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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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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Buddha’s advice to his son – Part 2


In my last post I shared the story of the lesson the Buddha gave his seven year old son, Rāhula.

Now in his teens, Rāhula get another famous lesson. This time on meditation. The instructions that the Buddha gives to Rāhula are very detailed, so much so that they are still used today as a guide to developing as meditator.

Here is the story:

The Buddha was on an alms round with some of his disciples, including Rāhula. 

Rāhula was preoccupied by his personal appearance, as teenagers sometimes are, and he confessed this to his father. The Buddha advised Rāhula:

“When seen with wisdom, the physical body should not be viewed as me, myself or mine.  In fact, one shouldn’t see any feeling, perception, mental activity or consciousness through concepts of me, myself or mine.”

Rāhula decided he would abandon the alms round and sit under a tree to meditate on the words. One of the Buddha’s closest disciples, Venerable Sarriputa, saw him and gave him some advice on cultivating mindfulness of the breath, and the benefits of this. 

Later that day Rāhula approached the Buddha for further advice on breath mediation – how to do it and how to get the benefits Sariputta talked about.

The Buddha began:

“Develop meditation that is like the earth: as the earth is not troubled by agreeable or disagreeable things it comes into contact with, so if you meditate like the earth, agreeable and disagreeable experiences will not trouble you.

“Develop meditation like water, like fire, like air and like space: as all of these are not troubled by agreeable or disagreeable things they come into contact with, so if you meditate like water, fire, air or space, agreeable and disagreeable experiences will not trouble you.”

Next the Buddha gives Rāhula advice on different subjects of meditation for different issues:

“Develop the meditation on loving-kindness, Rāhula. For by developing loving-kindness, ill-will is abandoned.

“Develop the meditation on compassion, Rāhula. For by developing compassion, cruelty is abandoned.

“Develop the meditation on sympathetic joy, Rāhula. For by developing sympathetic joy, aversion is abandoned.

“Develop the meditation on equanimity, Rāhula. For by developing equanimity, hatred is abandoned.

“Develop the meditation on impurity, Rāhula. For by meditating on impurity, lust is abandoned.

“Develop the meditation on the concept of transience, Rāhula. For by meditating on the concept of transience, pride of self is abandoned.”

Once this is explained, the Buddha then gives detailed instructions to Rāhula on the type of mediation he asked about – mindfulness of breath mediation:

“Inhaling and exhaling with mindfulness, cultivated and frequently practised, has many advantages.

“In order to learn, there are steps to take to train yourself. First find a quiet place, sit with legs crossed and the body held erect. Set an intention to be mindfulful.

“Consciously inhale; consciously exhale.

“When taking a long inspiration know ‘I am taking a long inspiration’; When making a long expiration, know ‘I am making a long expiration.’ When taking a short inspiration, know ‘I am taking a short inspiration’; When making a short expiration, know ‘I am making a short expiration.’

“Once you have mastered this, train yourself to be conscious of the whole body when breathing.

“Next, train yourself to experience calm when inhaling, calm when exhaling.

“Next, train yourself to experience pleasure when inhaling, pleasure when exhaling.

“Next, train yourself to experience happiness when inhaling, happiness when exhaling.

“Next, train yourself to be conscious of the body process when inhaling, and when exhaling.

“The next step is to train yourself to calm the body process when inhaling, and when exhaling.

“Next, perfectly conscious – inhale, perfectly conscious – exhale, thus you should train yourself.

“Next, with enraptured mind – inhale, with enraptured mind – exhale, thus you should train yourself.

“Next, thoroughly composing the mind you will inhale, thoroughly composing the mind will you exhale, thus you train yourself.

“Next, emancipating the mind you will inhale, emancipating the mind will you exhale, thus you train yourself.

“Next, reflecting on transience you inhale, reflecting on transience you exhale, thus you train yourself.

“Next, reflecting on freedom from lust – inhale, reflecting on freedom from lust – exhale, thus you train yourself.

“Next, reflecting on Cessation – inhale, reflecting on Cessation – exhale, thus you train yourself.

“Then, reflecting on complete emancipation you will inhale, reflecting on complete emancipation will you exhale, thus you train yourself.

“Mindfulness on inhaling and exhaling, Rāhula, cultivated in this way and frequently practised, is productive of much fruit and manifold advantage. When, Rāhula, inhaling and exhaling with mindfulness is thus cultivated and frequently-practised, even the last inspiration and expiration ceases consciously, not unconsciously.”

The venerable Rāhula, delighted, rejoiced at his words.

If You Don’t Find It Pleasant To Sit, Don’t Sit


Interviewer: What would you say to someone who finds sitting meditation painful and difficult and they struggle to do it?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Don’t do it anymore.

Interviewer: Really?

Thich Nhat Hanh: Yes, yes. If you don’t find it pleasant to sit, don’t sit. You have to learn the correct spirit of sitting. If you make a lot of effort when you sit, you become tense and that creates pain all over your body. Sitting should be pleasant. When you turn on the television in your living room, you can sit for hours without suffering. Yet when you sit for meditation, you suffer. Why? Because you struggle. You want to succeed in your meditation, and so you fight. When you are watching television you don’t fight. You have to learn how to sit without fighting. If you know how to sit like that, sitting is very pleasant.

When Nelson Mandela visited France once, a journalist asked him what he liked to do the most. He said that because he was so busy, what he liked to do the most was just to sit and do nothing. Because to sit and to do nothing is a pleasure—you restore yourself. That’s why the Buddha described it as like sitting on a lotus flower. When you’re sitting, you feel light, you feel fresh, you feel free. And if you don’t feel that when you sit, then sitting has become a kind of hard labor.

Sometimes if you don’t have enough sleep or you have a cold or something, maybe sitting is not as pleasant as you’d wish. But if you are feeling normal, experiencing the pleasure of sitting is always possible. The problem isn’t to sit or not to sit, but how to sit. How to sit so that you can make the most of it — otherwise you’re wasting your time.

The Greatest

The greatest achievement is selflessness.
The greatest worth is self-mastery.
The greatest quality is seeking to serve others.
The greatest precept is continual awareness.
The greatest medicine is the emptiness of everything.
The greatest action is not conforming with the worlds ways.
The greatest magic is transmuting the passions.
The greatest generosity is non-attachment.
The greatest goodness is a peaceful mind.
The greatest patience is humility.
The greatest effort is not concerned with results.
The greatest meditation is a mind that lets go.
The greatest wisdom is seeing through appearances.

– Atiśa, founder of the Kadam School.