We may not be able to change the universe, but we do have the capacity to change ourselves. We can direct our thoughts and actions. Which means we can make informed choices. And if the choices we make are based on the right view of things, which is that there are some actions that lead to good outcomes, and other actions that lead to bad outcomes. Then that becomes a condition that can bring about the end of suffering.
In a nutshell, greed, hate, and delusion are what lead to bad outcomes; and generosity, kindness, and clarity are what lead to good outcomes.
When we become more aware, we start to wise up and notice the recurring patterns and cycles that lead to unhappiness. We become more aware of our triggers and how we respond to things; aware of how our reaction can either lead to more suffering or can lead to peace. We can then choose (intend) to react differently to our circumstances, guided by wisdom and discernment.
Unfortunately, the world is dependent on conditions, it is uncertain and changing. We can’t do much about that. But we can change the way we react to it. Choose to be kind, and not let the darkness take away our light. Then our peace remains unshaken by things outside our control. We don’t have to go along with the stream of the world and do what others do. We can choose to be different. This is where our power lies.
A Zen teacher told a story about a lady on a checkout who went out of her way to help a customer. He was in the queue watching her kindness, and it touched him deeply. It moved him enough to talk about it in a dharma talk, which I and many others attended. And now I am writing about it here in this article. The person who performed that act of kindness created ripples that she is completely unaware of. This is why the results of any act of genuine kindness are incalculable. Who can predict where they will lead, what changes they can make, and who they may affect? By changing ourselves, we can change the world without trying to change the world.
The reason Buddhist teachings are often in the form of numbered lists is because at the time of the Buddha things weren't written down. The Buddha and the monks couldn't read or write, so they memorised the teachings. Making them into numbered lists made them easier for memory and recall. Then on their own, a person would contemplate and reflect on their meaning, unpack them, investigate them, fill in the details through their own practise and experience of life.
The reason we can't go straight to the deathless, why we need to study and practise, is because the concept of letting go is easy enough to see intellectually, but we are all conditioned and have formed habits that get in the way and make it hard to let go. That's why one must undergo training to decondition the conditioning. Then old habits gradually fall away, and new ones develop that help us to realise the state of non-clinging, or non-attachment. The end of suffering.
The intellectual thinking part is also important as it helps us understand where we are going and what the teachings are for, why we are practising and what the practise is leading towards. Another translation of right view is right understanding.
But it is a gradual process. Which involves making the five aggregates into a path, the noble eightfold path. The robe of liberation. The Buddha likened the path to the continental shelf of India, that gradually slopes down, and eventually reaches a point where it suddenly drops off into the abyss. That's what the path does, it gradually leads us in the direction of nibbana (the end of suffering). And when the path factors are sufficiently developed, there comes the sudden insight, the Eureka moment, were we see something we cannot unsee - that's the drop-off point, enlightenment. From there, there's no going back, one will never see things the same way again.
It doesn't mean one is separate from the world though, it just means one stops clinging to it, stops yearning for things. The pain of wanting is gone. Craving is extinguished. Conceit is seen through, and the involuntary movements of the mind cease - which brings profound relief. A peace and happiness not dependent on conditions, independent of the world. And because it is not dependent on conditions, it lasts, and doesn't end.
But love and compassion for other beings is still
there. Friendship and connection are still there. That doesn't go. If anything,
it grows. Loving-kindness becomes unlimited, immeasurable, abundant.
Without the ego placing limitations on it, one's compassion becomes boundless.
The whole process is illustrated nicely in the ten Ox-herding pictures in Zen.
The Buddha noted that dependent co-arising and the causes of suffering are like a tangled skein.
Painted in acrylic. Prints available from here.
© Asoka Richie 2023 (all rights reserved)
Sati-sampajanna means mindfulness with clear comprehension (or knowing).
It is a useful exercise to practise while one goes about daily life. It can help calm and centre the mind and bring insight into dependent origination.
Basically, whatever activity one is engaged with becomes one's meditation.
One is aware of what one is doing, where one is. Of one’s behaviour, of that which is appropriate.
Aware of what is non-delusion. Abandoning the wanting, the angst, and the clinging.
Fully here in this present moment, with life as it is -- our dhamma teacher.
One can get into a light samadhi doing this. It can be a refuge from difficult thoughts and emotions. A way of releasing the past and the future by being fully present to whatever task one is doing here and now, without the self-centred dream blinding us to what is real.
There are many ways to practice this. Sometimes it's nice to have an expansive open awareness. Other times it's nice to keep attention fixed on one thing. Depends on the mood, and this is where one must use wisdom and discernment to know what is needed in each given moment. This wisdom and discernment grows with experience. We are all unique, we have all been conditioned differently, no two people are exactly the same. Each one of us must tweak the practice to suit us.
Try to find something in awareness that brings some relief to the mind, even if it just seems like small relief, stay with it, it will grow.
Each situation and circumstance are different. Different objects of meditation work better at different times.
For example, sometimes I will just stay with the feeling of my feet on the ground. When I first did this, the sensations in my feet were quite dull. But after many hours of practise, the soles of my feet have now become very sensitive to the point where I swear I can feel vibrations in the ground, can sense things I couldn’t sense before.
I also like the feeling of the whole body moving as one.
The feeling of movement, how the body feels when it is in motion.
Or the feeling in my hands when holding an object. Is it hot or cold, smooth, or rough, heavy or light etc...
I also like to pay attention to the feeling of the air element in the space immediately around me. Or remain centred with the breath, whilst also aware of everything else happening in peripheral awareness. Where I am, what I am doing.
Sometimes I like being anchored in the spine, that can feel very good. Or the top of my head, the face, the neck, the heart, the belly, the arms, the legs.
The touch of clothing on the skin.
The natural elements are great too. The solidity of earth. The fluidity of water. The cool invisible changing touch of air. The light and warmth of fire, the sun.
The expansive and open feeling of the space element.
The knowing of consciousness, of awareness itself.
Other times I will contemplate interdependence, change, impermanence.
Sometimes I will pay attention to two things at once, such as the breath in my belly and the breath in my nostrils at the same time. Or my feet and hands, or the air element around me as it touches the skin and the sensations in the body caused by breathing.
Sometimes I centre with the emotion of goodwill. With peace and calm. With equanimity.
It depends on what feels good at the time. Take any guidance and make it your own. Find what helps you. Each of us must be our own refuge.
It is not easy; it can be challenging to keep bringing the mind back over and over. One may sometimes need to talk oneself into doing it. Or use the voice of another if really stuck. Read a book, an article or listen to a dhamma talk.
Learn to recognise the hindrances when they are present in the mind: craving, ill-will, fatigue, worry, doubt.
Notice how we talk to ourselves, and how it feels when the hindrances are present in the mind. For me I start feeling unpleasant feelings and notice I am stressed, that for me is a clear sign I am absorbed in unwholesome thoughts. That craving is present in the mind.
During the day, notice if you are stressed. Pause and ask yourself, am I suffering? What is the cause of this suffering? What can I do to ease that suffering? What can I practise to bring relief?
Whenever suffering is present, the five hindrances will also be present.
Applied and sustained attention to something wholesome secludes consciousness from the five hindrances.
When the hindrances are absent, one will feel great relief. When that happens it can help to note how much better it feels when they are absent from the mind, this can help to train it to see the difference and become more willing to abandon unwholesome states of mind, knowing that they are causing suffering, and that it feels much better to let go of them.
Practising sati-sampajanna complements sitting meditation and makes it easier to transition from daily life to sitting, and from sitting to daily life. It keeps the samadhi going and keeps the sign of peace steady in the mind throughout the day.
Sometimes though I do like to think and ponder and reflect on things. Thinking isn’t wrong. It can be a helpful tool. The way we talk to ourselves is a powerful tool. We can talk ourselves into different states of mind.
It depends what mood I'm in. Thought can be used as a meditation object, and used to seclude consciousness from the hindrances by thinking on a topic that is wholesome and staying with that topic.
Repeating a mantra over and over can also do it, or singing, or chanting.
It is the seclusion from the five hindrances that's important. That's what leads to joy, serenity, unification of mind, and equanimity.
It is hard to put into words.
It is an embodied feeling. One is anchored in the body, the subtle body as it feels from within. There's a safe space in the centre of us that is empty. One can anchor the centre of awareness there and still be present to everything else happening, but free from it at the same time, not clinging, not affected negatively by the changing vicissitudes of life. It is the empty seat at the centre of one's being. The inner cave.
Why is it empty? Because there's nobody there. No person. No self.
One can see this directly by playing around with the six senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, mind (thoughts, memories, and ideas).
Divide each sense impression up into three different parts.
1. The object being sensed.
2. The contact with the sense organ.
3. The sense consciousness that arises from that contact.
One can see dependent origination in this. Notice how sense impressions arise dependent on conditions, and when those conditions cease so do the sense impressions.
Am I the object being sensed?
Am I the contact at the sense organ?
Am I the sense-consciousness that arises from that contact?
When I touch an object, I feel sensations. When I stop touching that object the sensations cease.
When my foot touches the ground there are sensations. When the foot is lifted off the ground the sensations cease. Am I the ground? Am I the sensations? Am I the consciousness which arises whilst contact is made, then disappears after?
Am I the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, touches, the thoughts, and ideas?
Where do thoughts and ideas come from? Mostly from the world, from books, articles, podcasts, videos, the media, our memory of the past, from the people we associate with.
Am I any of those things?
Who is this ‘I’ ?
There was a time I yearned for romance. But that has passed now. I am not looking for that anymore. Falling in love is suffering, and I will never fall in love again. I did fall in love, but she didn’t want me. And when that happend, happiness left me like breath evaporating from a mirror.
Relationships are suffering. I don't need anyone’s emotional support; I don’t need a partner. I don't need anybody. I am okay by myself. And it is okay to be alone.
Besides, I am no one special, I am not particularly attractive, I am nearly 50, and financially unstable, I can barely make ends meet. It wouldn’t be fair on anyone else, but by myself it doesn’t matter if I am poor. I often contemplate becoming homeless because I struggle to live the household life, it is stressful trying to survive and live in these dark times. There’s a longing in me to escape it all, to leave the dusty household life behind and live simply, with few cares and burdens.
I have nothing to give anyway, nothing to offer in a relationship. I am not what women want in a man. And that's fine, I don’t care anymore. That’s why love can be cruel, because not everyone gets that happy-ever-after that Hollywood sells. And those that do often pay a great cost for it in the end.
Perhaps it is a blessing to be alone. Without anyone to think about. I have the freedom to decide how I best want to use what little time I have left on this Earth.
It is one reason I write so much. Maybe these pieces of writing will help someone else out there. I feel if it helps just one person, it was worth it.
I have not enjoyed my life; it has been mostly shit if I'm honest. Those brief drops of happiness are just not worth it in the end. The pain far outweighs the pleasure. The thought of coming back here and having to go through all this again, the thought of living another life is unbearable. It is that thought that keeps me making effort.
I am done with wanting things. I relinquish it all. All desire, all longing, all attachment. I release it all.
This world is a slaughterhouse, a cruel and brutal place for most of us. There’s much suffering here, so many beings suffering, and there’s a heartbreaking mass extinction event happening. That one just feels completely powerless to do anything about.
Mass extinction of life on this planet for what? A plastic deluded modern existence. The empty consumer dream of Ken and Barbie. Killing the forests, killing the oceans, and killing ourselves for what? Why? How did it come to this? What good has come from the insatiable greed of our modern times?
It is all so inane, tragic and vacuous.
I plan to make this my last lifetime; I don’t want to return here. To incarnate here means another being will have to suffer so I can exist, that is the sorrow and horror of interdependence. It isn't beautiful, it is deeply disturbing. For one lifeform to exist it must feed on another. And no lifeform wants to be eaten. All beings value their lives. The cycle of life is not unicorns and rainbows. It is a horror show.
Even if you are one of the lucky few who succeed in this challenging modern world. If you do get to live that over-hyped American dream. It all one day gets taken away from you, torn away. All that effort, all that hard work to build the perfect material life is for nought in the end. It is a con. A scam.
What really matters in the end? What doesn't get taken away from you when you die?
When I sat next to my dad, holding his hand, while he fought for his life in that hospital room. I clearly saw anicca, anatta, and dukkha. The three characteristics of conditioned phenomenon. Translated as: impermanence, not-self, suffering.
I finally understood dependent origination. Life is fragile, the body is fragile. When those conditions that support it cease, so does life.
What is there to cling to?
What is real?
What is non-delusion?
This is a gradual training.
Find somewhere secluded where one won't be disturbed.
Putting aside longing and dejection in regard to the world.
Setting aside all worldly concerns.
One trains thus:
Mindfulness of the body
1. To begin just simply notice if the breath is long or short.
2. Then pay attention to the whole of the breath from start to finish.
3. Become sensitive to the body as you breathe in and out.
4. Breathe calming the body.
Mindfulness of Feelings
5. Breathe sensitive to joy.
6. Breathe experiencing pleasure.
7. Breathe sensitive to thoughts.
8. Breathe calming thoughts.
Mindfulness of mind states:
9. Breathe sensitive to one's state of mind.
10. Breathe satisfying and gladdening the mind.
11. Breathe steadying the mind.
12. Breathe releasing the mind.
Mindfulness of dhammas:
13. Breathe contemplating change. (impermanence, anicca, dependent origination).
14. Breathe contemplating the fading of craving. (Dispassion)
16. Breathe contemplating cessation. (of suffering).
17. Breathe abandoning greed, hate, and delusion. (renunciation).
Sometimes I feel alive, enthusiastic, full of excitement and wonder. Other times I am like a flat battery that can't seem to hold its charge or see much hope in anything. Other times there's an odd mix of brain chemistry that is so horrible I can't put it into words.
It is helpful for me to remember the brain is the body. It is dependent on conditions largely outside my control, meaning it will change. It won't always function in the way I wish it would, and eventually it will cease when the conditions it depends on cease.
That is the way of things with dependent origination. Conditioned phenomena is impermanent. It isn't gloomy to think this way. It can be a helpful tool to bring some equanimity to the mind. It helps me let go of the clinging and aversion towards things, and to stop taking it personally. Which decreases the suffering somewhat.
Sometimes difficult things happen that are outside our control. And sometimes it’s our own fault, we behave in unskilful ways and reap the kamma for it. Whatever it is, we then go and add more suffering to the situation with the longing, aversion, and taking it personally. This is the mental pain we add to physical and worldly difficulties. This is what makes us suffer.
I remember one night I got stranded on the mainland after missing the last boat back to the island. I had just completed a lengthy 10-hour journey coming back from my dad’s funeral. And I arrived at the ferry terminal late due to a delay with the coach. I felt exhausted and a bit unwell. There was nowhere to stay, and a long wait till the next ferry in the morning. So I went to sit on the beach, tried to roll a joint to make myself feel better. And I'd almost finished rolling it, when there was a huge gust of wind that blew it all away, and then it started raining. I felt like the person off the Hamlet advert, but without the cigar.
Then the day of the funeral all came back to me, and I burst into tears. It all just gushed out. I felt so lonely.
Then I saw my dad’s face in the sea. And I said I was sorry for not getting chance to speak to him before he died. I wished him well and told him he was loved.
Then the wind and rain became unbearable, so I went to find some shelter. I spent the rest of the night alternating between walking, standing, and sitting meditation.
I went through so many mood swings in that one night. Like the mind was changing, morphing into all sorts of different shapes and patterns. I was even seeing things that weren't there. It was challenging.
Through it all I tried to remain still and not get disturbed by the changing psychic weather. I just kept bringing my attention back to the breath and body to calm and centre the mind. Not engaging with anything else. Meditation felt like a refuge. There were strange eerie sounds at times like banshees wailing. (They turned out to be seabirds, the tunnel making their calls echo in ghostly ways).
Eventually after many hours of this, the mind converged into a oneness, and it all disappeared. The psychic weather passed. Leaving behind a stillness and beautiful emptiness that I can't put into words.
I was greeted at sunrise by a friendly pigeon watching me intently with smiley eyes. Then it vocalised a set of patterns, and some moments later another pigeon responded in the distance with a different set of vocal patterns.
The pigeon flew away.
The wind and rain outside had stopped. It also dependent on conditions.
I went to get a coffee and my card was declined by the reader. I laughed, and the cashier laughed as well. She said that happens to her all the time, and that she keeps a supply of cash with her just in case.
Luckily, I had a few coins on me and managed to buy the coffee.
How do I feel?
A seed that can sprout and grow under the right conditions.
Keeps abandoning that which leads to suffering.
Keeps cultivating and sustaining that which leads to the end of suffering.
How to balance and unify the numerous energies of the mind into a state of equanimity and clarity.
Wisdom naturally arises.
More conscious of the unconscious. More lucid. Awake.
Something that can't be taken away once it has been realised.
The twelve links of dependent origination as I understand them are:
Ignorance --> Mental dispositions and volitional actions ---> Conditioned consciousness ---> Name and form (mind and body) ---> The six senses ---> Sense contact (sense impressions) ---> Feelings (pleasant or unpleasant) ---> Craving ---> Clinging ---> Becoming ---> Birth ---> Death
When it comes to reincarnation and how that works, in a very basic way.
There is death. After death the mental dispositions, (tendencies of the mind) lead to volitional actions. These condition consciousness to seek out a new womb, a new body, a new state of becoming. This creates the body and mind, the khandhas. Which leads to the six senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, touch, thoughts and ideas. This in turn creates sense impressions. Which we feel as either pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. These feelings lead to craving for more of the pleasant sensations and less of the unpleasant ones. We all tend to like pleasure and dislike pain. So we cling to what we like and want more of. We take on an identity. This is me, this is mine, this is self, the conceit 'I am'. This leads to becoming, which leads to birth, (and if you are a biological being of this Earth realm) old age, sickness, death and loss.
Rinse and repeat
Upon death, ignorant of the mental dispositions and actions that lead to suffering (both mental and physical). Conditioned consciousness seeks rebirth, this leads to name and form (or body and mind)... and the cycle carries on.
Because of ignorance it can go on indefinitely.
This is a very brief sketchy description, Any gaps in my understanding are homework for me and the reader (-;
It can be helpful to try and articulate one's understanding. I read somewhere that this is one of the ways we learn is through attempting to articulate our understanding of things. It doesn't have to be in writing. Can just be verbally out loud to oneself. This can be suprisingly helpful in checking one's understanding of a teaching and where there are gaps in one's knowledge, which points to what homework needs to be done.
The four noble truths
1. Knowledge of suffering. (Which is to be understood).
What does it feel like to suffer? To feel stressed? To feel dissastisfaction? To feel discontent? How does that feel? No need to give it a perfect label, sometimes it is hard to put it into words. Just say, suffering feels like this. Most of us know from our own direct experience of life what it is to suffer.
2. Knowledge of the cause of suffering. (Which is to be abandoned).
Knowing that whenever there is suffering, desire is also present in its three forms:
1. Wanting something. (greed)
2. Wanting something unpleasant to end. (aversion, pushing away)
3. The desire for becoming. (Our aspirations. The mind's tendency to identify with things, to take things personally. The story of self. The selfing. ' I want to become this, I want to become that. I don't want to become this. I don't want to become that. I am this, I am that. This is mine, I own this, I own that. I want this, I want that.' To counteract this tendency of the mind, it is good to recite often: 'Not me, not mine, not self'.
The desire for becoming can be used skillfully to realise the end of suffering. As desire is what drives us.
Desire comes from feelings, which are either pleasant or unpleasant. And feelings come from sense impressions: sight, sound, smell, taste, touch, and ideas/ thoughts.
We cling to what we want more of; and push away that which we don't want. We want the pleasant feelings to continue and experience suffering when we don't get what we want, and then feel aversion, bitterness, resentment, and take it personally. But everything is changing and uncertain, the world is outside our control. We cling to phantoms of moments. Chasing after the delights of the six senses like a dog chasing after its tail. Sense gratification is much like an itch, there is only gratification as long as one keeps scratching.
One cannot do much about sense impressions. They happen because we have a body. One also cannot do much about feelings (pleasant, neutral or unpleasant,) they arise because of sense-impressions. Desire may also be something we can't do much about, as it happens automatically because of feelings. But there may be a way to deal with it by slowly and gradually starving it of fuel till it goes out altogether.
One can expand awareness and make it like infinite space, so it shares the same quality. Space can contain many objects, but is not the objects it contains, and is not conditioned by them. One can make awareness like this, and then allow desire (in its three forms) to arise and cease at the sensory level of awareness, before it becomes a story. One can let it be there without judging it. But also not going along with it, not following it, not getting involved. Letting it arise and cease in an expansive space-like awareness without getting tangled up in it.This gets easier to do as one wises up and becomes less ignorant of where desire leads, becomes less ignorant of the link between desire and suffering, usually after bitter experience, where one remembers and decides not to follow it anymore.
3. Knowledge of the end of suffering. (Which is to be realised).
How does the mind feel when it isn't suffering?
Notice when the desire ceases and is no longer present, the relief this brings to the mind. To no longer have that nagging feeling of lack when one doesn't get what they want.
It feels good when the mind is free from greed, aversion, and delusion. It is helpful to spend some time noticing this.To appreciate it and pay special attention to how it feels when there is no anger, no irritation, no resentment, no taking things personally, no lust, no grasping, no chasing, or acquiring. How does that feel to be free of that?
There is a sense of freedom when one realises they no longer have to go along with their desires, their impulses, the urges. No longer have to be a slave to passion, pulled in different directions by the six senses. The relief of no longer being driven around by them. When the mind no longer feels harrassed by greed, hate and delusion, joy and serenity naturally rises. An unharrassed mind is a happy mind.
4. Knowledge of the path that leads to the end of suffering (Which is to be developed).
Knowing that the practise and development of the noble eightfold path is what trains the mind to become an instrument capable of understanding, seeing and realising the wisdom contained in the four noble truths.The noble eightfold path is the skillset needed to extinguish craving.
One can apply the four noble truths like a template to one's own direct experience of life as it is. One can practise it with the mild irritations, the mild forms of greed in daily life, and this works like a vaccine, like homeopathic medicine, through that experience we find that when the more unsettling things happen in life, the deep upsets, that we can manage those better because of practising with the lesser upsets.
We grow and awaken through the understanding of our own suffering, what causes it, how it ceases, and how the wisdom to do this develops. Then as one's suffering decreases, it can become easier to include others, to expand awareness to include the whole world, the whole galaxy if you like, to show boundless compassion to all beings. As one understands that others suffer the same way we do, that suffering is an experience shared across all the myriad species of life on this Earth. Empathy develops.
The four noble truths is an ingenious memory device, an easy to remember template for decreasing suffering in our lives. Like fractals, the four noble truths contain the noble eightfold path, and the noble eightfold path contains the four noble truths.
Most of us will have to keep reminding ourselves of this a thousand times a day for perhaps a thousand days or more. The length of time decreases as minfulness grows stronger. And it is normal to forget, to get caught up in the world again and tangled up in desire. Sometimes this forgetting happens for short periods of time, and sometimes for lengthy periods of time, and for some it can be as long as lifetimes. But then remembering happens again and one resumes the practise, puts in a more sincere effort than before, usually after a painful experience caused from being tangled up in desire. And each time one remembers and practises it weakens that link in the chain of dependent origination between craving and clinging. Keeps weakening it till eventually it breaks altogether and suffering comes to a complete stop and then there are no more states of becoming, no more states of woe.
This blog might contain posts that are only visible to logged-in users, or where only logged-in users can comment. If you have an account on the system, please log in for full access.