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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.