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Sunday, March 20, 2011

Meditation: Heart of Buddhism

Meditation: Heart of Buddhism

Part I

I want to talk in depth today about the nature of Buddhism. Very often I read in newspapers and books some strange things that are presented as Buddhism. So here, I will point out the heart of the real Buddhist teaching, not as a theory but as an experience.

What is not the heart of Buddhism

Psychotherapy. I know that some people still think Buddhism is some form of psychotherapy, some way of applying wise attitudes or skilful means in order to live more at peace in this world. Indeed, in the rich storehouse of Buddhist teachings there are many things which do help people to live life with less problems.

Using wise attitudes and compassionate intentions, Buddhism teaches an effective way of dealing with the problems of the world. When these Buddhist methods actually work, they give people faith and confidence that there really is something in this Buddhist path which is valuable to them.

I often reflect on why people come here to the Buddhist Society on a Friday evening. It’s because they get something out of this. What they get out of these teachings is a more peaceful life style, a happier feeling toward themselves and more acceptance of other beings.

It is in that sense a therapy for the problems of life, and it does actually work. However that’s not what Buddhism really is, that’s only one of its side affects.


Some people come across Buddhism and they find it’s a marvelous philosophy. They can sit around the coffee table after I’ve given a talk and they can talk for hours and still not be close to enlightenment. Very often people can discuss very high-minded things; their brains can talk about and think about such sublime subjects.

Then they go out and swear at the first car that pulls out in front of them on the way home. They lose it all straight away.

Ritual. Or instead of looking at Buddhism as a philosophy, many people look at it as a religion. The rituals of Buddhism are meaningful, and they shouldn’t be discarded just because one thinks one is above ritual.

I know people are sometimes very proud, arrogant even, and think they don’t need any rituals. But the truth of the matter is that rituals do have a psychological potency.

For example, it is useful in society when two people are going to live together that they go through some sort of marriage ceremony. Because in that ceremony there is something that happens to the mind, something that happens to the heart.

There is a commitment made deep inside which echoes with the knowledge that something important has happened.

In the ceremonies and rituals of death, all of those rites of chanting, reflection and kind words actually have a meaning for the people involved. It does help them to come to accept with grace the passing of a loved one.

It helps them acknowledge the truth of what’s happened, that a final separation from that person has occurred. And in that acceptance they come to peace.

In the same way, at our monastery, in order to forgive another person and to let go of past hurt, a ceremony of forgiveness is often used. In the Catholic Church they have the ceremony of confession.

The precise details of a forgiveness ceremony don’t really matter, but what is important is that forgiveness is given, by some physical means through some ritual or ceremony.

If you just say, “Oh I’m sorry”, isn’t that a lot different from also giving a present, or a bunch of flowers? Or isn’t it different from going up to them and saying “look, what I did the other day was really unforgivable, but come out to dinner with me this evening”, or “here have a couple of tickets to the theatre”? It is much deeper and more effective when you weave a beautiful ceremony around forgiveness rather than just muttering a few words.

Even the ritual of bowing to a Buddha has a great meaning. It’s an act of humility. It’s saying I’m not enlightened and yet there is something that is beyond me which I am aspiring towards.

It’s the same humility that a person has when they go to school, or university and they acknowledge that the lecturers and the professors know more than they do. If you argue with professors when you go to university, are you going to learn anything? Humility is not subservience, which denies the worth of yourself, But humility is that which respects the different qualities in people.

Sometimes the act of bowing, if it’s done mindfully, is a ceremony, a ritual that can generate a great sense of joy. As a monk many people bow to me, and I bow to many others. There is always someone that you have to bow to no matter how senior you are. At the very least there is always the Buddha to bow down to.

I enjoy bowing. When there is a monk who is senior to me, bowing is a beautiful way of overcoming ego and judging, especially when I must bow to a really rotten monk (the good monks are easy to bow to).

This is a ritual which if done in the right way can produce so many benefits. At the very least, as I tell people at the monastery, if you do a lot of bowing it strengthens your stomach muscles and you don’t look fat! But it’s more than that.

So these Buddhist rituals are useful, but Buddhism is much more than that.

Meditation and enlightenment

When you ask what Buddhism really is, it’s a hard question to answer in a few words. You have to come back to this process of meditation because there is the crux, the fulcrum of Buddhism, the heart of Buddhism.

As everybody who has ever come across the Buddhist teachings would know, the Buddha was a man who became enlightened while meditating under a tree. A few minutes ago you were doing the same meditation for half an hour! Why where you not enlightened?

That enlightenment of the Buddha was actually what created this religion of Buddhism. It is its meaning, it is its centre. Buddhism is all about enlightenment; not just about living a healthy life, or a happy life, or learning to be wise and saying smart things to your friends around the coffee table. Again Buddhism is all about this enlightenment.

First of all you have to get some feeling or indication of what enlightenment actually is. Sometimes people come up to me and say “I’m enlightened”, and I sometimes get letters from people saying “thank you for your teachings, please know that I am enlightened now”.

And sometimes I hear other people say of teachers or gurus “Oh Yeah, they are certainly enlightened” without really knowing what that means.

The word enlightenment stands for some opening of wisdom, some understanding which stops all suffering. The person who hasn’t abandoned all suffering is never enlightened. The fact that a person still suffers means that they are yet to abandon all their attachments.

The person who is still worried about their possessions, who still cries at the death of a loved one, who is still angry, and who is still enjoying the pleasures of the senses like sex, they are not enlightened. Enlightenment is something beyond and free from all that.

Sometimes when a monk talks like this he can very easily put people off. Monks seem like “wowsers”, as they say in Australia. They don’t go to the movies, don’t have any sex, don’t have any relationships, don’t go on holidays, don’t have any pleasures.

What a bunch of wowsers! But the interesting thing which many people notice, is that some of the most peaceful and happy people you meet are the monks and nuns who come and sit here on a Friday evening and give the talks.

Monks are quite different from wowsers, and the reason is that there is another happiness which the monks know and which the Buddha has pointed out to them. Each one of you can sense that same happiness when your meditation starts to take off.

Letting go

The Buddha taught that it is attachment that causes suffering and letting go is the cause for happiness and the way to enlightenment. Letting go! So often people have asked how do you let go? What they really mean is, why do you let go?

It’s a difficult question to answer and it will never be answered in words. Instead I answer that question by saying “Now is the time to meditate, cross your legs, be in the present moment,” because this is teaching people what letting go is all about. Moreover, the final moments of the meditation are the most important. Please always remember this. In the last few minutes ask yourself:

“How do I feel?”

“What is this like and why?”

“How did this come about?”

People meditate because it’s fun, it’s enjoyable. They don’t meditate to “get something out of it,” even though when you meditate there are a lot of good benefits to be had such as health benefits or reducing stress in your life. Through meditation you become less intolerant, less angry. But there is something more to it than that - it’s just the sheer fun of it! When I was a young monk that’s what made me become a Buddhist.

It was inspiring to read the books but that was not good enough. It was when I meditated and became peaceful, very peaceful, incredibly peaceful, that something told me that this was the most profound experience of my life. I wanted to experience this again.

I wanted to investigate it more. Why? Because one deep experience of meditation is worth a thousand talks, or arguments, or books, or theories. The things you read in books are other people’s experiences, they are not your own.

They’re words and they might inspire, but the actual experience itself is truly moving. It’s truly earth shattering because it shatters that which you’ve rested on for such a long time. By inclining along this path of meditation you’re actually learning what letting go really is.

Acknowledge, forgive and let go (AFL)

For those of you who have difficulty meditating, it’s because you haven’t learned to let go yet in the meditation. Why can’t we let go of simple things like past and future? Why are we so concerned with what someone else did to us or said to us today? The more you think about it, the more stupid it is.

You know the old saying, “When someone calls you an idiot, the more times you remember it, the more times they’ve called you an idiot!” If you let it go immediately, you will never think about it again.

They only called you an idiot at most once. It’s gone! It’s finished. You’re free.

Why is it that we imprison ourselves with our past? Why can’t we even let that go? Do you really want to be free? Then acknowledge, forgive and let go, what I call in Australia the “AFL Code” - Acknowledge, forgive, and let go of whatever has hurt you, whether it’s something that somebody has done or said, or whether it’s what life has done. For instance, someone has died in your family and you argue with yourself that they shouldn’t have died.

Or you’ve lost your job and you think without stop that that shouldn’t have happened. Or simply something has gone wrong and you are obsessed that it’s not fair. You can crucify yourself on a cross of your own making for the rest of your life if you want to; but no one is forcing you to.

Instead you can acknowledge forgive and learn in the forgiving. The letting go is in the learning. The letting go gives the future a freedom to flow easily, unchained to the past. I was talking to some people recently about the Cambodian community here in Perth and, being a Buddhist community, I have had much to do with them.

Like any traditional Buddhists, when they have a problem they come and speak to the monks. This is what they have done for centuries.

The monastery and the monks are the social centre, the religious centre, and the counselling centre of the community. When men have arguments with their wives they come to the monastery.

Once when I was a young monk in Thailand, a man came into the monastery and asked me “Can I stay in the monastery for a few days?”.

I thought he wanted to meditate, so I said “Oh you want to meditate?” “Oh no”, he said “the reason I want to come to the monastery is because I’ve had an argument with my wife.”

So he stayed in the monastery. Three or four days later he came up to me and said, “I feel better now, can I go home”.

What a wise thing that was. Instead of going to the bar and getting drunk, instead of going to his mates and telling them all the rotten things that he thought his wife had done thereby reinforcing his ill will and resentment, he went to stay with a group of monks who didn’t say anything about his wife, who were just kind and peaceful.

He thought about what he had been doing in that peaceful, supportive environment, and after a while he felt much better. This is what a monastery sometimes is: it’s the counselling centre, the refuge, the place where people come to let go of their problems.

Isn’t that better than lingering on the past, especially when we are angry at something that has happened?

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