the opportunity

200620131896_2New Delhi: I leave the door open that leads to the roof terrace and come downstairs. Ksum is in the kitchen, cleaning up. She says: You no close door up? Pointing, so that I can understand her English; large black eyes look at me; blue sari, olive skin, Assamese Buddhist, originally, converted by Christian missionaries. Then she’s smiling in a kind of patient way when I start to explain I’d like to have the door open, to get fresh air? Looking at me like, does she have the energy to tell me this? Ked come in. You know Ked? …raises her voice because maybe I’m deaf or something, Ked come in, you open door. And I’m thinking… what’s Ked? And there’s that incredulous look. You no unerstan’ Ked?  Ked come in door, come down stair, into house steal food from all th’ trash‘n make a mess everywhere! And then I understand Ked is ‘Cat’… pronunciation is different. She sees the dawning of recognition on my face. Ahh… she says on my behalf, and nods her head with a sideways slant, goes back to her work; like I need to be told everything. I go upstairs to close the door then decide to step out on the roof terrace where the air is cool and nice.

Wow, Ksum having a bad day. But she’s right about Ked, cat; instinct and the window of opportunity – or door, in this case. There’s also monkey, of course, and rat, and all the other freeloaders and opportunists out there in the world of Wild Life, claws, wings, beak and teeth, quick and clever; skills evolved from when they were all dinosaurs. The ability to grasp, snatch, hold and eat. Human beings similarly motivated, driven by desire. Reacting to the sensory world – sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, mental objects, and grabbing at these with extraordinary speed. The habituality of it inherited from former lives… the reason I was reborn in this world is that I’m attached to everything I love and hate. We keep coming back. It’s the relentless search to feel good about everything, and avoid feeling bad about everything when the good feeling falls apart.

Carrot-and-stick; the good feeling is nice when it’s there and the bad feeling is nice when it’s not there. The good feeling makes it seem like everything in the world is allright, joyful, a sense of success; it’s rewarding. And the bad feeling is the opposite; a strange sense of failure, guilt, and fear – I’m bounced off the wall and wanting the good feeling again with renewed hunger. Chasing my tail. Stuck in the duality of exchanging the bad feeling for the good feeling – something thought to be deservedly earned, a reward for time spent in bad feeling. Stuck in a rut on the consumer treadmill without any belief in anything beyond that. Seemingly there’s no choice, earning just enough money to pay for what it takes to make me feel good for a short time, then I’m feeling bad again. All I really want is some peace and calm but it seems to be so hard to find.

210620131902Loving kindness and compassion for those in Suffering. The system creates the predicament. Most people think there’s no way out, even though the opportunity is there. It’s like the example of being locked up in a prison cell for years. Then, one day somebody comes into the cell and gives you the key to the door, so you can open it and you’re free. But instead of doing that, if you’re a ‘believer’, you put the key in a special place and pray to it every day, believing you’ll be able to endure all the hardships of your prison cell by worshipping the key. You don’t know what to do, doubt, uncertainty, fear, confusion. Other people, ‘non-believers’, disagree with your worshipping; they say, we don’t believe in religion or anything, so they decide the best thing to do is just get rid of the key and throw it out the window.

The key is not an end in itself. Just a key; meditation practice, mindfulness, just the intention to be mindful is enough. Back off from the automatic pull; the sense of something out there that I’m drawn towards… and the internal sense of ‘me’. There’s nothing there, only the Five Khandas (Five Aggregates): form, feeling, perception, mental formations and consciousness. ‘… stopping the mind, stopping the flow of thoughts that are proliferating, stopping the flow of moods that get drawn into either attraction or aversion. We return to a clear center, to awareness’ [Ajahn Pasanno, ‘On Becoming and Stopping’]. No holding on to anything, no holding on to the teachings even. Learning how to use the key. Maybe it’ll take a lifetime, but what else is there to do that’s as valuable as this? Allowing everything to arise and fall away. Cessation. No remainder. Nothing whatsover is to be clung to: sabbe dhamma nalam abhinivesaya.

200620131891‘We use the pleasant and unpleasant feelings to measure our success or failure. If we experience something pleasant, we think we’ve succeeded. If we experience an unpleasant feeling, we think we’ve failed. This comes from a place of becoming, what we have become through bhava tanha or vibhava tanha. We judge it in terms of the desire to maximize the pleasant and minimize the unpleasant.’ [Ajahn Pasanno, ‘On Becoming and Stopping’]


The story about the key comes from ‘Religious Conventions and Sila Practice’, Ajahn Sumedho, Cittaviveka 1992. Upper photo: the door to the roof terrace. Middle photo: sitting area on roof terrace. Lower photo: a plant called ‘Ladies Who Wake Up Late’ (flowers every day but late in the morning)

nothing cannot be anything

hand image3Delhi: There’s a needle in my arm. Strange how the body accepts this intrusive object and the antibiotic fluid coming through it that enters the blood stream. Veins have a plasticity like something synthetic we recognize from the world of manufactured polymer substances. But human tissue is better; you can make a hole in it and it repairs itself. You can cut it, stitch it up, remove parts of it and replace these with other parts that fit. The human body is a miracle. The pain of this needle, though, has a directness, increasing, then easing off, over and over, dukkha, there’s no getting away from it.

I don’t want it to be there, vibhava-tanha, I want to disconnect it from the plastic tube leading to the upside-down bottle suspended from the hook above my head. It feels unnatural; it shouldn’t be like this…. Lying here on the bed looking up and counting the drips that fall into the receptor that fills the tube; one drop every 4 seconds and that’s the rate of the fluid flowing down the tube into my pierced blood vessel. It’s a full bottle, and there are others I have to take after this one… treatment for an intestinal infection – nothing really extraordinary in a country like India, in the hot season, when all kinds of bacteria thrive. Caused by drinking water from a filtered system that didn’t filter. Organisms survive the filtering system; bugs everywhere in this intensity of 43°C.

I need to find a way of getting through this period of invalid status and prolonged boredom of a plain room with hospital fittings, plugs and sockets in the walls, hospital furniture and a TV screen I’m not interested in. Dissatisfaction with things; clicking the buttons that control the position of the hospital bed; down/up and up/down. Lying here with eyes closed, listening to the metal trash bin; it makes a satisfying percussive sound when the cleaner presses the pedal with his foot, lid springs open and strikes the wall next to it Clang! He releases the pedal and the lid closes: Flumpf an airtight trash bin with plastic bag liner. Crash! Flumpf! again and it’s joyful and funny.

I need some joy here, there are men in dark navy uniforms in the room; cleaners with large grey floor mops that look like they’re soaked in muddy water swabbing the tiles; smell of Dettol stings the eyes. Muddy grey mops and dark navy uniforms seem out of place in an environment of lemon yellow, soft pink walls; pastel shades and shiny chromium fittings. The muddy grey mops are a bit scary also, because I’m sensitive to things that appear dirty, having fallen into this sickness as a result of drinking water from a filter machine installed at home that allows dirty water to come through.

‘We’re not in Kansas anymore Toto…’ The doctor said always drink boiled water in the hot season, organisms are present in the water, filter or no filter. I feel some frustration with the company that sold me the water filter: ‘it shouldn’t be like this’but we don’t live in a world of ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t – western theory applied in an Indian context. We expect it to work, and it doesn’t. Western systems are deductive and life is inductive. Organic growth has no beginning no end. How to understand that, what to do? Don’t make it into a structure. Let it be nothing.

So I can lie here on the bed with my eyes closed and the cleaners expect me to be like this because I’m a hospital patient. And in this curious public place, enter meditative contemplation, watching the breath, the rising and falling of the chest. Allow the thoughts that arise to fall away and be replaced by others that I allow to fall away and allow everything to fall away and cease, as far as possible – just the effort of trying to do this leads to a quietness in the mind; spaces of no thought. There’s some peace to be found in this activity. And from here consider nothingness, just nothing, no thought. It’s not an idea of nothingness, that’s a concept. Nothing cannot be  anything. Nothing cannot be located anywhere in time or space; no before, no after. If it is truly nothing, it can have no cause or effect. I can’t work towards some mind state in future time when I’ll see what ‘nothing’ really is, it has to be now, it’s always ‘now’. Nothing cuts through, penetrates, and dissolves everything. It’s just nothing.


‘One must have a mind of winter… (to behold) the nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.’ [ Wallace Stevens, The Snow Man]

Photo image:

dimensions of pain

DSC00134 Lake Wanaka - near Diamond LakeI WAKE UP FROM THE DREAM to find I’m shipwrecked on the sofa, notes and papers strewn around, a cold cup of coffee – how long have I been asleep? Turn to look at the clock, then the pain; lower back pain, oh… aaah! Yes, I remember now, I’ve been disabled for a few days and situated on the sofa mostly: pain is bad – I must have done something ‘bad’ to deserve this… the tendency to criticize oneself for having the pain, perpetuating the kamma of causes and conditions. I need to correct this frequently. Another thing is that I’ve had the pain often enough to know there’s a difference between the pain itself and the act of resisting it; also the attachment to wanting it to go away: I-don’t-want-it-to-be-there…. Profoundly desiring it to not-exist, vibhava-tanha, but I’ll not find any peace in attempting to gratify that need – although I may persist in trying. What to do? There’s nothing I can DO about it, except try to get comfortable and see how that goes. It’s a no-choice situation and, strangely enough, things start to improve as soon as I stop trying to do something about it…

Some years ago I had abdominal surgery (abominable abdominal surgery – no joke) two operations, 6 months apart. Just enough time to recover from the first before getting ready for the second. More difficult the second time around, because I knew what was coming. The first time it was unplanned, an emergency, severe abdominal pain, straight into the emergency room in a Bangkok hospital and admitted right away; something sinister and twisted in the large intestine. So I sign the no-liability form and get operated on the next day. The surgeon tells me after I come round, he’s removed two tumors together with a length of intestine – doesn’t tell me how much, I didn’t ask, and he also says he’s my closest friend; nobody else has ever left their handprints on my intestines!

Colonic cancer, I was lucky. In both operations the post-surgery period was dramatic. After the anesthetic had worn off, the pain arrived suddenly, right there in the centre of my physical being – absolutely no getting-away from it. The immensity of it occupying all the space and I’m backed into a corner. No escape, the only way I can go is forward, step into it. No choice, but dropping the resistance to the pain caused a moment of ease to arise, just before being swept away in the pain… wow, how did that happen? Clutching at straws: an insight, a tiny one, but it made a huge difference. There was desperation all around but just enough of an easing in the pain to tell me that whatever it was I’d done was good so how to do that again?

This back pain is the same kind of thing, but less intense, not erratic and scary. So I can allow it to be there. In contemplation of it, I see there are the other systems of the body all around the pain, normal stuff, just quietly ticking over. There’s sufficient space to distance myself from all the immediate responses to this pain; the obsessions and fears, mostly a conjured-up conceptualizing where, in different circumstances, like intense joy, it would lead to everything being compellingly interesting. And, in the same way, when I have intense pain I’m subject to fear and wild imaginings: ‘your joy is your sorrow unmasked. And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.’ [On Joy and Sorrow by Kahlil Gibran]

Conceptualizing is an automatic default that returns always to that same starting point: the ‘self’. Unless something propels it right out of there (like what happened to me in surgery) there’s nothing beyond this, no real insight into finding the way out of pain. But what the Ajahns told me about the Buddhist teaching is that the mind is not self. Mind is the sixth sense – everything I see, hear, smell, taste, touch, feel and think. The mind sense usually leads to a consciousness of how everything is coming in from the outer world through sensory experience and that default to the sense of self: hey, this must be happening to ‘me’. With insight, the mind sense can bypass that, and then the pain is not happening to anyone – there’s no ‘me’ engaging with these thoughts. Instead there’s an awareness of the thinking process with no attachment, mostly abiding in a state of mindfulness and careful receptivity, sati-sampajañña; just looking to see what it might be. There’s a kind of alertness about the sensory function, and the simple curiosity: what is it? Just being open to what this could be, is enough to understand how it works…


Photo image by Louk Vreeswijk, New Zealand Collection

relaxed resistance

TaxiBKK2Bangkok: In a taxi on the expressway and it looks like the whole route is blocked with traffic but we are moving along slowly. A small voice is saying, we’d’ve been better off taking the ordinary route through streets with traffic lights and the congestion of that would’ve been quicker than this… yes, possibly, but hypothetical. And I’m not getting pulled into that scenario, thanks, no. Strangely, I feel no frustration sitting here. The taxi driver’s radio is playing; it’s a call-in chat dialogue with music.The mind isn’t absorbed into it, the sound is just there. It’s not loud, it’s not demanding; sometimes I notice it consciously then the mind moves on somewhere else. And, there’s that small voice again saying, wow! this could get really boring. But it’s not like that, it’s a neutrality maybe, there’s just this experience right now; the reality of being here. Nothing else to do, so obviously it’s okay to stay with what’s ‘here’ and see where that gets me.

One thing that helps is that there was this really nice post I read the other day [‘The Path of Waiting’] and I’m thinking of that now in this place where traffic is at a standstill, nearly. It’s the idea that we’re always waiting on something, somewhere, most of the time and it helps if you can be ‘willing to stand hand in hand with your waiting for a few moments.’ It was that, I think, that started me off in this mind direction of, let’s see what this waiting thing feels like. So now I’m hand in hand with my waiting and it feels nice.

The mind is clear, free and empty. There’s a careful observation and contemplation of everything that’s happening, it’s like being focussed on balance and openness – poised between things, in a sort of high altitude mind-place of emptiness. That’s all, and everything just seems to be slowly moving along here, the moment transforms itself and there’s this attitude of gentle curiosity, like what’s this now? I hear the small voice again; a shadowy question hovering on the periphery: how come I’m not frustrated by this endless traffic situation? Nope, it’s not necessary to go there; no desire to get pulled into that. It’s the wisdom of just mindfully placing one foot after the other on to stepping-stones that lead over the river to get to the other side. There’s something about the easy lightness of this that makes it obviously the right thing to do, and what else is there to do anyway? Not a lot, I look out the window and see the gridlock of slow-moving metal parts in this tremendous heat.

Amazing really because I’m not feeling the frustration of it. There have been times in the past when it would’ve resulted in a semi-suppressed raging inferno and getting engaged with it, or trying to get rid of it, would seem like the way to go. Getting rid of stuff always seems like the right thing to do; a kind of righteous feeling; got to clear up this mess, okay, let’s get on with it! But that hasn’t worked for me, experience has shown…. Long ago and far away, I remember the Ajahns telling me about this – well, I didn’t know what I was doing at that time – and the teaching was about how I was unintentionally holding on to some unpleasant mind state, even though I was sure that trying to get rid of it was the thing to do. The desire to get rid of, vibhava-tanha, is a desire, same as the desire to have something is a desire; they are the same. So the teaching is that trying to get-rid-of-it is like trying to get rid of the desire to get rid of it, and it doesn’t work like that – all I’d be doing is creating more suffering.

It’s fortunate for me that I’m seeing it like this today, I need to remember how it works. The problem is really with the resistance to frustration – so, relax the resistance, allow the frustration to come in. Know what it’s like when it’s present, know what it feels like (the holding on to it) when it’s there. Knowledge replaces ignorance, we are not deluded by it any more. So, I’m just moving along now; looks like the traffic flow is easing up a bit – getting there…



‘… in the context of the four noble truths, the origin of suffering (dukkha) is commonly explained as craving (tanha) conditioned by ignorance (avijja). This craving runs on three channels:

(1) Craving for sense-pleasures (kama-tanha): this is craving for sense objects which provide pleasant feeling, or craving for sensory pleasures.

(2) Craving to be (bhava-tanha): this is craving to be something, to unite with an experience. This includes craving to be solid and ongoing, to be a being that has a past and a future, and craving to prevail and dominate over others.

(3) Craving not to be (vibhava-tanha): this is craving to not experience the world, and to be nothing; a wish to be separated from painful feelings.’ [dukkha samudaya (wiki)]

Upper photo: collection of the author
Lower photo: Virtual Tourist/machomikemd