Archive for the ‘Buddhism’ Category

Mahayana and Meditations.

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

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?

Compassion, Slavery and Silence (sort of).

Friday, October 2nd, 2009

As per usual, I’m late to the latest fashion. Buddhism, as a Western fad, has already passed through its honeymoon period. While intriguing to the liberally minded types who find themselves bumming around India for month after month, mentioning a meditation retreat back home could just as easily be met with eyes rolled as eyes widened. But, as you may have noticed, I’m in India.

So I registered myself for this ten day residential course. We learned a lot about Buddhist philosophy in lectures from a nun, and also had three guided meditation sessions daily. Both the lectures and the meditations were in a gompa, or Tibetan Buddhist temple, sitting on the floor on cushions. A massive, golden Buddha statue loomed over us at all times. Ostensibly, absolute silence was required for the entire time, except for the daily hour-long discussion groups and question periods during lectures. Three meals a day were served, in silence, and we were all assigned certain chores around the grounds of the monastery cum school. Some did dishes, others cleaned toilets or showers, I had to sweep the dining hall and wipe down tables after the evening meal. The chores were affectionately referred to as Karma Yoga.

It was a tough experience, but an awakening one. The silence, even for me, was not nearly as difficult as I had assumed. It was nice living within myself for such a long period of time. Although, as you might imagine, I managed to silently communicate with people when the urge struck. The meditations were difficult, however, for both physical and mental reasons. I’m not the most flexible cat in the alley, so sitting for even 30 minutes in a half lotus position was trying on my leg muscles and joints. My back still aches. Additionally, my high energy demeanour extends to my brain, which was endlessly leaping from thought to though like a lemur, rather than simply focusing on my breath.

The philosophical lectures were eye-opening, especially for me. We learned about the classically Buddhist topics of non-harm, reincarnation and karma. Compassion is a biggie, specifically pertaining to the concept of equanimity. In essence, the argument is that all sentient beings (from worms and grasshoppers to dolphins and humans) are equal in wanting to be happy and avoid suffering, even if they lack an internal monologue on the topic. We should treat all beings with the same respect we’d treat our own mothers – especially considering that we’ve all lived countless previous lives in countless previous forms (you were very likely something badass like a T-Rex or wooly mammoth), so even that annoying little mosquito was actually your mother at some point in history. Cool, yeah?

But the most intense and practical topic was HOW TO CONTROL YOUR MIND. You see, we are slaves to our mind. Didn’t you know? Your mind probably forgot to send you the memo. I’ll explain briefly here, but I’ll also try to write a more fleshed out post later.

Basically, everything exists within our mind. There is no reality outside of the experience of our senses as interpreted by our minds, so we have no idea what “reality” is really like. A dog can hear a dog whistle but we can’t; it’s outside the range of our ears. What else is happening that we’re not aware of? Makes sense, right? As far as we’re concerned, the world is a figment of our imagination. It follows, then, that emotions like anger, sadness, and joy are all created and exist solely within the mind. If all of our positive/negative emotional reactions to external events and people are just in our heads, why can’t we control them? Oh, right. We’re slaves.

Consider this: if you were in control of your mind, you could just wake up every morning and decide how you were going to feel that day. “Today I’m going to be happy and generous and generally relaxed with the people I encounter, even people who give me a hard time!” So why can’t we do this? Because we aren’t in control. We get impatient and snappy and frustrated and depressed and fed up and tired and so on. Buddhism, in a very real sense, is about understanding how your mind works. Once you can understand the mind, you can begin to control it. You can allow negative emotions to pass, and you can stop positive emotions from creating addictive cravings – the junkie mind that results in lustful drooling, constant seeking of new experiences, vast chasms of boredom and disillusionment, and a propensity to lean on drugs and alcohol to alter perspectives. Yes, I am guilty of all of the above.

So, while the course was simply scratching the surface, it was a healthy introduction to observing and analyzing the behaviour of my own mind. It’s like I’m an anthropologist sitting in the jungle watching the monkeys interact, only I’m watching emotions arise as my mind reacts to the events and people I’m confronted with all day. It’s fucking fascinating. Why did I feel the need to use “fucking” there? I don’t know, okay? I’m just getting started with this shit.

At any rate, I had a wonderful time. I met some incredible people. The school was up on a mountain top removed from the town below, so the normal sounds of dogs and  truck horns that permeate India were faint or nonexistent. We were basically inside the clouds all afternoon and evening, so you could watch the mist come floating up through the trees. It would even slip silently into the dining hall and obscure everyone’s view of whatever vegetarian meal was on offer. There was definitely an energy about the place, especially on those misty evenings.

For those who are interested, the course was the 10-day residential Introduction to Buddhism at the Tushita Meditation Center in Dharamkot, which is north of Mcleod Ganj, the home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government in Exile. That’s a lot of capitalized words.

More soon on the meditation and philosophy. Love you like you were my mother (mom, I still love you more).

Buddhism?

Friday, September 18th, 2009

It’s older than Christianity, has a celebrity spokesman on par with Bono, and believes in the end of suffering for all the world’s beings, it’s Buddhism!

All kidding aside, I’ve been in Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Government in Exile, and some many tens of thousands of Tibetan refugees. Almost every single one of them, including His Holiness himself, spent 25 to 30 days on foot over the ridiculous Himalaya to get here. Hearing their stories has been incredible. The Chinese Army sits on the border with rifles, waiting to pick off any would-be refugees making the trek. They don’t bother with arresting them, they just kill them.

I’ve been to a few “teachings” here with H.H. the Dalai Lama. Six or seven hundred people – mostly Tibetans, but many foreigners – gathered on cushions at the temple in his residential complex to hear him speak about Buddhism and life. The English translator is good (you listen over FM radio) but the concepts are difficult.

So to help with my understanding, I’m beginning a ten day Buddhist meditation and philosophy course tomorrow. We live in the school, eat in the school, in fact I don’t think we’re allowed to leave the school. No electronics of any kind, no books except approved material related to Buddhism, etc. In fact, we’re only allowed to speak for an hour a day, in little discussion groups after our daily lecture on BUddhist philosophy.

I’ll looking forward to it, though also apprehensive. I’ve never really meditated before, though I’ve heard good things. At any rate, I’m going to disappear for a while, and when I get out I’ll tell you all about it.

Love you, miss you.

Life in Leh

Sunday, September 13th, 2009

After much adventuring, which I’m sure you’ve enjoyed reading about (right?), we were in Leh, the capital of the region of Ladakh. It sits at 3300 meters, or about 10,800 feet, above sea level.

Ladakh is an ancient kingdom. It was expanded by Buddhist kings, who by the 9th century had extended their realm from Kashmir in the west all the way to the Tibetan border to the north and east. The kingdom is protected from invasion by what I personally regard as the harshest terrain in the world – the highest mountain passes on the planet within a desert as dry as the Sahara. The Red Hat sect of Tibetan Buddhism came to prominence in the 14th century, and battles with Muslims from Kashmir lasted a few hundred years. Leh was established in the 16th century.

Modern Leh is a traveler mecca. Locals from Delhi and Bangalore and Mumbai eat Tibetan momos (fried or steamed dumplings) or thukpa (noodle soup) on rooftop terraced restaurants. Foreign backpackers from Israel and New Zealand and South Africa smoke charas and laze on cushions drinking lassis and eating chocolate banana pancakes. People go trekking for days to incredible snowy peaks. You can visit isolated mountain villages where locals irrigate tiny meltwater streams to sustain their agriculture. Huge Buddhist gompas (monasteries) are built like forts up the cliff faces. Some are hundreds of years old, but are still home to resident monks.

We visited one such site, Thiksey Gompa, built in the 15th century. It was an impressive series of whitewashed buildings climbing up a steep hill. With the altitude, it was a daunting task to ascend, but the magnificent Buddha statues and vistas over the Indus valley were well worth it. The stark desert contrasted with the green fields of irrigated land. The masonry was smoothed by hand, which results in ascetically pleasing finger grooves all along the white walls. The rich, saturated saffron of the monk robes soaks up the sunlight. Beautiful stuff.

The next day, we drove up the Khardung La. At 5602m (18,379 ft), it’s the highest motorable road in the world. At this point we were Ross, Steve, Leon from Ireland and Ruth from Brighton, England. Ruth took some incredible video of us racing up cliff edge roads overlooking ridiculous views. At the top, we took some well-posed photos with the signage and caught a glimpse of K2, the second tallest mountain in the world, off in the distance. Up there everyone is a tourist, so even the army trucks would stop so the soldiers could get a photo taken with the sign. You see we drove the road, but they built it. A few fifty-something cyclists pedaling to the top stopped us from celebrating our accomplishment too seriously, as our bikes had motors.

The rest of the time in Leh was very relaxed, the aforementioned cushion and charas scene was well enjoyed. I had some of the best western food I’ve tried in India. The heavily Buddhist atmosphere of the place lends well to it’s chilled out atmosphere, and it was easy to meet plenty of interesting travelers with unique stories and perspectives.

But, eventually, we were off to Kashmir.