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

The Hidden Aspects of the Five Precepts

The Hidden Aspects of the Five Precepts

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The five precepts (Pāli: pañca-sīlāni) provide a basic code for living a life that is in-keeping with Buddhist ethical ideals. They are recited by lay and monastic Buddhist practitioners all over the world and a great deal has been written about their literal meaning. In today’s post, we offer an interpretation of the five precepts that focuses on their hidden meaning.

First Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from killing (Pānātipātā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden meaning of the first precept is that we should not kill the Buddha within. Whenever we chase after mundane goals such as wealth and status, this is killing the Buddha within. Our time on this earth is limited and sooner or later we will encounter death. At the point of death, all of our various life encounters and accomplishments mean absolutely nothing. They have no more significance than the fading memories of a dream and no matter how hard we try, nothing from this life can be taken into the next. The only exception to this is the spiritual insight that we manage to accrue on a day-to-day basis. Therefore, if we don’t use this precious human rebirth to nourish and develop ourselves spiritually, we suffocate the Buddha within.

When we are with someone who is talking with us, confiding in us, and our mind is thinking about either what we want to say or what we could be doing instead of being with that person, then we are killing the Buddha within that person and we kill the Buddha within ourselves. When we do not listen to the bird that is singing for us then we kill the Buddha within ourselves as well as the Buddha in the bird. That bird spent many lifetimes training to sing that song so that we could hear it and we spent many lifetimes training so that we could listen to what the bird has to say. The bird sang, we couldn’t care, the moment passed and we were not aware. We are as good as dead alongside the Buddha within.

Second Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking what is not given (Adinnādānā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden aspect of the second precept is that we should not steal from ourselves the opportunity to attain enlightenment in this lifetime. The second precept also means that we should not steal this opportunity from others. The opportunity to attain enlightenment is the birth-right of every living being in the universe. We steal away this opportunity from ourselves each time we practice mindless, selfish, and unskilful ways. We steal away this opportunity from others when we do not act with kindness, awareness, and gentleness in their presence.

When people set themselves up as ‘Buddhist’ teachers without having dedicated their lives to spiritual practice (or in some cases after having taken part in just one or two meditation retreats facilitated by people who have no real spiritual experience), they are putting their own spiritual lives in jeopardy. More concerning however, is that they are stealing the spiritual breath of others. They are stealing other people’s opportunity to attain enlightenment. People come to them obviously in need of spiritual nourishment and all they get is the unfortunate experience of being robbed – both spiritually and materially.

Third Precept: I undertake the training rule to avoid lustful conduct (Kāmesumicchācāra veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The innermost aspect of the third precept is that we should not lust after being a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’. Because of wanting to be somebody, people are unable to be themselves. The more we want to be someone, the more difficult it becomes to just simply be. Wanting to be a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’ causes us to develop a big ego which acts as an obstacle to spiritual growth. When we let go of the idea that we inherently exist, we cease to separate ourselves from the energy and dance of Dharmata that is all around us. Phenomena do not exist as discrete entities. They exist as one. When the universe breathes in, all of the phenomena that it contains breathe in with it. When the universe breathes out, all of the matter and space that it contains also breathes out. When we stop wanting to be a ‘me’, a ‘mine’, or an ‘I’, we are able to relax into and once again abide in unison with the energy of all that is.

Forth Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from false speech (Musāvādā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The hidden aspect of the fourth precept means that we should not utter false speech by giving Dharma teachings on subjects that we have not fully and directly realised ourselves. It seems that the number of so called Dharma and meditation teachers is rapidly increasing. More and more people are writing books about the Buddhist teachings (including mindfulness), and more and more people are offering meditation retreats and courses. Whenever we try to instruct others in spiritual teachings that we ourselves have not fully realised, we lie to them and we also lie to ourselves. This false speech serves to water down the Dharma, bolster our egos, and distance us (and those listening to us) from the possibility of cultivating true meditative calm and insight.

The same applies when we utter words such as “I take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha”. If during our day-to-day existence, we are only concerned with the petty affairs of our lives and getting ahead in the world, then these words are untrue. If we wish to take refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, we have to stop thinking that the world revolves around us. We have to stop living a soap opera. We have to make our entire life a spiritual practice and not just engage in (what we deem to be) Buddhist practice when it is convenient to us or when we are going through a particularly difficult time.

Fifth Precept: I undertake the training rule to abstain from ingesting intoxicants (Surāmerayamajjapamādatthānā veramanī sikkhāpadam samādiyāmi)

The innermost meaning of the fifth precept is that we should not fill up and intoxicate our own mind or other people’s minds with concepts, clever ideas, and wrong views. Too many people have their minds full-up. If our minds are too full then there is no room for wholesome thoughts to grow and flourish. In a full mind there is no space for simply being, and there is no emptiness to nurture and refresh our being. Having our minds full-up all of the time becomes very stressful and tiring not only for ourselves but also for those with whom we interact.

Some people that practice Buddhism fill up their minds with the idea that they are a Theravada Buddhist, a Mahayana Buddhist, or a Vajrayana Buddhist. However, a Theravada Buddhist who is caught up in the idea of being a Theravada Buddhist is not, in truth, a Theravada Buddhist. The same applies to Mahayana and Vajrayana practitioners who foolishly attach themselves to the name and label of their particular Buddhist practice modality.  In Theravada Buddhism there are strong Mahayana and Vajrayana elements, and in Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism there are strong Theravada elements.

In our work as Buddhist monks, we meet lots of people that proudly introduce themselves as (for example) a vegetarian, vegan, spiritual teacher, meditator, or philanthropist. If people want to be a vegetarian or a vegan that’s great – good for them. But if they over-identify with the idea of being a vegetarian and/or believe that it somehow makes them a more spiritual or virtuous person, then they have allowed their life choices to intoxicate their mind. We abstain from intoxicating the mind with concepts and wrong views when we observe but do not attach ourselves to thoughts and feelings. When we allow thoughts, feelings, and other mental processes to roll freely through the mind and not to stick to it, the mind becomes completely immune to all forms of intoxicant.

Ven. Edo Shonin and Ven. William Van Gordon

Do You Know Who I Am?

Do You Know Who I Am?

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I am not interested in where you have been or what you have done.

I care not who you are, but I care deeply how you are.

If you are happy – truly happy – then so am I.

Do you know who I am?

.

You could be rich or poor, young or old, educated or uneducated, a man or woman.

You could be successful or unsuccessful, of high status or low status, a sinner or saint.

All of these things are irrelevant to me.

Do you know who I am?

.

I care not what religion you belong to.

I also do not care if you abstain from religion altogether.

What I represent transcends the beliefs, rituals, and concepts of any religion.

Do you know who I am?

.

In so far as I have an objective, it is to help you to help yourself.

In this regard, I prefer to be gentle and kind with you.

But I can also be incredibly firm and unyielding if it will benefit you.

Do you know who I am?

.

I am flexible and can be whoever you need me to be to help you.

But you must always strive to be who I am, I cannot be who you are.

This is a matter about which I am completely inflexible.

Do you know who I am?

.

I feel happy when I see kindness in others.

I feel sad when I see cruelty in others.

But I am not attached to any of my feelings.

Do you know who I am?

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I see praise and criticism as the same thing.

Because I know myself, it matters not what others say or think about me.

My happiness is completely unconditional.

Do you know who I am?

.

The faithless and cowardly see me a charlatan.

They perceive everything through the lens of ignorance, fear, and selfishness.

But the pure in heart are drawn to me and are nourished by my presence.

Do you know who I am?

.

I have walked with kings and beggars, lived in poverty and luxury.

But these things make no difference to me.

Whatever my circumstances, I always live simply and am content.

Do you know who I am?

.

There are some with undisciplined minds that pretend to be me.

Interested only in being seen to do the right thing, they deceive their followers.

In my presence such impostors become angry, confused, and full of fear.

Do you know who I am?

.

Most people only start to think of me when they are dying.

But by waiting until then it is difficult for me to help them.

I have always taught that the right time to get to know me is right now.

Do you know who I am?

.

Some people try to know me by looking outside of themselves.

They label me, box me with concepts, and worship me.

But I can never be known in this way.

Do you know who I am?

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I exist within you and within all things.

Look deeply inside of yourself and you will see me there.

You can be me if you really want to.

Do you know who I am?

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To me, life and death are one and the same.

I am never really born and I never really die.

You can be like this too if you want to.

Do you know who I am?

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At all times I am sustained by a spring of deep calm and joy.

I do not attach myself to anything and my mind is completely unobstructed.

I soar freely and gracefully beyond the limits of space and time.

Do you know who I am?

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Can a Person Attain Enlightenment Just by Practicing Mindfulness?

Can a Person Attain Enlightenment Just by Practicing Mindfulness?

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The answer to the question of whether a person can attain enlightenment by only practicing mindfulness (obviously) depends on what definition of mindfulness and enlightenment one chooses to work with.

Let’s start by establishing what is actually meant in Buddhism by the term “enlightenment”. As part of our role as Buddhist monks and Psychologists (that specialise in researching Buddhist meditation), we come across a lot of Buddhist and non-Buddhist meditation teachers who are only too pleased to inform us that they have attained enlightenment. In our opinion, there are many reasons why these individuals decide to inform us (and others) that they are enlightened. Some of the most obvious reasons (in ascending order of “believability”) are that these people:

  •  Are in fact enlightened beings and like to tell other all about their hidden qualities.
  • Believe that enlightenment simply means having a superior intellect compared to other people around them.
  • Have had – or believe they have had – some kind of genuine spiritual experience.
  • Know full well that they are not enlightened but claim to be so in order to get an ego-kick or because they think it will help their career or reputation.

If it is accepted that (for example) enlightenment means simply being more intelligent than the average person or having given rise to genuine spiritual experiences, then it is certainly possible that exclusively practising mindfulness (i.e., rather than combining it with other spiritual and meditative practices) could lead to enlightenment. However, in our opinion, none of the meditation teachers we have met who informed us that they are enlightened, were, in fact, enlightened. Based on a synthesis of the Buddhist commentaries and canonical texts, we recently explicated enlightenment as a state in which all gross and subtle forms of suffering have completely ceased and in which the following “competencies” are present: (i) omniscience, (ii) deathlessness, (iii) dwelling in emptiness, (iv) unconditional blissful abiding, (v) freedom to take rebirth in any realm according to the needs of beings, (vi) great compassion (Sanskrit: maha karuna), and (vii) command over animate and inanimate phenomena.

Now that we have (hopefully) provided a clearer picture of what constitutes a Buddhist interpretation of enlightenment, and before we provide our opinion on whether mindfulness alone can lead to enlightenment, let’s move on now to briefly examine what is meant in Buddhism by the term “mindfulness”. Providing an absolute definition of the Buddhist depiction of mindfulness is not an easy task because Buddhist traditions do not necessarily interpret and practice mindfulness in the same way. In terms of the foundational (i.e., Theravada) Buddhist vehicle which is what might be regarded as constituting a more ‘exoteric’ approach to Buddhist practice, mindfulness – which is the seventh factor of the Noble Eightfold Path – is principally understood to play an important role in regulating meditative concentration. In this more exoteric interpretation, mindfulness is generally practised as a means of ensuring that concentration remains positioned on a specific meditative object (which can also include the present moment).

Based upon how mindfulness is interpreted in exoteric Buddhist contexts, there do not exist strong grounds for arguing that the exclusive practice of mindfulness can lead to enlightenment. The primary reason for this is because mindfulness – according to the traditional Buddhist model – is just one component of the “right path” to enlightenment. The other components of this path are the remaining seven aspects of the Noble Eightfold Path (for a more detailed discussion of the Noble Eightfold Path see our post on the Scientific Study of the Noble Eightfold Path).

Although we have just argued that it is improbable that enlightenment could be reached just by practising mindfulness, if we make a slight adjustment to what is meant by the term mindfulness by adopting a more esoteric definition, then our opinion on this matter changes accordingly. A more esoteric definition of mindfulness, using the words of Dudjom Rinpoche, is the “simple recollection of the recognition of your own nature”. We would argue that exclusively practising mindfulness in a manner consistent with this more esoteric definition could actually lead to enlightenment.

There is a great deal of synergy between the abovementioned exoteric and esoteric Buddhist delineations of mindfulness because both of these approaches effectively view mindfulness as a faculty that regulates meditative concentration. The main difference between the two models is that in the exoteric approach something external and separate from the individual is taken as the object of meditative concentration, while in the esoteric approach the individual’s inherent enlightened nature becomes the main focus of meditation. Both of these methods constitute completely valid approaches and – as far as we see it – there isn’t any contradiction between them.

Although we are using the terms “exoteric” and “esoteric, it should be remembered that esoteric Buddhist practices will never bear fruit unless a person has first internalised and mastered the exoteric Buddhist teachings. Likewise, even very basic or seemingly exoteric practices such as simply observing the breath can become extremely potent and esoteric if they are practised in the right way.

Mindfulness plays an essential role in helping us progress along the path to enlightenment. As we grow in spiritual insight and awareness, our understanding of both mindfulness and enlightenment should also evolve. As we discussed in a recent (and free to download) article that we wrote called The Lineage of Mindfulness, it is important to allow our understanding of mindfulness and enlightenment to constantly change. Indeed, if we become attached or try to hold onto what we think constitutes mindfulness or enlightenment, then we distance ourselves from the essence of the Buddha’s teachings. It is likewise very important that we avoid becoming attached to the idea of “attaining” enlightenment because for as long as enlightenment is seen as a future goal, it will remain exactly that.

 

Ven. Edo Shonin & Ven. William Van Gordon

 

Further Reading

Dalai Lama. (1995). The Path to Enlightenment. New York: Snow Lion.

Dudjom Rinpoche. (2005). Wisdom Nectar: Dudjom Rinpoche’s Heart Advice. New York: Snow Lion Publications.

Nhat Hanh, T. (1999). The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering into Peace, Joy and Liberation. New York: Broadway Books.

Nanamoli Bhikkhu. (1979). The Path of Purification: Visuddhi Magga. Kandy (Sri Lanka): Buddhist Publication Society.

Nyanaponika Thera. (1983). The Heart of Buddhist Meditation. London: Rider.

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

Van Gordon, W., Shonin, E., Griffiths, M. D., & Singh, N. N. (2025). Mindfulness and the Four Noble Truths. In: Shonin, E., Van Gordon W., & Singh, N. N. (Eds). Buddhist Foundations of Mindfulness. New York: Springer. [In Press]

Can a Person be Ignorant and Intelligent at the Same Time?

Can a Person be Ignorant and Intelligent at the Same Time?

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A few years ago, we made the decision to add a new dimension to our role as Buddhist monks by immersing ourselves in Western academia and undertaking research into the health benefits of meditation and Buddhist philosophy. After having devoted decades to the study, practice, and teaching of Buddhism (that is obviously based on Eastern philosophical principles), and despite the fact we are both originally from the West, the move into the Western academic setting has – for various reasons – been an eye-opening experience. This doesn’t so much relate to the challenges of writing for academic journals (because in just the last two-years we have accrued over 100 academic publications – including numerous articles in leading peer-reviewed psychology and medical journals), but relates more to coming to terms with what many  Western academics appear to perceive as desirable qualities for the modern scholar.

As regular readers of our blog will know, Buddhism places a great deal of importance on the generation of wisdom. Wisdom is that which overcomes ignorance, and ignorance is that which prevents people from realising their enlightened nature. Therefore, according to Buddhist thought, the amount of respect awarded to a practitioner or teacher should be based on how much spiritual wisdom they have accumulated. Essentially, the meaning of wisdom – at least in the sense that we are contextualising it here – is identical to the meaning of the word enlightenment. Thus, from the Buddhist perspective, the wiser a person is the more enlightened they are and vice-versa.

There are lots of definitions of Buddhist wisdom but we would briefly define it as the extent to which an individual accurately apprehends and understands both themselves and reality. A wise person knows every inch of their mind. They know why it exits, where it exists, and how it exists. Not only do they know their mind, but they also know that part of them that knows that it knows the mind. They appreciate fully that they are both the observed mind as well as the mind that observes. Because they know their own minds, they also know every inch of everybody else’s minds andthey are fully aware that all minds are interconnected. They are aware that their mind is without limitations and they know that all other sentient beings also have the potential to have a mind without limitations. In short, their outlook is vast and unconditionally compassionate – everything is encompassed in it.

Although the wise person has realised the full potential of their mind, they are in no way conceited or boastful about this. In fact, the wiser a person is, the more humble they are. Wise people don’t have goals or agendas per se, and they place no importance on being recognised for their efforts or successes. Their main objective is to simply be, and from this state of simply being, profound tranquillity and lucidity arises that allows them to act in a way that is inconceivably skilful yet completely uncontrived.

An interesting observation concerning the Buddhist construal of wisdom is that intelligence is not a prerequisite for being wise. Obviously, there are lots of different types and interpretations of intelligence, but here we are using the term ‘intelligence’ as per its popular (and Oxford English Dictionary) definition of: the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills. Thus, although there is a strong probability that a wise person will be intelligent or academic in the conventional sense, there is also the possibility that they won’t be. Intelligence is a tool that wise people can cultivate and make use of if they wish to, but wise people understand that intelligence needs to be developed and handled carefully. This is because in the absence of wisdom, intelligence can significantly limit the mind. It can become an obstacle to enlightenment and therefore an obstacle to the ongoing development of a dynamic and fluid wisdom.

In effect, what we are saying here is that incorrectly handled, intelligence can actually make you more stupid. This is quite a strange thing to say but it does seem to us that there are quite a number of people – including many academics – who are thought of (or think of themselves) as being intelligent, but who seem to think and act without any wisdom. In Western academia, it is often the case that people obtain their PhD and then continue to develop knowledge and expertise in what is often a relatively narrow field of study. In fact, in many cases, academics often end up shaping the terrain, rules, and boundaries of their given field of study.

In our opinion, what seems to happen reasonably often is that academics (and indeed many other professional groups) live in a bubble that they themselves have created. In this bubble, they are the masters, the game developers, and rule keepers. Living in the bubble means that they can command respect from people that are not in the bubble – from people that don’t really have a clue what they are talking about but just presume it is tremendously complicated and important. However, when one looks at the crux of what is actually being proposed within a given scholarly theory, it can more often than not be reduced to some very simple themes and ideas. And for those instances where things cannot be explained in simple terms, then, in our experience, it normally means that the bubble owners have got so caughtup in the language and rules of their own self-created reality that they have begun to lose sense of how their research or sophistry relates to the real world.

Since such individuals (and there is quite a lot of them) are more interested in being intelligent than wise, the thinking and reasoning skills that they develop become useful only within their own (often very narrow) field of study. Consequently, when they are presented with a completely new idea or way of working, they have difficulty in assimilating it – principally due to their own ego construct. This is particularly the case when a bubble-dweller meets with a wise person. The bubble-dweller’s normal reaction is to feel threatened by the wise person and to reject them and/or their ideas. Because the wise person is just simply being and is not trying to be somebody in particular, their wisdom is very powerful, unshakeable, incredibly piecing and absolutely logical. By piercing, we don’t mean that they have a smart retort to everything, we just mean that their basic presence – even when they aren’t saying anything – is very penetrating. The wise person’s wisdom gives the intelligent person’s ignorance a sudden and massive shake. The intelligent-ignorant person (or, if you prefer, the ignorant-intelligent person) starts to feel threatened because they know that if they remain in the presence of the wise person, they will be forced to accept that they have created and are living in a very small bubble. They know that the wise person’s wisdom will burst their bubble and they will no longer have any ground to stand on.

Please don’t misunderstand what we are saying here – we are not saying that contemporary academics are actually quite stupid. Indeed, we are fortunate to know some very wise people – from both the East and West – that are also incredibly intelligent. However, in our humble opinion, it does seem that there are increasingly fewer and fewer “true” scholars – people that can think freely and with a big mind, but who also know the limitations of their intelligence and can therefore transcend it.

 

Further Reading

Fancher, R. E. (1985) (Ed.). The Intelligence Man: Makers of the IQ Controversy. W. W. Norton & Company: New York.

Gottfredson, L. S. (1997). Mainstream Science on Intelligence. Intelligence, 24, 13-23.

Hunt, E. (2011). Human Intelligence. Cambridge: Cambridge University

Jensen, A. R. (2011). The Theory of Intelligence and Its Measurement. Intelligence, 39, 171-177.

Robinson, A. (2011). Genius: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University

Trewavas, A. (2002). Mindless mastery. Nature, 415 (6874): 841.

Does God Exist? A Buddhist Perspective

Does God Exist? A Buddhist Perspective

sentient beings

The question of whether God exists is arguably one of the most debated questions of all time. Nonetheless, given that it is common knowledge that Buddhism does not assert the existence of a supreme being or creator, it may seem strange that we have decided to write a post that explores this question from the Buddhist perspective. Indeed, we suspect that many people – including many Buddhists – would automatically assume that the “official” Buddhist response to this question would be a straight forward “no”. However, here we argue that depending upon how the term God is defined, there may actually be grounds for accepting the existence of God within the Buddhist system of thought.

The Oxford English dictionary defines God as: “(in Christianity and other monotheistic religions) the creator and ruler of the universe and source of all moral authority; the supreme being”. As a religion or philosophical system, Buddhism does not reject anything that can be established as “true” by either robust scientific investigation or flawless logical reasoning. In other words, if it could be scientifically or logically proven that God exists, then Buddhism would also accept the existence of God. However, based on the above Oxford English dictionary definition, there is currently no robust scientific proof affirming the existence of a supreme creator.

In fact, not only is there an absence of verifiable evidence supporting the existence of a creator being, both modern science and logical reasoning actually indicate the non-existence of such an entity. For example, the laws of thermodynamics forbid the existence of perpetual motion – motion that exists independent of any energy input. Since, by their nature, phenomena are in a constant state of flux and change (i.e., a form of motion), this means that it is impossible for phenomena to exist autonomous of any input. In other words, phenomena (and therefore beings) do not exist as isolated occurrences but manifest in dependence on their causes and components. For this exact reason – the fact that phenomena are composite and do not exist of their own accord – they cannot endure indefinitely and are subject to impermanence. “Impermanence” here, refers to both the ultimate “death” of phenomena when they cease to manifest, and to the fact that phenomena do not remain static between two instances of time (please see our post on Exactly what is the Present Moment?).

Therefore, if an “eternal” God-being existed, this would mean that they were not subject to the laws of impermanence and causality and that they existed in complete independence of the universe and reality they had created. However, since established definitions of God assert that they “rule” the universe and are its “moral authority”, then this automatically rebuts any assertion that God exists in isolation of the universe that they are purported to have created. Thus, it is logically and scientifically implausible to assert that a God exists that created and interacts with the universe, but that such interaction takes place outside of the law of causality (because “interaction” implies that God’s choices and actions must result in some kind of effect).

Accordingly, Buddhism is unable to accept the existence of a creator being that exists in an anti-septic corner of the universe and has dominion over it. However, if the definition of God is modified such that God becomes more of a principle rather than a person, then there may be scope for accepting the existence of “God” within the Buddhist system of thought. To explain this further, we have decided to separate out each of the key components of the abovementioned Oxford English dictionary definition of God and provide an alternative interpretation of these terms:

  1. Supreme being: According to the Buddhist teachings, the capacity for enlightenment exists within every sentient being. This enlightenment capacity or “God nature” never goes away – it is indestructible. However, most people can be likened to a wave on the ocean that forgets that it is also part of the ocean. In wanting to express its creative potential the wave gets caught up in itself. It starts to think it is completely independent of all other waves, and of the ocean more generally. The wave becomes more and more concerned with itself and with its own preservation. It wants to become bigger and better than the other waves and it wants to live forever. However, as the wave continues to develop and feed its “ego”, it becomes increasingly ignorant of its impermanent and interdependent nature. The more the wave gets involved with itself, the more ignorant it becomes. The only thing that the wave can experience at this point is suffering because the wave has developed impossible ideas about itself – it is going to be let down.Although the wave has become very selfish and ignorant, never once does it actually separate from the ocean. All the wave has to do is deconstruct some of its false ideas so that it is able to awaken to the fact that it is part of the ocean. In fact, when the wave “wakes up” or becomes enlightened in this way, it doesn’t just realise that it is connected to the ocean, but it actually becomes the ocean. Now the wave is everywhere all at once, and it knows each single drop of the ocean in intimate detail. The wave doesn’t have to go to great lengths to learn about the ocean, it knows about the ocean without trying. Now that the wave knows that it is both the wave and the ocean, it is a supreme being – it has defeated death. This supreme being has infinite and unconditional compassion for all of the other “potential supreme beings” who choose to suffer and remain ignorant of their true nature. The newly-awakened supreme being does their best to bring these ignorant beings to the understanding that they do not have to search outside of themselves to find God.
  2. Source of all moral authority: From the Buddhist perspective, there is an infallible and all-pervasive law or principle that is the source of all moral authority. What we are referring to here is known as karmic law. Karma has absolutely nothing to do with being judged for our “sins”. Rather, karma (which actually means “action”) basically refers to the law of cause and effect – it asserts that there are both short and long-term consequences to each and every one of our thoughts, words, and actions. This is common sense.The more a person “practises” a particular type of mind-set (e.g., greed, anger, hatred, etc.), the more that person will be inclined to continue engaging such a mind-set in the future. According to the Buddhist teachings, dominant thought patterns and emotions leave an imprint upon the mind. In turn, this imprint influences not only the way we see the world, but also the way the world sees us. For example, a person full of anger and hatred is likely to provoke certain (mostly negative) responses from other people, and they are also likely not to notice life-opportunities that require a balanced, patient, and open perspective. Thus, an angry person may frequently encounter what they perceive to be adversities and may feel they are having a difficult time of things. But the cause of such adversity is nobody and nothing other than themselves – a supreme being has nothing to do with it.

    Furthermore, due to the imprint left on the mind by such a person’s propensity for anger, the Buddhist teachings assert that this anger will cause them to be attracted to certain (unfavourable) conditions when taking rebirth. Again, there isn’t a supreme being involved here – it’s just that the angry person has conditioned themselves to see things in a certain way. Exactly the same principles apply for positive emotions (e.g., love, generosity, patience, compassion, etc.) but these tend to lead to more favourable outcomes (e.g., if you are a kind person then people are invariably kind in return). Thus, it is the human being that asserts moral authority over their thoughts, words and actions – we are our own judge, jury, and executioner or saviour.

  3. Creator and ruler of the universe: As human beings, and whether we like it or not, we are creators. Every single one of our thoughts, words, and deeds has an influence on the world around us. Our past endeavours have created the world as we know it today, and today, we are creating the world that we will live in tomorrow. If we want to create a house, we build it. If we want to create new life, we have sex. If we want to create death and destruction, we wage war. If we want to create heaven on earth, we put aside greed and selfishness and cultivate peace, love, and compassion. Human beings are inherently creative. We create our world and then we live in it and rule it.Phenomena – the outcome of our creative work – exist in dependence of our ability to perceive them. If there is no perceiving mind, there can be no perceived phenomena. The entire universe only exists because there are minds that are able to perceive it. We will discuss this further in a future post but the Buddhist teachings assert that for as long as mind remains confused and continues to perceive itself as an independent entity, universes materialise in order to provide a seat for the mind. In essence, Buddhism asserts that mind creates matter and is inseparable from it. Mind itself is the creator of reality and mind’s creativity is self-existing – it happens all by itself.

In summary, if the definition of God is modified such that rather than an all-powerful universal ruler, God is thought of more as a principle – the principle of all-pervasive and self-existing wisdom that is the indestructible nature of reality and of every single sentient being – then it seems that there is scope for accepting the existence of God within Buddhism. Perhaps this is the definition of God that is conveyed in the Christian Gospel of Thomas where Christ is recorded as saying “Split a piece of wood, and I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.” In fact, as we discussed in our post When Buddha and Christ Met for Tea, perhaps the Buddha’s and Christ’s teachings were essentially the same. As a final thought, it is important to highlight that although Buddhism does not accept or believe in the existence of an all-powerful creator being, it does accept and respect those people and religions that advocate such a belief. Ultimately, we suspect that each individual has their own unique understanding or experience of what constitutes “God” and each of these constructions are undoubtedly meaningful in their own right.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

Further Reading

Dalai Lama & Cuttler, H. (1998). The Art of Happiness. London: Hodder & Stoughton

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

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

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

Shonin, E., & Van Gordon, W. (2013). The consuming mind. Mindfulness, DOI: 10.1007/s12671-013-0265-z.

Sogyal Rinpoche (1998). The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. London: Rider.

Tsong-kha-pa. (2000). The Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment, Volume I. (J. Cutler, G. Newland, Eds., & T. L. Committee, Trans.) Canada: Snow Lion.

Predicting Your Enlightenment

enlightenmentPredicting Your Enlightenment

It is not uncommon in Mahayana Buddhist sutras for the Buddha to prophesize the future enlightenment of his disciples. Probably the best example is the Lotus sutra where the Buddha makes such proclamations on several different occasions. Here is an example from chapter six of the Lotus Sutra where the Buddha predicts Maha-Maudgalyayana’s attainment of Buddhahood in a future era:

This my disciple Maha-Maudgalyayana, after casting aside this body, will see eight thousand two hundred myriads of kotis of world-honoured Buddhas, and, for the sake of the Buddha-way, will serve and revere them. Among these Buddhas, ever practicing the brahma-life, for innumerable Kalpas, he will keep Buddha-law. After these Buddhas are extinct, he will erect stupas of the precious seven, displaying afar their golden spires, and, with flowers, perfumes, and music, pay homage to the Stupas of the Buddhas. Having gradually accomplished the bodhisattva-way, in the domain Glad Mind, he will become a Buddha, named Tamalapattra Sandal Fragrance

Essentially, what the Buddha was communicating with these predictions is that the end result for anybody who perseveres in their Dharma practice over many many lifetimes is that of Buddhahood itself. Now then, let us share with you something that is not widely known. There is a shortcut to enlightenment that means that you don’t have to wait until eternity’s end before you recognise your self-existing Buddha nature. In fact, it’s a shortcut that can place in arm’s reach the prospect of enlightenment within this very lifetime. It’s a shortcut that is so utterly simple, so direct, and so primordially truthful, that most people lack the courage to take it.

If you wish to take this more expedient route to enlightenment then this is what you should do. From the very core of your being, unreservedly offer to the Dharma all of your body, all of your possessions, all of your mind, and all of your spirit. Offer all of your past lives, every moment of this present life, and all of your future lives. Offer all of your hopes and dreams. Offer all of your happiness and all of your pain. Offer every single breath, every single footstep, and every single word you utter. Offer every thought and every mind movement. Offer every ounce of your being and completely surrender your ego to the Buddha. Offer these things with such heartfelt sincerity, such unwavering conviction, that you, there and then, allow the Buddha’s blessings to enter and nourish your being. Offer these things at all times, day-in and day-out. No matter what obstacles or pleasures you encounter, never allow even a hair’s breadth of distance to come between you and the knowledge that you are a rightful heir to the Dharma throne.

When you resolve your mind in such a manner, and surrender yourself to the Dharma without ever looking back, then you don’t need any Buddha to predict your enlightenment. You can make that prediction yourself. You can know that you have been initiated into the inner Sangha of noble beings. What will happen next is that if you have already had the good fortune to meet with an authentic master, your pure faith will enable their blessings to flow forth. If you have not yet encountered or recognised the teacher, then your Vajra-devotion will cause you to swiftly do so.

Enlightenment is in the palm of your hands – you just have to decide whether or not you want to wake up!

Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon