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!

If you enjoyed this post you might find others you like in the Bite-Size Dhamma archive!

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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.

If you enjoyed this post you might find others you like in the Bite-Size Dhamma archive!

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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 Greedy Crane

There was once a crane living near a pond, and when the dry season set in he said to the fishes with a bland voice:

“Care you not for your future welfare? There is at present very little water and still less food in this pond. What will you do should the whole pond become dry, in this drought?”

“Yes, indeed”, said the fishes, “what should we do?”

The crane replied: “I know a fine, large lake, which never becomes dry. Would you not like me to carry you there in my beak?”

When the fishes began to distrust the honesty of the crane, he proposed to have one of them sent over to the lake to see it; and a big carp at last decided to take the risk for the sake of the others, and the crane carried him to a beautiful lake and brought him back in safety. Then all doubt vanished, and the fishes gained confidence in the crane.

The crane took them one by one out of the pond and devoured them on a big varana tree.

There was also a lobster in the pond, and when the crane wanted to eat him too. The crane said: “Hey Lobster, I’ve taken all the fishes away and put them in a fine, large lake. Come along. I shall take you too!”

“But how will you hold me to carry me along?”, asked the lobster.

“I’ll take hold of you with my beak,” said the crane.

“No, you’ll let me fall if you carry me like that. I will not go with you.” replied the lobster.

“You need not fear,” tried the crane, “I shall hold you quite tight all the way.”

Then said the lobster to himself: If this crane once gets hold of a fish, he will certainly never let him go in a lake! Now if he should really put me into the lake it would be splendid; but if he does not, then I will cut his throat and kill him!

So he said to the crane: “Look here, friend, you will not be able to hold me tight enough; but we lobsters have a famous grip. If you will let me catch hold of you round the neck with my claws, I shall be glad to go with you.”

The crane did not see that the lobster was trying to outwit him, and agreed. So the lobster caught hold of his neck with his claws as securely as with a pair of blacksmiths pincers, and called out:

“Ready, ready, go!”

The crane took him and showed him the lake, and then turned off toward the varana tree.

“Wait friend!” cried the lobster, “The lake lies that way, but you’re taking me this other way.”

The crane answered: “Think so? Am I your friend? You want me to understand, I suppose, that I am your slave, who has to lift you up and carry you about with him where ever you please! Now cast your eye upon that heap of fish bones at the root of yonder varana tree. Just as I have eaten those fish, every one of them, just so will I devour you also!”

“Ah! those fishes got eaten through their own stupidity,” answered the lobster, “but I am not going to let you kill me. On the contrary, it is you that I am going to destroy. For you, in your folly, have not seen that I have outwitted you. If we die, we both die together; for I will cut off this head of yours and cast it to the ground!”

So saying, he gave the cranes neck a pinch with his claws as with a vise.

Then gasping, and with tears trickling from his eyes, and trembling with the fear of death, the crane besought the lobster, saying:

“O, my Lord! Indeed I did not intend to eat you. Grant me my life!”

“Very well! Fly down and put me into the lake,” replied the lobster.

The crane turned round and stepped down into the lake, to place the lobster on the mud at its edge. Then the lobster cut the cranes neck through as clean as one would cut a lotus stalk with a hunting knife, and then entered the water!

– Unknown origin.

Solving problems with violence

Solving problems with violence is like removing a dandelion from your garden by kicking it. You may have solved one problem but you have sown the seeds for more problems in the future.

– Anonymous. 

Bag of Nails

Once upon a time there was a little boy with a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he should hammer a nail in the fence. The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. But gradually, the number of daily nails dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally the first day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He proudly told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. The days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone. The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence.

“You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out, it won’t matter how many times you say ‘I’m sorry’, the wound is still there.”

– Unknown origin.

Angulimala

There was once the son of a Brahmin (the highest “priestly” caste in India) in the court of King Pasenadi of Kosala, whose name was Ahimsaka. He was sent to Taxila for his studies. Ahimsaka was intelligent and obedient to this teacher; therefore he was liked by both the teacher and his wife. This made the other pupils jealous of him. So they went to the teacher and falsely accused Ahimsaka of having an immoral relationship with the teacher’s wife. At first, he did not believe them, but after hearing it a number of times, he thought it was true and vowed to have revenge on Ahimsaka. He thought that to kill him would reflect badly on him. His rage prompted him to suggest the unthinkable to the young and innocent Ahimsaka. He told his pupil to kill a thousand human beings and to bring the right thumb of each as payment for teaching him. Of course the youngster would not even think of such a thing, so he was banished from the teacher’s house and returned to his parents.

When his father learned why Ahimsaka had been expelled, he became furious with his son, and would hear no reason. On that very day, with the rain pouring down, he ordered Ahimsaka to leave the house. Ahimsaka went to his mother and asked her advice, but she could not go against the will of her husband. Next Ahimsaka went to the house of his betrothed (in accord with the ancient custom in India calling for betrothal of children long before their actual marriage), but when the family learned why Ahimsaka had been turned out of school, they drove him off. The shame, anger, fear, and despair of Ahimsaka drove him out of his mind. His suffering mind could only recollect the teacher’s order: to collect 1,000 human thumbs. And so he started killing, and as he killed, the thumbs he collected were hung on a tree, but as they were destroyed by crows and vultures, he later wore a garland of the fingers to keep track of the number.

Because of this he came to be known as Angulimala (finger garland) and became the terror of the countryside. The king himself heard about the exploits of Angulimala, and he decided to capture him. When Mantani, Ahimsaka’s mother, heard about the king’s intention, she went to the forest in a desperate bid to save her son. By this time, the chain around the neck of Angulimala had 999 fingers in it, just one finger short of 1,000.

The Buddha learned of the mother’s attempt to dissuade her son, and reflected that if he did not intervene then Angulimala, who was on the lookout for the last person to make up the 1,000, would see his mother and might kill her. In that case, he would have to suffer an even longer period for his evil kamma. Out of compassion, the Buddha left for the forest.

Angulimala, after many sleepless days and nights, was very tired and near exhaustion. At the same time, he was very anxious to kill the last person to make up his full quota of 1,000 and so complete his task. He made up his mind to kill the first person he met. As he looked down from his mountain perch, he saw a woman on the road below. He wanted to fulfil his vow to complete the 1,000 thumbs, but as he approached, he saw it was his mother. At the same time, the Buddha was approaching, and Angulimala had just enough presence of mind to decide to kill the wandering monk instead of his mother. He set out after the Blessed One with his knife raised. But the Buddha kept moving ahead of him. Angulimala just could not catch up with him. Finally, he cried out, “O Bhikkhu, stop, stop!”

And the Enlightened One replied, “I have stopped. It is you who have not stopped.”

Angulimala did not catch the significance of these words, so he asked, “O bhikkhu! Why do you say that you have stopped while I have not?”

The Buddha replied, “I say that I have stopped because I have given up killing all beings. I have given up ill-treating all beings, and have established myself in universal love, patience, and knowledge through reflection. But you have not given up killing or ill treating others and you are not yet established in universal love and patience. Hence, you are the one who has not stopped.”

On hearing these words Angulimala was recalled to reality, and thought, these are the words of a wise man. This monk is so very wise and so very brave that he must be the leader of the monks. Indeed, he must be the Enlightened One himself! He must have come here specially to make me see the light. So thinking, he threw away his weapons and asked the Blessed One to admit to the Order of the bhikkhus, which the Buddha did.

When the king and his men came to capture Angulimala, they found him at the monastery of the Buddha. Finding that Angulimala had given up his evil ways and become a bhikkhu, the king and his men agreed to leave him alone. During his stay at the monastery, Angulimala ardently practiced meditation.

Angulimala had no peace of mind because even in his solitary meditation he used to recall memories of his past and the pathetic cries of his unfortunate victims. As a result of his evil kamma, while seeking alms in the streets he would become a target of stray stones and sticks and he would return to the Jetavana monastery with broken head and blood flowing, cut and bruised, to be reminded by the Buddha: “My son Angulimala. You have done away with evil. Have patience. This is the effect of the evil deeds you have committed in the existence. Your evil kamma would have made you suffer through innumerable existences had I not met you.”

One morning while going on an almsround in Savatthi, Angulimala heard someone crying out in pain. When he came to know that a pregnant lady was having labor pains and facing difficulty to deliver the child, he reflected, all worldly beings are subject to suffering. Moved by compassion, he reported the suffering of this poor woman to the Buddha who advised him to recite the following words of truth, which later came to be known as Angulimala Paritta. Going to the presence of the suffering woman, he sat on a seat separated from her by a screen, and uttered these words:

“Sister, since the day I became an arahat
I have not consciously destroyed
The life of any living beings.
By this truth, may you be well
And may your unborn child be well.”

Instantly the woman delivered her child with ease. Both the mother and chid were well and healthy. Even today many resort to this paritta.

Angulimala liked living in solitude and in seclusion. Later he passed away peacefully. As an arahant, he attained parinibbana.

Other bhikkhus asked the Buddha where Angulimala was reborn, and when the Blessed One replied, my son Angulimala has attained parinibbana, they could hardly believe it. So they asked whether it was possible that such a man who had in fact killed so many people could have attained parinibbana. To this question, the Buddha replied, “Bhikkhus, Angulimala had done much evil because he did not have good friends. But later, he hound good friends and with their help and good advice he became steadfast and mindful in practicing the dhamma and meditation. Thus, his evil deeds have been overwhelmed by good kamma and his mind has been completely rid of all defilements.”

The Buddha said of Angulimala:

“Whose evil deed is obscured by good,
he illumines this world like the
moon freed from a cloud.”

The power of love and compassion are stronger than any evil, and are absolute conditions for awakening.

– The story as told by Ven. Walpola Piyananda Thera.

The original version from the Majjhima Nikaya can be found at Access to Insight, translated by the wonderful Thanissaro Bhikkhu.

A leaky basin

If we do evil and then try to plug the leak by doing good, it’s like plugging a leak in the bottom of a pot and pouring water in. Or like plugging a leak in the bottom of a basin and pouring water in. The bottom of the pot, the bottom of the basin, isn’t in good shape. Our abandoning of evil isn’t yet in good shape. If you pour water in, it all still seeps out and the basin goes dry. Even if you pour water in all day, it still seeps out bit by bit, and eventually there’s no water left. You don’t gain the benefits from it that you wanted.

– Ajahn Chah, Theravada, Thai Forest Tradition.