Expanding on Buddhism could be dangerous, as I know I’d be tempted to write eleven or twenty one posts on the topic without break. Eleven and twenty one are two auspicious numbers, by the way, so mantra recitals or clockwise circulations of a stupa (a conical structure representative of the Buddha’s mind) are often done three, seven, eleven, twenty-one or 108 times. I should mention that my lessons have been exclusively in Mahayana Buddhism, specifically Tibetan, though the same tradition is prominent in Northern India, Nepal, and Bhutan. There are many forms. Theravadan Buddhism for example is the familiar Thai tradition which is also dominant in Burma, Laos, and Sri Lanka.

It’s difficult to call it a religion, because it lacks classic western features such as a creator god. Even when Buddhists prostrate themselves before an image or statue of a Buddha they are bowing to the qualities of an enlightened being: universal compassion, unending generosity, omniscience, etc. Buddhas, or “awakened ones,” come in countless forms. THE BUDDHA, as he is known, is the familiar Siddhartha – the pampered Nepali prince who fled for a life of asceticism and eventually attained enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree in 600 B.C. There were countless enlightened beings before him, it’s just that he was the first to use his awakening from slavery to teach others the path to freedom.

Ahh, freedom. You must understand that we are all in samsara, the prison of worldly pleasures and sufferings. As I mentioned in the previous post, Buddhism contends that the world is actually made up solely of emptiness, and that the things we experience are simply objects that exist only in relativity to us and our senses. I cannot describe the taste of a mango, nor can I know that when you eat one you are tasting what I taste. We all see green, and can name it green, but how do we know that what you see is the same as what I see? I actually covered topics very similar to this in some of my philosophy courses back at university. In terms of understanding reality, all we have to work with are “sense data” which may or may not be indicative of the outside world. We need to use them to survive, sure, but never assume that you have any clue what’s actually going on around you.

Samsara, then, is this mysterious world of sensual experiences. Even when we think we feel pleasure – through food or sex or entertainment, whatever – all we are doing is creating cravings for future pleasures. We’re never satisfied. We get bored with our sexual partners or need to keep buying more video games. Even our favourite foods would make us sick if we had to eat them all the time. In pleasure there is suffering. We are also prone to damaging emotional reactions to our daily lives, getting angry or violent or depressed. This is samsara, and it took an enlightened being to fully appreciate it and tell it to the world.

It’s like in The Matrix: we are all in a prison in our minds, and only those already free from the prison know the route out of it. The Path, as the route is known, has many stages of realization. One can come to truly understand and appreciate equanimity, the view that all beings (right down to the mosquito) is equally deserving of compassion and love. But eventually one reaches nirvana, or liberation. In some traditions, this is the end of the road – you are free from samsara and no longer trapped in the endless cycles of uncontrolled reincarnations. You could, if you wanted, never reincarnate again and your consciousness (the soul-like continuum that carries on from life to life) would dwell in blissful peace forever. But, of course, you’ve developed boundless compassion and wisdom and so will choose the form and place of your rebirth in order to help others achieve nirvana.

In many traditions of Buddhism, the buck stops at liberation. In Mahayana, however, there is another stage of full realization above nirvana. This full enlightenment adds to freedom a state of omniscience, or all-knowingness. A full fledged Buddha is aware of all things in the universe, even what is happening in other universes (Buddhism is tight with quantum, believing in multiple dimensions and such. There are several books on the eerie parallels between a 2600 year old spiritual practice and the absolutely newest ideas in metaphysics). A Buddha could deliver a teaching to people from all over the world and they would hear it in their own language. A Buddha knows your mind, so even before you ask your question he (sorry, no female Buddhas yet) has his answer ready. Still, not a creator god. Even though a  Buddha is ostensibly aware of how this universe began, there is not really much covering the topic. When one is trying to escape from prison, one isn’t too interested in the name of the architect who designed the place.

Indeed, living in the moment is key. We are obsessed with the past and future. Have you ever stopped and considered how much time you spend running over memories like watching old films? I sometimes find myself thinking about embarrassing moments from ten years ago, seeing again the reactions of people and feeling anew the guilt or remorse. Why do we do this to ourselves? Or we’re always in the future: I’m nervous about this or stressed about that, even though it’s days or weeks or months away. If your mind dwells on the past and future even half as much as mine does, you know what I’m talking about.

And so we meditate. Meditation isn’t necessarily the mystical mantra-reciting, past-life-viewing Eastern tradition it can seem. Usually it’s just about mindfulness, about staying in the moment and learning to calm and control our hyperactive minds. As Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo (the English nun who spent 12 years meditating in a cave in the Himalaya) puts it: “We spend so much time cleaning and arranging our homes, but we really live in our minds. When was the last time you went into your mind and threw out all the junk in there?” Think about all the experiences – every conversation, every TV show, every book, every stubbed toe – that are piling up in your mind. Have you ever tried to just close your eyes and focus your attention on your breath entering and exiting your nostrils? Try it right now. Close your eyes and just focus on the breath. How long does it take for some random thought to pop up and lead your mind down the garden path? Two seconds? One?

Meditation helps control this “monkey mind” from hopping from thought to thought. It allows us to calm our emotional reactions and relax when the world is stressing us. In fact many of you have been meditating without even knowing it. I’ve now realized that the reason I enjoy working out in the gym so much is not necessarily what it does for my body but what it does for my mind. Timing my breathing with the contractions and relaxations of my muscles. Counting the repetitions slowly, with each lift of the weights. My mind is focused entirely on the moment, on what I am doing right now. After the gym I feel mentally relaxed yet energized, prepared for my day. I always assumed that by burning energy I was calming myself, but now I understand that really I was meditating; I was shutting off the endless internal monologue, living in the here and now.

Perhaps for you it’s running, counting breaths. Or maybe gardening, pruning and weeding require concentration. Perhaps it’s driving. While sitting in rush hour traffic isn’t relaxing, driving a winding road demands focus on the moment, calming the mind. It could be anything, provided it forces you to stay mindful of what you are doing. Cleaning, painting, knitting, whatever.

At any rate, that’s all for now. Perhaps more later on more types of meditation, and I’ll try to go deeper into some of the philosophical issues. For now, though, know that some of our meditation sessions left me in tears. One involved drawing the suffering out of someone close to us and using it to shatter our selfish tendencies. It was powerful, moving stuff. Your eyes rolling yet?