Archive 1

Q. Is spiritual practice all to do with getting rid of the so called ‘self’ that keeps us separate from all that is?

It’s about transforming the habits that give rise to a sense of self. If you try to get rid of the self it will only come back. And besides, it may well be the self doing the ‘getting rid of’ anyway! Transforming the imbalanced emotional drive, which creates the environment for the sense of self to arise and attach in the first place, is the way to settle the paradox of self –that creator of all the worlds. This is the way of Dharma practice.

Q. In Dharma Mind Worldly Mind you talk about the importance of being in the hara. I must say that I experience consciousness more in my head and in my heart, on a good day maybe down to the solar plexus. I don’t think I get as far as the point below the navel. If I try it in meditation I can get a non-specific sense of widening and opening there, but not a particular sense of consciousness. Do you think consciousness will just drop there with practice? What kind of emotions is the hara the seat of?

A. We experience consciousness inthe head, and it’s here for the most part we think we are, and therefore where we live. But when we move our consciousness into the body, it crosses an apparent boundary and becomes awareness, and it is here that we alight on the threshold of the Dharma. Awareness is linked with and indeed caught by consciousness, but if we stay with our awareness (which is especially possible in formal meditation), our imprisonment in the narrow confines of dualistic consciousness begins to dissolve. From this point we begin to enter a vast expanse that has no limits, is bound by no ‘person’. When we enter this expanse we can use the insight tools offered by Buddhism, that if nurtured correctly will transform and break through the limits of the samsaric world (which consciousness supports) into the infinity of our original nature. From what you say it seems a good idea to cultivate still more deeply your experience of that expanse (samadhi) over a period of time, and then to make good use of that precious emptiness, with guidance, and begin to familiarize yourself with an insight practice. As to your second query, all emotions originate in the hara.

Q. What advice would you give on practicing with doubt? How should one set about cultivating confidence in oneself & faith in the Dharma?

A. Doubt can only successfully be settled by practice. Take on a complete practice and learn to work with mental and emotional doubt, that is, don’t be pulled around by those negative thoughts, but learn to stay with and contain them. Learn to carry around with you the emotional impact that doubt creates in the depths of your body, as you cultivate practice. Conviction will come from the fruit of practice; confidence in yourself and the practice will naturally follow. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking all you need do is read just one more book (or two) to rid yourself of doubt. Faith will help disperse doubt, but always remember true faith comes from experiencing the practice and its fruit. So rather than having faith dependant on others, do the practice!

Q. I wonder if you have anything to say on the subject of renunciation. I may be wrong, but it doesn’t appear to get any direct mention in your book (besides practice being all about letting go!) What is meant by renunciation in Dharma practice and do we Westerners face any particular challenges. Didn’t the Buddha say that without renunciation progress along the path is unlikely? What do you think he meant by that?

A. I think you have already discovered the meaning of renunciation when you noted letting go. Giving up worldly possessions, shaving the head, putting on robes and living a simple and austere life is the first stage of renunciation that a newly-ordained monk commits himself to, but that is only the beginning. With the exterior renunciation in place he then starts to work on the inner renunciation of his inner ‘possessions’. For example, his emotional attachment to likes and dislikes, his opinions of right and wrong, what should be and what shouldn’t be, etc. All those attachments that give us so much of our powerful self-identity. That grasping that sets the wheel of karma and becoming in motion. This inner surrender of our emotional attachments and habits is the real renunciation, the real ‘going forth’, and is the transforming process that is the essence for maturing the Path. Without this there is no ‘progress’ – as some like to say. Whether you are ordained or not, the ‘rules’ for renunciation are the same. There are no particularly unique challenges that I can see for Westerners, other than learning to work with a very heavy self-view that we all seem to have.

Q. How important is chastity for practice and going for refuge in general?

A. I don’t understand how you can make a distinction between practice and going for refuge. A major characteristic of the practice of the Buddha-Dharma is restraint, so that we may cultivate the ability to walk the middle way. When we truly alight and stay on the middle way – which is the perfection of the fourth noble truth – samsara will fall away to reveal our true nature. Restraint applies to all our attachments to views and opinions, desire and aversion, etc. Restraint means to keep in control, not deny or suppress. If we suppress, we may not only get ourselves into emotional trouble but also deny ourselves the opportunity to get to know ourselves and work and make friends with what we are. Of all our attachments it has to be said for most of us the desire for sexual fulfilment is the most powerful and difficult to control. For this reason it could be justified to break the rule of restraint and contain to the extent of suppression, in the full knowledge that this act is only a temporary expedient. Yes, it can help, because of the massive emotional involvement that this aspect of our being seems to demand, and if you are successful with using this temporary expedient it probably is something useful to bring to the practice when seen to be needed. But it is not necessary by any means to go down this route in our pursuit of insight. To contain and find the balance that is the middle way applies to the sex drive in exactly the same way as to any other part of our makeup. Try celibacy if you so wish, but if you find it too difficult to maintain, better to give it up than maybe do yourself some psychological damage, consider yourself a failure, and even give up the practice as well. To practice the middle way is the way to nirvana, and if your sexual drive is a part of your mandala of practice, then so be it.

Q. In your book ‘A Record of Awakening’ you make the following observation: ” It is now impossible under any circumstances to enter into mental conflict with myself. ” p55.Question: Would you agree that if we come to a place of honesty in ourselves we discover a characteristic that seems to manifest endlessly; which is that when challenged, we invariably justify our actions, our feelings, our opinions (especially our opinions) ‘I am always in the right’ seems to sum up this unspoken attitude of mind . To compound the problem, this cast of mind is obscured by a ‘noble’ response (when the heat is off) that I am not always in the right which I offer condescendingly so to say. But come again the challenge and my reaction to it I revert, as night follows day, to the former defensive position. It is as much as to say ‘There is nothing wrong with me!” Can you say further how you reconcile these seeming opposites?

A. Here is a classic example of the ceaseless mental dialogue and conflict that we seem to find ourselves in. Our embattled mind split down the middle, engaging in this ceaseless dualistic dialogue and conflict. And despite our awareness of it and the obvious experience of dukkha that it brings there seems precious little we can do about it. It stems from an ingrained mental habit born of the non-understanding of reality; in other words, we are trapped in a dualistic world that is created by our own ignorance. We create a world of opposites not just on the outside but on the inside as well. This dualistic world, at play with itself, is where the phenomenon of a self arises. With the inclusion of the self it then becomes a game of self-defence, self-promotion and justification – the self is always reaffirming itself, as its basic characteristic is one of insecurity and fear. How it reaffirms itself is of no consequence to the self, as feeling alive is all that matters to it. So, for example, hypocrisy, and the obvious conflict that comes from that, is a good platform for its survival. How we deal with this very basis of suffering is what complete Dharma practice is about. The reason we see the problem but we can’t do anything about it is because it is a powerful ingrained habit cultivated possibly over many lifetimes. So, rather than try to cure our problems by endless mental investigation, we undertake this practice to focus on the life-force and emotion that gives these experiences life and momentum in the first place. This focus brings the practice almost exclusively into the body, as it is here that the life-force and emotions are. If we practice correctly, that habitual emotional volition (grounded in the sense of ‘me’) transforms, returning to its original nature. Our mental habits and attachments die as a consequence, and we return to the peace and spaciousness of an unfettered mind.

Q. You seem to speak in terms of there being something divine in all of us and life and that opening up to this divine is an important part of practice. This seems to be a different orientation to just seeing into the emptiness of self, coming to see oneself as no more than an ever changing stream of conditions etc. I wonder if as ex-Christians practicing the dharma we are in danger of dumping this openness to the divine along with our dumping of God, and how damaging this is to our understanding of practice and going for refuge.

A. Seeing oneself as a stream of conditions is the smashing of the blinding barrier of self-view. With this done the ultimate human birthright of returning to inconceivable Buddha nature awaits. But for the return to our original nature to reach fulfilment, we need first to have nurtured a practice that goes beyond just discovering the illusion of self. Whilst practising over the years we need to nurture an opening up to our true nature by acknowledging that there is ‘something’ beyond the conscious sense of ‘me’. Learning to open up and to hand that sense of self, with all its views and opinions and self-interest, into that mysterious unknown. Bowing, for example, is a wonderful and profound opportunity to practice going for refuge by coming together, familiarizing and communing with that warmth and mystery beyond ‘me’, and learning to trust and be carried by that ‘which isn’t me’. If you are not prepared to acknowledge ‘that which you will never know’, your understanding and release from suffering will not be complete. There can be just the understanding of emptiness of self, but realizing true emptiness goes way beyond that small ‘victory’. True emptiness expresses itself through the warmth of the human heart, which when truly liberated is all that is. It is infinite compassion and love, it is wisdom, beyond birth and death, and eternal. If we do not learn to open up to this mystery and nurture this truth in our everyday commitment to practice, then we will surely miss out on the inconceivable liberation.

Q. Is there a danger with reflecting on the ti-lakkhanas that one may not be emotionally positive enough to face what it is that these are telling us and meet with negativity? Is there a danger that one may take on this practice too early in one’s path do you think, or is it never too soon? Should one be doing this practice without the support of a sangha or access to a teacher that themselves have made the journey?

A. The great advantage of using the lakkhanas in practice is that they have infinite levels of contemplation. To take on the basic truth of existence – that everything is impermanent, unsatisfactory and not-self – can be seen as laying down an important part of the framework of practice anyway. So just to become familiar with them through reading and study, then superficially noticing the truth of these signs in our experience of life is a good and useful beginning. The result of a deeper insight contemplation is that it breaks up the tightly-held view of a permanent self, as it reveals that life as experienced is really no more than a collection of conditions that are in perpetual change. This undermines the firmly-held belief of a permanent ‘I’, which most of us are convinced we are. If a deeper insight practice using the lakkhanas is used before we are ready for such revelations, it could quite easily have a disastrous effect on our mental well being. In order to ensure we are ready for such profound insights we first need to put in place a proper framework of practice that is honed and fashioned over a good period of time. To make sure we do this properly, we should if at all possible take on a teacher that themselves have made the journey that will instruct and guide whilst we build this framework. Crucially a sangha should also be in place as this will act as a support and barometer as our developing understanding of the Dharma and practice deepens.

Q. What do you do when feeling all needy and wanting someone to hug and hold you? Sometimes it seems that us dharma farers must be stoic and mindful, staying with whatever is going on, not running from it into the arms of a comforting friend. Where on this noble path, the place for hugs and holding, the loving and accepting of sorrow, sadness, loneliness? Isn’t the self and pity for itself at the root of all sorrow and not to be encouraged? Should strong emotions from whence the self arises be not indulged in at any cost? What do you do when blue?

A. Sangha and a teacher will help you bear with your emotions to a large extent, but when they are too powerful in the way you describe then, for example, find a friend and a shoulder to cry on. Let go, but try to observe the precepts as best you can. We can only do our best; there isn’t anyone who can contain all the time in all situations. What is important here is to make friends with what you perceive to be your limitations and not get into negative thoughts about not being capable of doing this practice, etc. Don’t beat yourself up; be kind and considerate to yourself and your present condition. Remember, we are all trapped by karma so entrenched that no one can let go by an act of will, and the process of change can be very emotional and fearful. Be gentle, but be firm and committed, so when the situation arises again you do your best to bear with just that little bit more than the last time. And no, self-indulgence is never a good thing.

Q. For the last couple of years or so I have regularly been experiencing the sort of physical jolts and strong rushes of energy when reaching a certain ‘trigger’ level of stillness, that you say in your latest book you learned of with some alarm from various meditators that you have spoken to. The general approach that you have taken in both your books impresses and makes a great deal of sense to me, and so I have taken to heart your advice here and have tried to dwell more in my hara, both during the mindfulness of breathing and metta bhavana practices and also during the rest of my time. This has brought greater stillness and calm, less physical turbulence and just feels right. However, I am finding some difficulty in each practice, but particularly the mindfulness of breathing, in the latter stages when I move towards, or attempt to move towards, refining the object of attention. I find it difficult quite to know how to move towards one-pointed awareness of my breath at the tip of my nose whilst simultaneously maintaining and deepening my hara awareness. The metta practice does not present such an intractable problem, although again I have some difficulty being fully in my hara at the same time as cultivating ever deeper and stronger metta. Can you enlighten me as to what I am missing here, please?

A. A major feature of cultivating practice is one of familiarity. In this particular aspect of practice we need to cultivate the ability to return to our body over and over again. The most important time to practice coming back is during our daily life. Catching ourselves mentally wandering off and coming back into the form over and over again, and being wholehearted in what we happen to be engaged in. This takes great commitment and endurance but in time we start to become familiar with our new state of being. We know this is the true state of awareness to be in and so we just come back more and more until it becomes a habit. When this becomes something really familiar, we will take that familiarity to the cushion so that we will want more and more to abide in the body during formal meditation. To think you can just do it by an act of will when it suits you won’t work. Practice coming back ‘home’ throughout the day, then you will find that whatever your meditation practice may be, your mind and body will be experienced in being mind/body, less and less dualistic. When they really merge in your meditation you will be in samadhi, and it is from this state that insight meditation can begin. So that when contemplating your insight subject it will almost certainly be true understanding that arises, because when truly united with the body that deceitful sense of ‘me’, that pollutes and possess understanding, cannot be.

Q. Sometimes one hears of dharma practice spoken about in terms of growth and development. Is this a valid way of approaching practice? Is there a danger of a western pre-occupation with the self and ego leading to a wrong take on practice?

A. When we practice correctly the eightfold path embraced by going for refuge ‘growth and development’, as you call it, will unfold naturally as the fruit of correct practice. If we try to shape it, and make it how we think growth and development should be (or rather, how we would like it to be), then you can be sure this will become delicious fodder for the self as it proceeds to reshape itself into becoming a wonderfully wise ‘enlightened being’.

Q. Is it important to get the self into some sort of shape before true practice can be undertaken?

A. It is true we need to have a fairly good relationship with ourselves in order to cultivate the path. By learning (maybe with a particular meditation developed for this purpose such as one of the Brahma Viharas) to make friends with ourselves (and others) at the beginning of practice does help the path to deepen. But remember, as the whole of the practice of the Dharma is nothing more than a ongoing deepening process of making friends with ourselves, we will be engaging in true practice anyway, even in the infancy of day one.

Q. If I understand you correctly, (loosely speaking) you define right livelihood as being that which is supportive of one’s practice, a livelihood that doesn’ts consume all of one’s time and energy leaving one with little space for being with oneself and practising. Should right livelihood also have an altruistic dimension, so that one may ‘serve the dharma’, as it were?

A. I would say that right livelihood is a livelihood that is sympathetic to observing the precepts and developing ethics. As far as having time and space in your life is concerned, this is more to do with your ability to take control of your life rather than being its victim and does not necessarily relate to right livelihood. If you practise the Dharma correctly all your actions serve the Dharma.

Q. I have some questions regarding practice. Perhaps I could ask through your website, so hope that is ok – one is about vegetarianism, which is an issue close to my heart!

A. One of the great contentious issues in Buddhism! Before I give you my personal thoughts, let me first give you a couple of what I would consider as known facts. Devadatta (the cousin of the Buddha) told the Buddha there should be five more rules added to the fledgling code of conduct for bhikkhus. One of these five was that monks should no longer be permitted to eat meat or fish. The Buddha turned down this demand, stating monks should eat whatever is offered by the lay community. He said the only time they should refuse meat or fish from the laity was when it was killed for them; neither should they desire to kill for food themselves. The refusal of the Buddha to concede these demands led not only to the first schism in the sangha, but also led Devadatta, in his frustration at not being successful in starting his own sangha, to try to take the life of the Buddha. In the time since the Buddha, vegetarianism has never been a practice in the East except in the odd situation, usually inspired by an abbot or monastic teacher who wanted his place meat free. Even today, if you choose to go to any Buddhist country you will find meat and fish eating is a part of the daily diet of even the most ethical, devout and sincere Buddhists. It is important to understand that the Buddha stated quite clearly that there are only two instances (cited above)when you would be karmically involved with killing. In avoiding those two instances you are not violating the natural law of things, thereby confirming that the path of practice is not blocked. This dispels the astonishing myth held to by many (Western) Buddhists that you have to be vegetarian in order to practise the Dharma. This leads to another very important consideration – but one for another time – that the very basis of Dharma practice is about accepting things the way they are, rather than trying to shape the world to how you think it should be. This is one of the subtlest insights of the Buddha and his teachings, and sets Dharma practice apart from most other spiritual traditions. Having dealt with what would be considered factual points, this does leave much more to say. Personally, I have great respect for those who decide to be vegetarian and pursue what is seen by many as a deep ethical and social issue. This is such a strong issue for many that they would consider it inconceivable to try to practise and not be vegetarian. If there is such a strong feeling, then vegetarianism should be pursued, but remember to be careful to avoid the common trap of feeling spiritually superior to meat-eaters and parade yourself with your bright shiny moral badge. When this becomes the case, it can be just another possession reaffirming and reinforcing the sense of self. These days, with the tendency in the West to vegetarianism, you may well find teachers that have expectations of their students not to eat meat. If it is one of the conditions for joining a sangha, then you have to accept this and do your best to respect that expectation (along with maybe several others that you disagree with), considering it as part of your practice. But on the other hand, if you find a teacher that refuses to teach you the Dharma and help you with your struggle in samsara because you are partial to sausage rolls, then you may want to ponder the depth of his compassion.

Q. I was reading the forum and noticed in answer to a question about right livelihood you make the statement: If you practise the Dharma correctly all actions serve the Dharma. I found this statement really powerful – could you maybe say more about this and how to orientate oneself in this direction? How does one learn to live in this way?

A. We should not be deceived by appearances. Because someone is engaging themselves in, for example, Buddhist activities of various sorts, doesn’t by definition mean they are practising the Dharma. Their motives to selflessly help others could be well down their list of priorities. Their primary motive could be promoting their own self-image through being respected, being well thought of. What they are doing could well be useful and beneficial to others, but in practice terms it will have a superficial impact on their transforming process, which is what Dharma practice is about. Indeed, they could be just pumping up their ego still further. In strict Dharma terms what you do on the outside (providing you observe the precepts) is of little consequence to the cultivation of the path. Of course some activities are more conducive to practice than others, but broadly speaking it doesn’t matter what you are doing. To put a correct practice in place is the first priority. That correctness is centred on understanding the eightfold path, a path laid out to enable you to come back with mindfulness and awareness to whatever you are doing, and to stay centred. When you are centred there is no sense of a self, and it is here that selflessness has its centre. Whatever action you now do is non-karmic producing and deeply profound. Here you are not only honouring and serving the Dharma (indeed, you are the Dharma) for your own benefit but also honouring and serving the Dharma for others around you who are bound to be touched by your obvious selflessness, and inspiring them to practice. You learn to orientate to and live the Dharma by learning and putting into practice the eightfold path supported by going for refuge. This is the framework of the path (irrespective of the tradition or method you follow). You get your guidance from you teacher and from moderate study, all within the support of a sangha. It is a long and steady process that you surrender your life to in the spirit and determination of a full-time commitment.

Q. I have read statements attributed to some Buddhist teachers suggesting that various contemporary and historical examples of human suffering are the result of the Karma of those who endure that suffering. Does this mean that people who endure great suffering were deeply unskilful in previous lives and that those who lead otherwise pleasant lives were skilful people, and if so how is Karma different from the ideas that underpin Caste structures?

A. It is believed as the general rule of the law of karma that we are bearing the fruit of our actions, whether the result of actions that bring fruit instantly, or actions at any time in the past, or actions in past lives. But always bear in mind that karmic law is not the simplistic two-dimensional principle that we often think it is. Karmic law is more often than not the expression of multi-dimensional forces that mysteriously interpenetrate and is way beyond the mind’s ability to comprehend. Caste systems are man made, whilst the law of karma is an innate law of nature.

Q.I attempt to sincerely practice the Dharma but have never been able to accept the idea of re-birth either in principle or as a matter of faith. I accept that the nature of reality is not limited by my capacity to comprehend, but I cannot make sense of the idea that we are reborn or experience re-becoming. Do you think this is likely to undermine my efforts to practice and my spiritual progress? Should I just ‘sit with it and see’?

A. I don’t think you have to make a problem out of it and feel that you are not practising properly. Practice is about dealing with where your feet are at this very moment, and therefore you could say that is all that is necessary. From my own experience of getting to know myself over the years of practice, it became obvious that, with all goes that to make me up, with my strong habits and powerful attachments, it would be quite absurd to imagine that they just materialised out of nothing at birth. You could argue these days that genetics may be an answer, but there is a lot in me that cannot be applied to that simple idea. And besides, what creates the genetic map in the first place? In my own personal practice the idea of being born over and over again in the lottery of rebirth and suffering has always been a prime motivation to practice because of the consequences of my actions taught by Buddhism if I chose to ignore them. To believe that life is a one off seems to me to negate the whole motivation for Dharma cultivation. Yes, we could be motivated to do good for others and humanise our own conduct, but if it all comes to nothing in the end why should we put the extra effort into changing ourselves that Dharma practice demands? Definitely ‘sit with it ‘, and if you are still enough you may well get to see the principle of becoming being created and acted out inside your own mind and body, and the continuous accumulation of karma which demands becoming sooner or later. In the time that you have to wait for this understanding to show, take the leap and make room within yourself for the indispensable act of faith. Faith in the Buddha, the teachings, and all the great sages that have arisen throughout the ages, who have continually reaffirmed this law. Allow this to support you in your practice.

Q. How important is meditation in the spiritual life? The ground of my practice is to be found in ethics, and, given the emphasis on meditation, this sometimes has the effect of making me feel like a second-class Buddhist.

A. People who have this idea that practice is all about sitting merely display their lack of understanding of the complete process that needs to be put in place for the changes that practice brings about. Yes, you can say that of all the parts that go toward making a complete practice, sitting meditation would be the most important part, but sitting will not reach its full potential without the support of the rest of the eightfold path. So it is wrong to think that if you can’t sit you can’t practice. There are many people dedicated to Dharma practice who have difficulty with sitting meditation. So rather than get disheartened learn to focus on the rest of the path. Ethical practice is the obvious one to focus on, for it is the gateway into the Dharma. Come to realise that while you are refining this aspect of the path you are cultivating the mind in the same way as sitting practice. Restraining and containing actions, whether they are your thoughts, words or deeds, is possible only by self-awareness. Putting new thoughts, words and deeds into action is only possible with that same self-awareness. To do this you need application born of concentration and the understanding that your unskilfulness needs to change. Is this not working with the eightfold path of sila, samadhi, and prajna? What meditation practice will bring to this is a deepening of what you are already doing, but fundamentally there is no difference. If you wish to come to meditation sometime in the future, then adding a devotional practice to an ethical one will help bring you more speedily to that roundedness. Devotional practice helps to soften the heart and introduces us to the side of ourselves that we need to learn to get in contact with in order for the deeper Dharma to arise. Devotional practice usually starts by projecting outwards to Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, but you should soon realise your relationship with this form of external practice is very much conditioned by the inner relationship you have with yourself, and therefore should make you reflect more and more internally. Change that takes place in practice does not come from the head but rather from a part of us that we are for the most part cut off from, that deep emotional seat buried within our body. It is this that we need to become familiar with, and make friends with all that is contained there. There is little ‘logic’ here. It takes faith and trust, becoming familiar with the reality of Dharma practice – which is the willingness to surrender our profound attachment to the self that imprisons us in our head and creates the restlessness that prevents quiet meditation being possible.Devotional practice allows us to start that process of becoming whole. By combining this with your developing ethical stability and skilful means born of self-awareness, you will be transforming the emotional and mental restlessness that prevents you from sitting now. You will be laying the foundation for a fruitful sitting practice in the near future.

Q. Would you agree with the view that buying meat and fish are the same as eating something that has been killed for you – meat and fish are made available for consumers. If you buy it and eat it then all that you have done is avoided the messy business of killing by paying an anonymous person to do the work for you. So, doesn’t buying meat and fish amount in practice to the killing?

A. The Buddha wasn’t a vegetarian, nor were his vast sangha, including countless arhants who, like the Buddha, had finished their training and gone beyond the creation of karma, reaching the pureness of thought, word and action. The numerous traditions that sprang up in the East over more than two thousand years since the Buddha have never been vegetarian, and I don’t recall any of the prominent saints and sages of Buddhism saying that to follow the Dharma you must be vegetarian. To suggest, as many do, in the West that the first precept is violated by eating meat is to suggest that all those who have practised traditional Buddhism, including the Buddha and the arhants, have been in violation of the first precept. I can best suggest you read the recent post concerning vegetarianism for my general view on the subject. If you wish to create a ‘moral’ view for vegetarianism (or anything else), then it should be based first on the cultural background, and always be a personal view for you alone. Do remember, there will be many sincere spiritual people, and many fine human beings that don’t have a spiritual path, who will disagree with whatever new ideas you come up with. That’s why if you really seek guidance as to what is right and wrong it is best to stay with ‘rules’ that are part of the natural laws that govern nature, which are always conditioned by the laws of karma. If we decide to set up new ideas and propagate them in the name of Buddhist morality, we will be setting up a duality, which will always create problems. This will inevitably bring conflict with those who disagree, thus violating the basic spirit of Buddhism, which is to accept things the way they are. Remember, never has there been a conflict in the name of Buddhism in 2500 years; do you think that fine record is in place through mere luck?

Q. Since faith is necessarily defined as confidence in something that has not yet manifested, does it have a place in insight at all? Since insight is based upon staying with the reality of the present moment and not getting caught up in ideas of future possibilities (‘attainments’, ‘goals’ etc), surely faith has no place, since it represents the gap between what is and what I think might happen (or is possible). My experience is that a sense of ‘rightness’ in what I am doing comes from experience and insight, and not contemplating what might be possible and how to get there with my intellect.

A. Faith isn’t needed for the unfolding of a specific insightful knowledge, as these moments are at the end of the journey, so to speak. Faith is needed in order to arrive at those moments. To experience that level of insight we have first to work through our blinding thoughts that have their roots and life in our powerful emotional attachments and experiences anchored in the sense of self. The transformation of those emotional forces is very arduous and at times frightening, and tests the resolve of even the most dedicated of practitioners. By definition we are always going into the unknown on our spiritual journey, so we can never know what awaits us. Faith then becomes the indispensable tool that supports us through those difficult yet essential times that we have to endure and ‘stay with’. Don’t imagine that faith is just simply a mental acceptance of something not known. It is that, but more crucially, it inspires and encourages us to bear with, thus developing the inner strength that is essential on our spiritual journey. If there isn’t faith somewhere in the background of our practice as a support, then the journey will become, sooner or later, impossible to continue.

Q. I am interested on your views about needing ‘support’ on the path. You strongly emphasis the need for a teacher and sangha to really uncover reality. However, my experience of vipassana meditation is that it strengthens my self-confidence and self-reliance, and I feel both less trusting and less needing of the views of others. I find that I begin to instinctively know what to do, and actually communicating with others about deep meditation experience is rather counter- productive. I can understand the value of a very experienced teacher, but let’s face it, most Western Sanghas are littered with wrong views and mis-interpretations of what the Buddha was pointing to. Are these ‘support’ mechanisms really so important?

A. Among the many virtues of a teacher and a sangha is they act as a counter-balance to check and reaffirm that you are practising correctly and are really on the path. There is, I can assure you, only one thing worse than being lost and confused in practice, and that is being convinced you are on the path when in fact you are well off it. The self and the accompanying delusions are so clever and so subtle that there isn’t a person alive, short of being fully enlightened, that can truly know if the path is being correctly pursued. Even those who have returned to their original nature and clearly see reality can still unwittingly wander off, all this being due to the clever subtleties of the remnants of self. Always be on your guard when you say to yourself ‘this is it!’. The Buddha (teacher), and sangha are two thirds of the triple gem and are not an option in practice if you wish to tread the Buddha’s path wholly and correctly. They are there to see you walk this path, a journey that requires such subtle perception (the word ‘subtle’ actually doesn’t really do justice to the refinement of practice that is necessary). If you are convinced that you don’t need the complete support of practice, you can join the large band of practitioners here in the West who are like minded, and I look forward one day to listening to one of their stories oftheir breaking of the root of becoming and going beyond rebirth. Self-reliance and confidence is very important, but be very careful with thinking that your convictions need no airing or challenge. The mind is very clever. Not for nothing have we all been wandering lost in samsara since time began.

Q. In your books your advice is to stick to whatever practice is taken on in a consistent way . My question is how do I know if I have a practice worth sticking to and am not heading up a blind alley as far as the spiritual life is concerned? Also your own breakthrough seemed to come after you had changed your practice from Zen to Theravadin. How do you reconcile this?

 A. This is one of the most difficult issues that we have to face in our quest for the practice that is right for our temperament, and made doubly difficult for us in the West because these days we are overwhelmed by choice. Traditionally, in the East, whatever country you were born in decided that issue for you. You just got on with whatever the indigenous tradition was. We unfortunately don’t have the luxury of not having to make a decision. My advice is to explore the various ways and then decide which tradition attracts you most via your inner feelings rather than via your head. Proceed, and see how it goes. After some time you may well doubt your decision to follow that tradition and find yourself at a crossroad of carrying on or trying something else. Not easy to know what to do, but I can offer a guideline that may help. If you are having difficulties, stay with what you have committed yourself to, stay with it and see if in a few weeks or months things get better. The problem we all have is that whatever way we decide to go there will inevitably be bottlenecks, and then we doubt the practice. Never make a decision quickly, and never when in an emotional state. Stay with it and see if the problem clears. Wait a good period of time and mull the situation over in a dispassionate way. If you still don’t feel right with what you are doing then explore alternatives. Restlessness is our biggest mara and our ability to stay with difficulties our biggest challenge. A need for change may well be necessary, and by sitting with it very often that change will take place almost of itself anyway. Ultimately things can work out OK anyway. Change is mysterious, something can present itself quite unexpectedly if you create space for that mystery to take place, then you can slip effortlessly into the new way. As for my experience, I think it illustrates the mystery of change, although it is admittedly an unusual example. I was happy with my Zen practice and had no thoughts of change. I went to Sri Lanka for a holiday and met a monk who inspired me to become a monk. My initial reaction was to recoil from that idea, but inside I knew that this was the next thing for me to do. There was no restlessness or emotional volition involved, rather an expectancy that it was the right thing for me to be doing. I considered it to be a part of a mystery that I was familiar with. This mystery is difficult to describe, but is something we all can learn to open up to and trust – with time. I have expressed my thoughts and feelings in my first book concerning this event in my life, and could best refer you to that.  

Q. Living in a city environment where there seems to be a constant media and consumer stimulus towards dissatisfaction and craving , how can this be integrated into daily practice without becoming overwhelmed and restless?

A. Dealing with this experience is very much at the heart of practice in a non-monastic environment. If you are someone who considers your practice to be essentially a sitting meditation one, then you will soon come to see how difficult practice becomes within the life most of us lay people lead. It is because of this that it is essential we learn to work with these difficult and strong forces. I cannot add much more on this specific subject than I have highlighted in my second book, and therefore would refer you to that for my perspective on this crucial issue. Learning to live and practice in a city environment is essentially about commitment, guidance, sangha, and a willingness to open up to and bear with (contain) the powerful inner emotional forces that through habit get caught up in the incessant seductive stimuli of city life. I assure you it can be done.

Q. In DM WM you mention the Maha Satipatthana Sutra in the chapter on awareness. What advice would you give to someone taking on the practices of the Four Foundations of Mindfulness as set forth by the Buddha in this sutra? A. All insight practices of Buddhist traditions have their roots in this sutra, as it lays out the path of fundamental insight that breaks the root of the delusion of self. Some insight practices may go beyond this and focus on “what is”, and the Buddha nature. But “what isn’t” has first to be worked through, else the blinding notion of self will always conceal complete insight. These types of practice deal simultaneously with both of these fundamental characteristics of insight, but the removal of self-delusion step by step will always be leading. To ask about the practices in this sutra is to therefore inquire about insight practice in general and the basic framework that needs to be understood before embarking upon this form of practice. As I find myself often writing, the best I can suggest is to refer you to the second book that I have written to find the tenets, as I understand them, necessary for the insightful spiritual journey practised in Buddhism.

If at all possible find a teacher who has walked at least a good way down the path of insight, so that they may help you in your time of need. If you can’t find one, then you will have to compromise with books and advice where you can find it, but be very careful and is something I wouldn’t advise Next we have the essential support of sangha. It is one of the three jewels and not an optional extra. If you think you can do this practice in the way it has to be done in order to enter the promise of permanent change on your own please forget it. You will wander off course, increase your delusion and may well get yourself into all sorts of emotional difficulties along the way. Insight practice has the power to encourage the emergence of the dark forces that are in all of us. Not knowing what to do with these forces can lead to serious problems. Study, and put into practice the eightfold path in totality. Nurturing the eightfold path (in a direct orthodox way or a “hidden” way, e.g., Zen) will be the active component that reveals the reality of self whatever method of insightful investigation you may use – including those of the Maha Satipatthana Sutra.

Q. Sometimes when I manage to still the mind whilst meditating, I may notice or remark a thought arising in my awareness and then in this same awareness, perhaps a sound arises and is remarked upon or noticed (say a dog barking). These both simply appear as phenomena arising in my awareness, yet upon reflection I associate, or “own” the thought, yet not the sound of the dog. I treat thoughts as being mine and can get all hot and bothered about them. But the phenomena that I ‘experience’ as sound, I can simply let go and not treat as belonging to me, as being outside of me. However, more and more I am coming to regard both so-called thoughts and so-called sounds as being one and the same. Justexperience registering on the radar of awareness. Is this an experience of non-self, I wonder, or am I fundamentally mistaken about what is meant by self and non-self ?

A. It is non-self if mental objects and experiences are allowed to rise and pass away, and self if you grasp at them and make them ‘mine’. If you see outside experiences and inner experiences as just things on the ‘radar of awareness’, then the sooner you bring that understanding into your life the sooner you will go beyond suffering, but can you do that? If not, then it is to there you need to shift your “radar of awareness” throw yourself into the practice, so that you can fulfil that hint of insight. Thinking about it more won’t do you much good at all.

Q. How do you practise with illness?

A. If you have a short-term illness such as a cold or “flu it is probably rather futile to try and meditate if your condition doesn’t allow you to breathe or sit properly. Practice throughout the rest of the day may also not be possible because you feel under the weather. What is the use of struggling just for the sake of it, or do you think that you should practise in all circumstances, whatever they may be? I think a temporary incapacity such as this could unwittingly be presenting you with the opportunity to see just how attached you are to your practice and likely thoughts of making “progress”. I”ve met people who like to say (with some pride?) that they haven’t missed a day’s sitting for months or even years. Is it this that drives them? – not to break that record even when the body (and common sense) is telling them they should be resting and taking it easy when they feel ill. A short illness could well be a golden opportunity to display non-attachment to “your” practice! Never lose sight of the fact that the practice of Dharma, which is a practice of learning to become unattached, can ironically become the firmest of attachments and possessions. A more long-term illness or even physical disability will be quite different, as you will have to learn to work with circumstances. The human condition is quite a remarkable one as we are the most adaptable of all animals on Earth. We can live in the hottest and coldest climates, in any type of environment, and adapt to whatever type of food is available. And so it is with practice. To accept and work with wholehearted commitment with physical limitations, and crucially the mental relationship with those limitations, will, I’m sure, bring abundant Dharmic fruit.

Q. After meditating exclusively in one position for a number of years (half lotus with hands in dhyana mudra), I have begun to experiment with small variations of that posture (either with hands loosely clasped or with hands on the knees). I find that this definitely seems to affect energy flow in the body -dhyana mudra is more tightly focused and disciplined with an emphasis on balance; hands loosely clasped is very relaxing, good when over-stressed but leads quickly to sleepiness; and with hands on the knees the concentration tends not to be as tight, but the heart is wide open and my ability to contain strong emotion is at its peak. I still tend to sit mostly with dhyana mudra, but use the other two hand positions judiciously. This seems to have the desired effect, but I do wonder if tinkering with posture could be just a symptom of restlessness in the practice, and if it might be better to have one position and stick to it. What do you think?

A. Your experiences of different postures is something that I personally haven’t had, so there is little I can say about what is best. It would seem to make sense to suggest that you use the posture that you feel most comfortable with, however, you do have a good point about swapping and changing. It could be said that the totality of Dharma practice is nothing more that the taming of restlessness. If we take this to heart it should make us wary of wanting to change aspects of practice -in this case the posture used in sitting meditation. It is interesting that the hands are often held quite differently from tradition to tradition and sometimes from teacher to teacher, with each telling us why they use their particular style and why it is the best. Very confusing. It would make sense to follow the method of your tradition, but if you are someone who isn’t committed to a specific tradition you will have to make a choice. Your awareness that changing around frequently could be just restlessness is well founded, and I’m delighted that you are concerned about this. Any sort of change can often bring a “honeymoon” period because of the novelty of what you are doing. When this period goes into change there is the temptation to change again, and so it goes on. My understanding of Dharma is to stick with things and for the most part let change take place of itself, whatever the aspect of practice may be. Letting yourself use different hand positions runs the danger of opening the door to other things, the ‘thin end of the wedge’ syndrome. All I can say is that it is not normal to change hand position regularly, so I would say stay with the convention . Pick one and resist the urge to change.

Q. How can we go for refuge to the sangha, when the sangha is (presumably) full of unenlightened people like me? How can we go to refuge to something which is not (yet) a manifestation of ultimate truth? Is it not rather that we are going for refuge to the ariya sangha, meaning the sangha of the Buddha’s disciples who have reached the path in full? Or is it that we go for refuge to each other’s Buddha nature, its potential, rather than its reality?

A. To go for refuge to the ariya sangha is an important and necessary aspect of taking refuge, for it is the ariya sangha that helps teach, guide and inspire us. We study their enlightened understanding of the Dharma, and through that knowledge and the inspiration that we experience we put our understanding into practice, hopefully not falling into the trap of practising the way we think we should (or would like to) practise. So, we put our understanding into practice, but where? Of course, we have the opportunity in our daily sitting and throughout our daily activities. But we can also extend our engagement with practice to include the sangha that we belong to. We can look upon our sangha as the vehicle for our own enlightenment and use it as a support as we open up to ourselves more and more. To be with like-minded people is such an important feature of our practice. Of course, involvement with sangha is a two-way process. We need also to contribute to sangha in order for others to benefit. See your sangha as your work area within practice – to give and to take. You would like to have the best possible support, even if those who support you are not enlightened. You would like to draw on a consistent commitment from people, people who give you strength, support and encouragement. If you appreciate these qualities that your friends aspire to, then you too need to aspire to these same qualities so that you may help them – thus recognising the qualities of Buddha nature. If we only take refuge in the Ariya sangha, we run the risk of living in our heads. If we only take refuge in the unenlightened sangha, we run the risk of losing direction. Combining the two should give us a well-rounded and skilful framework for the third refuge.

Q. From time to time one experiences inspiration and joy in the practice. How can one best keep that from becoming a hindrance later on, when the inspiration fades, but the memory of it (and attachment to the memory) does not? How can we come down gracefully?

A. I’m not quite sure from your question if you are looking at an insightful experience or simple joy that can arise from concentrated practice and a happy heart. Maybe we can review them both, as mara in his lust for attachment isn’t at all bothered what your experiences may be. As time goes by we are quite likely to have experiences that are insightful, joyous and inspiring. These experiences can be very powerful and evoke strong emotions, but once they have passed we must then be very careful how we move forward. Try to see such experiences as fruit of right practice and confirmation that your faith in the Dharma is well founded, and use each experience as an inspiration and support to let go of even more cherished attachments, moving ever deeper into practice. I have spoken to several people over these past three or four years who have had strong insightful moments, and many then get so emotionally attached that they then become obsessed by the experience. There are no special rules to use at these times. If your experience is genuine, then you have already learnt that Dharma practice is grounded in letting go of emotional attachments to experiences. Experiencing insightful, joyful and inspiring situations is no different from experiencing painful ones, even though on the face of it we may think so. We normally work on attachments to what we would consider unwholesome and unskilful, and may think attachment to insight, etc. is okay because these are not defilements.But attachment is attachment is attachment, and therefore should be seen as the same. Practise in the usual way, and be very aware that attachment to the fruits of practice are especially powerful, and if you are not careful will stop the practice in its tracks as well as inflate the ego.

Q. You have a very ‘Buddhist’ approach to awakening. This can be seen in the structure of your retreats, your use of Pali terminology and your association with the FWBO. Do you feel that it is necessary to be so respectful of tradition and conditioning? I have a particular problem with the use of historical language – why do so many teachers stick to ancient languages in expressing the truth of the present moment? Not only do I not know what people are talking about sometimes, but it creates a kind of ‘in the mists of time” feel to the teaching. The English language is a hugely flexible and expressive tongue, so why is Pali and Sanskrit still used? It all feels a bit romantic to me, and I think it puts others off too. Surely the ‘Dharma’ (there we go again!) is nothing if not alive, fresh and accessible to all in the present context.

A. You have made a very interesting and very important observation that many in the West struggle with. Why indeed use ancient and obscure language to express the happenings of the present moment? Let me give you three important examples why I think we need to use these terms, for which there are often no English equivalents. Dukkha has many meanings. You could use it in its extreme interpretation of suffering. But it could also be said to mean unsatisfactoriness. This has a much broader base in that it incorporates the whole of conscious experience – even happy experience.Because happy experiences are transitory, they too will soon go into change, and not being aware of this we try to hold on to such experiences, leading always to disappointment. This is a good teaching, and something to ponder regularly to help nurture our training in letting go. Dukkha can also mean a kind of continual “vibration” on the metaphysical level of our being. This creates perpetual movement, and reveals dukkha as the permanent companion of impermanence. Here are three different interpretations of the same word, all having important ramifications for our understanding and practice of the Dharma. Dharma is another example. There is dharma with a small dto denote “things” that fill the mind and universe. Then there is Dharma with a large D, which is the second refuge for those who practise the teachings along with the other two refuges of Buddha and Sangha, the framework of practice. Dharma interpreted here has a very wide meaning. It is the teachings learned, which then help to orientate us to the real Dharma, which is the living truth of what is. When this living truth is discovered in our own mind and body, we realise that it is the Dharma that supports and carries us, and that it has been waiting to be re-discovered since time began. Dharma is the mysterious movement of the living Buddha, and something we should learn to open up to and become intimate with. From the very beginning we have never been separate from the Dharma. Indeed, we are the Dharma. Find me an English word that could convey all of these meanings! We need to know the subtlety of this word in order to mature our direct understanding of it. The last example I would like to give is shunyata. For me shunyata is the most important of all the “ancient” words to get some sort of a grasp of. It conveys the ultimate fruit of Buddhist practice and endeavour, yet it is the most misunderstood word in Buddhism. When shunyata was first encountered by Western scholars it was given the quite dreadful translation of “nothingness” and “void”. We have at least now progressed to “emptiness”. However, whilst not nearly as inaccurate as the first attempts to translate shunyata, because of its negative connotations “emptiness” is still a misleading word. Shunyata refers to levels of wisdom following the progressive dissolution of the notion of self, with the ultimate level synonymous with the body of reality (Dharmakaya) and interpenetration that characterises Buddha nature. Shunyata expresses the deep mystery and wonder of life that we, trapped in the duality created by the delusion of self, cannot even begin to imagine. Shunyata, properly understood in terms of its deepest meaning, is not at all negative, as implied by words such as voidness, nothingness and emptiness, but actually expresses reality being devoid of any self-nature. But so many (especially those who wish to put Buddhism down) understand this important Buddhist word (through translation) as being negative and therefore state that Buddhism is life denying – how wrong can they be! By insisting on translating every Pali and Sanskrit word we are in grave danger of losing the subtlety of Dharma teaching and experience. The concepts of reality as expressed in Buddhism have no real parallel in our culture and therefore our language will always miss the target. Rather than charging headlong into making Buddhism “Western”, we need to take a much more measured approach. Rather than translating these strange words, learn to understand and feel their subtle meaning until they become familiar, thus allowing them to become a part of the landscape of Western Buddhism. The same could be said of much of Buddhist ceremony, rejected by many these past few years as being unnecessary for us Westerners. Bowing has been rejected by many, as has the display of Buddha rupas, clearly showing, in my view, the lack of wisdom of those individuals. In insisting on stripping down centuries of practice to its bare bones in this way we are running the risk of ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’. Rather, let”s take our time and let inevitable change take place naturally. Let us not be too keen on severing our Dharmic ties to the East. Changes to external form should be guided by the wise, who have at least broken the fetter of attachment to “rights and rituals” and therefore have the clarity to know the difference in a ceremonial situation between cultural expressions and expressions of the Dharma, and be capable of retaining that which needs to be retained. Only by proceeding in this enlightened way will we protect the Dharma from irreversible damage and decline.

Q. Question for you. I have been meditating with my eyes open since December and I have found it very powerful. I have heard of the eyes as “gates”, and keeping them open is a good way to open up and experience a breadth of awareness. Do you have any comments on sitting with eyes open versus shut?

A. In my view having the eyes half open is a superior way to meditate. We associate having our eyes closed with sleep, therefore when we close them to meditate that familiar association could well lead us to drop off. Meditating with the eyes half-open creates a new familiarity, one that we only associate with meditation. This association should be part of the commitment to being whole-hearted when we go to our cushion. To have the eyes half-open requires awareness and a willingness to do so. This has the added advantage that we can check whilst meditating whether our head is straight, through being aware of the line of light(whether it is straight or at an angle). Because we are committed to having our eyes half-open, our awareness will be present in our eyes, thus making them a “gate”. Ideally our eyes should roll back naturally after we have settled and begun to concentrate. So we then look at the back or our eyelids (with the eyelids still half-open). With this achieved, as we begin to cultivate our particular meditation subject, we can stay present with more stability,

Q. In a recent posting to the DharmaMind forum, you mention that Dharma is a mysterious movement of the living Buddha, and something we should learn to open up to and become intimate with. Elsewhere, I’ve heard teachers talk of opening to ‘Other Power’. In your book ROA, you speak of being guided and supported by the Buddha. I wonder how we can develop a sensitivity to the movement of the living Buddha in our own lives, how do we cultivate and deepen this important relationship, and how can we identify it at work? What is its nature?

A. We develop our relationship with our inner nature (other power, perhaps) through commitment to the eightfold path. This is embraced by going for refuge -in other words, by practising the Dharma. To answer your question more precisely, we need to focus more on the refuges, in this case, the Buddha refuge. The refuges represent more the spirit of, and commitment to practice. We need to be willing to open up to our inner nature (Buddha). Learning to nurture a relationship, through commitment and familiarity that will allow us to let go of our precious attachments. Attachments in which we invest so much of the sense of “me”. As we live in our heads, blinded by the sense of self, we are for the most part estranged from our original nature. Separate and isolated from the whole, we live lonely and frightened. We need to learn to trust that which is beyond “me” and become sensitive to the truth that we are part of an inseparable whole that is forever in a state of flux. We need to turn our attention to that which lives “behind” the self, learning through practice to hand that sense of self back to its original nature. That sense of self has habits driven by the emotions. We are learning to contain them through practice, but we have the greatest difficulty doing this. By turning inwards and opening up to ourselves through containment we can hand that habit to the Buddha. Cultivate the practice of bowing and with your awareness focused inward ask him to help you with your burden. Admit you cannot contain this emotion on your own. You so much want to give this sense of self away and be free from its eternal bondage, but you cannot do it on your own. Bow down to the Buddha and ask him with the utmost humility to help you. Disarm yourself of your defences and conceit and ask him to support you in your time of need. Does this sound a bit God-like and Christian? The Buddha is not “out there”, nor has he created you, nor is he a separate entity that comes to your aid, but your true nature that you live out of second by second and have done so since time began. He is eternity, everything, and beyond comprehension. But because his nature is one of wisdom and compassionate warmth, he “brings himself down” to your level so that you can comprehend and communicate with him. Learn to trust and over and over again, through containment and bowing, hand that precious “me” back. Back into the inconceivable warmth and love that yearns to help you. So that one day you will return and re-unite with the wonder of the Buddha, and your true home.

Q. Sometimes during meditation, when I’m concentrated, a ‘dot’ appears within my awareness that is lighter than its surroundings. I don’t want to call it light, yet its colour is ‘whiteish’. I wonder whether there is any significance to this, and whether, when it arises, it should become the focus for my concentration. Or should I remain attending to whatever it was that I was initially focused upon (say the rise and fall of the abdomen)?

A. Whatever you have been taught to concentrate on during your meditation should be the sole focus of your attention. All manner of things can come into the mind at these times of concentration and if we give these experiences our attention we will soon lose any sense of one-pointed meditation. If experiences such as these persist and are bothersome, then consult your teacher.

Q. What would you say is the aspect of Dharma practice that Westerners seem most disposed to getting wrong?

A. To think that mixing traditions and practices is a bona fide way to practise the Dharma. For the first time in the history of Buddhism we have (in the West) people putting together a “Universal Practice”. A bit from this tradition and a bit from that tradition, etc., until we have a practice that we have assembled and decided is the best for me. We do this not realising that this desire to create our own practice is nearly always born of restlessness because we are unable, through lack of commitment, to stick with one way. This “pick and mix” approach is highly suspect if you are trying to commit to a serious practice. It is true that all branches of Buddhism are growing from the same trunk, but it should be understood that the practice of Dharma by its nature is a very narrow, subtle, and transforming path. Any part of a practice that doesn’t harmonise with other parts will keep you off that narrow path, and because of the inherent subtlety involved it is likely that the disharmony created will not be recognised. Whilst sticking to the totality of a traditional way, rather than walling yourself in with your commitment, it could be considered helpful to show interest in other traditions alive in your land. Doing so may prevent conceit and intolerance. By all means show interest in the other traditions and learn from the richness of wisdom that is on offer. However, keep to one practice of one tradition, thereby ensuring you are on a tried and tested path of transformation, rather than being on one that you have, in your “wisdom”, cobbled together.  

Q . When I am contemplating the three aspects of reality (anicca, anatta, dukkha), I find I start off thinking and reflecting on these facts as if I was a doctor looking over my body, mind and sensations, constantly reminding myself of their true nature. However, I know the Satipattana Sutta states you should observe ‘body in body’, ‘feelings in feelings’, etc. I do occasionally dissolve the separation of my observer and my observed, but find it difficult to maintain this awareness. Should I be patient and allow the awareness to naturally integrate with body and mind (which it does eventually), or should I be making more effort to contemplate less and experience more. Secondly, I’ve heard different meditator’s tend to reflect on anicca, anatta or dukkha. My experience is that very quickly they appear as different aspects of the same truth, inseparable. What is your experience of this?

A. After starting meditation, concentration will naturally take time to strengthen. Therefore, being more dualistic with our contemplation when concentration is at its weakest (though present to a good degree) will be our starting point. As concentration strengthens, we will then be able to fulfil the sutra’s teaching of being at one with our chosen subject. It is also useful to remember that a skilful means is to arouse your insightful understanding from previous meditations and bring it to bear in the present contemplation. This should aid the development of concentration markedly. From my experience maintaining awareness is hardly ever a passive engagement. Rather it is one that continually needs ‘pumping up’ through either returning briefly to your samatha practice and/or deliberately surrendering to the insightful knowledge that is present. The three signs of being are just that, signs or characteristics of any dharma and not the Dharma itself. Contemplate whichever one attracts you, as they all lead to the undermining of the notion of a separate solid self. They also support each other to the extent that they are mutually inclusive, and when looked at closely are seen as one.

Q. I wonder if you could say some more on attachment and how it holds us back from progress along the path. In particular, can you say something about it in relation to desire, or thirsting after things? I’ve understood that it is desire for things which is an obstacle, and that one’s dharma practice ideally leads to greater contentment and doing without. However, if I understand recent postings by you, it is more the emotional attachment that we place on objects that hinders, and that desire itselfmay or may not be something that we can’t do a lot about (you don’t say this, I’m speculating). I can see how overcoming desire and overcoming attachment can both lead to contentment, stillness, doing without, etc. … However, it seems to me that perhaps the nature or focus of practice is different in both cases. For example, if I’m attempting to overcome my tendency to desire things, I may well decide to remain out of a relationship and be stoic about this. However, if it’s attachment that is the ‘devil’, then being in a relationship is perfectly natural and Dharmically acceptable.However, it’s the attachment to my partner and wanting the relationship to be a certain way that now becomes the practice ground…

A. Becoming unattached IS the path. Outside of attachment there is no world and therefore no suffering. In a metaphysical sense we are attached moment by moment, even when we are at our most peaceful. But we can hardly do anything about that. What we can address are our obvious attachments that manifest through the emotions. We focus on containing and working with them. This then becomes the transforming process that characterises the Mahayana. You could say there are two perspectives on containment practice: restraint before the event takes place, and restraint when the event is in play. The first is to restrain or even deny something we are strongly attached to, (or maybe see it as something that may hinder the practice). The second is to live life and, if you so wish, knowingly (if not willingly) take on something that you are attached to, then see it as your training ground. To use your example. if you feel you can live without a relationship, because you know it will certainly bring dukkha in one form or another and make your practice much more difficult to do, then restrain yourself from entering into it. If you feel you don’t want to/can’t live without a relationship, then that is okay as well. You are taking on a form of practice that for you will be difficult to fulfil, but do it anyway. It could be your vehicle to awakening. Or maybe it will be your vehicle to even greater dukkha. Either way, emotional restraint IS the practice.  

Q. Lately I seem to keep meeting with ‘healers’ and having conversations about healing with them. So much so that I’m wondering whether there might be some meaning to all of this for what I should be doing with my life. At least in the short term? Do you think that the dharma interacts with each of us in our daily lives, and through chance meetings, conversations, etc.? Gives us clues as to what we should be doing in order to have a more effective practice and to make progress? I guess a more broad way of putting this question is: If one reaches toward the dharma, does it respond in kind and interact with one’s life? If so, how does one go about identifying what is dharma interaction and what is just ‘pie in the sky’?

A. The restless mind and wishful thinking is usually the architect of ‘Dharmic omens’. Keep your feet on the ground and deal with what is in front of you. When genuine change is about to come to you, it usually becomes clear after you give the possible new situation space (and time) within yourself. Then you will see the next thing to do, clearly. NEVER be compulsive. One reaches towards the Dharma, as you put it, by practising the eightfold path, embraced by going for refuge. If you do this, then you will have your feet firmly on the ground and be less inclined to be looking for signs and omens to rescue you from your restlessness and dukkha.

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