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
In order to yield insight the mind has to get beyond thought. This can be purely through the meditation process or we can also use other skilful means to train our minds towards this goal. Two ways of taking the mind toward silence are through contemplative poetry or art. To appreciate certain poetry one has to read or listen quietly, in a way that does not analyse the words but allows the mind to form a picture. Art of a more abstract nature is similar – we look with an attention that is not too tight nor too loose. A mind that is relaxed and open, yet attentive, allowing an impression to form.
This ability to allow a picture to form in the mind based upon sense impressions is part of the insight process. There is also a degree of sense or sensual restraint, a composure of the senses, that does not get into detail, grasping or fondling or criticising. It is a way we can begin to open the mind. This is a refined aesthetics rather than a coarse level of appreciation. In my opinion, however, such refined aesthetics can get us stuck. It is looking for the best of both worlds – the sublime form and the space – not realising the greater pleasure and purity in the completely open and free mind and heart, which is at one with space.
Our next step in this direction is to recognise through mindfulness that beauty is not just in the object, it is literally in the heart and eye of the beholder (mindfulness is therefore also a natural creator of art or poetry). In fact the appreciation of the mind itself can give a stronger impression than the object. In this way we find a source of enjoyment at least semi-independent of the sense world. There is a kind of refined sensuality to do with light and space where the line begins to blur between the light of the world and the brightness of the mind, for example. This becomes like heaven. If we can see heaven on earth in this way, it is like the gradual path where the Buddha teaches us to see the advantages of the refined heavenly realms as a way to let go of coarser, worldly sense pleasures.
This lightness of touch prepares us for the experience of entering samādhi through contemplating the suffering of the world. Here the experience of the emergence of the mind itself overwhelms us as we further let go of our attachment. This is a very different kind of pleasure, the bliss of the mind opening rather than sensually grasping or fondling.
I offer this for your reflection.
It was February, 2012. It had been a cold winter that year to be on retreat. I had been meditating a lot and exercising as well to keep myself going. Then one day I heard that there was a funeral approaching in the monastery and the body had arrived and was laid to rest in the temple. As was my usual practice I went to see and to practice mettā meditation for the deceased. When I arrived I realized that I had met the man a few times. He was well known as an exercise fanatic, there were pictures of him in local newspapers on display were he was doing various extreme things for charity and so on.
There had been, I had heard, some strange events since his death. Apparently the Buddha figure in his home where his body had previously been had mysteriously fallen from the shrine and broken. The same had then happened in the temple. I also knew that he had had a slow and difficult passing with some awful neurological condition. My mind came to wonder whether this man had lost faith through all that and then found some way to show it after he had died.
I returned to my hut in the forest to continue practising and for a moment felt despondent. I thought of all the exercise I was doing and of the dead man and found myself thinking, with a big sigh, “Oh, what’s the use.” After all the meditation and contemplation of the body and death I had been engaged in over the last months, something in me immediately found that thought funny, but as soon as I smiled at myself a massive wave of bliss took over my mind completely. My body was filled with light and an unbelievable rapture. This ecstatic feeling lasted a few minutes, I think, I am not sure and then I had a very clear vision of my teacher, Ajahn Anan, smiling very broadly. Then I surprised myself with another thought, “I wonder if that means he feels like that all the time.”
Two years later I was in Thailand and finally had the chance to ask Ajahn Anan about this experience. I wanted to know if he really did feel like that all the time. He said yes. I was and am still completely amazed by that. He then leant forward and with an extremely penetrating look in his eyes he said,
“Kalyano, that’s the highest.” From that time to this I have kept returning my mind to that. This is a difficult practice, I need all the encouragement I can get.
March 20, 2014
Of course the monastery isn’t always like this but this is perhaps the kind of thing that we wish, in our dreams, could happen:
Are you sitting comfortably? Then we can begin...
Once upon a time...when he finally decided to go to the monastery it was the beginning of winter and the frost over the fields was sparkling in the low sun. A few people in the village he knew had met the monks, some of the kids had been to the monastery with school, and they all said they seemed like nice people so he wasn’t so nervous any more. He was excited and tingled a little bit all over, in fact, as the cold north wind swept across his face.
As he walked over the rise and saw the monastery house below he was immediately struck by the peace of the place. He hadn’t expected to feel anything special, his excitement steadied and opened a little. The first person he met was a man carrying a plank of wood from the barn towards the house. He offered a helping hand and found the ground first of all and himself in the door of the monastery second, all before he quite realised where he was. One of the monks was there and took his end of the plank as he walked in.
The monk said ‘thanks,’ and smiled. He felt a kind of stillness and stood looking around, not knowing what to say or even, momentarily, what to think.
The room was like an ordinary sitting room only there were no chairs, just mats on the floor, and a small shrine at the far end. The monk and the man were in the middle of constructing a wooden frame by the fireplace, he guessed for the firewood. He passed a hammer to the monk, who smiled again, more broadly this time. The monk and the man were both English and joked around with each other. Other times they were quiet but the quiet wasn’t awkward. This seemed important to him and somehow beautiful in a way he did not quite understand, a bit like looking at abstract art. The silence seemed strong and cool, like dark blue against yellow.
He found himself joining in with the work but not saying much. When work was done for the morning the monk invited him to stay for lunch and to his surprise he quickly accepted. Three Thai ladies were arriving with some food for the monks and he went to say hello. They were very smiling and chatty and took over in the kitchen. They did not seem to expect him to do anything, even to listen to what they were saying and he drifted back into the main room and sat at the back. This all felt different, he thought, yet at the same time seemed very normal, natural. It was just as though he was travelling abroad to an exotic place in a big bus-shaped house. Or was it a big house-shaped bus? There was something about this place that seemed to make something special out of the ordinary and something ordinary out of the special.
The other monks arrived and there was some ceremony around the meal but the man, who turned out to be staying at the monastery, told him he did not need to join so he just watched the people as they bowed and chanted blessings and so on. Looking on, it was all very gracious as if there were a little bit of silence and space in and around everything. He was a bit surprised to find out that the monk he had met already was the Abbot.
Everyone shared in the food. As he relaxed, life started feeling strangely more meaningful, in a more playful kind of way. He tried bowing for the first time and knocked his head gently on the floor by accident. One of the Thais giggled. She was pretty but he didn’t feel embarrassed, he was trying his best. ‘Trying my best not trying too bloody hard like usual,’ he thought to himself. It was fun to follow along and at the same time respectful. Something relaxed in his right shoulder which had been holding on a long time. He found himself freer to move his head and started looking again around the room. There were all kinds of possible new meanings lurking there in the subtle soft and elegant taste of the East...he was set to dreaming a little…
After the meal the monk came to talk to the visitors and he joined the group, relaxing in his armchair. Everyone sat on the floor. He didn’t quite know what to do with his legs, which suddenly felt rather long and stiff. He shuffled about and tried to follow the conversation. The monk seemed to know the visitors well, enquiring how they were and their families and they talked a little about meditation. There was a very friendly, family atmosphere. He felt a bit like the big kid of the class.
When the visitors returned to the kitchen he found himself alone with the monk. They exchanged a few simple words, nice day wasn’t it…but he was dying to ask something. He told the monk about the guardian of the forest that he had believed in since he was a child.
‘You are a man now. Now you are the guardian of the forest,’ said the monk, much to his surprise. He had not expected to be challenged like this but the monk was smiling very broadly.
‘Don’t you believe in such things? Does the guardian not exist? he asked.’
‘Keep looking and one day maybe you will see for yourself,’’ said the monk.
Again he was surprised, this time inside. He realised that the guardian of the forest was still just a childish figure in his mind in some way, a bit like Santa Claus and he thought of his grandfather who had told him about the guardian when he was a little boy. He had never really questioned what his grandfather had said and to carry on doing what he had been shown, to bow his head as he entered the forest, had just added a bit of magic to his love of the forest which he didn’t think about so much. He had never wanted to think so much about it, that seemed to spoil the magic. But the way the monk was speaking was not just about thinking or imagining but really looking for himself.
He didn’t quite know what to say. One of the Thai ladies appeared and offered to take his plate to the washing-up and he instead followed her into the kitchen to lend a hand. The ladies had to leave quite quickly and he found himself alone in the house. He was relieved to have a chance to really arrive and reflect on the morning.
Something seemed to be opening up inside which had been contracted a long time. He realised he didn’t have to believe or not believe in anything, not in spirits or parties or chocolate or anything. Snow started falling slowly and gently outside in big flakes. The white of the snow seemed so fresh pure and bright. Right there in the moment he felt he could make a fresh start and look again at the world with the wonder of a child that he had somehow lost in all his doubts and worries. He had entered into a very precious state of mind, called in Buddhism, ‘Beginner’s Mind.’ a state of mind with some faith but no knowledge, just open and enquiring.
He decide to go for a walk in the forest...
to the guardian of the forest he spoke with respect
asking for permission to enter
just as his grandfather had told him when he was a small child
to the spirit of the forest he listened
through the wind in the trees, the creaking branches
and the spirit and the guardian seemed to speak to him through his feelings
coming from without or within he could not tell and it didn’t seem to matter
now as he was older and wiser than in his youth
the guardian and the spirit seemed to be coming ever closer
‘are they not actually in the same voice?’
he asked himself
‘surely they are the same’ he thought
the creaking of the branches seemed to speak to him of caution
but there was something deeper
he sat to meditate for the first time
beneath the great pine in the centre of the forest
very deep down in his spirit
far deeper than he could imagine
the voice of the spirit was beginning to express
in the brightness of his heart
the deeper meaning and truth of the forest
and the meaning was the protector, the guardian
for the meaning was itself protected
this truth was the deepest truth of nature itself
and was the eternal life of the forest
this was how through humble respect
he had begun to find nature’s greatest reward
for himself and for the forest
the promise of an eternal life through truth
and through complete surrender
Now he had really arrived in the monastery...just in time to go home again for a little supper...after all it was Christmas time and granny was coming...
I offer this for your reflection
It was Christmas time in the village. There was something about all the rituals of Christmas that seemed a little empty to him this year.
‘What can I give Aunty so and so, I haven’t seen her since last year.’
It was also to be his first Christmas without his grandfather, smoking his pipe and telling stories of ships in far away places with a glint in his eye. He would miss him so much.
Wrapping up all the socks for the people he hardly knew at all he regretted all the times he had rushed along with his head down and not even saying hello.
‘And I wasn’t really so busy,’ he thought. I just didn’t know what to say. ‘Oh dear, oh dear..’ he muttered to himself.
Actually there were so many things he hadn’t said, about his sadness over his grandfather. There were so many other things he did not know where to start. Sometimes he thought something was going to burst inside.
And then what was he going to say at the parties he didn’t really want to go to...oh dear, oh dear...he remembered the last one where the only relief he found from all the noise was in the toilet..he had stood there taking a pee and wondering why he was there at all…
Most sadly of all, perhaps, he didn’t realise that other people felt the same as him and that even the confident extroverts of the group liked his quiet presence.
As he cast his mind around the little village he yearned emotionally for the sense of a wider family but he couldn’t seem to find it. He straightened himself up to somehow show that he didn’t need anyone. The truth was that his pride was such that he couldn’t really feel that he needed anyone though he surely did. But then he didn’t really know the shopkeepers or anyone, he was always in a bit of a rush, wasn’t he?
He put his coat on and headed for the shop not quite knowing why he was going. The thought of chocolate popped up from nowhere and thankfully, it seemed, took him onto automatic. But as he walked along even this could not overcome his sense of despair. He sat on the bench at the bus stop. He needed to stop and reflect, he was feeling emotionally a little overwhelmed. Much to his dismay people started to gather to wait for the bus. He hardly knew the people and didn’t know what to say but he felt embarrassed to walk away.
‘It is not very usual for someone to be sitting there, never mind someone in such an emotional state,’ he thought. He was worried that he would make others feel awkward and tried to think how he could look in order not to bother anybody. He realised he had his phone in his pocket. He took it out and disappeared behind the little screen. He pretended to be busy with something, he was good at that. The bus arrived. A young girl looked at him questioningly as she got on the bus and left him sat there. There was only one bus that came through the village. He knew he had been exposed as a mere pedestrian. And she was pretty, he found himself suddenly wanting to look good and that made it all even worse. He was hoping she could not see that he was unhappy and managed an awkward smile. But it was too late, she had already boarded the bus. He felt lonely and forlorn. Life suddenly felt rather meaningless.
‘Surely there must be more to life than all this,’ he thought, holding his head in his hands.
He decided to take a walk and headed away from the village and the people straight for the forest. Approaching the forest he loved so much he bowed his head to the guardians of the forest before he entered as was his custom. Usually this felt a natural thing to do, today it felt very awkward, he just felt awkward all over. But the forest had been so much part of his life from when he was very young, he soon found himself leaving the village behind in his mind and relaxing, losing himself and feeling at one with the scene around him as he found his way along the path. When he reached his favourite spot, carpeted in moss, where the pines towered over him, so straight and true he found himself bowing his head again, almost as if in prayer. Showing respect, lessening himself in this way, made the forest all the grander and this grandeur served as his welcome in return.
Suddenly, walking through the trees they seemed to him like the wider family he wished for, silent as they were there was nothing awkward. His silence felt accepted and he somehow returned home inside to a place he knew so well. If only he could find this same feeling from the people around him, he thought.
All this was the reason he was to seek refuge at the local Buddhist monastery, many years later, wishing so much that he had had the courage to go there many years before. For there he was to find the same silence and the sense of a wider, accepting family he had always been looking for. He was to meet a monk who was still often not quite sure what to say to people but had learned to love them anyway. And gradually he was to find a whole new identity and way of being in the world that had something new to say and to offer to his dear village.
And they would all live happily ever after...
I offer this for your reflection
It was summer and he was staying at his cabin for a well-deserved rest from work. It was a beautiful morning to sit on the verandah. To the south was an open view of the forested hills. To the north the verandah was enclosed by windows offering a view of the forest behind through the glass. Drinking his morning coffee and looking through the windows at the beautiful forest he felt peaceful and happy. He played around smiling at his reflection in the window. If he focussed just right his reflection looked like his spirit floating out there in the forest.
For a moment he lost himself in the scene:
‘The peaceful mind is just like this window,’ he thought, ‘it is both an opening to the world and a mirror in which we see ourselves.’ Suddenly he felt as light as air. He had completely disappeared into the scene around him.
Continuing to gaze at his reflection, his mind silent and open, his feelings were somehow projected onto his image as it returned his gaze. The space of his mind became very peaceful and still as his feelings naturally sought refuge in the forest’s leafy hiding places, gathering together like a flock of birds in the fading summer ready to depart.
‘Are my feelings not happy in the forest?’ he wondered. ‘
‘Why are they still restless?’
He sat at the window the whole afternoon, enchanted. Gradually as the light changed, his reflection disappeared. The sky behind him was reflected in the window and a view of the forest appeared above him where the roof over the verandah shaded the windows.
Now the forest looked like heaven and he found that he didn’t miss himself at-all.
‘The forest is ever more beautiful when the ghosts of our minds take flight,’ he thought.
‘And our empty mind is free to roam the sky of our hearts, open and bright.’
‘Such is true love,’ he thought.
There have been so many instances throughout history of religion going astray that it is understandable that people turn away from religion toward a freer spirituality. What can be lost in this transition, however, is the sense of something timeless that comes from a long history or tradition and the social cohesion this creates. The prayers, rites and rituals can have their place and yet for a religion to remain alive the true meaning of such acts must be borne continually in mind.
This is part of the work of religion that keeps it pure. The temptation these days is to turn our backs on religion rather than taking our part in maintaining this purity, but then we end up on a lonely journey. Rather than entering into the positive karmic stream of a group, we are isolated. In my own case I vastly under-estimated the potential of such group karma – the karma of a culture or tradition. I took for granted much of the positive karma of my own culture, karma that created a degree of social justice and welfare. The system was so anonymous it was hard for the benevolence of the society to really touch the heart. Religion can serve to make this bridge between the personal and the universal, defining our relationship to the whole in a skilful way.
Then our religion will not be a source of conflict but of peace; not a source of empty solace but a real refuge.
When we come back home from a peaceful walk in the forest and we begin to feel stressed again we can begin to question, ‘do I really need all this stuff?’
In my family it was a tradition to get together sometimes and have a big purge of the house to get rid of anything we did not need or want anymore and create some space. The cupboards and drawers would start to overflow with stuff and we would know it was time. It was always difficult at the beginning. There would be so many memories associated with everything,
‘Aunty Dorrie gave us this’ or ‘do you remember the day...’
As the purge went on, however, we would begin to see the space and order we were creating and start to enjoy the process. There was a great relief to being free of all the clutter.
If we let go of things more and more this sense of relief, of freedom can become paramount and we get bolder and bolder in what we get rid of or give away.
We can start to incline towards simplicity, our living room goes Zen. We start painting everything white. We build a tree house in the garden. We delete our Facebook account. We look at the stars at night. We have space in our life. We are happy in a completely new way.
This is the joy of renunciation. It goes a very, very long way…
It was a fine autumn morning in September when, arising a little stiffly, I realised I needed to take my body for a walk. I calmly set off, rubbing the sleep from my eyes with a little gentle happiness, nothing special. Yet setting off through the forest with a mellow heart I found myself wishing a good morning to all the trees and other inhabitants. To my surprise that morning to calmly and sincerely say ‘hello’ to nature brought the experience alive in a brand new way - I did not just see a lot of pretty shapes and colours, acknowledging all the living beings out there in this simple way I naturally felt full of love and respect.
I congratulated the trees for growing well this year and the ants for building their hill even higher.
Likewise my concern for nature felt more personal, more human, coming from an immediate and realistic perspective. My love felt safe beginning at the heart and not going straight to my head. My love was constructive and open, active not passive, not full of opinions and expectations. I was not thinking that things should be this way or that and starting to worry. I was not wanting anything. I was simply ready to help.
I helped a beetle across the road.
I ended up taking a long walk all the way to the ocean. Paddling in the gentle breakers the water was cool. The sand moulded to my feet and I was gradually invited by the body back to the cool ground of the heart for a well-deserved rest. It had been a memorable day.
And today, going about my business, I still find that I do not forget my friends in the forest and act irresponsibly. I speak up for my friends when the opportunity arises. I feel good inside where it really matters. And all this comes so naturally and simply just from remembering to say ‘hello’ to nature, straight from the heart.
This is part 3 of the "Nature Series".
1. A walk in nature
2. Finding our place in nature
3. Hello nature
4. Our goodbye nature
5. It's never too late to love the world
6. True love for the world
Meditation is the purpose of Buddhist monasteries and monastic life. All the rules are there to help the meditator to focus and protect their minds. The rules are not statements of right or wrong but of that which is not conducive to higher meditation. For example, sex is not considered wrong or sinful in any way.
It also becomes obvious when a meditator is ready to give up sex for their meditation – they simply enjoy their meditation more. Sex thus becomes a distraction from something that is more pleasurable and more worthwhile. So a good meditator can choose the monastic life or to spend time in monasteries depending on how their practise is going in a quite simple, straightforward manner.
Also, in terms of learning meditation, it is important to be able to get advice when you need it and actually equally important to avoid advice when you are doing well. This is the reason why a good monastery is more of a spiritual drop-in centre rather than somewhere that provides courses. The Buddha taught people mostly in an individual way rather than in groups for the same reason. It seems that in terms of beginners the Buddha taught almost exclusively in an individual way in order to get someone started. From then on the more a teaching is tailored to an individual the better. We all have our different abilities or obstacles in meditation and there are very many different techniques or approaches to choose from. Some approaches will work for us, others may even be harmful. Also our needs will change as time goes on, we will need to do different techniques in order to balance our minds.
All this means that a relationship with an experienced teacher can be very valuable. Unfortunately, in contrast to this, so many teachers just give out simple, universal instruction these days and will try to convince people that theirs is the only way. This is what makes you a popular teacher and suits the propagation of the teaching by computer. It creates mass movements behind teachers that only lead to division and difference of opinion in the religion as a whole. This mass approach is also, I believe, an obstacle to spiritual community life. People hide in the group and do not really get to know each other or develop their independence as spiritual practitioners. Neither do people develop the broad approach to meditation that bears greatest fruit in the long-term. I find this all rather immature but forgivable in the relatively new tradition of Buddhism in the West.
These then are all the reasons I believe in traditional monasteries as the best place to learn meditation and the reasons I have chosen to live in one.
I offer this for your reflection