Buddha

The story of Dharma Day: The Buddha starts to teach

Lotus pond

Sugawara Mitsushige (1257) (Metropolitan Museum of Art), via Wikimedia Commons

The Buddha’s decision to teach

THE BUDDHA:

[After my enlightenment,] I thought, ‘This Dharma that I have attained is deep, hard to see or realize, it is the highest, most peaceful goal of all. It’s beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment and indulges in attachment. It’s hard for the people of this generation to see the truth of dependent arising. It’s hard for people to see the truth of stopping the karma formations, letting go, finishing craving, the fading of addictions, nirvana itself. If I taught, they would not understand me.

Just then these verses … occurred to me:

Enough now with teaching
what, only with difficulty,
I reached.

This Dharma is not easily realised
by those overcome
with aversion & craving.

What is abstruse, subtle,
deep,
hard to see,
going against the flow —
those delighting in craving,
cloaked in darkness —
they won’t [be able to] see it.’

As I reflected like this, my mind inclined to dwelling in comfort, and not to teaching the Dharma.

Then Sahampati, [a dweller in the sublime Brahma heavens] … thought to himself:

SAHAMPATI

‘The world is lost! The world is utterly lost! The mind of the fully awakened one inclines to [his own comfort], not to teaching the Dharma!’

THE BUDDHA

Then, just as a strong man might extend his arm …, Sahampati disappeared from his Brahma-world and reappeared in front of me. He … saluted me with his hands before his heart:

SAHAMPATI

‘Sir, let the abundant one teach the Dharma! Let the One-well-gone teach the Dharma! There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are wasting away because they cannot hear the Dharma. There will be those who will understand the Dharma!’ …

‘Throw open the door to the Deathless!
Let them hear the Dharma
realized by the Stainless One!

Just as one standing on a rocky crag
might see people
all around below,

So, O wise one, with panoramic vision,
ascend the tower
fashioned of truth.

Free from sorrow, look at the people
submerged in sorrow,
oppressed by birth & aging.

Rise up, hero, victor in battle!
O Teacher, travel without debt in the world.

Teach the Dharma, O Abundant one:
There will be those who will understand!’

THE BUDDHA

Then, having listened to Sahampati’s invitation, out of compassion for beings, I surveyed the world with an enlightened eye. As I did so, I saw beings with little dust in their eyes and those with much, those with keen faculties and those with dull, those with good qualities and those with bad, those easy to teach and those hard…. Just as in a pond of blue or red or white lotuses, some lotuses — born and growing in the water — might flourish while immersed in the water, without rising up from the water; some might stand at the surface of the water; while some might rise up from the water and stand without being wetted by the water — so too, surveying the world with an enlightened eye, I saw [the range of beings].

Having seen this, I answered Sahampati:

‘Open are the doors of the Deathless
To those who can hear.

Let them show their confidence.

O Sahampati,
If I [had thought I would not tell people]
the refined,
sublime Dharma,
It was because it seemed too troublesome to me.’

Then Sahampati realised,

SAHAMPATI

‘The Abundant one has decided to teach the Dharma.’

THE BUDDHA

He bowed to me, and disappeared.

The Buddha’s attempts to teach

THE BUDDHA

Then I thought, ‘To whom should I teach the Dharma first? Who will quickly understand this Dharma?’

I thought of [my former teachers], but they had passed away…

Then I thought: ‘The group of five [friends] who attended to me when I was practising fasting and self-denial, they were very helpful to me. [Now they are] staying near Benares, in the Game Park at Isipatana. What if I were to teach them the Dharma first?’

Then, having stayed at Bodhgaya as long as I wished, I set out to walk [the long road] to Benares.

Upaka the sectarian met me on the road between the (place of) awakening and Gaya village, and he said to me,

UPAKA

‘Clear, my friend, are your faculties. Pure your complexion, and bright.

What made you go forth? Who’s your teacher? In whose Dharma do you delight?’

THE BUDDHA

‘All-vanquishing,
all-knowing am I,
with regard to all things,
unattached.

All-abandoning,
freed by ending craving:
having fully known this on my own,
whom should I regard as my teacher?

I have no teacher,
and one like me can’t be found.
I have no counterpart in the world with its gods.

For I am a worthy one in the world;
an unexcelled teacher.

I, alone, am fully awakened.
Cooled am I,             unbound.

I’m going to Benares
To set rolling the wheel of the Dharma.

In a blindfolded world,
I’ll beat the drum of the Deathless.’

UPAKA

‘From your claims, my friend, you must be a Jina, a universal conqueror.’

THE BUDDHA

‘Conquerors are those like me
who have reached fermentations’ end.
I’ve conquered evil qualities,
and so, [yes], Upaka, I’m a conqueror.’

UPAKA

‘May it be so, my friend,’

THE BUDDHA

And — shaking his head and taking a side-road — he left.

Then, walking in stages, I arrived at Benares, at the Game Park in Isipatana, where the group of five friends were staying. They saw me coming from some way off, and made a pact with one another.

THE FIVE

‘Friends, here comes Gotama the contemplative. [He has given up] our struggle [of self-denial], living luxuriously, straying from his exertion, backsliding into abundance. He doesn’t deserve our bows, or even for us to stand up to greet him. Still, if he wants to, he can sit down with us.’

THE BUDDHA

But as I approached, they were unable to keep to their pact. One stood up to greet me, another got me a seat. Another got some water for washing my feet. However, they [still] addressed me as ‘Gotama’ and as ‘friend.’

So I said to them, ‘Please don’t address the Tathagata, the Thus-gone one, by name and as ‘friend.’ The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, fully awakened. Lend ear, friends: the Deathless has been attained. I will instruct you. I will teach you the Dharma. Practising as instructed, you will in no long time reach & remain in the supreme goal of the spiritual life, … knowing & realizing it for yourselves in the here & now.’

THE FIVE

‘You did not attain any superior human states by practising hardship and deprivation, nor any special knowledge & vision worthy of a noble one. So how can you have done so now — living luxuriously, straying from your exertion, backsliding into abundance?’

THE BUDDHA

‘The Tathagata is not living luxuriously, has not strayed from his exertion, has not slid back into abundance. The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, fully awakened. [And twice more I repeated my offer to teach them.]’

[They still doubted, so] I said to the group of five, ‘Do you recall my ever having spoken in this way before?’

THE FIVE

‘No, sir.’

THE BUDDHA

‘The Tathagata, monks, is not living luxuriously, has not strayed from his exertion, has not slid back into abundance. The Tathagata, friends, is a worthy one, fully awakened. Listen, friends: the Deathless has been attained. I will instruct you. I will teach you the Dharma. If you practice as instructed, before long you will reach the supreme goal of the spiritual life and remain there…, knowing & realizing it for yourselves in the here & now.’

And so I was able to convince them. I would teach two while three went to get food, and we six lived off what the three brought back from their alms round. Then I would teach three of them while two went for food, and we six lived off what the two brought back from their alms round. Then the group of five — thus exhorted and instructed by me — being themselves subject to birth, seeing the drawbacks of birth, seeking the unborn, unexcelled security from oppression, nirvana, reached nirvana. Being subject themselves to aging, illness, death, sorrow and defilement, seeing the drawbacks of aging, illness, death, sorrow and defilement, seeking the aging-less, illness-less, deathless, sorrow-less, undefiled, unexcelled security from oppression, nirvana, they reached nirvana. Complete knowledge & vision arose in them, their liberation was unshakeable, and from the rounds of rebirth they were completely free.

From the Noble Quest Sutta, Majjhima Nikaya number 26.

(Edited and adapted for reading aloud by Ratnaprabha from the translation by Thanissaro (1), referring to translations by Bhikkhu Bodhi (2) and Nanamoli (3).)

Sources

  1. http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.026.than.html .
  2. http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/middle-length-discourses-buddha/selections/middle-length-discourses-26-ariyapariyesana-sutta
  3. Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu, The Life of the Buddha (Buddhist Publication Society, 1972)
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Lotus Sutra: the Image of the Plants

The Image of the Plants

Monsoon over Biligirirangans, India. (Shyamal – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

From the White Lotus of the Wonderful Dharma Sutra, Chapter 5.
Abridged and adapted by Ratnaprabha for reading aloud.
Based on the translations by Kato et al and Reeves, sub-headings not in the original.

The Buddha adapts the Dharma according to his listeners

The Buddha, the Dharma-king,
Smashing ideas of being,
Appears in this world.

According to the needs of all beings,
He teaches the Dharma in varied ways.

The Buddha teaches people
According to their strengths,
With various explanations
To bring them to helpful views.

The Buddha is like a thunder cloud

The Buddha is like a great cloud
Rising above the [parched] world,
Covering everything everywhere.

A beneficent cloud full of moisture,
Bringing gladness and ease to all,
Where flashes of lightning shine and glint,
And the voice of thunder vibrates afar.

The [hot] sun’s rays are veiled,
And the earth is cooled;
The cloud lowers and spreads
As if it might be caught and gathered.

[Then] its rain everywhere equally
Descends on all sides,
Streaming and pouring without stint,
Enriching all the land.

His hearers are like plants in need of the rain

On mountains, by rivers, in steep valleys,
In hidden places, there grow
The plants, trees, and herbs.

Trees, big or small,
The shoots of all the ripening grain,
Sugar cane and grapevine,

All these are fertilised by the rain,
And abundantly enriched.
The dry ground is all soaked,
And herbs and trees flourish together.

From the same water which issued from that cloud,
Plants, trees, thickets and forests,
According to their need, receive moisture.

All the [plants],
Each according to its scale,
Can grow and develop.

Roots, stalks, branches, and leaves,
Blossoms and fruits in their brilliant colours,
By the pouring of the one rain,
All become fresh and glossy.

Just as their forms and capacities
Are some great and some small,
So the enriching [rain], though one and the same,
Enables each to flourish.

The Buddha proclaims his impartial intent

The Buddha is like this.
He appears in the world,
Like a great [monsoon]-cloud
Universally covering all things;

And having appeared in the world,
He, for the sake of all living beings,
Teaches in varying ways
The reality of all things.

The great World-honoured One
To human and heavenly beings,
And to all the other beings,
Declares this:

“I am the Tathagata,
Honoured by people;
I appear in the world
Just like a great rain cloud,
To pour enrichment on all parched living beings,

“To free them all from suffering
And so attain the joy of peace,
Joy in this world,
And the joy of nirvana.

“Humans and heavenly beings and all!
Give me your full attention,
Gather around
And behold the Buddha.

“For the hosts of the living
I teach the Dharma, pure as sweet dew:
The Dharma with one taste
Of freedom and nirvana.

“With one wonderful voice
I explain this meaning,
Constantly taking the great way
As my subject.

“I look upon all [living beings]
Everywhere [with] equal [eyes],
Without favouring anyone,
With no mind of love or hate.

“I have no preferences
Nor limitations [or partiality];
At all times to all [beings]
I teach the Dharma equally;

“As I would to one person,
So [I teach] to all.
Constantly I proclaim the Dharma,
Never occupied with anything else.

“Going or coming, sitting or standing,
I never weary or get downhearted,
Pouring it abundantly upon the world,
Like the rain, enriching everywhere.

“Eminent and humble, high and low,
Those who keep the precepts and those who break them,
Those of admirable character
And those of imperfect character,

“With right views or wrong views,
Quick-witted and dull-witted,
[With] equal [mind] I rain the rain of the Dharma,
Neglecting no one.”

Summing up

So the Buddha’s unbiased teaching
Is like the one rain.

[But] beings, according to their capacities,
Receive it differently,
Just as the plants and trees
Each take a varying supply.

The Buddha by this [image]
Skilfully reveals [his methods],
And with various expressions
He proclaims the one single Dharma,

The one essential Dharma,
To be practised according to ability,
Just as those thickets, forests, herbs, and trees,
True to their type, grow lush and beautiful.

Just so,
Practising it step-by-step,
All can gain the fruit of the way.

The Dharma taught by the Buddha is like this.
It is just like a great cloud
Which with the same kind of rain
Enriches humans like blossoms,
So that each will bear fruit.

The way in which you all walk
Is the Bodhisattva-way;
By gradually practising and learning,
You will all become Buddhas.

TURNING THE WHEEL OF DHARMA

The Buddha’s first teaching

Image: John Hill

Today, 8 June 2017,  is the full moon of Dharma Day, the anniversary of the Buddha’s first teaching, known as Turning the Wheel of Dharma.

Here is my Re-rendering of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (Ratnaprabha, June 2017)

This is what I heard. (After his awakening), the Buddha arrived at the game reserve near Varanasi, (and was reunited with his five former comrades).

He taught the group of five. He said to them: “Going forth (to seek awakening), you must avoid two extremes.

“Looking for gratification in sense pleasures is demeaning, crude and ignoble. It’s what people always go for, but it’s pointless, and it takes you nowhere near the goal.

“Yet self-torment is also ignoble and pointless, and (it commits you to needless) suffering.

“Instead of veering towards one of these extremes, (if you’re) attuned to reality, you will wake up to the middle path. It yields vision so that you truly know. It leads to peace, to complete awareness, to quenching (the flames) and waking yourself up fully.

“Speaking simply, the middle path has eight aspects. These are complete vision, complete emotion, complete communication, complete action, complete livelihood, complete effort, complete mindfulness, and complete unification (of the mind). When I attuned myself to reality, I woke up to this path.

“Furthermore, (I woke up to four noble truths). Firstly, this is the noble truth, the grand reality, of pain. Birth, ageing and illness are painful. Death is horrible. (Then you’ll encounter) depression, grief and physical agony; unhappiness and despair as well, and losing what you love, and not getting what you want. In fact all the aspects of life that we cling to are painful.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality (that explains) where pain comes from. It comes from thirst, from craving. It is craving that impels us to remake ourselves so that we are still conjoined with gratification and clinging, indulging in one thing after another. (More specifically), it is craving for sense-gratification, craving for continuing (as we are), or craving for oblivion.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality, of the finish of pain. It is the fading and finishing of that same craving, giving it up, letting it go, not depending on it any more, so that we are completely free from craving.

“This is the noble truth, the grand reality of the way that finishes pain. It is the same middle path (that avoids the extremes) – complete vision and so on.

“When I fully woke up, I saw this for the first time. A fresh insight, wisdom and awareness, indeed a complete illumination, dawned on me. I truly saw pain as a grand reality, I saw I had to understand it, and (eventually) I did.

“Similarly, I truly saw, as a grand reality, how pain comes from craving. I saw I had to let go of that craving, and I managed to do that.

“And I truly saw the grand reality of (the possibility of) pain finishing (for good). I knew I had to realise that finish directly, and I did realise it.

And I truly saw the grand reality of the middle way that frees one from pain, I saw that I had to journey on that way, and I travelled it to the end.

“It was these crucial insights that enabled me to perfect my full and complete awakening. This is an awakening that completes the journey, (a journey open to) all forms of life in the universe. I saw, and I realised: unshakeable is the liberation of my mind, I’m no longer compelled to re-make myself, this is it.”

The group of five listened enraptured to the Buddha. And as he listened, one of them, Kondañña, saw the truth clearly and lucidly, and realised that all that comes into being must also finish. “Kondañña knows!” Exclaimed the Buddha, “Kondañña knows!”

This, in the game reserve near Varanasi, was the (first) rolling of the Wheel of Dharma by the Buddha. The earth spirits yelled with all their might: “THE SUPREME WHEEL OF THE BUDDHA’S DHARMA IS NOW TURNING, AND NO ONE CAN STOP IT!” And the cheer went up through the ranks of invisible beings up to the (formless) world of pure spirit, so that the whole world trembled, and an incandescent light spread from horizon to horizon.

Brackets signify words added for clarification. Some repetitions have been removed. This re-rendering is interpretive, and other interpretations are possible; it is well worth looking through several translations.

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.

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

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

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.

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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.