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A mantra is a sound or a combination of sounds used
as a spell. The Brahmanism at the time of the
Buddha taught that repeating certain mantras would impart spiritual
power and blessings and evoke the help of the gods. Some of these
mantras consisted of lines or verses from the Vedas, but single
syllables like hum were being used too (Vin.I,3). The Buddha
rejected the efficacy of mantras as he did all forms of magic and replaced it with
the idea that the greatest strength and protection comes from having a
pure mind. In the Vinaya he says that the enlightened person will not
chant hum (Vin.I,3). The Sutta Nipata says that chanting
mantras, making offerings and performing sacrifices (mantahutiyanna),
i.e. the central sacraments of Brahmanism, could not help someone
plagued by doubt (Sn.249). In the Jatakas there is a
story he told about a group of virtuous men who were falsely accused of
doing wrong and were sentenced to be trampled by elephants. But try as
he might, the executioner could not get the elephants to kill the men.
Assuming that they must be reciting some protective spell or incantation
the executioner asked them; ‘What is your mantra?’ The leader of the
men replied; ‘We have no mantra other than this, that none of us kills,
steals, sexually misconducts ourselves exploits, lies or drinks alcohol.
We cultivate love, practise generosity, repair roads, construct
watering holes and built rest houses for travellers. This is our mantra,
our protection and the thing by which we flourish’ (Ja.I,200).
The use of mantras was an aspect of Hinduism
incorporated into some schools of Mahayana and later more so into
Vajrayana. In fact, mantras became so central within Vajrayana that this
Buddhist movement was sometimes also called Mantrayāna.

Opening the Hand of Thought

Kosho Uchiyama

world we live in is not something that exists independently of our
thoughts and ideas.  Our world and these thoughts and ideas appear to
us as a unified whole.  Depending on what our thoughts and ideas are,
our world may appear to us in completely different ways.  These
thoughts and feelings constitute our psychological condition. 
Moreover, our psychological condition is at the same time our
physiological condition.  When something breaks down inside of us
physically, our minds no longer remain clear. And if our minds are not
clear, then the eyes with which we see the whole world take on a gloomy
appearance.  On the other hand, when we feel healthy our minds
brighten, and so consequently our outlook on everything becomes

our physiological conditions are tremendously influenced by the
environment in which we live.  The changes and conditions of climate
and weather both affect us.  This cause and effect relationship is
particularly easy to see when you lead a life as unvaried and devoid of
distractions as the sesshins at Antaiji.

essential matter here is the attitude of just striving to wake up
regardless of the conditions you are in.  It is not about arriving at
some state where all thoughts have disappeared. To calmly sit amidst
these cause and effect relationships without being carried away by them
is shikantaza.

the weather, there are all sorts of conditions in our personal lives:
clear days, cloudy days, rainy ones, and stormy ones.  These are all
waves produced by the power of nature and are not things over which we
have control.  No matter how much we fight against these waves, there
is no way we can make a cloudy day clear up.  Cloudy days are cloudy;
clear days are clear.  It is only natural that thoughts come and go and
that psychological and physiological conditions fluctuate accordingly. 
All of this is the very reality and manifestation of life.  Seeing all
of this as the scenery of life, without being pulled apart by it—this
is the stability of human life, this is settling down in our life.

In The Record of Linji, Linji Yixuan (Rinzai) says:


true practitioner of the Way completely transcends all things. Even if
heaven and earth were to tumble down, I would have no misgivings. Even
if all the Buddhas in the ten directions were to appear before me, I
would not rejoice.
  Even if the three hells were to appear before me, I would have no fear. Why is this so?  Because there is nothing I dislike.

Rinzai, the appearance of all the buddhas in the past, present, and
future was not something to rejoice over, nor was the appearance of the
three hells something of which to be afraid.   Of course, not being
afraid of the appearance of some hell doesn’t mean that for Rinzai hell
had no existence.  For him, hell was a kind of scenery that was
different from the scenery of the Buddhas.  The point is that whether
some hell, all the buddhas, or anything appeared before him, Rinzai saw
all of these as the scenery of his life.  For us this is nothing but
the scenery of our zazen.

hope that people who practice zazen will continue regular sesshins and
daily zazen for at least ten years.  It’s a tremendous thing to be able
to give oneself to this kind of practice and not be caught up in
distractions.  Our deepest mental suffering will come up during these
years of zazen, and we will be able to continue our practice only if we
have the stability to see this suffering as the scenery of our life and
not be carried away by it.  Working through these ten years, we develop
a posture of living out the reality of our true self.


we lead this sort of life and sit zazen, at whatever age, there is no
doubt that we will come to have a commanding view of who we are.  When
we live this way, not only zazen, but daily life itself, is such that
we cannot find the value of our existence in what other people say or
in things that we want.  It is a life that is unbearable unless we
discover the value of our existence within ourselves.

What is
essential is for us to live out the reality of our true self whether we
are doing one period of zazen, a five-day sesshin, or practicing for
ten years or more.

The Activity of the Reality of Life

All of
us, regardless of whether we realize it or not, are living out the self
as the whole universe.  Since this is such a critical point, I’ll
repeat it here. Usually we make the idea of the small individual self
the center of our world and become firmly convinced that this small
individual self is our whole self, but this is not our true self.

reality of life goes beyond my idea of myself as a small individual. 
Fundamentally, our self is living out nondual life that pervades all
living things.  This self is universal existence, everything that
exists.  On the other hand, we usually lose sight of the reality of the
life of universal self, clouding it over with thoughts originating from
our small individual selves. 

When we
let go of our thoughts, this reality of life becomes pure and clear. 
Living out this reality of life as it is – that is, waking up and
practicing beyond thinking – is zazen.  At this very point our basic
attitude in practicing zazen becomes determined.  The attitude of the
practitioner in practicing zazen as a Mahayana Buddhist teaching never
means to attempt to artificially create some new self by means of

should it be aiming at decreasing delusion and finally eliminating it
altogether.  We practice zazen, neither aiming at having a special
mystical experience nor trying to gain greater enlightenment.  Zazen as
true Mahayana teaching is always the whole self just truly being the
whole self, life truly being life.

all have eyes to see, but if we close them and say that the world is in
darkness, how can we say that we are living out the true reality of
life?  If we open our eyes we see the sun is shining brilliantly.  In
the same way, when we live open-eyed and awake to life, we discover
that we are living in the vigorous light of life.  All the ideas of our
small self are clouds that make the light of the universal self foggy
and dull.  Doing zazen, we let go of these ideas and open our eyes to
the clarity of the vital life of universal self.


discover the attitude of zazen as true Buddhism when we believe that
the truth of this small self as an individual entity is universal self
and actually practice the reality of life in zazen. This zazen is
referred to as the activity of the reality of life.

Excerpted from Opening the Hand of Thought – Foundations of Zen Buddhist Practice


How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked

Pema Chödrön

Shenpa is the urge, the hook, that
triggers our habitual tendency to close down. We get hooked in that
moment of tightening when we reach for relief. To get unhooked we begin
by recognizing that moment of unease and learn to relax in that moment.

trying to make a point with a coworker or your partner. At one moment
her face is open and she’s listening, and at the next, her eyes cloud
over or her jaw tenses. What is it that you’re seeing?
criticizes you. They criticize your work or your appearance or your
child. At moments like that, what is it you feel? It has a familiar
taste in your mouth, it has a familiar smell. Once you begin to notice
it, you feel like this experience has been happening forever.
The Tibetan word for this is shenpa. It is usually translated "attachment," but a more descriptive translation might be "hooked." When shenpa hooks us, we’re likely to get stuck. We could call shenpa
"that sticky feeling." It’s an everyday experience. Even a spot on your
new sweater can take you there. At the subtlest level, we feel a
tightening, a tensing, a sense of closing down. Then we feel a sense of
withdrawing, not wanting to be where we are. That’s the hooked quality.
That tight feeling has the power to hook us into self-denigration,
blame, anger, jealousy and other emotions which lead to words and
actions that end up poisoning us.

Remember the fairy tale in
which toads hop out of the princess’s mouth whenever she starts to say
mean words? That’s how being hooked can feel. Yet we don’t stop—we
can’t stop—because we’re in the habit of associating whatever we’re
doing with relief from our own discomfort. This is the shenpa
syndrome. The word "attachment" doesn’t quite translate what’s
happening. It’s a quality of experience that’s not easy to describe but
which everyone knows well. Shenpa is usually involuntary and it gets right to the root of why we suffer.
Someone looks at us in a certain way, or we hear a certain song, we smell a certain smell, we walk into a certain room and boom. The feeling has nothing to do with the present, and nevertheless, there it is. When we were practicing recognizing shenpa at Gampo Abbey, we discovered that some of us could feel it even when a particular person simply sat down next to us at the dining table.


thrives on the underlying insecurity of living in a world that is
always changing. We experience this insecurity as a background of
slight unease or restlessness. We all want some kind of relief from
that unease, so we turn to what we enjoy—food, alcohol, drugs, sex,
work or shopping. In moderation what we enjoy might be very delightful.
We can appreciate its taste and its presence in our life. But when we
empower it with the idea that it will bring us comfort, that it will
remove our unease, we get hooked.

So we could also call shenpa
"the urge"—the urge to smoke that cigarette, to overeat, to have
another drink, to indulge our addiction whatever it is. Sometimes
is so strong that we’re willing to die getting this short-term
symptomatic relief. The momentum behind the urge is so strong that we
never pull out of the habitual pattern of turning to poison for
comfort. It doesn’t necessarily have to involve a substance; it can be
saying mean things, or approaching everything with a critical mind.
That’s a major hook. Something triggers an old pattern we’d rather not
feel, and we tighten up and hook into criticizing or complaining. It
gives us a puffed-up satisfaction and a feeling of control that
provides short-term relief from uneasiness.

of us with strong addictions know that working with habitual patterns
begins with the willingness to fully acknowledge our urge, and then the
willingness not to act on it. This business of not acting out is called
refraining. Traditionally it’s called renunciation. What we renounce or refrain from isn’t food, sex, work or relationships per se. We renounce and refrain from the shenpa. When we talk about refraining from the shenpa, we’re not talking about trying to cast it out; we’re talking about trying to see the shenpa clearly and experiencing it. If we can see shenpa
just as we’re starting to close down, when we feel the tightening,
there’s the possibility of catching the urge to do the habitual thing,
and not doing it.

Without meditation practice, this is almost impossible to do.
Generally speaking, we don’t catch the tightening until we’ve indulged
the urge to scratch our itch in some habitual way. And unless we equate
refraining with loving-kindness and friendliness towards ourselves,
refraining feels like putting on a straitjacket. We struggle against
it. The Tibetan word for renunciation is
shenlok, which means turning shenpa
upside-down, shaking it up. When we feel the tightening, somehow we
have to know how to open up the space without getting hooked into our
habitual pattern.

In practicing with shenpa, first we try to recognize it. The best place to do this is on the meditation cushion.
Sitting practice teaches us how to open and relax to whatever arises,
without picking and choosing. It teaches us to experience the
uneasiness and the urge fully, and to interrupt the momentum that
usually follows. We do this by not following after the thoughts and
learning to come back to the present moment. We learn to stay with the
uneasiness, the tightening, the itch of
We train in sitting still with our desire to scratch. This is how we
learn to stop the chain reaction of habitual patterns that otherwise
will rule our lives. This is how we weaken the patterns that keep us
hooked into discomfort that we mistake as comfort. We label the spinoff
"thinking" and return to the present moment. Yet even in meditation, we experience

say, for example, that in meditation you felt settled and open.
Thoughts came and went, but they didn’t hook you. They were like clouds
in the sky that dissolved when you acknowledged them. You were able to
return to the moment without a sense of struggle. Afterwards, you’re
hooked on that very pleasant experience: "I did it right, I got it
right. That’s how it should always be, that’s the model." Getting
caught like that builds arrogance, and conversely it builds poverty,
because your next session is nothing like that. In fact, your "bad"
session is even worse now because you’re hooked on the "good" one. You
sat there and you were discursive: you were obsessing about something
at home, at work. You worried and you fretted; you got caught up in
fear or anger. At the end of the session, you feel discouraged—it was
"bad," and there’s only you to blame.

Is there something inherently wrong or right with either meditation experience? Only the shenpa. The shenpa we feel toward "good" meditation hooks us into how it’s "supposed" to be, and that sets us up for shenpa towards how it’s not "supposed" to be. Yet the meditation is just what it is. We get caught in our idea of it: that’s the shenpa. That stickiness is the root shenpa.
We call it ego-clinging or self-absorption. When we’re hooked on the
idea of good experience, self-absorption gets stronger; when we’re
hooked on the idea of bad experience, self-absorption gets stronger.
This is why we, as practitioners, are taught not to judge ourselves,
not to get caught in good or bad.

What we really need to do is address things just as they are. Learning to recognize shenpa teaches
us the meaning of not being attached to this world. Not being attached
has nothing to do with this world. It has to do with
hooked by what we associate with comfort. All we’re trying to do is not
to feel our uneasiness. But when we do this we never get to the root of
practice. The root is experiencing the itch as well as the urge to
scratch, and then not acting it out.

If we’re willing to practice this way over time, prajna
begins to kick in. Prajna is clear seeing. It’s our innate
intelligence, our wisdom. With prajna, we begin to see the whole chain
reaction clearly. As we practice, this wisdom becomes a stronger force
shenpa. That in itself has the power to stop the chain reaction.
isn’t ego-involved. It’s wisdom found in basic goodness, openness,
equanimity—which cuts through self-absorption. With prajna we can see
what will open up space. Habituation, which is ego-based, is just the
opposite—a compulsion to fill up space in our own particular style.
Some of us close space by hammering our point through; others do it by
trying to smooth the waters.

taught that whatever arises is fresh, the essence of realization.
That’s the basic view. But how do we see whatever arises as the essence
of realization when the fact of the matter is, we have work to do? The key is to look into
The work we have to do is about coming to know that we’re tensing or
hooked or "all worked up." That’s the essence of realization. The
earlier we catch it, the easier
is to work with, but even catching it when we’re already all worked up
is good. Sometimes we have to go through the whole cycle even though we
see what we’re doing. The urge is so strong, the hook so sharp, the
habitual pattern so sticky, that there are times when we can’t do
anything about it.

is something we can do after the fact, however. We can go sit on the
meditation cushion and re-run the story. Maybe we start with
remembering the all-worked-up feeling and get in touch with that. We
look clearly at the
shenpa in retrospect; this is very helpful. It’s also helpful to see shenpa arising in little ways, where the hook is not so sharp.

Buddhists are talking about shenpa
when they say, "Don’t get caught in the content: observe the underlying
quality—the clinging, the desire, the attachment." Sitting meditation
teaches us how to see that tangent before we go off on it. It basically
comes down to the instruction, "label it thinking." To train in this on
the cushion, where it’s relatively easy and pleasant to do, is how we
can prepare ourselves to stay when we get all worked up.

Then we can train in seeing shenpa
wherever we are. Say something to another person and maybe you’ll feel
that tensing. Rather than get caught in a story line about how right
you are or how wrong you are, take it as an opportunity to be present
with the hooked quality. Use it as an opportunity to stay with the
tightness without acting upon it. Let that training be your base.

You can also practice recognizing shenpa
out in nature. Practice sitting still and catching the moment when you
close down. Or practice in a crowd, watching one person at a time. When
you’re silent, what hooks you is mental dialogue. You talk to yourself
about badness or goodness: me-bad or they-bad, this-right or
that-wrong. Just to see this is a practice. You’ll be intrigued by how
you’ll involuntarily shut down and get hooked, one way or another. Just
keep labeling those thoughts and come back to the immediacy of the
feeling. That’s how not to follow the chain reaction.

Once we’re aware of shenpa,
we begin to notice it in other people. We see them shutting down. We
see that they’ve been hooked and that nothing is going to get through
to them now. At that moment we have prajna. That basic intelligence
comes through when we’re not caught up in escaping from our own unease.
With prajna we can see what’s happening with others; we can see when
they’ve been hooked. Then we can give the situation some space. One way
to do that is by opening up the space on the spot, through meditation.
Be quiet and place your mind on your breath. Hold your mind in place
with great openness and curiosity toward the other person. Asking a
question is another way of creating space around that sticky feeling.
So is postponing your discussion to another time.

At the abbey, we’re very fortunate that everybody is excited about working with shenpa.
So many words I’ve tried using become ammunition that people use
against themselves. But we feel some kind of gladness about working
perhaps because the word is unfamiliar. We can acknowledge what’s
happening with clear seeing, without aiming it at ourselves. Since no
one particularly likes to have his
pointed out, people at the Abbey make deals like, "When you see me
getting hooked, just pull your earlobe, and if I see you getting
hooked, I’ll do the same. Or if you see it in yourself, and I’m not
picking up on it, at least give some little sign that maybe this isn’t
the time to continue this discussion." This is how we help each other
cultivate prajna, clear seeing.

We could think of this whole process in terms of four R’s: recognizing the shenpa, refraining from scratching, relaxing into the underlying urge to scratch and then resolving
to continue to interrupt our habitual patterns like this for the rest
of our lives. What do you do when you don’t do the habitual thing?
You’re left with your urge. That’s how you become more in touch with
the craving and the wanting to move away. You learn to relax with it.
Then you resolve to keep practicing this way.

Working with
shenpa softens us up. Once we see how we get hooked and how we get swept along by the momentum, there’s no way to be arrogant.
The trick is to keep seeing. Don’t let the softening and humility turn
into self-denigration. That’s just another hook. Because we’ve been
strengthening the whole habituated situation for a long, long time, we
can’t expect to undo it overnight. It’s not a one-shot deal. It takes
loving-kindness to recognize; it takes practice to refrain; it takes
willingness to relax; it takes determination to keep training this way.
It helps to remember that we may experience two billion kinds of itches
and seven quadrillion types of scratching, but there is really only one
shenpa—ego-clinging. We experience it as tightening and self-absorption. It has degrees of intensity. The branch shenpas are all our different styles of scratching that itch.
recently saw a cartoon of three fish swimming around a hook. One fish
is saying to the other, "The secret is non-attachment." That’s a
cartoon: the secret is—don’t bite that hook. If we can catch ourselves
at that place where the urge to bite is strong, we can at least get a
bigger perspective on what’s happening. As we practice this way, we
gain confidence in our own wisdom. It begins to guide us toward the
fundamental aspect of our being—spaciousness, warmth and spontaneity.









Listening to Thought

Ajahn Sumedho

In opening the mind, or ‘letting go’, we bring attention to one
point on just watching, or being the silent witness who is aware
of what comes and goes. With this vipassana (insight) meditation,
we’re using the three characteristics of anicca (change),
dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), anatta (not self) to
observe mental and physical phenomena. We’re freeing the mind
from blindly repressing, so if we become obsessed with any trivial
thoughts or fears, or doubts, worries or anger, we don’t need
to analyse it. We don’t have to figure out why we have it, but
just make it fully conscious.

If you’re really frightened of something, consciously be frightened.
Don’t just back away from it, but notice that tendency to try
to get rid of it. Bring up fully what you’re frightened of, think
it out quite deliberately, and listen to your thinking. This is
not to analyse, but just to take fear to its absurd end, where
it becomes so ridiculous you can start laughing at it. Listen
to desire, the mad "I want this, I want that, I’ve got to
have – I don’t know what I’ll do if I don’t have this, and I want
that…". Sometimes the mind can just scream away, "I
want this!" – and you can listen to that.

I was reading about confrontations, where you scream at each other
and that kind of thing, say all the repressed things in your mind;
this is a kind of catharsis, but it lacks wise reflection. It
lacks the skill of listening to that screaming as a condition,
rather than just as a kind of ‘letting oneself go’, and saying
what one really thinks. It lacks that steadiness of mind, which
is willing to endure the most horrible thoughts. In this way,
we’re not believing that those are personal problems, but instead
taking fear and anger, mentally, to an absurd position, to where
they’re just seen as a natural progression of thoughts. We’re
deliberately thinking all the things we’re afraid of thinking,
not just out of blindness, but actually watching and listening
to them as conditions of the mind, rather than personal failures
or problems.

So, in this practice now, we begin to let things go. You don’t
have to go round looking for particular things, but when things
which you feel obsessed with keep arising, bothering you, and
you’re trying to get rid of them, then bring them up even more.
Deliberately think them out and listen, like you’re listening
to someone talking on the other side of the fence, some gossipy
old fish-wife. "We did this, and we did that, and then we
did this and then we did that…" and this old lady just
goes rambling on! Now, practise just listening to it here as a
voice, rather than judging it, saying, "No, no, I hope that’s
not me, that’s not my true nature," or trying to shut her
up and saying, "Oh, you old bag, I wish you’d go away!"
We all have that, even I have that tendency. It’s just a condition
of nature, isn’t it? It’s not a person. So, this nagging tendency
in us – "I work so hard, nobody is ever grateful" –
is a condition, not a person. Sometimes when you’re grumpy, nobody
can do anything right – even when they’re doing it right, they’re
doing it wrong! That’s another condition of the mind, it’s not
a person. The grumpiness, the grumpy state of mind is known as
a condition: anicca – it changes; dukkha – it is not satisfactory;
anatta – it is not a person. There’s the fear of what others will
think of you if you come in late: you’ve overslept, you come in,
and then you start worrying about what everyone’s thinking of
you for coming in late – "They think I’m lazy". Worrying
about what others think is a condition of the mind. Or we’re always
here on time, and somebody else comes in late, and we think, "They
always come in late, can’t they ever be on time!" That also
is another condition of the mind.

I’m bringing this up into full consciousness, these trivial things,
which you can just push aside because they are trivial, and one
doesn’t want to be bothered with the trivialities of life; but
when we don’t bother, then all that gets repressed, so it becomes
a problem. We start feeling anxiety, feeling aversion to ourselves
or to other people, or depressed; all this comes from refusing
to allow conditions, trivialities, or horrible things to become

Then there is the doubting state of mind, never quite sure what
to do: there’s fear and doubt, uncertainty and hesitation. Deliberately
bring up that state of never being sure, just to be relaxed with
that state of where the mind is when you’re not grasping hold
of any particular thing. "What should I do, should I stay
or should I go, should I do this or should I do that, should I
do anapanasati or should I do vipassana?" Look at that. Ask
yourself questions that can’t be answered, like "Who am I?".
Notice that empty space before you start thinking it – "who?"
– just be alert, just close your eyes, and just before you think
"who", just look, the mind’s quite empty, isn’t it?
Then, "Who-am-I?", and then the space after the question
mark. That thought comes and goes out of emptiness, doesn’t it?
When you’re just caught in habitual thinking, you can’t see the
arising of thought, can you? You can’t see, you can only catch
thought after you realise you’ve been thinking; so start deliberately
thinking, and catch the beginning of a thought, before you actually
think it. You take deliberate thoughts like, "Who is the
Buddha?" Deliberately think that, so that you see the beginning,
the forming of a thought, and the end of it, and the space around
it. You’re looking at thought and concept in a perspective, rather
than just reacting to them.

Say you’re angry with somebody. You think, "That’s what he
said, he said that and he said this and then he did this and he
didn’t do that right, and he did that all wrong, he’s so selfish…
and then I remember what he did to so-and-so, and then…"
One thing goes on to the next, doesn’t it? You’re just caught
in this one thing going on to the next, motivated by aversion.
So rather than just being caught in that whole stream of associated
thoughts, concepts, deliberately think: "He is the most selfish
person I have ever met." And then the ending, emptiness.
"He is a rotten egg, a dirty rat, he did this and then he
did that," and you can see, it’s really funny, isn’t it?
When I first went to Wat Pah Pong, I used to have tremendous anger
and aversion arise. I’d just feel so frustrated, sometimes because
I never knew what was really happening, and I didn’t want to have
to conform so much as I had to there. I was just fuming. Ajahn
Chah would be going on – he could give two hour talks in Lao –
and I’d have a terrible pain in the knees. So I’d have those thoughts:
"Why don’t you ever stop talking? I though Dhamma was simple,
why does he have to take two hours to say something?" I’d
become very critical of everybody, and then I started reflecting
on this and listening to myself, getting angry, being critical,
being nasty, resenting, "I don’t want this, I don’t want
that, I don’t like this, I don’t see why I have to sit here, I
don’t want to be bothered with this silly thing, I don’t know…",
on and on. And I kept thinking, "Is that a very nice person
that’s saying that? Is that what you want to be like, that thing
that’s always complaining and criticising, finding fault, is that
the kind of person you want to be?" "No! I don’t want
to be like that."

But I had to make it fully conscious to really see it, rather
than believe in it. I felt very righteous within myself, and when
you feel righteous, and indignant, and you’re feeling that they’re
wrong, then you can easily believe those kinds of thoughts: "I
see no need for this kind of thing, after all, the Buddha said…
the Buddha would never have allowed this, the Buddha; I know Buddhism!"
Bring it up into conscious form, where you can see it, make it
absurd, and then you have a perspective on it and it gets quite
amusing. You can see what comedy is about! We take ourselves so
seriously, "I’m such an important person, my life is so terribly
important, that I must be extremely serious about it at all moments.
My problems are so important, so terribly important; I have to
spend a lot of time with my problems because they’re so important."
One thinks of oneself somehow as very important, so then think
it, deliberately think, "I’m a Very Important Person, my
problems are very important and serious." When you’re thinking
that, it sounds funny, it sounds silly, because really, you realise
you’re not terribly important – none of us are. And the problems
we make out of life are trivial things. Some people can ruin their
whole lives by creating endless problems, and taking it all so

If you think of yourself as an important and serious person, then
trivial things or foolish things are things that you don’t want.
If you want to be a good person, and a saintly one, then evil
conditions are things that you have to repress out of consciousness.
If you want to be a loving and generous type of being, then any
type of meanness or jealousy or stinginess is something that you
have to repress or annihilate in your mind. So whatever you are
most afraid of in your life that you might really be, think it
out, watch it. Make confessions: "I want to be a tyrant!",
"I want to be a heroin smuggler!" "I want to be
a member of the Mafia!", "I want to…" Whatever
it is. We’re not concerned with the quality of it any more, but
the mere characteristic that it’s an impermanent condition; it’s
unsatisfactory, because there’s no point in it that can ever really
satisfy you. It comes and it goes, and it’s not self.



Based on a talk given by Ajahn Brahmavamso to lay people at the Dhammaloka Buddhist Centre, Nollamara, Western Australia, on 19th of October 2001

Remembering Past Lives

Buddhism is founded on meditation,
and meditation can reveal many, many things, especially deep memories from the
past. Monks, nuns, and ordinary meditators can reach such deep meditations
that they can not only levitate, but they can remember previous lives! Many
people can actually do this. When you come out of a deep meditation you have
incredible energy. Afterwards you won’t be able to go to sleep, nor will you
be able to go and watch TV, because the mind will be too full of its own joy
and happiness. Moreover, the mind is so empowered that you can make suggestions
to it, suggestions that you would not normally be able to fulfil. But
empowered by deep meditation, you can follow the suggestions. I’ve actually taught
this special meditation to people on meditation retreats, because on meditation
retreats some get deep results. People sometimes get memories of when they
were babies, and then of being in their mother’s womb. If they are lucky they
get memories of when they were a very old person, i.e. memories from a past life!
One of the important things with those past life memories is that they are very
real to the person experiencing them. It’s as if you are back there
experiencing it. Anyone who has had a memory like that has no doubt in their mind
about past lives. It’s not a theory any more. Such memories are like remembering
where you were this morning when you had breakfast. You have no doubts that
that was you this morning, having that breakfast. You didn’t imagine it. With
the same clarity, or even greater clarity, you remember that that very old
person was you, only it wasn’t a few hours ago, it was many decades ago. It
was a different time, a different body and a different life. Now if people can
do that on nine day meditation retreats, imagine what you would do if you were
a monk or a nun, who meditates not just for a weekend, or for nine days, but
nine years, twenty-nine, thirty-nine, or fifty-nine years. Imagine how much
power you could generate in that meditation. Now imagine how much more power
you could generate if you were a Buddha with an Enlightened mind.

Now you know what to do to discover
for yourself if you’ve lived before. Meditate. I don’t mean just meditating
to get rid of stress and make your self calm. I mean really meditate, deeply.
Meditate to get your mind into what we call the Jhānas. Those are
deep states of absorption, where the body disappears. You don’t feel. You
can’t see. You can’t hear. You’re absolutely inside the mind. You have no
thoughts but you are perfectly aware. You are blissed out. The method, the
instructions for the experiment, are very clearly laid down. Even in my little
book "The Basic Method of Meditation" all the steps are there. Follow
them, and invest the resources necessary for doing that experiment not just
one weekend retreat, but many weekend retreats, and sometimes many years of
meditating. If you want to follow that ‘scientific method’, you have to enter
into a Jhāna. And then, after you emerge from that state, you ask
yourself, "What is my earliest memory?" You can keep going back in your mind,
and eventually you will remember. You will see for yourself the experience of
past lives. Then you know. Yes, it is true! You have had the experience
for yourself.

The Buddha said he did remember
past lives, many past lives, many aeons of past lives. He said specifically that
he remembered ninety-one aeons. That’s ninety big bangs, the time before and
the time afterwards, huge spaces of time. That’s why the Buddha said there was
not just one universe, but many universes. We are not talking about parallel
universes as some scientists say. We are talking about sequential universes,
with what the Buddha called sanvattati vivattati. This is Pāli, meaning
the unfolding of the universe and the infolding of it, beginnings and endings.

The suttas even give a
measure for the lifetime of a universe. When I was a theoretical physicist, my
areas of expertise were the very small and the very large; fundamental particle
physics and astrophysics. They were the two aspects that I liked the most, the
big and the small. So I knew what was meant by the age of a universe and what
a ‘big bang’ was all about. The age of a universe, the last time I looked in
the journals, was somewhere about seventeen thousand million years. In the
Buddhist suttas they say that about thirty seven thousand million years
is a complete age. When I told that to the state astronomer he said yes, that
estimate was in the ball park, it was acceptable. The person who was the
convener of the Our Place in Space seminar made a joke about the fact that a
hundred or two hundred years ago, Christianity said the universe was about
seven thousand years old. That estimate certainly isn’t acceptable, the
Buddhist one is!

It is remarkable that there was a
cosmology in Buddhism twenty-five centuries ago that doesn’t conflict with
modern physics. Even what astronomers say are galaxies, the Buddha called wheel
systems. If any of you have ever seen a galaxy, you will know there are two
types of galaxy. First, there is the spiral galaxy. The Milky Way is one of
those. Have you seen a spiral galaxy? It is like a wheel! The other type is
the globular cluster, which looks like a wheel with a big hub in the middle. ‘Wheels’
is a very accurate way of describing galaxies. This was explained by someone
twenty five centuries ago, when they did not have telescopes! They didn’t need
them, they could go there themselves!

There is a lot of interesting
stuff in the old suttas, even for those of you who like weird stuff.
Some times people ask this question, "Do Buddhists believe in extra terrestrial
beings, in aliens?" Would an alien landing here upset the very foundation of
Buddhism? When I was reading through these old suttas I actually found a
reference to aliens! It’s only a very small sutta, which said that
there are other world systems with other suns, other planets, and other beings
on them. That’s directly from the Anguttara Nikāya. (AN
X, 29)

Following Beliefs Blindly

This method that we take as science
in the universities, in the labs, and in the hospitals often suffers from
the same disease as religion dogmatism. You know what religious dogmatism is
like. We have a belief and whether it fits with experience or not, whether
it’s useful or not, whether it’s conducive to people’s happiness, harmony, and peace
in the world or not, we follow it just because that’s our belief. But
following beliefs blindly, dogmatically, is just a recipe for violence and suffering.

One of the beautiful things about
Buddhism that encouraged me to become a Buddhist when I was young, and which
keeps me as a Buddhist now, is that questioning is always encouraged. You do
not need to believe
. In one of the tales from the ancient texts the Buddha
gave a teaching to his chief monk, Venerable Sariputta. After giving the
teaching, the Buddha asked his chief monk, "Sariputta, do you believe what I just
taught?" Sariputta, without any hesitation, said "No I don’t believe it,
because I haven’t experienced it yet". The Buddha said, "Well done! Well done!
Well done!" That is the attitude to encourage in all disciples, either of
religion or science. Not to believe, but to keep an open mind until they’ve had
the true experience. This attitude goes against dogmatism, it runs counter to fundamentalism,
which one doesn’t only see in religion, but which one also sees in science.

‘The eminence of a great
scientist’, the old saying goes, ‘is measured by the length of time they
obstruct progress in their field’.

The more famous the scientist,
the more prominent they are, the more their views are taken to be gospel truth.
Their fame stops other people challenging them; it delays the arrival of a
better ‘truth’. In Buddhism when you find a better truth, use it at once.

The Problem with Dogmatism

There is an old story, from the
time of the Buddha, about two friends who went looking for treasure in a town
that had been abandoned. (DN 23.29) First they found some hemp and decided to
make two bundles of that hemp and carry it away. They would be able to sell it
when they got back home. Soon after they had made these big bundles of hemp
they came across some hempen cloth. One of the men said, "What do I need the
hemp for? The cloth is better". The other man said, "No this is already well
bound up, I’ve carried it for so long already, I’ll keep my load of hemp".
Then they found some flax, some flaxen cloth, some cotton, and some cotton
cloth, and each time the man carrying the hemp said, "No, the hemp is okay for
me", while his friend changed his load for that which was more valuable. Later
on they found some silver, and then some gold. Each time one man would always
change what he was carrying for something better, but the other man stubbornly kept
his bundle of hemp. When they got home the man who carried the gold was very
popular with his family. As for the man who carried the hemp, his family was not
happy with him at all! Why don’t we change our views, our ideas, when we see
something better? The reason we don’t do that is because of attachment. This
is my view. We are comfortable with the old views, even though we know
they are wrong. We don’t really want to change. Sometimes our self image is
bound up with those views. Like the scientist who is bound up with his achievements,
bound up with what he’s seen so far, he or she resists new ideas.

This is the problem called
dogmatism. Sometimes when I talk about levitation, people say levitation
doesn’t exist, it’s just myth. Wait until you see someone levitate! If you saw
someone levitate, if the three monks here rose up about two or three feet,
wouldn’t that be challenging?

Sorry, we can’t do that in
public. It’s against our rules. One of the reasons we can’t demonstrate
psychic powers in front of people is that if we did, someone would probably record
it on a video camera and send it to a television channel. Then everybody, even
from overseas, would come to Perth. Not to listen to the Dhamma, not to
hear about Buddhism, but just to see the monks do their tricks. Then we would be
pressured into giving demonstrations all the time. It would be like a circus,
not a temple. The point is that monks are not here to demonstrate tricks.

Even if a monk did perform a
miracle, many people would say: "This is just a trick. It’s done with special
effects. They are not really levitating". If you don’t want to believe it,
you won’t. This is the problem with dogmatism. What you don’t want to see,
you do not see. When you don’t want to believe it, you go into denial. This is
why I say that many scientists are in denial about the nature of the mind.



(paṭimāpūjā) is the practice of worshipping
and praying to statues, regarding them to be God or some
revered person. While statues are used in some Buddhist pūjas,
no informed Buddhist believes them to be the Buddha himself, nor do
they ‘pray’ to these statues. In the 7th century the Chinese monk
I-tsing wrote: ‘Although the Great Teacher has attained Nirvāṇa
images of him still exist. These can be venerated as if he
were still in the world.’ No one who has made even the slightest
effort to understand Buddhism or Buddhist rituals could believe that
Buddhists are idolaters. And of course there have been people who
have made an effort to understand. A Muslim work called Dabistan
composed in India in the late 15th century says:
‘Strangers to their (Buddhists’ and Hindus’) faith
might think that they look upon the statue as the deity but this is
certainly not the case. This is what they believe – that the statue
is only a representation of the deity, for the deity itself has
neither shape nor form.’ The English Christian Robert
Knox who spent many years living in Sri
Lanka in the 17th century wrote this of the Sinhalese attitude to
Buddha statues: ‘
As for these images, they
say they do not own them to be Gods themselves but only Figures
representing their Gods to their memories, and as such, they give
them honor and worship.’ Those today who continue to insist that
Buddhism is a form of idolatry are guilty of either willful ignorance
or deliberate dishonesty.

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