buddhism

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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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.

Grabbing a firebrand

Grabbing a firebrand: aphorisms and Sangharakshita

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

The aphorism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Encountering Sangharakshita’s sayings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Attitudes to dharma teachings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having a project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Need for vision

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

Working on a project

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

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

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

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

Not underestimating oneself

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

Altruistic projects

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

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

Duty

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Wikipedia

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

[5] Karl Kraus, Sprüche und Widersprüche, 1909

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

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

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

[9] Windhorse Publications, 1995

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

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

[12] Peace Is a Fire, 60

[13] Peace Is a Fire, 99

[14] Peace Is a Fire, 102

[15] Peace Is a Fire, 105

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

[17] Peace Is a Fire, 106

[18] A Stream of Stars, 18

[19] Peace Is a Fire, 32

[20] Correspondence, A Stream of Stars, 69

[21] Correspondence, A Stream of Stars, 70

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

[23] Peace Is a Fire, 30

[24] Correspondence, Peace Is a Fire, 105

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

[26] Correspondence, Peace Is a Fire, 31

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

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

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

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

Mind in Buddhism

Mind in Buddhism: Finding the Mind interview

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

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

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

Why is the project of finding our minds so important?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So is Buddhism a science?

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

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

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

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

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

Lastly, can we really find our minds?

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

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

Buy Finding the Mind here.

Interview by Hannah Atkinson of Windhorse Publications, August 2012

Gender in Buddhism

The songs of the sisters

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

Khmer Tara or Parjanaparamita

Tara from Cambodia

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

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

The mass of darkness is shattered.

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

And Mara curses under his breath and flees.

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

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

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

Gender

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

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

Women in early Buddhism

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

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

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

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

Formation of the bhikkhuni Sangha

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

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

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

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

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

Sexism in traditional Buddhism & the Pali Canon on women

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

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

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

Disadvantages of being a woman?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is gender fixed and definite?

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

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

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

IMG_1633

Green Tara by Devaraja

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

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

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

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

Single sex activities: advantages and problems

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

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

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

Audible sex

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

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

Working Together – the Buddhist Tradition

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

Ratnaprabha 2007
A System of Spiritual Development

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

Ratnaprabha 2002
Grabbing a Firebrand

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

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

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

Ratnaprabha 2009
Hare In the Moon

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

Ratnaprabha 2011
A True Story

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

Ratnaprabha 2011
Gender and Sexuality In Buddhism

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

Ratnaprabha 2011
A Straight Talk On the Heart Sutra

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

Ratnaprabha 2012
The Story of Hatthaka

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

Ratnaprabha 2007
The Four Sangraha Vastus

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

Ratnaprabha 2007
Finding the Mind

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

Ratnaprabha 2012
What Do Buddhists Think – The Mind

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

Ratnaprabha 2012
Finding the Mind

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

Ratnaprabha 2012
Ananda and The Outcast Maiden

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

Ratnaprabha 2012
How Genuine Sangha Can Be Created

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

Ratnaprabha 2012
Hand Me Downs

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

Ratnaprabha 2008
The Fifth Precept

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

Ratnaprabha 2013
Footsteps of Truth; Following the Trackless One

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

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

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

Ratnaprabha 2013
The Star of Healing

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

Ratnaprabha 2014
The Urban Buddha, Restoring the Ancient City

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

Ratnaprabha 2014
How to Be a Buddhist

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

Ratnaprabha 2015
Manjushri

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

Ratnaprabha 2015
The Hare In the Moon

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

Ratnaprabha 2005
How to Have Fun

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

Ratnaprabha 2010
The Wheel of Life

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

Ratnaprabha 2010
The First Chick Hatches

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

Ratnaprabha 2010
Vajra Slideshow — the Audio

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

Ratnaprabha 2010
Mandala of the Five Buddhas Slideshow

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

Ratnaprabha 2010
Metta Bhavana Into and Lead-Through

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

Ratnaprabha 1994
Mindfulness of Breathing Intro and Lead-Through

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

Ratnaprabha 2010
The Life of Milarepa – Milarepa Talk 1

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

Ratnaprabha 2010
Milarepa, Singing the Dharma – Milarepa Talk 2

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

Ratnaprabha 2010
The Heart Sons of Milarepa – Milarepa Talk 3

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

Ratnaprabha 2010
Stupa Sideshow, the Audio

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

Ratnaprabha 2011
Saluting the Sangha

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

Ratnaprabha 2011
The Structure of Buddhism

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

Ratnaprabha 2012
Citta

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

Ratnaprabha 2012
The Six Elements

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ratnaprabha 2013
How the Buddha Taught Mindfulness

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

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

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

Ratnaprabha 2014
Life of Milarepa

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

Ratnaprabha 2014
Universes Colliding – The Meeting of Science and Buddhism

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

Ratnaprabha 2015