Category Archives: Buddhism

My Dharmabytes…

I was intrigued today when looking around SoundCloud website to find myself there via FreeBuddhistAudio’s podcasts! Who knew? I think I do remember they put up one by me a few years back. Today I found 15 podcasts with snippets from  longer talks that are also on FreeBuddhistAudio. Not boasting or anything, of course, 🙂

Link to My Dharmabytes on SoundCloud.

Here is one. “Robins, Despair, Earthquakes & Other People”.  With a title like that how could it not be worth listening to….

 

Susan Bauer Wu: Led Reflections

Susan Bauer-Wu is another Western Buddhist who ran a meditation workshop section in the Coursera MOOC Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism ….. She trained as a nurse, moved into academia, became involved in the Mind & Life conferences founded by Varela and Engle with the Dalai Lama as Honorary Chairman and is now President of the Mind & Life Institute. Prior to that she was the director of the Compassionate Care Initiative and the Tussi and John Kluge Professor in Contemplative End-of-Life Care at the University of Virginia (UVa) School of Nursing and associate faculty in the UVa Department of Religious Studies and on the executive committee of the pan-university UVa Contemplative Sciences Center.

I really appreciated her contribution to the course. In fact it was the meditation workshops and the neuroscience worships that kept me interested in the course. The formal lectures introducing Tibetan Buddhism were incredibly stilted and pedagogical. Such a missed opportunity. Here are some of her led reflections. You can find more on YouTube or you can have a look at the MOOC material on the link above.

The reflection that I most appreciate is the one on stepping out of out thinking minds. But they are all very good, very simply done, and if you’re new to meditation listen to them all.

Grounding Yourself:

” Not trying to make the experience a certain way, but it is just as it is, and see what you notice…Just being curious, but not analysing…. with the breath as an anchor, in this moment…”

 

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Stabilising the Mind:

“As long as you are alive, your breath is with you…. simply noticing the sensations of breathing in and breathing out ….. the texture of the breath…any time the mind wanders, and it will, very, very gently, very simply, coming back to the physical experience… “

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Stepping Out of Our Thinking Minds:

“This practice is of choice-less awareness… and it’s a non-conceptual being with and knowing…an opportunity to go beyond the personal pronouns of I and me and mine…. beyond self-interests and self-centredness and contracting around thoughts, or events….awareness of all sensations …. and allow the field to expand further to include thought-streams, images, memories… without separation of it rest in this awareness in this moment.”

 

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Opening the Heart:

The Shamatha Project

One of Dr Clifford Saron’s short talks about his experience in working with Buddhist monks in Dharamasala to look at what happens to their brain activity whilst they are meditation. But as he says at the beginning of this video:

“…. maybe these meditators were always extraordinary people; maybe that extraordinariness was what had led them to meditation in the first place. So how can you test this scientifically? how do you set up a control group for people who’s already got  20, 30, 40 years experience of meditation?”

What they did was set up a longitudinal study called The Shamatha Project.

Clifford Saron: the Scientific Study of Meditation

Clifford Saron is another investigator I came across in the online Coursera MOOC Tibetan Buddhist Meditation & the Modern World. I really enjoyed his section of the course which explored the scientific study of meditation.Dr Saron is a neuroscientist who has applied his scientific expertise to investigating meditators – what are they doing? what difference does it make to them?  do they act differently? what’s going on in their brain?

You can find a lot of his short videos on YouTube. Just search under his name. The ones I’m sharing here are on YouTube and were all part of the MOOC course material.

In the first video he gives an account of how he became involved in this field of enquiry in the 1990s in Dharamasala, India, meeting the Dalai Lama and other Buddhist meditators. As he says himself, those were life-changing experiences for him.

 

Anne Klein: Short Contemplations

I came across these short contemplations from Anne Klein (Rigzin Drolma) whilst following a MOOC on Coursera and really appreciated them. (I didn’t appreciate the main lecturer on that course at all but that’s another story.)

Anne Klein is professor and former chair of religious studies at Rice University and co-founder of and resident teacher at Dawn Mountain Retreat Centre, celebrated by the Houston Press in 2006 for offering the best guided meditation in Houston. She’s a distinguished Buddhist scholar, she has studied in the United States, India, Tibet, and Nepal and has written numerous works on Buddhism, including co-authoring “Unbounded Wholeness” and “Knowledge and Liberation”.

Here are the meditations. They are in the order they were presented on the course so if you try them maybe try them in this order. If you have a look on YouTube you’ll find short introductions and conclusions to each as well.

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Cultivation of Mindfulness:

“.. with an intention to cultivate mindfulness, all your other concerns are simply going to rest outside of the room of your mind at this time.. all those other concerns, you just let them go like leaves in a stream flowing away from you…. they will arise, they will show you their faces, but you won’t latch on to them ….. which is very different from our ordinary habit pattern …. of course you are breathing ….inhale and exhale ….you’re not writing a paper about this, but you’re feeling it… words may come and you can let them go also…”

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Cultivating Calm:

“The cultivation of trust is a very significant foundation for the development of calm …. we can begin by cultivating a sense that we are being profoundly supported right now, in a very physical sense….that our body is supported…. and this is soothing to us .. and from that can come trust…”

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Cultivating an Understanding of Impermanence:

“Think of the world at large… how does it display impermanence?…it does it all the time… big things, things closer to home, death and loss ….and with this kind of practice we are also enjoined to understand it as an indication of what arises…the pain that is really no stranger to anyone’s life.. this moves towards love by recognising the shared, poignant situation that all of us are in …”

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A Line to Our Own Insight:

“How will we cultivate insight? how do we unfold in the world? ….if we don’t wonder, we’ll have no interest in investigating… so with curiosity motivating us, we can sit and simply observe….the practice of insight begins when you are moving forth from the intention to investigate, to look in and see what your experience is…”

Stepping Out of Your Comfort Zone

Pema-Blog-Post

 

In this 7-minute clip Pema Chodrun offers a convincing case for being a little more daring in our daily lives. What happens when we begin to step out of our comfort zone? We begin to get comfortable with uncertainty and our whole experience becomes more inhabitable.

The excerpt comes from an upcoming online course called “The Heart of the Matter”. Couldn’t get the video link direct but here is the link to the page at Shambala:

Stepping out of Your Comfort Zone

 

 

Janet Solyntjes: on Interconnectedness

I came across this snippet in Tricycle Magazine . It’s from a 2015 conference called “Wisdom Rising”.

Janet Solyntjes, MA, is a senior teacher in the Shambhala Buddhist tradition and Adjunct Professor at Naropa University. A practitioner of mind-body disciplines since 1977, and a teacher of MBSR, she leads mindfulness retreats in the U.S. and internationally and is co-founder of the Boulder-based Center for Courageous Living. Learn more at the Centre for Courageous Living

Is it true that we are interconnected? And if it is, what are the implications?

Based on your conditioning, and what books, talks, and ideas you’ve encountered, you may have ready-made answers to these questions.

And so, a further question: On what level do you know these truths — today, right now?

It’s one thing to hold a view on the level of intellect, or concept. And it’s another to experience something like interconnectedness as a living reality.

In the short video,  Janet Solyntjes guides us in a contemplative meditation on interconnectedness. Taking the time to hold a concept in our heart-mind, allowing it to open into a personal experience — a personal knowing — is how we evolve spiritually.

 

Video: Living in the Midst of Paradox

This is me giving a talk to an audience of Buddhist women gathered at Taraloka Buddhist Retreat Centre in Shropshire, England.  I think it was sometime around 2003/04. I hope it stands the test of time. Buddhism does, of course, but my talks may well not!

The theme for the talk is taken from a Buddhist text called the Vimalakirti Nirdesa. Vimalakirti is a very accomplished disciple of the Buddha. He’s not a monk, he’s a householder. But he can outdo the most accomplished of the monks. Much to their discomfiture!!

‘Living in the Midst of Paradox’ – Kulaprabha from Clear Vision Trust on Vimeo.

My Talks on Buddhism…

Over the years, I’ve given lots of talks on various Buddhist themes. Most of them are available on the FreeBuddhist Audio website. If you search for me under my Buddhist name, Kulaprabha, you’ll get the full list of about 30 talks. But here is a sample from that list which I’ll add to from time to time. The links will open in a new tab and take you through to FBA which is the easiest way to add them here.

Brahma Viharas and the Key Moment: The Brahma Viharas is a mandala of four meditation practices on loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Each practice is different in its primary focus but simillar in its means of focussing – asking us to consider ourselves, a good friend, someone we know but not well, someone we dislike or who dislikes us, and finally asks us to contemplate all beings wherever and in whatever circumstances we can imagine them. So there’s a lot to contemplate in these meditations.

The talk focusses on the Dharmic context of the Brahma Viharas and how to bring that context into our sitting practice. You can find lead throughs of the actual meditation practices elsewhere on Free Buddhist Audio. Search for metta bhavana (loving kindness), karuna bhavana (compassion), mudita bhavana (sympathetic joy) or upekkha bhavana (equanimity). Listen to it here, running time 1h 5min:  Brahma Viharas and the Key Moment

The Alchemy of Happiness: in the blurb this is described as a thoughtful take on the positive emotions cultivated in the ‘Brahma Vihara’ meditations. Hopefully it’s thoughtful. At the moment I can’t remember what’s in it! It was given at the Western Buddhist Order convention, 2007. One of a series of talks on the Brahma Vihara meditations. Running time 1h: The Alchemy of Happiness

 

Four Great Catalysts of Being

This is an article I wrote for a magazine called Lotus Realm.  The article was entitled “Catalysts for Change” but the above was my original choice of title. The four catalysts being the four Brahma Vihara meditations practices. If you want to have the articel in its original format , you download it as a PDF here. If not then read on ….

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CATALYSTS make things happen. They make things happen under circumstances in which they would not normally happen. Catalysts speed things up.

Scientists know about chemical catalysts. They know that a good catalyst will help compounds react at lower temperatures and at lower pressures – in other words, under conditions which are easier to set up and maintain. Chemists also know that the catalyst itself is not changed in this process. It promotes change but is not itself changed. It retains its purity.

Alchemists also knew about catalysts. Alchemists and their theories and experiments were the forebears of modern chemistry, but unlike modern chemists, alchemists practised their art in the belief that the state of mind of the alchemist affected the outcome of the catalytic experiments.Both the substances and the experimenter needed to be as pure as possible if the best outcome was to be obtained. Their catalyst par excellence was the fabled Philosopher’s Stone which would turn base metal into gold. To work with the Stone, the alchemist needed to have a pure mind. Without such a mind, nothing could be produced that would not itself be tainted with imperfection. Since gold was the perfect substance, whatever the imperfect alchemist produced would not be gold but only a flawed imitation of the real thing.

From a 20th century perspective, the ideas of the alchemist may seem ridiculous. Certainly much of it is chemically impossible – at least outside of nuclear reactors or the solar atmosphere. Modern chemists probably don’t think there is any scientific need to purify their own minds beyond the level of not falsifying results. Nevertheless there is still something fascinating about the alchemists and the task they set themselves. In the ALCHEMIST

perfected alchemist the spell-binding figure of the magician combines with the purity and renunciation of the hermit to create a powerful symbol – a perfected being who has solved the mystery of how to create the perfected substance.

Meditation is also a catalyst – it too promotes change and can do so under circumstances and conditions in which change has not yet begun. Just as chemical catalysts allow chemists to transform physical material of one sort into another sort, so meditation can catalyze our mind and change it from what it is now into an altogether more refined,
clearer and more deeply responsive kind of consciousness. Chemical catalysts can help create altogether new types of material – never observed till the completion of that particular experiment. Imagine the chemist’s excitement and exhilaration in watching the process unfold … knowing that noone has ever before seen what you are seeing, or
done what you are doing! With meditation what is being created is new to us but not, of course,new to mankind since it lets us retrace a process of change already mapped out by earlier generations of practitioners.

So – can meditation be as exciting as chemistry? Are we as dedicated to changing ourselves as a medieval alchemist in pursuit of erfection? I think we should be even more excited and more dedicated. Of course perhaps you have never thought that chemistry could be exciting anyway. How strange! Keep reading!

Chemical catalysts operate within the physical and biological realms. Meditation achieves its ends within the realm of our mind – throwing light on old patterns and half-glimpsed ideas and views; rooting out what hinders, freeing us from the poisons of greed, hatred and delusion, eventually allowing a completely new purified consciousness to emerge. Chemistry is limited. Meditation is not. (Limited though they are, chemistry and science are not in any basic conflict with the Dharma. It’s just that the Dharma has the greater perspective. It’s the catalyst par excellence.)

THE FOUR GREAT CATALYSTS OF BEING
These reflections apply to meditation generally, but there is one set of meditation practices to which they are particularly pertinent. These are the practices for developing the four Brahma Viharas or Sublime Abodes of loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. The Brahma Viharas are also known as the four great catalysts of being! Let’s look at the Dharmic catalytic process that they offer us.

It’s not very difficult to wish to eradicate hatred or greed or ignorance from our mind. It is difficult to maintain that wish strongly over a long time. It’s not that difficult to recognise those states in their more extreme forms, particularly when we are seeing them in other people. It’s a lot harder to identify them in their more cunning, plausible, even mesmerising appearances, particularly within ourselves. Why is this? To answer this question we’ll need to move one step back to what we experience just before greed or hatred appear.

In a way it’s very straightforward. Just before one of those great impurities of mind appears, we experience a feeling (Pali: vedana) which is either pleasant or unpleasant or somewhere between the two. If it’s pleasant we want to keep on feeling it and if it’s unpleasant we want it to stop. Out of that simple process emerge all the emotions that humankind is prey to. Being prey to something is to be hunted and chased, perhaps being caught and killed. Being prey to these emotions we are at their mercy. But they are not merciful! These emotions lead us round and round an unending cycle of feeling and our reaction to it.

Continuity of purpose is one of the faculties which we are exhorted to develop if we want to practise the Dharma. Maybe it would be helpful for us to realize that we already experience continuity: we show great constancy in letting ourselves be a host for these mental impurities. What we need to do is show some constancy in getting rid of them!

Each time we react with craving or illwill we reinforce old poisonous patterns. We create ever stronger tendencies in our minds. We give them more life. This is how we create the volitional activity (Pali: sankharas, more commonly known in their Sanskrit form, samskaras) which become the emotional skeleton for our future, the framework around which the rest of ourselves will crystallize.

Rather than getting downhearted faced with this sort of home truth, maybe it’s more useful to let it become fuel for our future attempts to change. Let’s just acknowledge that maybe it’s going to be tougher than we expected and will need more determination on our part. To put it into chemical terms – we need a more effective catalyst to cope with our present conditions. This is where meditation comes into its own. Meditation gives us the opportunity to create a new set of samskaras for ourselves, a set that will allow us to spiral up into a more refined, steadfast and skilfully directed kind of consciousness, which is eventually able to experience things as they Really Are.

Let’s go back to pleasant and unpleasant feeling. The present fact is that we tend to respond to pleasure with craving: we want more. We need a better response than that. In the midst of painful feeling we tend to respond with aversion. We want to push it away. We need a better option than that, too. In neutral feeling what happens? Well, I usually get bored and want something more exciting – craving sets in! There are two aspects to changing all this. First of all we’ve got to want to change it; and secondly we need the means to do so.

Again, it’s not that difficult to understand that our present tendencies merely reinforce old spent a number of patterns. The crucial element in bringing change about is that our present volitions must years doing become painful to us. They even have to become consistently painful not just occasionally painful! research work in Feeling, vedana, must take on an aspect of unsatisfactoriness (Pali: dukkha) so that even chemistry. strongly pleasant feeling has just enough of a sharp tang to it that we stop and realize how careful we need to be in choosing our next move. And note the word ‘choose’. Unsatisfactoriness brings choice in its wake and with choice we are no longer so much the prey of those three great poisons. But to begin with we can just pay some attention to the impermanence
of even our most pleasant experiences; and maybe have some awareness of the pain brought about by repetitive unskilful behaviour.

Having managed to bring some measure of awareness of unsatisfactoriness into our mind, let’s congratulate ourselves! It means that we have begun the dharmic version of the purifying process to which those alchemists aspired. It means that the first Noble Truth has begun to trickle into our consciousness. And to take that on board, the Truth that in all experience there’ is an element of unsatisfactoriness, is no easy thing – perhaps today more than ever. In western society we are prey to a view that we deserve to be happy. The pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right is even enshrined in the Constitution of the United States! Unfortunately that happiness is not envisaged as being outside ordinary existence, Instead people are left pursuing happiness where it can never be found – a position just as ridiculous as the search for an actual Philosopher’s Stone. Influenced by this wrong view, we can feel we ought to be happy, and that to acknowledge painfulness must be wrong in itself or even unhealthy.However, the Dharma says that to acknowledge dukkha is the starting point of spiritual life. The first Noble Truth is not illustrative of a pessimistic Buddhist world view as some have claimed. It simply acknowledges the facts of human experience: the experience of unsatisfactoriness born of impermanence, and its accompanying wish for meaning in our lives. If we face up to it, this experience can galvanize us into action in pursuit of something beyond our current existence.

So – at length – we come to the means of achieving that greater meaning. We need better options with which to deal with pleasant and unpleasant feeling. They are waiting for us in the Brahma Viharas. To pleasant feeling we could respond with sympathetic joy and to unpleasant feeling we could respond with compassion. A simple formula to understand but difficult to embody. The Brahma Viharas also include loving kindness, which is the
foundation of compassion and sympathetic joy; and equanimity, which gives us a further means for deepening our understanding of the other three great catalysts. If compassion is the antidote to aversion and sympathetic joy the antidote to craving, then equanimity is the counterpart to the ignorance underlying those poisons; and loving kindness is the foundation to them all. It is, therefore, to loving kindness that we first have to turn.

LOVING KINDNESS – METTA
What I have had to acknowledge time and time again as I’ve tried to practise the Brahma Viharas is that if I cannot feel loving kindness (Pali: metta) for myself then I am unlikely to feel much loving kindness for anyone else either, much less can I develop the other Brahma Viharas.

One of the most crucial elements of metta is that it brings confidence. Just that – confidence. There are many ways in which we can lack confidence. After we’ve evaporated ‘off our more psychologically-based lack of confidence, we are left simply with the need to have confidence in ourselves as human beings who can practise the Dharma. When the Buddha was dealing with doubts in himself just before he gained Enlightenment, he called to mind all his previous practice and the fact that it gave him the right, as it were, to dare set himself the highest purpose of attaining the completely pure Enlightened state. That calling to mind of previous effort and commitment is symbolised in the earth-touching ‘mudra’ or hand gesture. Next time you are meditating and an inner voice asks who you are to be doing this, try the earth-touching mudra!

My reference to evaporating oil our more psychologically-based doubts is not meant to disown or underestimate those. However, we find that one of the great properties of metta is that it lets us step aside from our psychology. It gives us some objectivity about ourselves and helps put our efforts into developing faculties that go beyond our psychological problems and difficulties. Just as the Dharma shows up the limitations of chemistry, it also shows up the limitations of psychology.

All the Brahma Viharas have this catalyzing property. It’s the way that something new can come into being: our sense-based faculties can gradually change into spiritual faculties. The Buddha described the first such faculty as faith (Pali: saddhda) which is also translated as confidence- faith. The metta-bhavana meditation practice for the development of loving kindness is a means for developing this first spiritual faculty. By repeating the practice over and over again we gradually give ourselves the inner space to simply feel without our minds immediately leaping on to either craving or aversion. The more we do that, the greater the choice we have and the more we are living our life instead of it living us. That choice brings a sense of empowerment and responsibility and, if we are honest with ourselves, it will also increase our faith in the Dharma as we see it transforming us in the way it promised.

I’ve already mentioned that we need to transform our continuity from continuity of greed, hatred and delusion to continuity of another kind. Continuity of purpose is part of what is required. It is usually described in terms of time – we need to be able to recollect actions in our past and their consequences, and apply that knowledge to our present actions in order to be able to create the future which we want. In this sense continuity of purpose is connected with stopping ourselves falling prey to unskilful habits.

Continuity can also be thought about in another way: we need continuity of metta. We need to be able to respond with loving kindness over the whole spectrum of feeling. The Brahma Viharas are unconditional in that they admit of no exceptions – no person or situation is omitted. Over the whole spectrum, whether we meet the blissful, the addictive, the horrifying, the contented, the fearful, the entangling, the boring or the appalling – all these can become the occasion for the arising of metta if we apply the effort.

Perhaps we think that therefore this metta must be a great blazing fire of an emotion. Well, sometimes it is. But sometimes it is just a steady flame that refuses to go out despite the best efforts of our old inclinations. It is important to recognise the potential of that steadiness. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small flame if it is a constant, persistent flame. And it is constancy that can give us confidence in ourselves – our own experience of touching the ground of our practice.

COMPASSION – KARUNA.
Compassion arises when metta encounters suffering. We don’t need to do anything special to feel compassion beyond bringing together two conditions – the inner experience of metta and the recognition of somebody’s suffering. It
is not easy to bring these conditions together and keep them aligned with one another, but if we can do that we have created the conditions for karuna to arise. Establishing metta for ourselves and others is the first step in the karuna-bhavana practice. Metta is the foundation for all the Brahma Viharas. The second step is the bringing to mind of an actual suffering person and letting the metta we feel be touched by and respond to that person’s
suffering.

The suffering person could be ill or experiencing other unfortunate circumstances. They could be someone whose past actions are causing them suffering now. From there we extend the spectrum of situations in which we respond with compassion to include our friends, people we hardly know, people we dislike and finally to all sentient beings everywhere we can imagine them.

It is not difficult to think of places and events around the world which deserve a compassionate response from us. Global communications give us first hand accounts of wars and famines as they are happening. Natural and man-made disasters appear in our living-rooms only hours after they have brought sudden misery and sorrow into people’s lives. It’s not hard to feel sympathy for all that – yet we don’t always do so. The very speed and frequency with which these pictures appear sometimes makes us want to just turn the TV off. It’s all too much. Or maybe we have become immune to their impact and don’t feel anything much at all. It’s just another image flickering before our eyes.

This sort of non-response is an example of karuna slipping away into one or other of its ‘near enemies’. All the Brahma Viharas have their own particular near enemies – emotions which resemble the pure form but are actually contaminated by either craving or aversion. In the case of compassion, the tendency when we ask ourselves to face suffering is that we slip into aversion. When this happens, compassion turns into either horrified anxiety or the suffering overwhelms our metta and we are left feeling paralysed and impotent, wanting nothing more than to be rid of this very unpleasant experience. Sentimental pity is a well-known near enemy of compassion. It may get us to engage in doing all sorts of ‘good works’ but we are too much aware of ourselves, too aware of our own comparative good fortune. As we know, it is not a pleasant experience to be on the receiving end of this.

The best way to work with these enemies is to go back to individual real people again and, with the help of self-metta, try just to stay in touch with one person’s suffering at a time. As we practice this over and over again, gradually a new experience transpires – suffering becomes something we can meet face to face. Facing suffering and infusing the experience with metta creates another new experience – fearlessness. Fearlessness gives us confidence and lets us mobilize more energy and determination behind our practice. The catalytic transformation
continues.

SYMPATHETIC JOY – MUDITA
Just as compassion arises naturally when metta meets suffering, sympathetic joy arises when metta meets joy. It’s only necessary to bring the. two together and joy can be the occasion for more joy! It’s wonderful! It really works! Who would have thought it? As for the other Brahma Viharas, we begin with metta for ourselves. If we feel metta for ourselves, we won’t feel jealous of others’ good fortune. Instead we will simply feel joy! Admittedly, it is easier to say than to do and a few other basic materials are needed to let this catalyst really work well. One is confident that actions really do have consequences and that our own skilful actions will lead to pleasant consequences in the future.

The practice proceeds in much the same way as the karuna-bhavana, except that instead of bringing to mind a suffering person, we recollect a fortunate person, someone who is generally happy or who is enjoying happy circumstances in their life, and we rejoice in their happiness and talents.

Mudita’s near enemy arises when we begin to slip into craving the joy for ourselves. Vicarious satisfactbn arises. It’s a counterfeit emotion which masquerades as mudita and it can be quite difficult to recognise. Perhaps it’s best recognised by the characteristic of dependency it embodies. In the grip of this impurity we are no longer living our own life but have become dependent on someone else for our emotional experience. Like a parasite we steal their emotional lifeblood to give us sustenance. Again it’s by going back into the individual stages of the mudita-bhavana that we can best work with this kind of stealthy craving.

By practising mudita-bhavana, we’ll notice changes for the better. In a very down to earth sense, experiencing mudita is like having a clear conscience. For the moment at least, with no barriers or defences between us and other people, we can just appreciate and rejoice with them. It opens the door to delighting in people individually and in humanity as a whole with all its achievements and aspirations. It’s wonderful!

EQUANIMITY – UPEKKHA.
To recap: in transforming our reactions to pleasant and unpleasant feeling, we find compassion is the antidote to aversion; mudita the antidote to craving; and metta is the foundation for both. So what is equanimity?

In the upekkha-bhavana, it is neutral feeling which gives rise to equanimity. After a first stage of developing metta, the practice proceeds by bringing to mind a neutral person. The absence of any strong positive or negative feeling towards this person enables us to enter a more reflective state where we can, as it were, watch the passing of both good and bad fortune in this person’s life. We can reflect that they will no doubt experience both success and failure, love and grief, gain and loss as their life proceeds. When these sorts of reflections are imbued with metta a sort of kindly patience arises. Hardly knowing this neutral person, our reflections will be very general and this gives them an added power to catalyze our state of mind: everything we are thinking about this neutral person
applies also to ourselves and to everyone else we can imagine. Whatever change they are subject to, we will also undergo that change be it old age, families being born and growing up, unexpected illness, friendships growing and passing. This is very much a reflection about impermanence.

Sometimes these sorts of reflections arise spontaneously. As I was driving in the city one day, I found myself sitting at red lights. I watched two young men cross the road in front of me. They were in their twenties, looked fit and healthy, and were completely engrossed in their conversation. They walked on confidently together. A few hundred yards further on I stopped at another set of lights and suddenly realized the two men were in front of me again still talking, still friends, but now old, slow, bent, and hesitant of foot. Of course it wasn’t the same men. But to me the two scenes coalesced into one experience: impermanence.

Upekkha develops out of reflections like these. It requires the ability to hold compassion and mudita together at the same time. Not an easy task. Gradually it opens up other trains of thought and realizations about the interconnectedness of joy and suffering and the futility of trying to chase after the one or avoid the other. They are really like two links of a chain. To chase after or avoid those links is only to deform and distort the linkage, never to separate the links. Love and death are like this. We want one and shun the other. With upekkha we hold them together and move into a new way of looking at both.

Of course it is difficult to maintain this kind of awareness. All too easily our mind becomes tainted with aversion and equanimity slips over into cold indifference. Here there is still the perspective of impermanence, but the human empathy is lost. The way to work with this enemy is again by persisting with the practice itself but also by very deliberately bringing in metta.

One last word about the Brahma Viharas which so far I have omitted. They bring beauty into one’s life. It’s a beauty which is permeated more and more with awareness and acknowledgement of impermanence. The harmony which comes of holding beauty and impermanence together is one measure of the great transforming power of these four great catalysts of being.

Around the World in 180 Days

This is an article I wrote in 1999 after returning from a six month round the world trip. I didn’t think about it as primarily a pilgrimage. We did visit some places of significance to us as Buddhists. We also went snorkelling on coral reefs in Fiji. However as well as broadening  the mind, travel also gives you space : to look, to ruminate. Anyway here it is:

I’VE BEEN TRAVELLING.I left in January with a World Traveller plane ticket in my pocket. I
went with Jean, a friend of nearly twenty years standing. Her younger daughter wasborn just three months before my daughter. These birth dates are relevant because Jean and I used to go off on holidays together with our kids and it wasduring one of those breaks that we made a resolution to go travelling together when they were off our hands – or as much off our hands as can be reasonably expected for nineteen year olds. Perhaps at the time it was rather a whimsical idea – we were sitting on a beach in Norfolk and the said daughters, then about three years old, had just been encouraged and had agreed to go off and build their own sand castle without any maternal help. One small step for daughters, one small release for their mothers!

About eighteen months ago we realised that the opportunity to fulfil that resolution was fast approaching. Did we have the money to go? The time? did we still want to? Yes to all of those questions – and there I was, taking off from Glasgow airport early one frosty morning. A couple of hours later I was watching London disappear from view as we headed for southern India and thirty degrees centigrade. I remember wondering why on earth I was doing this. Why not have a six month sabbatical in one place? Would I ever see London or Scotland again? A flood of sentiment and an acute sense of belonging to the landscape below nearly had me in tears. Why on earth did I want to see kangaroos in situ!

So what have those six months been? a sightseeing jamboree? a twentieth century equivalent to ‘Ie grand tour de L’Europe? a chance to visit old friends in faraway places? time out and away from family and job? a test of endurance? (after all it’s a bit different carrying around a rucksack aged forty-nine than it was a few decades ago aged nineteen!) a deeper experience of friendship? an opportunity to let go of the security of
familiar things, people and places? a time to reflect about where my life is going? and where I want it to go? a pilgrimage?

What is a pilgrimage? One thesaurus gives synonyms of journey, tour, travel, excursion,
jaunt, junket and trip. Interesting isn’t it? Not a word about religious quest, search for meaning, devotion, or places of spiritual significance. Another dictionary suggests wanderer, sojourner and one who journeys, usually a long distance, to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion. The root of the word is from peregrinum, the Latin word for stranger, with the further meaning of ‘across or through the land’.

Six months travelling through the world was definitely a pilgrimage in the sense of journeying as a stranger across the land. It was also a pilgrimage in the religious sense of travelling to sacred places. The first stage of our journey was through the Indian sub-continent – from Cape Cormorin in the south to Gangtok in Sikkim. There we travelled to places of spiritual significance to Buddhists, but Hindus seemed very pleased to show us round their temples too, offering us the chance to gain merit and giving us a mark on our forehead to validate our devotion. Some of the very old Hindu temples seemed to be places with a touch of chthonic mystery to them. If they have a parallel in my European background, it is with the stone circles and burial long-barrows, thousands of years old, that are strung out from the Western Isles of Scotland in the north to Spain and Portugal
in the south. These remnants of old European religious practice took many years to construct. It must have been a similarly huge task to create those old Hindu temples and, as with Medieval European cathedrals and monasteries, no doubt generations and whole families of craftsmen spent their working lives on that task.

The Buddhist caves at Ellora and Ajanta in Maharashtra are similar feats of faith, devotion
and hard work. I wonder if ordination as a monk at Ajanta meant being given a hammer
and chisel along with the more traditional robe and bowl! The beauty of the paintings and sculpture in those caves took my breath away. More significant still was the sense of gratitude and devotion that arose in me – not just gratitude for all the hard work and commitment of those monks, but a renewed and deepened gratitude and devotion of my own, directed towards the same spiritual truths that had inspired them.! felt the same kind of resonance at Sarnath and Nalanda, at the Vulture’s Peak and the Bamboo Grove of Rajgir and at Bodhgaya, although I had hard to work harder at it in Bodhgaya as I didn’t like the noise and tourist bustle of the place. Further north in Bengal and Sikkim, pilgrimage became more of an experience rooted in the present rather than in echoes from the past. There I enjoyed the feeling of fellowship with the Buddhist practice that
was part of daily life in those places – signified by prayer flags in gardens, the victory banner, parasol and other eight auspicious signs carved or painted on to homes and schools, monks and the occasional nun walking through the streets, mantras traced on stone walls, young boys with their monk’s robes tucked up out of the way as they raced around a monastery courtyard between lessons or peered over my shoulder pointing at photographs of their monastery in my guide book.

In some of the places I visited I was definitely a pilgrim. I was responding to a place and its history from an appreciation based on my own spiritual experience and aspirations. My inner environment was aligned with my outer one my emotions, understanding and volition were finding outward equivalents in these remnants of the expression of inspiration and practice from centuries before. I was able to delve more deeply into my ‘faith-follower, aspect – where my appreciation of beauty, of lineage, of convictions
held by generations of practitioners, all coalesce to enrich my own personal links with the
Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Two other factors were also very present and probably essential for all this irruption of faith in me. One was my own happiness, contentment
and even a sense of familiarity at being in India – notwithstanding the very great differences from European life and culture. At times I hardly even felt myself a stranger there. The other factor which aroused deeper feelings of faith was my awareness of suffering.

In India life is very public. Joy and curiosity, excitement and discussion are there to be seen and engaged with very immediately. But suffering, too, is very visible and at times very shocking. Stuck in a noisy, exhaust-filled trafficjam in Madras, I could see women washing their three-year-old daughters outside cardboard and corrugated iron huts just a few feetaway from me. Standing on a railway platform at 4am waiting for the Rajghani express to hasten me away from Patna, I watched the flutterings of a thin grey blanket lying not far from my feet, flutterings that came from the shallow breathing of whoever was hunched up beneath, trying to get a few moments more sleep before another day’s existence began. A crutch lay beside him. For a few moments our two lives existed and breathed close to each other, both human, but so, so different in their unfolding. I could get out of Patna any time, out and away on a train where a clean bed was provided and my meals and drinks were brought to me. Not a very probable option for the fluttering body under that blanket. An awareness of the need to keep open the doors of the Dharma grew in me with an urgency fuelled by a much keener appreciation of the weight of suffering that exists in the world.

I’m often asked what my impressions were of the different cultures I came across, and the
different people. But my most heartfelt impression is of sameness, a sameness of human
experience and conditions that belie all the apparent differences. Of course those differences exist – but underneath them I kept seeing glimpses of a more universal human
condition – a paler and less defined outline seen through my eyes of what the Buddha
revealed at Sarnath in his first teaching – this being, that becomes from the arising of this, that arises, this not being, that does not become from the cessation of this, that ceases
This sameness that I became aware of can be a basis for a deeper sympathy and understanding between me and other human beings. I realised a world tour can be a pilgrimage whether the pilgrim visits any ‘sacred’ places or not, if the pilgrim can discover the universality of joy, suffering, and impermanence and maintain some equanimity, loving kindness and aspiration to practice in the midst of all that. People also ask me what my favourite place was, but I don’t really have one. What I do have is a vivid impression of abundant life and a deep sense of what a beautiful planet I live on, and what an extraordinary web of existence I am part of.

In this way think the sense of being on pilgrimage was always there. I gladly immersed
myself in all the beauty and wonder that arose in the midst of new landscapes. I became aware of how much I align myself by a sun which is in the south at midday – persisting in that view even when I knew very well that it had changed to being in the north!
I looked in amazement at new constellations in the night sky and a new moon that was the ‘wrong’ way round. In the immensity of the red desert heart of Australia, the experience of beauty took on a particular poignancy because of the fragility of the delicate ecological balance – great tracts of that land have been damaged by animals it never evolved to sustain. As I travelled through Australia, New Zealand and America, I spent time with friends in the Order, knowing that they respond as I do to Sangharakshita’s vision for establishing the Dharma in the West. I realised just how few of them there are to put that vision into effect. It threw up a challenge to me to work out exactly what my relationship actually is to these Order members in far flung parts of the globe. On a personal level many of them are my friends, but the challenge is to understand more clearly what my connection is on the more mythic level of shared commitment and vision for our Order. I don’t know what the answer is yet – maybe it’s no more than keeping them in mind or understanding that there is more to collective Order meditation practices than may meet my eye. I myself asking whether my momentum would hold up in a much smaller and more isolated sangha than the one I am part of here in the UK – one with just as much call for sustained effort, harmony and commitment.

How will Buddhism evolve in different Western countries? Will the desert expanses of
Australia or the volcanic plateaux of New Zealand be places that can help Buddhists
contemplate and gain insight into the everchanging and interrelated nature of existence? will the icons and symbols of American society help or hinder the spread of the Dharma in the USA? and how do Americans gain the ability to see the face of their own cultural conditioning clearly enough to be able to stay true to the teaching of the Buddha? and how do I do that with my own cultural conditioning? Which brings me full circle doesn’t it? Literally. What I am left with are questions and reflections that arose in response to sights and sounds and people in many places, sacred and not so sacred, but they are questions which apply as much to me and as much to Britain as to anywhere else. Sameness again. I don’t have the answers only the questions. I also have a conviction that I need to honour my questions and reflections and not let them sink out of the forefront of my life – which is maybe all a good pilgrim should have. Otherwise one might think that the pilgrimage could come to an end.

Brahma Vihara Practice

Over the years, I’ve led and given talks on many retreats devoted to the practice of the four Brahma Vihara meditations – the development of loving-kindness, compassion, gladness and equanimity. I’ve been gathering together some of the audio links to recordings of myself leading through the meditation. You can listen to them using the links below. You can also download them in which case the easiest way to listen is to import them into iTiunes or some similar software.

If you want to listen to a couple of my talks on the Brahma Viharas go to this page where you’ll find  “Brahma Viharas and the Key Moment” and to “The Alchemy of Happiness”. There is also an article that I wrote about them called “Four Great Catalysts of Being”.

Introduction to the four practices :

This is a short talk which I gave on the first evening of a weekend retreat at Taraloka on the theme of the Brahma Viharas. The date was 8 July 2007 a day after Londoners had been the victim of suicide bombers who blew themselves up on the Underground and on a London Bus, killing 52 people and injuring 770 people. We were about to begin two days practice of four meditations which develop loving-kindness, compassion, gladness and equanimity. The timing was poignant. The theme was very appropriate.

Listen to the talk here Brahma Vihara Introduction (22min)

Download here (6.3MB)

Practical Introduction to Metta Bhavana – the development of Loving Kindness.

This is a led workshop which I’ve often done on retreat. I get people to pair up and sit a few feet apart, like 2 or 3 feet, and facing one another, either sitting on chairs or on cushions on the floor, and at roughly the same level …. don’t want one person having to look up or look down at their partner. This is definitely best done with another human being right there in front of you!

Listen to the recording : metta workshop (30min)

Or download here (8.7MB)

Led Karuna Bhavana Practice – the development of Compassion.

The meditation proceeds in six stages. I’ve included a short introduction here just helping people – you! – relax and settle into yourself.

01 Introduction (4.5min)

02 Self (8.5min)

03 Suffering Person (6.5min)

04 Friend (5.5min)

05 Neutral Person (8min)

06 Difficult Person (7min)

07 All Beings (11min)

Download all tracks here (approx 15MB)

Led Mudita Bhavana Practice – the Development of Gladness / Sympathetic Joy

Again the meditation proceeds in six stages with the basic process being that metta transforms to gladness, or sympathetic joy, when it comes into contact with joy, good fortune, appreciation. The first and  last tracks are poems by two of my favourite poets: Kenneth White and Kathleen Raine. the second track is a reading from a tibetan Buddhist text called The Yogi’s Joy. Tracks 3-8 are the actual meditation.

01 Introduction and Poem: “The White Hare” by Kenneth White (4min)

02 Reading: The Yogi’s Joy by Milarepa (2.5min)

03 Self (6min)

04 Boon Companion (5.5min)

05 Friend (6.5min)

06 Neutral Person (8min)

07 Difficult Person (5min)

08 All Beings (8min)

09 Poem: “The Moment” by Kathleen Raine (2min)

Download all tracks here (approx 14MB)

Led Workshop and Practice of Upekkha Bhavana – Development of Equanimity

01 Upekkha Workshop (23min) Like the metta workshop earlier, this is done in pairs.

Followed by led Upekkha Bhavana practice. If you’ve done the workshop exercise, then have a cup of tea and bit of space before moving on to the meditation itself.

02 Self (8min)

03 Neutral Person (6min)

04 Friend (5.5min)

05 Difficult Person (6min)

06 AllBeings (7min)

Lownload all tracks here (approx 16MB)

And if you want to download everything, use this link (approx 70MB). You’ll get everything above plus the talk “Brahma Viharas and the Key Moment”

Greater Good in Action

Have you come across the Greater Good in Action people and their GGIA website? If not have a look at it. They’re based in Berkeley, California. And they specialise in in applying basic Buddhist techniques of mindfulness and compassion into a secular and science-supported format. That’s my description of them, anyway. I did an online course of theirs a year or so back. It was incredibly well-resourced, had lots of very good people communicating very good suggestions about cultivating mindfulness and compassion into our lives, and was backed up by very, very good science. You can do the course via 

Here are some of the led meditations and reflections from their website that I particularly appreciate.  

Three minute body scan (there’s a longer version on the GGIA website)