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The precepts as us lay practitioners are expected to abide by do not have a formal order or number they are attached to. However it is common for them to appear in a specific order in formal requests during pūjā.

In this context the Fifth Precept is

Surāmeraya-majja-pamādaṭṭhānā veramaṇī sikkhāpadaṃ samādiyāmi

(I undertake the precept to refrain from consuming intoxicating drink and drugs which lead to carelessness)

Here it is quite clear that what is advised specifically pertains to alcohol and recreational drugs but the more I watch our modern world the more it becomes clear that something else ought to be added to this precept: screens.

The use of screens, big or small, may not necessarily “lead to carelessness” in the way that alcohol and drugs have but they do affect us in ways that could be interpreted as leading to some form of carelessness.

Those screens scream for our attention, as a general rule I see so many around me, ,yself included, sucked in this new addiction, whether it’s because of games, social media or some other mean to escape the harsh reality of this modern world, it is all too easy to become a slave to the screens around us. The result often is a neglect for the people we care about, ourselves included. Exposure to bright light, in my case, is very certainly what has been disrupting my sleep patterns those past few years. When I manage to broke the spell, how often do I look up as if awakened from a doze to see people around me looking as if they were “plugged into the Matrix”?

The current world-wide estimate is that 2.3 Billion people now own a smartphone. We give them to our children to shut them up so that we may have some peace and quiet fuelling our own addiction to the screen. Meanwhile we have less and less energy for anything other than basic necessities and that is only scratching the surface of the consequences.

As Buddhists we need to become more mindful of this new phenomenon and incorporate it in our own practice so we may remain on the path always.

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This past weekend we celebrated another Wesak festival, remembering and reflecting on the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. Listening to some parts of his journey to Buddhahood made me wonder about certain aspects of it and what to make of them. Specifically I wanted to reflect on what is commonly referred to as “the Four Sights”, namely the time when young Siddharta Gautama wandered off his royal palace and witnessed, allegedly for the first time a sick person, an old person, a dead person and a renunciant.

Now I’m not afraid of using words such as “allegedly”, the Buddha himself made it clear that we should not blindly follow his words but investigate the truth for ourselves.

The premise that prevented young Siddharta from witnessing illness, old age and death (I’ll leave the renunciant life out of this reflection) was that his father never wanting him to be influenced by such ugly things kept him in some gilded cage where everything was beautiful and happy. Reportedly this worked very well until Siddharta was 29-years old. That’s a long time to never see someone ill, or be ill himself. Old age can easily be concealed when you always see the same people day after day. The subtle changes to our bodies don’t become noticeable unless there’s a long period between seeing someone dear to us. As for death, since Siddharta’s mother died shortly after giving birth to him I have always wondered what story his father concocted for him never to question his mother’s absence when there surely were women and children in the palace.

It’s easy to dismiss the tales from the life of the Buddha before he chose the path of the renunciant as some colourful stories such as the ones surrounding his birth. However the 4 sights are supposed to be profound teachings on the nature of impermanence and as such I am reluctant to dismiss that tale as pure fantasy even if it is possible this did not happen the way it is described exactly.

What we can surmise is that building a gilded cage that cuts you off from the reality of the world is rather easy for those growing up in very wealthy environments. The caste system was designed to elevate to wealthy classes above the working classes who are more frequently subjected to illness and death and whose old age is less easily concealed by make up and hair dyes. Yet, I cannot imagine how Siddharta could have possibly spent 29 years of his life and not once being ill, or been around someone who is ill. Perhaps the illnesses he was witness to were masqueraded as normal happenstance but didn’t mirror the type of human suffering he witnessed on the streets.

Because it seems to me that for those 4 sights to have such a big impact they would have to be akin to being splotches of ink on white paper. They’re impossible to miss and very difficult to get rid of. If the white paper is the expectations that Siddharta was told to have (subtly or not), the ink are the 4 sights that changes everything.

Of course the event itself and the circumstances around it are far less important than the teaching behind it so I will not find a reason to be attached to this incoherence but it is an interesting reflective exercise nonetheless.

As I sat meditating tonight I decided to pay attention to something different as an experiment. I am sad to admit that I do not meditate much nowadays and when I do, I don’t quite know where to start having found my experience to date to be unsatisfactory (hello Dukkha…). The wind was blowing outside for a time and it made a wind chime outside sing, so I decided to listen to it.

And then I simply listened. I let the sound of the chime enter my ears and I let it fade away again. There was no melody in it, nothing to trigger a need to write a song, only 5 simple ringing notes that the blowing wind was randomly playing. I use the verb “play” with some reluctance as there was no one acting on it, only the wind. And then I opened my heart to what it means to listen.

The chime wasn’t the only thing producing sound, there were birds too, the branches rubbing against the wall and just the wind itself blowing through the trees. I name all of these so I can put this to words but as I listened I tried my best to let go of those labels, the birds were just another sound from the chime. It arose, entered my ears for a short time and faded away again. There was no feeling of beauty or admiration, it was just the sound. And as I let it fill my awareness, I could not see any thoughts. It only lasted a short while and then they came flooding in again, especially as the wind died down and the world outside became too quiet for my mind to find interest.

But as the thoughts started to come back in, I realised this is what we need to do to listen to others. We let their words fill our awareness and become fully present to their need to speak. No smartphones or social media or other distractions that keep us from truly listening. We don’t always have to sympathise or find an answer, we only need to listen. 

Next time it rains outside I would like to try to meditate by listening to the rain and see where that takes me. I feel as if I finally learnt something tonight. 

When I was a teenager I was once told I was “influence-able”. I would find inspiration from the actions and reasoning of others, mainly famous people, to stir my life in a specific direction. To me this was just inspiration and found nothing bad about it, yet the way this was told to me suggested I wasn’t capable of making my own choices.

Fast forward over 20 years and I find myself doubting whether finding a story, a TV show, a piece of music reasonable mediums from where to find inspiration in the direction I want to take my own life towards. But inspiration is what it is and you cannot decide where it will spring. Sometimes it takes just the right tone or elements of a story to elevate your commitment to become something, someone better. And if these influences stir us in the right direction to improve our lives, to find serenity then surely there is nothing to be ashamed about where these influences came from because someone sneered at us once, a long time ago.

And as it happens this is where I find myself now, having to spend a little time to shut down that voice once and for all so I may focus on my newly found inspiration to improve my own life, my own health, physical and mental and therefore in return improve the lives of others around me.

Last week I started to do some Yoga for the first time. Now I find myself drawn to Tai Chi, or Qi Gong (or both) and I am reminded that there are more than one meditation practices and that sometimes you need to find a way to still the body before you attempt to still the mind. This is the path I intend to explore in the weeks and months to come. Where it takes me doesn’t matter, if I’ve learnt one thing with taking on a journey is that it is done by putting one foot in front of the next, one step at a time.

The more things change

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It occurs to me that once we realise that in life change is inevitable we can see change as a force we can look at and understand better. In that regard, it would appear that there really are only 2 kinds of change: gradual and sudden

Gradual change is the kind you just don’t notice. It’s your children growing a little more day after day but from one night to the next morning that changes are so small it’s impossible to notice until it’s time to buy new clothes or new shoes because they are starting to become too small. Gradual change is the river that starts as a small stream and ends up in a delta feeding the ocean.

Sudden change on the other hand is a little bit of a double-edged sword. It’s something we both fear and desire. We fear sudden change because it often strikes us unprepared. It’s that death in the family you weren’t expecting because the person was fine the previous day or the redundancy that comes crashing because finances are hard. But we also crave sudden change, when we strive to achieve something that takes many long hours of practice, like meditation, and we just want the end result now. Sudden change is like a switch one flicks, which often only has one direction.

It’s interesting to consider the 4 sights that prompted the Buddha on his quest for enlightenment. Illness and old age are both gradual changes whereas death and renunciation  are sudden, albeit with varying levels of control.

Because our relationship to change, to impermanence, is all about control and how little we often have over it. But not always, to paraphrase Gandhi, if change does not suit us, we can become the change we want to see.

BuddhaDa is a novel by Anne Donovan telling the story of a Glaswegian family of three told from the perspective of the three main protagonists. There’s Jimmy,  a painter and decorator working his own little business with his brother who one days discovers meditation and changes the whole family dynamic in the process. There’s Liz, his wife of 13 years who’s struggling to understand the changes his husband is going through and there’s their 12-year old daughter Anne-Marie who is starting secondary school and undergoes changes of her own. The story takes place between 1999 and 2000 in an imaginary town on the outskirts of Glasgow. 

Besides the story itself there is a peculiarity to this book in that it is written in the Glaswegian dialect. Having lived in Scotland long enough this was less of a challenge than I expected it to be and in fact really helped to put the lives on these 3 people into context. However this might prove a challenge to read to non Scots. 

As a Buddhist I expected certain themes to surface quite rapidly. Certainly suffering was one of them and there’s plenty of that in the story. However I was quite puzzled by some of the lifestyle changes Jimmy decides to undergo as part of his practice. The main one was his decision to become celibate which triggers the events unfolding in the rest of the book, to a point where it becomes quite predictable. Throughout the book you get the impression that Jimmy is expecting something to happen just by meditating a lot but without developing much mindfulness at all. For me the main aspect of defining yourself as a Buddhist is living according to the 5 precepts but at no point are the precepts mentioned. There’s one mention of one aspect of the eightfold path but that’s it. In fact for all his attending sessions at the Buddhist centre, Jimmy seems to be getting precious little teachings in the process, just meditation. 

It’s hard to figure out what the author’s intention was when depicting Buddhist practice in this book. For most of the story you get the impression it’s something hindering these people’s lives but on further thought it’s also a reminder that we all approach practice differently. For some meditation is all they want and the teachings are just too much and that’s fine. Ultimately karma is a result of the choices that we make, of what our intentions are. The consequences may be different from what we expect but as long as our intentions are rightful it will be fine. 

I was reading Ajahn Sumedho’s little book on the four noble truths recently and a small passage there struck me as so true, our natural instinct would be to deny the truth in it because of all the discomfort it brings up.

The passage, paraphrased says something like, the origin of suffering lies in our attachments, our grasping at who we think ourselves to be. The identity we create for ourselves is a very large source of suffering.

I know this for myself, trying to forge an identity, figuring out who I am and where I belong. It requires some deep thinking, personality analysis, searching feelings about simple things like name, country of origin or what my accent sound like. for some reason I have some kind of idea in my head about who I ought to be but I have no idea whether being this person is going to make me happier. So should I try to become someone else or be at peace with what I am and simply live in the present moment?

Another truth, which is hard to accept is that we spend more time worrying about what others think about us than we do putting judgments on others. That’s not to say we aren’t judgmental about others however, and perhaps breaking this vicious cycle starts by becoming more mindful about our own judgments. Most people wouldn’t do to others what they don’t want others do to them but judging is often done in quiet voices and because of that we indulge in it.

I’m not quite sure yet how to let go of this sense of identity. The ego that feeds on those delusions has a strong hold but it is not permanent. Perhaps the way to learn to let go is to become finely attuned to the way we hold on to things. Once we know how we grasp, we can start to relax, ease of our grip of the things we so desperately want to be part of who we are. And perhaps with this realisation can come further insights such as letting go of the grasp we have on dukkha itself. Can meditation help? Yes but it is not the magic bullet solution.

Freedom is being able to see suffering for what it is and not hold on to it as if our life depended on it.