Imagining the Buddha

My thoughts have returned to the time recently spent in India, after a Sangha evening a few days ago where 6 of us talked briefly about our experiences there on pilgrimage, retreat and convention.

I’ve been thinking about my practice which rests a lot on direct experience, knowing the mind and what it’s getting up to. And I’ve been wondering about the place of the imagination in this type of practice. When my mind imagines, it creates or constructs various emotions; anxiety or paranoia potentially if I’ve been reading a thriller, or awe and reverence if I’m meditating where the Buddha gained Enlightenment.

While in India, I had the opportunity to go to the location where the Buddha is thought to have taught the Satipatthana Sutta for the first time. For the past 20+ years this Sutta has been key to my practice of the Dharma, so on the one day we had in Delhi, my partner and I headed off with the somewhat sketchy description given by a friend, and trusty google on our phones.

After a couple of metro journeys, a long walk through a park and then a rickshaw ride, we arrived at sunset at a small dusty park on the main road. It was populated by groups of men and boys, some with bottles of alcohol. As we walked past some parched looking Bodhi trees and climbed up onto the rocky outcrop in the centre of the park we were warned by a young Indian man in western dress that it wasn’t safe to stay after dark.

So, we couldn’t stay long, looking at the very old rock marked with a faded inscription, from Ashokan times, contained inside a concrete and barred tank. It was unprepossessing, unlike the gorgeous modern Lotus Temple we’d popped into en route. There were no other pilgrims present but previous ones had – as is traditional in parts of Asia – pressed gold leaf squares as offerings onto the concrete walls. It was the closest they could get to the heart of the site.

We took photos of each other on top of the outcrop and watched the sun setting through the smoky, polluted air over the city. I felt edgy after the warning we’d been given and keen to leave. It was only later it sunk in that I’d stood in the spot where the Buddha and his disciples had stood. I could imagine them there, apparently a mixed group of men and women as well as monastics. I imagined them sitting listening to the Buddha speak, his words being drunk in. I was so happy to have been there.

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I was aware that the reality of the place didn’t justify the significance and happiness my mind was attributing to it. Did that matter? I don’t think so. I was aware I was using my mind in this way; imagining a scene that connected me more strongly with the Buddha. The emotions produced were positive ones of devotion and confidence, increasing my desire to practice. The use of concepts was a skilful one allowing for more receptivity to the qualities of awakening.

We’re using concepts all the time and one of the natural faculties of mind is imagining. Thoughts and conceptualising are not all we can know. My practice focus’ on direct experience to reveal what is immediate and fresh in experience away from the shadow of the world of concepts. Perhaps imagination is another tool that can help us do that.

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Perhaps too, the modes of experiencing and imagining are not so different. In ancient India, whether you saw, imagined or visualised it was all taken as ‘seeing’, it was all ‘real’. The Buddha himself, sitting under the Bodhi tree ‘saw’ all the Buddhas of the past who had previously taken their seat on the great Diamond Throne, the Vajrasana. Sitting there himself he felt tremendous confidence that it was his rightful place.

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Change Within & Without

This is perhaps a different sort of blog today. Usually, I focus on the internal world of meditative experience, sparked off by something in my practice of awareness and right view. Sometimes though, there is a prompt from the world around me and today that is very much the case.

I’ve recently returned from India where I was mostly in Bodhgaya, the place where the Buddha gained Enlightenment. Each day I would visit the Maha Bodhi temple, and sit meditating under the spreading branches of the great Bodhi tree, said to be a relative of the one that sheltered the Buddha 2 and a half thousand years ago, as he went more and more deeply into understanding the nature of his experience and the world around him.

For the Buddha, those two things – his experience and the world – were not different, but he was wise enough to understand that the real world counted. He understood that practice was not just a matter of knowing for himself the illusory nature of sense experience, but also knowing how that understanding could alleviate, and finally extinguish, human suffering. The teaching he offered in the face of suffering was practical and humane as well as wise. Just think of the story of Kisa Gotami, mad with grief from losing her husband and only child.

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Modern-day India is a place where suffering hits you in the face. It is plentiful and lived out on the streets, not hidden away in institutions or behind the solid walls of private homes. Poverty, disability, homelessness and starvation were visible every time I made the short walk between the land where our retreat was happening and the temple.

Underpinning all these disadvantages, making life difficult and dangerous for millions of Indians, is Caste-ism. On the retreat and Convention I attended, were many Indian members of our Order, most of them ‘New Buddhists’ who stepped out from beneath the lowest rung of the Caste system with the mass conversions from ‘untouchability’ in1956.

Much of the Indian Buddhist Community is aimed at helping raise the quality of the lives of their fellow ‘Dalits’ (literally ‘oppressed’), through social, educational, legal and ultimately dharma work. With a Right Wing government throwing its weight behind the Hindu Caste system the dangers of this work is hard to over-estimate. Murders by the police are common; threats, intimidation and violence by ‘higher’ castes are the norm. So-called ‘honour’ killings and acid attacks, with little recourse to the law, happen every week.

The courage it takes to persist working towards a greater good in these conditions is huge. And yet people continue to do so. The risks are so high and cannot be minimised by inaction so the attitude is to embrace the danger. As one woman working in a small legal aid organisation said to a western aid worker “life is so dangerous for a woman in this State, so we might as well do something we really believe in to try and affect change.”

All of this brought into sharp relief for me the good conditions for practice most of us have in the West. And it’s very easy for the question ‘what more can I do?’ to arise along with a gamut of feelings including guilt, hopelessness or inertia. Living in Western Europe, as I do, we have so much materially, but we also live with a degree of safety and security unparalleled in most of the world.

There is a gritty edge to practice amongst my Indian Buddhist friends. It’s hard to get too comfortable and settle down in practice when there is suffering on so many fronts. The tough conditions keep one’s spiritual life vibrant, urgent and focused. Your turban really is on fire!

Rather than comparing the conditions for practice, I found myself thinking about what I could learn through seeing more clearly what my Indian brothers and sisters were up against. How could I intensify my practice without denying the relative ease and advantages of my life?

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I have 3 bite-sized reflections, no space to flesh them out fully. Maybe they’ll translate to a talk or longer piece of writing some other time.

1. Remembering that anything can happen at any time. I live in a world of a temperate climate, plentiful food and unprecedented peace and stability. There are safety nets through the welfare and health services if I can’t work or I get sick. It is not perfect but it’s there. All this could change very quickly. Two years ago it seemed inconceivable that Britain would be leaving the EU or that a Reality TV businessman would be President of the US. Our good conditions change.

Reflect on just a couple of changes in your life or the world more broadly. How different would your circumstances be then?

2. Form a habit of selflessness. It’s easy to feel entitled to all that we have; we worked hard for it, or our families before us did. We overlook the bedrock of privilege we rest on that is actually quite arbitrary. If we see resources as dependant upon conditions that we didn’t control or make happen, but lucked into, it becomes easier to hold less tightly to ‘my’ time, energy, money or material goods. Resources can be more easily shared. The criteria becomes need not greed.

Where do you notice an extended hand in relation to your ‘resources’? And in what situations is that hand more tight and closed? And how do both feel?

3. Noticing expectations. Watching the mind closely we see what we expect from situations as diverse as our meditation, the weather or our partner. Things don’t happen because we want them to, but because the causes and conditions support them. Expectations are manifestations of craving, and as such they lead to suffering. If we can become aware of them we can be less identified with getting what we want.

Can you get interested in your expectations, your ‘wants’ from a situation? The views underpinning those desires can be very subtle and unravel in surprising ways.

How I work

A couple of months ago I had a significant and slightly chastening talk with a friend which went something like “if you want to write, you just have to write, that’s what a writer does”. There was more to it than that, but that was the take-home message. I’ve been talking about my desire to write a book about meditation for, oh, maybe five years, perhaps more. Since that conversation, I’ve been writing regularly for a couple of hours most weekday mornings. It is not a massive amount but its a big jump from the irregular ‘when I feel like/up to it’ approach I was working too beforehand. I’ve made it a priority, one of the ‘big stones’ in my jar, and, as much as I can, I work other things – the little stones – around that time.

Any change in habits gives awareness new things to observe and new insights about one’s own tendencies of mind. So what I’ve noticed is not shiny new information but further weight and understanding added to a general way of being ‘me’, but perhaps more universally too. And anything that’s about the mind and awareness is not just about the object – writing – but about meditation too.

I’ve noticed how I procrastinate to getting started on that 2 hours of writing. Checking FaceBook, emails and the news are favourites. Not for long, I’m not answering the emails or reading whole articles, but just long enough to give the mind a little skip around. It then seems inclined to settle to writing.

Years ago I read an autobiography of the great writer Doris Lessing. I was amazed at the procrastination she described between taking her son to school and getting down to writing; it included taking a nap, having a post-breakfast snack, and, if my memory serves me, doing her ironing! It made me wonder how she ever finished a novel, and yet she’s incredibly prolific and has sold millions of books. For her, procrastination was part of the process, it was what helped her get into the mindset to write.

So, I don’t worry much about procrastination as long as I keep some sort of boundaries around the time and word count. I do have to actively engage and have some discipline or I would never write anything – and the same goes for meditation – but there needs to be receptivity too, to what the mind needs to come more naturally to the object, in this case, the activity. The balance of active/receptive, discipline/procrastination will vary from person to person, depending on their own mind and tendencies.

Another great artist on the receptive end was the genius cellist Jacqueline Du Pre. She was known to do very little practice on her instrument, whereas it was usually expected a student would work for above 5 hours a day. Her teacher was of the belief that for certain temperaments “it was enough to think about the music”, to let it run through her mind and allow it to move her. Too much physical practice would introduce a lot of tension by going against her natural temperament, to the detriment of her playing.

There is another parallel here with meditation; where we’re trying to let the mind be natural and observe it in that state, without pushing and pulling it into pre-conceived shapes and forms. Allowing something to just be as it is, is itself a deeply creative act.

I think what my own mind is doing with its procrastination is that it is finding a way to feel safe with creativity. Within the uncertainty, and the delight of the mind that is writing or meditating, it also can’t take too much of it. It is drawn to grounding in a familiar routine. When I had a highly creative and highly stressful job, as project manager and fundraiser I thrived on it. It was a wonderful experience, but I also had times in that role when all I wanted to do was some filing or another simple task that required little thinking about. Some zero creativity time. It can be challenging, and certainly demanding, to always be in creative mode. The mind needs downtime. The trick is to find ease without switching off or numbing out.

Even when I’m engaged in something really enjoyable and fulfilling, like singing in the choir I go to every week, I often check the time, ‘how much longer to go’? It’s mad, but enjoyment and engagement take energy and a bit of me is always looking for an out.

Steven Covey in “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” uses words like ‘unpredictable’ and ‘ambiguous’ for creative processes. To be engaged in them we have to let go of structure and certainty, to let go of a mental and emotional safety net. This isn’t comfortable and so we return to what is habitual and less exerting; the safety of the word count, or the breath count.

This is OK. We need to know our temperament and respect our capacity for ambiguity rather than override it. Over time we learn to gently train in noticing ‘clock watching mind’ or ‘word count mind’ to feel what they’re like. Maybe there’s a tired feeling, or we feel overstretched, and by noticing it we can stay with it, and come to understand it. Bringing the same quality of awareness to what’s new and unknown we might learn to do the activity in a less ‘out there’ kind of way, with more natural balance and wisdom.

New recordings added

Hello, I’ve just added some recordings from recent retreats including a retreat where I brought together the 4 Brahmaviharas with an awareness/wisdom approach.

There’s also a recent evening at the Shrewsbury Triratna Buddhist Centre, exploring awareness and right view in relation to the ‘dhammas’ section of the Satipatthana Sutta.

Dental Detachment; a modern day Anatomical Parts practice.

I was recently fortunate enough to be on retreat with Bhikkhu Analayo studying and practising the Satipatthana Sutta. We were introduced to a meditation practice where before each period of open, unstructured awareness Analayo led us through several body scans. The first three scans were an abbreviated form of what’s known as the ‘Anatomical Parts’ practice. The Buddha likens the parts of the body to different types of grains such as rice, held in a bag (i.e. skin). Each day we scanned through the body noting ‘skin’, then ‘flesh’ and in the third scan, ‘bones’, looking to help bring about less identification with the body.

The practice came back into my mind at a recent visit to the dentist.

The thought of a visit to the dentist used to fill me with anxiety and tension. “Don’t be silly” I remember the unsympathetic, white coated, woman saying as she prepared to stick a needle into my 9-year-old gums. All I’d done was unconsciously take a sharp in-breath and a death grip on the arms of the plastic chair I was lying rigid in.

As a child, I had a lot of ‘work’ done on my teeth. As it turns out, much of it was not strictly necessary, but a sign of the times. Dating a dentist in my early 20’s taught me that the pain and cavalier attitude I’d experienced was the sign of a bad dentist rather than something I’d been too cowardly to put up with.

Over the years of adulthood, better dentists, and a lot of practice, the experience has changed. Watching my mind with interest means I’ve been able to observe habitual fear and aversion before it gets too much of a hold. I’m able to relax and notice other things – the lights, sounds, close contact with another human being – rather than contract around a single unpleasant object. Generally these days I’m pretty calm going into the chair.

As I write, I’m at home following minor dental surgery – an implant at the back of my mouth. Apart from a small tear at the corner of my mouth, there is no discomfort at all.

Despite some initial apprehension (watching the thoughts the day of the surgery as they focused on what might go wrong) I found the experience quite interesting. The dentist was pretty good at telling me what was going to happen but I realised he was also leaving things out, presumably for my benefit!

The first time I didn’t know what was happening was feeling a scraping in my mouth and realising it could not be the familiar sound of a metal instrument against a tooth. There was no longer a tooth there so the sound had to be metal on bone…which meant the shoving and pulling of the previous ten minutes had been the cutting and scraping back of my gums! Whooh!

There followed a few ‘burr holes’ into the bone of my upper jaw to establish the best line to angle the implant ‘post’. The bone was unusually dense so the vibrations caused by the drill intensified, and crackling sounds and sensations, like a car driving on gravel, spat out at regular intervals.

After much deliberation and several x rays, the post was screwed in by what I imagined was a tiny dental spanner, each twist securing the post into the drilled hole. Finally, the retracted gums were sewn back together with several stitches. I caught glimpses of the black thread coming into my field of vision and felt the pinprick of the needle. All this happened within an hour and a half of much pushing and shoving of my mouth and cricking of my neck.

While all this was going on I was aware of different levels of ‘happenings’. There was the level of wanting to make it happen as quickly and smoothly as possible. My mouth was readily open as wide as I could manage, I lay still and worked against the choking sensations of water, not caught by the suction pipe, hitting my throat. I was as model a patient as I could be!

Then there were the resonances between the procedure and daily life. Wrenches, spanners, needle and thread all seemed part of a different world – one I’m becoming more familiar with as a new homeowner. How could the same objects and concepts used for hemming curtains and bleeding radiators be now digging into my precious flesh and bone? I was amused by the mental second takes that tried to make sense of this. I’ve watched plenty of ‘Grey’s Anatomy’ in my time, with its fictional digging around in human bodies, but that’s not the same as having the same thing happening to my own.

I was also noticing the thoughts, views and feelings around that mental perturbation. The surgery was a minor assault on ‘self’, invading beyond the boundary of skin and flesh. It was also an opportunity to see where ideas of ‘me’ and ‘mine’ were hiding out. There was a sense that going beyond skin, cutting into flesh was not only an invasion of ‘self’ but that skin and flesh themselves were hiding the reality of what I take to be ‘me’. The notion of me was challenged when usually unseen parts were cut open and drilled into and then sewn up again.

Watching all of this I was keyed back into the mindset of Analayo’s retreat. The body scans that set up our sitting practice were there to facilitate an attitude of detachment – an aspect of Right View. And that I could observe the mind at ease, aware of subtle resistances and protestations, showed me that there was some degree of detachment there – as well as some degree of attachment! But, hey, wisdom was working in the mind to some extent.

Detachment and wisdom are friends to awareness, allowing the mind to observe more of its own workings. And the mind that is aware and curious can use any object to investigate its own nature. Eventually, the mind starts to intuit its own ‘nature’ and realise there is nothing to hold onto.

Without Agenda

I had the privilege to lead a retreat recently where I had not chosen the theme. I’d been asked to step in for a friend who was unable to lead it. The topic had already been set and blurb had been publicised for a while before I took it on. The main theme was the Brahma Viharas (divine abodes) and their relation to Insight and I knew the previous leader had intended a particular way of approaching the insight component.

I may have previously said on this blog (as I say on many of the retreats I lead) that I’m a bit of a one trick pony! I’ve immersed myself in a particular approach to practice for many years and I know it really well. To a large extent, it is the framework through which I view the Dharma and spiritual practice. Awareness as an Insight practice is a thrilling and fascinating journey, even whilst the average ‘sit’ can be full of mind wandering or physical discomfort.

So, here I was, with a theme I was not unfamiliar with, but not one that I felt I knew in my bones, or that I loved as a way of practice. This is not unusual for many dharma teachers I know who can turn their hand to a multitude of facets of the Buddha’s teachings, but it was for me, especially to do so for a whole week. I was intrigued as to how it might work, how I might work, and how my existing way of looking at the Dharma through the lens of mindfulness practice would influence the practices of loving-kindness, compassion, appreciative joy and equanimity.

Each morning session started with a short led meditation encouraging the traditional forerunners of the Brahma Viharas; generosity and gratitude. I pointed us to notice the small or large moments of appreciation, of giving and receiving, and the gratitude that can quite naturally arise. It was early autumn and we had some bright, clear days and the gardens at Rivendell were looking stunningly beautiful. It wasn’t hard to be in touch with gratitude for all the work by volunteers that had gone into that. Then there were the broader factors. Some were there because their partner was generously prepared to be a solo parent for the week. Others had been helped financially to be there. So many conditions had had to come together for each of us to be on retreat that week.

You barely had to think about it once the thought of gratitude or generosity was in the mind. The heart was just touched and the mind and body responded as these qualities came more into being. Recognising things like the physical relaxation and ease in the body, or a pleasurable mental softening brought further appreciation. From these moments of noticing, of awareness, it was a very small and natural step into the open mind of metta (loving-kindness).

The ‘barely having to think about it’ attitude of receptivity to what was already there in experience was one of the main ways I felt the retreat was influenced by awareness. Noticing where the qualities of compassion or equanimity were already present, even in slight or subtle forms was deeply pleasurable and encouraging to practice, helping those qualities flourish. Noticing too, the near or far ‘enemies’ (in a mean thought or an indifference to someone else’s suffering) without rejecting or indulging them, which would only feed these unhelpful tendencies. A clear-sighted recognition was often enough to allow a deactivation of their power and energy.

We followed the practices through the usual structure and brought specific people to mind but then moved into a more ‘objectless’ mode where we simply allowed metta or mudita to radiate beyond the perceived boundary of the physical body in all directions. This led to a greater sense of freedom from restriction and fixity for many of the retreatants.

What I hadn’t anticipated is what effect the retreat would have on my existing practice. A quality of joy and ease was much more accessible in sitting where I often have a considerable level of physical discomfort. The specific reminders of these beautiful qualities of heart and mind helped me register more clearly where they were present in my experience. I found it profoundly encouraging to clearly recognise e.g. compassion and equanimity in the mind and know their value.

Clearly, there is much more that could be brought out of bringing the Brahma Viharas and the Satipatthana Sutta together, and I hope to lead another retreat on the theme again.

Teaching Dates for 2018

I’ve recently updated the page for Teaching Dates on this Blog. It would be great to see some of you on retreat. As well as some regular retreats at Rivendell and Vajraloka, there are a couple of firsts next year. I’ll be teaching a retreat at ‘The Barn’, which is part of Sharpham Trust. You don’t have to have any experience within Triratna for this retreat. I’ll also be part of a great team for an Order retreat at Adhisthana in July.

The retreats, as usual, are themed around mindfulness as a path to insight.

glimpses into a meditator's mind

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