.’ So I am sort of heartened by that. Maybe we can develop tolerance, tolerance for each of our fellow human beings, not imposing our expectations on them. But maybe we can keep one or two aspects of this world untolerated, as that last Zen master did with the expectations of his own pupils; maybe we can even refuse to tolerate the finality of death, and discover for ourselves what  it is all really about.


Based on lecture to a United Nations Association interfaith meeting in 1995

[i] William Blake, Jerusalem, 49: 72-5. His capitals.

[ii] Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, 174.

Am I humanist? Am I liberal?

Homo Deus coverHumanist? Liberal?

I’m in the middle of reading Homo Deus, Yuval Harari’s follow-up to his excellent Sapiens. It is so fluently and clearly explained, that it easy to forget that it’s possible that he’s not right in some of the things he says, but I suspect he generally is! His theme is understanding humanity and it’s trajectory, especially the drives for human bliss, human power, and an unlimited human lifespan.

I was particularly interested in what he says about humanism, the doctrine that glorifies those three aims. What follows may not do justice to his arguments…

He points out that humanist ideas have replaced the old European reliance on forms of religious authority to such an extent that humanist assumptions tend to be invisible to us. Particularly liberal ones. And as he went through them, I had to acknowledge that I felt a shudder of horror at the sense that they are assumptions. So in Buddhist terminology they are they are ditthis, views, and ditthis at best need to be taken as provisional conceptualisations, and at worst may be wrong views. He describes three basic forms of humanism – evolutionary, socialist, and liberal.

The evolutionary form says that some people are superior to others, and the species will progress if the superior ones are allowed to dominate. This may be comparatively benign, in the sense of recognising genuine artistic or scientific genius, or in the sense of recognising the possibility of genuine spiritual progress. But we particularly observe it in the horrors of eugenics and Nazism. Like all forms of humanism, socialist humanism values humanity above everything else, but it does so in the mass rather than in the form of individuals, initially overthrowing the privileged few through class conflict, and dreaming of an egalitarian utopian society in the future.

Liberal humanism is probably the one most taken for granted, it started earlier than the other two, as the value of each individual was recognised. It led to a sense that one’s own wishes and preferences are paramount, the more choice the better, and perhaps “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law”, leading to consumerism, valuing immediate personal desires and so on. You need to think for yourself, and come up with your own set of values. The interior world of personal experience is far richer and more important than the exterior or shared worlds. All meaning is to be drawn from personal inner experiences. Human life is sacred, people must be kept alive at all costs. Free will and free choice are the highest authority. Be true to yourself: once you’ve clarified your feelings, they will tell you how to behave, and what is right. Something is bad only if it makes you feel bad, and as well as amplifying our own feelings, we should respect the feelings and sensitivities of others.

So our personal experience is prioritised – a combination of sensations, emotions, and thoughts – and we need to become increasingly sensitive to the flowing variety of our experiences. Thus we specialise like gourmets in our favourite range of sensations, sharpening our aesthetic sense, and also developing our ethical sense about what is right.

Now it seems to me that the basics of humanism have a lot going for them, and that basic Buddhism does include a humanist message, particularly the message of cultivating the psyche and its sensitivity. But it is salutary to me to notice how much I take the liberal humanist message for granted, and reinterpret the grand sweep of Buddhism almost entirely within that framework, though sometimes I use the evolutionary or socialist humanist frameworks. But is Buddhism really a framework that puts the individual human being, especially me, at the centre of all things?

I’ve long felt oppressed by the tyranny of my own preferences. And my impression is that most practising Buddhists I know are not very different from the mass of Western consumers in how strongly their decisions are based on what they happen to want at the time, whether it’s snacks, the temperature of the room, the comfort of the seat, the retreat or holiday destination, or even their moral judgements and political opinions… If you arrive at a retreat, are you eager to choose your own room and bed, hoping most are still free? If your bed is allocated before you arrive, do you find yourself complaining, at least tacitly, that it does not fully suit your needs?

Being governed by immediate preferences is giving priority to vedana. Vedana means the sensation, usually pleasant or unpleasant, that is an aspect of every moment of experience, and impels us to welcome and repeat the experience — or not. But my understanding of the Dharma is that vedana is, in a sense, given. I don’t need to pay very much attention to it, what’s important is karma, that is basing my decisions to act on whether it is skilful or unskilful, rather than on whether I feel like doing it or not. (Fortunately, the skilful is often quite pleasant!) In any case, is there really a unitary me with a deciding will?

Like a good liberal I aspire to improve my sensitivity; sometimes I am pleased to say it is my karmic sensitivity that I value. But how often do I prioritise broader issues of welfare and integrity over the ‘me’ and its petulant demands?

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 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]


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?


[2] The eight lay precepts.  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.

[4] majja

[5] ummāda

[6] pāpa

[7] Abhisanda Sutta.

[8] Sukhamala Sutta.

[9] Jack Kornfield.

[10] sati

[11] sampajañña

[12] appamada

[13] appamada again.

[14] Samyutta Nikaya IV 194

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.]

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, )

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
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

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,
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.


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.


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.