Should Buddhists Celebrate Christmas?

Should Buddhists Celebrate Christmas?

christmas-2

Our immediate response to the question of whether Buddhists should celebrate Christmas is: ‘if they feel like it’. However, we suspect that some readers might be looking for a fuller account of our view on this matter. Therefore, here are five reasons why we feel it is appropriate for Buddhists to celebrate Christmas if they feel like doing so:

  1. Christ was an enlightened being: We think there is a lot of synergy between the teachings of Christ and those of the Buddha. For example, one of Christ’s core messages (which don’t necessarily always coincide with the teachings of the Church) was that of unconditional love. Unconditional love and compassion for all beings are also important parts of Buddhist practice. It’s our view that all authentic paths of spiritual practice ultimately extend from, and lead back to, the same source. Therefore, we like to think that just like the Buddha, Christ was an enlightened being. We like to see the Buddha in Christ and Christ in the Buddha. Therefore, why not celebrate the life of Christ?
  2. Christmas is an opportunity to give: Undoubtedly, some individuals see Christmas as nothing more than an opportunity to make money, spend money, party, and/or go on holiday. However, although there are some who only engage with Christmas on a superficial level, this doesn’t mean that we have to follow suit. The idea at Christmas of exchanging gifts and spending quality time with friends and loved ones is wholesome. That said, in our opinion, we don’t need to wait until Christmas to give to others because each day provides an opportunity to be generous. Giving to others is really a means of giving to ourselves. When we give without expecting anything in return, we receive. We receive the psychological and spiritual benefits that arise from caring about others rather than only caring about ourselves. In a sense, giving is a means of letting go of ourselves and when we give with the right intention, it generally makes us feel lighter and happier. It’s good to give on a daily basis but designated periods for giving – such as Christmas – can also be a good idea. Christmas day provides us with an opportunity to practice generosity without the distraction of work and other obligations that are suspended due to the public holiday.
  3. ‘Buddhism’ is just a label: In our view, an individual that is truly in touch with their own path of spiritual practice is completely comfortable with experiencing, and learning from, other spiritual traditions. An important objective of Buddhist practice is arguably to not be attached to labelling oneself as ‘Buddhist’. When we stop labelling ourselves and others, it’s easier to transcend concepts. Labels have their uses but they can limit the mind. As we discussed in our post on ‘Being too Buddhist: A Teacher-Student Dialogue’, in our opinion, true Buddhists are those that have let go of the idea of being a Buddhist. They are people that embrace the practice of being a ‘non-Buddhist Buddhist’!
  4. An opportunity for inter-faith dialogue: We’ve touched on this point already but it is worth specifically highlighting the benefits of inter-faith dialogue. Learning about other faiths helps us to learn about our own faith. Interfaith dialogue broadens our perspective and helps us to understand that although the core tenets and beliefs of the world’s various religions sometimes seem incongruous, there exist individuals within these different religions who appear to be treading the same path. For example, Saint Francis of Assisi was a 12th Century Catholic monk who practiced contemplative living and spent time living in a cave. There are lots of Buddhist saints who have done precisely the same thing. According to the version of Saint Francis’ prayer that appears on Wikipedia, Saint Francis is reported to have said “Where there is hatred, let me sow love. Where there is injury, pardon. Where there is doubt, faith. Where there is despair, hope. Where there is darkness, light. Where there is sadness, joy … For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.” Assuming they did not have prior knowledge of who uttered these words, we suspect that many Buddhists would not have difficulty in believing that they are the teachings of a Buddhist saint.
  5. Christmas pudding is scrumptious: We (but especially Ven William who is basically a dessert addict and has a penchant for chocolate and cakes) think that Christmas pudding is delicious. Not partaking in Christmas celebrations is likely to reduce one’s overall intake of Christmas pudding during the festive period. This approach would be unadvisable for somebody who’s taste buds are particularly stimulated by Christmas pudding as well as other popular seasonal deserts (e.g., mince pies)!

Ven Dr Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

The Spiritual Fence Sitter

The Spiritual Fence Sitter

Fence 4

When people are practising a spiritual path it is normal that, to a certain extent, their interest and commitment to the path waxes and wanes. For example, they may feel fully on-board one day but then later during the same month, they may question their choice to follow a particular spiritual teacher or a given path of spiritual practice. Generally speaking, the cycle of feeling more or less committed, along with the inner dialogue that typically accompanies it, is a positive thing. Doubts or questions arise and in the course of working through them, people often end up understanding more about themselves, as well as the path they are treading. In other words, periods of ‘spiritual questioning’ are normal, if not essential, for fostering progress along the path.

A good spiritual teacher will understand the tendency of spiritual practitioners to move through phases of feeling less or more convinced. At times when the practitioner’s faith or commitment appears to be waning, the teacher may seek to inspire them and recapture their interest. Particularly at the beginning phases of a spiritual relationship, an authentic spiritual teacher will do all they can to demonstrate to the practitioner that 1. the path is real, 2. the goal of the path (i.e., enlightenment) is real, and 3. they (i.e., the teacher) have the necessary spiritual acumen to guide the practitioner to their goal.

As intimated above, it is normal for the practitioner to test the spiritual teacher’s resolve and level of awareness. Consequently, the beginning phase of a spiritual relationship is often somewhat one-sided in terms of the amount of spiritual energy introduced by the teacher, versus the amount of faith and diligent practice exhibited by the practitioner. Nevertheless, a good spiritual teacher will be patient and will always provide individuals with ample time and opportunity for them to decide whether they are ready to embrace the path.

The duration of this ‘honeymoon’ period of the spiritual relationship is different for every individual, but inevitably, there reaches a point when the spiritual teacher has to evaluate whether continuing to coax or ‘spoon-feed’ the individual is likely to be effective. According to some Buddhist traditions, Avalokitesvara is a Buddha with an immense amount of compassion for all living beings. Driven by his compassion, Avalokitesvara is said to have entered the hell realms in an attempt to free all of the beings that inhabit them. However, as quickly as Avalokiteshvara was emptying the hell realms, they were filling up again. The point is that although enlightened beings can offer support, the spiritual practitioner has to do the work and can’t be carried to enlightenment (if they could, then it is reasonable to assume that there would not be such a thing as a ‘suffering being’ because enlightened beings would have already separated everybody from their suffering).

Our definition of a ‘spiritual fence sitter’ is a person that has not only been introduced to an authentic spiritual path by an authentic spiritual teacher, but has had ample opportunity to test both the teacher and the path that they represent. According to our delineation, spiritual fence sitters are relatively spiritually ‘ripe’ in the sense that a part of them is genuinely interested in devoting their life to spiritual awareness. In other words, they should not be confused with the significant number of individuals that purport to practise spiritual development but whose interest is highly superficial. Such people can’t be classed as spiritual fence sitters because rather than a genuine desire to foster spiritual awareness, their interest in spiritual practice is mostly driven by (for example) the wish to follow a fashion, make friends, meet a partner, socially interact, advance their career or reputation, or escape from problems (i.e., an individual can’t be said to be fence sitting if they have no interest in finding out what lies on the other side of the fence).

For a spiritual fence sitter that has had plenty of opportunity to ‘taste’ the authentic teachings, perhaps the most important consideration to bear in mind is that they can’t stay on the fence indefinitely. At some point, the spiritual fence sitter will have to decide whether they are ‘in’ or whether they are ‘out’. When all conditions are right, a good teacher will create circumstances that ‘force’ the practitioner to make this decision. This is done not only to help the teacher determine where to expend their time and energy, but also to ‘protect’ both the spiritual teachings and the spiritual practitioner. Once an individual has had several tastes of the path and/or the teacher’s wisdom, they no longer have any excuse for believing that enlightenment and the spiritual world are notions of fiction. Choosing not to wholeheartedly embrace the spiritual path under such circumstances can have significant negative consequences for the practitioner. The spiritual link that has been established between them and the teacher will, by its very nature, expose them to a range of new experiences and situations. Without the required level of conviction, these experiences and situations (that would otherwise act as major stepping stones on the path), are likely to cause lasting harm that could extend beyond the spiritual practitioner’s current lifetime.

Consequently, the spiritual teacher may deem it necessary to distance themselves from the practitioner. Of course, the sacred spiritual link between teacher and practitioner can be re-established, but at this point rather than the teacher trying to convince the practitioner to remain on-board (i.e., which was the case at the early phase of the spiritual relationship), now the practitioner has to work hard in order to convince the teacher.

 Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Should a Buddhist Eat Meat?

Should a Buddhist Eat Meat?

veggi

 

We never cease to be amazed by the number of non-Buddhist individuals that we encounter who believe that abstaining from eating meat is a prerequisite for being a Buddhist. However, it is not just amongst non-Buddhists where this view is prevalent because in the region of about 25% of Buddhist individuals that we meet (in both the East and West) also appear to share the same view. The question of whether or not it is appropriate for Buddhists to eat meat raises a number of important ethical (and practical issues) that are as relevant today as they were when the Buddha was teaching some 2,500 years ago. In this post, we examine the logic and scriptural provenance underlying some of the leading arguments for and against Buddhists eating meat.

A Scriptural Account

We have sometimes read or heard it said that the Buddhist scriptures are ambiguous on the matter of meat eating. However, this presumption is incorrect because the Buddha gave some very specific advice on this topic. According to the Jivaka sutta, the Buddha stated that there are three particular instances where it is acceptable for a Buddhist practitioner to eat meat, and three circumstances where it is inappropriate. The exact words as recorded in the English language Pāli canon edition of this sutta (Majjhima Nikāya 55) are as follows:

“Jivaka, I say that there are three instances in which meat should not be eaten: when it is seen, heard, or suspected that the living being has been slaughtered for oneself. I say that meat should not be eaten in these three instances. I say that there are three instances in which meat may be eaten: when it is not seen, not heard, and not suspected that the living being has been slaughtered for oneself. I say that meat may be eaten in these three instances.”

Thus, the Jivaka sutta, which contains one of the Buddha’s most direct references to meat eating, makes it clear that although the Buddha was adverse to a spiritual practitioner consenting for an animal to be killed on their behalf, he was not adverse per se to the idea of a spiritual practitioner eating meat.

Arguments against Eating Meat

The main argument against Buddhists eating meat is that meat eating is incongruous with the core Buddhist precept of abstaining from taking life, as well as with the general emphasis placed in Buddhism on cultivating loving-kindness and compassion towards all sentient beings (including animals and fish). Of course, it could be argued that if a person buys meat in the supermarket then they haven’t personally killed the animal. However, the robustness of this position is questionable because clearly the consumer is a vital link in the chain of meat production (i.e., if there wasn’t a demand for meat then the number of animals slaughtered for the purposes of supplying meat would be significantly less).

There are several other views relating to why Buddhists should not eat meat but they are mostly encompassed by the primary argument outlined above. An example of such a secondary argument is that by capturing and killing a mature wild animal (i.e., an animal that has not been specifically bred for meat production), it is possible that: (i) its offspring will suffer (and possibly die) due to being without the protection of their mother or father, or (ii) an animal (or animals) higher up the food chain will suffer (and possibly die) due to not being able to find a prey. In other words, due to a human being eating just one single animal, it is possible that numerous other animals will incur suffering.

A further example of a secondary argument relates to the Buddhist view of reincarnation in which it is implied that a living being that is currently an animal may, in its recent past, have been a human. Since most people would be repulsed by the idea of eating a human being, the question arises as to whether it is ethically correct to eat an animal that was a human being during a previous lifetime. These secondary arguments add additional ‘food for thought’ but they are all basically encompassed by the view that human beings are in many ways responsible for the wellbeing of the insects, fishes, and animals with whom we share this earth, and that it is cruel to kill them or cause them to suffer.

Arguments for Eating Meat

From the point of view of practicality, there are certain geographical regions where, without going to great expense, it would be very difficult for a Buddhist practitioner to live on a meat-free diet. In arctic, sub-arctic, and tundra regions, it is much more difficult to grow produce compared to regions that are much warmer. The same applies to very arid regions where droughts can last for months on end. In such areas, it is probably unrealistic for a person on an average or below average income to live on a diet that excludes meat or fish.

In addition to influences and limitations imposed by the elements, an individual’s level of wealth may also affect the dietary options that are available to them. For example, there are regions of the world that are conducive to growing produce but where poverty places restrictions on the types of food a person can buy. In the West, it is becoming increasingly easier to be vegetarian without it meaning that one’s health and nutritional intake somehow has to suffer. Indeed, some Western supermarkets now have entire sections of the shelves, chillers, and freezers that are dedicated to meat alternatives and vegetarian meals. Many restaurants in the West also have vegetarian sections of the menu and there are also some restaurants that are exclusively vegetarian. However, this isn’t the case all over the world and it is probable that in abstaining from eating meat, some individuals of below average means would not be able to afford to buy everything they need for a balanced and healthy diet.

The above arguments are not necessarily in favour of Buddhist practitioners eating meat but they simply highlight the fact that there are certain circumstances where it is impractical for an individual to be vegetarian. In addition to such practical considerations, there are also arguments that support meat eating that are more philosophical in nature. In particular, there is the argument that by eating meat, Buddhist practitioners (and anybody else for that matter) are actually sustaining life. This somewhat paradoxical argument relates to the fact that if there wasn’t demand for meat, then a large proportion of animals currently being bred for meat production simply wouldn’t exist. It is true that some animals bred for meat production live in conditions that are far from ideal (or that in some instances constitute cruelty to animals). However, it is also true that many of these animals – particularly in developed countries – live in conditions that are deemed to be comfortable and conducive to their health and wellbeing. Therefore and according to this line of thought, by eating meat a Buddhist practitioner plays an integral role in the process of giving and sustaining life.

The above slightly paradoxical argument could be challenged by asserting that although the meat eater is a contributing factor for new life being brought into the world, they are also the cause of that life coming to a premature end. This is a valid counter-argument but it can be easily undermined by taking into consideration the fact that even when living in the wild, a lot of animals die ‘prematurely’. The reason for this is because unless they are at the top of the food chain, animals are predated upon. In fact, even animals that are at the top of the food chain are an easy target for a carnivorous or scavenging animal when they become sick or old. Thus, in the wild, there are probably very few animals that die of old age, and it is not uncommon for an animal that becomes the prey of another animal to meet with a brutal end (in some cases probably much more brutal than being slaughtered in a controlled environment). 

Concluding Thoughts

There are strong arguments both for and against the Buddhist practitioner eating meat. According to the suttas, the Buddha’s personal view on this matter was that spiritual practitioners should avoid killing, or directly consenting to the killing of, an animal intended for consumption by human beings. However, the Buddha was seemingly not opposed to a person eating meat where the animal had been killed without that individuals ‘direct’ knowledge or consent. Our own personal view on this matter is that Buddhist practitioners should appraise themselves of the key arguments for and against meat eating, and then come to an informed decision.

As far as we see it, although we would encourage people to make sure that whatever they eat (meat or otherwise) has not somehow resulted in the subjecting to cruelty of an animal or human being, there isn’t really a ‘right’ or a ‘wrong’ position here. If a spiritual practitioner makes an informed decision and decides that they would like to eat meat, then that’s fine. Likewise, if a spiritual practitioner understands all of the options and decides that they would like to be vegetarian, that’s also fine. In other words, from the point of view of authentic spiritual development, the issue of eating or abstaining from eating meat is actually of limited relevance. Today, some people that call themselves Buddhists make a big deal out of this issue, but according to the record of the scriptures, it wasn’t considered to be a big deal by the Buddha. In terms of its spiritual significance, rather than ‘what’ a person eats, we would argue that ‘how’ they eat counts for a lot more. If a person eats meat or a vegetarian meal with spiritual awareness, gentleness, and good table manners then this will certainly contribute towards their spiritual growth. However, if a person eats meat or a vegetarian meal in a greedy and mindless manner (e.g.,  by slouching over their meal and shovelling it into their mouths), and if they eat without being considerate of other people who might be in their presence, then such comportment actually counts as a hindrance towards progressing along the spiritual path.

 Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

The Heart of Buddhism: Liberation through Emptiness

The Heart of Buddhism: Liberation through Emptiness

Emptiness

As we have discussed in a number of posts on this blog, emptiness (Pāli: suññatā, Sanskrit: śūnyatā) is a fundamental Buddhist teaching that refers to the fact that phenomena do not intrinsically exist. This empty characteristic of phenomena relates as much to animate objects such as a flower, a car, or the human body, as it does to inanimate constructs such as the mind, space, or the present moment. In essence, emptiness means that nothing exists as a discrete entity and in separation from everything else. For example, a flower in the garden manifests in reliance upon numerous causes and conditions, without which, it would not exist. Amongst countless others, these causes and conditions include the water in the earth and atmosphere, nutrients in the soil, respiratory gases carried by the wind, heat of the sun, and so forth. Therefore, at the simplest level, it can be said that interconnectedness is an important principle of emptiness. Phenomena do not exist in isolation of each other and by logical default, they are empty of an independent and inherently existing self. However, for the same reasons that phenomena are empty of an intrinsic self, they also are “full” of everything else that exists. Therefore, as we have previously discussed on this blog, the term emptiness could actually be replaced with the term fullness. In emptiness there is fullness, and vice-a-versa.

Investigating emptiness through the lens of interconnectedness is a perfectly acceptable means of becoming familiar with emptiness, but as demonstrated in our post on Dream or Reality, other lines of reasoning can (and ideally should) be followed. Indeed, one of the drawbacks of relying on interconnectedness to internalize the principle of emptiness is that interconnectedness still implies that phenomena inherently exist (otherwise it would not be possible for them to be connected to each other). Therefore, although interconnectedness can help to give rise to a basic understanding of emptiness, it is nevertheless based on a dualistic manner of perceiving and constructing the world. In Buddhism, even the slightest inclination towards perceiving reality dualistically (i.e., in subject-object terms) is understood to reinforce an individual’s belief in the inherent existence of phenomena, and to constitute a departure from the direct path to spiritual awakening.

The Heart Sutra (Sanskrit: Prajna Paramita Hrdaya Sutra) is a key Māhāyana Buddhist teaching on emptiness that emphasizes the importance of not being bound by dualistic modes of thinking and perceiving.  As shown in the Heart Sutra below, it is by immersing themselves in emptiness (referred to in the Sutra as the perfection of wisdom [Sanskrit: prajna paramita]), that the bodhisattvas and all Buddhas of the past, present, and future are able to break free of the tendency to perceive things dualistically and thus permanently liberate themselves from suffering:

[Note: The Heart Sutra refers to the “five aggregates” of (i) form, (ii) feelings, (iii) perceptions, (iv) mental formations, and (v) consciousness. The five aggregates are understood in Buddhism to represent the different components that come together and give us the impression that we exist as a definite “self”.]

The Heart Sutra

“The Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara,

whilst immersed in the perfection of wisdom,

perceived that the five aggregates are empty,

and overcame all suffering and anguish.

 

Listen Shariputra,

form is identical to emptiness,

and emptiness is identical to form.

Form is of the nature of emptiness,

and emptiness is of the nature of form.

The same applies to feelings,

perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.

 

Listen Shariputra,

all phenomena are sealed with emptiness.

They do not arise or dissolve,

are neither impure nor pure,

they neither increase nor decrease.

 

Thus, in emptiness, there is no form, feelings,

perceptions, mental formations, or consciousness.

There are no eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, or mind.

No sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, or object of mind.

No eye consciousness and so forth until no mind consciousness.

 

There is no ignorance and no cessation of it,

and so forth until no old age and death.

However, there is also no cessation of old age and death.

There is no suffering, no cause of suffering,

no cessation of suffering, and no path.

There is no insight and there is nothing to attain.

 

The Bodhisattvas who immerse themselves,

in the perfection of wisdom,

overcome all mental obstacles,

and therefore they overcome all fear.

They are forever parted from deluded views,

and thus awake to Nirvana.

 

All Buddhas of the three times,

attain unsurpassed perfect enlightenment,

by immersing themselves in the perfection of wisdom.

 

Therefore know that the perfection of wisdom is:

the great transcendent mantra,

the great bright mantra,

the highest mantra,

the unsurpassed mantra,

and the truth that eradicates all suffering.

 

Thus, the perfection of wisdom mantra should be proclaimed as follows:

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha

Gate, gate, paragate, parasamgate, bodhi svaha”

 

At a future point, we aim to provide a full commentary on the above version of the Heart Sutra. However, for the time being, the most important message to take from the Heart Sutra is arguably the statement: “form is identical to emptiness and emptiness is identical to form”. In no uncertain terms, these spiritually profound words explain that emptiness is not a mystical state of mind or an alternative non-worldly dimension, but constitutes the very nature and fabric of the reality in which we currently find ourselves (i.e., the present moment). According to Buddhist thought, when an individual awakens to this fundamental truth—that has always been right in front of their eyes—they move beyond the concept of this and that, of existence and non-existence, and they encounter their indestructible Buddha nature.

Please note: This post adapts and summarises a section of the following (forthcoming) book chapter: Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Singh, N. N., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Mindfulness of Emptiness and the Emptiness of Mindfulness. In: Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Singh, N. N. (Eds). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness. New York: Springer. [In Press]

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (2004). Dzogchen: Heart essence of the Great Perfection. New York: Snow Lion.

Gampopa. (1998). The jewel ornament of liberation: The wish-fulfilling gem of the noble teachings. New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Michalon, M. (2001). “Selflessness” in the service of the ego: Contributions, limitations and dangers of Buddhist psychology for Western psychotherapy. American Journal of Psychotherapy, 55, 202-218.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). The heart of the Buddha’s teaching: Transforming suffering into peace, joy and liberation. New York: Broadway Books.

Shonin, E. & Van Gordon, W. (2014). Using mindfulness and insight to transform loneliness. Mindfulness, 5, 771-773.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Urgyen, T. (2000). As It Is. Hong Kong: Rangjung Yeshe Publications.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2015). There is only one mindfulness: Why science and Buddhism need to work together. Mindfulness, DOI 10.1007/s12671-014-0379-y.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). Searching for the present moment, Mindfulness, 5, 105-107

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., Compare, A., Zangeneh, M., & Griffiths, M. D. (2015). Buddhist-derived loving-kindness and compassion meditation for the treatment of psychopathology: A systematic review. Mindfulness, 6, 1161-1180.

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., & Griffiths, M. (2015). Towards a second-generation of mindfulness-based interventions. Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 49, 591-591.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Meditation as medication: Are attitudes changing? British Journal of General Practice, 63, 654.

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2015). The lineage of mindfulness. Mindfulness, 6, 141-145.

Can a Buddha become Angry?

Can a Buddha become Angry?

Concentration

      Given that Buddhahood is frequently described as a state of limitless compassion that is completely free of negative and afflictive emotions, it might seem strange that we have decided to write a post addressing the question of whether it is possible for a Buddha to become angry. However, believe it or not, the answer to this question is not a straightforward ‘no’. In today’s post, we begin by exploring some Buddhist and psychological perspectives on anger and then provide our view on the above question.

Within Buddhism, in addition to attachment and ignorance, anger is known as one of the three root poisons (Sanskrit: trivisa). Anger can be thought of as a form of aversion towards another person, situation, or even ourselves. Because we see, hear, smell, taste, or touch something that we don’t like or that we perceive as a threat to our wellbeing or sense of self, we quickly want to remove or destroy it so that things return to normal. Basically, anger manifests because we are trying to keep things orderly and under control – people or situations that threaten to disturb or interfere with the world that we have created for ourselves make us feel angry and afraid.

Although in the Buddhist teachings anger is often described as a form of aversion, it can actually also be thought of as a form of attachment. Indeed, the reason we have aversion towards a particular situation is because we have allowed ourselves to become attached to what we deem to represent the ‘opposite’ of that situation. For example, imagine that for some time everything was cushy at work and things were going really well with the career. But then along comes a work colleague who makes us angry and who starts to create problems – it seems that they deliberately go out of their way to cause us trouble. However, if we stop and think about it, the anger and aversion that we experience arises because we have become attached to the idea of everything being cushy and comfortable at work – the perfect environment where we will always be recognised and rewarded for our efforts and where we can swiftly move up the career ladder.

If we didn’t harbour attachments or have unrealistic ideas in the first place, then we wouldn’t become so angry when our plans and ideas are disrupted. Buddhism asserts that a person’s propensity for anger is closely associated with how much attachment they harbour. A person that becomes very attached to their possessions – which in some people’s minds can also include family members, partners, and friends – is likely to be quick to anger. In a paper that we recently published in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, we defined the Buddhist notion of attachment as “the over-allocation of cognitive and emotional resources towards a particular object, construct, or idea to the extent that the object is assigned an attractive quality that is unrealistic and that exceeds its intrinsic worth”. As demonstrated by our definition, attachment takes on a very different meaning in Buddhism compared to its use in Western psychology where attachment (e.g., in the context of relationships) is generally considered to exert a protective influence over mental health problems.

In the same way that the Buddhist root poisons of attachment and anger (or aversion) are closely related to each other, they are also both closely related to the other root poison that we mentioned – ignorance. Ignorance is described as one of the three root poisons, but it is actually the primary cause of each of the other poisons and of suffering more generally. Ignorance in the context that we are discussing it here refers to the extent to which a person views themselves as an independently or inherently-existing entity. The more a person is caught up in themselves and thinks that they possess a definite self, the more ignorant they become – and the larger their ego inflates itself. Thus, aversion or anger is a direct result of attachment, and attachment is a direct result of ignorance or ego.

When a person becomes angry, it basically means that the ego-monkey that we talked about in our last post has decided to raise its head. Although ego underpins all of our emotions and behaviours, this is particularly the case when anger is ravaging the mind. In fact, you only have to look at an angry person and it is as though their ego is trying to burst through their skin. We touched on this in our post on the Top Five Beauty Tips for Men and Women where we made reference to research demonstrating that anger is associated with physiological responses such as contraction of the brow muscles, facial flushing (i.e., turning red), flared nostrils, clenched jaws, increased perspiration, increased heart rate, and general tension in the skeletal musculature of the facial and neck regions.

Anger has a tendency to overrun the mind and body and it is generally accepted by Western psychologists that anger can distort a person’s perspective of a situation and reduce their ability to make wise decisions. As we discussed in a paper that we published in the psychology journal Aggression and Violent Behaviour, in addition to causing people to say and do unpleasant things, anger can also cause people to behave irrationally. For example, a few years ago we were guiding a meditation retreat in the Snowdonia Mountains of North Wales where one of the participants was a middle-aged lady who was very angry because she couldn’t get her mind to relax. Part way through one of the meditations, it became apparent that one of the male participants in the group was a ‘breather’. ‘Breathers’ are those people that breathe really deeply and loudly during meditation so that everybody else can hear them and so that everybody knows they are ‘serious’ about their practice. Anyway, about half way through this particular meditation session, it just became too much for the lady who broke her silence and in an angry voice suddenly shouted out ‘stop breathing’!

The point we have been trying to make above is that anger is a major obstacle to happiness and spiritual development. It is a sign that a person’s ego is very much in tact – which from the point of view of the meditation or spiritual practitioner – means that there is still a tremendous amount of work to do. As a general rule, the smaller the degree to which a spiritual practitioner’s thoughts, words, or actions are influenced by ego (and therefore anger), the closer they are to attaining Buddhahood. However, whilst this general rule applies for practically all stages of the spiritual practitioner’s journey, it no longer applies when they have awoken to full Buddhahood.

For a fully enlightened Buddha, the moment a thought or feeling arises in their mind, it is immediately liberated. The Buddhas perceive clearly that all phenomena – including those of a psychological nature – are absent of an intrinsically—existing self. They see that everything that manifests has no more substance than a mental projection or a dream. As it says in the heart sutra, the Buddhas understand that form (i.e., phenomena) is emptiness and emptiness is form. The Buddhas are not bound by concepts such as self and other, past and future (i.e., time), or here and there (i.e., space). Consequently, their mind is unlimited – it is free of any form of attachment or aversion.

This ability of Buddhas to never become attached to physical or mental objects means that they are free to manifest whatever feelings might be most skilful and compassionate within a given situation. In effect, the Buddhas have uprooted the causes of negative emotions to such an extent, that they are now free to use so-called ‘negative emotions’ as they see fit. Ultimately, the Buddhas are 100% focussed on liberating other beings from suffering. They are overflowing with unconditional kindness, compassion, and patience, but if it is a blast of anger that is required to jolt a person to start truly practicing spiritual development, then it will be duly administered. This is very different than pretending to be angry (e.g., as a parent might do) in order to communicate feelings of disapproval towards another person. The type of anger that we are referring to here is very real – it is primordial anger but there is absolutely no ego mixed in with it. Due to the rawness of this anger and the fact that it is not tainted by ego, it enters deeply and directly into the recipient’s mind and gives them a clear choice in terms of embracing or rejecting the Dharma (truth/teachings).

There are quite a number of examples of enlightened beings using this primordial anger to benefit others. Probably the best known example amongst Westerners is that of Jesus Christ when he over-turned the tables and started throwing the traders out of the temple. Buddhist practitioners might have heard about the 11th century Tibetan spiritual adept Marpa who would even administer a physical beating where he felt it would be of some long-term benefit. Another reasonably well-known and much more recent example is Lama Yeshe who died in 1984 – there are reports that he once got hold of a pick-pocket (i.e., a thief) and gave them a right good shaking in order to make them see sense. There are also examples of Zen teachers becoming angry with their students and in some cases this actually prompted an intuitive leap or a sudden flash of realisation.

For the everyday meditation practitioner such as you and us, anger can make it almost impossible to stabilise the mind and it can significantly disrupt a persons’ spiritual progress. Consequently, every effort should be made to practice patience and kindness and to never act out of anger. However, for the fully enlightened Buddhas, although their very being overflows with joy, wisdom, and compassion, it does seem that they can and do use primordial anger as a very skilful and effective means of teaching. This is quite a dangerous subject to write about because some meditation practitioners or teachers could misinterpret what we are saying and start believing that it is acceptable to be angry. However, given that there are reports of Buddhas exhibiting anger, then it seems appropriate to offer an explanation as to why this might be. Another reason for writing this post is because in the event you are one of those handful of people fortunate enough to meet a fully-enlightened teacher – you’ll be less likely to become all haughty and self-righteous if they decide to give you verbal kick-up the backside!

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (2001). Stages of Meditation: Training the Mind for Wisdom. London: Rider.

Day, A. (2009). Offender emotion and self-regulation: Implications for offender rehabilitation programming. Psychology, Crime and Law, 15, 119-130.

Huang Po. (1982). The Zen teaching of Huang Po: On the transmission of the mind. (Blofeld, J., Trans.) New York: Grove Press.

Novaco, R. W. (2007). Anger Dysregulation. In T. A. Cavell, & K. T. Malcolm (Eds.), Anger, Aggression, and Interventions for Interpersonal Violence (pp. 3-54). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). The emerging role of Buddhism in clinical psychology: Toward effective integration. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 6, 123-137.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon, W., & Griffiths, M. D. (2014). Mindfulness meditation in American correctional facilities: A ‘what-works’ approach to reducing reoffending.Corrections Today: Journal of the American Correctional Association, March/April, 48-51.

Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., Slade, K., & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Mindfulness and other Buddhist-derived interventions in correctional settings: A systematic review. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 18, 365-372.

Wright, S., Day, A., & Howells, K. (2009). Mindfulness and the treatment of anger problems. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 14, 396-401.

How to Tame a Monkey Mind

How to Tame a Monkey Mind

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Within Buddhism, the term ‘monkey mind’ is sometimes used to describe people that have very unsettled minds. If you have a monkey mind, it basically means that just like a naughty monkey, your mind constantly jumps from one thing to another and only very rarely does it actually settle down. People with monkey minds might be engaged in some kind of task or conversation, but they quickly succumb to boredom and their mind begins to wander off again. The monkey mind condition normally becomes apparent to people when they start learning meditation. Indeed, people that are new to meditation frequently experience great difficulty in holding their concentration on a single meditative object (such as the natural flow of their in-breath and out-breath). We are not aware of any empirical research that has attempted to quantify the prevalence of the monkey mind condition, but we would estimate that most people would admit to having experienced monkey-mindedness to a greater or lesser extent.

In general, people with a more severe form of monkey-mindedness are quite easy to spot because in addition to being mentally restless, they are invariably also very physically restless. Of course, there can be many reasons – including medical ones – that may influence the degree of physical unrest that a person exhibits. However, generally speaking and based on our experience, if a person finds it difficult to sit still and always has to be doing something, then this is a sign that they may be afflicted by monkey-mindedness. Another good indicator of monkey-mindedness is when an individual is following a certain line of dialogue or conversation and they suddenly go off on tangents and introduce completely-unrelated topics. In fact, we encounter quite a number of people that can thread together what seems to be an endless string of completely-unrelated topics and hold (what they deem to be) a ‘conversation’ for hours on end. Perhaps the monkey in the mind of people like this is bigger than the average-sized monkey or perhaps it is just particularly naughty and restless – who knows?

Although monkey-mindedness often reveals itself through an individual’s physical demeanour and comportment, some people try to conceal their monkey mind. For example, as part of our vocation as Buddhist monks, we have been present at or facilitated a large number of meditation retreats, and as with most of life’s pursuits, there is a tendency for people at meditation retreats to try to give the impression that they are very experienced and/or are much more accomplished than everybody else. You would probably be surprised at the lengths that some people go to in order to convince others that they are a ‘serious’ meditator. Indeed, some people sit in what they believe is meditation for hours on end without flinching or moving a muscle, and whilst keeping a very solemn expression on their face. For people who are new to meditation, seeing others behave like this can actually be quite intimidating – we’re not sure that it creates a hostile environment but it certainly doesn’t help people to feel welcome and at ease.

Despite their attempts to convince people otherwise, you only need to observe these ‘serious meditators’ when they get up and leave the meditation hall to see that their mind is far from disciplined and serene. Because such people are more interested in giving the impression of practising meditation rather than actually practising it, then it doesn’t take long before the ego-monkey in their mind reveals itself and does or says something that is selfish and/or hurtful to others. In fact, on several separate occasions, we have observed a meditator sitting very seriously, but due to trying to supress or ignore their monkey mind, they allow psychological pressure to build-up. The next thing that happens is they suddenly can’t take it anymore and they end up rushing out of the meditation hall.

The wisdom and lesson that can be learned from the above example of the overly-serious meditator is that if we try to ignore or supress the monkey mind, it can lead to both internal and external conflict. The same thing happens if we are too rigid and serious in our efforts to tame the monkey within. In other words, in order to begin taming the monkey mind, in addition to a certain degree of meditative-technical knowhow, we need a great deal of patience, gentleness, perseverance, and a good sense of humour.

If we understand that on the one hand, taming the monkey mind requires lots of effort and is arguably the most important thing we will ever do in our lives, but on the other hand personal and spiritual growth takes time and cannot be forced, then we create the optimum frame of mind for enjoying the process of transforming unwholesome habits and for progressing along the path of awareness. In order to tame the monkey mind, we need to become aware of its undisciplined nature but in a manner that keeps things light, spacious, and airy. As we discussed in our post on ‘the absorbing mind’, the simple act of observing and becoming aware of our thoughts and mental processes helps to objectify them and to loosen their hold over us. However, if we try to watch our thoughts and feelings too intensely then despite our efforts to do the opposite, we end up giving them too much power and importance.

Therefore, when we practice awareness of our thoughts and of our mental processes, we should do so with a very big and generous mind. This means that we accept the mind as it is and that we don’t try to manipulate it. If the mind is particularly wild and out of control that’s absolutely fine – all we do in this situation is take the unruly mind itself as the object of our awareness. In effect, what we are doing is setting the mind free within the field of our awareness. Because we are not holding onto the mind or offering it resistance by trying to keep it under control, it has no alternative but to begin to calm and settle. Believe it or not, attempting to modify the mind actually runs contrary to the general principle of meditation which is that tranquillity and wisdom are naturally present in the mind and will arise of their own accord when the correct conditions come about. One of these ‘correct conditions’ is simply observing and nourishing the mind through meditative awareness. A metaphor that we have used previously to help explain this principle is that of a garden fish pond – every time the garden pond is stirred or interfered with, the water becomes muddy and unsettled. However, if a person sits quietly next to the pond and simply observes it, the water becomes perfectly still and clear again.

The monkey mind will remain a monkey mind for as long as we choose not to tame it. We might decide that we don’t have a monkey mind or that we do have one but that it doesn’t need to be changed. However, if we are being truthful with ourselves and if we examine the mind closely, unless we are already very spiritually enlightened, then we are likely to see that it is only very rarely (if at all) that we experience true peace of mind. Indeed, irrespective of whether or not we are aware of the wild nature of our minds, having a mind that is always racing around – constantly jumping to and fro between the past and the future – eventually causes us to become physically, mentally, and spiritually exhausted. In fact, it is our personal view that a lot of mental health problems such as anxiety, stress, and depression arise because people have very unruly minds and are without the knowledge of how to properly tend to their thoughts and feelings. However, it is also our view that by practising full awareness of all of our thoughts and mind movements, we can begin to take care of our monkey mind until it gradually learns to sit in perfect stillness and quiet.

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

When Buddha and Christ Met for Tea

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Jesus said: If those who lead you say to you ‘look, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.” (From the Gospel of Thomas)

A world-honoured one whose many names include Shakyamuni Buddha, from the limitless expanse of the deathless realm, with divine tongue (using words beyond sound), did spontaneously converse with the world-honoured one whose many names include Jesus Christ. The two beings of unsurpassable omniscience, simultaneously decided to take human form and walk again in the realm known as earth.

Having taken human form and travelled the earth separately for a one-year period, prior to ejecting their consciousnesses back into the ultimate expanse, the two great beings decided to meet and discuss their experiences over a cup of tea. The Buddha and Christ sat opposite one another in a quiet corner of an independently-run coffee shop. They ordered a pot of hot tea and some freshly baked chocolate brownies. After a few minutes of sitting in quiet whilst observing and being one with the unfolding present moment, they broke the silence and conversed (in audible words) with gentle tone thus:

Buddha: So, please tell me brother, how was your visit?

Christ: Ah, it is most wonderful to see you again. It’s been quite a lonely stay. It saddens me to say so, but I think things are getting worse here, much worse.

Buddha: Was it really that bad?

Christ: Wherever I went, I taught. Sometimes I spoke to them in words, sometimes in actions. Sometimes I spoke directly from my mind to theirs. Sometimes I taught large groups, sometimes individuals. For each and every person I met, I helped them to experience the god-nature within them. I taught them just to stop for a moment, to follow their breath in and out, and to allow the Holy Spirit to bathe their being. But so few wanted to see. Having experienced a taste of unconditional peace, they either became suspicious or else wanted to be spoon-fed without doing any work.

Buddha: Did they see you?

Christ: Some saw a con man, others saw a beggar. Some, I’m sure, saw a teacher of some form or other and perhaps a small number caught a glimpse of my true self. But the truth is, they didn’t want to see. Seeing me fully was an inconvenience for them, a disruption to the soap opera of their lives.

Buddha: Oh dear.

Christ: What about you my dearest, how was your visit?

Buddha: Well, unfortunately, it seems as though my experience was not all that dissimilar to yours. In fact, to tell the truth, it was quite saddening. When I was here some 2,500 years ago, I taught one set of teachings. Those teachings were multi-layered, and were suitable for people with varying degrees of spiritual propensity. In other words, within any given transmission that I gave, people could extract what they needed at that particular point in their spiritual evolution. So whilst it is wonderful that my teachings have spread across the globe, and have been moulded to suit the cultures in which they have found themselves, it is rather upsetting that people insist on dividing my teachings up and then entering into quarrels based on those divisions.

Christ: That is indeed sad to hear.

Buddha: Nowadays, they divide my teachings up into three principal schools which they call the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. It is saddening to observe just how frequently proponents of these respective schools publicise the relative strengths of their particular school or even go as far as to actively deride the other approaches. I didn’t divide up my teachings in this manner, nor did any of my successors who expanded on the Buddhadharma and retransmitted my teachings over subsequent centuries. The essence of the most profound Buddhist teachings is inherently present within the simplest of my instructions. I wish they wouldn’t over-conceptualise and divide the whole into many.

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Christ: I hear what you say. Not only were all of the teachings expounded by you full and complete in their own right, but they originated from the same source as all of the teachings I gave. If only people would realise that when they heard you teaching, they heard me teaching too – and vice versa.

Buddha: Yes, that is so. We used different words to convey the same message. Where you spoke of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, I spoke of the Dharmakaya, the Sambogakaya, and the Nirmanakaya. The Dharmakaya means the Father, the Sambogakaya means the Holy Spirit, and the Nirmanakaya means the son. In the Gospel of Thomas you are recorded as saying “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” This was your skilful way of teaching the people that the way to reach God or Nirvana was to cultivate and abide in the view of emptiness. With the wisdom view of emptiness, when looking at one thing, all things are seen.

Christ: This is truth!

Buddha: Another thing that I found upsetting was that there are now countless Buddhist lineages. Each individual lineage claims to have authority to teach in my name because their principal teacher was taught by someone whose ‘teacher ancestry’ can be traced back to someone who was taught by me. But I didn’t authorise them to teach in my name based on these criteria. My authorisation is given freely wherever genuine realization is born in the teacher’s mind. Authentic teachers are those that belong to the living lineage of emptiness and unconditional loving kindness.

Christ: Amen.

Buddha: What about the teachings you gave 2,000 years ago, are they still intact?

Christ: When I was last here, they had already been told that God made man in his image. So I tried to show them that in their purest form, they were already an image of God. At that time, I taught the people that if they cultivated the heart of love and compassion, and disciplined their minds, they would gradually become suitable vessels to be blessed and inspired by the Holy Spirit that is already present within their being. But the essence of my message has been lost. They insist on searching outside of themselves for spiritual liberation. Don’t they realise yet that if it was in my hands to liberate them, I would have done so a long time ago? They have to stop transferring their responsibility to cultivate spiritual awareness into the hands of some divine presence. Just like the coxswain who helps to navigate the rowing boat, I can certainly help to guide them but they have to do the work.

Buddha: Amen.

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Christ: As far as my “followers” go, I do wish they wouldn’t get so caught up in beliefs and rituals. Whilst such things have their uses, the whole idea was to put my teachings into practise. Spending time squabbling about whether or not I was virgin born and about what day I was born or died on won’t get them anywhere. Such behaviour is just a means of indulging their egos – it causes conflict and unrest. I didn’t teach them this.

Buddha: I think that squabbling and bickering are becoming increasingly prevalent the world over. I visited a number of supposedly “peaceful” countries in the West, but it seems to me that they are at war with themselves. Politicians seem to be as venomous and scathing as ever before – everybody is blaming everybody else. The newspapers appear to be desperate to uncover the next scandal – and where they can’t find one then it seems that they’ll do their best to make one up. All it takes is for a recession or slight financial squeeze to come about and riots break out up and down the country. There seems to be growing amounts of tension and imbalance in the hearts and minds of the people. Governments across the world want sustainable economic and technological growth, but without spiritual growth such things will never come about.

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Christ: So my dear, what is to be done about this predicament?

Buddha: That is indeed the million-dollar question – but what about a fresh cup of tea before we continue?

Christ: That’s an excellent idea. Would you like another chocolate brownie?

Buddha: You read my mind.

To be continued …

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon