There is a famous story in the Arab world about how goodness can turn to bad and badness to good. A very rich woman marries a very good man, approved of by her rich parents. He is the perfect caring and dutiful husband. After a few years the woman tires of him, however, he is no fun. She leaves him for another man who is rather wild and sensual. Then the lady has a terrible accident in which she becomes both deaf and blind. What then ensues is a shocking tale of how she is taken on a journey in which her first lover, very angry at having been deserted, seeks his revenge.
Throughout the awful life-threatening ordeal that ensues her life is heroically defended by her second lover, the wild party animal. Throughout this ordeal she, being unable to recognize who is doing what, assumes that it is the wild man who is torturing her and the good man who is trying to save her when, in fact, the reality is the other way around.
This story has a lot to teach us as practitioners of the Dhamma. We can assume that what we see as the good side of us or of others is wholly good and beyond evil. Or we can judge our bad side too harshly, assume that it is wholly bad and cannot be turned around. We can be very black-and-white about states of mind or form fixed views. The Buddha encourages us not to be blind like the lady in the story but to remain vigilant and not to attach to a view, to follow goodness and to turn away from evil wherever we might find it.
I offer this for your reflection
Back to the Beginning
I have been thinking lately what I might say were the first origins of my own, individual spiritual path. I was brought up a Christian and admired my devout parents and grandparents for their goodness when I was child but I found the Christian teachings hard to understand or believe in. Then my first ever introduction to Asian spirituality came when I was thirteen years old. I used to go with a friend to a local park to play tennis. There were a number of public tennis courts in the park. My friend and I had booked a court for three o'clock and we were a little early. There were some benches where people waited for their turn and I found myself sitting next to an elderly lady who was also waiting, dressed in her tennis outfit and carrying her racket. I was immediately fascinated by the fact that such a thin, rather frail looking old lady was still able to play tennis at all.
I said, 'hello'.
I have a vague memory of her replying with a polite, rather refined, 'good afternoon'.
I remember nothing of the rest of our conversation which was unremarkable, it was simply in the manner of the 'do you come here often, isn't it a nice day' variety. I only remember being completely captivated by the look in her eyes. Her gaze was very bright and sharp and there was a depth there also which held a mysterious quality. She asked me if I would like a copy of a book that she had translated with a friend of hers from the Chinese. I readily accepted. She proudly signed it for me and we parted for the courts.
As I played tennis with my friend I occasionally looked over at the old lady in the court next to ours. She was playing with a younger woman and was remarkably quick and agile for her age.
When I left the park that day I did not think to say 'goodbye'. I thought I would see her again but I never did.
The book she had given me was a copy of the 'Tao Te Ching' by Lao Tsu. I have treasured this little book all my life, returning to it over and over again. It led me to take up T'ai Chi, my first meditation practice, in my early twenties. Still it remains a reference especially with regard to my engaged spiritual life picturing as it does, in a remarkably tangible and dynamic way, the relationship between conventional and ultimate reality. It is a remarkable teaching on how to flow with life.
It is remarkable to me now how much such a brief encounter with someone could end up profoundly changing the life of another person and underlines to me how much potential there is in meeting children of such an impressionable age. I sometimes think of her when I meet with children myself hoping I may be able to influence someone else the way she influenced me. I can remember her face to this day. In one way this was why I found myself immediately converting to Buddhism when I first heard about it four years later in a religious education class. I could see that Buddhism made sense and thought I could be good without needing to believe in anything – I could investigate the truth for myself in my own time, I thought. But there was also something in me that trusted the mysterious depth and obvious happiness and vitality of that old lady, Margaret Ault. There was something, especially in the latter qualities, that I simply could not doubt.
So I remember Margaret with great affection and gratitude. There is also nothing like acknowledging the help we have received from others on the path to help us to be humble, avoid conceit and make us willing to do the work necessary to try to help others in return.
I offer this for your reflection
For most people by far, the most prominent hindrance to spiritual practice – although not the most obvious one – is procrastination. Meditation is so often the thing that can wait until tomorrow. When did you last think, “I must just sit and do nothing”? Sure, sometimes we are desperate for quiet or space, yet the tendency is often to look for these outside of ourselves, which is of course easier – but less fruitful.
Often spiritual practice is the last thing on our list because it is considered to merely be the cream on the cake or the cherry on top; or in other words, usually in turning to spirituality, we are seeking to put a spiritual gloss on our lives; but this is just spiritual materialism and it is simply barking up the wrong tree, because all true spirituality has a renunciant flavour: It’s about letting go. Letting go of all the things that don’t really matter.
The traditional way to counteract this procrastination and instead seek a sense of urgency is to contemplate death. However many people getting nervous about this topic tell me, very hurriedly, “There’s nothing you can do about that!”
But in the light of our mortality we are drawn to re-examine our lives and see what really matters.
she wanted all the suffering to cease
and for there to be eternal love and peace
but the earth was sick and old
and there was trouble everywhere
on the ground, in the sea and even in the air
it seemed it was all just ready to burn
and she knew not where to turn
reaching out she prayed
she knew not why
placing her hand against the sky
her fingers opened wide
of course she could not hold the sky
but she found the sky held her
all the way inside
Father Sun and Mother Sky
had a child within her heart
that opened like a flower
and there she found love and peace
and also strength and power
I practised for about twenty years in lay life before I ordained, at age 36. The factors I found most important in order to maintain my practice as a lay person was the job I was doing and the company I was keeping.
In terms of my work, I chose to become a physiotherapist in order to be able to investigate body and mind and also to try to help people. So in other words my knowledge was always aimed at practical application; I saw the dangers of abstract theory and didn't get lost in it. I also specialised in my work and dug deeper as much as I could. I found that if I was doing the same thing over and over or considering the same thing in more and more depth, this was less exciting than seeking new challenges, but much more conducive to meditation. Moreover I worked a lot with the elderly to try to slow myself down and also found this very sobering. Today, looking back on these days, I think I would also have done a mindfulness course to take the practice even more into the workplace.
Another aspect was that in my work I was more and more faced by the fact that some people had huge problems and suffered very little, these were the ones with the strength of mind; others had small problems but suffered a lot, these were the ones without such strength. So working with the mind and teaching this to others made more sense than trying to solve their problems in themselves. And all I had learned about body and mind along the way of my career was to be equally of value in my monastic life, this time in the supporting role rather than in the lead.
In terms of company I sought out any kind of group I could find connected to eastern spirituality – yoga and T'ai Chi classes for example, and I developed a social life with the people I met there. The formal meditation practice was not so important to me at this time, it was a support to mindfulness and a way of relaxing, not much more than that. And T'ai Chi at that time was a very helpful aid to mindfulness of the body and also integrated well into my daily life. It took me years to appreciate how deep it could all actually go. Eventually I chose the monastic form as a way of committing myself more fully to the meditation practice.
Now I can regret not having got more into the meditation a bit earlier, but I was very energetic in my youth. I also look back and realise that I did help other people, I feel good about that, and it was all sowing the seeds for the deeper investigation of Dhamma that ensued. We have to start from where we are and try to bring that into our Dhamma path.
I offer this for your reflection
In modern societies the values of self expression and individual freedom become contrasted with those of traditional, conformist communities. Organised mainstream religion can be seen as the epitome of such old-fashioned oppressive culture. I am not sure about the other religions but in terms of Buddhism I would say that sometimes appearances are deceptive. The Dhamma warrior is the ultimate peaceful revolutionary. Never mind the Dhamma punks, even a lot of the mainstream places can provide shelter for those seeking to realise and express their Dhamma, there is no more potent form of self-expression than this. Also to find freedom from suffering, there is no more radical, blissful form of freedom than that. What is more for all this with being contained within moral boundaries is that we can have the freedom to pursue our goals in a situation where we are protected from the greed or hatred of others to some extent, and have the freedom from the trouble we would otherwise be creating for ourselves by acting out our own greed or hatred.
And what use was all that greed, anyway? If we admit that richer societies are no happier than some of the more enlightened poorer ones – it's quite the opposite – then the great materialist dream begins to fall apart. We just have to admit that rich societies are merely carried away with greed or the hatred of jealousy or frustration.
I offer this for your reflection
– what they might be and how to relate to them
I have a view about what a ghost might be. Or perhaps it would be better to say that I have developed a way of looking at ghosts, spirits and such things that seems to work both in my own mind and in relating to people to come to me to ask advise or help with their ghost experiences – these are a common thing for a forest monk to be asked about, especially by Asian Buddhists. This view of mine is not so easy to grasp so I do not always explicitly share this view, rather I relate to people’s stories based upon the view.
My view is based on the Buddhist view of dependent origination, of a particular view of causality which sees a relationship that goes both ways between consciousness and the world. In this context I would put the view like this: just as people remember a place, a place can remember a person, in the form of a ghost. This ghost will arise whenever the conditions in that place are similar to when the person was there. It is as though someone or something is partially arising again – not in material form but as an image. Other aspects of an event from the past may re-arise also. So to me ghosts represent evidence of some kind of memory there in the more subtle fabric of the world. This view seems to be substantiated by the fact that ghosts appear in the same places at the same times and often repeating the same acts over and over. There is also the possibility of a more refined species of spirit arising within the mind rather than in a material place. These, I would believe, are a manifestation of the minds of people not attached to the material world, of the mind of samādhi.
Let us try to refine this view further: Memory here is also not seen here as consisting of some kind of stored material or information representing a continuity of existence. Because it can be that our understanding of what a memory is means that we try to conceive of some kind of store consciousness or spiritual realm. Then, if this realm cannot be found, we dismiss the possibility of some different kind of memory and of ghosts at the same time. However, if we can understand memory instead as the re-arising of a phenomenon (either fully or partially) when the conditions come together to cause that phenomena. It can also be just a perception or partial perception that is recurring, a glimpse of something.
This different understanding of memory underpins my ‘memory view’ on ghosts. We see how they arise and cease based on conditions rather than having a continuous existence. The difficulty comes in distinguishing a ghost of this kind from simply our imagination. Because such a ghost is so close in its nature to an imagined ghost, this discrimination can go so far as to need two people to see the same ghost at the same time (which is not so uncommon). A good meditator with a very calm mind can also see the difference because they know that while their mind is calm it is not creating or imagining anything and can judge this to some degree in others. Hence one role of meditating monastics is in advising people on their experiences in this domain.
Such a ghost theory as this is not an alternative to the idea of life after death but rather a way of talking about what life after death might be that does not presuppose the survival of a being or self. We may also see rebirth not as the survival of an entity but as something re-arising in another being’s mind in some other way. This may be as a perception, memory or thought as we may commonly understand it – simply remembering someone who has died. Or perhaps this can occur in another way through some other kind of memory or realization in the case of the ghost.
So here we have a way of seeing and understanding ghosts that does not create a self in what we see. This will also be the way of seeing that is natural to someone who has through meditation abandoned the illusion of self. Philosophically this view is not supernatural nor materialist but between the two. As a practical approach this view seems to succeed in acknowledging and relating to our experiences of ghosts or the experiences of others without making too much out of them. In particular such a view does not induce a sense of being continuously haunted or physically vulnerable to a ghost which is perceived as having a material or energetic existence. It can be the case that, with an incorrect view, we can invest ghosts with more power over us than they really have, just in the same way we might empower our dreams or imagination, or even our negative emotions, through the unconscious action of our own minds.
Remembering all the stories I have been told over the years, I feel sure that Asian people will tend to believe too much in ghosts, often interpreting experiences in their own minds as ghosts, making them real (and getting very scared). Western people tend to be the opposite, reluctant to believe in ghosts they will interpret their experience as psychological. The perspective I have explained here can offer a middle way to these two extremes, not making the ghosts too real, not dismissing them either.
Perhaps most interestingly – when we begin to see ghosts as a kind of memory we can begin to see our memories, in particular our traumas, as a kind of ghost. We can see memories as having a bit of a life of their own and the potential of relating to them afresh in the present moment. When memories and ghosts come together in this way in the same sphere of our experience, we need not initially try to discriminate between them (a reaction we can have that can end up paralyzing our ability to respond) but instead look for a skillful response.
I offer this for your reflection
Looking around, I can think that a lot of people practising yoga are first of all out to stay healthy. I don't see anything wrong with this, as far as it goes. This I see as simply benevolence and I can have a lot of muditā (sympathetic joy) for the health and well-being of Yoga practitioners. It can be a shame, although, to not take the practice a bit deeper and add the meditation to it – where you can be as benevolent to your minds as you are already being to your bodies. It is also the case that problems can arise if we attach to being healthy – we are simply very unhappy when we get sick. The wisdom of the Buddha's teaching, brought alive through meditation, can help us to prevent this attachment without limiting our enjoyment in the moment.
So let us consider how Yoga fits with Buddhist practice philosophy. Yoga was already a highly developed science in the Vedantic tradition at the time of the Buddha. As I understand, the Buddha incorporated the meditation practices of the yogis into his own practice and teaching. Within Buddhism we can see the physical practices of Yoga as a preparation for the meditation and as representing an overall discipline of benevolence in relation to the body, the body being the first,mfundamental, foundation of mindfulness.
So the Buddha is encouraging us to meditate and explore our bodies with a calm, benevolent and accepting mind. In doing so, we discover that there are many ways in which the body and mind are woven together, so we find this also yields methods to gain emotional and psychological benefits. In particular there is the awareness of the breathing cycle. Here, on the simplest level, there is the possibility of a physical means for breaking cycles of stress. Stress tends to push the respiratory process into chronic overdrive. We can learn to arrest these patterns and reset our body's alarm systems. Combined with stretching we can also release the chronic muscle tension associated with stress. Furthermore we can greatly enhance our awarenessof our bodies, particularly in relation to posture. We can avoid the physical problems associated with poor posture and introduce a positive poise and grace to our lives that can take our hearts and minds in a similarly upright direction. Mindfulness of the body, if it thus becomes continuous, provides the ideal basis for the skill of mindfulness as a way of life – there is a lot of evidence for the value of this in preventing mental problems such as anxiety and depression.
We can discover that our attitude towards our own body is formative of so much or our mental and emotional life, of our view of ourselves and others. Not only is a healthy body in many ways a healthy mind, but a healthy view of the body is also in many ways a healthy mind. In this respect the Buddha also teaches us to recognise and then both accept and see beyond the limitations of the body in a way that these limitations need not dampen a positive attitude to life. It can be important to realise that the sickness of the body is not necessarily a source of suffering in life if we have the right attitude, one formed by the correct view of the body and our relationship to it.
On the deeper and more subtle level, through meditation we can learn to deeply energise the body and mind. This is associated with the deeper benefits of long-term meditation practice – the possibility of the peaceful and blissful mind states of samādhi, which come with heightened awareness of the body and breath together. These can transform our lives –we will never be the same again. If you have not experienced such things yourself it is well worth meeting people who have experienced them, to learn to know these people: they are likely to be the happiest people you have ever met. Yet these states of mind are only experienced by those whose Yoga represents a broad and dedicated spiritual path, including the keeping of moral precepts – only then can our mindfulness be clear enough to go this deep. Being part of a spiritual community is of enormous help in establishing and maintaining this kind of dedication. If we have discussed so far principally the place of Yoga in Buddhist practice, this is perhaps the most important place for Buddhism within the practise of Yoga.
I offer this for your reflection
When I became an anagārika I had taken a sabbatical from my research PhD in psychology at Southampton University to spend a year at Chithurst monastery. All my work colleagues thought I was crazy, my career was really taking off. I had spent seven years training first as a psychologist and then added on physiotherapy with the aim of doing research in the area of neurological rehabilitation.
Yet, all along my personal agenda, as a practising Buddhist, was to develop my contemplation of body and mind. I was not really sure what to expect from monastic life but for the first few weeks it was just good to give my brain a rest and do the simple work of cooking and driving and so on.
Then one night, out of the blue, I had an extremely lucid dream which was to change the course of my life. I dreamt that I was rushing around the wards at the hospital, as I had been for so many years – but instead of patients in the beds there were just organs. In one bed a liver, in another lungs, in another a pile of intestines. I had no idea what to do. The situation seemed completely hopeless.
I just kept running around saying to myself,
“What am I going to do, what am I going to do?”
When I woke up I sat up in bed and my first thought was,
“Oh no, all that work!”
I realised that my hospital career was at an end, and here I am still in a monastery twenty-five years later with no thoughts of going back. Looking back I can think that perhaps the taste of freedom, of letting go, I had experienced a few years before after a trip to the morgue had gone deeper than I had thought.