Monday, May 11, 2009

Visakha Bucha: It’s All About Love


The return of Visakha Bucha day this year is quite timely.   It provides us the much needed opportunity to stop and reflect about life.  Maybe the story behind Visakha Bucha Day will enable us to see things in perspective so that the hatred and anger we can feel in the air among different factions will eventually fade away.


Photo courtesy of Bangkok Post

The reason the author believes so is because, if we look into the very heart of Visakha Bucha, which is arguably the most important of Buddhist holidays, we will see that it is all about love.  Surprised? Read on and discover why Visakha Bucha should also be remembered in association with love.

First, let us ask ourselves what we know about Visakha Bucha.

Textbook interpretation

If we had gone to a school that teaches the common curriculum from the Thai Education Ministry, we would probably have been taught that Visakha Bucha falls on the full moon of the sixth lunar month and that it commemorates the dates of Lord Buddha's Birth, Enlightenment and Mahaparinibbhana.

Such is the textbook version of the meaning of Visakha Bucha. Unfortunately for most of us, this version remains the only source of our interpretation of this most important Buddhist holiday.

But is there any other interpretation of Visakha Bucha besides knowing what date it falls on or what occasion it commemorates? Certainly.   And the key is to get to know more about the man behind the holiday.

The man behind the holiday

If we are to be honest with ourselves, we will have to admit that we Thais seem to take the arrival of Lord Buddha for granted. In a religion known for its understanding of reincarnation and the law of cause and effect, isn't it a bit odd to think that the birth of Buddha is something that just happened?

Of course, we may have heard of the last 10 lives as a human being of Lord Buddha, known as jataka.   The 10th reincarnation, Phra Vessantara, is perhaps the best known.  It depicts the life of Prince Vessantara who gave away all his possessions as he was perfecting the dana parami, or the virtue of unconditional, selfless giving.

The 10 jataka depict the perfection of different virtues which in turn help purify one's karma, enabling one to reach Enlightenment.

But, as mentioned earlier, the effort to perfect the 10 Perfections did not just ''happen.''   For a karma to bear fruit, it has to start with an intention.   Therefore, there had to be a beginning somewhere where a determined decision was first made.   When was it?   And, more importantly, who was it?

The man behind the decision

Before we learned who the person was and the whole story behind it, let us first contemplate this metaphor.

Imagine you are standing at an exit of a burning house.   In fact, you already feel the intense heat of the scorching flames on your body.   The next second you realize that your hair is now on fire.   You know that all you have to do is to dash out the door with all your might and you will be saved.

Yet, you hear crying voices behind. You look back.   There, on the ground floor behind you, are people engulfed in flames, howling eerily for help.   They could not make it out by themselves either because their limbs are trapped or they could not open their eyes due to the extreme heat.   You know that, being not too far from the exit themselves, they, too, could be saved.

What would you do?

This was exactly what happened to an ascetic named Sumeth. Born during the time of another Buddha called Dipankara, Sumeth realized that life is in fact a series of sufferings, not unlike being in a burning house.   That was why he left his comfortable, worldly life to devote himself to rigorous training to try to reach the end of suffering.

One day, as he passed by one town, he heard that Dipankara Buddha was coming.   Elated, he dedicated himself to help the townsmen build a road to welcome the Buddha.   Sumeth knew well that, like many people during his time, if he got to meet the Buddha and devote himself as a disciple, he would soon become Enlightened, reaching the end of all his sufferings.

Yet, as Dipankara Buddha was approaching, the road was still unfinished, leaving a distance of around a body's length that was wet and full of mud and dirt.   Throwing himself down, Sumeth the ascetic bravely invited Dipankara Buddha and his Enlightened disciples, numbering in the thousands, to walk on his back to the other side of the road so that the mud would not soil their feet and robes.

As Dipankara Buddha was walking over Sumeth's back, he became aware of the young man's wish.   Instead of finding the easier, faster way out of the samsara by wishing for Enlightenment in that very life, Sumeth made a wish that he, too, would become a Buddha one day so that he could help as many people as Dipankara Buddha did, knowing all too well that he had to endure enormous suffering in countless lifetimes to achieve his goal.

Dipankara Buddha looked into the future with his mental powers and predicted that Sumeth would indeed one day become a Buddha like him, a sammasambuddha.   ''Freed from human existence, you will become an effective teacher, for the sake of the world,''  Dipankara Buddha told Sumeth.

The three types of Buddha

But what is the difference between a Buddha and someone who is Enlightened?   After all, didn't Prince Siddhartha became Buddha because he was Enlightened?

The answer can be found in the three types of Buddha.   The first type, sammasambuddha is the rarest and requires the highest effort and the longest period of endurance.   Born when there is no dhamma teaching in the world, they become En lightened by their own effort and inherent wisdom.    A sammasambuddha then goes on to teach others how to be Enlightened like him.

The ability of a sammasambuddha to come up with the right ''curriculum'' to guide others to nirvana is an extremely rare gift.    How rare?    According to the Pali Canon, it sounds like a sammasambuddha comes by only once in an eon.    The present Buddha that we know needed as long as four asamkhya and a hundred-thousand great kalpa to complete his 10 Perfections.

To write the time unit of one asamkhya is to write the number 1 then add 140 zeros after it.   Four asamkhya equal one great kalpa.   A great kalpa is believed to equal 1.28 trillion years.   This is why we should not take the arrival of a sammasambuddha for granted.   We are very blessed to be born when there is one around to teach us.

The second type of Buddha is called a paccekabuddha.   While they can attain Enlightenment by themselves, they do not teach.   If they do, they may only teach about virtuous conduct but they cannot guide people towards Enlightenment.   They do not have the ability to do so.

The third type is called savaka-buddha, or an Enlightened disciple.   The main difference between this type of Buddha and the first two is that they could not become Enlightened by themselves.   They required the guidance or teaching of a sammasambuddha.   However, once Enlightened, they may also lead others to Enlightenment as well.   But they may not be able to reach out to all types of people as a sammasambuddha could, though.   In other words, their teaching would be most beneficial to disciples with similar psychological profiles.   A savaka-buddha is better known in Thailand as an arahant.

Sumeth the ascetic could very well attain the third type of Buddhahood right in the life time that he met Dipankara Buddha, but he chose to forego it for the benefit of more people in the future.   Becoming a sammasambuddha, while requiring much more effort and time to endure suffering, means he would be born when there is no Buddha or the teaching of dhamma.   It would be a time that he could make himself most useful to the world.

After Dipankara Buddha's entourage had passed, Sumeth immediately went to work.   He contemplated carefully the route to Buddhahood of all the previous sammasambuddha. Realising that he needed the 10 Perfections, Sumeth made a vow to himself to go for that goal in every lifetime, no matter how hard it would be, no matter how long it would take.   He would never, ever give up.

We already addressed the length of time that our current Buddha had to accumulate his 10 Perfections.   But how hard could that be?   Hasn't Buddha always been born in a blessed and comfortable environment?   Hasn't he always been born into a royal family, like most of the jataka seem to indicate?

That certainly was not the case.   Lord Buddha himself told many stories of when he was born into a humble family or even as different kinds of animals.

And it was not just a typical humble livelihood that Lord Buddha had to endure.   The path to becoming a sammasambuddha requires one to literally sacrifice everything one has, including one's life, for others.   Lord Buddha himself compared that the number of lives that he had to sacrifice to help others were more than the number of all the coconuts in the world combined.   He was using the coconut as the visual comparison of his head being severed as he gave his life for others.

It must have been love

Those selfless, ultimate, repeated sacrifices are the ''love'' part in Visakha Bucha.   If it was not love, what else can it be?   From forgoing one's Enlightenment opportunity to facing suffering in countless other reincarnations, the mind that would become our Lord Buddha held on to that love and never gave up.

Therefore, on this Visakha Bucha Day, let us not think of it merely as what it is, but why it happened.   It was because of love towards us that Lord Buddha kept accumulating the 10 Perfections so that he would be born as the man who would become Buddha.   Similarly, it was because of love towards us and all sentient beings that Lord Buddha became Enlightened.

If that love was not powerful enough, the then-Prince Siddhartha would not have tried so hard in every imaginable way to the point that he almost lost his life due to the severe demands he placed upon himself in order to attain Enlightenment.

Arguably, it is also because of love that Lord Buddha chose how he would die.   By making his dying moment a public one, Lord Buddha knew that he could impart life's most important lessons to all who were present there and to us here in the future. Lord Buddha's final lesson, arguably summing up all his teachings, was that nothing is permanent, not even the existence of a sammasambuddha.   And because of that, we should diligently practice mindfulness in everything we do so that we, too, will be able to get out of suffering.

Lord Buddha's love in today's context

Today, as we celebrate his life, let us look at him the way we have never looked at him before--as a flesh-and-blood human, a son, a husband and a father who had unconditional love for all.   Lord Buddha once said that his love for his son, Rahul, and his nemesis, Devadatta, is the same.   He wished that both of them could be free of all suffering.

Could we use this important day, then, to ''upgrade'' our minds in such a way that we could give love and compassion to all, even to those who do not always agree with us?    Can we look them in the eyes and wish that they, too, be free of suffering?

After all, we are but fellow sufferers in this endless samsara. This very life we live in is indeed such a tiny time span compared to the eons we have been born and reborn again in this cycle of suffering.   Instead of filling this time span with hatred and anger towards one another, shouldn't we spend time trying to help each other to the best of our ability so that we all would be released from suffering together?

Eons ago, a man at the exit of a burning house, the samsara, looked back and saw us trapped inside, howling for help. Ignoring his own safety and well-being, the man dashed back to reach out to save us.   Naturally, if we don't extend our hands to reach his, we would not be saved and probably face a slow, torturous death.   The ball is now in our court.  That man did try his best and he did save many already.   It is up to us, really, whether we want to stay in the burning house forever or be free, so that we, too, will be able to reach back and help others.

The road to becoming a sammasambuddha was not a bed of roses.   It was a true labour of love right from the beginning to the very end, eons later.   Therefore, let love and compassion reign this Visakha Bucha Day.   Not only because it is the most suitable homage we can pay to the man behind it all, but also because of the fact that the path to the end of all suffering of every human and sentient being starts with love.

Towards Peace: Learning from History

Miyajima Torii by Matt Watts


As long as the whole of mankind is not yet Enlightened, history will continue to repeat itself.

By this, the author meant to say that, in every corner of the world, now and then, there will always be turmoil and unrest of some kind.

History is there to be learned.  And because it looks like the current unease in town is not going to evaporate overnight, let us find moments in history that might benefit us.

From unrest to peace and prosperity

Where in the world can we find a lesson of a society ridden with skirmishes, occasional social unrest, and political power play, yet which managed to pull itself together and emerged peaceful and strong as one single nation?

There could be many answers to this question, depending on each person's interest and/or expertise.  Naturally for this author, the picture of feudal Japan comes to mind.

For almost 700 years out of its nearly 2,000 years of civilization, Japan was under warrior rule.  While some historians might argue that most of that period Japan was blessed with relative peace as opposed to constant warfare, it is also undeniable that local skirmishes occasionally exploded and power play has always been in the picture.

When suffering is a blessing

The factor that made Japan a great country is the quality of her people.  Sometimes, the author thinks that the many natural disasters that Japan experienced throughout history were in fact blessings in disguise.  Through suffering and the need to survive, the Japanese learned the value of unity.  They learned first hand that only by coming together in times of crisis, can the whole society prevail.  Being highly social-minded, we should note, is among the forefront characteristics of the Japanese people.

Rather than undermining their morale, common suffering has strengthened the Japanese sense of belonging.  Even during the time when war became full-blown like during the Warring States Period between the 15th and 17th centuries, the country as a whole still managed to prosper.  To be precise, the characteristics of war during that period seemed, to the author at least, more like that of a modern professional sports league.

Considerate warriors

This is especially true for the Azuchi-Momoyama Period, when wars were strictly warriors' business and were fought away from town, usually in a specifically assigned area. The warriors' consideration was deliberate as they did not want to disturb the daily life of the common people.  With this "arena" clearly assigned, the atmosphere was almost like the "home team" fighting with the visiting team in the home stadium.

Except for a few major battles, skirmishes tended to be short and with minimal casualties.  It was not uncommon to have just a test of martial skills between leading warriors of the warring parties.  Sometimes warlords brought along an enormous number of troops just to intimidate their enemy so that both parties could go to the negotiating table without anyone "losing face."  As a result, military camps seemed almost like an outing and a military campaign seemed more like an extended fishing and hunting trip.

Needless to say, the generals and provincial lords that earned the most respect and became legends were those with great strategic thinking and negotiation skills who could solve conflicts without casualties.

Zen comes to the rescue

And yet, it is undeniable that a warrior's life is full of physical and mental sufferings.  However, records show that the warrior class did not seem to be that bothered or discouraged by such a tough life they were living.  Their unabashed courage and selfless sacrifice earned them the respect of the whole nation and soon became the country's role models.  How did these men train themselves so that they could live with those sufferings bravely?

The answer is Zen.  Constant mindfulness practice, especially mindfulness of death, helped change these men into transformational leaders. Also, thanks to their extensive travelling, the samurai helped make Zen popular among the common people as the latter were eager to learn the secrets of such legendary characteristics.

We mentioned earlier that one notable characteristic of the Japanese is their high social consciousness, as seen in their willingness to sacrifice themselves, doing constructive things in line of their respective duty for the benefit of society.

The ability to discern what is good for society is just one of the many benefits that mindfulness practice can offer.  Even at the beginner's level, mindfulness practice already enables one to see that, in reality, there is no "self."  Therefore, when the feudal Japanese did something for their society, their selflessness was sincere.  They knew what selflessness was.

Hope for Thailand

When we see how far the Japanese have come as a unified country, we should not lose hope in the current situation in Thailand.  Let us turn each crisis into opportunity.  In Buddhism, suffering is the breeding ground for wisdom and sustainable peace.  But such wisdom and peace does not just "happen."  It needs to be cultivated and nurtured.  The tool, the only tool, to create this much-needed peace is mindfulness practice, the vipassana meditation.

Come on, Thailand, we are a Buddhist country, like feudal Japan was.  The proven solution to any trouble, social or otherwise, has always been here.  The feudal Japanese came together to build a peaceful and great country out of sheer loyalty, discipline, hard work and love for their compatriots.  If our rice-eating, Buddhist-influenced Asian neighbor could do it, so can we.

Let us not wait until disaster strikes before we realize the impermanent nature of life and only then start to feel compassion for each other.  If the samurai class were still around, they will definitely tell us that it is our duty to the country to be mindful and to cultivate sustainable peace.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Be a Samurai during Songkran


Warm in the Cold by Marser

The Songkran holiday is kicking off tomorrow.   As the year's longest-period official holiday, Songkran deserves all the hype it is getting.

For white collars in particular, Songkran is definitely something to look forward to.   When the economy was better, middle-class Thais tended to use it to fly out of the country, feeling grateful they could escape the scorching heat even for a little while.

This year, given the current economic downturn, more Thais are opting to stay at home.   The economy is having an effect on our mood as well.   People are a bit edgy. A  t the very least, we have become grumpy folks.

This brings us to the importance of staying cool during this summer holiday.   It is no secret that we humans find it harder to control our temper when the weather is maddeningly hot, global-warmingly hot.   It does not help either that the town is a little bit more crowded than every year in the past.   Longer queues and overcrowded restaurants, anyone?

So, watch out, dear readers.   With the above reasons, patience is going to be limited and tempers are going to fly this Songkran.   And we didn't even take into consideration the heated political atmosphere that is lurking in the background yet.

Songkran and samurai

As separate concepts, Songkran and samurai do not seem to produce any mental association.   But, believe it or not, almost 300 years ago in 1714, a caring samurai teacher named Daidoji Yuzan wrote a book that sounds as if he had the image of Thais celebrating Songkran in mind!

Titled Bushido for Beginners, the book is basically a manual for young, aspiring samurais.   Like us in the 21st century, life could be a struggle for the 18th century's Japanese warrior class.   In Tokugawa Japan, although the samurai class has been put on top of the social hierarchy, they ranked last economically, well below farmers, artisans and merchants.

Tokugawa Japan was also known as a peaceful period.   The samurai, therefore, faced another unprecedented distress. Their practical status as warriors had been lost.   They were busy redefining their raison d'etre, searching for their self-esteem. Basically, they had been transformed from a revered military class into a struggling civil servant class.

Seeing the plight of the young warriors, Daidoji Yuzan came up with that book.   At first glance, it seems to be a general career guide on "how to be a good samurai."   Reading between the lines, however, one can see that Yuzan wrote the book out of his love and concern for the younger generation.   His instructions, if dutifully followed, will lead the young men to a sustainably peaceful life.   He was coaching them how to "live smart." His real motive, therefore, was to help them out of suffering.

Consider that the world is now experiencing universal suffering, may be it is a good idea to look at Yuzan's timeless advice.

Be aware of death even at New Year

First, let's imagine the usual Songkran image: parties everywhere and reckless people roaming.   Year after year, statistics for road accidents during the holidays clearly show that alcohol is the number one culprit.   Yet, regrettably, the lobbyists still can not secure us a law prohibiting alcohol consumption while in a vehicle!   It is as if the authorities are trying to promote more deaths during the holidays!   But, seriously, do you think any revelers believe that they might die during the festivities?

Now, consider the opening sentence of Yuzan's book, "The man who would be a warrior considers it his most basic intention to keep death always in mind, day and night, from the first meal on New Year's Day right through the evening of last day of the year."

As Songkran is the Thai New Year, it would not hurt to remember Yuzan's advice and try thinking about death a little bit.   When one constantly keeps death in mind, Yuzan argued, both loyalty and filial piety are realised and a myriad of evils and disasters are avoided.

Songkran is supposed to be the time one goes to spend time with one's extended family to show respect and filial piety to the family elders.   If we keep death in mind, both ours and theirs, chances are that we would be gentle in our words, kind in our deeds, and mindful in our thoughts.

In his poetic language, Yuzan went on to describe a person's life as fleeting, not unlike the dew in the evening or the frost in the morning.   Being resolved that this might be the last day that we may live, Yuzan explained, one would naturally attend to one's parents with the thoughts that this may be for the last time, and one's concern for them would be sincere.

Therefore, if you are fortunate enough to be able to pour the blessing waters on the hands of your parents and/or grandparents this year, remember that it could be the last time. This way, your Songkran moment would be memorable.

When one forgets death, Yuzan continued, one's mind would lack prudence.   Arguments will be started over insensitive speech, and controversies will flare up concerning matters that could have been finished simply by ignoring them.   In an example quite similar to the scene at Songkran, Yuzan further reminded us to consider what could happen when one walks recklessly in the midst of crowds on temple visiting trips, bumping into strange fools and getting into unexpected fights.

The samurai's dos and don'ts

Because of that possible scenario, Yuzan suggested the young samurai shouldn't go to high-risk places even when invited.   If travelling during the festive season is unavoidable, Yuzan recommended that one plans one's route carefully in advance to stay clear of possible troubles.

At parties, Yuzan pointed out, smart warriors would eat and drink in moderation and train themselves to prudently keep sexual indulgence at a distance.   When having to engage in a conversation, laudable samurai would also keep their words to the minimum.   The most important thing is to diligently watch one's thoughts and words.

The popularity of Yuzan's book is a testament that his advice works.   Being mindful at New Year's is never out of date, for now or for the 18th century samurai!

May you all have a mindful and memorable Songkran holiday.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Ghost Stories

Life as a mindfulness practitioner is fun.   Now and then your friends who happen to run into an unusual situation would seek your advice.   One day, the author received a phone call from KL where a friend, let us call him Romeo, was visiting on a business trip.

"Umm, I need a little favour," Romeo started.

"I've got a colleague here.   She is a Chinese Malaysian and also a Buddhist.   Recently, she feels that there is a ghost in her house.   She feels someone is watching her all the time, especially at night.   She also said that sometimes things got knocked over around her house," Romeo explained.

"To solve the problem, she invited some Chinese specialists to pray on the compound. It did not work. This spooky experience disturbs her a lot and she is losing sleep over it. Can you help?" Romeo asked.

To tell you the truth, dear readers, of all the requests the author has received so far, this is most extraordinary.   If you were the author, what would you do?

As it turned out, Romeo did not give enough time for the author to decide what to do.   He quickly concluded, "Her name is KC. Now, you talk to her."   With that, he handed his mobile phone to his colleague.
Right.   The things we do to help our friends.   But that is exactly what friends are for, isn't it? You offer a free ghost-busting service for your friend's colleague!

Having no time to properly form a thorough answer, the first suggestion the author gave to KC was a spontaneous one.  Assuming there actually are sentient beings in her house, the author told KC to first give them Loving-Kindness.

Loving-Kindness meditation

Loving-Kindness or Metta meditation is probably the easiest type of meditation for everyone.   All we have to cultivate is our sincere compassion for other beings.   Many meditation teachers would let the yogi meditation practitioners, start with giving loving kindness to themselves.

To do so, one need not recite any actual Pali (for Theravada) or Sanskrit (for Mahayana) chant.   Simply repeat in your mother tongue, "May I be happy, peaceful and free from suffering," over and over again.   Some yogi believe that it helps if you do this Loving-Kindness exercise while sitting in a meditation posture, with your eyes closed. Some yogi found it helpful to also watch their breathing while repeating the Loving-Kindness phrase.

We can of course do Loving Kindness meditation in any posture, even when we walk.   What is important is to put sincere, utmost effort in giving yourself that Loving Kindness.

Once your mind starts to calm down, move on to give the same Loving-Kindness to those that we respect and love.   For Thais, the author would like to humbly suggest that we start with HM the King.   This is a fail-proof method for us Thai practitioners.   For when HM the King is the meditation focus point, you would notice that your mind and your body are easily overwhelmed with piti or joy.

Next, use that feel-good, joyous experience to continue to give Loving-Kindness to your parents, teachers, friends, etc.   At the end, your mind would be ready to give Loving-Kindness to each and every being in the universe, let alone those residing in your house.

Because you can give

Knowing that Loving-Kindness would only work if the person feels at peace with himself/herself, the author went on to give encouragement to KC by explaining that, in Buddhist teaching, those beings would only visit the person who has enough boon (merit) to share.   And precisely because of that, the author congratulated her for being a wholesome person, most likely blessed with a kind heart that loves to give, dhana, and live a virtuous life according to the five precepts, sila.

KC was pleasantly surprised.   She never thought of herself that way before.   Realising that she indeed is a kind person who has done a lot of good deeds, her mind was at peace.

Yet, the author knew that KC might still harbour some fears regarding those beings in her home, assuming there actually are some.   We humans tend to have fear of the unknown, you see.   Therefore, the author thought it would help to point out to KC that, more often than not, beings from other planes usually come to ask for merit and blessings from their blood relatives.   Therefore, they could be someone you have known, someone in your family.   It could be her beloved grandmother or great-great grandfather.

And this is the beauty of a Chinese family.   On top of the Chinese wholesome livelihood is the loving bond among the family and the respect for the elders.   The author then told KC to send her Loving-Kindness to those beings as if she would to a beloved family member.   In addition to giving Loving-Kindness, the author told her that she can also go make merit or do charity work and dedicate the boon to them. KC was delighted.

A Zen ghost story

KC's story reminds the author of a famous Zen "ghost story."   It is about a man who once had a beautiful and loving wife who one day became sick and died young.   Before she passed away, she made him promise that he would no longer seek a new love of his life, otherwise she would come to haunt him.

After she died, the man dutifully kept his promise.   Several months passed by and, as karma would have it, he fell in love again and got engaged to a new lady.   The night of the engagement, the ghost of his wife did really come to haunt him.   The ghost lamented that he is a bad husband, not keeping his promise, etc.   Naturally, the man was really scared.

Being haunted by the ghost every night, the man finally went to see a Zen master.   "Indeed the ghost is very intelligent," the master said, "She knew everything that happened between you and the new girl.   What you can do now is to praise her intelligence when she comes again.   But give her a deal.   Tell her that you have one question to ask.  If she indeed knows everything about you, then she would be able to answer.   If she could not, she has to let you go so that you can begin a new life."

That night, without fail, the ghost re-appeared.   After hearing the challenge, the ghost took the bait.   She insisted that she knows everything that happens to him.   The man then scooped up beans from a bag and demanded to know the number of beans in his hand.   At that very moment, the ghost disappeared and never came to bother the man again.

What we learn from this Zen ghost story is that, sometimes, the "ghost" in our life could be just an illusion of our own mind, our own conscience or our own imagination.   The reason that it is so real is because we are already very scared.   Being scared by our own thoughts is a sign of mindlessness.   In this Zen story, the master simply gave the man an appropriate tool to trigger his own mindfulness to work for him at the time that he needed it most.

At the moment of this writing, KC does not have a visit from invisible beings in her home anymore.   In fact, she even had a very good sleep the night we had that phone conversation.   So, even we cannot conclusively decide at this moment yet whether in fact there were invisible beings in KC's home or not, one thing is clear: fear starts first in one's own mind.   When we give a strong immunity to our mind by mindfulness practice, we will be less likely to get haunted by our own illusions or imagination.

With mindfulness/Zen, you will be able to see things as they really are.   With mindfulness/Zen, you will be at peace with yourself and you will have enough merit to dedicate to other beings, ghosts or otherwise.   Our lesson for this week is, therefore, do not wait until you actually run into a ghost in your house before you think about being generous (dhana), living a wholesome life (sila), and learning meditation (bhavana).

See you in two weeks' time.   Until then, let us always have that Loving-Kindness feeling to all beings in our heart.   It may come in handy, you know. Just ask KC.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Meditation FAQs



Two weeks ago in this column, we talked about the fairy-tale life of our friend Collette, who, like many contemporary Thais, has subconsciously suffered deep-rooted depression stemming from the political hullabaloo of the last few years.

Having led a perfect life before the depression hit, Collette did not realize what she had been missing until she went to a mindfulness meditation retreat.   What happened afterwards was a pure miracle.   Until the day of this writing, Collette still enjoys her daily surprises in the form of flashes of wisdom as she goes on living her busy life happily, thanks to her faithful, 30-minute-a-day walking and sitting meditation practice.

What is more surprising, to the author at least, is the amount of feedback the author received from that article on Collette's life. Some found it inspiring, saying it made them even more curious and interested in going to a retreat themselves.  Some who have already gone to the retreat forwarded that article to their friends who have yet to do so.   Some wondered if this fairy tale would be really possible for everyone. Others mused how long this "honeymoon period" of our protagonist would last.

Honestly, these questions sound pretty much like the 'Frequently-Asked Questions' (the FAQs) the author and those who have gone to a retreat always received in our daily life. M  ay be it is a good idea, then, to answer them here for the benefit of all readers.


Is such an amazing experience possible for all?

Yes. Seriously. And this is the most amazing thing about the miracle of mindfulness meditation. The practice is pretty straightforward: you reap what you sowed.  And, like we discussed two weeks ago, the author's friend did give 100% of her effort during the retreat.

Come to think about it, may be she actually gave 150% and, consequently, received such an enviable result!   As someone who enjoys a good life (meaning a gourmet's life) who is approaching the so-called 'golden age,' Collette has a slight physical challenge regarding sitting on the floor, even with supporting cushions.   As a result, she sustained more discomfort, not to mention more of the occasional meditation-induced pain, than most of us.

The highest wisdom in Buddhism, it should be noted, starts with one's ability to see the nature of suffering and understand it.    Fortunately for Collette, what she initially perceived as her drawback turned out to be her blessing in disguise.   For it was through her pain that her first true flashes of wisdom arose.    A very defining moment, it propelled her to a higher state of mind, a state that enabled her to sit with the pain with a smile. Right from that day until the end of the retreat.

Looking back, Collette said she realized that the pain-conquering experience alone is such an invaluable life asset. She now knows how to handle any physical or mental challenges in her life, right into the very last days of it.   Having seen grandparents and older relatives in their last moments, Collette knew how dreadful the pain for the terminally ill could be. When one becomes very ill with the kind of pain that modern medicine can no longer help, it is this very skill, mindfulness meditation skill, that we humans need the most.

Before going to the retreat, Collette never knew that, like everybody before her who gave 100%, she also has the capability to cultivate this valuable pain-conquering skill.    If the author had told her that she could acquire that in seven days, Collette would probably have said the author was crazy. Now it is Collette who enjoys telling her family and friends of that defining moment of hers, the moment she gained wisdom through the pain.

The lesson of this story is, do not worry that your physical condition may be a hindrance to your chance to gain wisdom from meditation.    For each one of us, there would be the most suitable conduit through which the Dhamma would occur. For Collette, it happened to be through a pain that was heightened by her physical condition. What would yours could be? Don't you want to find out?


How long would the "honeymoon" last?


There are two aspects of the meditator's "honeymoon period" that the author would like to address.    First, the meditation-induced "high" or various kinds of Piti or Vipassanupakilesa. Some positive, meditation-induced physical and mental phenomena could last days, weeks, or even months.    Soon, the Dhamma would reveal itself, though, no "high" would last forever.   And that would be when the value of the second aspect would shine.

The second aspect, the one that is more lasting, is the wisdom-induced peace of mind.    While less stirring than the "high," it proves to be the more meaningful one of the two.    This is especially true for those who continue to practice mindfulness diligently every day after coming out of the retreat, like our friend Collette does.

In other words, by repeating the techniques we learned from a retreat in our daily life, we are in essence re-living the retreat experience every day.   This means more meditation-induced wisdom.    Accompanying that unique type of wisdom is the state of mind that feels relieved and at peace.    And this is the most difficult part to describe to those who have yet to go to a retreat.

It starts when the mind "knows." Knows what?    You have to find out yourself in a retreat.    It is something that no words can describe because it is truly beyond everyday cognitive experience.    All the author could say is that what the mind knows would make you feel good unconditionally.    Well, with the world currently in a state of both political and economic mess, nothing beats the ability to feel good unconditionally, dear readers.    Just ask Collette.

Useful tip for "the returner"

Now, a useful tip for Collette herself and those like her, someone who just returned from their first meditation retreat. Tell people around you not to expect an angel!    Most likely than not, no matter how unbelievably good the experience we might have had from our retreat, we are nowhere near the state of the Arahantship yet.    This means we are still subject to experience the usual mental defilements, be it anger, disappointment, fear, desire, or any other mishaps.    The difference is that we would be able to deal with it better and get over it faster, that is all.

The more we continue to practice, the better our "mindfulness engine" would be, meaning the faster we will get over those nasty moments and the better we can handle it.    So, the next time you amaze those around you with your new-found "magic," be it with your incredible patience or your Zen-like calm, tell your wide-eyed audience that this skill is not definite yet.   You still can't switch to the "enlightened-mode" on-demand, you can say, but you are enjoying every minute making progress towards that.

See you in two weeks.    Until then, let us stay mindful.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

It Could Happen to You


You Travel Far to Discover Home by Ben


“Fairy tales can come true. It can happen to you... if you're young at heart.”  


Well, although what you are about to read now is not exactly a love story, it does have its fair share of love.   The reason we have this headline is because, while the author was gathering thoughts for this piece, this very phrase actually popped up in mind.


Being a true believer in intuition, the author decided to stay with it.   Who knows, this headline might draw the attention of someone out there who normally does not care to read this humble column, especially the romantic type!


Today we are going to look into a real life story of one of the author's friends from high school years.   She kindly allowed the author to share her story with the readers because she also believes it would really benefit someone who may have led a life similar to her.   In other words, she also believes that it could happen to you, dear readers.


Could it be you?

Enters Collette (her French nickname, given by our French teacher in high school).   Collette used to believe that she has always had a decent life.   And the author agrees with her. She is a bright lady brimmed with so much energy that she always electrifies everyone around her.   And because of that, she has always been an achiever who has done great things not only for herself but for others around her as well.


Since high school, Collette made it to the university and faculty of her first choice and thoroughly enjoyed her college years. Then, she went overseas for her masters'.   Coming back to Thailand, she fell in love and got married with a good-looking, respectable gentleman who dotes on her and who has also won the heart of her family.


If that alone is not enough.   Collette has more.   She always got to do what she wanted to do, not only in her career, but also in social work which is as important to her life as her family and work.   She made some decent investment in real property and stocks and she was able to live comfortably.


Collette travelled a lot, both in Thailand and abroad.   A life-long educational advocate, she always enjoyed learning new things and became the indispensable source of information when her friends need help.   From health care to travel tips to restaurant recommendations, all you have to do is to give Collette a call. You won't be disappointed.


A perfect life, you might say.   What more could a lady ask for? Children?   Well, she and her husband do not have any but that was also their wish.   She is busy enough now with her beloved nephew and never felt that her life is missing anything.


This first part of fairy tale's life was abruptly disrupted recently, when Thailand has entered a period of political and social mess. Being highly social-minded (she spent six months in Phuket helping victims of the 2004 Asian Tsunami), Collette felt exhausted. She developed some kind of deep-rooted depression that slowly built up in her subconscious mind.   She felt that no matter what she did or tried to do to help the society, we are still in a big political, social, and moral chaos.


No matter how much love and dedication her husband, family and friends gave her, Collette was not able to shake off that heavy feeling.   It took a toll on her health.   One day, she found herself crying at night, not knowing exactly why she did so.


Being a courageous lady, she thought she could tough it out like she used to do with any other issues in life.   It turned out that she could not.   For three months, Collette found herself crying every night.


No matter how much merit she tried to do, no matter how many good activities she tried to engage herself in, her depression did not go away.


Collette was crying when she called the author one evening. She did not know what was happening to her.   After trying to calm her down and give her some positive encouragement, the author invited her to come along for a mindfulness meditation retreat.


Although Collette knew that it is a good thing to do, especially if you are a Buddhist, she did not agree to go immediately.   In other words, she still could not connect how mindfulness meditation could help her in the real world, in her daily life. Instead, she turned to a life of nightly parties.   She tried to travel abroad even more often. But she could not get away from the depression in her own mind.


The author could not remember how long time went by until Collette gave another call.   Perhaps it was months later.   This time, she was more composed.   Sensing that she might be ready to go now, the author invited her again, "Hey, I'm going again in two weeks' time.   Wanna join?"


Without hesitation, Collette said, "Yes, can you please book a place for me?"


The author literally jumped with joy.   "Yes!" was the reaction that spontaneously sprang up in the author's mind.   For the author knew that, with her energy and her dedication to a cause she believes in, she would excel in her retreat and thus being able to lift herself out of her constant depression.


The author was not disappointed.   Collette did give 100% in her very first retreat.   The author observed with admiration how she delved into each practice session with sheer determination and zest.   It was only the fourth day of our eight-day, seven-night retreat that Collette came to realize what life actually is and what her purpose of life should be.


She was able to see, by herself and not by anyone telling her so, that each and every suffering she experienced in life only came from within.   And she also learned that, while she can not change the world, she could indeed change herself and achieve peace even if she is still living among the same old chaos.   She also discovered that if she wants to continue "saving the world," she could still to do so.   The only difference is that now she already sees that the only cause worth promoting to people is the cause of mindfulness.


If people have mindfulness in the Buddhist sense of the word, Collette discovered, the society would naturally be peaceful simply because one would be able to have compassion for all.


In one lengthy sitting session when the pain disturbed her so much while she was concentrating on cultivating mindfulness, she saw, with her mind's eyes, flashes of the brands of her favorite alcohol drinks.   Then, a wisdom inside her told her that she has to quit this if she wants to have sustainable peace in her life.


And once she gave a determined vow to herself and to Lord Buddha during that sitting that she would not touch those beverages anymore, Collette experienced miracle.   She was able to live with that pain with a peaceful mind.   The pain did not go away miraculously, but her mind was lifted up one notch.   And she was free.


In later sitting sessions, she even found herself smiling during the sitting.   Collette has found the proven path to the peace within.


And Collette is now back on her fairy tale's life again, thanks to her willing to be "young at heart," meaning always opening up to learn new things.   In Zen parlance, we call it "a beginner's mind."   A Zen mind/beginner's mind opens up to any possibilities and not limited to our past experience.


Now, because she could make peace with herself, she could make peace with anyone.   And that is the part that is related to love.   For Collette was able to give loving kindness to all beings, including to her so-called political foe.   Her complexion, a reflection of her mind, is now glowing healthily.   Everybody in her family was astonished how glowing and happy she was when they welcomed her back home.   Now everyone in her family wants to go the retreat.


If you have lived your life like Collette did, believing that you already have a decent livelihood and never cause harm to anyone, Collette has a message for you.   "This (the mindfulness retreat) is the best thing that ever happened in my life.   I wished I had done it earlier."   She is still the same highly energetic Collette, but she now knows how to let go.   Collette is as driven as ever, but she no longer feels exhausted.   If this is not a fairy tale with a happy ending, then, what do you think it is?


Well, what are you waiting for?   It could happen to you, you know. :-)

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Zen of Pain: Part II


Crying Baby by CeeKay’s Pix

Two weeks ago, we began our discussion on something that all of us will sooner or later come across in life - pain.   We looked into the nature of pain and also the fact that pain is in fact one of Zen's specialties.

This week, let us hear from a Zen master what he has to say about pain and illness in general.  After all, it is better to know beforehand how to handle pain and illness while you are still relatively healthy. To try to cram on this mind-training practice when you are already in deep pain or severe illness is going to be much harder.

By the way, the emphasis on Zen does not mean that Buddhist masters of the Theravada tradition are less able than their Zen counterparts when it comes to gaining wisdom from pain. To practice vipassana under a good teacher, one naturally knows what pain is. Vedana (feelings or sensation) is one of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness, Satipatthana is that which one would definitely encounter and gain wisdom from.

The difference, perhaps, is the emphasis. From the little experience that the author has had with both traditions, Zen seems to zero in on the ability to cultivate wisdom out of extremely trying physical and mental conditions. This applies not just to zazen, or sitting meditation, but on other types of Zen-inspired training as well such as martial arts.

Moreover, it does not mean that one has to engage in one "formal" form of Zen training or another in order to have a shot at wisdom and, consequently, freedom from suffering.  The ability to apply Zen to daily living so that one would know how to deal with impromptu physical and mental suffering is what Zen is all about.

The following are insights from the teachings of Zen master Seung Sahn, to which the author has added additional commentaries.

Your Physical Body is Not Your True Self

The first lesson from Master Seung Sahn is that you have to understand that your physical body is not your true self.

Well, that is a tough one.  For those who have not physically experienced in a retreat the fact that the body and mind are two separate entities, this very first lesson is already difficult to swallow.   How could my body not be my "self"?  If it is not "me" that can feel, and in turn got terrified of, pain, who could that be?

Relax, the master said. Do not be afraid of your sickness (and/or pain).   At times everybody is afraid of what will happen to their body.   Rather than assuming that "I must be healed," the master suggested that we must understand the Ultimate Truth first.

And what is that Truth?  It is that everyone dies.

The Question Worth Asking

Certainly, we will all die. In fact, we can even die sooner than any statistics suggest, meaning our death could be from countless other causes totally unrelated to our illness.

Once that realization is firmly settled in our minds, the next logical question would naturally follow, "... Why, then, do I have to go through this much suffering of illness, pain, and, on top of that, face the fear of dying?"

The question itself gives hint to the answer. If there was no "you" to begin with, would there be any being that can feel the pain?  Definitely not.

It is because "we" were born that there is this physical body to serve as a breeding ground for various illness and hence the pain.

It is because we were born that we must become ill, have pain, and die.

One of my vipassana teachers even went one step further and suggested that, when we were asked what caused the death of Mr so-and-so whom we happened to know, we should simply reply, "birth."

My teacher is right. Birth is the real "natural cause" of death. Not only for Mr so-and-so, but also for all of us.

Turn This Pain into an Opportunity

But why do we have to be born, then, to face all these sufferings?  If you have not yet found your teacher and started practicing mindfulness, this question may pop up in your mind now and then.  The more pain you have or the more serious your illness is, the more often this question would come up to bother you.

This is how Master Seung Sahn's teaching fits in.  He simply invited us to find out first what human beings really are, meaning why we were born, and what for?   His reason is that, if you do indeed find the answer, your direction will be clear when you die.

And if not?  The Master gave a simple and to-the-point answer.  He said that our consciousness will go round and round.  If the pain you are facing now, either physical and mental, seems unbearable to you, the idea of facing that very same pain over and over again should at least make you cringe and try to find out more how to get out of all this as soon as you can.   Not just this very present pain, but every future pain.

If losing your direction while you are still living is a problem, imagine how horrifying it would be if you lose your direction when you are dying?  How can you be sure that you could direct your mind, your consciousness, into the right direction?

Having survived near-death experience before, the author could assure the readers that indeed mindfulness does help in that crucial moment.   At least, your mind is calm, your direction is clear.   The result?  Well, to each his own karma.

This brings us to ask ourselves if we have created any positive karma lately?  Even in pain and illness, you can still create good karma for yourself. How?  By living a Zen life and practicing mindfulness at every waking moment, of course!   If you are now having pain in your life, regard it as a perfect opportunity to become Enlightened.   All you have to do is to start finding out what your true self is.  Think of it as the most special gift you can give to yourself because, quite frankly, we all deserve it.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

The Zen of Pain: Part I

It is important to realize that pain, crashing though it can be, comes in waves. Mindfulness training will help you find refuge betweens those breaks. Crashing Waves by Jose Guillermo

In our life as a human being, one thing we can not escape from is pain. Physical or mental, one-time-off or long-term, we are likely to be exposed to it sooner or later in life, if not already.

Yet, inevitable as it is, we do not seem to have a clue what it is. Has it ever occurred to you that while the pain we sustain is right here with us, either with our body or mind, we always run to others to learn what it is and ask others how to deal with it?

Not that the author is that much different from this conventional, spontaneous reaction. In fact, the motivation to write this week’s installment came from the very recent hospital stay due to severe migraine.

When one experiences such acute level of pain that renders one helpless, literally grasping for air, shaking, losing sight in one eye, on the verge of throwing up while one’s jaw bones dropping and locking themselves in an unmovable, contorted position, one naturally has two desire. The first is not wanting to experience it again oneself, the second is not wanting anyone to have to go through this kind of pain. Ever.

So that was the motivation behind this piece. Of course the ultimate answer that the author like to emphasize is to solve the problem at its root cause—by trying not be born again so that we would no longer have to go through this pain cycle. But that is our longer-term goal. Meanwhile, now that we have been born and still have to go through various pain in our life, let us learn how to navigate through it as best as we can.

Here’s the catch: this attempt to learn from pain would not only help us now, but the accumulation of the learning would contribute to the eventual Enlightenment itself. Yes, it is just like killing two birds with one stone, if you would forgive the cruelty of the expression.

This does not mean the author is telling you to avoid the doctor or any other professional help at all cost and just handle each and any pain yourself. Given our modern-day living, it is only “natural” for us to go see doctor about any pain or illness we may have. What the author is trying to tell you, though, is that there are many things you could do to be better informed about your pain before, during, and after you receive a medical treatment. Consider it your personal bonus, if you will.

The Nature of Pain

First of all, like anything else in life, pain is impermanent. For those with really sharp mindfulness or those practicing in a retreat, they would be able to see between the smallest temporal units of “pain interval” that happens, stays, and goes away. For some, pain may seem to come and go with every pulse, others would be able to see even between that.

In real life, when we are likely to live move around in our “auto-pilot” mode and as a result being unaware of this very nature, most pain, physical or mental, would seem to last “forever.” This by itself is an obvious incentive to learn mindfulness. At least your mind would find it easier to remain calm because you knew, by experience, that your pain would not last forever.

And why a calm mind is important in that crucial moment of intense physical pain? From the medical point of view, a calmer mind would help one deals with pain better. But one can not just achieve that calmness by just telling oneself to be calm. It is a very specialized skill that has to be practiced, under supervision, until one experienced it oneself how calmness can arise out of acute pain.

At the very least, the “ability” to find temporary refuge through the “mini-break” between each pain, tiny span of time though it may be, is a big plus. Think of it as an occasional grasp of air when you are on the verge of drowning.

When your mind is concentrated long enough on “catching” the “black hole” of time and space between each throbbing pain, a certain calmness would occur. It would likely be enough to carry you through the time you have to wait until a medical professional attend to your pain and/or the time when the first dose of steroid-laced painkiller take effect.

Zen and Pain

Naturally, Zen is a specialty of Zen masters. They should know best, given the grueling training of horrendously long hours of sitting meditation where any movement is not allowed.

And do not underestimate the sharp eyes of a Zen master who walks down the aisle, watching his disciples sitting, carrying a wooden stick. The purpose? To hit one who moves or falls asleep. If you think you could get away with wiggling your toes under the layperson’s robe, think again. In fact, most people the author talked to fear the master (and his stick) more than one’s pain. In other words, they sort of tough it out through out the session, pain and all that. And that is how people gain wisdom from their zazen, or sitting meditation.

And it takes years, if not a life time, of intense practice before one can truly become a Zen master, having one’s own stamp of approval from one’s teacher with a license to teach. Therefore, the masters must certainly know a think or two about pain and how one can gain wisdom from it. In two weeks’ time, we will be back discussing some interesting insights from selected Zen masters.

Until then, let us be mindful and take good care of our physical and mental health so that no severe pain can get us and knock us unconscious! Unconsciousness is the state that is furthest removed from wisdom, the ability to remain “awakened,” so to speak. It starts with a will power, you know. A fierce determination, if you will, to get out of this suffering business altogether. The Path is not that easy, but it is attainable.

Therefore, do not be despair if you get knocked around quite a fair bit by pain. Like a good boxer, you do get up after you have been knocked down. One day, it would be your turn. That would be the day when pain does not disturb your life anymore. It will still occur, but your mind won’t be perturbed. It will be your turn to knock the pain down. Yes, down and out.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The 38 Blessings: Part II


Somewhere far beyond by Katarina2353

Two weeks ago, we discussed the first half of the 38 blessings in Buddhism. We learned that the blessings seem to have been grouped together according to a theme they share.

We also learned that, as with other Buddhist teaching, the blessings start with practices that are more common and not too difficult to achieve and subsequently move upwards in terms of difficulty level. The more effort one has to put in to create a blessing for oneself, the more rewarding the blessing is.

For those who have missed the first half of blessings, check it out below. Now, let us take a look at the latter half of blessings and discover why they are more rewarding.

6. Blessed mindfulness

"... 18) Avoiding unwholesomeness; 19) Not consuming intoxicants; 20) Non-recklessness in the dhamma..."

By being mindful and not living one's life recklessly, one would be able to avoid life's many temptations that would lead to unwholesome acts. Consuming intoxicants directly jeopardise one's ability to be mindful, and therefore in itself is an unwholesome act.

While blessed mindfulness comes after one has persevered and achieved the first five groups of blessings (and thus gaining enough wisdom to realise the values of mindfulness), it does not mean one cannot attempt to start from here. In Zen teaching, for example, being mindful is the first and foremost blessing of all. Arguably, if one can master the mindfulness practice, the other blessings would naturally follow.

7. Blessed humility and gratitude

"... 21) Showing respect; 22) Being humble; 23) Being content in what one honestly earned; 25) Gratitude; 26) Listening regularly to dhamma teachings..."

If any readers have experienced mindfulness practice in a retreat before, seeing this group of blessings right after "Blessed mindfulness" should not be a big surprise. This is because the very first feelings that mindfulness practitioners would likely discover in their mind are these very qualities. As a regular assistant in mindfulness retreats, the author always observed with marvel how the practice of mindfulness alone could soften the body language of people. In other words, the gentle physical gestures are merely a reflection of a tender mind.

This group of more-refined blessings can be explained as follows. Within days of continuous mindfulness practice in a retreat, newcomers would discover unprecedented peace in their own mind, thus feeling content with what they have and how their life is. This consequently leads to the gratitude, respect and humility one feels towards one's teacher, hence the desire to listen regularly to dhamma teachings.

8. Blessed patience in higher learning

"... 27) Patience; 28) Openness to criticism; 29) Sight of a true monk; 30) Regular discussion of the dhamma..."

This group of blessings is obviously a continuity of the former. Both indicate the process to gain wisdom. When one listens to dhamma teachings regularly as number 26 signifies, one gets to lay one's eyes on a true monk. Also by regularly listening to his teaching, one learns patience which enhances one's openness to criticism. A person who has mastered these blessings certainly has what it takes to be a teacher him/herself, which naturally leads to blessing number 30 - a regular discussion of dhamma.

9. Blessed efforts towards ultimate wisdom

"... 31) Self-control; 32) Leading a holy life; 33) Discernment of the Four Noble Truths; 34) Attainment of Nirvana..."

As anyone who has been to a mindfulness retreat, Theravada or Zen, would readily agree, the training is by no means a casual business. The Theravada tradition even calls for a vow to submit oneself, even one's life, to the efforts to attain the Enlightenment. To be able to uphold that vow naturally requires utmost self-control which, in turn, enables one to lead a holy life, layperson and monk alike.

It is the noble, mindful life with constant self-control that would ultimately lead one to the ability to thoroughly understand the Four Noble Truths. And only by "seeing" the Four Noble Truths that one reaches the Enlightenment.

Now, we are ready to discover the final group of Buddhist ultimate blessings. This may sound curious since conventional wisdom has it that the Enlightenment is the epitome of all things Buddhist. Are there in fact any other Blessings more refined than the Enlightenment experience itself? Read on.

10. Blessed state of mind

"... 35) Mind that is not shaken by the world's constant changes; 36) Mind that is free from sorrow; 37) Mind that is free from defilement; 38) Mind that is blissful..."

Perhaps the best way to explain it is through the cause-and-effect concept. Just as the previous blessings were the causes that led to the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment experience itself is the cause of this final group of blessings. The highest blessings of Buddhism, therefore, is the state of mind that is unshaken, free from sorrow and defilement. It is the blissful mind that Buddhism is all about and it is this blissful mind than all Buddhists should go after in earnest. The good news is that the blissful mind is not beyond reach. The 38 blessings have shown us clear, gradual steps that we can follow in order to reach life's highest goal.

If we recall our discussion two weeks ago, we will realise that the very first step towards the ultimate blessing is something very simple and quite within reach - not to associate with the fool/wicked. If we can put our foot firmly on that first blessing with great determination, the rest would surely follow.

If the idea of step-by-step progress on the blessings list seems too daunting, you can also try the Zen approach. Zen believes that, once we train our mind, the rest will follow. No matter which approach you decide to take, it is important to remember that, in Buddhism, we are in charge of our own blessings. So, hold that discouraging thought right there and take action now! If people, and sentient beings, have been able to attain the highest Blessing for more than 2,500 years, so could you!

Let this New Year, 2552 in Buddhist Era, marks the beginning of your earnest quest for the Enlightenment. Examine your blessings often and set goals. If you are reading this column, chances are that you already achieved many blessings. May you continue relentlessly on this path and be successful this year and may you enjoy the blissful state of mind while helping others for years to come.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The 38 Blessings: Part I


The twelve days of Christmas. The eight days of Hanukkah. The seven days of Kwanzaa. Cultures around the world each have their version of multiple blessings. As 2009 is probably going to be equally tough as, or even tougher than 2008, we all need as many blessings as we can get.

Therefore, this column is presenting today the first of a two-part series on the 38 blessings to welcome the New Year and to give encouragement and moral support to our dear readers that our life does not have to be as gloomy as the 2009 economic forecast. The reason is, in Buddhism, we are in charge of our own blessings.  It is quite up to us how we want to take on life, whether it is during recession or otherwise.

Having said that, let us now take a tour of Buddhist blessings.

In Buddhism, the Discourse on Blessings, Mangala Sutta, lists 38 items which Lord Buddha regarded as the Highest Blessings.  The Sutta comprises 10 sections in which a few relevant blessings are grouped together.  Buddhist scholars note that, as with other teachings of Lord Buddha, the blessings seem to run from simpler deeds towards the more sophisticated ones.

To borrow a modern-day gamers' philosophy, we all have to start at the "first level."  Then, as our skills accumulate, we proceed to subsequent levels that have more challenging tasks.  As gamers would have agreed, the more challenging the task, the more fulfilling the reward.  Keeping this logic in mind, let us check out the list that Lord Buddha provided.

(Note: the original quotes of Lord Buddha are those in italics and in quotation marks. The definition of each section is provided by the author for the reader's convenient reference.)

1. Blessed company

"... 1) Not associating with fools; 2) Associating with the wise; 3) Expressing respect to those worthy of respect..."

While the first group of blessings seems to be easy enough, it is by no means less significant than those in the subsequent groups.   For if we contemplate it carefully, we would notice that the subsequent blessings could not be achieved if those in the first group are not realized.  Therefore, being in blessed company is at the same time least difficult to achieve yet most crucial to achieve if one is seeking more refined blessings in life.

2. Blessed determination

"...4) Living in a suitable location; 5) Having meritorious deeds in one's past; 6) Setting oneself in the right course..."

To enable oneself to be exposed to as much blessings as possible in life, one must prepare oneself for it.  Buddhist blessings, it should be noted, do not come by random, by luck or at the mercy of some gods/goddesses.   By having determined to achieve a blessed life, a good Buddhist starts by setting oneself on the right course.

Having been on the right course would enable one to be wise in choosing an appropriate location where one would spend this life. Being in a suitable location would then open up an opportunity to accumulate meritorious deeds.   Everything in life is actually a cause-and-effect, if one carefully looks at it.

Alternately speaking, when one reflects the fact that one was able to do meritorious deeds in the past, one would realize that it started first with one's determination to do something good which then propelled one to be in the right place.

3. Blessed learning effort

"... 7) Extensive learning; 8) Skillfulness in one's arts; 9) Highly-trained discipline; 10) Well-spoken speech..."

Determination and blessed company might already bring us many blessings.  But if we are determined to constantly improve ourselves, we must put in a lot of effort to be a thoroughly learned person.   In Buddhism, one does not become learned by forced rote-learning, but rather by having high discipline to practice our respective arts extensively and with a resolute mind.

It is also noteworthy that being able to speak well also belongs to this group.   Lord Buddha seemed to imply that one should not consider oneself learned until one masters the skills of passing on one's wisdom to others effectively.   Talking about well-spoken speech, the author could not help but be reminded of America's President-elect Barack Obama.   He seems to be a fine example of someone who possesses the third group of blessings!

4. Blessed responsibilities

"...11) Filial piety; 12) Cherishing one's children and spouse; 13) Complication-free livelihood..."

One may have great self-determination, be in good company, and put oneself through a strenuous learning effort, but one can not really count oneself as being really blessed if one ignores one's social responsibilities.   Lord Buddha put a lot of emphasis on filial piety, as it is also implied in further blessings. Blessing No. 13 sometimes translated as "not leaving work undone (and hence does not cause complication in one's livelihood)."

5. Blessed generosity and charity

"...14) Generosity; 15) Righteous conduct; 6) Caring for extended family; 17) Beneficial activities..."

The fifth group of blessings is an obvious extension of the preceding group.   It implies a blessed social responsibility on a wider scale. Having righteous conduct here means one lives by the dhamma, thus causing no harm to others, either by thought, by words or by deeds.

The natural next step on the moral scale for a person who lives life determined not to harm others in any way is giving.  In other words, one not only refrains from harming others, one also makes other feel good. Giving does not have to be anything material.  One can simply avail one's time and effort to the service of others.

How are we doing so far?   How many blessings do you already have in your life?   Make sure you pass the words around that life's blessings abound for those who are determined to achieve them.   We will be back with the latter half of the 38 blessings in two weeks' time. Meanwhile, enjoy counting your blessings!


These monks exemplify the blessings from all the five groups: blessed company, blessed determination, blessed learning efforts, blessed responsibility, blessed generosity & charity.

The Monk’s Work Team by SBA73