It Will Pass

In Buddhism we often talk about impermanence; ‘anicca’ in Pali. We sometimes joke that it’s both the good news and the bad news.

There’s a story that really encapsulates this sentiment for me. It’s an old Zen story, I believe, and it goes a little something like this:

A student went to his meditation teacher and said, “My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted, or my legs ache, or I’m constantly falling asleep. It’s just horrible!”

“It will pass,” the teacher said matter-of-factly.

A week later, the student came back to his teacher, and said, “My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so peaceful, so alive! It’s just wonderful!”

“It will pass,” the teacher replied matter-of-factly.

It’s a funny little story, but the Teacher is absolutely correct, and not just about meditation. 

Impermanence – the bad news:

Everything you love and hold dear will be gone eventually, and the only things we truly own are our deeds (kamma). 

We don’t like to think about losing the people and objects we love, but to think we will have them forever is folly and will lead to greater shock and suffering when the loss comes. 

In my experience, remembering impermanence helps loosen our grip on our attachments. This is the silver lining around the bad news – we can learn ways to accept this truth, and this can be a step towards happiness. It can also lead us to avoid taking the people and things we love for granted, and love them for them not for us – to nurture them and not stifle them. 

Impermanence – the good news:

The good news is that the same applies to the things you dislike. A lot of stress comes from aversion to things we do not like – feeling ill, going for a job interview. But those things pass. 

Equally, states of mind that come from craving are just temporary, but subtly the mind can think these things are permanent. It sounds silly, but if you watch the mind you can see it works this way sometimes – like an infant. 

For example you want a second slice of cake, but you know you shouldn’t have more cake. The craving for the cake is subtle suffering but it will pass. So if it will pass what’s the big deal? Wait it out. But the mind doesn’t operate this way without mindful intervention. It’s in turmoil about the cake and as far as it is concerned the turmoil will never end unless it gets the cake!

Remembering impermanence helps us to accept that the negative states of mind will pass, and we don’t have to act unskilfully in order feel at ease again. Do it enough times and the mind realises this too. That, in turn, helps to keep the mind from the habit of holding onto aversion and turning it into attachment. At least, that’s what I’ve found over the years!

So it’s a quaint little story at first glance, but it’s pointing out a deep truth. Accepting that things change, sometimes not in the way we want, is an important part of operating a mature state of mind and helping the ‘infant’ grow up. 

Take care!

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Buddhaghosa on Anger

“By [getting angry] you are like a man who wants to hit another and picks up a burning ember or excrement in his hand and so first burns himself or makes himself stink”

Venerable Buddhaghosa, Visuddhimagga IX-23 (written in 5th Century AD). 

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Pointing finger

There is an old Chan and Zen story that goes like this:

The Zen teacher’s dog loved his evening romp with his master. The dog would bound ahead to fetch a stick, then run back, wag his tail, and wait for the next game. On this particular evening, the teacher invited one of his brightest students to join him – a boy so intelligent that he became troubled by the contradictions in Buddhist doctrine.

“You must understand,” said the teacher, “that words are only guideposts. Never let the words or symbols get in the way of truth. Here, I’ll show you.”

With that the teacher called his happy dog.

“Fetch me the moon,” he said to his dog and pointed to the full moon.

“Where is my dog looking?” asked the teacher of the bright pupil.

“He’s looking at your finger.”

“Exactly. Don’t be like my dog. Don’t confuse the pointing finger with the thing that is being pointed at. All our Buddhist words are only guideposts. Every man fights his way through other men’s words to find his own truth.”

The story is based on teachings given by the Buddha to Mahamati, recorded in the Lankavatara Sutta – a Mahayanan text.

In the sutta he tells Mahamati to look beyond the words, beyond the “pointing finger” to the real meaning. I love this teaching because it can be applied to so many aspects of life, including the texts of other religions such as the Bible or Quran which contain so many wonderful teachings on love, generosity, and kindness. 

The Buddha sometimes spoke of the “84,000 dhamma gates” which was a metaphor for the innumerable ways to enlightenment. The teaching represents the Buddha’s tolerance for other religions at the time, and an acceptance that Buddhism doesn’t have some sort of monopoly on enlightenment. It’s a reminder that we should be tolerant in this modern age too. If a person is striving towards a religion’s goal and they are a good, moral, and upright person, then this is superb!

I think that people of all religious paths can learn a lot from each other. We are all teachers and all students!

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Image of moon courtesy of NASA. 

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The Garden You Grow

Our intentions – noticed or unnoticed, gross or subtle – contribute either to our suffering or to our happiness

Intentions are sometimes called seeds.

The garden you grow depends on the seeds you plant and water. Long after a deed is done, the trace or momentum of the intention behind it remains as a seed, conditioning our future happiness or unhappiness.

– Gil Fronsdal, Vipassana Teacher.

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Buddha’s discourse on love

He or she who wants to attain peace should practice being upright, humble, and capable of using loving speech. He or she will know how to live simply and happily, with senses calmed, without being covetous and carried away by the emotions of the majority. Let him or her not do anything that will be disapproved of by the wise.

And this is what he or she contemplates: 

“May everyone be happy and safe, and may their hearts be filled with joy.”

“May all living beings live in security and in peace—beings who are frail or strong, tall or short, big or small, visible or not visible, near or faraway, already born, or yet to be born. May all of them dwell in perfect tranquility.”

“Let no one do harm to anyone. Let no one put the life of anyone in danger. Let no one, out of anger or ill will, wish anyone any harm.”

“Just as a mother loves and protects her only child at the risk of her own life, we should cultivate boundless love to offer to all living beings in the entire cosmos. We should let our boundless love pervade the whole universe, above, below, and across. Our love will know no obstacles. Our heart will be absolutely free from hatred and enmity. Whether standing or walking, sitting or lying, as long as we are awake, we should maintain this mindfulness of love in our own heart. This is the noblest way of living.

“Free from wrong views, greed, and sensual desires, living in beauty and realizing Perfect Understanding, those who practice boundless love will certainly transcend birth and death.”

– Metta Sutta, Sutta Nipata. 

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I am a Flower, I am a Mountain

Breathing in,
I see myself as a flower.
I am the freshness 
of a dewdrop.
Breathing out,
my eyes have become flowers.
Please look at me.
I am looking with the eyes of love

Breathing in,
I am a mountain,
imperturbable,
still,
alive,
vigorous.
Breathing out,
I feel solid.
The waves of emotion can never carry me away.

– Thich Nhat Hanh, Linji School, Thiền Buddhism

The Last Request of Anathapindika

There was a layperson in the time of the Buddha whose name was Sudatta, but was called Anathapindika. Anathapindika means “feeder of the orphans or helpless”. 

Anathapindika was a very wealthy man who was unmatched in his generosity. As an example, he once bought a beautiful park from a Prince and offered it to the Buddha to make a practice center. This was the famous Jeta Park or Jeta Grove, a location where Buddha gave many of his teachings.

When Anathapindika was close to death, the Buddha sent two beloved disciples – Sariputta and Ananda- to help him to die peacefully.

When they arrived, Sariputta asked; “How is your illness? Is it getting better or worse? Is the physical pain easing at all or is it getting greater?”

Anathapindika replied,”Venerable monks, it does not seem to be getting better. The pain is not easing. It is getting greater all the time.”

Sariputta said, “Friend Anathapindika, now is the time to practice the meditation on the Three Jewels – the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha. Meditating in this way, you can destroy the obstacles of wrong deeds and the afflictions. You can harvest a fruit that is as fresh and sweet as the balm of compassion. A woman or a man practicing an upright way of life who knows how to meditate on the Three Jewels will have no chance of falling into the three lower realms but will be reborn as a human or a god.”

After that, Sariputta gave him a guided meditation on the six sense bases: Eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind.

“Breathing in, I know this body is not me. I am much more than this body.”

“Breathing in, I know that this mind is not me. I am much more than this mind.”

The purpose of the meditation is to help a person see that s/he is not limited to the six sense organs.

The meditation continues for:

  • the Six Sense Objects (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, touch, mental objects),
  • the Six Sense Consciousnesses (visual consciousness, auditory, olfactory, gustatory, tactile, and mental conciousness),
  • the Six Elements (earth, water, fire, air, space, consciousness)
  • the Five Aggregates (form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness), and
  • the Three Times (past, present, future).

Once complete, Sariputta explained: “Anathapindika, everything that arises is due to causes and conditions. Everything that is has the nature not to be born and not to die, not to arrive and not to depart. When eyes arise, they arise, but they do not come from anywhere. When eyes cease to be, they cease to be, but they do not go anywhere. Eyes are neither nonexistent before they arise, nor are they existent after they arise. Everything that is comes to be because of a combination of causes and conditions. When the causes and conditions are sufficient, eyes are present. When the causes and conditions are not sufficient, eyes are absent. The same is true of ears, nose, tongue, body, and mind; form, sound, smell, taste, touch, and thought; sight, hearing, and the consciousnesses based on the nose, tongue, body, and mind; the Six Elements, the Five Aggregates, and the Three Times.

“In the Five Aggregates, there is nothing that we can call ‘I,’ a ‘person,’ or a ‘soul.’ Ignorance is the inability to see this truth. Because there is ignorance, there are mistaken impulses. Because there are mistaken impulses, there is mistaken consciousness. Because there is mistaken consciousness, there is the distinction between the perceiver and the perceived. Because there is the distinction between the perceiver and the perceived, there is the distinction between the six organs and the six objects of sense. Because there is the distinction between the six organs and the six objects of sense, there is contact. Because there is contact, there is feeling. Because there is feeling, there is thirst. Because there is thirst, there is grasping. Because there is grasping, there is being. Because there is becoming, there are birth, death, and the subsequent pain and grief.

“Friend Anathapindika, you have meditated that everything that arises is due to causes and conditions and does not have a separate self. That is called ‘the meditation on emptiness.’ It is the highest and the most profound meditation.”

When he had practiced to this point, Anathapindika began to cry.

Ananda asked him, “Friend, why are you crying? Has your meditation not been successful? Do you have some regret?”

Anathapindika replied, “Venerable Ananda, I do not regret anything. The meditation has been most successful. I am crying because I am so deeply moved. I have been fortunate to have been able to serve the Buddha and his community for many years, yet I have never heard a teaching so wonderful and precious as the teaching transmitted by the Venerable Sariputta today.”

Ananda said, “Do you not know, friend, that the Buddha often gives this teaching to monks and nuns?”

Anathapindika replied, “Venerable Ananda, please tell the Buddha that there are also laypeople with the capacity to listen, understand, and put into practice these deep and wonderful teachings.”

Venerable Ananda agreed to go home and tell the Buddha of Anathapindika’s request. 

That was the last request made by the layman Anathapindika. After that, he passed away peacefully and happily. Even to his last request he was generous, thinking of others. 

– Based on the Anathapindikovada Sutta: Instructions to Anathapindika, from the Pali Cannon (also present in the Chinese Cannon). 

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