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