You are what you “eat”

“We digest and assimilate all of our thoughts and our mental states, and they become part of our conditioning. There are mental states and impulses that are terribly detrimental, and in meditation we can learn to recognize them as they arise. You could be sitting quite calmly eating your breakfast, when an impulse of hatred, or ill will, or contempt arises. Just like a scuba diver watching a bubble rise, you watch it come up. Then it may pop; or you may go along for the ride and develop it. Then it becomes more like oil on paper, and starts to suffuse your mentality, in which case you have to live with it for a while.

Judgment as an expression of wisdom is not in the business of judging the self. It is in the business of recognizing what are wholesome and unwholesome mental factors. 

When ill will arises, wise judgment recognizes it. ” Aha! I’ve heard of you! You are the worst affliction I can suffer from. You completely destroy all loving – kindness. You’re the enemy of my happiness, the enemy of my relations with other people. If I go along with you, you’ll destroy all my happiness and all my friendships and I’ll make myself a thoroughly miserable person. I recognize you” … That is wisdom and some judgment too. ” 

– Excerpt from The Four Immeasurables – B Alan Wallace. 

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Starfish thrower

Here is a lovely story written by Loren Eisley, a man of many titles but I think ‘anthropologist and philosopher’ may be a passable summary. 

From time to time we all come across the attitude of “I’m just one person. I can’t make a difference so why bother trying?” Or “The task is so large that I’ll never do it, so I might as well not even bother trying.” Maybe sometimes that attitude is coming from within. 

When we practice Buddhism it’s all about small steps leading to a larger goal – a goal that sometimes seems overwhelmingly huge. But step by step we abandon unskillful qualities and nurture skilful ones. De parvis grandis acervus erit. 

This story is a reminder of how we can each make a difference. So without further ado:

Once a man was walking along a beach. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. Off in the distance he could see a person going back and forth between the surf’s edge and and the beach. Back and forth this person went. As the man approached he could see that there were hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand as the result of the natural action of the tide.

The man was stuck by the the apparent futility of the task. There were far too many starfish. Many of them were sure to perish. As he approached the person continued the task of picking up starfish one by one and throwing them into the surf.

As he came up to the person he said, “You must be crazy. There are thousands of miles of beach covered with starfish. You can’t possibly make a difference.” The person looked at the man. He then stooped down and pick up one more starfish and threw it back into the ocean. He turned back to the man and said, “It sure made a difference to that one!”

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The Ecstasy of Solitude

β€œThe ecstasy of solitude comes when you are not frightened to be alone.”

– J. Krishnamurti 

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Is using an Amazon Go store ‘Right Action’?

Many of you, by now, have heard of Amazon’s new Just Walk Out technology. When I first heard about it my first reaction was how futuristic and exciting it looked. My second reaction was to worry about what this meant for the future of jobs in the service industry. 
And this is only one of many things to come along to threaten jobs as we move towards more and more common use of robotics and AI in the future. The brilliant Steven Hawking wrote an article recently where he stated:

the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.

We should remember that in a free society we are free to choose many aspects of how we live our lives – what we spend our money on, what we participate in, etc. And we should also remember that this is an aspect of participating in a democracy.  More than simply one vote every x years, you have several ‘votes’ each day. Whether you spend money at local businesses or large chains is a vote for one or the other. Buying battery-farmed hen eggs is a vote for that industry to continue. Using a self service check out is a vote to move to a more automated service industry. 

It is the true ‘power of the people’, and it arguably shapes society more than any political vote ever could. 

I once heard a Dhamma teacher talk about ‘society-level kamma’ remarking that as well as individual action & result, there is also the fact that the combined actions of many people have consequences for society as a whole. The individuals of that society can be affected by the ‘bad kamma’ of the larger group. It can go some way to explaining why bad things happen to good people. 

So when we consider ‘Right Action’ should we be considering the wider impacts of our actions on society as a whole? Should we start being more aware of what we are ‘voting for’ with our wallets and actions each day?

(Image used is from Amazon Go Introduction video on YouTube.)

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The True Sound of Truth

A devoted meditator, after years concentrating on a particular mantra, had attained enough insight to begin teaching. The student’s humility was far from perfect, but the teachers at the monastery were not worried.

A few years of successful teaching left the meditator with no thoughts about learning from anyone; but upon hearing about a famous hermit living nearby, the opportunity was too exciting to be passed up.

The hermit lived alone on an island at the middle of a lake, so the meditator hired a man with a boat to row across to the island. The meditator was very respectful of the old hermit. As they shared some tea made with herbs the meditator asked him about his spiritual practice. The old man said he had no spiritual practice, except for a mantra which he repeated all the time to himself. The meditator was pleased: the hermit was using the same mantra he used himself — but when the hermit spoke the mantra aloud, the meditator was horrified! 

“What’s wrong?” asked the hermit. 

“I don’t know what to say. I’m afraid you’ve wasted your whole life! You are pronouncing the mantra incorrectly!”

“Oh, Dear! That is terrible. How should I say it?”

The meditator gave the correct pronunciation, and the old hermit was very grateful, asking to be left alone so he could get started right away. On the way back across the lake the meditator, now confirmed as an accomplished teacher, was pondering the sad fate of the hermit.

“It’s so fortunate that I came along. At least he will have a little time to practice correctly before he dies.” Just then, the meditator noticed that the boatman was looking quite shocked, and turned to see the hermit standing respectfully on the water, next to the boat.

“Excuse me, please. I hate to bother you, but I’ve forgotten the correct pronunciation again. Would you please repeat it for me?” 

“You obviously don’t need it,” stammered the meditator; but the old man persisted in his polite request until the meditator relented and told him again the way he thought the mantra should be pronounced. 

The old hermit was saying the mantra very carefully, slowly, over and over, as he walked across the surface of the water back to the island. 

– Old Tibetan story. 

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Taking care of others is the same as taking care of myself

“If I am good to someone, he or she will learn goodness and, in turn, will be good to others. If I am not good, he or she will harbor hatred and resentment and will, in turn, pass it on to others. If the world is not good, I have to make more effort to be good myself.

Taking care of others is the same as taking care of myself. When I respect and serve others, I am serving all Buddhas everywhere. This is called great compassion. Compassion is a happy mental state.

When we protect ourselves through mindfulness, we are protecting others as well. When we protect other living beings through compassionate actions, we are also protecting ourselves.”

– Maha Ghosananda, Theravada Tradition

Ryonen and the Hot Iron

There is a Zen story which I think people find hard to digest now. I think you will see why. It goes like this:

There was a young woman born in 1797 who would one day become the nun known as Ryonen. She was a grand daughter of the famous Japanese warrior Shingen. This status, her poety skills, and her alluring beauty made it possible for her to become one of the Empress’s Ladies of the Court at the young age of 17. She expected to lead a life of great fame. 

One day, the beloved Empress died suddenly and Ryonen’s hopeful dreams vanished. She became acutely aware of the impermanency of life in this world. It was then that she made new plans to become a nun and study Zen. 

Her relatives disagreed with her new plans and forced her into marriage instead, with a promise that she could become a nun after she had borne three children.

Before she was twenty-five she had accomplished this. Her husband and relatives kept their promise and allowed her become a nun. She shaved her head, took the name of Ryonen, which means ‘to realize clearly’, and started on her pilgrimage to find a teacher. 

After some time she came to the city of Edo and asked Tetsugya to accept her as a disciple. At one glance the master rejected her because she was too beautiful. 

Ryonen went to another master, Hakuo. Hakuo refused her for the same reason, saying that her beauty would only make trouble within the temple. 

Ryonen made a decision. 

Now at that time it was the custom for Japanese women to use hot irons to straighten their long hair.  Ryonen obtained such a hot iron and placed it against her face. In a few moments her beauty had vanished forever.

Hakuo then accepted her as a disciple. 

Ryonen wrote a short poem afterwards:

“In the service of my Empress I burned incense to perfume my exquisite clothes,

Now as a homeless mendicant I burn my face to enter a Zen temple.”

There are two reasons I can see this story sticking in people’s throats.

Firstly, that someone would disfigure themselves, destroy their beauty. We live in an age where people worship beauty, obsess over it in many cases. The thought that someone would renounce it in such a permanent manner will seem extreme to many. But we must remember that Buddhism teaches there are many things more important than physical beauty. Ryonen did what she needed to do, and she knew she was more than just her looks. 

The second reason modern people might find this story unpalatable is Hakuo’s insinuation that her beauty may cause trouble within the temple. I imagine what he meant by this was that some of the monks may be tempted by her. And this is the one that I find difficult to reconcile, especially in this age of renewed gender equality activism.

It brings to mind stories of teenage girls being asked to cover themselves up at school, or being sent home, rather than the teenage boys being taught not to oversexualise shoulders and legs. And this feels the wrong way round. 

Should the monks not have embraced the situation as an extra challenge in their practice? Should Ryonen have had to resort to covering her beauty to be allowed into the temple?

The bottom line is that, in a Temple, practice comes first and anything making it more difficult should be overcome if possible to allow everyone the best chance to achieve their spiritual goals. Ryonen seemed to appreciate this and took it upon herself to renounce her beauty in order to embrace the spiritual life fully. And that she did. 

When Ryonen was close to dying she wrote another short poem which really showed, when compared with her earlier poem, how far she had come in her practice:

“Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing scenes of autumn.

I have said enough about moonlight, and still waters reflections.

Ask no more.

Only listen to the quiet voice of pines and cedars when no wind stirs.”

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