Ageing Drops On Us Like A Curse

The Buddhist texts include a great number of wonderful teachings from the Buddha. But they also contain other gems.

There is a collection called the Khuddaka Nikaya which contains a number of suttas, fragments of teachings, and poems. In the eighth book of the Khuddaka Nikaya, the Theragatha, there are a number of poems from early Buddhist monks. These poems are wonderful, and I recommend you take a look at them. Here is one of my favourites:

As if sent by a curse,
it drops on us —
aging.
The body seems other,
though it’s still the same one.
I’m still here
have never been absent from it,
but I remember myself
as if somebody else’s.

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Content On Vulture’s Peak

Here is a poem from around 250BC, attributed to one of the Buddhist Elders of the Third Council.

He grew up as a Prince, younger brother of one of India’s greatest Emperors; King Ashoka. However, he was inspired one day, by seeing an admirable monk, and decided to abandon his royal duties to become a monk himself. He was given the name Tissa Kumara, which translates to ‘The Elder Who Lives Alone’.

I love the beautiful imagery in this poem, and I think you can really sense the joy he takes in peaceful solitude out there in the forest.

I hope you enjoy it too:

If nobody is to be found,
In front of one or behind one,
That is exceedingly pleasant
For the lonely forest dweller.

So be it! I will go alone
To the forest, praised by Buddha;
For the self-resolute bhikkhu,
Dwelling alone, it is pleasant.

Pleasing, and joyful to sages,
Haunted by rutting elephants,
Seeking my goal alone, quickly
Will I go to the wild forest.

In the well-flowered Cool Garden,
In a soothing mountain grotto,
Having anointed all my limbs,
I will walk back and forth, alone.

When indeed shall I come to dwell
All alone, without companion
In the great forest, so pleasing!
My task accomplished, without taint?

While the gentle breezes flutter,
Soothing and laden with fragrance,
I’ll burst asunder ignorance
While seated on the mountain top.

In a grove covered with flowers,
Or maybe on a cool hillside,
Gladdened by the joy of release,
I’ll be content on Vulture’s Peak

The translation was done by Andrew Olendzki.

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Loving Kindness

“You should train yourselves thus:

We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by loving-kindness,
make it our vehicle,
make it our basis,
stabilize it,
exercise ourselves in it,
and fully perfect it.

Thus should you train yourselves.”

– Buddha, from the Samyutta Nikaya

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From Striving Comes Wisdom

From striving comes wisdom;
from not, wisdom’s end.

Knowing these two courses
— development and decline —

conduct yourself
so that wisdom will grow.

– Verse from the Dhammapada.

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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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