Friday, December 26, 2008

Disasters Within

Today marks the 4th anniversary of the 2004 tsunami disaster, a catastrophe that was billed as the deadliest in history, claiming more than 200,00 lives across many countries in the Asian continent.

Photo courtesy of Bangkok Post

Most of us can likely remember the magnitude of the impact the disaster had on our lives or people close to us. In the wake of the tragedy, many people who were directly affected asked a well-known scholar-monk, the Rev W. Vajiramedhi, for advice.

His various dhamma talks on the topic given on different occasions were later compiled into a book, titled Kluen Nok, Kluen Nai (The Waves Without, The Waves Within). Many editions have been printed to give away as a dhamma dana (gift of dhamma) by various compassionate individuals and organisations.

Today, as the fateful date returns, many families and friends of the victims could not help but be reminded of the heartache when they learned that they just lost their loved ones.

In Buddhism, every crisis is a learning opportunity. Under proper guidance, one can develop the technique to turn every crisis into a lasting wisdom that eventually leads to enlightenment itself.

Since the book by the Rev W. Vajiramedhi was in Thai and is now out of print, the author would like to dedicate the space of today's column to summarise the gems of that wisdom as a befitting memorial to that tragic event.

The sound advice that the Rev W. Vajiramedhi gave to the friends and families of the victims of the 2004 tsunami is as follows:

Accept the truth. The faster, the better

Whenever crisis strikes, be it from natural disasters or man-made ones, find your inner strength through mindfulness so that you would be able to accept the truth as it is.

According to the Rev W. Vajiramedhi, by accepting the truth, the mind would be able to restore its balance. The faster one can accept the truth, the faster one can move on with life.

On the other hand, the longer one lingers in suffering over the event that has passed, the more difficult it would be to regain a proper frame of mind. The bottom line is, those who are courageous enough to accept the truth up front would be able to think properly and know what needs to be done.

In order to have the proper frame of mind to gain wisdom from a disaster, the Rev W. Vajiramedhi suggested that we should be open-minded. Merely observe without being judgmental. Do not criticise and try to find a scapegoat. The blame game, one must realise, does not get one out of suffering.

Familiarize Oneself with Life's Ultimate Truth

This second step to gain wisdom from a disaster has a two-fold benefit. Not only one would gain wisdom from the disaster that just occurred, but one would also be prepared for future, unavoidable disasters as well.

Life's ultimate truth is in fact very straightforward. And when one learns it when disaster has not struck yet, it would be easier for the mind to accept. Therefore, the Rev W. Vajiramedhi said it is important that we familiarise ourselves with them as soon as possible in life, so that the next time disaster strikes, we would be ready. Life's ultimate truth includes:

1) No one escapes ageing. In fact, the deteriorating process toward death starts at birth; 2) No one escapes illness and pain; 3) No one escapes death; 4) Losing loved ones and treasured possessions cannot be avoided; and 5) To each his/her own karma. No one escapes the Law of Karma.

By realising this final truth alone, one would be able to refrain from the blame game that is nothing more than creating a new negative karmic cycle for oneself.

Learn to Live Fully in the Present

Suffering only occurs when one's mind falls into the past or ventures in speculation into the future. Therefore, the ability to live fully in the present is a valuable life skill. The Rev W. Vajiramedhi suggested some practical methods as follows:

1) Keep oneself busy; 2) Build up one's concentration through prayer; 3) Learn meditation techniques; and 4) Learn how to face one's own death by practicing mindfulness of death, Maranassati.

Mindfulness of Death

In it simplest meaning, the practice of mindfulness of death is to be constantly aware that death can happen to us any second. In Lord Buddha's words, the mindful ones are those who realise that they might not survive even into the next breath. When practiced properly, mindfulness of death would: 1) sharpen one's mindfulness; 2) enable us to understand the true value of life; and 3) enable us to perform our duty without carelessness. Mindfulness of death can be practiced in every waking moment, the Rev W. Vajiramedhi said, even when stuck in traffic.

There is one word of caution, though. As with any other mindfulness practice, it is best to be done under supervision of a veteran teacher.

If mindfulness of death is practiced without proper understanding, it could yield: 1) fear of one's death; 2) depression, and/or 3) careless/mindless living (for mistakenly believing that death simply means one would no longer be able to do indulge).

At this point, the author would like to add that, beside monks, there was one social class in history that successfully practiced mindfulness of death. They were the Japanese feudal samurai. After turning to Zen during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), the samurai actively practiced mindfulness of death to help enable them to see life in perspective and, in effect, help them deal with suffering. The list in Japanese history is long for the samurai who were able to face their death calmly, mindfully, either at the hand of the enemy or on their deathbed. This is doubtlessly due to their lifetime of practice of mindfulness of death.

Build One's Radar System for 'the Waves Within'

The Rev W. Vajiramedhi observed in his book that, while countries spend millions setting up centres to detect possible disasters from tsunamis - or "the waves without" - no one seems to put equal efforts to detect "the waves within."

By "the waves within," the Rev W. Vajiramedhi meant the waves of anger, fear, disappointment, greed/lust, and ignorance. The ultimate advice for Buddhists is, therefore, to start building one's personal radar to watch out for the disasters within ourselves.

At the end of the day, the ability to detect a disaster within from the minute it starts to ripple would be the key to ultimately shield us from any further suffering from the disasters without. Because such ability, arisen from continuous mindfulness practice, would eventually lead us to Enlightenment. Ultimately, we were affected by the tsunami because we were born. If there is no "us", there would be no suffering.

The enlightenment, quite frankly, is the final answer.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Year-Round Resolution

New Year is coming and so is the time to reflect on 2008 and plan for 2009. Yes, it is the time we make yet another set of New Year's resolutions.

Photo courtesy of the Bangkok Post

Making resolutions does not sound that complicated. But how about the success rate? If a 2007 UK-based survey is to be any indication, it is only 12%. This says a lot about us humans. As it is less than two weeks now before New Year arrives, how about some reflection on the tradition of the New Year's resolution itself? Is there a way to make it stick?

First of all, let us take a brief look at history. When was this tradition started, and by whom? S urely it could not be a recent tradition that came together with the invention of the refillable, leather-covered yearly diary?

When it comes to calendars, our top-of-mind recollection is likely to be about the Romans. And in fact some historians believe that the ancient Romans also invented New Year's resolutions in 153 BC. Many Romans looked for forgiveness from their enemies and also exchanged gifts before the beginning of each year. (Source: )

Yet there are others who contend that New Year's resolutions date back even further, to the early Babylonians who started celebrating New Year 4,000 years ago. Their popular resolution? To return borrowed farm equipment. Sort of makes us wonder what the Babylonians and the Romans would think of our modern-day resolutions. According to a recent survey by the US government, the top resolution for contemporary Americans is to lose weight. (Sources:; holidays/newyear.htm )

Unlike other noisy, exhausting and group-oriented activities to ring in New Year, resolution-making requires us to give quality time solely to ourselves, quietly examining our own life - what we have achieved so far and what our goals in the upcoming year should be.

In other words, a time to make our New Year's resolution is a time when we stop our usual hustle-and-bustle and see life in perspective. Suddenly, it may occur to us that we still could not really grasp what the ultimate goal of our life is, or should be. Indeed, this is a crucial question that every responsible adult should make a point to ponder, whether during New Year's holidays or otherwise.

What is it that we are living for?

The path to the answer to that question is another story altogether, and subject to one's spiritual affiliation. For practicing Buddhists, we are in this world to strive diligently, with full effort, in every waking moment, to achieve the Ultimate Enlightenment.

In the scriptures, there are many ways to describe this effort. One of them is to refer to the whole ordeal as the effort to create or make complete one's Parami (Baramee in Thai), or perfection. The Theravada tradition has 10 Parami in total, while the Mahayana's, known in Sanskrit as Paramita, has six.

Simply put, to create one's Parami is to cultivate certain virtues. Among the 10 Parami in the Theravada version, there is one that is related to the idea of New Year's resolution. It is Adhitthana Parami or the Perfection in Resolution.

What are the Buddhist resolutions?

But what is it that Buddhists should make resolutions about? The answer can be found in Adhitthana Dhamma, or the virtues that should be established in the mind. Here is the list of those Virtuous Resolutions that could help you refine your New Year's resolutions. They are 1) wisdom; 2) truthfulness; 3) renunciation; and 4) tranquility.

To be specific, the scriptures suggest that one should make a resolution 1) not to neglect wisdom; 2) to safeguard truthfulness; 3) to foster generosity (by renouncing first one's worldly possessions and, later, one's mental defilements); and 4) to train oneself in tranquility.

In this regard, the Romans' tradition to ask for forgiveness and to exchange gifts would fit nicely under the third category, while the Babylonians' vow to return farm equipment could be under the second. As for weight loss, well, the author is not sure. Can it fit under truthfulness?

To be successful in one's Adhitthana Parami, the Perfection in Resolution, Buddhist teaching provides practical guidelines in the form of accompanying perfections.

First and foremost, we must strive to attain Sacca Parami, the Perfection in Truth. This means we must have truthfulness in our thoughts, words and deeds.

The second perfection that would help we keep our resolutions is Viriya Parami, the Perfection in Effort. This is straightforward enough.

Third, Upekkha Parami, the Perfection in Equanimity. By equanimity, Lord Buddha means we should strive to achieve unshakeable freedom of mind, a state of inner poise that cannot be upset by gain and loss, honour and dishonour, praise and blame, pleasure and pain.

And last, but by no means least, Panna Parami, the Perfection of Wisdom. The wisdom here refers to the wisdom that is based on the direct realization of the essence of Buddhism such as the Four Noble Truths, or the Law of Impermanence. It can also refer to skilfulness in staying true to one's resolution.

For many of us, to strive for "perfection" does not seem to be a viable goal. Don't be discouraged yet. For there are many levels of Parami. This means if we make a point to strive to achieve at least the first level of any Parami, it is not beyond a human capacity to continue to make it to the top. Truthfulness, for example, is an everyday virtue that many people could perfect. And there are noble people all over the world who have proven that that could achieve just that.

Moreover, it is recognized that, for anyone who does not aim to become a full-fledged Buddha (self-enlightened with the ability to teach), the perfection of just a few Parami is enough to deliver us from suffering. In fact, Lord Buddha himself once said that "just the sheer merit of effort [Viriya Parami] alone, beings can transcend suffering".

There you go. If keeping New Year's resolutions is a struggle, try self-empowerment through the various Parami. A resolution is not just a casual, wishful thinking about some loose goals, but a culmination of wisdom, truthfulness and renunciation in an unshakeable mind.

You can also adapt a monastic approach of repeating one's vows everyday, at both the beginning of the day and at day's end, to remind yourself of your life's ultimate purpose. After all, Adhitthana Parami is not just for New Year, but is here to stay until we get enlightened, whether within this lifetime or otherwise.

Have fun making this year's resolutions - and, more importantly, keeping them!

Weight loss, anyone?

Friday, December 12, 2008

The Unaware Society

"Why don't you write about nibbana (the Buddhist Enlightenment)?," a friend who is an English literature professor in a local university asked.

Photo coutesy of the Bangkok Post

"It seems most Thais are not interested in the Enlightenment nowadays," she observed, before concluding: "They seem to think that it is not relevant to them."

The author's friend has a point. Come to think about it, even the English-speaking world has chosen to adopt the Sanskrit spelling of the word for Buddhist Enlightenment rather than the Pali one. That is, we would likely see the reference to nirvana rather than nibbana in English-language publications.

This by itself signals that our Mahayana friends, especially the Zen sect, whose scriptures were written in Sanskrit, have been quite successful in making it clear to the world that nirvana is their top priority.

What We Could Learn from our Zen Friends

The proof was clear in the teaching of Zen's earlier patriarchs, from Daruma, the Indian monk who made Zen popular in China, down to Huineng and Huairang. They talked repeatedly about the importance of training one's mind until one discovers the true "Buddha Nature" inside.

The Zen Patriachs also addressed the mass without discrimination, meaning it does not matter if one is a monk or a layperson. For, in a Zen teacher's mind, it is everyone's duty to strive hard to attain Enlightenment in this lifetime.

After Zen made its way to Japan, the ever-productive and disciplined Japanese made sure that they found an effective way to infuse mindfulness, the practice through which one achieves Enlightenment, into everything they think, say and do. Many of the ancient arts and culture that survive until today are the testament to that admirable effort.

In 1967, roughly eight centuries after Zen has been introduced to Japan, a world-famous Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, came to Thailand to carry out research for one of his books, "The Temple of Dawn." Mishima did not find what he was looking for, a Theravada interpretation of consciousness and rebirth as taught to the general public. In fact, Mishima even remarked through the novel's fictional character, Mr Honda, that all he found in Thailand was the emphasis on dana (giving) and the stories of Lord Buddha's last 10 lives, Jataka.

A little embarrassing, one must admit. Today, 41 years after Mishima's casual but truthful remark in that novel, little has changed in Thailand. If there is change of any sort, it does not become for the better. For the society seems to be more preoccupied in examining, with a magnifying glass, the various editions of the Hindu-inspired Jatukham amulets rather than being absorbed in learning how Lord Buddha attained his Enlightenment.

Even if there are more books on mindfulness practice now than there were 41 years ago, it still does not mean that the Thais have been actively practising it. At least not to the level the Japanese have. Perhaps we have to thank the late Mr Mishima for pointing out our weakness for us.

Why Most Thais are Not Interested in Enlightenment

Let us try to answer Mr Mishima, and ourselves, why most Thais are not interested in the most important aspect, the raison d'etre, of Buddhism. One obvious argument is the fact that the Thai society has, for centuries, been blessed with agricultural abundance and relative peace. Compared to the centuries of civil wars and harsh natural disasters that Japan has had to endure, Thailand has not seen that much suffering. In addition, the Japanese's knack of keenly observing the changes in their four seasons also helps them to understand Buddhist Law of Impermanence better than us Thais who are surrounded by year-round evergreen trees.

The Chinese sages got it right when they say, "When one has not yet seen one's coffin, one does not shed tears." It is the complacency, a false sense of security, that made us Thai people feel that suffering is too far-flung a concept to think about in our everyday living. The ability to see suffering, or changes that lead to suffering, is the first trigger for one's quest for the Enlightenment.

Therefore, one could argue that the severe sufferings the ancient Japanese had to endure was a "blessing in disguise."

For those who have not practised mindfulness and experienced the "trailer" of what Enlightenment could be, the attempt to understand nibbana is literal at best. And it is this literal approach that further alienates Buddhist Enlightenment from a layperson's everyday life.

The Problem with our Literal Approach to Nibbana

First, it is a linguistic problem. We Thais, since our primary school years, were taught that Lord Buddha entered Maha Parinibbana (The Great Enlightenment) upon his death. Therefore, consciously or not, the word nibbana to the Thai ear usually rings in the image of death. Therefore, for those who did not have enough exposure to the essence of Buddhism, nibbana seems to be the stage that one can only enter after dying.

Needless to say, this misconception made nibbana something that no one wants to rush into. In fact, subconsciously, we may not even want to touch it with a ten-foot pole. Isn't it startling that the key message that Lord Buddha wanted to convey suddenly has become a taboo subject in Thailand? Perhaps regrettable is a more appropriate word.

The late Ven Buddhadasa had done his best to correct this by educating us Thais that in fact nibbana is something that is attainable while we are still alive, and should be every Buddhist's goal. Even if we could not reach the Ultimate Enlightenment yet, the late Ven Buddhadasa kindly suggested, at least we should try to frequently experience the "mini-Enlightenment" in our everyday life. The way to achieve it, he pointed out, is through Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation. Very Zen-like teaching, if one may add.

Professor Saeng Jan-ngam, a respectable Buddhist scholar from Chiang Mai, gave us another reason why we Thais tend not to be enthusiastic about nibbana. In his book, Buddhasasanavidhya, Prof Saeng pointed out that ordinary people only understand ordinary pleasure, not knowing that there could be a far more profound state of happiness than the worldly ones.

As a result, when they learn, through books, that nibbana does not have that kind of pleasure but offers a sustainable peace and happiness, they can not grasp the magnitude of its benefits and therefore do not see any appeal in trying to "reach somewhere" where none of the pleasure they know is available.

More important, Prof Saeng pointed out, is our false attachment to the concept of "self." For the untrained mind, the idea of total riddance of the "self" does not seem to be the ideal stage to aim for. "How can I feel happiness," they would argue, "when myself does not exist?"

Regrettably, it is this very misunderstanding of nibbana that gives a loophole for imposters to jump in and distort Lord Buddha's teaching by claiming that the "self" still exists in "the place called nibbana." This teaching is by far the most dangerous teaching around town these days, usually accompanying a request for a huge donation to "guarantee one's place in different levels of heavens."

Why we Thais should Attempt to Understand Nibbana

Therefore, at the very least, the attempt to properly understand Buddhist Enlightenment would give us immunity from falling into the danger of false teaching. It would not only help prevent us from becoming financially bankrupt as some unfortunate victims were led into, but also from being morally corrupted as a result of following the wrong path. The path is only downward for those with a wrong understanding, Lord Buddha himself gravely warned. This means that even if we are not Enlightened in this life yet, at least we should try to prevent ourselves from falling into the wrong path, because what it entails is endless suffering.

Simply put, the society that does not put Enlightenment as one of its top priorities is an "unaware" society. We are unaware that we are living mindlessly. There is the sad story of a chicken that continues to run around even after its head has been cut off. Did the body know where it was going? Did the body even realize that it is already dead? Regrettably, it would be only a matter of moments before the body finally drops to the ground, contracting in a final spasm, eventually becoming still, completely dead.

A painful analogue, we agree, but it could not be more apt to describe a Buddhist society that does not actively promote the practice of mindfulness so that its people can at least experience the "mini-Enlightenment", achieving the peace within, so that together they could generate the peace without. Blessed with the privilege of being in a Buddhist country, let us make the most out of it. Let each and every one of us shows the world that we know a thing or two about Buddhist Enlightenment.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Day Buddha Died

It was a full-moon night in the 6th month of the lunar calendar. At 400 metres above sea level, the small town in the Gangetic plain was scorching during the day with temperature reaching the high 30s. There was no rain, despite the fact that it was in the middle of a monsoon season.

Photo courtesy of Bangkok Post

At nightfall, there was a calm hush where 500 Enlightened men gathered just outside Kusinara. Summer night's wind breezed past sadly as if to say its final farewell. Around the men, sala trees wept their young, white petals on to the sandy soil that was moisturized by night dew.

It was the day Lord Buddha would die.

Last words: Life's summary chapter

Fast forward to the 21st century. In bookstores and on websites all over the world, we see countless volumes of famous - and not-so-famous - people's last words. From the words uttered by someone about to be beheaded on a guillotine to whispers of dying leaders in the comfort of their deathbed. Chinese sages, Japanese feudal warriors, European philosophers, American writers; a startling number of people in history seemed to have wanted to say something before they departed.

For most quotes that made it to print, they seem to share one thing in common. It is a summary of life's learning. It does not have to be dramatic, or poetic, for that matter. For real wisdom of life tends to present itself in its simplest form. When someone's time is running out, and they know it, it is more likely to be something that comes out in the spur of the moment, almost as an afterthought. Few, we may assume, would bother to edit the rhymes in those words.

Why are we drawn to read such words with great enthusiasm, then? Answers could vary. Many probably read out of curiosity, some might do just for the sheer entertainment factor. Yet, there are presumably others who are determined to learn something out of the people who passed, recognising the undeniable wisdom of life at the most crucial moment. For it goes without saying that, when facing our own death, we would be able to see life in its practical perspective.

The importance of Lord Buddha's last words

Yet, while we take pleasure from reading the last words of people from all walks of life, trying to visualise what the person was like when they were living and theorising about their state of mind when they were about to go, has it ever occurred to us that we should pay special attention to the last words of the Enlightened One?

Two thousand, five hundred and fifty-one years after that fateful day, with the advent of modern science, researchers interested in Lord Buddha's death seem to be more preoccupied with what exactly Lord Buddha ate in his last meal (was it pork or mushroom?), what exactly the illness that took his life was, or what materials were used in the cloth used to wrap his body. Less and less emphasis is put on the attempt to understand what Lord Buddha intentionally left behind as his last words. Even less is the attempt to live the life according to those last words.

Lord Buddha, after all, was a Great Teacher. Until today, he is our Spiritual Father, someone who decided to preach and help the rest of us out of suffering despite the realisation that it was not going to be easy on him. With a heart full of loving kindness, Lord Buddha sacrificed his whole life, spending every day and night teaching, sleeping only two hours a day.

Why so little rest? Maybe because he knew that he wouldn't be returning ever again in another rebirth. Yet there are so many suffered beings desperately seeking liberation. Therefore, it became his habit to turn every deed into a teaching opportunity. When he was in a forest, he used a handful of leaves to teach dhamma to the monks that were following him. When he was sitting by a river, he used floating logs as a metaphor.

Naturally, lying on his deathbed, Lord Buddha made sure he used the occasion to leave a lasting lesson. Once a teacher always a teacher, goes one saying. In fact, one can even argue that Lord Buddha's last words seem to sum up his entire teaching.

What are they?

Understanding Lord Buddha's last words

"...Vaya dhamma sankara,

Appama dena sampadetha..."

Literally, those Pali words mean "...All components are subject to decay, do accomplish all your duties with mindfulness..."

In its literal sense, the words may not mean much to those unfamiliar with Buddhism or those who have yet to experience mindfulness practice. That is why most of us could not grasp its high value. But if you have practiced mindfulness, you would be truly moved by the last words deliberately uttered by a dying man who was lying modestly on Earth. He was talking to us, for our own benefits. For he knew that if anyone pays enough attention to the words uttered in the context of his death and act accordingly, they, too, would be able to bring themselves out of suffering.

Basically, Lord Buddha wanted to use his own deteriorating body as an educational medium, using the first half of his last words to reinforce his teaching on the Law of Impermanence. The latter half provides us with how we could get out of suffering - by practicing mindfulness in everything we do and also to give it a full effort so that one day we, too, will be fully liberated.

In the context of the present situation in Thailand

Lord Buddha's last words are applicable to all types of suffering, not just for the ultimate big picture of getting ourselves out of this samsara. At the very basic level, if we diligently apply mindfulness in everything we think, say and do, we will be able to understand and conquer our everyday suffering.

But if we still do not take heed of Lord Buddha's last words and neglect to make an attempt to at least understand what he meant by "mindfulness", then, his last words uttered out of loving kindness to us all would have been in vain. It would not be only the death of the historical Buddha, but also of the Buddha-nature inside each and everyone of us as well.

When we fail to pay attention to our Spiritual Father's last words and act accordingly, do we still have the nerve to call ourselves Buddhists? Likewise, if we fail to listen to HM the King's constant reminder to us to be mindful and have loving kindness towards one another, do we still have the nerve to call ourselves Thai? Instead of paying attention to what colour HM the King is wearing today, isn't it better to try to understand what he repeatedly tries to say to us and act accordingly?

Kusinara is now without Lord Buddha. The place where he died has become a gloomy archaeological site. It looks rundown and empty, except for occasional groups of tourists. There, the sala trees stood sadly under a scorching sun, quietly weeping, mourning the past that can never return. What should we do in response to our Spiritual Father's final reminder, then? By accomplishing our duties with mindfulness, of course.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Noble Secret

Summer Garden by Pam from Tokyo

For eight days and seven nights last week, the author had the blissful opportunity to attend a mindfulness meditation retreat in the northern part of Thailand. May the readers have all the boon, merit, that the author did. May you all be happy, peaceful, and free from suffering.

Happiness, peace and freedom from suffering was indeed what was on our minds the minute we city dwellers stepped out of the calm, cool and serene retreat and back into the hustle and bustles of this world. Turning on our mobile phone for the first time in a week, we were greeted with news that made our hearts sink.

It is true that mindfulness training is supposed to give us extra immunity to live in this increasingly hostile world. But, being unenlightened as we are, our spontaneous reaction was to turn back to the forest to continue our simple, blissful living among the embrace of nature.

When Lord Buddha Chose Solitude

This reminds the author of the time when Lord Buddha himself became weary of undisciplined monks while he was in residence at Kositaram temple in the city of Kosambi. The time was the 10th vassa (year) since Lord Buddha started his teaching.

Wanting to give the monk a lesson, Lord Buddha simply went into the forest to spend the three-month Buddhist Lent in solitude. This event of Lord Buddha's life is usually depicted by a painting or sculpture of him sitting with an elephant and a monkey at his feet. It was said that those animals were taking care of him throughout the Lent, with the elephant bringing a bamboo pipe filled with water and the monkey bringing honeycomb.

The story has it that, when Lord Buddha saw the kind consideration that the animals had shown to him, he decided to stay there in the forest with them, graciously accepting their alms. Indeed, who would not want to be among friendly creatures?

Alternatively speaking, even Lord Buddha himself did not want to keep company with the unruly kind. On that day that we stepped out of our retreat and heard our national news, we thought we understood what Lord Buddha must have felt. The big difference, of course, is that we were not yet Enlightened and even if we chose to stay in the forest, it is unlikely that it would bring any awareness to the unruly people.

Lord Buddha's preference for solitude over undisciplined company is perhaps best summarised in the following Dhammapada the Path to Dhamma or versified Buddhist scripture:

"If, as he fares, he finds no companion

Who is better or equal,

Let him firmly pursue his solitary career;

There is no fellowship with the fool"


This teaching also goes hand in hand with another teaching in the 38 Mangala or the 38 Blissful Things, the first two of which are 1) not to associate with fools, 2) to associate with the wise.

Therefore, if any of our dear readers in Thailand feel weary at this point, may be it helps to keep these teachings in mind. Come to think of it, who would you rather be with? Someone who can remain calm amidst chaos, who are mindful and can provide you with sensible advice, or someone who wears you down with flames after flames or their hatred, blind greed, and/or anger?

An 8th-Century Buddhist Poet on Hatred and Enemies

In the 8th century, there was an Indian Buddhist scholar with the name of Shantideva. He was credited with penning Bodhicaryavatara, or "A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life."

Basically, it is a long poem describing the process of Enlightenment from the first thought to full Buddhahood. As a result, sometimes it is referred to as "Entering the Path of Enlightenment." The book is still studied by Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists today.

Unfortunately, an average Theravada Buddhist in Thailand may not have heard of Shantideva's beautiful, wise prose before. Shantideva covered many topics that a classical period poet usually did. In light of the current situation in Thailand, the author finds it most suitable to both introduce Shantideva's insightful verses on anger and destruction of one's enemies.

"With the vast number of enemies, as boundless as the sky,

what chance is there that all should be subdued?

Yet when the thought of hatred is abolished,

all enemies are destroyed"

(Source: )

Admittedly, the abolishment of the thought of hatred is not an easy task. But Shantideva also provided us with a starting point. When someone hurts you, instead of hitting back, how about doing the following:

"All those who slight me to my face,

Or do me any other evil,

Even if they blame or slander me,

May they attain the fortune of enlightenment!"


Personally, the author finds it very classy. Indeed, there is nothing else that people who are burned by their own flames of hatred and anger need more than the fortune of getting Enlightened!

But how could we translate this wise advice into action without further hurting the hateful, angry people? Shantideva also had an answer:

"Whoever wishes to quickly afford protection

to both himself and others

Should practise that most noble secret:

the exchanging of oneself for others"


There you go, the noble secret according to Shantideva is the practice of losing yourself totally so that you can become one with the other party! Only by walking in their shoes, sustaining their suffering, that one's genuine compassion would arise. It is only through compassion and mutual understanding of each other's suffering that confronting parties would realize that we are all but fellow human beings struggling in the same suffering together. With that understanding, we would start to help each other out of suffering.

Although the result of such immediate transformation in the heat of turmoil is guaranteed to be extraordinary, actual practice can be demanding, especially if one is nowhere near the Bodhisattva level yet. If the thought of "we-becoming-them" as the path towards solution still sounds too horrifying for you, there is always a less strenuous approach.

How about spending seven days in a peaceful retreat to cultivate our mindfulness first? After all, it is the starting point of such transformation plus a suffering-immunity vaccine blended into one. Who should go, then? Why, both parties in the conflict, of course! And, quite naturally, we the weary public.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

One Voice: Obama's Change and Buddhist Self-Transformation

(As appeared in Bangkok Post, Friday, November 14, 2008, the first of a two-part series on Obama campaign from a Buddhist perspective)

Although he didn't say it, the real change that Obama was rallying for was the change of the people, by the people and for the people. Photo from

The world has just emerged fresh from eagerly following Barack Obama’s historic campaign. Apparently, conventional wisdom believes Obama’s success is derived from his campaign’s key message --- change.

This concept of change is no stranger to Buddhists. And because the Obama’s campaign has superbly provided us with a common reference point, this moment seems most ideal to explore “change” in light of something closer to home, that is, change in light of Buddhism while the Obama experience is still fresh in our mind.

Today’s installment is an inaugural article in a 2-part series on the Buddhist perspective on the Obama campaign. After this week’s discussion on this campaign’s fundamental theme, we would turn the table around and explore the Buddhist values we could see in Obama himself.

Yes, why not? After all, a transformational figure in the political circle is hard to come by anywhere in the world. So, please stay tuned for additional treat next week!

Not Just Any Changes, but Change with a Higher Purpose

Before we discuss Buddhist’s concept of change, let us explore what the Obama camiagn has been advocating. Simply put, Obama portrayed himself as the agent of change.

At first glance, this positioning alone should provide a good momentum for the Obama campaign already, given the economic, social and political mess America got itself in.

Why, then, does it have to be “change we can believe in?” The Buddhist concept of change can provide an explanation.

Buddhist’s Implication of Change

The concept of change in Buddhism is known as the Law of Impermanence. And it is best explained together with the truth about suffering. Let us first look around to see what kind of suffering the world is now facing and we will get the picture.

A quick way to get a grasp on the truth of suffering is to turn on a prime time’s news program. At any hour, there is always a breaking news on crisis: wars, terrors, riots, financial market collapsing or otherwise. Not all sufferings are man-made. Equally devastating are the natural disasters of all imaginable kinds: flood, hurricane, earthquake, wild fire, tsunami, etc..

What those natural disasters and man-made crisis have in common is that they are all about changes, most of them sudden, which in turn bring suffering.

Even if it may not seem to bring immediate, physical suffering, change still has in it the air of uncertainty. This in itself brings anxiety and fear. In other words, at the very least, change brings mental suffering.

Therefore, it would not be an overstatement to say that, sub-consciously at least, we humans are wired to be afraid of changes because it does to bring suffering.

Unless of course it is a change deliberately enacted by ourselves for a higher purpose.

But what is the change that Obama felt that people could believe in? We’ll come back to that later. Let us first look at the type of change that people do not want to be in because this change for the worse is actually the catalyst for the drive towards change for the better.

Change is inevitable, and is one with suffering

In Buddhism, change is more of a rule rather than exception. Even without someone announcing that he would bring change, change would still happen according to Buddhist view. This is because the Law of Impermanence says that all conditioned things will eventually ceased to exist.

To be specific, Lord Buddha once said,

“…Whatever is impermanent (anatta) is subject to change (anicca.)

Whatever is subject to change is subject to suffering (dukkha)…”

Rather than focusing on what changes and why, Buddhism focuses on how we can best deal with changes that are, by nature, inevitable. Dealing with aging, sickness, death, and parting with loved ones are clear examples of the inevitable.

In fact, the core essence of Buddhist Enlightenment is nothing more than the true understanding of the nature of change. Why is that?

It is because change goes hand in hand with suffering. The understanding of the cause of suffering means we could refrain from causing any more suffering to ourselves.

For novice mindfulness practitioner, this means the end of suffering in the now. For those who have fully Enlightened, this understanding of the nature of change would liberate them of suffering forever.

The Real Meaning behind Obama's Call for Change

Coming back to the “change” Obama talked about in his campaign, we will see that it parallels with the Buddhist idea of how one can liberate oneself out of suffering. If we pay close attention to Obama’s various speeches, we will see that the real change he is aiming for is not merely a change of policies.

Obama’s plan of policy changes is at best an instrument to get things done. Even the new policy itself is subject to change, too, as Obama made clear he wants to hear the feedback from the public so that he could always improvise his policy to make it serves the need of the people better.

This “hearing from the public” is the key to Obama’s message of change, the change that he said the American people could believe in. It is the change Obama asked the public to make of themselves.

Time and time again, Obama was asking for pubic co-operation and sacrifice. Basically he asked for an end to the blaming game, negative emotions and aggressive gestures that came with partisanship. Obama himself rose above that and he inspired the public to follow suits. “There is no liberal America nor conservative America, black America or white America, but only the United States of America.”

Moreover, Obama’s call for change is not just ideological. Obama presented a way to make it tangible by making an urgent call for social service and volunteerism in every sector.

In other words, the real change that Obama was rallying for was the change of the people, by the people and for the people.

It is the change that Obama knows people can believe in because it is a call for people to believe in themselves!

"..I'm asking you to believe. Not just in my ability to bring about real change in Washington....I am asking you to believe in yours..." (source:

One Voice

This is why the key essence of Obama’s call for change is similar to that of Buddhism measure to achieve the end of suffering. Like Obama’s vision, Buddhist’s change has to first start from an individual's faith within that he/she could bring about the change him/herself.

Moreover, Buddhism calls for selflessness and life-long service to others, with the aim of helping others out of suffering. Mahayana Buddhism in particular believes that it is only by devoting ourselves to help others that we would be liberated ourselves. Theravada Buddhism believes that it is only by striving to change ourselves to a higher moral plane that we could go on to transform the lives of others for the better. But, if we read between the lines, we will realize that these two approaches are in fact the same.

The same goes with Obama’s concept of change and that of Buddhism’s. They are both about changes that are founded upon powerful faith in humanity.

And this, dear readers, is the change we should believe in. Because, you guessed it, Yes, We Can!

The Mindful Candidate

(Bangkok Post's Real Time's Cover Story, November 21, 2008)

Photo from

Obama's Campaign in Buddhist Light

It is my belief that Barack Obama's successful presidential campaign, which was based on the concept of "change we can believe in," and its underlying message are synonymous with Buddhist self-transformation.

In Buddhism, people who are transformed become selfless and dedicated to serving others. This is what many people felt when they watched the broadcast of Obama giving his somber, determined victory speech in Chicago on election night.

Priceless Learning Opportunity, Politically or Otherwise

Something in the back of our minds said that we were witnessing history, and that we seemed to have arrived at the dawn of another chapter in a more principled humanity. In the candidate himself, there is a powerful lesson that we can learn from. It is not just for politicians who dream of running a successful campaign that results in a landslide victory; the lesson is equally valuable for the rest of us.

It would be ideal, though, if the world's politicians could learn the underlying message that Obama delivers, and the values that drove him and shaped his character.

Why the World Paid So Much Attention?

As we now know, the global following of Obama's campaign was unprecedented. The American press attributed it to their country's position as the leader of the consumer economy: whatever America decides, the repercussions will be felt by the world.

This is straightforward enough. In fact, Lord Buddha also taught that every being and phenomenon in this world is interconnected, hence the need for us to always have good will and act accordingly towards one another for continuous peaceful co-existence.

But in addition to that, a Buddhist view offers another explanation for the Obama phenomenon; it was not merely the result of economic dependence on America. For those who believe that what are important in this world are power and money, we beg you to consider the following facts and think again, as there are more profound things that Obama offers.

Let us first admit, there was something else about Obama that we were drawn to. And it was not just his charisma or his inspired oratory. What was it?

Mindful Candidate Always Stands out

Looking at Obama's historic campaign, what strikes us most is how consistently mindful this candidate has been. By mindfulness, Buddhism refers to the ability to be totally aware of the nature of things as they are, in the present moment, without pre-formed judgment or emotional partiality.

Obama, as we saw, was always able to remain calm and composed in any situation. He seemed to be able to always be mindful of his thoughts, his words and his deeds. At least he never lost his temper and showed hatred or anger like most politicians do in the midst of a tough political campaign. The only time he allowed himself to show his human side is only when he talked passionately about the well-being of his family.

Even when the political process got heated with the opponent's campaign throwing aggressive comments at him, Obama refused to retaliate in a similar manner. Repeatedly, he made it clear he would not take, in his own words, "the low road."

Mindfulness Leads to Clean Politics

By being constantly mindful, Obama was able to look at issues objectively. The result is a proof that human beings feel more comfortable with objectivity than with mud-slinging, name-calling politics. For example, Obama preferred to refer to the current problems in his country as resulting from "failed policies" rather than "failed individuals."

This brings to mind a Christian saying, "Hate the sin but love the sinner." Buddhism has a similar teaching which encourages us to address mental defilements as separate, conquerable entities from beings, who, in fact, suffer from unknowingly harbouring such defilements.

Obama also went out of his way to show his constant respect for fellow human beings, even when he has been the target of disappointing or harmful words and actions by some of them. In other words, we know that he values forgiveness and unity because he actually practices them.

Accepting the congratulatory phone call from McCain, Obama was able to say, "I need your help. You are such a great leader in many areas." Obama also praised McCain for waging such a tough campaign, and he did not lie: McCain did deliver a tough campaign, which probably forced Obama to try harder to sharpen his own thinking, coming up with even more thoughtful measures to better serve the public.

McCain must have felt exactly the same. McCain's sincere, heartfelt and gracious concession speech on election night, despite more than a year of gruelling campaigning as a political foe, is a testament to how Obama's mindful leadership and humility won over McCain's tough, war-veteran heart.

The greatest test of a true leader is perhaps the ability to find positive traits of one's foe and the courage to graciously mention them in public. And that was what Obama did on election night, "(Senator McCain) fought long and hard in this campaign, and he's fought even longer and harder for the country he loves. He has endured sacrifices for America that most of us cannot begin to imagine. We are better off for the service rendered by this brave and selfless leader."

Obama's Values in a Buddhist Perspective

Obama was able to achieve this formidable feat simply because he believed in the virtues and capability of every human. How could a politician achieve such an ethical mindset?

From a Buddhist point of view, it is because Obama has a firm grasp on the fundamentals of dhamma, the nature of things, as well as karma, the law of cause and effect of action. Obama himself stressed throughout his campaign that he himself was not perfect and that he expected to make mistakes as president. This is a fundamental understanding of human nature and of dhamma.

And how did he plan to address this common-man drawback? In Obama's own words: by being humble and listening to advice and criticism of others. "I will listen to you, especially when we disagree."

Humility, notably, is another admirable trait of this mindful candidate, stemming from his encompassing awareness of how things actually are. For example, in his victory speech, Obama appeared somber rather than self-satisfied, arrogant and triumphalist. He told the hyped-up Democrat crowd that they should accept this victory humbly, especially so because he simply followed the footsteps of one great Republican president, Abraham Lincoln.

That reference to Lincoln alone is enough to make people realize that what really matters is the shared humanitarian values and not antagonistic divisions along party lines.

Another important aspect we can learn from Obama's campaign is how he could inspire people. He could easily have taken advantage of the poor condition of the US economy to rev up the negative emotions of the crowd towards the current US administration, but he refused to do so.

Instead, he inspired people to sacrifice themselves, to do more together and for each other so that they all would be lifted out of this troubled time together, Democrats or otherwise.

This is the understanding of the law of karma. Everything in life is related to what we do now in the present moment. Lamenting and blaming each other for things past would not help us out of current suffering.

The American press also gave Obama lavish praise regarding his steadfast refusal to run a "negative campaign" against his opponents, even sometimes at his own cost. Lesson learned: mindful leaders who set their minds solely on the benefits of the people will sacrifice themselves and bravely sustain the low blows while continuing to hold on firmly, never losing sight of their original purpose. In short, it is selflessness.

Obama's call is not just idealistic, but an earnest call for action. By performing good deeds, good karma, together for society, Obama believes that good effects would naturally follow.

What breeds mindful leaders?

How could a relatively young presidential candidate have so much wisdom on life? A wisdom, we may add, that is usually associated with respected old sages. Looking at his formative years through a Buddhist lens, we understand why.

Despite growing up with a loving family, Obama has experienced hardship first-hand. There were times when his mother had to rely on food stamps to feed the family. Obama himself recalled in a voice stirred with emotion how she had to spend the last few months of her life studying health insurance forms to make sure her medical expenses were covered. This is why the young Obama was so driven to provide affordable healthcare to all.

Hardship, or, in Buddhist terms, suffering, apparently drove Obama to strive to work hard in all areas for those who are less privileged. He could have had a bright career in prestigious law firms of his choice given his educational and professional experience, but he chose to go into politics because he wanted to work for the benefit of others rather than for himself.

In Buddhism, understanding suffering is the first requirement towards acquiring wisdom. Having goodwill to all and living life to serve others mindfully is integral to Buddhist Enlightenment. In Thailand, HM the King exemplifies such virtues. Elsewhere, Mahatma Gandhi comes to mind.

Want to have that kind of Obama-like leadership? It's not beyond our human capacity. To be able to achieve this level of maha sati, Great Mindfulness, Buddhism prescribes vipassana practice with a detailed step-by-step guidance for anyone who cares to learn.

Mindful Leaders are Transformational Leaders

Academically, Obama's type of leadership is known as transformational leadership. It is when the leader and followers inspire each other to rise to a higher moral level by sacrificing themselves for society, for a cause higher than themselves.

In practice, transformational leaders are mindful people who transform themselves before going on to transform the life of others. By being constantly mindful, research shows that transformational leaders function better than other leadership models in time of change or crisis.

The author had the privilege of being at Harvard Law School at the same time as Barack Obama, although Obama was a year ahead and we were in different programmes. We might have occupied adjacent cubicles in the library or even taken the same international law classes together. Certainly, we went through similar "suffering" for a period of time.

Gruelling study aside, the author also recalled how classes were cancelled as students staged sit-in protests, demanding that a tenure position be given to an African-American female faculty. It was a cause Obama was known to support.

Although we do not have evidence if Obama indeed had some mindfulness training at Harvard Law, we do know that mindfulness meditation is now a regular fixture at the school. The initial workshop was so successful it has grown into a full-fledged programme called Harvard Negotiation Insight Initiative, aiming, among others, to train people to listen mindfully to others, which is doubtlessly the required basis of successful negotiations.

If a predominantly Christian country can incorporate this Buddhist wisdom into its top law school's curriculum and, in effect, producing great leaders, so can we. Yes, we can. (Sorry, couldn't resist it!)

Wakeup Call for World Leaders

It may seem incredible that a person with such a humble beginning as Obama could have made it this far. Yet, when looking through the lens of Buddhism, it should not come as a surprise. This is a mindful and humble candidate with a deep understanding of dhamma running a thoughtful and honourable campaign, encouraging people to be selfless and join forces to create good karma for the purpose of lifting others out of suffering.

It is precisely because of this that people all over the world were drawn to this campaign. It is not only about the economy, but also because the human mind responds naturally to inspiring virtue. The world cannot have enough of transformational leaders.

Mindfulness, non-aggression, the understanding of true nature of things, recognition of the Buddha-nature in every human and tangible, action-based selflessness for the benefit of others, the campaign could not have been more Zen-like than this.

What a Buddhist Country can Learn from an American President-Elect

As a Buddhist country, we should be happy to see mindfulness in action on a global scale, and Obama's embodiment of Buddhist values should be a powerful wakeup call to us. A mindful candidate can surely achieve great things for society.

This, inevitably, brings us to ask ourselves if this kind of clean, honorable campaign and mindful, selfless and focussed politician who enters politics to serve others is too much to ask for in a traditional Buddhist country like ours.

Where and how should we start? How about some wise words from Obama himself as quoted in Time magazine,

"We need to start over," he said, "speak gently, listen carefully, find solutions and keep our words."

Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama participated in a Compassion Forum. Photo: AP

Mindful advice is always context-free. Surely, Obama's insightful advice on how to work with people in solving problems can be applied everywhere and anywhere, not just to the current American political and economical mess. The answer depends on how soon we could say, "Yes, we can!"

To make sure we reach that day sooner than later, perhaps it would help to at least mindfully refrain ourselves from the usual politics of, "No, we can't!"


**Note** After this article appeared in The Bangkok Post, a thoughtful American reader who has moved to Thailand who goes by the name, "thaiexodus," kindly shared a thoughtful Zen koan with the author via email.

The gem of this wisdom is too valuable to be kept in private so the author has asked the permission to be shared with other readers.

Co-incidently, there is a photo from the official web site of Barack Obama that seems to go well with the koan, so the author took the liberty to include it together as follows.

Here is the koan:

"...All people are Buddhist, first and foremost, regardless of their professed religious beliefs..."

"But Barack Obama is a Christian of the Protestant faith!"

"Is it not the Buddha nature which causes a person to seek, and to embrace a religious philosophy?"

Photo from

Friday, November 7, 2008

Zen Mother Knows Best

The author, one-day old, in mother's arms

At the opening of Tiger Woods Learning Center in 2006, Bill Clinton commented that in the background of every great man is a boy who was terrified of his mother.

Well, may be "terrified" is too terrifying a word to describe the special and complex relationship between a great man and his mom, but I guess we all understand what the former president wanted to convey. Behind every great man, there is a mother who is very strict in disciplining her child. When they grow up and become successful, however, those men give all the credit to no one else but their disciplining mother. His Majesty the King and Gandhi are two such examples.

Today's article is an attempt to celebrate such mothers who have risked terrifying their children to make sure that their lot would grow up to become a hard-working person with integrity who dedicates one's life to serve others.

Admittedly, at first the author would like to keep this article for next year's Mother's Day. But life is so full of uncertainty, as the Law of Impermanence would remind us. There is nothing that guarantees that we would still be here tomorrow, let alone next Mother's Day. Therefore, let us pay tribute to our mothers as soon and as often as we can. Having said that, mom, this week's article is for you!

The woman behind Ikkyu's Enlightenment

Anybody who has been around since 1975 must have been more or less familiar with the cartoon series, Ikkyu-San. The series, based on a true story, enjoyed a tremendous success. A lot has been discussed about Ikkyu the young novice who went on to achieve Enlightenment, but very little has been said about his mother except how much the little Ikkyu was attached to her and how much influence she had on him.

Ikkyu was born in 1394 to Emperor Go-Komatsu and Iyono Tsubone, a court noble who was a descendant of the aristocratic Fujiwara clan. However, both mother and child were forced to leave the court to the countryside where Ikkyu went to stay at a local Zen temple at the tender age of five to begin his study. His mother also took up Zen practice seriously.

We would have no idea how dedicated and successful Lady Tsubone was in her Zen training if we had not found the following piece of writing. It was her last testament to Ikkyu in the form of a letter. To the uninitiated, the letter may sound like what is popular known today as "tough love." In fact, those people are right. Zen "love" is almost always tough love, as exemplified in an apparently stern relationship between the Zen master and his/her disciples. The letter reads:

"... To Ikkyu:

I have finished my work in this life and am now returning into Eternity. I wish you to become a good student and to realize your Buddha-nature. You will know if I am in hell or whether I am always with you or not.

If you become a man who realizes that the Buddha and his follower Bodhidharma are your own servants, you may leave off studying and work for humanity. The Buddha preached for 49 years and in all that time found it not necessary to speak one word. You ought to know why. But if you don't and yet wish to, avoid thinking fruitlessly.

Your Mother,

Not born, not dead

First day of the 9th month

P.S. The teaching of Buddha was mainly for the purpose of enlightening others. If you are dependent on any of its methods, you are naught but an ignorant insect. There are 80,000 books on Buddhism and if you should read all of them and still not see your own nature, you will not understand even this letter. This is my will and testament..."


Understanding Ikkyu's mother's last words

Even with absolutely no prior Zen training at all, one is already moved by the way a mother took the trouble to leave her caring, final words to her young son in order to make sure he grows up to be a decent man, achieve Enlightenment and serve others.

If, like the author, the readers also identify with Ikkyu as someone who was first introduced to Buddhist mindfulness practice by one's own mother since childhood, this letter would certainly take on a much deeper meaning.

Recognized for its profound Zen message, the letter was included in a Zen Koan collection. A Koan is a question, dialogue, or statement generally containing aspects that seems to be beyond rationality yet could be understood via intuition derived from Buddhist mental development.

Let us attempt to understand the meaning behind Lady Tsubone's last words together in a Zen-style question and answer.

What does "returning to Eternity" means?

It is the return to "nothingness," that is, to return to nature, to be one with nature. Being one with nature means there is no "self" which indicates the state of Enlightenment.

Why comparing Lord Buddha to servants?

The sentence likely refers to the stage when one practices Zen/mindfulness enough to realize that all human beings are but the same continuing process of nama and rupa interaction, with nama being the psychological elements and rupa being the physical elements. Lord Buddha once said that the level of metta, loving-kindness, he had towards his son Rahul and his arch enemy Devadatta are the same, meaning Lord Buddha saw both as beings that equally strive to be free from suffering.

Why saying Lord Buddha found it not necessary to speak one word?

Zen teaching believes that a dhamma transmission does not have to be verbal. Zen usually refers to the story of Lord Buddha lifting up one flower without saying a word (as a way to teach dhamma). Phra Maha Kassapa, considered the first Zen Patriarch, was the only one who understood as he smiled to that gesture. With that, the first Zen transmission was complete.

Why one should avoid "thinking fruitlessly"?

Thinking is one of the five enemies that prevent one to attain the continuous concentration required to develop the highest level of wisdom in Buddhism, Bhavanamayapanna.

What is "not born, not dead"?

According to Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who went to China and made Zen popular, this indicates the state of Nirvana.

What does "dependent on its methods" mean?

Zen strips all practice methods as prescribed in the scripture to its core, zeroing in only on the state of being totally aware in the present moment.

Historical records did not indicate whether Ikkyu was actually "terrified" by his mother's last words, but history did record how successful Ikkyu later became in life. By not wanting to disappoint his strict mother (who, in her dying breath, sounded absolutely Zen-like in her wish for her son's spiritual development), Ikkyu went on to impose an even stricter discipline on his own Zen practice.

While some people considered Ikkyu to be an eccentric monk towards the later part of his life, nobody disputed his satori, Enlightenment. He left quite a legacy, both in a written form and otherwise.

The ever-impermanent world calls for immediate action. Consequently, do not make your mother wait until her last moments before she could be assured that you will be doing fine because you have finally become spiritually mature. There is nothing a mother wants more than knowing that her child will be taken care of properly after she was gone. Get immediate mindfulness training in a retreat now before it is too late. Think of it as the most valuable gift you can give to your mother. It is special because only you can give it to her. No one else could.

P.S. I love you, mom!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Forgiving the Unforgiven

bird, like flying in the air by

It is undeniable that we humans have a deep yearning for peace. Yet, in this contemporary world, one does not seem to be able to get away from hatred and anger at all.

Simply turn on prime time news and hatred and anger would be staring at us in the face, be it from a national or global story. It is as if we are condemned to a life sentence in a maximum-security jail full of hatred and anger with no chance for parole.

The keyword here is "as if."

Today the author would like to share with you, dear readers, three Zen stories that could perhaps enlighten us on the topic of forgiveness.

Forgiveness may be one of the most difficult acts of giving, but it is worth every effort to try. This is because, to continue on the prison-term analogy, we are but the prisoners of our own minds.

If and only if we can forgive and let go of our anger and resentments, then and only then, will our life prison term would be lifted. Finally, we will be free.

The Tao story of potatoes

The first story is from "The Tao of Forgiveness" by Derek Lim. Tao? Yes. Some scholars believe that Tao did influence Zen during the latter's formative years in China. Practitioners, however, came to realize that Tao is Zen and vice versa. Anyway, here is the story.

Once there was a sage who asked his disciples to carve out names of the people they cannot forgive on potatoes, one potato for each name. Then, the disciples were asked to put all their potatoes in a sack and carry it with them at all times for one week.

The longer time went by, the heavier the potatoes seemed to have become. To make the matter worse, those carved potatoes also started to rot and smells bad. It was such an unpleasant experience for the disciples.

At the end of the week, the master asked,

"So, what did you learn?"

At once they disciples told the master that they now realized that holding on to grudges only brought negative things to them. Asked how they should go about correcting it, the youngsters said they should strive their best to forgive everyone that used to cross them and made them angry.

The master then asked,

"What if someone crosses you again after you unload this present load of potatoes?"

The disciples suddenly felt terrified at the thought of having to start all over again with new potatoes, week after week.

"What can Tao do if there are still other people crossing us? We cannot control what other people do to us!"

At which point the master replied,

"We haven't even reached the Tao's realm yet. So far we only discussed the conventional way to approach forgiveness, that is, to strive to forgive. Striving is difficult. In Tao, there is no striving."

Seeing the disciples completely at a loss then, the master further suggested,

"If the negative feelings are the potatoes, what is the sack?"

The disciples finally grasped it,

"Ahh the sack is something that allows me to hold on to the negativity. It is my inflated sense of self-importance!"

And that was the lesson of this story. Once we learn how to let go of the sack, whatever people say or do against us would no longer matter. The Tao of forgiveness is the conscious decision to get rid of the sack/self altogether, not just the potatoes/negative feelings.

Derek Lin concluded that, by recognizing that in fact there is no "self"' to be hurt, we could bypass the frustration arising from our constant striving to forgive others. This is because we were not angry with them to begin with!

With the understanding of Tao/Zen, life suddenly becomes effortless, elegant, and natural. Get rid of the sack, and there will be no more rotten potatoes. Want to be able to get rid of your sack? Go to a retreat!

What Clinton learned from Mandela on forgiveness

The second story is a story told by Bill Clinton on what he learned from Nelson Mandela on forgiveness. In one meeting of the two men, Clinton asked,

"I wonder what you must have felt towards your jailers when you were walking out of that prison after those 27 years. Weren't you angry at them?"

"Yes, I was angry. And I was a little afraid," answered Mandela. "After all, I've not been free in so long."

"But," he added, "when I felt that anger welling up inside me, I realized that if I continue to hate them after I got outside that gate, then they would still have me."

With a smile, Mandela concluded,

"I wanted to be free, so I let it go."

Very Zen-like, Mr Mandela!

Learning from a prisoner who practiced Zen

Mandela is not the only jailbird that knew the secret of forgiveness. The following is a story of a prisoner in Branchville Correctional Facility, Indiana, USA.

The man, known by his ordained name as brother Ananda Abhaya Karuna (he took ordination precepts as an inmate), found himself being able to forgive and achieve so much more in life through the practice of Zen Buddhism, most notably through Zen meditation.

Being a long-term prisoner, he said he has come to know anger intimately. The prisoners, according to brother Ananda, are conditioned to see themselves as unforgiven. In this frame of mind anger arises and there is a notion that forgiving others is a weakness. Society does not forgive, they reasoned. Why should they?

One lesson that brother Ananda realized is that resentment is always about the past, but it takes place in the present. It also intensifies over time every time we relive that experience in our mind. To deal effectively with the anger present in the here and now about things and people that existed there and then, brother Ananda said we must examine and challenge the usual pattern of how our thoughts create anger in our mind.

Once realizing that we are merely punishing ourselves by continuing to fight imaginary enemies (thoughts of past events) in our mind, we would come to realize that the cause of such punishment is simply because we refused to forgive.

Like Mandela, brother Ananda discovered that when a prisoner does not let go of resentments and anger through the act of forgiveness, the prisoner becomes his own keeper. That, according to brother Ananda, is certainly one way of defining hell.

Liberate yourself from your personal captivity

Are you harbouring grudges over something or someone? Do you know anyone who does? Tell them it is time they free themselves from this unnecessary, self-created suffering. Learn to forgive those that you felt that you could never or should never be forgiven.

How about starting with forgiving yourself? In light of Tao's potatoes story, it would be like killing two birds with one stone. By forgiving yourself, you begin to let go a little bit of that "self" that is known as the sack. Eventually, with all the sack gone, nobody can "put potatoes in" or irritate and hurt you anymore.

Your freedom, in fact, is just a breath away.

Fly, baby, fly!

Remember, it always takes great courage to fly to freedom.

Until next week, let us stay mindful and forgiving!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Heed the Call of Nature

Wake me later by dmmaus

Even in a more peaceful socio-political environment, city dwellers are likely to feel the need to get away from it all from time to time. This is because we humans are wired to be right at home among nature. Therefore, when the need to "get away from it all" rises, it simply means that our body and mind are sending us a signal that it is time to return to nature.

This explains why people who try to get away from it all by simply shifting their attention to something else other than their daily routine such as by going to movies, or, worse yet, casinos, never feels refreshed or well-rested during their break from work.

While spas are abundant in any cities nowadays, what humans really need goes well beyond some exotic body treatment. Even the brief sitting posture at the end of a yoga session in your spa visit can not bring forth the sustainable peace born out of wisdom that our mind desperately needs.

What we need is a complete treatment of body and mind that goes far beyond relaxation and rest. Ironically, many holiday-makers, adult and children alike, do not realise that they are not "getting away from it all" at all. Rather, they simply change the place of doing their regular activities. Think about long driving, eating, checking emails or surfing the web on the notebook or phone they brought along, or watching movies on portable DVD players and, for children, playing electronic games.

Considering this, those who opt for a hike or trekking in the wilderness would probably get more rest out of their adventurous activities. The secret is, it is the mind that tells us if we feel relaxed or well-rested. Although, at face value, those hikers' choice of getaway may seems a bit harsh such as sleeping in a tent in a forest, they are the ones that emerge more satisfied from their wholesome holiday.

Even when the trekkers' only "entertainment"consists of trekking along a bubbling creek, listening to various soothing sounds of nature, breathing in fresh air, or taking a plunge in a tiny, virgin pond at the end of a hidden waterfall, they would have sworn that it beats the superficial, temporary pleasure derived from being glued to any electronic devices any day.

If electronic devices need a recharge of battery, so do we. We need to come out of our holiday refreshed and brimmed with positive energy to take on the various responsibilities in our life.

There will be times for all of us when simply going away to a popular commercial resort would not do the trick to make we feel completely relaxed. While it is true that the body gets fresher air, exercise, or enough sleep, the mind still continues its usual day-long workload. Even if those people argue that they really rest their mind by "not thinking of anything", they would be surprised to find it is quite the opposite from what they think.

Unless the mind is trained in mindfulness technique, we would never realise that it is the nature of the mind to work non-stop. Without mindfulness technique, we would not be able to detect how thoughts come about and go. More importantly, we would never realise that thoughts are the number one cause of exhaustion and suffering in our life.

In fact, those who can achieve the mental power of being able to rid themselves of thoughts, completely and at will, are the Enlightened ones only.

If it is the nature of the mind to work non-stop, how best could we put the mind to work for us so that we could achieve the much-needed rest?

The answer is: we all need a mindfulness meditation retreat among nature to be able to tame our thoughts and train our mind to simple relaxation techniques that we can continue to use throughout our life, during holiday or otherwise. Mindfulness is a practice so complete that it would open your eyes to the nature of things, no pun intended. This very wisdom would in turn create a sustainable peace for both the body and mind.

When the mind relaxes, the body would also be free of stress. And, even if the body is in trauma such as grave illness, if you know mindfulness technique, you would not be disturbed by the physical discomfort. This explains why many people can smile through their intense pain calmly. This, dear readers, is the skill we need when we would finally be staring death in the eyes.

While it is true that there are many urban centers offering mindfulness courses all year long, it can never measure up to a practice among nature. First, imagine a mass retreat with 400-600 participants around you in a large air-conditioned hall in a city building where all kind of worldly chats erupts during breaks or when you are back to the room you share with others to try to get some rest.

Now, imagine a smaller group, perhaps one-tenth of that urban class if not less, practicing quietly in a pavilion among a little forest and a pond where various types of fish swimming leisurely among the lotus bloom. Imagine the tranquil time you can get intimate with nature, free from any disturbs of others due to the strict and effective reinforcement of the "noble silence" rule. Now, you get the picture.

It is not that you should say goodbye forever to your yoga or tai chi classes or the usual aerobics type of exercise such as running or swimming. Those exercises do promote health which is the foundation of everything in life, mindfulness practice included. But, as we discussed earlier, the body is only a part of the whole equation. In fact, it is the smaller part. Once you know how to give the mind the attention it deserves, you would never feel deprived of total relaxation again.

If the incentives for going to a mindfulness meditation retreat among nature are not enough to convince you to do it for your own sake, think of it as you are doing a great service for the society. Mindful citizens are ideal citizens, as Lord Buddha would have confirmed to you. And, looking at the socio-political-economic environment of Thailand at the moment, we need mindful people now more than ever. Think of it as killing two birds with one stone - you get the total relaxation you need, the country gets sustainable peace. Not bad, isn't it? After all, peace starts with the mind. Yours, that is.

Until next week, let us stay mindful.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Value-Add Your Walk

Bamboo Forest by wmchuu

Last week we introduced the idea that most of us tend to take walking for granted. This, in turn, led to our going about in our daily life in a semi-autopilot mode.

We also started to explore the concept of mindful walking and ended with a brief introduction on how to try it at home.

If you indeed tried it for the first time out of curiosity, chances are that you probably found it confusing. Not because walking meditation is a confusing act per se, but because you may have found yourself wondering aloud, countless times, “What could be the benefits of this mindful walking?”

In other words, your mind was probably sending out a signal that it needs a clearer incentive of this activity. Otherwise, it finds no reasons to bother, let alone incorporating it in your daily living.

Benefits of Mindful Walking

If you are one of those doubters, you are certainly not alone. Having observed many novice practitioners, the author found that walking meditation did not get as much attention as sitting meditation because practitioners are not aware of the immediate and short-term benefits that walking meditation can give.

The need for immediate benefit is totally understandable given the fact that we are living in the age of distractions and shorter-span concentration (as exemplified in the quick-cutting shots we often see on MTV and the likes). The good news is, contrary to popular belief, there are immediate benefits of a mindful walk.

First of all, it starts with how we experience suffering. Buddhism explains that suffering occurs when our mind wanders into the past or the future. Neither a period five minutes ago nor one second ahead is the same as the very present moment.

Walking, obviously, is one of the most accommodating activities to help ground our mindfulness right into the very present moment, especially for new practitioners. With each noting of, “left, right, left, right (if you are walking fast),” or “lifting, extending, placing down,” we have something physical to firmly anchor our mind on and so many different details of noting (hot/cold, hard/soft, etc.) to help keeping our mind alert.

As a result, the immediate benefit of mindful walking is that it helps prevent our mind to fall into the usual traps of suffering, one that is caused by our mind dropping into the past or wandering into the future.

In a retreat, most often than not, our teachers would ask us to “slow down” in our walk. Initially, this almost always caused frustrations to city dwellers who are used to life in the fast lane. Be careful: slow, mindful walking is not the same as a lazy stroll on the beach that we tend to do mindlessly. While mindful walking is definitely slow, it is deliberate. Each step is performed with a clear purpose. The mental noting has to match precisely with the moment the action takes place as well. And this requires a lot of effort.

By slowing down, to the point of a complete stop in each step in some retreat, we would be able to feel, intuitively, that our life is nothing but a series of separate events, not unlike different static frames of a movie, one after another. This is the first step of our understanding of the Law of Impermanence.

On the side, we also learn that there is a “pause button” that we can actually activate in our life, at least for the purpose of slowing things down. You will also realize that, by slowing things down, you would be able to “see” and understand things much better. It is this ability to understand life better that is the true wisdom of mindfulness.

If discovering life’s true wisdom sounds a bit too far-fetched, at least consider mindful walking just for its practical benefits. Here are some of them as explained by Lord Buddha himself.

Lord Buddha on Walking Meditation’s Practical Benefits

1) People who regularly do walking meditation will have more stamina in long journey. This is not merely body-toning exercise, but mental training as well. We all need this kind of stamina not only for a long journey, but for many strategic and serious events in our life. And don’t you agree that life itself is a long journey?

2) Walking meditation brings stamina to sitting meditation. Those who have been practicing sitting meditation would understand the kind of stamina required for each sitting. There is no better way to boost up one’s stamina by having a walking session before sitting.

3) A balance of walking and sitting promotes good circulation and revives muscles. We all know that the shift of posture and the movements of walking revive the muscles and stimulate circulation, helping prevent illness. This applies to urbanites like us also who may have spent too much of our time sitting unhealthily in our cubicle at work. Next time you take a walking break, try incorporate mindfulness into it as well!

4) Walking meditation assists digestion and prevents drowsiness. Indigestion is definitely one important enemy not only to meditation practitioners but also to anyone of us who have to sit for a long time in one stretch, either at work or during commuting. The same goes for prevention of drowsiness. Woes to them who were caught dozing off at work!

5) Walking meditation helps build continuous concentration needed to gain insight. The keyword here is continuity. To unlock the true nature of things by mindfulness practice, we need a strong, continuous concentration. Every step of continued walking meditation contributes directly to your potential in gaining insight.

Mindful Walking in Your Daily Life: Tips and Technique

If you are intrigued by the idea of adding a dose of mindful walking into your daily life but somehow feel discouraged by the initial experience following last week’s article, don’t give up your hope just yet. Here are a few tips.

1) Start small. Pick the shortest distance that you have to go from point A to point B in your daily routine and starts from there. How about the first walk of the day, namely from your bed when you wake up to your bathroom? Repeat again at bed time as you walk to bed. It would become easier day by day.

2) Daily exercise. If you already exercise by brisk walking everyday, try turning off that iPod and tuning in your own body and mind. Note both your body movement and how your mind reacts to sensorial perception. Catch your thought as it is forming, note it, and let go. Then go back to the movement of your feet. If you are walking among nature, note any phenomena that come into contact with your sensorial perception, too, but do not dwell on any.

3) Disliked paths. When you are “forced” to walk the path that you do not like, either because it is boring, lengthy or otherwise, use mindful walking technique to manage that suffering. Bonus point: if you can maintain your concentration over a certain period, you could even derive pleasure from that otherwise boring walk. But that is just a negligible by-product of your path towards wisdom where happiness is certainly more sustainable than momentarily pleasure.

What would be your first mindful walking?