not giving god a name

IMG_3405The Buddha taught us that there is positive thinking and there is negative thinking. The most important thing is to stay above thinking.” [Phra Ajahn Jayasaro]
(Thai text translation)
POSTCARD #160: New Delhi: I feel sad that most children in the West don’t receive the same structured guidance or instruction, as they do in the East, about experiential truths in the lineage of Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Krishna, Jesus, Muhammad – some of whom are called Gods and some prophets. I remember, years ago, asking an old Anglican priest in East London how to find God and he said: ‘are you going?’ Just left it at that. What he meant was: are you going to church? I wasn’t. When I was a kid we didn’t ‘go’, nobody ever ‘went’… there were weddings, funerals, and ‘God’ was never a topic of discussion. I’d had some spiritual insight in this godless condition and was asking the question because I couldn’t understand what the loud hymn singing and dressed-up-in-smart-clothes thing was about; what lay beyond the ‘thou-shalt-nots’ and instruction on the fundamentals of social behaviour. Later I began to see that what the priest meant was, ‘are you actively doing something about this?’ But where to begin? I felt slightly excluded and defensive; ‘going’, was something known only to those who ‘go’… an enigma I didn’t feel equipped to tackle. It didn’t compel me to go back and follow up the conversation with the old priest, and it’s possible he was waiting for me to come back… I feel quite sad that I never saw him again.

I was searching for a context for this state of Godlessness for a long time before I discovered Buddhism in Thailand and became immersed in those detailed behavioural teachings. That was more than 20 years ago, so all this is seen in hindsight. What I understood then, was what the old priest was referring to as ‘going’. The focus is on the immediacy of the here-and-now reality – what’s happening? Where’s it at, this mind/body organism, in relation to ‘the present moment’? What are the tendencies, habitualities in thought that cause me to wander off in my own and others’ suffering and unhappiness? What are the practicalities of the sequence? How can I train myself to break the chain of consequences – to not do whatever it is that causes stress or distress?

There isn’t a creator god in Buddhism, it’s an all-inclusive thing – in the same way there isn’t a ‘self’ outside of consciousness. There’s the operating system, Sila (virtue) Samadhi (focus) Panya (wisdom) and some might say this is God – for Buddhists, it’s better not to call it anything. By not giving god a name, I’m not inclined to develop an attachment to an idea of God according to what I’d like it to be. Better to think of it as nothingness – no-thingness, there’s not any ‘thingness’ about it… I’ve read how it’s a wisdom, a gnosis so completely at one with the thing it knows, there’s an absorption into it. No words for it. Maybe that’s what the old priest was thinking…

Since you cannot do good to all, you are to pay special attention to those who, by the accidents of time, or place, or circumstances, are brought into closer connection with you. [Saint Augustine]
Link to: Publications by Ajahn Jayasaro

seeing things backwards

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Bangkok/Chiang Mai flight: Stone cold in Departures, AC has me chilled to the bone. I walk around the shopping area, just to be doing something, and go to the magazine and newspaper shop. They have packs of Thai alphabet cards – just what I was looking for! I can find the vowel set, but not the consonant set and I ask the lady at the desk if she has it. Stress on her face as I’m asking the question; she thinks she will not be able to understand… then she realizes I’m speaking Thai – a small jump in the air, joyful surprise. Wow! Okay, so… but she’s forgotten the question. I ask again if she has the consonant cards. She starts looking but can’t find them: oh, no have, solee! (sorry) Disappointed. I get the vowel cards anyway and ask her how much it is. She says 47 baht but when she rings up my money at the cash desk, she says 74 baht – checking my change afterwards, she was right first time, 47 baht – just said it round the wrong way (47 or 74?) seeing things backwards is a problem for her sometimes. No worries, everything moves along; flight is called and we are boarded. Stewardesses in lemon yellow costume, it’s all doll-like, pretty and cute – the plane has a bird’s face painted on the nose. You can buy gifts from a trolley coming along the aisle; do I need a vinyl blow-up inflatable airplane? Nothing to get heavy about, overly serious about; no need to get stuck thinking about anything hopelessly imponderable.

eu-ahEven so, it’s noticeable how the mind will attach to an object and hold on to it with the intensity of a velcro fastener bonding with its surface; the desire for adherence. The thinking mind presents a range of options; I can choose to ‘be’ something, contained in an acted-out scene from a movie I’m watching about ‘my’ life. It’s birth in the Buddhist sense jati: the I-am-here thing. It’s sometimes an uncomfortable, driven, locked-in state that arises through examining an event, and returning to it again and again, simply because I’m so used to seeing the situation from this perspective of holding on to it, I expect it to be the same starting point of my meanderings every time.

Mindfulness of this unaware habituality. Knowing it’s like this means ignorance (not knowing) is gone, vanish’d into thin air. I enter the space knowingly, intervention in the probability sequence. Instead of the intensity of mind, there’s just the intensity… a tightness of posture – maybe that’s how it started – relax the neck, the forehead. No thought associated with it. No goals to which I’m compelled to strive for; what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve for. Undoing all the knots tied in memory, letting the mind untangle itself from the problem: good, bad, whatever. Letting it all go, giving it room.

Reminded of Ajahn Pasanno’s reflection on Ajahn Chah’s teaching: ‘A coconut tree draws nutriments from the planet; it draws elements good and bad, clean and dirty, up through the roots and into the top of the tree and then produces fruit that gives both sweet water and delicious coconut.’ And Ajahn Pasanno describes how we don’t need to be concerned about the different experiences that we have of the world, everything is drawn up through the ‘roots’ by way of the three-fold practice: sila (virtue), samadhi (concentration), paññā (wisdom). All experiences, good, bad, whatever, are transformed into insight, understanding, balance and sense of peace.

In-flight announcement: … we are now making our descent… please ensure your window shutters are up, arm rests down, seat backs forward and tables folded away – a small cluster of prepositions. Plane lands and luggage collected, out into the clean Chiang Mai mountain air. Shortly after that I’m in a tuk-tuk headed down to the supermarket to get supplies.

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Photo image upper: My plane to Chiang mai
Middle:  Thai vowel/dipthong ‘eu-ah’
Lower: Chiang mai tuk-tuk

habituality of former lives

WatPohGuardianChiang Mai: 07.00 hours, alarm rings…. It takes a moment and then I remember I’m in the Chiang Mai apartment, arrived from Delhi last night. Heavy curtains over the window; a darkness I’m not used to. It’s quiet here, the sound of monks chanting anumodana on the edge of hearing… takbat. A motorbike whizzes by in the distance; nothing else. Senses are alert, listening, feeling, searching for a way to ‘become’ something that will establish ‘me’ in this place, at this point in time and all the clutter and stuff that’s associated with that. But I can’t fall into habitualities right now, I’m distracted by these new surroundings and keep returning to the minimalism of no thought. There’s an opportunity to leave it all in the impersonal state of not becoming.

I go to the window to see the monks, through the empty rooms as yet uninhabited; space/time occupied with the moving of its integral parts – chapters from a book about tenants moving into a new apartment, the ending hasn’t been written yet and the beginning is a continuation of what happened before. Future time slides into present time, tomorrow becomes today, and ‘now’ becomes yesterday – here we are in the awareness of this moment, the means by which we arrive at this point in time remains a mystery. More chanting, open the curtain and all the windows. Three monks in orange robes and a small group of kneeling Thai tourists from the hotel opposite. Ah yes, many people are on holiday today and it’s quiet like this because it’s Christmas day 2012, I’d forgotten about that – here in a Buddhist country where, really, Christmas is just an ordinary day.

Jesus and all the other great teachers in history were really saying the same thing. In the peace and quiet emptiness of the moment there is no hungry ‘self’, no driving ‘urge’ and it’s possible to see that this world of suffering is a self-created delusion. We are continually re-born into this state due to the habituality of former lives; trying to get what we want or to get rid of what we don’t want, thinking that this is how to get it right. But still caught in attachment upadana; the desired state belongs to ‘me,’ the act of possessing it requires that there has to be an ‘I.’ Everything I have, everything I want, all of this is ‘mine.’ Even that which I consider to be ‘my’ enemy, this is also ‘mine.’ Thus creating a self that is incomplete, unfulfilled, I’m searching for the truth in this and fail to see that it’s the searching that maintains the state of being lost.

In the same way belief in an external creator creates attachment and unthinking devotion to this returns me to the same point of entry, again and again. It’s not about taking refuge in the Jesus or Buddha of the mind. It’s about sila, samadhi, pannya: virtue/ mindfulness of present time/ and the applied intelligence that goes with it. Slowly waking up to this awareness of reality….

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‘If those who lead you say to you, “See, the kingdom is in the sky,” then the birds of the sky will precede you. If they say to you, “It is in the sea,” then the fish will precede you. Rather, the kingdom is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize that it is you who are the sons of the living father. But if you will not know yourselves, you dwell in poverty and it is you who are that poverty.’ [Selected Sayings of Jesus from Gospel of Thomas, Nag Hammadi manuscripts]

Photo: Elaine Henderson

9/11 (2012)

September_11_(Wiki)Excerpt from ‘A Buddhist Reflection on the Tragedy of September 11’ by Ajahn Jayasaro, 2001: In this excerpt, Ajahn Jayasaro is talking about how we can learn, through the Buddha’s Teaching, to face this tragedy and here he refers to the three-fold training: sila (morality) samadhi (focus) panya (wisdom). Excerpt begins with sila (morality) and the link with volition: ‘Linking morality to volition means that to be consistently moral we need to educate ourselves about volition, not in the abstract as an intellectual exercise, but in the concrete present, as it manifests in our experience. The central role played by volition demands that we develop a power of introspection, an honesty and willingness, and an ability to look very clearly at our mind. We need to develop this form of education to the extent that we don’t rationalize our cravings and fears so automatically, that we are unable to lie to ourself as we used to do. In responding to a painful situation, for instance, we have to observe to what extent we are affected by the desire for justice, and to what extent for revenge. Is anger present, self-righteousness, fear? Are these wholesome or unwholesome qualities of mind, — to be trusted or not?

Morality here then is not a matter of following a number of rules or commandments, but of using precepts as tools in which to be clearly aware of and responsible for the motives behind one’s actions. Although the moral training in Buddhism demands a certain amount of awareness and a capacity for introspection, it is not the whole of the training. There are also specific practices for educating our emotions and discernment.

Thus we refer to a three-fold training, one which provides a framework within which to address the difficulties or dilemmas that we face in our lives. The training in morality is the foundation. It involves firstly the intelligent adoption of standards of conduct towards the external world and particularly other human beings, and then learning how to be mindful of them in daily life and bring them to bear on our behavior.

It is at this level of the training that we see the central role of self-discipline. But self-discipline is far from being a panacea for all our ills. We can’t decide not to get angry as an act of will, we can’t decide not to feel vengeful, we can’t decide not to have emotions. If we misapply self discipline then we create the conditions for guilt and repression.

Emotions are one natural part of our  life. We have to understand them. Some emotions deserve to be cultivated, others do not. In our gardens we distinguish between weeds and flowers. Although we remove weeds we don’t consider our garden evil for having them. So the first principle of training the emotions and mental states is that force doesn’t work; intelligence, sincerity and patience do.

The second can soon be clearly seen: the ability to abandon the unwholesome qualities in our minds and encourage the wholesome is conditioned to a great extent by our ability to focus and concentrate our mind. This aspect of mental culture has been neglected in the Western world for many centuries. An educated person, in Buddhist view, is not only someone who can think rationally, analytically, but is also someone who can, on the necessary occasion, stop  thinking altogether.

The mind, which is bound to mental states, tends to see things as clear cut, black-and-white, and often over simplifies the complexity of situations; it reacts in habitual ways. The mind which can put down habitual thinking processes, stand back from the rush of thought and emotion, suddenly has access to far more choices and pathways.

The Buddhist insistence is merely that the most constructive action springs from stillness. The wisest reflection takes into consideration, not only our own immediate interest or the interest of our particular group or nation; it also bears in mind the interests of our children, our children’s children and many generations in the future who are yet to be born. And this kind of thinking demands the ability to step back from one’s immediate attachments. It is dependent on mental culture, mental development.

The third aspect of this training is the training of wisdom and understanding, teaching people how to really look at their actions and their consequences, seeking to understand situations more clearly. Initially it means regularly contemplating the very simple facts of life which we tend to overlook, in particular the nature of change. Changes may be slow methodical, expected, welcome but they may also quite often be sudden, unexpected and unwelcome. It is an inarguable fact that every one of us, sooner or later, will have to be separated from those whom we love.

The Buddha encouraged us to be students of change and to understand its nature. We should be looking at change, looking at uncertainty, looking at insecurity face-to-face everyday. Life is insecure. There is no real security in a changing world and the frantic search for an unrealistic security is only going to lead to tension and pain. There has to be a certain point where we create the conditions for security as best we can, but humbly acknowledge the fact that ultimately we have no defence against uncertainty and change. We have no rights. We can and should create conventions about human rights and it is important that such rights are vigorously upheld in human society. But ultimately, we have rights to nothing except the way things are: we are born, we get old, we get sick, and we die. We must be patient and willing to keep going against the grain of self-indulgence, looking again and again at the way things are; educating ourselves about those things which brighten and clarify our minds; those attitudes, those thoughts, those emotions which cloud and brutalize our minds. The more we do this work, the more we see that we have a choice which way we want to go, the way of darkness or the way of light.’

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Lower photo by Louk Vresswijk, taken in July before the attacks, shows the twin towers in a modern New York setting. Location, a column in Cathedral Saint John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, NYC.
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Ajahn Jayasaro [Link to: 9/11 A Buddhist Reflection pdf]