A Big Pair of Dharma Balls

A Big Pair of Dharma Balls

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Today, perhaps more than ever before, it is easy to be drawn into what we call the cycle of soap-opera living. Soap-opera living is, unfortunately, rather common. A person caught up in soap-opera living is like a piece of plankton in the ocean that is continuously driven in different directions by the changing currents and tides. Despite being under the impression that they are making independent decisions, people living a soap opera do not have their eyes open enough to be able to truly to take control of their lives.

Individuals living a soap opera are highly influenced by whatever beliefs, behaviours, and pastimes are trending in society. Because the majority of individuals around them spend their time worrying about money, reputation, career, and relationships, the individual living the soap opera believes that they should do the same. If there is an atmosphere of stress at work because of a deadline approaching, or at university because exams are looming, the individual immersed in soap-opera living is drawn into and contributes to this stress. Because others are obsessed with what their friends and peers think of them, so is the person following the path of soap-opera living. They are pulled along by their own unregulated thoughts and desires, and by the thoughts and desires of those around them.

Walking an authentic spiritual path – Buddhist or otherwise – takes warrior-like courage. It takes courage because the spiritual practitioner has to break free of the cycle of soap-opera living when almost everyone around them is consciously or sub-consciously enticing them to remain firmly stuck in it. It takes courage because the spiritual practitioner has to leave behind the world that they have become accustomed to and enter unchartered territory. It also takes courage because the type of warriorship that fosters spiritual awaking requires the practitioner to blend together an attitude of fearlessness, with one of unwavering love and compassion for individuals who choose to remain stuck in the mire of soap opera life.

Leaving behind soap-opera living is easier said than done and should be seen as a life-long endeavour. As people move from the realm of the soap opera to that of awakened perception, there is a tendency for them to continuously try to find reference points or footholds where they feel safe. For example, they may have previously considered themselves a ‘businessman’ or ‘businesswomen’ but now they see themselves as a ‘Buddhist’ walking the path of Dharma. However, in order to progress along the path, the spiritual practitioner should try to avoid attaching labels to themselves. They have to let go of their old self and embrace a new self, but then they have to let go of the new self as well. Eventually, the spiritual practitioner has to find the courage to let go altogether – they have to let go without seeking to reinvent themselves.

Nothing in life is certain and all things change all of the time. If we try to create a ‘fixed self’ under such conditions, we are inevitably going to become unstuck. We need to be able to adapt to, and flow with, the changing conditions around us. From the spiritual practitioner’s point of view, this means seeing the teachings in a completely new way each day. Where the spiritual path once led them to embrace solitary meditation or a life of renunciation, it may at a subsequent point require them to fully immerse themselves in society and relinquish the notion that meditation is something that is ‘practiced’ rather than ‘lived’. Where the path of Dharma once required them to be a penniless mendicant, it may subsequently require them to rule a kingdom. Where it once required them to practise non-reactivity, it may require them – in the interests of compassion – to assume a more wrathful demeanour. Embracing such changes and challenges takes real warriorship as well as conviction in one’s chosen path.

In short, to walk the Buddhist or any other spiritual path effectively, the authentic spiritual practitioner must remain unattached to their current circumstances. They must come to understand that with every breath or footstep taken in awareness, they venture into the unchartered territory of the present moment. In short, being an authentic spiritual practitioner and leaving behind soap-opera living requires having a big pair of Dharma balls. Embracing life itself as the spiritual path and continuously letting go of who we think we are takes tremendous courage. However, with perseverance, this fearless approach to embracing reality yields unconditional happiness and profound spiritual insight. This is the path walked by all those who have attained Buddhahood in the past, and all those who will attain it in the future.

 

Ven Dr Edo Shonin and Ven William Van Gordon

Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers

Calling a Spade a Spade: The Need for Authentic Meditation Teachers

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Some time ago, we uploaded a post that featured a vajragiti that we wrote called Hearken to the Dharma. A vajragiti is a type of spiritual song or poem. The Sanskrit word vajra means ‘diamond’ or ‘indestructible’ and the word giti means song. Some of our vajragitis have been spoken or written spontaneously, while others have been written at the request of a particular person or for a particular occasion. Since the post was published, we have received several enquiries as to what some of the terms means. Today’s post provides information on the meaning of these terms, and on the theme of the vajragiti more generally.

Hearken to the Dharma’ is a four-verse vajragiti written in the style of the spiritual songs of certain yogic traditions of Vajrayana Buddhism. In essence, it refers to the view of certain systems of Buddhist thought that we are currently in an era in which the Buddhist (and spiritual teachings more generally) are degenerating. More specifically, it refers to the fact that not all individuals who are currently teaching mindfulness, meditation and Buddhism have the ‘right intention’. When people with a selfish intent and who are without authentic spiritual realisation choose to teach meditation or Buddhism, it can result in negative consequences.

It could be argued that by writing a spiritual song such as the below, we are being judgemental. However, we wouldn’t agree with this because it is not judgemental to call a spade a spade. If things aren’t right, sometimes we need to speak up and raise awareness about the issue.

In the below vajragiti, the term ‘two accumulations’ refers to the Buddhist view that spiritual practitioners need to accumulate both spiritual merit and wisdom. Spiritual merit is accumulated by engaging in acts of generosity, patience, loving-kindness and compassion. Wisdom is accumulated by practising meditation, especially insight meditation. Spiritual merit and wisdom are necessary if we want to overcome the tendency of making our lives all about the ‘me’, the ‘mine’ and the ‘I’. Living a life that is always centred upon the ‘me’, ‘mine’ and ‘I’ is what is meant by the term ‘self-grasping’.

True renunciation’ means that we are no longer interested in mundane pursuits such as accumulating wealth or status. It means that we are aware that death is a reality that we will have to face, sooner or later. When we cultivate true spiritual renunciation, it is a liberating experience. However, it is important to remember that spiritual renunciation doesn’t mean that we turn our back on the world. Rather, it means that because we are free of selfish intentions, we can fully taste, enjoy and engage with the world.

In some Buddhist sutras, the Dharma is sometimes referred to as the ‘Law’. Therefore, the term ‘Law Holder’ means an authentic spiritual practitioner – somebody who has transcended the ego and given rise to a high level of spiritual awakening. A Law Holder could be a fully enlightened Buddha, or it could be somebody who is well on the way to attaining Buddhahood. A person who holds the Law of Dharma embodies and emanates spiritual awareness. They are not necessarily a Buddhist scholar.

In the context referred to in the vajragiti, our use of the term ‘Mara’ invokes the connotations that this term has with the notion of the Devil in Christianity. However, the term ‘Mara’ has several different meanings in Buddhism, which include negativity in its broadest sense. The ‘lower realms’ refer to realms of existence in which there are high levels of ignorance and suffering. The animal world is an example of a lower realm (i.e. when compared with the human realm), but Buddhism asserts that there are realms of existence that are lower than the animal realm (e.g. the hell realms).

The terms ‘View’, ‘Meditation’ and ‘Action’ in the final verse refer to the three components that comprise an authentic Buddhist spiritual path. For example, in the Noble Eightfold Path referred to previously on this blog, each of the eight individual components of the path are understood to be primarily concerned with the cultivation of either: (i) wisdom or a ‘view’ that transcends the notion of self and other, (ii) meditation, or (iii) ethical ‘action’. If each of these three aspects (i.e. wisdom/view, ethics/action and meditation) are present, then a particular Buddhist path can be considered whole and complete. The three path elements of wisdom, ethics and meditation are known in Sanskrit as ‘trishiksha’, which means the ‘three trainings’.

The term ‘three doors’ refers to the three ‘doors’ through which we interact with the world: (i) body (i.e. actions), (ii) speech (i.e. words), and (iii) mind (i.e. thoughts). Finally, the term ‘Mind as all’ refers to a view amongst certain Buddhist schools that existence unfolds within the expanse of mind. According to this view, waking reality is no more ‘real’ than what we experience while dreaming.

Hearken to the Dharma

All you great teachers and meditators,
Who mistake self-grasping and pride for the two accumulations,
In whom true renunciation and devotion never arise,
You, pleasure seekers, hearken to the Dharma that keeps death in mind.

Proudly claiming to be great Buddhists,
Judging others as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’,
Spreading doubt and disparaging the Law Holders,
You, Dharma destroyers, hearken to the Dharma beyond all concepts.

Practicing sophistry you deceive the foolish,
Competing for renown like Mara princes,
Dragging your followers to the miserable realms,
You, evil doers, hearken to the Dharma of karmic cause and effect.

For View you delight in ‘self’ and ‘other’,
For Meditation you indulge in scheming thoughts,
For Action you mindlessly vomit through your three doors,
You, delusion revellers, hearken to the Dharma that knows Mind as all.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon

“Keeping Your Shit Together”: A Perspective on the Buddhist Middle-Way Approach

“Keeping Your Shit Together”:

A Perspective on the Buddhist Middle-Way Approach

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Some people like fast cars, some people like fine dining, and some people like expensive clothes. Some people are partial towards liquor, some towards gambling, and some towards tobacco. Some people like men and some people like women. Some people have a penchant for extreme sports, some for hot climates, and some for partying. Some people are passionate about video games, some about film, and some about photography. Some people like technology, some like nature, and some like travelling.

Some people like some of the above, some like none of the above, and some people like all of the above. People like certain things when they are young, other things when they are middle-aged, and different things when they are older. Likewise, people like certain things in the morning, other things in the afternoon, and different things in the evening. Some people are comfortable with the fact they like some, all, or none of the above, some people are indifferent about this matter, and some people are uncomfortable or feel guilty about the things that they are partial towards.

As far as the Buddhist spiritual teachings are concerned, there are lots of different methods of relating to the various desires and partialities that we have in life. Some Buddhist paths advocate separation and renunciation from potentially desirous objects and situations. Other paths advocate being in the presence of our various desires but exercising advanced levels of mental discipline. There are also some (often misunderstood and incorrectly practised) esoteric Buddhist paths that advocate accepting and embracing one’s desires.

When correctly taught and practised, each of these approaches represent valid spiritual paths. They have their own rules, they lead to their own spiritual fruits (i.e., levels of awakening), and they are intended to suit the needs of individuals with differing degrees of spiritual capacity. Nevertheless, although the three paths referred to above appear to represent very different modes of spiritual practice, these paths often intersect and feed into each other. For example, an individual who chooses to renounce and completely separate themselves from potentially desirous objects and circumstances may reach a point in their spiritual development when they feel that in order to move forward, they need a greater level of interaction with people and phenomena (i.e., in order to ‘put their practice to the test’). Eventually, the same person might decide that in order to grow even further as a spiritual being, they have to embrace all phenomena and experiences, including those typically considered to be incompatible with a spiritual way of life.

Although there are points of intersection and convergence in the three spiritual paths outlined above, a person who embarks on a path that they are not suited for, or who switches from one path to another before they are ready, is likely to find that the path is of little benefit or that it actually does them more harm than good. In other words, there are many different ways of interacting with the objects, people, and situations that are a potential source of attraction, but in order to grow in spiritual realisation, it is vital to employ the method that is most suited to our particular stage of spiritual development.

Recently, we were giving a talk to a group of young adults from a socio-economically deprived inner-city suburb of a northern English city. The theme of the talk was the principle of the ‘middle-way’. The Buddhist teachings on the middle-way basically assert that the best way to relate to the various desires and partialities that we have in life is to do things in moderation. Too much of something is generally not good for us, and completely avoiding things can also be detrimental to our wellbeing. Following the approach of the middle-way means that we don’t take anything to extremes, but it also means that we are open to new experiences and aren’t afraid of responsibly enjoying our lives. We use the term ‘responsibly enjoying’ here because implicit within the Buddhist teachings of the middle-way, is the premise that however we decide to spend our time, nobody (including ourselves) should be hurt or taken advantage of as a result of our actions. If we keep this basic premise in mind, then the approach of the middle-way seems to provide us with a means of exploring, enjoying, and engaging with life, but without letting our mind be ‘over-run’ by the various objects and activities of our desire.

If we want to embrace spiritual living to a slightly greater extent, then in addition to ‘responsibly enjoying’ life (i.e., by making sure we don’t hurt or take advantage of anybody), we should try to undertake everything we do in a gentle and compassionate manner, and whilst maintaining meditative awareness. If we expand our understanding of the middle-way approach to embody these three basic spiritual principles (i.e., 1. Responsibly enjoying life, 2. Being gentle and compassionate, and 3. Cultivating meditative awareness), then the middle-way philosophy becomes a practical, effective, and expedient means of fostering spiritual growth.

In terms of where the middle-way approach fits within the schema of the three Buddhist paths referred to earlier (i.e., the paths of relating to potentially desirous objects and situations via: 1. Renunciation and separation, 2. Applying advanced mental discipline, or 3. Acceptance and embracing), it could be said that the middle-way teachings apply to each of these different paths. For example, if a person is practising the path of renunciation and separation, then there is a ‘middle-way’ philosophy that they can apply to that path (i.e., by moderating the degree to which they cut themselves off from the world around them). Likewise, if a person chooses to engage with potentially desirous objects by either applying advanced levels of mental discipline or by meditatively accepting and embracing them, then there is a corresponding middle-way approach towards relating to and following each these paths. Thus, whichever spiritual path we choose to adopt, the teachings and approach of the middle-way remain valid.

The above discussion concerning the middle-way teachings and how they relate to different types of spiritual path was basically the subject of the talk that we mentioned above, which was given to a group of approximately 35 young adults. At the end of the talk, the floor was opened to questions and comments. At this point, a young lady who was about 20-years-old stood up and commented as follows:

What you are saying is that as far as Buddhism is concerned, life is basically about keeping your shit together. If you keep your shit together, then so long as you are not hurting anybody, you are free to thoroughly enjoy life. It’s when your shit falls apart and you take things too far that trouble starts. Based on what I’ve understood, it seems that you are also saying that if you manage to keep your shit together and be a kind person at the same time, then that’s even better. I think I can do that. It sounds like common sense to me.

After the talk, we spoke briefly with the young lady and informed her that we liked her comment and thought she had provided some sound words of advice. We asked for her permission (which she kindly provided) to make use of her advice in some of our writing projects. We don’t really consider ourselves to be particularly up-to-date with modern phrases or expressions, but based on our understanding, it appears that an aspect of the meaning of the Buddhist middle-way teachings is captured by the expression ‘keep your shit together’.

In terms of giving some examples of what ‘keeping your shit together’ means in practice, we would say that if you like gambling or alcohol, then by all means enjoy placing a few bets or having a few drinks. However, if you bet to the point of bankruptcy or if you drink yourself into a state of severe inebriation on a daily basis, then it probably means that you are not ‘keeping your shit together’. The same applies to all of the other things mentioned at the start of this post. It is good to responsibly enjoy some of the things that we are partial towards, but if we take things too far (in either direction), then there are likely to be negative consequences.

In terms of the things in life that we are partial towards, people have different levels of tolerance. Therefore, it is up to us as individuals to work out what constitutes a middle-way between extremes, and what amounts to not keeping ourselves together. Similarly, in light of the fact that people have different tolerance levels, it is also important that we don’t judge people by projecting our own ideas of what is right and wrong onto them. What amounts to not keeping it together for one person, might constitute a middle-way approach for somebody else. In other words, if we try too hard not to ‘lose our shit’, and get all haughty and wound up when we deem that others have lost theirs, then this might actually mean that we have ‘allowed our shit to fly all over the place’.

Ven Edo Shonin & Ven William Van Gordon