A Sense of Self – The Buddha Dharma Series

In Buddhism, one of the most difficult teachings for people to understand is anatman or non-self. The doctrine states that in humans there is no permanent entity that can be called a self or a soul. This denial of “any Soul or Self” is what distinguishes Buddhism from other major religions, such as Christianity and Hinduism, and gives Buddhism its uniqueness.

The teaching is not only difficult, it is also controversial and one of the most poorly understood teachings in Buddhism. Many teachers believe it is more important to learn about karma and rebirth, but I would disagree. Most people usually misunderstand these teachings and they end up reinforcing a sense of self. They believe their karma gets attached to the self, and then this self is reborn. So, personally, I believe, if you want to reduce your suffering in this life, you should understand the teaching of non-self.

This sense of being a permanent, solid, autonomous self is an illusion. The problem is this illusion is so ingrained into our ordinary experience. We have a sense of a permanent, individual self, but that is all it is, a sense, a feeling. If I ask you, ‘Who are you?’ you may tell me about your job – I’m a lawyer, doctor, teacher and so on. But this is not who you are, this is your work. If you changed your job, would you stop being you? So, you are most defiantly not your job.

You may tell me about your family or nationality – I’m from a wealthy, middle-class, poor family. I’m Indian, British, African, and so on. Again, that is not who you are, it is just you in relation to others.

You may tell me you’re a Hindu, Muslim, Christian, etc. But that is your religion and not who you are.

You may say you are your thoughts or feelings or emotions, but these are all impermanent, so they cannot be you. The same goes for your body or your experiences, they are also impermanent and cannot be you.

We can go on with this exercise forever, but everything we find will be impermanent and superficial. There really is nothing within us that is independent and never changing.

So, if you are thinking here that Buddhism is saying you don’t exist, it isn’t. What it’s saying is, you do not exist in the way you think you do. We are not permanent, individual, solid entities. Instead, we are changing moment to moment, like the water flowing down a mountain stream. Giving ourselves a fixed name or identity doesn’t make us permanent, it is just a convention we have come up with so we can talk about ourselves. If you took me apart and laid all of my bits and pieces on the floor, you would not find an inherently existing Yeshe.

So, a question everyone asks when they come across this teaching is, ‘If I am not who I think I am, who am I? Instead of a permanent self or soul the individual is compounded of five factors that are constantly changing (See How we experience the world). These collection of five changing processes, known as the five aggregates, are: the processes of the physical body, of feelings, of perceptions, of responses and of the flow of consciousness that experiences them all.


When we identify with the process of the physical body, we get attached to our physical form. When we identify with the process of our feelings, our perceptions, and our responses, we become attached to them. Our sense of self arises whenever we grasp at, or identify with, these patterns.

The sense of a self is perpetuated because we pay attention to only the surface of our experiences. We never take the time to delve deeper. We identify with what we like and don’t like, what we want and don’t want, our dreams and beliefs. We think our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations are a part of us, instead of seeing them as passing phenomena.

If we allow ourselves time to observe these processes come and go, we would be able to see them as just experiences that arise and fall away, and not a self. If we had a permanent self, we would never be able to change. So, if we want to grow and change, we need to let go of this idea that we have a self that defines us.

The next question people ask when they hear about non-self is, ‘So what? Why should I care if I have a self or not?’ This idea of a self produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism and other defilements, impurities, and problems. In fact, in Buddhism, it is said that the illusion of a self is the source of all our suffering.

When we identify with our physical, emotional, and mental experiences we become attached to them; the threat of losing any of these is deemed a threat to our very existence. But we are going to lose them because they are impermanent. This means the illusion of a self is setting ourselves up for failure.

When we observe the rising and falling away of all phenomena, we see that everything arises from nothing and then goes back to nothing. This includes our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and physical sensations. If we examine our experiences in this way, we begin to see that our thoughts, feelings, emotions, and sensations are not a self. This allows us to let go of our attachment to them. This in turn releases us from our suffering.

So, you may still be thinking, ‘if this teaching of non-self is true, then who’s reading this? I would answer, a growing, changing being that is in constant flux, and not a solid, permanent, individual self or soul.

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This blog was first released in January 2018 and is being reposted as part of the Buddha Dharma Series.

Four Immeasurables: Compassion – The Buddha Dharma Series

Compassion is the third of the four immeasurables and it is an understanding that the world is full of suffering, and a heartfelt wish that this suffering will come to an end or at least lessen—for ourselves and others.

Some people are so wrapped up in their own world of suffering that they forget to have compassion for other people’s suffering. It can seem at times that we live in a selfish world in which people close their eyes and ears to the constant stream of tears. Some people are even able to watch the news or read the newspaper in a dispassionate way. Of course, we all have our own problems to deal with, but simply focusing on our own troubles is not a kind or helpful way of thinking. This is not the type of world we should wish to live in or leave for our children. If we do not have compassion for others, why should they have compassion for us?

Through focusing on compassion, the fact that everyone is suffering remains vivid in our minds. Sometimes we may feel that we are not suffering, even though on some level we are. This should not stop us from having compassion for those who are suffering. Compassion should be ever present—not just for family and friends, but for everyone, even people who are acting in an unhelpful way. Once we start to discriminate who should have our compassion and who doesn’t deserve it, true compassion is lost. Everyone is suffering, so everyone deserves it. Keep in mind that compassion is for the person and not their behaviour. If we think like this, we will be able to cultivate compassion for all human beings.

I believe it is beneficial to see compassion as a verb; something we have to put into practice. Having said that, we do have to be intelligent with our compassion. It is of no benefit to give money to drunken homeless people. They are just going to spend it on more drink, compounding their problems. It is far better to give them food, or to give your money to a homeless shelter that helps these people.

Compassion isn’t just about giving; it’s about giving sensibly, and that could include money, clothing, food, your time and so on. In a nutshell, compassion is the humane quality of understanding the suffering of others and wanting to do something to alleviate it.

The best way to ensure that compassion arises in you is to do a meditation such as this one:

Fostering a Compassionate Mind

Sit comfortably on the floor or on an unarmed chair with your back straight but not too rigid. Gently close your eyes and do the follow breathing exercise.
I want you to breathe in deeply, hold and then breathe all the air out.
Let’s begin:

Breathe in… hold…breathe out…
Breathe in… hold…breathe out…
Breathe in… hold…breathe out…

Now breath normally. Making sure your breath is slow and natural.
This exercise brings you comfortably into the present moment, the here and now…. rest there while I briefly explain about compassion.

Compassion is the wish that others do not suffer, as well as having the aspiration to help end the suffering of others. Compassion is a mind free from hatred and discrimination. Cultivating compassion is a wonderful source of peace and harmony in your mind.

Keep yourself in your relaxed state and start to picture someone who is close to you, someone you care about and are very fond of. Notice how this fondness feels in your heart… (Pauses between each question) Notice the sensations around your heart… Perhaps you feel a sensation of warmth, openness, or tenderness…

Focus on these feelings as you visualize the person you care about standing in front of you. As you breathe out, imagine that you are sending light rays out from your heart and these light rays hold your warm feelings of compassion. Imagine the light reaches out to the person you care about, bringing happiness and relief from suffering. At the same time, silently recite these phrases three times. “May you have happiness. May you be free from suffering.”

Now sit for a moment with these feelings of compassion in your heart.

Now visualise someone you neither like nor dislike, but someone you may see in your everyday life, such as someone from work you are not familiar with, a shopkeeper or a stranger you pass on the street. Although you are not familiar with this person, think of how this person may suffer in his or her own life. This person also may have conflicts with loved ones or struggled with an addiction or may have suffered an illness. Imagine a situation in which this person may have suffered.

Visualise this person standing in front of you and imagine that you are extending the light rays from your heart to them, and that the light is easing his or her suffering. Extend this light out to them while exhaling, with the strong heartfelt wish that they be free from suffering and they experience happiness.

Silently recite three times to him or her: “May you be free from this suffering… May you have joy and happiness”

Now rest a moment with the warmth of compassion in your heart

Now visualize someone you have difficulty with or dislike. This may be a parent, ex-girlfriend or boyfriend, a roommate, or a co-worker.

Although you may have negative feelings towards this person, think of how this person has suffered in his or her own life. This person has also had conflicts with loved ones or has dealt with failures or may have suffered illness. Think of a situation in which this person may have suffered.

Visualise this person and imagine that you are extending the light rays from your heart to him or her, and that the light is easing his or her suffering and bringing them happiness. Extend this light out to them while exhaling, with the strong heartfelt wish that they be free from suffering and they have happiness in their lives.

Silently recite this three times to him or her: “May you be free from this suffering… May you have joy and happiness”

If you have difficulty in wishing for this person’s suffering to be relieved, you may think of a positive interaction you have had with this person in the past that can help you in wishing them joy and happiness. Perhaps there were times when you got along, laughed together. It is important to remember that they are just the same as you – they want happiness and do not want to suffer.

So, silently recite this phrase three more times to this person, “May you be free from this suffering… May you have joy and happiness”

Now rest a moment with the warmth of compassion in your heart.

Now, when you are ready, start to slowly open your eyes and gently introduce yourself back into the world.

Off the meditation cushion, you can have a set phrase ready to mentally recite once you feel you are not caring for another person’s suffering, something like, ‘May they be released from their suffering, may all beings be released from suffering and may compassion arise in my heart’. But, as before, it is important that you decide on your own wording, so it resonates with you. This is only a suggestion.

Sometimes when we are being harassed by a homeless person, annoyance arises in us instead of compassion. Next time that happens, mentally recite your set phrase. It doesn’t mean you are going to give that person all your money out of compassion, but it does mean you will feel compassion towards them. You should recite your phrase every time you feel that you are not being compassionate. What these phrases do is connect us to others. We appreciate that they are suffering just like us, and once we have this connection, it is easier to radiate compassion towards other beings.

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Four Immeasurables: Kind-Heartedness – The Buddha Dharma Series

The second of the four immeasurables is kind-heartedness. This is not about how we feel, but about how we relate to these feelings. It invites us to drop our habitual patterns of reactivity and to free ourselves from emotional habits which serve neither ourselves nor anyone else.

Sometimes our goodwill only covers people that are useful, pleasing or amusing to us. This is not how we should divide groups of people; we have to see people through the eyes of kindness. We must open our hearts to everyone, and that includes the people who make us angry, politicians from a party we disagree with, religious leaders that have different beliefs than ours, people who act and dress differently than us, and those who just have the knack of rubbing us up the wrong way. All of these people deserve our kindness, and so we have to train ourselves to think kind, helpful and positive thoughts about them.

If we just watch our thoughts for a few hours, it becomes quite apparent that this isn’t how we usually think. Not every thought radiates kindness to others, so how can we cultivate kind-heartedness? A great place to start is by doing the following meditation on a regular basis.

Kind-heartedness Meditation

I want you to think of a person you care about. Feel gratitude and kindness for this person. Just sit with these feelings for a moment

Now I want you to repeat the following phrases to the person you care about and when you are repeating remember to really engage with the meaning of the words:

May you be kind-hearted to yourself and others x 3

May you be safe and secure x 3

May you have a peaceful mind x 3

Now sit for a moment with feelings of warmth and kindness for this person

Now think of a neutral person in your life. Someone you neither class as a friend or you dislike. Bring feelings of kindness and warmth into your heart for this person. Just sit with these feelings for a moment

Now I want you to repeat these phrases to the neutral person and really engage with the meaning of the words:

May you be kind-hearted to yourself and others x 3

May you be safe and secure x 3

May you have a peaceful mind x 3

Now sit with feelings of warmth and kindness for this person

Now think of a person you are having difficulties with at the moment. Try to feel kindness towards this person. Remember, they are just like you – they do not want to suffer, they what to be peaceful and secure. Just sit with these feelings for a moment

Now I want you to repeat these phrases to the person you are having difficulty with and really engage with the meaning of the words:

May you be kind-hearted to yourself and others x 3

May you be safe and secure x 3

May you have a peaceful mind x 3

Now sit with feelings of warmth and kindness for this person and just put your difficulties to one side for a moment

Now, slowly open your eyes and just sit there a moment experiencing the warmth of kindheartedness.

Here is a practice to use in your day-to-day life. I find the best antidote to judging someone, when we are not on our meditation cushion, is to have a set phrase that resonates with you, something like, ‘May my mind be at ease, may you be happy, may everyone be free from suffering’. This phrase can be used when you feel negative and unhelpful thoughts rising in you.

The next time you start to judge someone, mentally recite your phrase and your judgement will start to dissolve. Remember, we all have to co-exist on this planet and we all want to be happy, so the best way to end our judgemental thoughts is to wish kindness to everyone.

You can read more blogs, listen to podcasts, watch videos and practice guided meditations on the Buddhism Guide app. Available from the Apple Store and Google Play.

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Four Immeasurables: Equanimity – The Buddha Dharma Series

In Buddhism, we are taught to avoid and eventually abandon negative states of mind, such as the three poisons, and encouraged to cultivate positive ones, such as the four immeasurables, which are: Kind-heartedness, Compassion, Open-Hearted Joy, and Equanimity. These immeasurables are basically four individual meditation practices.

Traditionally, they are taught in the order I mentioned above. However, I believe the fourth one should come first, because if we have equanimity the other three will naturally fall into place. Buddhism states that equanimity is not only a very deep state of mental balance and stability, but also as an interconnectedness with everyone.

So, let’s start by looking at equanimity. Our lives are full of ups and downs. If we can face the downs as well as the ups, we will be able to cultivate an open and calm mind. We all know that it’s easy to face the ups, but not so easy to come to terms with the downs; but if we don’t, all we are doing is adding to our suffering.

When we look at the world, we can clearly see how hard it is to attain a balanced mind, as we are continuously in a flux of rises and falls. These lift us up one moment and fling us down the next. This is true for everyone; we are all the same. So, if that is the case, why do we discriminate against others? We are all in the same boat, all trying our best to ride the same waves of life.

So, equanimity is where we do not distinguish between our friends, the people we dislike or strangers, but regard everyone as equal. This is not easy because when we are not being aware of what is happening in the present moment we get tossed around by our prejudices and emotions. We need to have a complete openness to our experiences, without being carried away with reactions such as ‘I like this’ and ‘dislike that’ or ‘I love you’ and ‘I detest you.’ A balanced mind will mean we are not going to be disturbed by the eight worldly conditions, as I mentioned in the previous blog.

What we are trying to do here is remove the boundaries between ourselves and others by discarding our discriminations. What we are not doing is becoming detached or feeling indifferent to others. This is a common misunderstanding of what is meant by equanimity in the four immeasurables.

We have to look upon others as our equals and see that they have their ups and downs just like us. If we can do this, equanimity will be able to grow.

The following mediation practice will help you see everyone as equal.

Equanimity meditation

In Buddhism, equanimity means a very deep, even profound, state of mental balance and stability.

The cause of much of our upset and emotional instability is clinging neediness to people we like, and aversion and negativity towards people we don’t like. We also have an unhealthy indifference to strangers, who may need our help.

In this meditation, we learn to examine our feelings towards people and correct them where they are mistaken. This leads to a more balanced, wholesome, and helpful viewpoint. It also cuts off a lot of emotional turmoil at its root.

We are going to meditate on three types of people (a loved one, one we dislike, and a neutral person). We are going to examine and correct our feelings toward them.

Sit comfortably and lightly close your eyes. Start by watching your breath.

To begin with, focus on a friend and look into all the reasons you like this person.

Try to see if any of the reasons are about things this person does for you, or ways they uplift your ego.

Ask yourself if these are really the correct reasons to like someone.

Now do the same thing with the person you are having difficulties with. Look to see if you can find things you like about them.

Notice where your ego is involved in your judgment of this person.

Finally, do this for the person you are indifferent towards, asking about the reasons for your indifference.

Again, notice where your ego is involved in the judgment of this person.

Next, ask yourself whether you consider each of these relationships as permanent.

Would you still like your friend if they did something terrible to you?

What if the person you dislike really did something nice for you?

What if the stranger became close to you?

Think about all the relationships in the past in which your feelings about the person have dramatically changed.

Now, visualize the person you like doing something you dislike or that is unacceptable to you. Would you still be their friend?

Remember that many people have changed from friends to enemies in the past. There are people who you used to like, toward whom you now dislike.

Think about how there is no special reason to feel good about a person who is only temporary part of your life.

Next, visualize the person you are having difficulties with doing something very kind for you. They might visit you in the hospital or help support you when you are in trouble. When you imagine this, can you feel positive emotions toward this person?

Can you remember times in the past when someone you disliked became a friend?

Is it necessary to feel that your strong dislike for this person will last forever? Isn’t it possible that they could someday become your friend?

Now visualize the stranger. How would you feel about them if they did something very kind for you?

Isn’t it the case that all your current friends were at one-point total strangers?

Isn’t it possible that a stranger could become your best friend?

Think carefully about how everyone deserves to be treated equally as human beings.

It is very likely that your emotions around a person will change many times, so why hold onto these emotions so rigidly?

This meditation is a formal practice and what I want to do now is introduce a practice you can use while you go about your daily lives. When you feel your prejudices coming to the surface, have a set phrase to mentally repeat to yourself, something like, ‘They are no different than me. They, like me, are subject to the ups and downs of life. We are all equal’. It is better for you to have your own phrase as it will resonate with you. By mentally repeating your set phrase you will stop your discriminations in their track. After a while you will naturally see all as equal, but that is going to take time. So, for now, use your set phrase and the formal meditation.

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Eight Worldly Concerns – The Buddha Dharma Series

Nobody’s life is perfect, we all have good and bad days. This is part and parcel of our worldly concerns. Sometimes the world is like a rose, all beautiful and fragrant. Other times, it is like the stem of the rose, all thorny and prickly.

An optimist will see the world as rosy, whereas a pessimist sees it as thorny. But realistically, the world is both rosy and thorny. A person who understands this point will not be seduced by the rose or become averse to the thorns.

Buddha taught that there are eight worldly concerns and if we are a realist we will understand that the pendulum swings both ways, sometimes they will be under the sway of the four concerns we believe to be desirable and sometimes the four concerns we think of as undesirable.

We have to accept that these eight worldly concerns are part of this human life. So, what are the eight worldly concerns? The ones we call desirable are gain, status, praise and pleasure. The four we call undesirables being loss, insignificance, blame and pain. It doesn’t matter if we see them as desirable or undesirable, they are all ultimately causes of our suffering.

We are all subject to gain and loss, not only of material things, such as our possessions, but also of our friends and family. We may go out a buy a new phone and it makes us very happy, until one day it is stolen, we then become sad – gain and loss. You may have, in the past, met a wonderful person who you get on really well with, but recently they died – gain and loss. If you are a businessman, you suffer from gain and loss on a regular basis. These are some examples of what we are subject to in our lives. I am sure you could think of hundreds more.

Reflection

Before you move on, do this reflection practice.

It is easy to see the suffering in loss but not so easy in gain. Reflect on a time you gained something you wanted, but now you no longer have it. Think of how you felt when you gained it, and then think of how you felt when you lost it.

Status and insignificance are another two worldly concerns that confront us in the course of our daily lives. Status comes in various forms, such as celebrities and politicians, or you may be highly regarded within your profession, or even a well-respected Buddhist teacher. Whatever the status, you can become attach to your public image and the prestige that goes with it. Even if we do not want to be famous, we still like to be looked upon in the best possible light. I am sure, if we are honest, we all like a bit of status, because who wants to feel unimportant or overlooked?

I expect we have all dreamt of our fifteen minutes of fame and we only need to look at reality TV to see that is true. Some people are world superstars and others are just well known in their own backyards, but whatever your status, it is important to see it as a fleeting thing. Very few people stay famous all of their lives, for most it is only a few years. So, to hold on to fame as though it is something tangible is going to bring you suffering.

Remember, status is just someone’s perspective. You may feel a person is very highly regarded, but for me, I have never even heard of them. So, to cling onto the notion of being famous is a fool’s game. Once we have reached the top, there is only one way to go.

Reflection

Reflect on your status, is it just a projection or is it something solid and permanent. I am sure you will see that it is a projection and nothing tangible, so by holding onto it you are cause yourself emotional and psychological suffering.

The next two pairs of worldly concerns are praise and blame. We all like to be told, ‘Well done!’ when we do something right. It makes us feel happy and gives us a sense of pride. Praise is like some sort of a drug we quiet happily get addicted to. Whereas, no one enjoys being blamed, even if they have done something wrong.

If we are able to face blame in an impassive way and remain calm even though people are saying some hurtful things about us, then we are dealing with this worldly condition in a constructive way. If we give very little regard to whether we are held in high esteem or thought of as a person of no influence, then we can be said to be rising above worldly attachments.

If we are able to keep our composure when we lose out, or are glorified as being a very special, talented person, this will help reduce any pride, jealousy or emotional hurt, even though it is not always that easy.

It is human nature to soak up praise and push away blame. We are all desperately searching for happiness and running away from suffering. I know when someone says something nice about me, I feel happy and proud, but if I am blamed, I can become all defensive and hurt.

Reflection

Reflect on these two states of mind and try to understand them as one of the same: impermanent and fleeting. This will help you stop getting attached to praise and running away from blame.

The final pair are pleasure and pain. This is where we are the same as animals; we chase after pleasure and run away from pain. I personally do not know anyone who prefers sorrow to laughter, or harm to happiness. This is just the way we are. It is like a bond that ties us all together.

Watching pleasure and pain arising in the mind and remaining open to them, without attaching to or rejecting them, enables us to let the concerns be, even in the most emotionally charged circumstances.

It is clear pleasure is what we aim for in life and not pain. But they are both things that come into being for a short time and then disappear. So, in that respect they are no different. Buddha’s advice is to not welcome them or rebel against them, just let them come and go. Allow the pleasure to arise and enjoy it while it is there but know it won’t last. The same for pain, you may be hurting now but it won’t last, so don’t get all emotionally tangled up in it.

Reflection

Think about how you chase after pleasure and turn away from pain. See that one can quite easily turn into the other. One minute we are happy the next we are sad, and vice versa. This will help you see the transient nature of them both and allow you to let then simply rise and fall away.

When we start seeing the eight worldly concerns for what they are, impermanent and fleeting, and watching the mind’s reaction to them, we will be able to prevent them from causing us to suffer. This is not just a meditation practice; we have to take it into our day-to-day lives. We need to understand that life is full of gain, loss, status, obscurity, blame, praise, pleasure and pain.

Someone is always going to profit and someone else will lose out; for every famous person, there are hundreds of others who are unknown; if one person is blamed, another will be praised; and what gives one person pleasure, will give another pain. This is the way of the world. It doesn’t matter if you are skilled in Buddha’s teachings or not. You will still be subject to the eight worldly concerns. It is how you deal with these concerns that differentiates you from others.

So, don’t see these worldly concerns as desirable or undesirable, see them as things that come and go, that are part and parcel of life. Don’t get attached to them or push them away, allow then to simple appear and then disappear.

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