Sunday, November 29, 2009

Words of My Perfect Teacher - Week 3 (Impermanence, Part 1)

We continued Patrul Rinpoche's commentary on the Longchen Nyingtik ngöndro,The Words of My Perfect Teacher, following Rinpoche's teachings from San Francisco in 1999-2002. We started Chapter Two, "Impermanence" (from p.39 in the Padmakara translation of The Words of My Perfect Teacher), and spent most of our time discussing our understanding of impermanence and how we can live our lives with an awareness of impermanence. A recording of our conversation is available here.

The topics we covered included:
  • Impermanence and death: how we relate to the process of death and dying
  • The difference between "post hoc", reactive applications of impermanence (e.g. "this too shall pass" once something bad - or good - has happened) compared to impermanence as a view to be applied as an approach to life
  • Impermanence and flow: How life/reality has the interdependent, fluid, nondual quality of flow. How our (eternalist) tendency to solidify experience (and create a sense of permanence) leads us to interrupt the flow of life as we attempt to cling to (or reject) experience.
  • The difference between flow as impermanence/nonduality/compassion and flow as a 1960s-style (or New Age) "going with the flow"
  • What creates blocks to our remaining in the flow? Where do we lack awareness of (aspects of) flow? How do we choose not to engage in the flow?
  • Impermanence and compassion: how meditation on impermanence gives rise to tenderness, the genuine heart of sadness, and compassion
  • Impermanence as path

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Words of My Perfect Teacher - Week 2 (The Freedoms and Advantages)

We continued Patrul Rinpoche's commentary on the Longchen Nyingtik ngöndro,The Words of My Perfect Teacher, following Rinpoche's teachings from San Francisco in 1999-2002. A recording of our conversation is available here.

We completed Chapter One, "The Difficulty of Finding the Freedoms and Advantages" (to p.37 in the Padmakara translation of The Words of My Perfect Teacher).

The topics we covered included:
  • How emotional habits can get in the way of Dharma practice
  • The pitfalls of developing emotional attachments and expectations towards the teacher
  • The application of the Six Paramitas in all aspects of practice and life (cf. §2.2.2 on p.18)
  • The benefits of contemplation on precious human birth and "the difficult of finding the freedoms and advantages" to develop the inspiration for practice

Monday, November 9, 2009

Words of My Perfect Teacher - Week 1 (The Proper Way to Listen to the Spiritual Teachings)

This week we started Patrul Rinpoche's commentary on the Longchen Nyingtik ngöndro, The Words of My Perfect Teacher. We will be following Rinpoche's teachings from San Francisco in 1999-2002. A recording of our conversation is available here.

We started at the beginning of Chapter One with "The Proper Way to Listen to the Spiritual Teachings" (p.7 in the Padmakara translation of The Words of My Perfect Teacher), and went as far as "The Six Stains" (§2.1.2, p.15)

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Bodhicitta, Post-Meditation and 'Good Work'

In our conversation on 1 November (where we were joined by sangha members from Victoria and Edmonton via skype) we explored bodhicitta and post-meditation, looking at the question of what does it mean to benefit beings in our everyday lives, particularly in our work. We based our conversation on Howard Gardner's articles 'What is Good Work" & "Achieving Good Work in Turbulent Times" (available here). A recording of our conversation is available here.

The topics we covered include:
  • The importance of mentorship (especially for younger people)
  • The contrast between work and spiritual life, and what does "spirituality at work" actually mean (what Christian/Buddhist perspectives might have in common, and where they differ)
  • Broadening our circle of concern and sphere of influence
  • How it's often unclear what is the right or best thing to do from an ethical perspective (i.e. even if we have an enlightened intention, what should we do?)
  • Action and enlightened engagement (from the perspective of Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika)
  • Western approaches to ethics (Aristotelian virtue ethics, Kantian deontology, consequentialism and utilitarianism) and how these are different from bodhicitta and Buddhist approaches to ethics (in particular the role of intention/motivation)

Rinpoche on student/teacher relationship

Here's a lovely video of Rinpoche being interview about the student/teacher relationship. Enjoy!

Buddhist History (Week 8) - Tibetan Buddhism (part 2)

Our conversation on 11 October (Week 8 of Buddhist history) was the second of two sessions looking at the history of tantra and Tibetan Buddhism, and also completing Conze's book "Buddhism: A Short History" by looking at Buddhism in the West and the modern world. We also revisited Alan Wallace's article "The Spectrum of Buddhist Practice in the West" (available here). The recording is available here.

Buddhist History (Week 7) - Tibetan Buddhism (part 1)

Our conversation on 27 September (Week 7 of Buddhist history) was the first of two sessions looking at the history of tantra and Tibetan Buddhism. The recording is available here.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Tibetan Buddhism in the West

This week, our topic was "Tibetan Buddhism in the West", drawing on a series of three articles. The first is by Alan Wallace; there was a reply/response by Tara Carreon, and Rinpoche then wrote his own reply to both these articles. Here are the links:

a) Alan Wallace "Tibetan Buddhism in the West: is it working here?" (Tricycle, Summer 2001)
c) Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche "East-West, West-East" (Winter 2001)

The recording of our conversation is available here.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

21 Praises to Tara

Several people have asked about the "21 Praises to Tara", which many of us have been practicing for Rinpoche's long life (and which we will also be practicing during a 10-day Tara retreat at SSRC in December).

Here are some resources available online that you might find interesting and helpful if you are doing this practice:
  • Chants for the 21 Praises to Tara, including both slow/fast versions (by Erik Pema Kunsang, here)
  • Pictures and descriptions of each of the 21 Taras (available here). As the site notes, " Basically the colors are a code for the 4 activities: pacifying (white), enriching (yellow), subjugating (red) and eliminating (black.) Mixed colors such as orange indicate a combination of qualities"

Buddhist History - Week 6

Here's the recording from our meeting on 5 September. We took a break from Conze's review of early Buddhist history to look at Alan Wallace's review of trends in contemporary Buddhism, specifically "The Spectrum of Buddhist Practice in the West" (available here). The parallels between the development of the Mahayana in India and the transition of Buddhism to the West are quite remarkable, and suggest that the development of a new form of Buddhism adapted to the pre-existing Western social, cultural and intellectual environment is inevitable. We started to look at some aspects of what this might include. Some topics we discussed include:
  • The challenges of adaptation: the risk of over-simplifying by throwing too much out, and the risk of including elements from other cultures that aren't relevant to the West
  • The importance for the current generation of Buddhist practitioners in ensuring an authentic transmission of dharma to the West
  • In Tibet, the ecumenical (rimé) movement sought to overcome divisiveness among the four Tibetan schools. In the West, these four are also interacting with all the other Buddhist traditions such as Zen, Vipassana, Japanese Buddhism etc, in a way that is historically unprecedented. What might a rimé movement look like in the West?

Buddhist History - Week 5

Apologies for belated posting. Summer holidays and retreat beckoned. Here's the recording of our meeting on 30 August, continuing our study of the second 500-year period of Buddhist history (from Conze's "Buddhist History"), from 0 AD to 500 AD. Among other topics, we covered:
  • Mindfulness in the Mahayana and mindfulness in "insight meditation" traditions
  • The integration of practice into daily life
  • The importance of nonduality and going beyond extremes

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Advice to Teenagers

From Rinpoche's teaching in Halifax on 29 November 2008. Excerpts from the audio file at Chronicles of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

On growing up too fast

So, today I have something to tell you, that is especially for the teenagers, especially. I don't know whether you realize this, this is really important. It's ... important is not the right word. I don't know what to say. I'm trying to fish for a word.

There is something so incredible about being young. I made a mistake by trying to grow up fast, and I'm sure there are a lot of other people who have made the same mistake. Please for your own sake, do not grow up fast, because you can never rewind and play back. Once you play, that's it!

But this is easier said than done, no? ... a whole society, books, television, movies ... all trying to make you grow up. And you yourself, as a human being ... human nature is competing: "Who will grow up fastest?" I'm sure you even tell yourselves sometimes, "Grow up! C'mon!" ... not the right thing to do.

On discipline and depression

OK. One last word. Now, I hate to use the word discipline. The trouble is this is the one thing that you don't want to hear, discipline ... But even to make a cappuccino, you need a discipline ... you need a discipline, of course. Skateboarding, all these things, they all need discipline. In our modern society, one of the biggest problems is depression, really really feeling down and depressed, and people turning to drugs and alcohol and all of that. If you really look into the root of the depression, it is because of lack of discipline.

Discipline is so important ... And when I say discipline I'm talking about something so simple, huh? I'm not talking about like getting up in the morning, 5 o'clock ... you know, like things like that ... You make your own discipline, such as, I don't know ... something like, "I will not go to Starbucks on Wednesdays." Really, if you took that kind of vow, something as simple as this, in the future, the ratio of visits to your shrink will be definitely reduced. Even as simple as not going to Starbucks on Wednesday. I'm serious. I'm serious ... If you can manage ... if you do that one year, good! Very good. You have learned the art of controlling yourself.

If you want to be brave (you know, maybe you think, not going to Starbucks on Wednesdays would be too simple for you) then take a vow: Next six months, whoever it is, you will not yell at them. That's a difficult one, huh? That's a difficult one ... But it will give you amazing, amazing power. Because ... you all want to be indestructible, don't you? Well, if you want to be indestructible, why volunteer yourself, to become an easy target? So, you can become very brave and take that kind of vow also.

On failure

Question: If we were take a vow, for six months never to yell at somebody, how would you be ... you know, sort of approach a possible inevitable failure, or how should you approach this ...

Khyentse Rinpoche: Ah, failure is good. Failure is good. You have to fail many times. Take a vow again. Take a vow again ... To shape the human character a lot of things have to go wrong, you know. You shouldn't be afraid [of failure].

[Thanks to Erik Pema Kunsang and the Blazing Splendor blog]

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Buddhist History - Week 4

This week's teaching and discussion (Sunday 12th July) can be downloaded here (Hit the blue "Download Now" button). In a lively conversation with a large group, topics we covered included:
  • Path and view: What's the difference between path and view in the Theravada and the Mahayana? How can we bring our practice more into our everyday lives?
  • The nature and meaning of compassion: what's the connection between everyday "touchy-feeling" notions of being a "good person" and the Buddhist understanding of compassion? How can compassion become a trap and turn into just another manifestation of ego-clinging? What does it mean to practice compassion?
  • "All emotions are pain": Rinpoche uses these words to convey the essential meaning of the second of the four Dharma seals. But does he really mean it? How are we to interpret this? What does this mean in the light of all the current interest in emotional intelligence, positive psychology and therapeutic interventions?
  • Can we consider "Fight Club" to be a Buddhist movie? It deconstructs eternalism in the guise of salvation through consumerism, but it falls short of Buddhist view. Why?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Buddhist History - Week 3

This week's teaching and discussion (Sunday 5th July) can be downloaded here (Hit the blue "Download Now" button).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Rinpoche on YouTube

Several videos of Rinpoche's teachings can now be found on YouTube, including this video on "The attitude of a Dzogchen practitioner" (play): "the easiest way to get to Dzogchen is to take things easy. We have this saying, but we don't actually practice that. A Dzogchen practitioner can't be bothered by any circumstances, whether good or bad"

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Buddhist History - Week 2

On Sunday 28th June, we reviewed what we covered last week (to p.10 of Conze's "Buddhism: A Short History"), and then continued to p.22, covering the Three Jewels and the history of the "18 sects", including the three most important splits among the early Buddhist schools between ~340BC-240BC. A recording is available here (Hit the blue "Download Now" button. I hope quality issues have been resolved). Among the topics we covered this week:
  • These schools correspond to our emotions, as Rinpoche points out when teaching Madhyamika. For example, the notion of "no self" offends everyday commonsense, and also Buddhist ideas of karma and reincarnation (how can we speak of a "person" taking rebirth unless there is some continuity between this life and the next life?), so the Vatsiputriyas (the Personalists) invented the notion of a real "Person" in order to explain this. We reflected that many of us have a similar emotional clinging to the notion of our own rebirth/next life.
  • The essential view of the Tibetan Buddhist path was established over 2,300 years ago - so it's not at all a recent invention or reinterpretation. Even around 340BC, the Mahasanghikas had established a view that holds the seeds of the later Mahayana and Vajrayana. They believed: (i) the 'real' Buddha is transcendental, and the historical Buddha was simply a manifestation or magical emanation for the sake of teaching and benefiting sentient beings. In fact, Buddhas are manifesting at all times in all realms. (ii) the nature of thought/mind is pure, and all impurities (such as ignorance and negative emotions) are adventitious, i.e. they are not part of mind itself. (iii) the ultimate truth cannot be expressed in words or concepts - they can only ever refer to relative truth.

50th Anniversary of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö (and video tribute)

According to the Tibetan calendar, today is the 50th anniversary of the parinirvana of Rinpoche's previous incarnation, Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö (thanks to Maggie for the picture of him sitting under the bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya). There's a lovely tribute video available here (thanks to Grey Fox, Adam, Pete and Volker at Remembering the Masters).

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Buddhist History - Part 1

On Sunday 21st June, we began Edward Conze's "Buddhism: A Short History", completing the Introduction and up to p.9 of chapter 1. A recording of our conversation may be found here (hit the blue "download now" button). Among the many topics of conversation, there was a particular focus on the role of magic in the Vajrayana (Conze refers to its "cosmic" focus), and how we might best interpret and understand that in the context of the modern, scientifically-minded Western world.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Rinpoche's Teachings on "Parting from the Four Attachments"

Rinpoche is teaching "Parting from the Four Attachments" this week in Kathmandu. Daily MP3 recordings can be downloaded here.

From the Siddhartha's Intent website: The teaching on Parting from the Four Attachments is universally regarded as one of the jewels of Tibetan Buddhism. A supremely important mind training from the Sakyapa tradition, it was transmitted by Manjushri to the first of its Five Founding Fathers - Sachen Kunga Nyingpo (1092-1158). In four lines of profound instruction it challenges the assumptions and belief systems that destroy the very happiness and freedom to which all beings aspire. It introduces the heart of wisdom, the key points of the Buddhist path, and particularly how to proceed on the path without being sidetracked by pitfalls. This work is eminently practical, and is said to have the power to instil realization in the minds of practitioners as it is spoken, listened to, and understood.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Review of Rinpoche's new approach to the ngöndro

A recording of this week's teachings and discussion (from 31st May) can be downloaded here. We reviewed Rinpoche's teaching in Rio last year where he explained the importance of ngöndro and how the way it is being taught and practiced in the West needs to change.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Articles on Buddhism in the Guardian UK

There has been an interesting set of articles on Buddhism in the Guardian UK over the past few months by Ed Halliwell, a practitioner in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition, including:
  • Between the rational and the mystical - What is agnosticism? We neither need an external, creator God, nor to close ourselves off from the spectacular majesty of existence
  • Buddhism and the brain - The Mind and Life conference brings together two powerful ways of understanding mind and its place in the world
  • A sense of self - Could science abolish personalities along with God?:Personality may be an illusion, but not the kind described by materialists like Colin Blakemore
  • Is it always about belief? - The Buddha emphasised that we should not trust the teachings of any faith based on – among other things – scripture, religious authorities, or logical and philosophical reasoning

Rahula Chapter 8 - Buddhism in Today's World

A recording of today's teachings and discussion (from 24th May) of Rahula's "What the Buddha Taught" (second part of chapter 7 on meditation and chapter 8) can be downloaded here.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Erosion of Buddhism in the West

The UK Guardian newspaper published an article by Mark Vernon on how buddhism risks erosion in the West because of a pick'n'mix culture, the New Age syncretism that Rinpoche is also very concerned about. That's one of the main reasons we need to study Madhyamika. As Rinpoche says, studying the view allows us to become dharmapalas (dharma protectors), who can ensure that the dharma doesn't fall into the pervasive extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Unless the dharma remains the middle way, it is no longer a path to enlightenment.

Unfortunately, it appears that Vernon has quite an agenda of his own (see So it's perhaps not surprising he's anti-Matthieu Ricard (who, despite Vernon's criticisms, has an authentic lineage as a close student of HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche) and pro-Stephen Batchelor (who, like many "Western buddhists", doesn't believe in karma, reincarnation, etc).

I agree with the argument that you can't pick and choose elements of a path, but that's exactly what Batchelor does, and Vernon seems to be quite happy to overlook this - whereas Ricard presents the whole dharma without leaving anything out. Since karma is the very mechanism of causality and interdependence, a path without karma becomes a nihilist, materialist path. Leaving out karma is a sign that you simply don't understand what it means and its central significance to the path. While you might end up creating something that's attractive and perhaps soothing for the incense-and-self-help crowd, and possibly even sell a lot of books along the way, that's not what authentic dharma is about.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


In the latest issue of The Atlantic, there's a lovely piece by Joshua Wolf Shenk on "What Makes Us Happy?" (hint: money has nothing to do with it!), which is also covered in an article by David Brooks in the New York Times.

It's a remarkable longitudinal study of 268 "promising young men" who entered Harvard College in the late 1930s, including John F. Kennedy and Ben Bradlee. As Brooks reports:
By any normal measure, they had it made. They tended to be bright, polished, affluent and ambitious. They had the benefit of the world’s most prestigious university. They had been selected even from among Harvard students as the most well adjusted.
And yet
Their lives played out in ways that would defy any imagination save Dostoyevsky’s. A third of the men would suffer at least one bout of mental illness. Alcoholism would be a running plague. The most mundane personalities often produced the most solid success. One man couldn’t admit to himself that he was gay until he was in his late 70s.
So what, if anything, can we learn about happiness? This in-depth, long-term examination explodes most of the simplistic truisms of the current so-called "happiness research" in positive psychology. Instead, it provides a series of remarkable stories of impermanence, change, unpredictability and the sheer impossibility of making predictions about how causes and conditions yield results over the course of a human life. Rinpoche has often said that only Mañjushri or the Buddha himself can understand the play of karma, and this article provides a welcome relief from the certainties and prescriptions of those who would believe in a predictable, controllable, mechanical world - a "clockwork universe". How much better to embrace the Four Noble Truths and the realisation that samsara is essenceless, and to do one's practice!

Buddhism at Google?

Google is at the forefront of many management, organisational and HR innovations (including developing a remarkable quantitative approach to recruitment), so any leadership development initiative at Google is usually worth paying attention to.

It's therefore noteworthy that Google University now has a "school of personal growth" as one of its four main faculties (the others focus on workplace essentials, leadership development, and Google life and culture). It's run by Chade-Meng Tan, a software engineer who is also a Buddhist, and includes instruction in mindfulness meditation from Norman Fischer, a zen priest and one of the Dharma Heirs of Suzuki Roshi (author of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind). Tan said
The school's ethos could be a blueprint for workplace education, as "Google wants to help Googlers grow as human beings on all levels - emotional, mental, physical and 'beyond the self'."
Tan's predecessor, Monika Broeker, notes that - like most things in Google - this program has been subjected to intense quantitative scrutiny to assess its impact:

“If you want executive management support, you better back it up with data,” Broecker said. “We did a lot of research as to the effectiveness of our programs. One of the questions [we researched] was whether we could show that people who had gone through our programs were happier in Google than people who had not gone through our programs. And we definitely had data that showed that this was the case.”

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Rahula Chapter 6 - Anatta: The Doctrine of No-Self (part 3) & Chapter 7 - Bhavana (Meditation)

A recording of today's teachings and discussion (from 10th May) of Rahula's "What the Buddha Taught" (part 3 on Chapter 6 and chapter 7) can be downloaded here. Among the topics we covered today:

  • The purpose of meditation and its benefits in cultivating mental health
  • Meditation techniques
  • The two forms of meditation, shamatha and vipashyana, and their relationship to each other and to the view (including "form is emptiness, emptiness is form")
  • Deconstruction and dis-identification from form, feeling, thoughts, references and self - how meditation allows to cultivate egolessness
  • Living in the present moment, losing yourself in your action, flow and positive psychology, creativity and performance

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Is Twitter a path to happiness?

Rinpoche has noted that in the absence of an understanding of the view, many so-called "Western buddhists" seem to rely on rather confused paths. So perhaps it's not entirely surprising that many people seek to justify indulging their everyday samsaric habits as somehow being equivalent to a path to enlightenment. And not, I might add, in the manner of the dzogchen yogi who is happy in any activity. As a rather amusing and ridiculous example of this tendency, here's a blog posting entitled Buddhist Monks Say Twitter Can Lead To Happiness. Needless to say, there's no attempt to back up this rather remarkable claim. In the Madhyamakavatara, Chandrakirti says that relative truth is nothing but "the rumours of cowherds." He'd probably be smiling if he were with us today.

Stumbling Blocks on the Path of Righteousness

Rinpoche has often emphasised that view is primary in Buddhism, and ethics and morality are always secondary. They are embraced on the path only to the extent that they support our journey towards realising the view of emptiness. And one of the downfalls of theistic paths is that ethics and discipline can turn into extremism, and then it's no longer helpful but instead descends into self-righteousness, hubris and critical judgment of others. From the article "Stumbling Blocks on the Path of Righteousness" in the New York Times:

In recent years, social psychologists have begun to study what they call the holier-than-thou effect. They have long known that people tend to be overly optimistic about their own abilities and fortunes — to overestimate their standing in class, their discipline, their sincerity.

But this self-inflating bias may be even stronger when it comes to moral judgment, and it can greatly influence how people judge others’ actions, and ultimately their own. Culture, religious belief and experience all help shape a person’s sense of moral standing in relation to others.

Religion appears to amplify the instinct to feel like a moral beacon. The study also found that the most strictly fundamentalist of the students were at the highest end of the scale. "It reminds me of one of my favorite bumper stickers,” said Dr. Epley, of Chicago. “ ‘Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite.’

Multitasking is a Myth

From an article on "The Science of Concentration" in the New York Times:
The psychologist William James wrote: “My experience is what I agree to attend to.” You can lead a miserable life by obsessing on problems. You can drive yourself crazy trying to multitask and answer every e-mail message instantly.

“Multitasking is a myth,” Ms. Gallagher (author of "Rapt") said. “You cannot do two things at once. The mechanism of attention is selection: it’s either this or it’s that.” She points to calculations that the typical person’s brain can process 173 billion bits of information over the course of a lifetime. “People don’t understand that attention is a finite resource, like money,” she said. “Do you want to invest your cognitive cash on endless Twittering or Net surfing or couch potatoing? You’re constantly making choices, and your choices determine your experience, just as William James said.”

Ms. Gallagher advocates meditation to increase your focus.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Rahula Chapter 6 - Anatta: The Doctrine of No-Self (part 2)

A recording of the part 2 of the teachings and discussion on Chapter 6 of Rahula's "What the Buddha Taught" (from 3rd May) can be downloaded here.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Rahula Chapter 6 - Anatta: The Doctrine of No-Self (part 1)

A recording of the teachings and discussion on Chapter 6 of Rahula's "What the Buddha Taught" (from 26th April) can be downloaded here.

Rahula Chapter 5: Magga - The Path

A recording of the teachings and discussion on Chapter 5 of Rahula's "What the Buddha Taught" (from 5th April) can be downloaded here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

A short message from Rinpoche

In a short note from his retreat, Rinpoche reminds us of the importance of renunciation and the appropriate motivation for practice:
we should say prayers and do practice in the hope that one day we will be free from the agony of time, and from the agony of the separation of all the transitory elements that, in our deluded minds, we have pieced together so convincingly. Most of us are so lost in our delusions that we actually believe them to be permanent, and when the illusion we've created reveals itself in its true colours, we suffer the most unbearable agonies. And it is from this kind of delusion that, ultimately, we need to free ourselves

Monday, March 30, 2009

KFTC audience with HH the Dalai Lama

At the end of the Khyentse Foundation Translation Conference "Translating the Words of the Buddha" in Bir, the participants went to Dharamsala for an audience with HH the Dalai Lama. Here's an extract from his remarks:
I think you already know my views. I believe that in the 21st century, despite a lot of material development and facilities to support us and help provide us with a happy, joyful and meaningful life, there are limitations to having only material values and material development. So all major religious traditions still have an important role today. That’s clear. And one clear indication is that many people have some kind of interest about inner values, and so we have seen the emergence of some strange religions like the New Age and things like that. But this means there are people who are not completely satisfied with material values, and so they are seeking some inner values. People are really seeking something. And some other people might be quite clever at taking advantage of that opportunity. But under such circumstances, the buddhadharma certainly has a similar role to play in this century. Among the different traditions, I think all the major religions have the same potential to help humanity. But for those people who are generally a little sceptical about religion, and who aren’t easily convinced about God or such things, then Buddhism can help. Even among Buddhists who have a keen interest in Buddhism, there are still many who are sceptical about next life. In such a period I think certainly Buddhism may have greater potential to help such people, who love reasons and explanation. For such people, I think the Buddhist approach is suitable.

Nothing To Be Frightened Of

As we reflect on the Four Noble Truths, impermanence, and the nature of life and death, I'd like to recommend "Nothing To Be Frightened Of", a book by the English novelist Julian Barnes (author of ten novels including "Arthur & George", "Flaubert's Parrot", "A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters" and "England, England"). It's a reflection on death and religious belief, with frequent comparisons between his own views (as an artist and novelist) and those of his brother (a distinguished professor of philosophy, and specialist in the ancient Greek philosophers). It's a lovely read in itself, but all the more remarkable for the way that he comes across Buddhist truths without any Buddhist background of his own (his family are non-practicing Christians).

Here's an extended quotation from the book, which is almost "pure" dharma:
You may have noted – may even have pitied – the vehemence with which I wrote ‘But I said that first.’ I, the insistent, emphatic, italicized me. The I to which I am brutishly attached, the I that must be farewelled. And yet this I, or even its daily unitalicized shadow, is not what I think of it as. Around the time I was assuring the college chaplain that I was a happy atheist, there was a fashionable phrase: the integrity of the personality. This is what, amateurs of our own existence, we believe in, don’t we? That the child is father, or mother, to the man, or woman; that slowly but inevitably we become ourselves, and that this self will have an outline, a clarity, an identifiability, an integrity. Through life we construct and achieve a unique character, one in which we hope to be allowed to die.

But the brain mappers who have penetrated our cerebral secrets, who lay it all out in vivid colours, who can follow the pulsings of thought and emotion, tell us that there is no one at home. There is no ghost in the machine. The brain, as one neuropsychologist puts it, is no more or less than ‘a lump of meat’ (not what I call meat – but then I am unsound on offal). I, or even I, do not produce thoughts; thoughts produce me. The brain mappers, peer and pore as they may, can only conclude ‘there is no “self-stuff” to be located’. And so our notion of a persisting self or ego or I or I – let alone a locatable one – is another illusion we live by. Ego Theory – on which we have survived so long and so naturally – is better replaced by Bundle Theory. The notion of the central submarine captain, the organizer in charge of the events of his or her life, must surrender to the notion that we are a mere sequence of brain events, bound together by certain causal connections. To put it in a final and disheartening (if literary) way: that ‘I’ of which we are so fond properly exists only in grammar.

Four Noble Truths (contd) - Nirodha

On Sunday we continued with Rahula's "What The Buddha Taught", reviewing the First and Second Noble Truths and going through the Third Noble Truth of Nirodha/Nirvana in detail. Some of the topics that came up in our discussion included:
  • There's a difference between suffering and dukkha. We noted that many of us still think of the First Noble Truth as "The Truth of Suffering", when in fact it is the truth of dukkha, which is a much richer (and less "negative") idea than suffering. Dukkha has three aspects: (1) ordinary suffering, (2) suffering produced by impermanence and change, (3) conditioned states. Until we correctly understand the First Noble Truth, we will not be able to understand the origin or cessation of dukkha, or the path that leads to its cessation.
  • We have "outsourced" much of the suffering in our lives, so that we no are not aware of the consequences of our actions, in much the same way that the acid rain from a power plant can fall hundreds of miles away from the source. We discussed examples such as our attempts to insulate ourselves from disease and death (hospitals, fashion magazines); our unawareness of (and emotional disconnection from) the conditions of factory farmed animals; the fur trade and the fashion industry; and how the US has outsourced much of its drug problem to Mexico.
  • Nirvana is not a result, else it would be an effect produced by cause. Nirvana, Truth, is beyond cause and effect. It simply is. All you can do is see it. A path leads to it, but it’s not the result of the path. You get to a mountain along a path, but the mountain is not result of path.
  • There’s nothing beyond/after Ultimate Truth, and it has no purpose (as that presupposes something subsequent). The spiritual path has no purpose because enlightenment has no purpose, so there’s no point talking about its “benefits” – which is a direct challenge to the utilitarian approach we take in our materialistic approach to life.
  • Even according to the Theravada, Nirvana can be realised in this very life (which might perhaps help to temper our Vajrayana pride!)
A recording of the teaching (108 minutes) may be downloaded here.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

What The Buddha Taught

For anyone who hasn't yet bought a copy of Rahula's "What the Buddha Taught", you might be interested in looking at a preview on Google Books (thanks for the link, David)

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Being and Mindfulness

This week's New York Times features an article by Judith Warner on 'Being and Mindfulness', a fascinating snapshot of how meditation and mindfulness is (mis)understood in the West. Judith paints an image of Buddhist practice as "extreme solipsism" leading to a state that is "cold and forbidding, and above all terribly, terribly dull":

Mindfulness is supposed to bring people together. By embracing your essential humanness, getting in touch with and accepting your body, sensations, emotions and thoughts, you are supposed to join with, and empathetically connect to, all humanity ... But in real-life encounters, I’ve come lately to wonder whether meaningful bonds are well forged by the extreme solipsism that mindfulness practice often turns out to be.

Some of us experience our emotions always in capital letters and exclamation points. This isn’t always pleasant but, to go all mindful for a moment, it is what it is, and if you are one of these people then probably one of the great pleasures of your life is finding others like you and settling in with them for a good rant. A world devoid of such souls can be cold and forbidding, and above all terribly, terribly dull.

Thankfully, the Times' readers weren't happy to let such confusion go without comment! There are many excellent and enjoyable responses to her article - 589 in all - most of which are inspiring and insightful, although there are a few that demonstrate even greater confusion or misunderstanding than Judith. Taken as a whole, it's a great read - strongly recommended!

The Four Noble Truths

Over the past two weeks, our Sunday study & practice group has studied and discussed chapters 2 and 3 of Rahula's "What the Buddha Taught", which cover the first two of the Buddha's Four Noble Truths:
  1. Dukkha
  2. Samudaya, the arising or origin of dukkha
  3. Nirodha, the cessation of dukkha
  4. Magga, the way leading to the cessation of dukkha
Last week's teaching on the 1st Noble Truth can be downloaded here (part 1 - 43 min), here (part 2 - 8 min), here (part 3 - 8 min) and here (part 4 - 47 min): apologies for technical problems that resulted in the fragmented recording and poor quality. This week's teaching on the 2nd Noble Truth can be downloaded here (90 min).

Most Buddhists have heard that the Four Noble Truths are the foundation of the Buddhist path, but as we studied these chapters, we realised that there is a lot more to these short statements than we thought. It's a good antidote to any potential Vajrayana arrogance where we might think that because we are followers of a supposedly higher path, we can look down on the seemingly simpler and less sophisticated Theravada approach. As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche taught, spiritual materialism is an ever-present danger on the path, and without a clearer understanding of the nature of dukkha, Vajrayana practice might simply become a sophisticated form of entertainment or distraction, or just another ornament or hiding place for ego.

Many important insights emerged from our discussions, which I will add in separate posts. In particular, Rinpoche has always taught that Buddhist practice is defined by view rather than action (as taught extensively in the Madhyamika teachings, and also in his book "What Makes You Not a Buddhist"). In the Mahayana, the view can be explained in terms of the Four Seals, which Rinpoche expresses as:
  1. All compounded phenomena are impermanent
  2. All emotions are pain
  3. No phenomena have a truly existing self or nature
  4. Nirvana is beyond extremes
In the Pali Canon, there are three seals (the fourth is not included), all of which follow from the definition of dukkha in the First Noble Truth (see p.57 of Rahula):
  • All conditioned things are impermanent (Sabbe samkhara annica)
  • All conditioned things are dukkha (Sabbe samkhara dukkha)
  • All dhammas are without self (Sabbe dhamma anatta)
So if nothing else, a deeper understanding of the First Noble Truth allows us to appreciate the meaning of the Four Seals, and thus the essence of the Buddhist path. It provides a solid foundation for our practice and a deeper appreciation of the Theravada as the "root yana" upon which the Mahayana and Vajrayana are built.