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Stream-entry

Like everything else, the ultimate attainment, the awakening we call Nibbana isn’t a turn on or off process but a gradual path of shedding fetters and burdens. As such it has certain milestones along the way that the buddha defined as putting you definitely on the path to full enlightenment.

The first of these milestones is called Stream-Entry (Sotāpanna) and states that one who has attained this milestone is bound to attain Nibbana within a maximum of seven lifetimes and is guaranteed to always be reborn in the human realm or above.

As a lay practitioner, this makes the ultimate goal a little more attainable. Nevertheless, it is not a simple stage to attain.

The practice itself is simple enough. If you develop unshakable trust in the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Live in accordance with the true dhamma and … well this is where it gets complicated. The suttas tell us what defined one who has gained stream-entry. Those are clearly defined as:

  • One who has abandoned self-view and the notion of me and mine
  • One who has abandoned clinging to rites and rituals (eg believing that chanting will cure you of an illness)
  • One who has abandoned doubt in the Buddha, his teachings and the monastic community (Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha) as they have come to experience the true nature of dhamma through insights.

Moreover, it is said that a Sotāpanna is typically a very happy person due to those abandonments and insights. Nevertheless, as a lay person, depending on how you look at it and how you look at your own perception of life as you experience it, this can be very daunting indeed.

The abandonment of self-view is typically done through the realisation of anatta (non-self). The insight into the nature of what makes us, us, something that is bound to this lifetime only and isn’t going to transition to the next life. Such knowledge isn’t difficult to comprehend from an intellectual perspective but to know it so deep within yourself that you are capable of abandoning all the attachments to how we constructed our self since birth in this life is very hard indeed. Attachments can be roots that dig deep into clay soil and bed rock, firmly anchoring this sense of self to our impermanent body.

Comparatively the other two, speaking purely for myself, are not as difficult and can be further nurtured via diligent practice but it does take great wisdom to be able to see into however small the insight that arises from meditation and mindfulness.

I would like to see stream-entry as something achievable both in this lifetime and as a simple lay practitioner. If only the eye could see that there is no I…

A recipe for winning

I don’t like competing much. Maybe because I have enough of a defeatist attitude that I would never expect to win whatever I’d get myself into, or maybe I just don’t get the thrills from measuring my capabilities against those of others. Whatever the case, this isn’t something I passed to my daughter as she does tend to be rather competitive. Her mother and she have been racing one another towards higher ranks in the Skate UK proficiency ladder for example, and she often tries to find some excuse to race or otherwise measure herself against one of us (it doesn’t often work with me)

This prompted the following reflection last night as I was pondering this: If you measure yourself against others all the time, you will rarely find an opportunity to grow and learn. At best you’ll encounter someone much better than you, at worse, someone a lot worse (or is that the other way round?). A more consistent way to compete is to measure ourselves against who we were yesterday. Whatever we were capable of yesterday, we can be better today. By contrast, I find it a little more defeatist to say I will be better tomorrow than what I am today, as this doesn’t encourage viewing our present capabilities as worthwhile and the future is by nature unattainable.

I like to think that a competitive spirit is driven by a desire to better oneself so as to sit on top of what we aim to excel at. Competing against ourselves is the most sure way of guaranteeing progress in everything we endeavour.

Have you ever caught yourself being unkind to yourself? Instinctively calling yourself “stupid” or “idiot” with every little mistake you make whether or not you were fully aware of what the consequences of the action that caused this self-insulting would really be?

And on the other side of the spectrum, I have tried to sit through guided meditations which promote “affirmations” or positive reinforcements and just as verbal self-harm is as easy as sliding down a slippery slope, positive reinforcements feel as hopeless as looking up the side of a mountain one must climb. In other words, taking on the practice to patting ourselves in the back, congratulating ourselves and finding happiness in the smallest of achievements (for example getting out of bed) is not only gargantuan but also feels extremely selfish?

And why is that? What was it in our upbringing that got itself embedded so deeply in our psyche that we are so incapable of simply looking at ourselves and saying “well done!” for the smallest of things while at the same time expletives come out of our mouth to berate ourselves at the slightest mistake? Has society been so successful at forcing us to always be better, always be smarter, always be prettier, always be stronger that we have forgotten to just be?

Mindfulness can start with catching these words of self-harm before they sink even deeper into our subconscious. We are and always will be our own worst judges (also jury and sometimes executioner when things get really bad), but what law does that judge follow?

Mistakes happen all the time and if they didn’t there would be nothing to learn from in life but perhaps instead of dragging us down the self-harm whole while trying to learn we could start seeing things for what they are: An unintentional error. And if we can learn to see this we can perhaps be mindful about the things that lead to those errors in the future. Then when we remember that we cut this piece of wood the right way or avoided hitting the curb or just remembered to grab our keys we can start congratulating ourselves a little, being kind and grateful to our devotion to a practice that lead us to be a better companion to our own selves.

Sometimes such a practice begins by writing it down … maybe there is hope for me yet 🙂

One common piece of advice I see being given out over again is when we sit in meditation, to not fight our thinking mind. This is of course easier said than done. Our inner critic knows this and will berate us for indulging in thinking in the first place, so our first instinct is to resist the thinking mind. However, just like in martial arts, it is better to void an incoming punch than to block it.

So the alternative is to give in to the thinking mind, to let it do its own thing and … well in theory, to observe it. Unfortunately, for me at least, observing often means feeling like you are being dragged down in flooding waters and rather than observing the stream of thought, you get overwhelmed with it.

In the past I spoke of how observing the mind is similar to the sitting by the bank of a river. The current may be weak or it may be strong but either way we only want to stand by the bank and watch the boats go by rather than step into the first one that comes to shore. While this is a useful analogy, it sometimes isn’t enough to understand just how overwhelming the stream of thoughts can be.

Which is why it does feel like drowning sometimes, and also why this may be more useful to figure out how to get out of the “water” and return to observing.

One thing we cannot do when we are literally under water is breathe. Breathing is what grounds us to our environment, to the solid ground and to the present moment. It may seem like I am repeating myself but sometimes the truth can be seen from different angles, some of which depict a clearer picture than others. And so as we breathe, we can be reminded that this simple act of breathing means we aren’t in fact drowning, but simply sitting there being swept away by thoughts.

The important thing though is to really bring our attention to the breath, its quality, its effect on our body and mind. I know from experience that it is far too easy to have the breath on the edge of our minds as if we’re observing the shore from the boat, or to feel detached and disinterested in the breath. This latter I find very challenging myself but perhaps a simple practice is to commit to the experience, as opposed to the intellectual understanding, of the breath itself.

Doing nothing at all is hard, but can yield countless benefits.

Medhi and the Lighthouse

There was once a man named Medhi who had applied to become the next keeper of the local lighthouse. His task was simple, to keep the light on but for that he had to be able to enter the building, which was no easy task. Before he set sail to the rocky island on which the lighthouse was built, the former keeper gave Medhi one piece of advice Continue Reading »

Poisoned by doubt

Buddhists texts list 5 major hindrances that get in the way of well-being, peace and enlightenment. Those are:

  • Sensual desire (kamacchanda)
  • Ill-will (byapada)
  • Sloth and torpor (thina-middha)
  • Restlessness and remorse (uddhacca-kukkucca)
  • Sceptical doubt (vicikiccha).

While the other 4 have certainly not been conquered, doubt has been a particular thorn in my practice over the past few year. A thorn, I fear, which has created a festering wound and requires special attention.

However doubt is difficult to tackle because it is often confused with healthy scepticism, the kind of scepticism the Buddha encourages which asks us not to take anything at face value but to find things out for ourselves through our own investigative practice.

On top of this, the wording to explain what doubt feels like can also be confused with teachings about impermanence. Nothing is sure, nothing is certain as Ajahn Chah used to say. Where do you find faith in uncertainty? More specifically where can we find faith in ourselves when nothing is certain?

Because the poison of doubt often manifests itself with the mantra “Am I good enough”. But the question is far more subtle and insidious than this. For my part I notice it more when the praise I receive has no positive impact and is typically received with a gratitude that feels like it is based on quicksand.

Worse still, I have noticed it creates tension and irritation if I bring the slightest notion of doubt and questioning to a casual conversation I have with others. The likes of “I would have thought that …” or “Are you sure that …” are, as they probably should, received with various levels of hostility, even when the intention is to be helpful.

Doubt feels like weeds growing in a garden. Some weeds have pretty flowers so you allow them to stay, even if they are likely to take over the entire garden and prevent the plants you are actively trying to grow from thriving. Where is the line between mindful investigation and poisonous doubt?

The simile from the suttas tell us:

A man traveling through a desert, aware that travelers may be plundered or killed by robbers, will, at the mere sound of a twig or a bird, become anxious and fearful, thinking: “The robbers have come!” He will go a few steps, and then out of fear, he will stop, and continue in such a manner all the way; or he may even turn back. Stopping more frequently than walking, only with toil and difficulty will he reach a place of safety, or he may not even reach it.

It is similar with one in whom doubt has arisen in regard to one of the eight objects of doubt.[4] Doubting whether the Master is an Enlightened One or not, he cannot accept it in confidence, as a matter of trust. Unable to do so, he does not attain to the paths and fruits of sanctity. Thus, as the traveler in the desert is uncertain whether robbers are there or not, he produces in his mind, again and again, a state of wavering and vacillation, a lack of decision, a state of anxiety; and thus he creates in himself an obstacle for reaching the safe ground of sanctity (ariya-bhumi). In that way, sceptical doubt is like traveling in a desert.

Of course the above deals with doubt in the Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha which isn’t relevant here but the simile still stands as something I can relate to. Doubt begets fear, resentment and ill-will (or just plain ill).

On the abandonment of sceptical doubt the texts say:

There is a strong man who, with his luggage in hand and well armed, travels through a wilderness in company. If robbers see him even from afar, they will take flight. Crossing safely the wilderness and reaching a place of safety, he will rejoice in his safe arrival. Similarly a monk, seeing that sceptical doubt is a cause of great harm, cultivates the six things that are its antidote, and gives up doubt. Just as that strong man, armed and in company, taking as little account of the robbers as of the grass on the ground, will safely come out of the wilderness to a safe place; similarly a monk, having crossed the wilderness of evil conduct, will finally reach the state of highest security, the deathless realm of Nibbana. Therefore the Blessed One compared the abandonment of sceptical doubt to reaching a place of safety.

Comparing the abandonment of doubt to reaching some kind of sanctuary makes sense. The feeling safety is based on trust and faith. But where does one find a place of safety, a sanctuary or safe heaven?

I wish I could end this on a positive note, with a solution of some kind but I am still looking. And finding words which are not heavy with doubt is still very much a struggle.

Source text: https://www.accesstoinsight.org/lib/authors/nyanaponika/wheel026.html

When it comes to words that are not helpful in our spiritual development, the list can get quite big. Typically those which often come back to haunt us includes the likes of “should” or absolutes like “always” and “never”. But lately it has surfaced in my mind another word which is often used in a way to more subtly pushes the proverbial buttons, and yes, it’s just a word.

Now grammatically the word “just” can be used in a variety of contexts. As an adjective it is generally regarded a something to aspire to. After all, the adjective “just” gives us concepts such as “justice”. However switch to the adverb and suddenly we are faced with justification and adjust. By themselves the words can be quite benign but think a little harder and you will find the just creeping its way into arguments and excuses (“I was just doing my job”, “Can I just … ?”). Even its uses in reassurance (“it’s just a bad dream”) is not always helpful and can be the catalyst to completely dismiss a conversation.

What are we not saying when the “just” comes out of our mouths? At times it feels like the verbal wildcard or the “get out of jail” card. In typography we talk about right or left justification and I often wondered why it was called that as opposed to, say, “alignment”. But there is an element of shaping ourselves to a preconceived idea which usually people can hardly define exactly, so that we may fit in, exactly like text matches the right or left border of the paper.

So “just” isn’t just a word, and while it’s perhaps not a tyrant it is nevertheless a word that says more, or less, than it implies. Next time you will pull the just card, perhaps shuffle the pack of cards one more time and think about what you really want to say and if appropriate, why you feel unable to say it.

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.

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.