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 Foundations of Mindfulness – The Buddha Dharma Series

Mindfulness is traditionally based on the four foundations and that is what I want to address here, but before I do that, I want to discuss an issue I have with the modern mindfulness movement. To be more specific, their definition of mindfulness. People who know me will tell you that I am not a traditionalist and my issue is not about secularism versus traditionalism, it is solely about their interpretation.

Mindfulness cannot be summed up in a single statement, it is too vast for that, yet that is what has happened. Their definition is:

Mindfulness is an awareness of what is happening in the present moment, brought about by purposefully paying attention in a non-judgemental way.

Mindfulness was never meant to be a standalone practice. It was part of the three basics of the path, namely ethics, awareness and wisdom. The above definition only covers one of these basics of the path; awareness. A thief breaking into your house, a solider on the battlefield about to kill someone and a person putting poison into someone’s food are all examples of being aware of what is happening in the present moment. All of them lack ethics and wisdom.

My next gripe concerns the part that reads, ‘Paying attention in a non-judgemental way.’ I wonder if that is even possible and I certainly think it is not beneficial. We make judgement calls all the time, from what we wear, what we eat, the job we do and so on. It is impossible to live without some form of judgement.

If I am harming someone and I bring myself back into the present moment and I don’t judge what I am doing, how am I going to change my behaviour?

If mindfulness is going to be affective it needs to cover all three aspects of the basics of the path and that is why I have devised a practice called AWARE. I feel this can be a bridge between traditional and secular mindfulness.

You bring yourself into the present moment by using a breathing exercise, focusing on your senses or bringing your awareness back to your body. Once you are in the here and now, you can start the AWARE practice.

AWARE stands for Attention, Why, Assess, Reality, Examine

A – bring your clear attention to what you are doing. Are you on autopilot? Are you being led by unconscious habits, behaviour or biases? This covers the awareness aspect of the three basics of the path.

W – ask yourself, ‘Why am I doing it. What is my motivation, what is my intention?’ This covers the wisdom aspect.

A – assess if your behaviour is beneficial. Is it ethical, is it helping me to be the person I want to be? Is it compassionate or hurtful to myself and others? This covers the ethics aspect.

R – is it based in reality? Or am I generalising, catastrophising or letting my imagination run wild? This covers the wisdom aspect.

E – examine a more mindful, beneficial and compassionate way to act. A way that is based in fact and not fantasy. A way that helps support me and others. This covers all three aspects.

I personally believe by adopting the AWARE practice once you have brought yourself back into the present moment, you will be able to make changes to your behaviour, you will be able to change and grow. That, I feel, is the whole purpose of mindfulness. So, now let’s look at the four foundations.

The four foundation practices of mindfulness are of being aware of our bodies, of our feelings, of our minds and of our mental states.

The purpose of these practices is to get to know ourselves better. It will help us understand what is working for us and what isn’t. This will allow us to change more effectively and positively.

Awareness of body   

The first practice is for the body. We need to be aware of our body and all the actions carried out by it. But we do not need to see it as ‘my’ body. If we think of it as ‘my’ body, it could lead to attachment and give us a false sense of identity. Reflect on the time and effort we spend on this body just to look good. Imagine how much money is spent each year on plastic surgery and beauty products. It would appear we are completely obsessed with our bodies. We might be mindful of how the body looks but very rarely spend time on observing the actions it carries out. 

There are many ways of contemplating the body, but a simple and effective one is doing a full body scan. You can find guided body scan meditations on my website.

In today’s world, we always seem to be running from pillar to post, so this meditation will help you get back in tune with the body and calm your mind at the same time. I am sure you will be surprised at how much tension you are carrying around with you and what different sensations you have in various parts of the body.

The full body scan is one of my favourite practices and I am always surprised at the sensations I am carrying around. Over the years I have noticed certain sensations correspond to different emotions and experiences. When I was young, I started to have asthma and I noticed that 10 to 15 minutes before an attack I would start to get an itching sensation under my chin. This gave me ample time to take my tablet and prevent the attack from taking hold. Many sensations in the body are there for a reason, but unfortunately, we have lost the art of reading our bodies and rely too much on our minds. This application of mindful awareness will bring you back in touch with your body. 

As we become more in touch with our bodies you may ask how can we integrate this awareness into our daily practice? Whatever you do with the body affects you and those around you. So, this is where a daily reflective practice will help you. Look back on the day and see what actions you have carried out with the body. The ones that are conducive to responsible living should be noted. This will ensure that, through repetition, they can become spontaneous. The ones that are not conducive to living responsibly should also be noted and a clear effort should be made to refrain from doing them again. It is through staying mindful of our bodily actions that we will be able to live responsibly.

Awareness of feelings

Another application for mindful awareness is feelings. Now, I am not talking about emotions here, many people get the two mixed up. Emotions are mental states whereas feelings arise when our senses coming into contact with something. There are three types of feelings, namely pleasant, unpleasant and neutral. One of these three are present during every moment of our experience. They may be strong or weak, but they are always present.

Here are some examples of how feelings occur. You may be walking down the street and you pass a good-looking person; this brings up pleasant feelings. As you walk further, a dog barks at you and unpleasant feelings arise. A bit later, you walk past a group of people you do not know, none of them are of interest to you, so you have a neutral feeling.

If we are not mindful and leave our feelings unchecked, pleasant feelings can lead to clinging desires, painful feelings to hatred and neutral feelings to apathy. When paying attention to feelings, the important thing is simply to notice them, become aware of them, without either clinging to them or pushing them away.

Here are two ways we can mindfully get in touch with our feelings. Firstly, during meditation, after you have spent some time watching your breath, notice what comes into your mind and observe what feeling is attached to that experience. Don’t try to change or judge the feeling, just become aware of it and then let it go on its way. Then do the same with the next object that comes into your mind. You can do this for as long as you like and then return back to your breathing awareness. This practice helps you notice how you feel and what’s going on with you. It also helps you to understand that a feeling is present in every experience you have.

As with your awareness of your body you can also review your feelings during your daily reflective practice. When you think of an incident that happened that day, check to see what feelings it invoked in you. Did it bring up pleasant, painful or neutral feelings? Don’t try to control the feelings, just be mindful of them.

Being watchful of our feelings helps us see what desires we are chasing when a pleasant feeling is present and what is being invoked by our unpleasant feelings. We can also learn to simply observe an experience, without getting all tangled up in it. This will help us to form neutral responses, instead of getting attached to pleasant feelings or repelled by unpleasant feelings.

Awareness of mind

The next area of focus is on our minds. We can apply mindful awareness to explore deep into our minds. If I am honest, this was always the most difficult for me to get my head around. How can the mind look at itself? The answer that came to me is that we look at the mind as though we are looking in a mirror. When we talk about the mind we tend to think of it as a single thing, but it is actually a sequence of instances that arise from moment to moment in response to the perceptions coming to us from the six senses – things we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch and from internal mental states. The mind is a process and cannot exist alone. So, when we look at the mind, we are actually looking at the processing going on in the brain.

We rarely stop and spend time observing our minds. We just let thoughts, hopes, fears and dreams come and go unchecked. But our minds, if left unrestrained, can lead us into all kinds of situations. So, we practice simply observing our minds. We do not engage with what we see – we just allow it to arise and go. I understand that this is easier said than done, but with practice, patience and effort, it is achievable.

During your meditation or a daily reflective practice, observe your mind and see what state it is in: is it tired, lazy, angry, happy or disturbed? Note the state, but don’t try to change it. Ask yourself, “How is my mind at the moment?” “Is it full of desire, full of anger, or full of ignorance. Is it present in the moment or distracted?” We need to look at our mind in this way, and just see it as it is, not pass any judgement or think of it as ‘my mind’.

You can also focus your awareness on the way each thought arises, remains and then moves away. This helps us to stop blindly following one thought after another. We gain insight and understand that we are not our thoughts and we do not need to chase after each and every one. In fact, we cannot find any part of our mind to identify with, it is just a constantly changing process.

Once you have learned how to dispassionately watch your mind, whenever your mind is disturbed, you should firstly examine it and then, with calmness, act in a proper way – a way that is not going to harm yourself or others. Developing awareness of the mind will help us lead a life where we are not becoming disturbed or disturbing others. We come to know the mind as it really is – a process.

Awareness of mental states

The final application of mindfulness is concerning mental states. A mental state is an awareness of objects that come in contact with our senses, which occur on a moment to moment basis. As we bring awareness to these moments of consciousness, we begin to strengthen our ability to take mindfulness into our daily lives.

There are pleasurable mental states, such as happiness, compassion, empathy, contentment, and painful mental states, such as greed, apathy, anger, selfishness and so on.

We are not looking to oppose these mental states, but just become aware of them, acknowledge them, learn from them and let them go. There are several ways of letting the mental states go and here are the ones that have worked for me.

You can change the painful into a pleasurable, such as replacing greed with generosity or hatefulness with compassion. Thinking of the consequences of the painful mindset can be another way of letting go. If we understand that this mindset is leading us down a wrong path, we should not follow it. We could for example bring to mind the insight that all things that arise are impermanent, the painful mental factor is not going to last, so just let it go. All of these practices are not easy, but they are doable, it just takes effort.

Reflection

We should also look to reflect on mental factors and here is a suggested practice.

Sit comfortably and place your awareness on your breath.

When a mental state arises, and it will, if it is strong enough to disrupt your focus on the breath, rest your awareness in that new state, allowing yourself to be aware of what the state is, such as joyful mind or angry mind, fearful mind or contented mind, until it naturally subsides. If the mental state is strong, notice what it feels like in the body. Is there tightness, discomfort, pain? Where is it located?

Now look at the consequences of this mental state. Will it lead to a sense of peace in your life or lead to more difficulty?

If another mental state arises and is strong enough to hold your attention, continue to practice with it. If one doesn’t, then return to watching your breath until your meditation session has finished.

This brings us to the end of the four foundations of mindfulness. If we are going to be mindful and live a responsible life, we have to be fully aware of, but not tangled up in, our bodies, our feelings, our minds and our mental states. By being mindful, we will be able to take full responsibility for all of our actions. This will ensure that our minds become calmer and we spend more time in the present moment, not being tossed backwards and forwards from past to future. Being mindful means being conscious of every thought, feeling, emotion and action. Repeatedly during the day, take a few moments to bring mindful awareness to your breath, body sensations, mind, feelings and mental states. Then use the AWARE practice as this is a good way of helping yourself to settle down into the present moment and to expand your formal meditation practices into your everyday life.

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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Staying Focused – The Buddha Dharma Series

The final aspect of the eightfold path is staying focused, which is achieved by effort, mindfulness and concentration.

Effort

Without applying effort, we are not going to reach any of the goals we set ourselves. Here I wish to highlight the effort required to avoid harmful acts and develop helpful ones.

These are split into four parts, namely the effort to avoid, the effort to overcome, the effort to develop and the effort to maintain.

This is a list of the harmful acts we need to avoid and overcome.

  • Violence                                           
  • Stealing                                           
  • Sexual misconduct                      
  • Lying                                                
  • Divisive speech                             
  • Harsh words                                  
  • Gossiping                                       
  • Greed                                              
  • Ill-will                                              
  • Inappropriate view                     

We have to put in a great effort in order to avoid these ten harmful actions. This is achieved by setting ourselves boundaries and ensuring we stay within them. In my own case some of them came easy to me and others were fairly difficult, but by putting in the effort and setting myself redlines, I manage to avoid them for the most part. But none of us are perfect, so we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. 

The next place we apply effortis to overcome the harmful acts that have already arisen. This one is a little trickier, particularly if they have already become a habit. The first thing I suggest you do is to rate the above list of harmful actions from one to ten – one being the act you do the most and ten being the one you do the least. Be honest with yourself, even if it is painful, or there will be no point in doing the exercise. Now, start with number one on your list and each day set an intention to refrain from doing the act. This exercise will help keep it in the forefront of your mind. If you do unwittingly perform a harmful deed, don’t get frustrated, just reaffirm your intention. This is where mindful awareness comes into its own because you are going to have to be vigilant of your actions. Slowly work through the list until you feel confident that you have by and large overcome them.

The set of skilful acts we have to develop and maintain are the opposite of the harmful acts.  

  • Compassion
  • Generosity
  • Self-restraint
  • Truthfulness
  • Kind speech
  • Pleasant words
  • Helpful words
  • Contentment
  • Goodwill
  • Appropriate view

The third effortis to develop skilful acts that have not yet arisen. The perfect time to think about and cultivate these helpful deeds is during your daily meditation or reflection session. If you review each day which actions have been helpful, and which have been harmful, you will see a pattern emerge. You will then be able to see what you need to work on.

During your reflection session, write down the ten helpful acts on a piece of paper. Then grade them from one to ten – ten being the act that comes naturally to you and one being the act that you have to cultivate. Those you grade from one to five are the ones you should work on. At regular intervals, do the grading again. Note your progress every time and recommit to developing the helpful acts you need to work on.

The final effortis to maintain the helpful actions that have already arisen. This follows on from the previous effort. There, you contemplated which helpful acts you need to work on. Now focus on the ones that come naturally and need no great work. You should also remain mindful of these helpful deeds, so they can become an even deeper habit. It is no good lying sometimes and telling the truth at other times; stealing sometimes and not stealing other times; getting totally drunk one day and then saying you don’t drink another day; or being faithful sometimes and cheating on your partner at other times. These helpful acts must become natural and spontaneous. It needs a great amount of effort to keep these going, because if you do not stay watchful, they can easily drift away from you. Perseverance and vigilance are key here.

Mindfulness

Whether we are on the eightfold path or not, we still should try to be mindful, and maintain an awareness of where our actions are taking us. If we don’t, we are not going to find the peace of mind we are searching for. So, let’s look at the different aspects of the path I have laid out in the last three posts and examine how we can approach them mindfully.

We cannot just jump into our practices without first having an appropriate view. Of course, cultivating positive experience is what our practices are all about, but if we have no clear picture of where we are going and why, we can quite easily flounder. We need to know what and why we are doing any practice and see clearly how it will fit into our lives. We need to study and think to gain a clear picture in our mind before we dive into our practice. A firm and stable foundation is required. Mindfully setting our intentions for travelling on this path and implementing a meditation practice is a wonderful way to become motivated. It allows us to stay on track. It is therefore important to have well thought-out intentions and stay mindful of them.

Mindless speech can often divide people and make them feel disconnected. In contrast mindful speech helps us heal rifts and make better connections with each other. I feel that if we practice mindful listening, which is being totally engaged with the other person and allowing them to finish their sentences, mindful speech arises naturally, and we can enjoy genuine dialogue.

We need to mindfully check in with ourselves during the day to ensure our actions, physically, verbally and mentally, are not harmful to ourselves or others. This strengthens our practice, so we maintain the goal of responsible living.

Usually livelihood equates with survival – earning money so we can live. But when we are being mindful of our work, we can see that it is also about contributing to the common good. It is not just about money; it is also about giving back to society. We have to be mindful of any harm we may be causing ourselves and others.

Of course, we need to put effort into whatever we are doing on the path to ensure success, but there is such a thing as too much effort. We need to be mindful of the amount of effort we are putting in. If the effort is causing tension, it is too much. If the effort is not producing any results, it is not enough. Be mindful of how much effort you are putting into the path and your practices.  

When we are being mindful, we are fully aware of, but not tangled up in, the various aspects of our experience – the emotional, the physical, the spiritual as well as the social. Mindfulness covers our complete engagement with life.

I will talk more about mindfulness in my next post.

Concentration

If we wish for a mind that is at peace we need to learn how to focus single-mindedly on an object of meditation. However, what I want to highlight here is a particular type of one-pointedness. It is a wholesome type of concentration. A killer about to murder his victim, a soldier on the battlefield or a burglar about to break into your home all act with a concentrated mind, but they cannot be classed as a wholesome one-pointedness.

Buddha stated that appropriate concentration is dependent on the development of all the preceding seven steps of the eightfold path:

‘Now what is appropriate concentration with its supports and requisite conditions? Any singleness of mind equipped with these seven factors, appropriate view, intention, speech, action, livelihood, effort and mindfulness, is called appropriate concentration with its supports and requisite conditions’.

While concentrating on appropriate view, you have to stay focused on cause and effect. Whatever intentional actions you do—be it with your body, speech or mind—will create a reaction in the future. You have to be naturally aware of this fact whenever you perform any intentional action. You also have to stay focused on the impermanence of everything, or you may find yourself getting attached to things, which in turn will cause you to suffer. We tend to have a fixed and solid sense of self, which is not an accurate view. This again is going to cause us suffering in the long run. I will talk more about these points in future posts.

Next, you should concentrate on appropriate intentions. Our intentions should be to help and not harm ourselves and others. To achieve this, we have to remain centred on what is motivating us. We have to ensure our mind isn’t being driven by any of the three poisons or is clouded by ill will, because if it is, our actions of body and speech will reflect that, and we will end up harming someone. By reflecting on what motivates you, it will ensure you do not intentionally cause harm.

Now we come to concentration of appropriate speech. A lot of the time we open our mouth before engaging the brain, and because we are not focused, what comes out can be harmful, unkind and unhelpful. We lie, use divisive speech, use harsh words and gossip with such ease, it is frightening. It is as if our mouth has a life of its own. To counter this, we have to concentrate on our speech. Lying is never going to help anyone. When we use divisive speech, we are not making friends; we are just causing divisions between people. Using harsh words to someone’s face is going to hurt them, and gossiping is a waste of time. So, we have to have the appropriate level of concentration towards our speech, and then we will learn to talk in a way that is both helpful and kind.

Concentration of appropriate action is where we direct our attention towards the actions of our body. This will ensure we refrain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct and other harmful actions of the body. Buddha advised his son, Rahula, to reflect on any deeds he is thinking about carrying out in this way: Is the deed going to cause harm to himself or others? If so, do not do it, as it is a bad deed entailing suffering. However, if you reflect on the deed and it is going to be helpful to yourself or others, or at the very least, not harmful, you should do it again and again, as this is a good deed entailing happiness. Thus, we must be sure we are fully in tune with our actions, so that we are aware of when we are helping or harming.

This brings us to concentration of appropriate livelihood. We have to ensure our work does not bring harm to anybody. We may be doing a dangerous job and if we do not concentrate on our actions, we may bring harm to someone.

Whatever we are doing we have to be sure we put in the appropriate effort and appropriate mindfulness. If we do not concentrate our effort on all of the steps in the eightfold path, we could become lazy or distracted, and this could lead to us harming someone or something. If we do not focus our mind on the present moment, it may lead our thoughts to drift back to the past or jump forward to the future. Neither of these are helpful. By concentrating on the present moment our minds will be calm and our actions kind and helpful.

When our mind is not focused it flaps around like a fish on dry land. It simply cannot stay still and jumps from one idea to another, from one thought to another, there is absolutely no control. Such a distracted mind is consumed by worries and concerns about what has happened or may happen in the future. It doesn’t see the whole picture and distorts reality.

But a mind that has been trained in concentration can remain focused on its object without any distractions. This allows the mind to become calm, clear and open. This calm, openness can then be taken off the cushion and used in the outside world. This will allow us to stay single-mindedly aware of all stages of this eightfold path.

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Following the eightfold path is not easy because many of the things we have to change or let go of are very dear to us. We are passionate about them and have often invested an awful lot of time cultivating them. Letting these unhelpful things go can disturb us. Therefore, change takes diligence, discipline and mindful awareness. We have to understand each of the eight steps and then implement them. They have to become a part of our lives; only then will our minds be at ease and we will gradually reduce our emotional suffering and start to experience the true peace of mind we have been desperately searching for.

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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The Five Precepts – The Buddha Dharma Series

I have been asked on numerous occasions to lay out, in an understandable manner, the teachings of Buddha. So, over the coming months I will articulate the Buddha dharma in an order that I hope you will find both informative and easy to understand and implement. I am going to begin with the five precepts.

Gautama Buddha said:

‘Now, there are these five gifts, five great gifts—original, long-standing, traditional, ancient, unadulterated, unadulterated from the beginning—that are not open to suspicion, will never be open to suspicion, and are unfaulted by knowledgeable contemplatives and Brahmans.’

So, what five gifts was he talking about? He was talking about the five precepts.

The precepts are the gateway into Buddha dharma. They are like the training wheels on a kid’s bike. That doesn’t mean they’re elementary and easy to do, because they’re not. They are also not commandments and we are not being told ‘thou shalt not’ do something. They are more like guidelines that will help keep us on the straight and narrow. If we follow these guidelines, we will not bring harm to ourselves and others. These guidelines are undertaken so we can work towards reducing our suffering and the suffering of all beings – this is a theme that runs all the way through the Buddha dharma. If we really want to be a responsible person within society, we have to ensure we are not harming anyone or anything. These five precepts will help us achieve that goal.

I have told this story before, but I believe it is helpful to mention it again. When I first decided to become a Buddhist monk, I was given these five precepts and told to hold them for six months. After six months I had to return to my teacher and discuss how I got on. Only after that was I allowed to take my full vows. I found them easy to understand, but not so easy to keep on a day to day basis. I would recite them before I got out of bed each morning as a kind of a mental reminder and to set my intention for the day. If I strayed during the day, which I invariably did, I would retake the precepts and strengthen my resolve not to break them again. Having this experience has helped me understand how hugely important these precepts are, and what a great springboard into the Buddha dharma they are.

The precepts are:

  • Refrain from taking life
  • Refrain from false speech
  • Refrain from taking what has not been freely given
  • Refrain from harming others with the sexual act
  • Refrain from intoxicants and illegal drugs

The Dhammapada (verses 246–247) explain the precepts in this way:

‘One who destroys life, who speaks untruth, who takes what is not given, who goes to another man’s wife or woman’s husband, who gives himself/herself to drinking intoxicating liquors, he/she, even in this world, digs up his/her own root.’

So, let’s go through each precept individually, but bear in mind these are my interpretations and may differ from a more traditional approach. I have tried to make the precepts relevant to today’s world and I have also added my own personal perspective. As with all Buddha dharma, you will have to decide for yourself what does or doesn’t work for you.

Refrain from taking life

This one seems obvious, but it means more than not killing other humans; it includes all sentient beings. It also covers refraining from getting others to kill on your behalf.

For me this goes much further than just killing. I personally believe it covers not eating meat, mindlessly killing insects, picking flowers and cutting trees. It means being mindful of all of Mother Nature’s inhabitants and their contributions to our ecosystem. I believe we should reflect before we chop down a tree, pick a flower or squash a bug. Remember, all actions have consequences, some may be seen and others unseen, but there will be a consequence somewhere down the line.

Everything on our planet has an intention for living, being peaceful, happy and not suffering and their lives are just as crucial as our own when it comes to maintaining our world. 

This precept, for me, means not causing harm to humans, animals, plants and all other living things.  

It is talking about intentional killing and not unintentional killing. It is impossible to go through life without unintentionally killing things. If you go for a pleasant walk across some fields, you will be unintentionally killing small insects. Your intention was to go for a walk, it wasn’t to kill insects, so this precept is not talking about that. Having said that, we must be careful wherever we walk and make sure we don’t mindlessly step on insects.

On a personal note, this precept is talking about not killing or harming things, and so I find it hard to accept the fact that we are breeding animals, keeping them captive and then killing them for food. Eating meat and adhering to this precept are not compatible. I understand this precept is a guideline and not a commandment, but I would ask you to please spare the animal a thought and try to work towards becoming a vegetarian or vegan.

Refrain from false speech

Words hold power and using them carelessly can cause destruction.  Do not say anything until you mentally confirm it to be true, helpful and kind. Don’t gossip, exaggerate or lie. Instead, practice responsible honesty with only good intentions. Dedicate yourself to loyalty and share only useful and credible news and information. 

Once we have lied to someone, we invariably have to tell another lie to cover the first one, and then another, and another, until we have created a web of lies. Before we know it, we have unwittingly become a liar and that is a label that is difficult to shake off.

I know that people say they lied so as not to hurt the other person’s feelings, but do they consider how that person will feel when they find out they have been lied to? Maybe the truth is painful or difficult to say, but it is possible to say it in a kind and sympathetic way. You can support them once you have told them the truth. I believe, it is always kinder in the long run to tell someone the truth.

On a personal note, I get upset when I have been lied to, as most people do, and so I keep this fact in mind when I am talking to others.

Refrain from taking what has not been freely given

Do not take what has not been given to you, whether it’s materialistic, opportunistic or emotional. There are a number of activities that are considered stealing, including participating in underhand deals, fraudulent activities, cheating or committing forgery. Borrowing another person’s belongings without permission is also considered forms of stealing.

If we take something that has not been given or belongs to someone else, this is stealing. It may be a pen from work, a magazine from the doctor’s waiting room or fruit from someone’s orchard. No matter how big or small, it is still stealing.

We seem to have accepted certain forms of stealing and do not see it as a problem. I am talking about taking things from our place of work, such as stationery items from an office, bread or milk from a catering establishment and nuts and bolts from a factory. We shouldn’t fool ourselves: these things have not been given to us, and so it is stealing.

Again, on a personal note, I believe taking eggs from chickens and milk from cows constitutes taking what has not been freely given. The animal has had no choice in this process and so I feel it is a form of stealing. As I have said before, these precepts are not hard and fast rules, so you have to see how far you are willing to go to adhere to them. I am just giving my own personal view point here and you are free to take it or leave it..

Refrain from harming others with the sexual act

Generally speaking, this precept refers to committing sexual indiscretions such as adultery, rape, incest and sex with a minor. If we physically, emotionally or mentally force someone into sex, this is causing him or her harm. There are many people today still carrying the scars of sexual misconduct. So, this precept should not be taken lightly.

I personally believe that Gautama Buddha taught the precept on sexual misconduct to help us refrain from harming someone through the sexual act. He did not teach it to be moralistic or make people feel guilty for their sexual orientation. If the sexual act is not going to cause harm it should be consensual, affectionate, loving and not break any marriage vow or commitment. It does not have anything to do with sexual orientation. We cannot choose our sexual orientation, as we cannot choose our race or gender, so it is cruel to penalise someone for something out of his or her control.

I think another aspect of this precept that should be looked at whilst considering sexual misconduct is people trafficking, that is, taking people and forcing them to enter the sex industry. It is estimated that around 1.2 million children are forced into prostitution or pornography, and their average age is between twelve and fourteen years old. The human suffering in the trafficking industry is staggering.

Refrain from intoxicants and illegal drugs

The last precept is to avoid abusive use of alcohol and avoid illegal drugs altogether, as well as other substances that impact mindfulness and fuel irresponsibility.

I have deliberately put ‘abusive use’ of alcohol because I believe drinking in moderation is not a problem. Nobody is saying you cannot have a glass of wine with dinner or a pint after work. What is being said is that when we are completely inebriated, we lose control of our body, speech and mind. This precept is quite often the cause of the previous four precepts, so is very important to adhere to.

You may be driving home under the influence of drink or illegal drugs and have an accident and kill someone; you may steal money to cover our drink or drug addiction; come out with a pack of lies because you have no control over your mouth; or have unsafe sex with someone you met in a bar, not even considering that you or they may be married, underage or haven’t consented.

Alcohol and illegal drugs are very additive and can destroy your life and the lives of those around you. So, it is important to ensure we don’t lose control of our thought processes because we are under the influence of drink and drugs. 

These are the guidelines Buddha advised us to follow and I believe they are of great help to us in life and on our path to follow the Buddha dharma. It goes without saying that we will fall short sometimes, but that is all part and parcel of the learning process. If you fall, get up and try again. Don’t give up. The more we try to adhere to these precepts, the more they will become a habit, and those habits will eventually become our behaviour, who we are. We all need boundaries in life, and I think these five are a wonderful starting point.  

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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Buddhism Guide Crisis Resource

Listed below are videos, podcasts and guided meditations that have been taken from Buddhism Guide archive. They have been specially selected to help you during difficult and challenging times.

Coronavirus: Coping Mindfully

The Coronavirus is making many of us work from home or self-isolate. This can cause mental health issues and even lower our immune system. In this video Yeshe Rabgye introduces various mindful meditation practices that will help you deal with anxiety and a sense of panic. View the video here.

Guided meditation to reduce coronavirus fear and anxiety

The world is going through a very challenging time, due to the Coronavirus. Many people are becoming sick and having to isolate. This is causing huge amounts of fear, anxiety and panic. All of these ultimately stem from our minds. It is not possible to control the spread of the virus, but it is possible to control our minds and the way we respond to it. This guided meditation will help you deal with your thoughts of fear, anxiety and panic by showing you they are just thoughts and so we can learn to let them go. View the video here.

Let’s practice together through the crisis: Livestream #1 Breathing Awareness Guided Meditation

This video was recorded live and Yeshe Rabgye leads you through a guided meditation on breathing awareness. View the video here.

Let’s practice together through the crisis: Livestream #2 Compassion Meditation

This video was recorded live and Yeshe Rabgye leads you through a guided meditation on compassion and explains the importance of such a meditation during these difficult times. View the video here.

Let’s practice together through the crisis: Livestream #3 Forgiveness Meditation

This video was recorded live and Yeshe Rabgye leads you through a guided meditation on forgiveness for you and others. He also explains that forgiveness is to help ourselves let go and move on. View the video here.

Guided Meditation to release stress, anxiety and obsessive thoughts

Whenever you blindly follow each and every thought that arises it is easy to become stressed, anxious or even obsessive. This beautifully crafted meditation gently guides you through a process of seeing your thoughts like a flowing river. By letting your thoughts come and go naturally you are able to simply observe the thoughts and not get tangled up in them. This takes the pressure off of your mind and allows you to relax and untangle from obsessive thoughts. View the video here.

Guided Meditation – Letting go of anxiety

This is a mindful body scan meditation. It will gently guide you through different parts of your body. If you are feeling anxious, overwhelmed, stressed or are over-thinking it will help you let go and refocus. View the video here.

Dealing with Isolation: Podcast

In this podcast, Yeshe Rabgye gives us some very useful tips on how to deal with working from home or being in isolation. Please stay home and stay safe. Listen here.

Emotional Suffering: Podcast

What would you say if I told you the largest part of your emotional suffering was caused by yourself? I expect you would be doubtful or even shocked, but it is true. The way we live our lives, our beliefs, biases, concepts and social conditioning all cause us to mentally suffer. By suffering I mean our minds get disturbed, we become disillusioned, dissatisfied, discontented. This often results in stress, anxiety and depression. None of these are helpful or healthy. Listen here.

Ambrosia of Mindfulness: Podcast

This podcast was recorded live at the Prajna Meditation Centre, Northern India. In this episode Yeshe teaches mindfulness from The Hundred Verses of Advice. Listen here.

How to Reduce Your Suffering: Podcast

In Buddhism, there is a practice called Mind Training and within this practice there is a section on reducing one’s suffering. Now, suffering here means a dissatisfaction with life, an unease, a discontentment and a feeling that life could be better. The following four methods are described in mind training as the best way to stop the suffering of all beings, and bringing them, and ourselves, happiness. Of course, we have to be realistic and understand that life is not always going to be happy, and it is an unsatisfactory part of life that suffering is always lurking around the corner. However, these four methods will help to reduce our suffering and give us the tools to be able to cope with whatever comes our way. Listen here.

Cultivating Patience: Podcast

Patience is a virtue and needs to be practiced. In this podcast Yeshe Rabgye explains the best way to cultivate your patience. Listen here.

How to Deal with Intense Emotions: Podcast

In this podcast Yeshe Rabgye explain the R.A.I.N technique, which allows us to mindfully deal with our strong emotions. Listen here.

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.

If you would like to become a supporter of Buddhism Guides work, such as podcasts, blogs, videos and guided meditation practices, please visit here. You can support for as little as $2 a month.